Modernismo: The Inverted Conquest

11 11 2010

David Vela

Alejandro Mejías-López situates modernismo, the movement attributed to Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío, squarely and appropriately among European Modernism in such a way that Spain and its contributions to European letters is both contextualized and validated among Anglo-Saxon and French literary Modernism, and within modernity as a historical concept. More important, Mejías-López asserts that the Spanish and Spanish language contribution to Modernism has its origin in the new world, New Spain, or Spanish America, what we now call Latin America; hence his title, “The Inverted Conquest”.

The idea that Latin America ‘conquered’ Spain post-independence through culture, through the innovations in the language that was imposed on the Americas as English was on Ireland should come as no surprise to any scholar of Jorge Luis Borges, or of the Argentine literary flourishing in the early twentieth century, the inheritors of Darío’s movement. Nor should it come as a surprise when considering what we might call our own high modernists in Latin America, those writing after Borges, the so-called “Boom” authors, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, José Donoso, and Julio Cortázar whose works have resurrected the Spanish language (Pablo Neruda is the epic poet, precursor to these novelists, a mediator of Darío’s innovations, the way Borges was in prose). Cosmopolitan, and multi-ethnic yet also deeply culturally Latin American – that is, not Spanish, these authors’ works have transformed the way Spanish Peninsular authors write, and their consciousness of a language adopted as a move to homogenize a people gathering in the first modern nation, after the Caliphate and thriving Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures in Spain.

Mejías-López furthers his argument that “modernismo created a continental Spanish American Literature, actively engaged the international cultural and political arena, and became the only postcolonial literature to wrest cultural authority from its former European metropolis” by contrasting that “Modernismo also challenged the increasingly dominant racial discourse of Anglo-Saxon modernity by refusing to let either Spanish America or Spain be written out of the modern.” (Introduction, p. 4) The first assertion is in error if one considers that Irish authors wrested from England – in Mejías-López’s language, the Metropolis – cultural authority by both abolishing and reshaping the novel in English (James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake), lyric poetry (William Butler Yeats), and drama (Yeats, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and later Beckett).

Samuel Beckett is an especially enticing affront to ‘dominant racial discourse’ given that he wrote in both English and in French, and worked primarily in reshaping the novel, nouvelles, and plays. Given Beckett’s Huguenot forebears, the irony is especially poignant. Nonetheless, Mejías-López’s thesis and his carefully laid out argument merit praise for understanding Spain’s innovations in literature, and that those innovations originated in the former colonies of Spain, Spanish America. Without Rubén Darío’s poetry, and the prose written in México (Amado Nervo, Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera), Argentina (Leopoldo Lugones, Esteban Echeverría, Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, Enrique Larreta), Colómbia (José Asunción Silva), Uruguay (Julio Herrrera Y Reissig), Venezuela (Manuel Díaz Rodríguez), and Cuba (José Martí) from about 1880 until 1930, modern literature in Spanish would not exist. As important, modernismo is historically part of the Modern (in history, in architecture, in art), and should be considered part of Modernism in general, formerly chiefly considered British, American and French.

Mejías-López speaks in the language of Pierre Bourdieu’s culture capital, a Marxist view of culture and its value, and utilizes Bourdieu’s scholarship and viewpoints to launch his own argument, an irony given that the study of sociology is part of the attitude and project of Empire. Mejías-López acknowledges the emergence of the social sciences in the 19th century, and that the social sciences promoted and resulted in racial hierarchies. These same ‘sciences’ were created and developed by France, and by England, former rival to Spain, and by America, former colony of Great Britain and later the emergent power that finishes the defeat and dissolution of the Spanish empire.

The social sciences were used politically to expand empire (influence) and to keep power over groups of people, and they mistook ethnicity for race. What emerged was an attitude toward English and United States linguistic cultural authority and superiority, with French acknowledged as the most literary of languages and the root of English cultural and literary modernism, Spanish being a poor bastard child in the genealogy of languages and of culture. This leaves Latin American, or Spanish American literary influence in a curious position.

Mejías-López’s thesis is important on a number of levels, particularly on the level of evaluating power. He writes: “Far from a case of mere literary influence, Spanish American modernismo radically altered Spain’s literary field, transformed and modernized literary expression in Spanish, and stripped Spain of linguistic authority, the very core of its (imperial) identity. In doing so, modernismo moved the cultural center of the Hispanic Atlantic westward to America.” (Introduction, p. 4) Linguistic authority in Spanish since Rubén Darío wrote his verses and prose poems has resided in Spanish America, the New World, just as linguistic authority in English has resided in Ireland since Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, Shaw and Beckett.

By tracing through other authors’ literary and political writing a growing wariness with Anglo-American modernity, that is, the Occidentalist type — including Cuba’s José Martí’s Amistad funesta (Ominous Friendship), María DeGuzmán’s Spain’s Long Shadow: The Black Legend, Off-Whiteness, and Anglo-American Empire, José Enrique Rodó’s Ariel, and Martí’s “Coney Island”– Mejías-López arrives at the culmination of modernismo, Rubén Darío’s Cantos de vida y esperanza, Songs of Life and Hope.

The difficulty of Mejías-López’s argument lies in the lack of a clear definition of modernismo. Argentine literary critic Enrique Anderson-Imbert declares in his comprehensive study Historia de la literatura hispanoamericana “El Modernismo, en realidad, no existe.” “Modernism, in reality, does not exist”; He continues, “Es solamente una forma mental que nos sirve para comprender hechos sueltos.” “It is only a mental construct that is useful in understanding disparate works.” [1]

Darío scholar and editor of Páginas escogidas [2] Ricardo Gullón writes that “the word ‘modernismo’ has in our literature two meanings: for some modernismo is a literary movement (fundamentally a poetic one) of short duration; for others, it is an era, like Romanticism or the Renaissance.” [3] The problem with this statement is that it must be contextualized for the non-Spanish language reader, for the non-Anglo American or European, which is why Mejías-López’s work is important: “Although connected at first to aesthetics and philosophy, in the nineteenth century [the] concept of modernity became associated almost exclusively with (northern) European material, technological, and to a lesser degree, political changes, understood as the necessary result of ‘modern’ (i.e., Enlightened reason).” (p. 18)

The inversion, the irony, is that Spain’s newly independent colonies, threatened by the United States’ defeat of Spain in 1898, produced in response to cultural encroachment stirring essays, novels and poetry. Thus was modernismo born.

What Mejías-López demonstrates, through a carefully laid-out argument and through salient examples of literary works and authors from Latin America, is that modernismo should be included with the other modernisms of Europe, that modernismo is not a lesser type of modernism and that certainly it is not derivative of Spain, but, in fact, re-imagined Spain, that is, it redefined or helped define Spain as a modern nation. If language is one of the primary aspects of nationhood, then this makes sense.

Mejías-López asserts that “Spanish Americans rewrote the past to stake a claim for the future” (p. 178), a bold claim and an apt one, just as astute as his claim that “although Spain lost its modern ‘soul’ in self-hatred and self-denial, that modern soul was reinvented in America.” (p. 177).

Columbia University sociologist Mahmood Mamdani writes that “Europe on the threshold of political modernity thought of the nation in terms of culture and race. In the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella, the nation was first and foremost Christian. The unification of Spain began with an act of ethnic cleansing: 1492 was also the year Ferdinand and Isabella signed the Edict of Expulsion, designed to rid Spain of Jews.”[4] Mamdani writes that “[t]he year 1492 was the onset of the European Renaissance and the birth of political modernity”, a statement which buttresses Mejías-López’s thesis.

The same year as the Edict of Expulsion the “first grammar book of one of the languages of modern Europe was published” [5], according to María Rosa Menocal in her book The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Castilian no longer was a language in Moorish Spain, but became in Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spain, “the language”[6] after Arabic and Hebrew held sway and were used in diplomacy, poetry, philosophy and theology. Menocal writes “The Grammatica de la lengua castellana (“Grammar of the Castilian Language”) was dedicated to Queen Isabella by its author, Antonio de Nebrija, who saw his work not as an old-fashioned palace, and certainly not as a memory palace, but as a very modern edifice.”[7]

What Mejías-López ably and eloquently demonstrates is that Spanish American (Latin American) authors defined Spain, an inversion of the colonial relationship: in the case of Venezuelan Manuel Díaz Rodríguez’s Camino de perfección, Mejías-López writes that “Díaz Rodríguez embarks on a rewriting of Spain in which, far from being the dark premodern country that racial theories and what he calls the “clisé histórico” [historical cliché] have constructed, it becomes the first modern nation.” (169) Mejías-López conveys that Argentine author Enrique Larreta’s La gloria de don Ramiro (The Glory of Don Ramiro) is a work that reads and rewrites Don Quijote, but which also “proposes that Hispanicness was formed in both racial conflict and cross-fertilization.” (p. 177)

He writes: “In Larreta’s novel, Spain had to be made sense of – reinvented, in fact – in America, and not as an immutable essence, but as an amalgam of cultures and histories often in conflict. . . . Spanish American modernistas, assumed from the start the lack of any essential and pure element and valued, instead, hybridity and otherness.” (p. 178) Hybridity and otherness is what Modern history and modernism in art and literature are primarily about: James Joyce borrowing from the Western cultural traditions, Homer and Shakespeare, and making Cervantes’ innovation, the novel, new by making it all about language.

Joyce, by dispensing with a ‘pure language’ in Ulysses used all of the English language tradition, mimicking it and then making it Hiberno-English, that is Irish English, and universal, then later used as many languages as were spoken and written to create Finnegans Wake; T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land, which comprehends the Western canon’s German, English, Greek and Roman works, along with French symbolists and decadents rewritten into English, and with Dante likewise paid homage.

José Martí, Rubén Darío, Enrique Larreta, and Manuel Díaz Rodríguez all composed works that embrace literary tradition, hybridity and otherness, in order to renew Spanish and make something new in literature, as Joyce and Eliot did, borrowing from the Spanish Golden Age, but also borrowing from other languages and cultures, thus reshaping and enlarging the Spanish literary tradition, and Modernism itself.

Mejías-López argues that “Most Spanish American modernistas were moved by cosmopolitan concern for defending global diversity, while many of their peninsular peers became obsessed with the isolating task of defining national sameness.” (p. 178) Miguel de Unamuno, Spanish existentialist before the French developed that modernism, “and many of the Spanish modernistas”, were concerned with, according to Mejías-López , “the ‘true’ essence of Spain”, a uniformity of culture. In contradistinction, Spanish American authors acknowledged that even Spain in its glory was hybrid and mongrel. Argentine author Enrique Larretta’s La gloria de don Ramiro “contested contemporary theories of racial purity and the racialization of modernity.” (p. 178) An admirer of Walt Whitman, Baudelaire and Verlaine (whom he met with on his first trip to Europe), Rubén Darío embodied cosmopolitanism, and traveled to Cuba, Colómbia, and Chile. He would also visit Spain, France, Morocco, Great Britain, Belgium, Germany, Austria and Hungary, making contacts with poets and other writers, while also borrowing from different languages and models of poetics. His work is the culmination of modernismo.

Mejías-López closes his study: “Modernismo redefined the former imperial relationship with Spain, dismantling it and reversing the location of authority. It both altered the Hispanic literary field and rejuvenated the Atlantic as a diverse geocultural space from which to imagine a different, more egalitarian, and non-imperial relationship between culture and power, a space from which to resist the symbolic violence exerted by the homogenizing discourses of new empires.” (p. 179)

The Inverted Conquest is worth studying for amplifying the assertion that Will Derusha and Alberto Acereda make in their fine introduction to Rubén Darío’s Songs of Life and Hope, Cantos de vida y esperanza (Duke University Press, 2004): “[I]t seems clear that critics now perceive Hispanic modernism more accurately and more usefully as one of the initial phases of literary modernity.” [8] Alejandro Mejías-López’s contribution to literary (and historical) studies, The Inverted Conquest: The Myth of Modernity and the Transatlantic Onset of Modernism, proves that with regard to Modernism and Modernity, Spanish American authors were neither peripheral nor subordinate to Spanish writers, and that neither Spanish nor Spanish American (Latin American) authors are subordinate to or derivative of American, British, or French ones.

David Vela, Diablo Valley Community College (Pleasant Hill, California).



[1] 399, México, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1954.

[2] México, Red Editorial Iberoamericana, 1987.

[3] Ibid, 11.

[4] 5, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, The Cold War, And the Roots of Terror, New York, Three Leaves Press, 2004.

[5] 251, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, New York, Little Brown and Company, 2002.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, pp. 251-252.

[8] Page 8, Introduction.


The Inverted Conquest: The Myth of Modernity and the Transatlantic Onset of Modernism. By Alejandro Mejías-López. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2009. 264 pp.