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Gongorism? - What of It?

ISSUE:  Summer 1929

Gongorism and the Golden Age. By Elisha Kent Kane. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. $3.50. Don Luis De Gdngora y Argote. Bio-grafla y Estudio Critico. Por Miguel Artigas. Madrid: La Real Academia Espafiola. Pesetas 20. Literaturas Europeas De Vanguardia. Por Guillermo de Torre. Madrid: Rafael Caro Raggio, Editor. Pesetas 5.

Gongorism is a word well known to students of Spanish literature, but it has not yet, and probably never will, come into general use in this country, In order that the reader may know what this is all about, I shall define the word before attempting to say anything about the three books under consideration.

Gongorism, then, in its original and correct sense means “a literary style characterized by, obscurity, extravagance, over-refinement and violation of accepted laws of language, logic and sentiment.” Judged by the standards of any sort of classicism, it is the quintessence of bad taste. But on the other hand, if judged by anti-classical and revolutionary standards, it represents the curious, if not miraculous, phenomenon of the simultaneous death of classical bad taste and the birth of a “new” sort of good taste —both processes taking place as the result (this is turning into a gongoristic figure of speech 1) of a sort of Caesarian section of poetics. If we may be permitted to change the figure (and that may be a wise thing to do, in view of the dubious quality of the one just completed), revolutionists think of Gongorism as a sort of Lamarckian evolution in poetics. The style is a “sport,” fantastic enough if compared with its parent organism; if it happens to survive, however, it creates a new species. In time, when we get used to it and learn its virtues (for it must have some, or it would not survive), we forget that it at first appeared fantastic and even monstrous. We accept it. It becomes one of our beloved commonplaces. And in the end, it itself becomes “classical” and may, in its turn, live to be the victim of one of the before-mentioned Caesarian operations at the hands of pitiless radicals who have lost faith in ordinary poetic obstetrics.

In “Gongorism and the Golden Age” Professor Kane starts out to talk entertainingly and wittily about Gongorism as such. The term originated in Spain, and the Golden Age referred to in the title was that period of exuberance and glory in Spanish art between 1560 and 1700, or thereabouts, which saw ushered into the world the tremendous and awe-inspiring works of Cervantes and Lope de Vega and Calder and Velazquez and El Greco and a host of other geniuses in all the arts. But Professor Kane does not limit himself for very, long to Gongorism as such. As was said awhile ago, in its strict sense the word is used to describe a certain literary style—even more strictly speaking, a certain poetical style: the meretricious style, if we must have some technical terms to make this article sufficiently and pedantically respectable. It was derived from the name of a Spanish poet—Don Lu de Ggora y Argote—who practiced the meretricious style, on occasion, with unheard-of perfection. But Professor Kane soon extends the range of the term, and gives us to understand that extravagance in music, architecture, sculpture and painting may be also called gongoristic. This seems to me to be stretching a technical term a bit too far. There are plenty of words peculiar to the several arts that describe their extravagances, and there is no particular reason for stretching the term, Gongorism, to make it cover them all.

The poet Ggora, in whose name originated the substantive and adjective forms used to describe the “futuristic” poetry of his age, is given full justice by Professor Kane, who shows with scholarly thoroughness and very unacademic wit that Ggora did not invent the meretricious style that bears his name (naturally, since it is as old as Latin and Greek literature, to go no further back), and that in his own works he used the meretricious style very little. According to Professor Kane, a scant fourth of his poetry can justly be called gongoristic. The reader of Professor Kane’s book is likely sooner or later to want to know what sort of a poet Gongora really was, and why his name came to be used to describe a style that he practiced very little himself. Professor Kane answers the first question, but not the second. His answer to the first question is—and I think critics generally will willingly agree with him—that G6ngora was a very great poet indeed—one of the greatest of his extraordinary age. Instead of answering the second question, Professor Kane neatly side-steps it, and moves on to consider the problem, not personal to Ggora, of the cause of Gongorism. It is in attempting to solve this problem that he brings in the other arts, and also goes afield to show that the phenomenon was not peculiar to seventeenth century Spain, nor even to the seventeenth century.

The general thesis is that literary Gongorism is always accompanied by similar phenomena in the other arts, and that when such a “movement” appears, it is usually widespread and sooner or later affects the arts of all peoples who are spiritually related. In England, it appeared in literature as Euphuism, in France as Priosit in Italy as Marinism, and so on. The extravagant impulse affected architecture, and the baroque style appeared. It affected painting, and so far as Spain is concerned, El Greco is chosen by Professor Kane as the horrible example. It similarly affected other arts.

Professor Kane does not satisfactorily answer the question: What is the cause of extravagance in art? Perhaps this may be due to the fact that when he extended the term, Gongorism, to include all the arts, he lost sight of its proper definition, and was therefore unable to distinguish between the merely extravagant and decadent in art, and the actively revolutionary. Or it may be due to limitations in Professor Kane’s point of view. He appears to assume that the “classical” standards are really, what they pretend to be, namely, absolute standards, as dogmatically right as the theology and precepts of an established church, and that any departure from these standards, these “eternal verities,” is extravagance, is Gongorism, is rank heresy. This sort of criticism excludes any belief in evolutionary processes in the arts, and makes it impossible to believe that art forms and taste in art change with changes in environmental conditions, in time, and in group psychology.

As a result, perhaps, of his basic “classical” standard of criticism, Professor Kane seems to think that Gongorism —in its all-inclusive sense—is a sort of disease (analogous —almost exactly analogous—to a malignant tumor) that affects all arts in periods of great expansion and transition; it may be due, as Professor Kane seems to imply, to the very exuberance and vigor of the vital forces that are engaged in producing the really “acceptable,” the really “classical” art of the period. This is the typical point of view of the thorough-going conservative critic. It fails to take into account that some, at least, of the strange phenomena that it dubs extravagant may not be the deadly products of disease, but may be the embryonic shapes of new art forms destined to inherit the earth. For example, when we compare the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci with those of his conservative contemporaries who were content to follow the technical methods of the primitives, we can readily understand that his chiaroscuro appeared lamentably gongoristic to them. When counterpoint began to be used in music, it probably fluttered the Olympian dovecotes as jazz is fluttering them today.

Once this point of view occurs to us, we realize that Professor Kane has often failed to make a proper distinction between true extravagance and decadence in art, and the apparent extravagance and decadence occasioned by revolutionary and vital departures from “classical” (some would change that to “fossilized”) standards. This is the chief defect of the book, and it is a considerable one. It made it impossible for Professor Kane to solve the problem he set for himself—namely, the cause of Gongorism. For without a clear definition of the term, and a thorough understanding of its implications, a solution is not possible,

Despite its short-comings as criticism, “Gongorism and the Golden Age” is a fascinating book. It is charmingly and wittily written. It contains much sound scholarship and some wisdom. I hope it will be widely read and will stir up a lot of controversy;—because its basic subject-matter is extremely timely.

Ggora and his relation to the style that bears his name is admirably treated by Ser Artigas in his biographical and critical study of the poet. The first portion of the book is a painstaking, “old line” biography, which deals with externals almost exclusively. There is a tremendous accumulation of facts and everything is documented to the nth degree. Ser Artigas gives us an exhaustive and no doubt supremely accurate reconstruction of the poet’s life and of his surroundings. But there is no attempt made to relate the poet to his environment psychologically, and no attempt to explain his artistic idiosyncracies in the light of the general state of European thought during his lifetime. Somebody like Strachey or Bradford could take Artigas’s materials and pretty thoroughly account for Ggora’s peculiarities—something that Artigas certainly did not do. But this is not meant to be an adverse criticism of Artigas’s book. He was engaged in a job of pioneering. No one before him had ever got together the bare facts of Ggora’s life. No one had ever studied his works critically enough to separate what he really wrote from what was attributed to him. Artigas has not attempted to do more than this, and he has done it with most laudable thoroughness and fairness and true insight. He wished, undoubtedly, to do what he could to rehabilitate Gongora’s reputation, and to demonstrate that he was a very great poet. I think he has succeeded in this, and I do not wonder that his work was published by the Royal Academy of Spain. It deserves the honor.

As a result of studying Artigas’s facts about Ggora, I gather that the poet had a positive genius for antagonizing people. His gift for satire was overdeveloped, and he was unable to resist the temptation to direct it at his contemporaries and his rivals. Naturally, they resented it, and were looking for ways to revenge themselves. Furthermore, Spanish poetry at that time was a bit “fossilized,” and there was a sort of official, “classical” style which the court and the great nobles patronized, and to which all poets were expected to conform. Court poets, the “kept” bards of noble patrons, and a vast crowd of aspirants and sycophants made up a sort of poetical cabal that believed itself to be omniscient when it came to deciding what was correct in poetry and what was not. They were the “stuifed shirts” of their age, and Ggora lashed them with his stinging satires in season and out. That was very disagreeable for the “stuifed shirts,” of course; but they could endure it because they could retaliate with satires equally as venomous, if not as clever, as Gongora’s, and everybody enjoyed the fight. But when Ggora began to take liberties with the sacrosanct “classic” style, they rose and tried to destroy him. “Official” artists always do that —they always try to annihilate the revolutionary—and they are perfectly sensible in so doing. Their prestige and their comfortable livelihood depend upon keeping everybody convinced that their brand of art is the only true brand. The revolutionary artist threatens to break down that conviction, and to destroy them. So naturally and properly and very humanly, they want to eliminate him before he can do serious harm. In art, as everywhere else in life, the lex talioms prevails.

But what did Gongora do to the “classical” style of his time? Well, poets of that age were—amongst other things —strictly limited in themes. In sober truth, most of the true poets of that time must have lived in deadly, terror that, in a moment of real inspiration, they might be swept off their feet and write a damned good poem about something that was not considered proper material for poetry. For example, in those days it was perfectly proper to write a sonnet about the tiny feet and the soft, shapely, lovely and fragrant hands of a noble lady. But any poet who happened to write one about the tiny feet and the soft, shapely, lovely and fragrant hands of a peasant girl was condemned, and read out of exclusive poetical circles— despite the fact that even the “official” poets were well aware that some peasant girls really did have such charms. We have this sort of thing in our midst today, of course. It is perfectly proper and laudable and “correct” to write poems about blacksmith shops and stage coaches. But the poet who writes poems about the lineal descendants of blacksmith shops and stage coaches—namely, garages and Pullman cars—catches the devil.

The poetical language of Gongora’s time was also strictly limited by the “classicists,” in syntax and in vocabulary. Constructions were “pure” or not “pure.” Words were “poetic” or not “poetic.” The poet had to watch his step all the time. The same thing holds true today, of course. Any poet will unhesitatingly use sword, spear, shield, javelin, arrow, musket. But mighty few have the courage to use automatic rifle, machine gun, flame thrower, hand grenade, trench mortar, gas mask, and the like. Similarly, any poet will use post, messenger, Mercury, letter, signal, and so on, but would balk at telegram, heterodyne, loudspeaker, transmitter, heliograph, television, and a hundred others. Figures of speech were limited in the same fashion. A certain type of metaphor was all right; while another type, in spite of the fact that it was more exact, more vivid and more picturesque than the first, was condemned simply because it violated an artificial rule that some pedant had succeeded in making people accept as authoritative.

Ggora paid no attention to this sort of thing when he wrote his poem called “Soledades.” Most of his poetry is “classical” enough. But when he wrote “Soledades,” rather late in life, he kicked over the traces. The subject-matter of the poem was not considered proper material for a poet to use. And in developing this forbidden theme, Ggora rode roughshod over the poetical language of the “classicists.” He broke every rule and—according to the “stuifed shirts”—violated all of the artistic, and most of the moral, decencies. But the worst thing about “Soledades” was that it was supremely well done. It was great poetry. And it attracted a tremendous amount of attention. In a short time, it gave rise (though without any encouragement on the part of Ggora himself) to a sort of radical school of poets who tried to follow Gongora’s methods. This, naturally, frightened the “classical” poets, and the war was on. Long before Ggora himself died, the worst thing that a “classicist” could say about a poet was that his work was gongoristic. The word had a peculiarly venomous meaning when a conservative critic of Gongora’s time used it: it meant everything that was damnable, low, plebeian, in bad taste, and contemptible in poetry. And this meaning, still clinging to the term, has tended to obscure the real significance of the “Soledades.”

Spanish poetry received a tremendous shock when “Soledades” appeared. It made the first breach in the wall that limited poetical materials. Its linguistic innovations freed Spanish from the pedantic restrictions of the fossilized “classical” style, making the syntax more flexible, the grammar more sensible. It added enormously to the vocabulary of the language.

Of course, it had its defects, and some of these were serious. The abuse of figures of speech, the obscurity of allusions, the tortuous sentence structure, are obvious enough. But despite these things, and it may be because of them, “Soledades” was truly revolutionary. It destroyed the formalism and pedantry of the poetics of the age, and set poetry free to soar where it would and to sing as it listed. G6ngora was the Walt Whitman of his day. Some parts of “Soledades” are what Kane says they are—wild extravagance—diseased art, if you like. But more of it is simply new forms of poetry, far better adapted to the advanced thought of the time than anything the “classicists” had to offer. These forms look queer—very, very queer, indeed— to the conservative. But it might be pertinent to point out, in this connection, that newborn infants also look queer-very, very queer—to old maids of both sexes.

What makes Kane’s and Artigas’s books so interesting is that right now the world is full of Gongorism, to use the word as Kane uses it. It plays a part in almost everything. In politics, we have Bolshevism and Fascism. In religion, Modernism. In the arts, Cubism, Futurism, Jazz, Skyscraper Architecture and the like. Everything is being turned upside down and inside out, and the eternal war between the conservative and the radical was never bloodier. Observers and students who are trying to find out what it is all about have become acquainted with G6ngora, because they have been hearing his name spoken with respect by some of the most radical of the radicals in Europe, who hail him as their artistic ancestor.

Guillermo de Torre discusses the present day revolutionary movements in poetry—the Gongorism of our epoch, if you will. His book is an excellent, restrained and very fair study of some of the more important of the “isms” that started with Symbolism in France and Futurism in Italy, and are still going strong. Though he limits his study to radicalism in poetry, Torre throws a world of light on similar phenomena in other arts, and succeeds in stating with clearness some, at least, of the fundamental ideas that motivate present day radicalism.

One thing becomes clear enough when one digests these three books: radicalism appears whenever there has occurred some increase in knowledge that changes man’s conception of his relation to the universe. In G6ngora’s time, the voyages of Columbus and Magellan, the work of Galileo and Copernicus, the philosophy, of Descartes, the researches of Harvey and Vesalius, and the like, must have upset sensitive spirits in the same way that our physical and biological and psychological scientists are upsetting sensitive spirits today. Just what the mechanism is, in psychology, that relates poetics to the Einstein theory, I don’t know. But I feel convinced that Einstein’s physics will give rise to new poetic forms just as soon as the poets succeed in assimilating its implications. Spengler says that Copernican astronomy was accompanied by the development of perspective and chiaroscuro in painting and counterpoint and symphony in music. All these innovations were undoubtedly bolshevistic to the conservatives of the epochs in which they appeared. But they are now the foundations of our “classicism,” and as such are being attacked by the followers of Einstein and his fellows.

Torre states that in view of the solvent effect of present day scientific, social, moral and political theories on established institutions and ideas, the poets are compelled to find new forms if they wish to give any adequate expression to modern life. People must be made to realize that it is just as poetic to write about garages and hangars and broadcasting towers and Pullman cars and airplanes and trench mortars as it used to be to write about blacksmith shops, horse pastures, battlements, stage coaches and culverins. If poets are to deal with the modern equivalents of such old-time things, they must use a language suitable to them, and not try to describe and interpret them in language forms whose only virtue is that they are theoretically “poetic.” Torre makes the interesting claim that there are at least two elements in modern life that never played any great part in life before, and which poetry must deal with. He says, first, that from the point of view of modern life, there is no such thing as eternal beauty: in other words, beauty-like the modern mathematician’s concept of the diameter of a circle in motion—is relative to all sorts of other things. In the second place, Torre says that the fact of what he calls speed (but which seems to be a concept of a dynamic, as opposed to a static, notion of artistic representation) has never bothered poets before, but is bothering them tremendously now. Whether or not it is true that this latter idea is “new,” it is certain that it is motivating many of the radicalisms of present day artists. When we recall that men today are able to gaze upon the world while traveling at more than three hundred miles an hour, we can get some idea of why the Italian Futurists, among others, are trying to find poetic forms capable of expressing the spiritual significance of such a fact.

It is a wise critic, of course, who can distinguish between the merely fantastic and extravagant, and the truly revolutionary in art. But after all, it is of little moment—provided we are capable of understanding that everything new is not necessarily extravagance and decadence, and that some of it may really be a birth of new forms adapted to new needs and new philosophies. We’ll leave it at that, anyhow—for the present.


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