This is a presentation I’ll be giving at the 2017 American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in Minneapolis in a session on the “Delusional Self”
In Félix Samaniego’s fábula “La Hermosa y el espejo”/“The Beauty and the Mirror,” a woman is infuriated to find that with the passing of the years, her faithful “friend” the mirror no longer praises her beauty with words of “gracioso” (cute) or “bonito” (pretty) but rather tells her the plain, hard truth that she is losing her former beauty. The poet scolds “Listen to me, if you look for friends who only talk about how elegant and enchanting you are, but never point out the faults that you can’t see in yourself, how will you ever improve?” Anarda, the woman in this poem, prefers her delusional sense of self over the truth, and Enlightened Spanish men like Samaniego were quick to criticize her for it. Recent scholars like Alvaro Molina and Michael Schlig have discussed visual and literary images of eighteenth-century Spanish women and women’s beauty, and in particular the use of the mirror as metaphor, which underscored: “inaccuracy, fallibility, and deceit, but in the same contexts they often also exposed unresolved issues related to relations between the sexes” (Schlig 378). Schlig goes on to cite Laura Mulvey’s important 1975 essay that established the concept of the male gaze as fundamental not only to film studies, but for any analysis of images—visual or literary—of the women’s bodies. Alvaro Molina, in his study of the visual representations of gender in eighteenth-century Spain, also examines the presence of mirrors and of male on-lookers in the depictions of the aging female body “En las imágenes que giran en torno al espacio del tocador, la verdad del espejo se opone frecuentemente a la de los aduladores que acompañan a la dama en su arreglo personal, sobre todo con el paso de los años”/In images that appear in dressing rooms, the truth of the mirror is opposed frequently by the adulators who accompany the lady in her beauty routine, especially with the passing of the years” (396). The exterior male gaze of patriarchy both fetishizes the female form while it censures a woman’s own narcissistic gaze into the mirror. Freud himself voices the same ambivalence that Enlightenment men held towards female beauty:
Women, especially if they grow up with good looks, develop a certain self-contentment which compensates them for the social restrictions that are imposed upon them in their choice of object. Strictly speaking, it is only themselves that such women love with an intensity comparable to that of man’s love for them. . . Such women have the greatest fascination for men, not only for aesthetic reasons, since as a rule they are the most beautiful, but also…it seems very evident that another person’s narcissism has a great attraction for those who have renounced part of their own narcissism and are in search of object-love. (“Narcissism” 87-88)
As Mónica Bolufer points out, eighteenth-century Spanish women too derived personal pleasure and social power from their appearance, and they enjoyed for themselves “the secret pleasure of narcissistic contemplation…of seeing oneself in the mirror of the gaze of others” (208).
The paintings “Majas on a Balcony,” “Maja and Celestina on a Balcony,” and “Time and the Old Ladies” by Francisco Goya, all created between 1808-1812 and believed to be intended as a series, highlight through both mirrors and external observers some themes related to the patriarchal gaze of female bodies. They also, through their use of aging female bodies that are sometimes juxtaposed with young female bodies, point to the fleeting nature of female beauty, and ridicule the delusional female self. Goya had explored these themes earlier, from the subtle irony of his various portraits of the Queen María Luisa—with identical arrow-shaped combs adorning both the Queen’s in the painting “The Family of Charles IV, and the later painting “Time and the Old Ladies”—, to the young majas and decrepit Celestina-like women of the engravings of the Caprichos—notably in these two: No. 3 “Ruega por ella” (Pray for Her) and 55 “Hasta la muerte” (Until Death). In this latter engraving both mirror and male and female observers reveal the truth of the old woman’s delusion—she is merely a caricature of a beautiful young woman, an object of ridicule of those who observe her. Yet her self-indulging Narcissistic gaze contrasts with the harsh scrutiny of the mirror, calling to question her interior sense of self—does she see what the others see in the mirror, or a delusion? Mulvey critiques the typical patriarchal depiction of woman, who is “tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning” (834). Not only is woman silenced, as she ages she is rendered irrelevant. Toril Moi, speaking of Freud’s declaration of “psychical rigidity and unchangeability” in women after thirty, exclaims that they are “the living dead, the Nosferatus of the soul. No wonder Freud finds them frightening” (842).
But the fact is that, despite all this, women were not silent or silenced, especially not after age thirty. In Spain a generation of Enlightenment women writers achieved literary success through publication in their 30s and beyond—playwright María Rosa Gálvez and poet Margarita Hickey were in their 30s, Josefa Amar y Borbón in her 40s, Inés Joyes y Blake in her 60s. In the remainder of this paper we will examine a poem Amor caduco (Aged love) by María Gertrudis Hore, who was 54 at the time of this poem’s publication in the Diario de Madrid in April of 1796. Hore (1742-1801), known by her penname Hija del Sol (Daughter of the Sun), was born to a wealthy Irish merchant family in Cádiz. She is remembered as much for a mysterious decision to leave her marriage and enter the convent of Santa María in Cádiz at the age of 36, as for her fourteen published poems, most of which appeared in journals in Madrid after becoming a nun in the late 1780s through the 1790s. The 1796 poem “Amor caduco” gives what on the surface seems to be a lighthearted but cautionary tale to old women who still dream of love. In the poem, the love-stricken old Cefisa stumbles and injures herself while daydreaming of a former lover, but she comes back to reality from her delusion after glimpsing her reflection in a stream: “¿Con rostro arrugado, Cabello nevado De amor padecer?” the poet inquires. Images of the poetic subject’s advanced age exist for the viewer/reader long before this climactic moment. From the poem’s first images—the “corvo cayado” (her cane), the description of her neck hunched over with age (doblado el cuello), and her trembling vision “trémula vista”—to its description of the fateful fall from her “weak and aged footing” (“anciana débil planta”) and resulting in her grave injury as she feels her face literally bathed in blood, we the readers observe with pity and perhaps ridicule her moment of self-recognition as an ironic twist on the myth of Narcissus where her own reflection does not captivate, but rather repulses. Still, the destiny of both Narcissus and Hore’s poetic Cefisa is death, graphically depicted in Cefisa’s bloody head injury, but also looming as she walks away slowly into the sunset towards home. Death first appears lines before Cefisa’s fall, in the memory of her dead lover, whom she describes as “de la Parca despojo desgraciado”/Death’s unfortunate loot. The use of the word “caduco” in title of the poem evokes not merely old-age, but decrepitude and obsolescence. Cefisa’s youth, her former beauty, and her love-life have passed, and outwardly they are barely discernable, the carved words from a long-lost lover “casi borrados” (almost erased) in the bark of an old tree. But for Cefisa, the memories that these barely visible words evoke are inerasable, and they bring back a pain so strong that she believes she would die from love, not from old age—“muriera de amor, de amor moriría”—the hypothetical imperfect subjunctive and conditional tenses connect past to present, while they evoke an inner experience that cannot be observed. The climactic moment of self-recognition as she views her bloody reflection in the stream is not that she is no longer young and beautiful—she is not like the decrepit old ladies of Goya’s pieces who persist in their delusional self-image—but rather that she, as her lover before her, is dying, and she recognizes it.
In the poem’s sensible conclusion, Cefisa rejects her old passions “entregando al olvido de su pasada juventud pasiones.” She leaves the idyllic outdoor scene of her youth—the green meadow (verde prado), the flowery field (campo florido), the tall oak (alta encina) and of course the stream running through it—and she returns to a domestic setting, her cabin, and to her loving “familia placentera.” It seems that Cefisa has learned her lesson, that she won’t persist in her delusion “Hasta la muerte” (until death) as Goya warns. Cefisa is thankful in the end, but of what? She gives thanks to Heaven that no one saw her swoon and fall, “que no hubo en el suelo quien viera su acción.” The poet interjects her own advice to old women at the end of the poem, turning this poem into its own female-fable to counter Samaniego’s prior admonitions to aging beauties. Hore’s advice is not that old women shouldn’t feel love, but rather, curiously, that if they do harbor lingering emotions of love, they should stop walking for a while “suspendan luego el piso” and avoid public humiliation “Pues si en público caen por acaso, causará mayor risa.” Hore both acknowledges the power of the male gaze in the possibility of public ridicule and humiliation, while she also affirms the importance of women’s inner emotional life.
Simone de Beauvoir described the aging woman’s inner emotional life in her monumental Second Sex as frustrated and negative “she shuts herself up with the secret she carries in her heart that is the mysterious key to her unhappy lot. She endeavors to try out in turn all the possibilities she has not exhausted. She begins to keep an intimate diary. . . . Just as the young girl dreams of what her future will be, so she evokes what might have been her past; she pictures her lost opportunities and invents retrospective romances” (642). Beauvoir is unique among early feminists in her interest in aging, but still her words reflect how negatively society views an old woman’s love. While eighteenth-century male writers, twentieth century philosophers, and even, yes, twenty-first century scholars seem to agree with Freud that a woman past thirty is of little interest, the fact is that for generations, women writers like María Gertrudis Hore found that they were just coming into their own as they aged. In “Amor caduco,” not only does an old woman avoid becoming a caricaturesque object of ridicule, but also through the voice of the female poet, an old woman is more than the bearer of meaning to patriarchy’s gaze, but rather she becomes her own maker of meaning.
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