College of Staten Island, CUNY
Current critical discussions of "postmodernity" often revert to the image the "hybrid" in order to articulate the cultural heterogeneity, plurality of difference, and economic globalization that defy essentializing and reductive categorizations. Cultural critics who strive to interpret culture as dynamic and dialogical view "hybridity" as a useful trope, because, in it, they perceive a successful representation of the mutual borrowings, intersections and exchanges that occur in culture. Yet in a Latin American context, the language of mixture and hybridity is not easily disentangled from a history that imbued it with negative connotations: racial classification systems implemented to secure the colonizers’ superiority. Metaphors of cultural multiplicity such as "mestizo," and "mulatto" evoke an imagery of mixture that is not easily differentiated from the more contemporary image of hybridity currently circulating within postmodern critical theory.(1)
In order to speculate on the usefulness of contemporary re-articulations of hybridity, critics must be willing to scrutinize the complex history of metaphors of mixture that circulate in Latin America, to recognize thedisparate ideological motivations in identity-formation that range from subordination, syncretism, self-affirmation, co-optation to a celebration of multiculturalism. For, as Shohat and Stam underscore, "a celebration of syncretism and hybridity per se, if not articulated with questions of historical hegemonies, risks sanctifying the fait accompli of colonial violence" (43). Contemporary articulations of hybridity often bear traces of past cultural expressions, as they rework and expand the concept to allow for more complex and dynamic representations. This is the case of the Mexican fictional narrative Duerme (1994), written by Carmen Boullosa. The protagonist, Claire, literally and figuratively incarnates the protean quality of postmodern hybridity, as she crosses gender, racial, temporal, and narrative boundaries with the unfolding of her story—which is set in sixteenth-century Mexico City. Because the setting is colonial Nueva España, the reader gets a first-hand glimpse into to the workings of the imperial bureaucracy. Racial, caste, and gender categories of the period are represented faithfully , only to be undermined and confounded by the transgressive Claire. Her body’s "hybridity" becomes a strategic trope to reconsider Mexican colonial history.
The fairytale-like "mujer varonil" is a former prostitute who abandons her profession and travels to the "New World" dressed as a man in order to enjoy new social freedoms. Adopting multiple identities along her journey, the protagonist also alters her body to correspond to her identities, thereby producing various "hybrid" or semantically complex identities throughout the narration. For example, Claire arrives to New Spain dressed as a French pirate; later she dons the role of a Spanish Count; after this, she becomes an Indian peasant; and, on another occasion she dresses as a "well-to-do" Spaniard. In each case, the protagonist adopts the appropriate gender pronouns when referring to her/himself, a gesture that underscores the fact that s/he is not dealing simply with costumes or masquerades. Claire lives out each identity vitally.
The cross-dressing that operates thematically in this text goes beyond binary divisions between masculine and feminine: the novel postulates a cultural transvestism which breaks with generic/genderic, racial, class (estamento), and historical binary models. Claire's cross-dressed body challenges the reader to reconsider institutionalized classifications such as "man," "woman," "Indian," and especially "mestizo"—the much-used term in Mexican letters that connotes racial mixing, specifically between Indians and Europeans. (2) The reconfigured, figurative "mestizaje" as pluralized hybridity presented in Duerme serves to revitalize the contemporary Mexican imaginary. Moreover, Claire's story, in many ways, also serves to "flesh out" the Mexican colonial past--opening up gaps, creating suggestive dis-junctures for its re-reading.
The novel's focal point is its strategic deployment of the figure of the transvestite, which not only serves to destabilize gender categories, but which calls into question the concept of category itself. In her study on cross-dressing, Marjorie Garber claims that:
In Duerme, the highly theorized contemporary figure of the transvestite dovetails with the Golden Age topos of the "mujer varonil." Indeed, sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish literature, especially drama, formalized "the manly woman" through memorable figures such as Rosaura, from La vida es sueño by Calderón, and the Monja Alferez, among others. Melveena McKendrick in Woman and Society in Golden Age Spanish Drama: A Study of the 'Mujer Varonil' argues that the "mujer varonil" was generally not deployed to praise the figure of the strong or independent woman; rather, she was a figure which served to presage "the world turned upside down." Once patriarchal and political order was restored in the narrative, the cross-dressed woman once again took her rightful "place," donning the appropriate clothing of ther sex (McKendrick, 322-23). (3)
Duerme, however, undercuts the organizing principle of social "order" and presents a "world turned upside down" that resists reorganizing. The colonial "New Spain" represented in the text is a destabilized locus in which categories collide or become blurred. Claire, with her protean qualities, is an appropriate figure for underscoring the heterogeneity of her context. Contrary to what her literary forbears represented, however, Claire becomes a continual destabilizing element throughout the narrative. While evoking the topos of the "mujer varonil," Claire does not participate in the reestablishment of patriarchal order; on the contrary, she is an agent of colonial and aesthetic "disorder." In this regard, she can be read as a postmodern transvestite, who, as such, engages in what Judith Butler describes as performative "acts" of gender:
Through this metaphysical turn, Claire intervenes in the discourses of lineage and genealogies. On the one hand, because Claire's body is "transfused," the narrative breaks with the imagery of blood and the signifying messiness of "blood mixture" inherent to official ideologies of mestizaje as the essential source of Mexican identity. On the other hand, because she becomes a-temporal, and refuses to be gendered as "feminine," her womb is decentralized as an indispensable source for genealogical or historical continuity. In foregoing a maternal and feminine role, Claire breaks from pre-established linear, patriarchal plots. In Duerme, Claire's femaleness is not presented as a biological issue, but rather as a signifying strategy that intercepts the mechanisms of power in order to draw attention to their effects.
The operation that grants Claire immortality is performed to allow her to impersonate the Conde Enrique de Urquiza who has been sentenced to death by hanging for conspiracy. When she escapes, she becomes a fugitive in every sense of the word: she is a recently arrived "Frenchman" attempting to hide her sex, running from the law and being at the mercy of those who have orchestrated Urquiza's impersonation. As a person in hiding, she has no stable identity, relying on costuming and verbal embustes (tales, tricks) to move from one cultural space to the next. Her being "on the run" enables a meandering narrative strategy that allows her to come in contact with other outcasts and marginal figures. Claire’s fugitive status produces a double effect: Claire is reconfigured by her context through the challenges and situations she faces. But simultaneously, she becomes a dissonant and displacing force, forming allegiances with subaltern members of her society, and thereby committing herself to political agency and transformation. In other words, at certain instances she is subjected by and through her body and at others, Claire enacts moments of resistance, indicating the extent to which she is both an effect and producer of her context.
Claire's operation at the opening of the narrative is the intervention which most overtly subjects her to a context: although it renders her immortal, Claire's agency and free will are conditioned by the fact that she is confined to stay within certain geographical limits. (4) If, for any reason, the protagonist's body leaves the valley of Mexico, she will fall into a deep slumber from which she cannot awaken, unless returned to the prescribed location. Claire is rooted in life with a double-edged fortune: on the one hand, she is condemned to remain anchored to a specific location; on the other, Claire becomes a virtual figure--in Boullosa's words, like "una bella durmiente en un cuento de hadas"--ready to be awakened with our reading. (5)
There are other instances in which Claire's agency is compromised. For example, as part of the escape plan from the gallows, Doña Inés instructs her to don "una mantilla de india." Claire adamantly replies: "--Ni loco. Yo no uso ropa de mujer...Yo visto ropa de hombre solamente" (40). Having no choice in the matter, Claire reluctantly accepts the feminine clothes, only later to discover that they open up a world to which she would not have had access: she enters the world of the Indian castes and experiences firsthand the discrimination directed at them by the Spanish elites:
One of the most complex elements of the narrative is the erotic relationship Claire develops with the writer-poet, Pedro de Ocejo. A radically different sort than the Conde de Urquiza, Ocejo nevertheless attempts to subject Claire in a different way--a path that does not involve physical violence but rather, the force of the written word.
When Claire returns from pacifying an Indian rebellion, her body is severely gashed, although her wounds do not bleed. Pedro de Ocejo nurses her back to health, entertaining her with readings of his plays while she is bedridden. When Ocejo kisses her lips (108), he acknowledges her desire on her own terms, aware and not bothered by Claire's penchant for mixing gender codes. Their mutual love confirmed, they enter into a non-traditional, seemingly egalitarian relationship, interacting as friends and companions--at times strolling the streets both dressed in masculine apparel.
However, early in the course of their friendship, Ocejo admits to Claire that he is a frustrated writer: while he has high poetic ideals, often he is forced out of financial need to write commissioned pieces for which he must sacrifice his artistic integrity. After he meets Claire, he begins to write his pièce de resistance, a neoclassical play featuring, coincidentally, a cross-dressed protagonist named Ifis. The play's strong echoes with Claire's narrative makes the reader suspicious of Ocejo's writerly intentions--particularly of the "ending" to the main narrative, Duerme, which is written in Ocejo's voice.
The narrative "ends" as Pedro de Ocejo, who is approaching death, struggles to return Claire's slumbering body to the valley of Mexico before she is doomed to remain unconscious for eternity. Ocejo's account of this process serves as the novel's, as well as his own "last words." He is encouraged by the illusion that he will have brought Claire "back to life" and is convinced of his instrumentality in securing Claire's future. This enigmatic narrative moment may be read as the conclusion to the tragedy that Ocejo had begun writing years before, with the added "twist" that he writes himself in as the lovelorn hero, shifting the narrative to a male-centered ending.
The attempt to reorient the narrative to his own voice suggests that Ocejo is ultimately seduced by his own textuality--by the fiction of the cross-dressed character he has created, Ifis, who metatextually echoes Claire's life. The decisive tone captured in his last words: "Aquí acaba todo" belies a desire to instill doubt in the reader that perhaps Claire has been his invention. If the reader accepts this reading and accedes the narrative's authorial last word to Ocejo, then indeed, Claire has suffered the most silencing and dramatic of subjections: the loss of agency and voice.
More suggestive, however, are the text's representations of resistance, in which Claire's plural body becomes pivotal in her refusal to remain subjected and fixed in a specific role or narrative space. For example, the key to discounting the plausible, yet "closed" reading detailed above is to recall Claire's earlier comments emphasizing that her experiences are shaped by multiple perspectives which inscribe her into plural narratives. In the third chapter, the protagonist warns the reader: "aunque parezca inverosímil artificio, me ocurren en el mismo lugar y momento tres diversos sucesos. Pero no es artificio, es la verdad" (51). Then, she adds:
Indeed, Claire's insistence on plurality underscores her revolutionary zeal, which is highly opposed to the reductionism of binary logic. She laments that the colonial world is divided in two:
Specifically, Claire infiltrates and disrupts the colonial sumptuary laws mandated by the Viceroy:
In this scene, Claire recurs to a distorted language of filial servitude in which she is alternately soldier, vassal and damsel whose honor needs to be defended. Moreover, the "embustes" (tales) she tells the Viceroy also rely on a rhetoric of pater familias and on a clear understanding of the feuds of the times among the various European Crowns. This orphaned French woman creates an intricate tale in which her fictional father becomes a hero, the epitome of filial loyalty. Sworn to uphold the honor of the Spanish Crown, he kidnaps his own daughter (Claire) from her French mother's hands in order to secure yet another devoted subject for the King. Therefore, this cross-dressed incident between soldier and Indian, escalates to the breaking of a sumptuary law and culminates in a scene in which various discourses of the period are parodied and interwoven in a pastiche. The protagonist's body, then, becomes the catalyst for this discursive "hybrid" layering. Claire deliberately alters the codes by which the other characters "read" her identity both externally through her gestures and the clothes she dons, and verbally through the fictions she creates.
Moreover, Claire's revolutionary and utopian zeal carries over as a futuristic promise of social engagement. Claire's commitment to the oppressed classes is registered in her goals, to be enacted in a time yet to come:
The text's aesthetic and political re-formative gestures expose the
"logics of power" which have given shape to the official discourses of
the Mexican State. More importantly, Duerme also proposes a strategy
of transformative agency that goes beyond reactionary politics that focus
on subjection. Her character calls into question certain reified discourses
of mestizaje which nostalgically look back to the Conquest as the
cause of the country's "bastardization," and the incongruous revolutionary
rhetoric of a century ago. Indeed, this poeticized variation of the historical
novel invites a re-thinking of the past, present and future of Mexico.
From a protean and hybrid perspective, Duerme opens up some of the
created by the dictates of nationalism and invites heterogeneity, difference,
and alternative articulations of Mexican history and identity.
(1). As Shohat and Stam assert, "as a descriptive catch-all term, ‘hybridity" fails to discriminate between the diverse modalitites of hybridity: colonial impositions, obligatory assimilation, political co-optation, cultural mimicry, and so forth.[. . .] Hybridity, in other words, is power-laden and asymmetrical" (43).
(2). Mestizaje, in Mexico has been the topic of heated debates. Octavio Paz’s Laberinto de la soledad records the violent mythology of mestizaje in the essay entitled, "Los hijos de la Malinche." It is important to note that the discourse of racial mixture has been co-opted by the Mexican State as an official articulation of national identity, thereby discouraging alternative articulations.
(3). Anne Cruz declares: "While Golden Age literature cannot be considered a mere reflection of historical reality, the depiction of women in Golden Age fiction through both its negative and positive images, and its omissions as well as its distortions, reveals the pervasiveness of the patriarchal system in male-authored texts" (203). In other words, the purpose of representing a "world-turned-upside-down" was to restore it to order-- to the status quo. The cross-dressed woman, therefore, properly had to return to her "rightful place."
(4). In using the verb "to subject," I am evoking Judith Butler's definition of "subjection": "Subjection is, literally, the making of a subject, the principle of regulation according to which a subject is formulated or produced. This notion of subjection is a kind of power that not only unilaterally acts on a given individual as a form of domination, but also activates or forms the subject" in "Subjection, Resistance and Resignification: Between Freud and Foucault," The Identity in Question. Ed. John Rajchman (New York: Routledge, 1995) 230.
(5). Carmen Boullosa, talk given at Brown University, 16 February 1995.
(6). "Emplotment" for Hayden White refers to the narrative strategy of ordering events in a historiographic text; this strategy is what makes it possible for "a story of a particular kind" to be recounted. Discursive motivation is a deciding factor in giving shape to a particular "emplotment" or plotting of events. See The Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).
(7). Homi Bhabha in the essay entitled "The Third Space"
undertakes a compelling analysis of the implications of the third
as a hybrid space: "[...] for me the importance of hybridity is not to
be able to trace two original moments from which the third emerges, rather
hybridity to me is the 'third space' which enables other positions to emerge.
This third space displaces the histories that constitute it, and sets up
new structures of authority, new political initiatives, which are inadequately
understood through received wisdom" (211).
Bhabha, Homi. "The Third Space: Inteview with Homi Bhabha." Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. Ed. Jonathan Rutherford. London: Lawrence Wishart, 1990.
Boullosa, Carmen. Duerme. México. Alfaguara, 1994.
Butler, Judith. "Subjection, Resistance and Resignification: Between Freud and Foucault," The Identity in Question. Ed. John Rajchman. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Cruz, Anne J.. "Studying Gender in the Spanish Golden Age." Cultural and Historical Grounding for Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Feminist Literary Criticism. Ed. Hernán Vidal. Minneapolis: The Institute for the Study of Ideologies and Literatures, 1989.
Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc., 1992.
McKendrick, Melveena. Woman and Society in the Spanish Drama of the Golden Age: a Study of the ‘Mujer Varonil.’ London: Cambridge University Press, 1974.
Paz, Octavio. El laberinto de la soledad. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1991.
Shohat, Ella and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. New York: Routledge, 1994.
White, Hayden. The Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.