"El día de difuntos de 1836" and "La Nochebuena de 1836"
University of Colorado at Boulder
For better or for worse, analysis of the arts in Spain has always been at least somewhat conditioned by the concept of the genio español. While some investigations of literature and the visual arts try to escape such a term, the attraction of the solitary genius is great and many critics have fallen under its spell. In one of the clearest defenses of the concept, Angel Ganivet explains that the great difficulty of writing "una historia de nuestros procedimientos técnicos, de nuestros estilos, de nuestras escuelas" is due to the fact that "los puntos más altos de nuestro arte no están representados por grupos unidos por la comunidad de doctrinas, sino por genios sueltos que, como Cervantes o Velázquez, forman escuela ellos solos" (106). With the invocation of these names in his Idearium español (1897), Ganivet establishes an impenetrable argument—anyone who would dare link the "genios sueltos" with a particular artistic movement would be in effect challenging those attributes that make them exceptional in the first place. According to Ganivet, these attributes—namely creativity and independence of thought and action, among others—are what make the Spanish nation great. Although such an examination of the Spanish character was necessary in the years following the loss of the last colonies, the ontological tyranny of the concept of the genio español precludes any serious attempt to reestablish connections between truly gifted artists and their contemporaries.
This profound disassociation between artist and movement has been perhaps one of the most salient features of most academic treatments of the vast corpus of work left to us by nineteenth century writer Mariano José de Larra. However, it is not just due to his incisive observations that Larra is viewed as a genius author at the periphery of the Romantic movement. His "marginal" and solitary status is in part due to the inherent complexity of classifying Larra’s wide-ranging literary production.
Yet typological difficulties only somewhat explain Larra’s critical isolation. In order to fully explore the reasons behind his status as genio, one must first examine what has become the cult of Mariano José, a cult that can only be deconstructed by establishing a critical distance between the man and his work. It is only after this deconstruction is complete that Larra’s classification as genio can be debunked. In this way, Larra’s space within the Romantic period is reestablished and one may more easily see what Larra shares with other Romantics instead of how he differs from them. In both "El día de difuntos de 1836" and "La Nochebuena de 1836," two works from the last months of Larra’s life, what unifies Larra and his contemporaries is the seldom-studied concept of delirium, a condition that not only serves as the driving force of these two articles, but also as one of the creative catalysts for the Romantics. By analyzing these two articles through the theoretical filter of delirium, the true genius of Larra may be seen. His genius, however, comes as a writer within—and not apart from—the Romantic period.
There can be no denying that even until the present day, Larra has been consistently viewed as a writer set somewhat apart from his contemporaries. Examples of this treatment abound, particularly within extended analyses of the Romantic period in Spain. In his important work El romanticismo español, Vicente Llorens divides his study into three periods, "La ominosa década (1824)," "Década progresista y romántica (1834-1844)," and "La década moderada (1844-1854)" (5-6). Each division is subsequently subdivided into either more specific time periods or literary genres. While important figures such as Mesonero Romanos, Zorrilla, and Espronceda fit perfectly well within "Escritores costumbristas," "Obras y autores," and "Poesía," respectively, Larra is the only author of the list to be situated within a separate chapter, simply entitled "Larra" (6).
One could properly sustain that Llorens makes this somewhat arbitrary separation due to the near impossibility of classifying Larra’s array of drama reviews, translations, plays, and artículos; indeed, the variety of Larra’s work is astounding. His furious writing activity runs a very wide gamut, most of which consists of quality work. Although perhaps best known for his later artículos, Larra’s textual production even includes a historical drama, Macías, a work that brought its creator a certain degree of recognition from the theatre-going public of which the author was such a crucial part (Llorens 345). Yet, even given these examples of Larra’s genre-bending work, one would suppose that Llorens could separate the texts of Larra into the various theme-driven chapters that he had previously established; certainly Larra is not the only Romantic author to dabble in multiple textual categories. This separation would allow the texts to speak for themselves instead of remaining subservient to their author. But given the extraordinary life of Larra, many critics have been reluctant to separate the man from his work.
This reluctance comes out of what is in part the real necessity of examining Larra’s writings in accordance with the great tragedy of his life. As a liberal in the turbulent times of the early 1800s, Larra saw himself swimming in murky waters. Frustrated with the impotence of the Trienio Liberal, the Francophile Larra viewed technocratic Mendizábal’s arrival to power in Messianic terms when he heard of the news in late 1835. From his exile in Paris, Larra wrote to his parents that "visto que ha llegado el momento de que mi partido triunfe completamente, no quiero verme detenido aquí por un negocio que debía estar acabado hace ya mucho tiempo" (Lorenzo-Rivero 169). Larra believed that the Savior had arrived and that good graces would pour forth. Obviously, this was not how history would play itself out. As Mendizábal's rule became increasingly plagued with what many felt was an excess of reforms, Larra became increasingly disenchanted with his homeland.
This disenchantment came to a head with the eruption of the Carlist Wars, a confrontation that presented many problems to the liberal thinkers of the day. According to critic Luis Lorenzo-Rivero, "Para el escritor la guerra carlista significaba, pues, mucho más que una cuestión de sucesión, implicaba un problema de principios. El carlismo carecía de programa político y representaba una forma típica de contrarrevolución" (171). For Larra, this counterrevolution was the death knell for the Spain that he had known and loved. In order to give voice to his constrained anger, Larra—especially in late 1836—continued his prior line of political writings, this time targeting both his conservative enemies (due to their ideology) and his liberal friends (due to their hypocrisy). In fact, Llorens writes, "los artículos más numerosos no se refieren a los carlistas, sino a los liberales, entre quienes se contaba el propio Larra" (358). On paper the attacks were directed not from the author himself, but rather from Larra's alter ego, Fígaro, a pseudonym first seen in the periodical Revista Española (Llorens 351).
In the works of 1836, one can easily observe the descent of Fígaro into uncharted psychological territory. Augmented exasperation with the government—coupled with a number of problems in Larra's personal life—provoked the author to write the two scathing texts that are "El día de difuntos de 1836" and "La Nochebuena de 1836." Although Llorens terms the first article "un estallido de su pensamiento político" (366), one would be more correct in saying that the two texts represent an implosion of thought and emotion as Fígaro retreats inward. Yet this retreat is problematic. Although Fígaro ostensibly escapes the decay of the Spain that surrounds him, he encounters psychological torment that is even more difficult to resolve. Here the psychological doubling of Larra / Fígaro reaches its upper limit and cannot go any further. The result is a literary suicide of Fígaro that precedes the real suicide of Larra by only two months.
This not-so-surprising melding of literary statement and true-life event has been the focus of almost all criticism written about the two artículos and has excluded textual analysis of the works. Even the great-grandson of Larra, Fernando José de Larra, alludes to the constant referral to the life of the author instead of his writings. In his biography of his great-grandfather, Fernando José writes that the lack of comprehension of the corpus of Larra’s work is due to the desire to convert "su figura en banderín, en porta-estandarte de un desenfrenado izquierdismo y de un descreimiento falseado"(4). But while interesting, the study of the fusion of author and text does not allow for much interpretive room. What is much more curious is not why Larra politically and psychologically committed suicide as an individual before 13 February 1837 (Lorenzo-Rivero 160), but rather how he expresses that suicide within the parameters of the collective Romantic idiom.
Even though Larra’s life may lend itself to great exaggeration regarding its uniqueness, the truth is that Larra’s expression of his life fits quite squarely within what Mario Praz terms "the Romantic agony" in his classic work of the same name. According to Tobin Siebers’ reading of Praz in The Romantic Fantastic, the essence of the Romantic aesthetic resides within the multiple agonies of "perversity, diabolicalness, and suffering" (183). In this way, Romanticism is seen not so much as an artistic movement, but rather as a psychological state. To use the language of Praz, "it is, therefore, a study of certain states of mind and peculiarities of behavior, which are given a definite direction by various types and themes that recur as insistently as myths engendered in the ferment of the blood" (v). Following Praz, if Romanticism exists as an examination of mental states, one question remains unanswered. Simply put, how is it possible to represent states of mind and suffering through the medium of language—especially before the arrival of the artistic vanguards of the twentieth century? Larra’s solution in both "El día de difuntos de 1836" and "La Nochebuena de 1836" is a radical one that succeeds in reproducing the sensation of delirium that appears in the subtitle of the second text, "Yo y mi criado. Delirio filosófico." It is a delirium that reveals Fígaro in the entirety of his Romantic agony.
The agony shows Larra / Fígaro to be a man on the edge of sanity. His life is a constant attempt to fight not only the conservative nature of his government but also to negotiate the distance between opposite ends of the powerful binary oppositions of the Romantic period. One of the clearest explanations of these binary pairs is that given by John Rosenberg. According to Rosenberg, the Romantic ego vacillates between the delights of solitude and the hubbub of the masses. Secondly, that same ego must constantly strike the precarious balance between genius and insanity (380). The cumulative effect of living between these poles is the creation of what clinical psychiatrist Zbigniew Lipowski calls delirium, or "acute confusional states," in his book of the same title. It is what Fígaro recognizes as his reality.
Unfortunately, the theoretical underpinnings of delirium in literary criticism are relatively non-existent. Although Foucault broaches the subject of madness in Madness and Civilization and Derrida responds to him in Writing and Difference, neither addresses the concept of delirium per se. For a more advanced explanation one must explore the medical literature; however, even a cursory glance in that direction yields a similar dearth of information. In fact, Lipowski’s Delirium: Acute Confusional States, published in 1990 is one of the few monographs on the subject. Luckily, it is a wealth of knowledge. Even though much of the volume approaches delirium through a strictly medical filter, the first part of the tome gives a detailed history of the concept. This history is the most useful in terms of the application of delirium to literary texts.
Etymologically speaking, the word "delirium" has its origins in the Latin delirare—literally, "to go out of the furrow"; nonetheless, the vernacular definition approximates more closely our application of the term. This second definition, "to be deranged, crazy, out of one’s wits" (Lipowski 3), is what has been passed down to the present. Yet in spite of the wonderful brevity of this definition, the true interest of delirium is the history of the term’s application. Most notable are perhaps the observations of Hippocrates who stated that in most cases delirium is a severe symptom of a mortal illness; in other cases, it operates as an illness in and of itself. Furthermore, Hippocrates wrote, "When a delirium or raving is appeased by sleep it is a good sign." In this case delirium is either a "frenzied rapture" or "wildly absurd thought or speech" (Lipowski 6).
As the centuries wore on, shifts in the definition of delirium occurred according to both the medical and social constructs of the time. Within the nineteenth century—the age that interests us in our examination of delirium in Larra’s work—the term evolved radically. For the first time delirium was recognized as an "acute medical disorder" and not simply as a type of insanity that produced lethargy (Lipowski 17). Of even greater import was the publication of a medical dictionary by Rees, an English doctor who recognized that both "high" and "low" delirium are marked by a "perpetual flow of ideas" at the same time that imagination is "morbidly increased" and "judgment [is] faulty" (Lipowski 18). With the appearance of this new vision of delirium in 1818, an illness previously characterized by only madness acquired a positive side effect that would be crucial to Romantic thought in general and Larra’s thought in particular. In practical terms, delirium moved from being stuck in the semantic camp of a strictly medical condition to describing a complex mental process. By its very definition, delirium enabled the darkly creative powers of Romantic writers already caught in the no-man’s land between genius and madness.
"El día de difuntos de 1836," while certainly not as often-studied as "La Nochebuena de 1836," is a text that is still rich with glimpses into the mental state of the tormented Fígaro. Specifically in terms of its treatment of delirium, "Día de difuntos" functions as a work-in-progress that will arrive at its foregone conclusion in "Nochebuena." It is a politically charged artículo that does not so much reveal Fígaro reveling in its delirium, but rather skirting around it in a game of exteriors and interiors that describes both Madrid and the writer’s heart as cemeteries populated by the moribund masses. Larra pits the external ideological horror of the Spanish government against the internal psychological horror of Fígaro, the man for whom that government is the eternal oppressor. In this competition, there are no winners, as will be seen as Larra progresses towards "Nochebuena." Delirium operates as a narrative technique that swings like a pendulum between complete madness and brilliant clarity in a process that most assuredly demonstrates the "perpetual flow of ideas" alluded to by Rees.
Indeed the first sign that points to the delirious state of Fígaro appears in the opening clause of the essay. For the habitual reader of the fastidious Fígaro, the admission that "En atención a que no tengo gran memoria[…] comes as a surprising jolt and alerts one to the fact that in this artículo, something is not right (546). As the initial paragraph evolves, this observation is confirmed while Fígaro employs the subjunctive mood in increasingly complex constructions to further reinforce doubts regarding his memory. He claims to not remember if he had previously written an essay in which "vivía en perpetuo asombro de cuantas cosas a mi vista se presentaban" (546-47); furthermore, he wonders aloud if his vacillations are just a plain case of déjà vu:
By definition, someone in such a delirious state is unable to recognize his own delirium—such a recognition would require an interpretive distance not accessible to a "delirious." Yet what Fígaro does admit to is a profound sense of melancholy that he catalogues in a long list in his desire to express that emotion. Among other signs of his melancholy he includes,
The definitive break in this logic comes when the narrator turns from his description of events in Madrid and instead describes himself as he sits within the unfriendly confines of his own home. His shift of focus from exterior musings to interior reflections clearly demonstrates his mental condition. He writes that "Volvíame y me revolvía en un sillón de estos que parecen camas, sepulcro de todas mis meditaciones, y ora me daba palmadas en la frente, como si fuese muy mal de casado" (548). With this self-description, the maniacal clarity of his previous meditations on melancholy disappear into self-centered confusion. Here the incessant use of the reflexive reflects the inward turn of the narrator; moreover, the verbs employed show a man in the constant motion of agony, an agony amplified by the description of his easy chair as a sepulcher. The explicit link to death intensifies the effect of placing the narration within the context of "el día de difuntos." As Fígaro peers out through the filter of his own delirium, all he sees is death and destruction, exclaiming "¡Día de Difuntos!" (548)
After his recognition of the death surrounding him, the narrator declares that what he had viewed as a relatively happy state of melancholy "llegó entonces a su término" (548). He realizes that he can no longer be comforted by the internal demons that he knows and must enter into the world of the masses full of the demons that he does not know so well. In this way Fígaro makes the difficult transition from the isolated mountaintop of the Romantic to the bustle of the people. According to Tobin Siebers, the Romantic artist,
After reaching this descriptive climax, Fígaro proceeds to detail exactly what he sees in Madrid by way of tombstone epigraphs, attaching funereal messages to every important place in the city in order to show his deep disenchantment with the government and the hypocrisy of the people. On the facades of the theatres—Larra’s preferred place of worship—Fígaro reads, "Los teatros. Aquí reposan los ingenios españoles. Ni una flor, ni un recuerdo, ni una inscripción" (552). Unappreciated by the public, the collective of artists who desperately want to be seen as "ingenios" wilts from the lack of light, leaving the Romantic in solitary agony since he can not show off his genius.
This catalogue of epigraphs concludes with another inward turn by Fígaro. The final epigraph encountered in "Día de difuntos" is that which resides in his heart: "Mi corazón no es más que otro sepulcro. ¿Qué dice? Leamos. ¿Quién ha muerto en él? ¡Espantoso letrero! ¡Aquí yace la esperanza!! ¡Silencio, silencio!!! (553) At this moment, Fígaro’s delirium has reached its peak. All lines separating interior / exterior have disappeared and the narrator is left to contemplate the noisy silence of his own heart. Although one could argue that political troubles are what cause Fígaro to conclude in this torrent of punctuation marks and confused thoughts, it seems that Fígaro’s own Romantic condition contributes to this finality. His inability to negotiate between the reality of the world and the reality of the Romantic ego only allows clarity to intrude as a byproduct of delirium. In "La Nochebuena," these difficulties of the Romantic condition seen in November 1836 are seen in their most complete expression as Fígaro and Larra confront their own mortality.
"La Nochebuena de 1836" is the culmination of Larra’s aesthetic of delirium first explored in "Día de difuntos." But unlike the introductory examination offered in the text of November, this essay carries the conceit to its logical conclusion: the psychological suicide of Fígaro. According to Ricardo Guillón, "Decir que el tono de estas páginas es pesimista no basta para reflejar su negrura" (265). In "La Nochebuena" the binary oppositions of interior / exterior, immersion in solitude / immersion in the crowd, and most importantly, genius / madness, provide the impetus for the narration of a writer trapped in the middle of all poles. The essay relates the attempt of Fígaro to negotiate these extremes during a night in which nothing is as it seems. In his quest to find the truth in the middle of an overwhelming sense of confusion, Fígaro proposes a kind of Saturnalization of one of the holiest nights of the year. He proposes to his servant that for one night they reverse roles, thereby allowing the servant to tell Fígaro the truth—about everything—with impunity. In proposing this carnavalization, Fígaro effectively substitutes one type of delirium (the inability to see the truth) for another (the ability to see nothing but the truth).
As is also the case in "Día de difuntos," Larra establishes a tone of delirium very early in his essay. The first sentence of "La Nochebuena" shows the profound nature of the delirium of Fígaro: "El número 24 me es fatal: si tuviera que probarlo diría que en día 24 nací" (554). Fígaro’s obsessive fixation on this simple detail assures that 24 December 1836 will not be any different. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy that has no choice but to come true; moreover, it provides yet another connection to the Romantic aesthetic and its focus on superstition.
On this particular night, Fígaro’s delirium stems from what is ostensibly a lack of sleep. The narrator explains that, "El último día 23 del año 1836 acababa de expirar en la muestra de mi péndola, y consecuente en mis principios supersticiosos, ya estaba yo agachado esperando el aguacero y sin poder conciliar el sueño" (554). This lack of sleep sets up a classic case of a delirium that can only be remedied by rest. Carrying this notion to its logical conclusion, if sleep remains a physical impossibility, the only resolution available to the deeply delirious is the eternal sleep of death.
Due to his delirium—or perhaps as a cause of it—Fígaro again
finds himself unable to find the jus medio between the Romantic
desire that simultaneously craves isolation and longs for the protective
anonymity of the masses in order to shield the ego from its destructive
self. The vacillation between the extremes is recognized by the implicit
author of "La Nochebuena." He is aware of the paradox of the Romantic who
while operating as the savior of the people needs these same people for
his own salvation. The problem confronted in this artículo
is that Fígaro is the consummate hypocrite, telling others to do
as he says and not as he does. This criticism of the hypocrisy of the liberals
becomes even more evident as Fígaro refuses to write about his servant
in human terms, instead opting for an animalistic description of his criado:
"Una risa estúpida se dibujó en la fisonomía de aquel ser que los naturalistas han tenido la bondad de llamar racional sólo porque lo han visto hombre" (556). With this bitter description, Fígaro separates himself completely from the servant, echoing the strong semantic division of the work’s subtitle, "Yo y mi criado."
Fígaro’s distancing from his own servant is not only psychological. While he encourages the servant to eat and drink in preparation for the exposition of truth later in the evening, the narrator instead chooses to indulge in Romantic philosophy while inserting himself within the throngs of Madrid. The descent from his "City on the Hill" not only mirrors the movement previously seen in "Día de difuntos," but also has strong similarities to many classical descents into Hell: "Para ir desde mi casa al teatro es preciso pasar por la plaza tan indispensablemente como es preciso pasar por el dolor para ir desde la cuna al sepulcro" (557). While in the streets, Fígaro is incapable of comprehending what he believes to be horrible juxtapositions in the people. In describing the masses surrounding him, Fígaro alludes to the horrible contrast "de la fisonomía escuálida y de los rostros alegres" (557). Delirium renders him unable to understand even these small "paradoxes." This is to say nothing of his greater quest to negotiate multiple Romantic binary oppositions.
While Fígaro’s difficulty in traveling between isolation and bustle is certainly problematic, by far the more challenging gap to bridge is that which spans the psychological terrain between sanity and madness. As has been mentioned, Fígaro’s night of insomnia does not bode well for a person in a "high delirious" state during which the imagination runs out of control. The dynamic of the sanity/madness relationship is present from the outset of the this aptly-named "Delirio filosófico." Even though the pairing of "delirio" and "filosófico" could be analyzed as an instant self-contradiction, the pairing makes infinite sense if one keeps in mind the effects of delirium as described by Rees. The question is not "How can delirium be philosophical?" but rather "How can philosophy not be delirious?"
Fígaro is trapped in this philosophically delirious world of self-fulfilling prophecies and cannot escape. Even through moments of clarity shine through—as they did in "Día de difuntos"—the overall aspect is one of complete and utter confusion. But due to the internalization of the delirium, others never see Fígaro as a man on the edge of sanity. Using the windows of his piso as a metaphor for his ability to hide his condition, Fígaro describes the cristales as,
The high level of discord between what Fígaro feels and what others see makes his delirium all the more profound. His ill-fated attempt to exit the confusion that he feels comes with the simple statement made to his servant that "Esta noche me dirás la verdad" (556). This six-word declarative reminds us yet again of the time-honored axiom that tells us to be careful what we asks for, lest our request come true. Fígaro indeed gets the truth and in its reception, enters into the last phase of his delirium. It is a phase that manifests itself as an explicit doubling of the subject into ego/alter ego.
In the crushing climax of the essay, the criado transforms into the philosopher while Fígaro—as servant and as alter ego—must listen to his words. The revealed truth shows a kind of ethical primitivism far from the serious hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie. But accompanying the truth is also judgment, as Fígaro finds himself assailed by his suddenly demonic alter ego who looks as the narrator and simply says "Lástima" (559). The servant reaches from the depths of his consciousness and acquires a "voz del infierno" in order to criticize his master for "buscando la verdad en los libros hoja por hoja, y sufres de no encontrarla ni escrita" (562). The implication is that the truth had been right before his eyes all along.
The delirium of the narrator reaches its summit with the first exterior sign of emotion on the part of Fígaro, "[U]na lágrima preñada de horror y desesperación surcaba mi mejilla, ajada ya por el dolor" (562). Fígaro is unable to stop his own delirium and finds that "A la mañana, amo y criado yacían, aquél en el lecho, éste en el suelo. El primero tenía todavía abiertos los ojos y los clavaba con delirio y con delicia en una caja amarilla donde se leía mañana" (562). Even after such a prolonged state of madness, Fígaro cannot rest and put an end to his delirium. Sadly, the end to Larra’s delirium would come only months later in a suicide by the pistol that that same yellow box contained. With this final self-fulfilling prophecy completed in what was a relative mañana, "La Nochebuena" reads as the "borrador de la carta Fígaro nunca escribiría al juez de guardia para explicar el pistoletazo con que la rubricó, semanas después" (Guillón 268). One can only hope that the end of Fígaro/Larra’s life brought the author the salvation that he constantly looked for in the masses, but that he could never find. In this way, he would arrive at the salvation of the "noble defeat" or the "sublime failure" so common in Spanish Romantic literature (Iarocci 59). But even if Fígaro did not achieve these ideals, he was able to put an end to his delirium in the eternal sleep that death provides
"El día de difuntos de 1836" and "La Nochebuena de 1836" are
texts related in many more ways than the literature has previously expressed.
Aside from serving as important documents regarding the political history
of a turbulent Spain, both texts unite Larra with the Romantics. Larra’s
literary expression of delirium is masterful and reflects the schizophrenia
inherent to the Romantic condition—not just to Fígaro. Larra is
not simply a genio suelto to be revered, he is the iconic representation
of the eighteenth century artist whose "madness began in letters and ended
in reality" (Siebers 188). His life and work are not meant to be fused
in analysis, but rather observed as a dialectical game of cause and effect
with no discernible beginning or end. According to Siebers, "The question
whether artists were driven to their psychological limits by Romanticism
or whether Romanticism attracted marginal personalities is moot. The point
is that the psychology of the victim underlies the logic that we identify
as Romantic" (188). It is a logic that is not meant to be understood, but
to be confusedly absorbed in the same delirious way in which the Romantics
first felt it.
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Guillón, Ricardo. "El diálogo de ‘Fígaro’ con ‘El Otro’." Mariano José de Larra. Ed. Rubén Benítez. Madrid: Taurus, 1979. 264-68.
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