This section contains 3,498 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
Critical Essay by George Gordon Wing
SOURCE: "A Gallery of Women in Carlos Fuentes's Cantar de ciegos," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 217-24.
In the following essay, Wing examines Fuentes's treatment of female characters in Cantar de ciegos.
It was José Donoso who first drew my attention to what are central features of the six short stories and the novella that Carlos Fuentes published in 1964 as Cantar de ciegos (Song of the Blind). Donoso finds in them a common theme—"the withdrawal of human beings from basic feelings." Fuentes's characters no longer recognize themselves in traditional concepts such as "love," "hate," "justice," etc. They find these abstractions useless precisely because they exist prior to and independently of concrete experience which might make them meaningful. Consequently, neither a fixed order, nor a rational organization of society, nor a transcendent purpose are possible for Fuentes's characters, who are adrift in a world of instants and tropisms. Donoso says that the hero of Cantar de ciegos, without any firm convictions, tries to enjoy life without committing himself—his positive values are embodied in the words "cool," "étranger," "outsider." He is a person capable of seeing clearly everything that takes place around him without being moved by it emotionally.
With the exception of one story, all of Fuentes's characters are immersed in a mass-consumer society. As Fuentes has said in an essay, the Mexican is now the contemporary of all men, but only to be confronted with all of the problems inherent in mass society. After describing at length its contradictions, Fuentes makes an observation that seems paradoxical: "We participate apocryphally in modernity." It is from this apparent paradox that Fuentes's realism derives a peculiar flavor. In speaking of realistic plays, especially modern ones, Arthur Miller has suggested that all of their great themes might be boiled down to a single sentence: "How may a man make of the outside world a home?" In the prose fiction of Cantar de ciegos, it is indeed the underlying theme as well as the major problem confronting all of the characters, a problem exacerbated by the essential split between modernity and tradition, a split internalized and reflected in their behavior. Above all, it generates a subtheme common to all of the works of Cantar de ciegos—plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. The realization of this theme is due to Fuentes's talent for depicting so graphically the visible configurations of contemporary life, the manners and morals of an apparently nontraditional society. Just as important is Fuentes's gift for expressing the split between the surface and what is relatively unchanging in Mexico. Fuentes accomplishes this in a variety of ways—structure, psycho social analysis, dialogue, etc.—but what Joseph Sommers has said of Fuentes's methods of characterization in Where the Air Is Clear applies equally as well to Cantar de ciegos. He subordinates, says Sommers, psychological analysis to "experience, traits and thoughts which are susceptible to broader reference in the world outside the character." In short, "his interest lies more with representative qualities than with psychological idiosyncrasies."
Isabel Valles, the protagonist of the novella, A la víbora de la mar (To the Snake of the Sea), might well serve as a touchstone for measuring Fuentes's other female characters. Isabel, who has inherited money, is now the owner of a boutique in the fashionable Pink Zone. A fortyish spinster and virgin, her life extends no farther than the store where "she sells beautiful things to beautiful people" and her apartment where she lives with a maiden aunt. Apart from the movies, church, and lunch (alone) at Sanborns, she has no social life She lives in a world of repression, rigidity, and dullness—one of alienation and willed "claustrophilia." On the one hand, she is presented as a typical product of consumer society, and on the other, as one of its pathetic victims. Although her external life is patterned by this society, her super-ego survives from a much more traditional and puritanical way of life. In short, she is immersed in consumer society but somehow she is not really of it.
Persuaded by her aunt to take a vacation after fifteen years of continuous work, Isabel opts for a cruise on a British liner from Acapulco to Miami. It is apparent that she is extremely apprehensive and has a revulsion toward close contacts either emotional or physical. Courted by an American confidence man, however, Isabel gradually overcomes her fears and regrets. By playing on her snobbery and lack of self-confidence, he tricks her into a false marriage, after which he induces her to give him the money she has brought with her, an outrageously large sum for such a short cruise. He then has his homosexual lover court her to make her feel guilty, unworthy, and inferior. Finally, he allows her to discover the two of them in bed, a fact he knows will destroy her. In all probability, she commits suicide by drowning. One might say that in large part her tragic flaw was to have believed in the reality of the concept "love" in the abstract without ever having experienced it.
At first glance, it might seem that Elena, the young wife of the story "The Two Elenas," has nothing in common with Isabel. Elena seems to be the prototype of the completely "liberated" woman of the sixties who delights in flaunting behavioral patterns and ideas that run counter to those of her mother's generation. Nevertheless, she too avoids close involvements, but the outward patterns of behavior and ideas she uses to maintain distance are much more typical of advanced consumer societies than those of Isabel. Christopher Lasch has argued convincingly that the great malady afflicting the United States (and by extension other contemporary post-industrial societies, including Mexico) is narcissism. What needs to be stressed is that in these societies, paradoxically, the narcissist becomes socially and sexually promiscuous in order to avoid all close involvements. Elena is doubtlessly a narcissist of the type described by Lasch, but she is also, to go back to Fuentes's phrase, living modernity apocryphally. To begin with, for all of her apparent "emancipation," Elena is unable to transgress a traditional moral code that is at odds with most of her behavior. She is completely faithful to her husband, and the fact that it is impossible for her to be sexually promiscuous is very significant, since the aesthetic effect of the story depends largely upon the different sexual attitudes of the three principal characters.
To Elena, reality tends to be merely "role playing," "the presentation of self in everyday life" (the title of Erving Goffman's book [New York: Doubleday, 1959]), although her "self" is little more than a series of predictable responses to random stimuli from the world around her. Her husband, the narrator, says that what he loves most about her is her "naturalness," but the reader soon realizes that his statement is deliberately ironic. The fact is that for Elena, "the only reality is the identity she can construct out of materials furnished by advertising and mass culture, themes of popular film and fiction, and fragments torn from a vast range of cultural tradition, all of them equally contemporaneous to her mind." In fact, the only sustained dramatic conflict (more apparent than real) in this story springs from Elena's faddish obsession with completing herself (complementarse) by acquiring a permanent lover, a notion that occurred to her only after seeing Truffaut's Jules et Jim. She tells her husband that he will have to buy her a sailor suit like that worn by Jeanne Moreau in the film, only to declare a few moments later to a mutual acquaintance that she remains faithful to her husband because unfaithfulness has now become the norm. In short, the super-ego that dictates her most profound behavior belongs to another era.
Fuentes sets up a deliberate contrast between mother and daughter, providing the reader with a catalogue of their respective activities. The mother, married to a boorish nouveau riche, dutifully follows the routine common to upper middle-class housewives: trivial, conformist, and snobbish. But the daughter, too, adheres to a routine that is only superficially more flexible: painting and French lessons, meeting with some Black Muslims, going to jazz, cine clubs, etc. It is obvious, however, that for all of her so-called "liberation," she too is trivial, conformist, and snobbish. Attracted to all the latest fads, she is flighty and shallow; she belongs to what Alfred Rosenberg has called in another context, "a herd of independent minds." It is the husband, "cool" and condescending, who after an amusingly subtle seduction scene, enjoys the sexual favors of his mother-in-law—he is the one who completes himself.
It is in "A Pure Soul," however, that Fuentes gives us his most memorable portrait of a contemporary, intelligent, and apparently liberated young woman whose "inability to make of the outside world a home" results not only in her own withdrawal from life but also in her willful destruction of her brother and his mistress, although she protests her innocence. Claudia, the narrator, evokes an idyllic childhood and adolescence with her brother in which an incipient incestual relationship becomes obvious. After graduating from the university, however, her brother goes to Geneva to escape from what he considers the confinements of Mexican society, although the reader realizes that he is at the same time fleeing the incest taboo. When he writes to Claudia of his numerous transient love affairs, she is ecstatic, for it is as if she were enjoying them vicariously, especially since she knows they are ephemeral; they do not threaten his love for her. When he takes a permanent mistress, however, Claudia manages by subtle (but not really innocent or pure) means to entrap him, for to let him go would devastate her. The subtle maneuvers she uses are quite sufficient to keep him from really loving anyone else. It is almost certain, moreover, that by lying to his mistress about an incestuous relationship with her brother that was never consummated, she is responsible both for the mistress's suicide and, unwittingly, that of her brother. Winner takes nothing in this hair-raising story.
Critics have said of "The Doll Queen" that it differs radically from the other stories. Nevertheless, it has as its main theme, as do so many others, the search for identity in a past that is pure nostalgia. The narrator seeks out a little girl with whom he had passed many pleasant hours in a park years before. Unfortunately, he succeeds in his persistent attempts to find her. Now grotesquely deformed, she is forbidden by her parents to leave the house or to have friends. In fact, her parents have constructed an elaborately adorned coffin in which they have placed a doll that resembles her as she was as a child. One might say that the parents, imbued with the values of consumer society, prefer her dead rather than ugly. To use Veblen's phrase, there is "conspicuous consumption" in social relations that are independent of economies as such. Even more significant is the fact that the child, now a woman, cynically accepts her horrible fate. The lack of love and compassion of her parents seems to her merely an extension of a normal condition of the society in which she lives.
In "The Old Morality," the only story not set in Mexico City, three sisters from Morelia, pharisaic and self righteous women dressed in black, come to "rescue" their nephew from his grandfather, who lives with a young mistress on his ranch. The grandfather, an atheist and old fashioned liberal, gives his fourteen year old grandson no opportunity for formal schooling and also, according to the aunts, provides him with the worst kind of immoral and sinful examples. The boy's life is spontaneous and natural, though, compared to that of his aunts, who live in a narrow ultra-Catholic atmosphere of repression. Taken to Morelia to be brought up by his maiden aunt, a spinster in her mid-thirties, the boy, Alberto, is bored, although he remains "cool" and intelligently anticipates every wish and command of his aunt, while feeling no real affection for her. Naturally, he is obliged to take religious instruction, but during his first confession he is so innocent that he has to invent sins he has merely intuited as such from films he has seen. His aunt is extremely angry with him for having tried to fool the priest, since she would have preferred him to have described the sexual relations between his grandfather and the mistress so that she could enjoy them vicariously. When she prods him, he replies naïvely that, yes, they always sleep together. He even quotes his grandfather, without having understood him, that "a man who sleeps alone dries up. And a woman too." This reply merely arouses further the repressed prurience of the aunt and serves to release the bottled-up emotions that gradually surface as hysterical behavior with sexual overtones. When, inevitably, she seduces the boy, although he never fully understands the subtleties of her sexual behavior, he finds it all so enjoyable that he cannot bring himself to ask his grandfather to take him back to the ranch. Although one sees the aunt through the eyes of the boy, who enjoys her sexually without really loving her, it is impossible not to suspect that Fuentes admires her more than he does the urban middle-class women of the other stories. It is as if, paradoxically, her incest represents not only a gesture of despair but also a thrust toward natural behavior for which most other channels are closed in the stifling atmosphere of traditional society.
The protagonist of "Fortuna lo que ha querido" ("What Destiny Wanted") is a man incapable of genuinely human relations with anyone, an artist who lacks both imagination and feeling, who is not above plagiarism or spouting absurd theoretical clichés. He would like to believe his life and his art are hermetically sealed off from each other. In the last analysis, however, they are two sides of the same coin. It just happens, for example, that his mistresses, or rather the women he uses and debases, are almost without exception wives of his critics and friends. They all serve as masochistic foils for his misogynous and sadistic behavior. Their amorality springs in large part from their snobbishness, a hero worship of which he is unworthy. Perhaps it is also boredom that is responsible for their abjection and self-debasement, their willingness to be abused and insulted by him for his own selfish pleasures. Love and compassion, as in so many of these stories, are virtues of neither the women nor the men. When, at the end of the story, the artist does meet a North American woman who might present a challenge to his lack of humanity, might disturb his withdrawal from basic feelings, he rejects her. In summary, we might see this artist not only as a symbol of male indifference and condescension, but also as a symbol of a kind of symbiotic relationship between this type of macho and the women who, in most of the stories of Cantar de ciegos, accept this relationship as normal.
There is only one point I should like to make concerning "El costo de la vida" ("The Cost of Life"), the most Hemingwayesque story of this volume. The protagonist is a lower middle-class school teacher who spends a day teaching, lunching with a group of old friends, attending a meeting of his fellow teachers who vote to strike, getting a job moonlighting as a taxi driver, and picking up a girl all with his working wife sick at home in bed. The protagonist seems to feel no strong emotions about anything, not even about the proposed strike, a strike that ironically leads to his death. One of the points most relevant to my study hinges on the fact that the protagonist has married a woman of a social class somewhat higher than his own. Although they are in dire economic straits, they refuse to live in an extended family with relatives. In short, they have opted for the nuclear family, largely because of his wife. In this respect, then, they too are very much immersed in contemporary society.
In his first novel, Where the Air Is Clear (1958), Fuentes gives a vast panoramic vision of Mexico of the 1950s, a society whose roots he traces back to a partial failure of the Revolution of 1910. In a sense, Fuentes took as his subject the history of a period during which Mexico was being transformed from an essentially rural society into one dominated by urban capitalism. Although Fuentes has drawn his characters from the highest and the lowest social classes, it is the new middle-class that occupies center stage. Fuentes's own opinion of this new class is most nearly expressed by the courtesan Natasha:
The new rich who don't know what to do with their money, and that's all they have the way a crab has a shell, but they don't have the circumstances, how should one say … of the development which in Europe gives the bourgeoisie a certain class. Of course the bourgeoisie in Europe is a class; it is Colbert and the Rothschilds, but it is also Descartes and Montaigne and they produce a Nerval or a Baudelaire who reject them."
Certainly no other Spanish American novelist has given us a more complete picture than has Fuentes of what Lionel Trilling [in The Liberal Imagination, Doubleday, 1953] has called "manners": "a culture's hum of buzz and implication … the whole evanescent context in which its explicit statements are made … that part of a culture which is made up of half uttered or unuttered expressions of value." It follows, then, that "they are hinted at by small actions, sometimes by the arts of dress or decoration, sometimes by tone, gesture, emphasis, or rhythm, sometimes by the words that are used with special frequency or a special meaning."
Even a cursory glance at Fuentes's portrayal of the new middle class reveals its snobbery, its inordinate love of money, and its undeserved self assurance. One of the central characters of Where the Air Is Clear, Federico Robles, has made good use of his revolutionary experience to amass a fortune and accumulate power. He has married a ruthless social climber with whom he lives in a loveless union, and their lives, in [Herbert Marshall] McLuhan's words [in "John Dos Passos: Technique vs. Sensibility," Dos Passos: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Andrew Hook, Prentice Hall, 1974], are dramas of "pathos of those made incapable of love by their too successful adjustment to a loveless system."
In The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962), the central character does have what might be called an early "idealized" love affair, but as Keith Botsford has commented [in "My Friend Fuentes," Commentary, Vol. 39, No. 2, February, 1965, p. 65]:
As a man, Artemio has not made much contact with other human beings. This novel is so much his book not only because he relates the story, but because he is alone in the profoundest sense; he is not merely the only protagonist, he is also alone within himself. For Artemio is the portrait of the Mexican macho—the he-man and narcissist, deflowerer of womanhood, tamer of bulls, wild horses, and all that. Today that macho is an utter fake. Money is the only object of his desire; politics and power its sublimation. For those without a hope of either money or power, there is still the image of the macho. Like all soi-disant Latin virility, it is a blend of impotent talk, childish rage, pasted on moustaches, and an atrocious ignorance about women. The modern macho is more concerned with his deodorants and brilliantine than with sex.
In his major novels of the fifties and sixties, as well as in Cantar de ciegos, Fuentes has indeed portrayed a variety of macho types. In the novels, however, Fuentes has also created some extremely sentimentalized heroines who represent for the macho the epitome of natural wisdom and innocence. In Cantar de ciegos, on the other hand, Fuentes does not depict any idealized women. Rather, he shows his male and female characters, incapable of mutual love or shared equality, as people who more often than not are locked into grotesque symbiotic relationships. In his major novels of this period, Fuentes's main theme is the partial failure or betrayal of the Revolution of 1910, a theme expressed explicitly in long discursive passages. In Cantar de ciegos the theme is implied in the bleak portrait of post-Revolutionary Mexico. Fuentes's criticism of the abuse of power, principally the exploitation of women, his presentation of problems of personal authenticity and identity represent ethical judgments with far-reaching implications. Mexico, Fuentes is both suggesting and warning, has reached a stage in its history where the Mexican might welcome, or look upon with indifference, an increasing abuse of power at the broader levels of the economy or politics, for this abuse would be but a "natural" extension of his private life.
This section contains 3,498 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)