Fetishism in the Short Prose of Almas y
by Enrique Gómez Carrillo (1873-1927)
University of Oklahoma
Una instintiva voluptuosidad hacíame de antemano grato el manejo de los atavíos femeninos. Lo que luego he sentido con un goce casi enfermizo en mis visitas frecuentes á [sic] los paraísos mujeriles, lo experimenté desde el primer día en aquella tienda americana.
An instinctive voluptuousness predisposed me to the handling of feminine accessories. What I later felt as an almost sickly pleasure in my frequent visits to those womanly paradises [women’s boutiques], I experienced from the first day in that American shop.
Enrique Gómez Carrillo, Treinta años de mi vida. Vol. I (83)
Enrique Gómez Carrillo (Guatemala 1873-1927) uses fetishism in his short fiction to criticize restrictive bourgeois sexual mores and legitimize alternative notions of gender and desire. The Guatemalan modernista, one of the most popular cronistas of his day and the author of an essay titled “El fetichismo,” employs fetish in some of his short stories, for example “La cabellera de Cleopatra,” (Cleopatra’s Mane) to question the social salubriousness of marriage and family life and suggest conjugal life as a source of social decline. In his short story “Amor ideal” (Ideal Love) fetish serves to highlight the outdated nature of older generations vis à vis the diverse erotic tastes of modern women. In both stories the desire for the fetish object reroutes traditional, heterosexual, reproductive urges and thus breaks down traditional notions of the masculine and feminine by displacing and complicating desire. These literary gestures call into question the injunction, endorsed by Judeo-Christian dogma and the mores of the ruling classes of Latin America and beyond, that sexuality and intercourse exist solely for procreation, a phenomenon the historian George Mosse investigates in his classic 1985 study Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe. The study at hand considers aspects of Gómez Carrillo’s autobiography that influenced fetishism in his later work, offers a brief overview of contemporary views on fetishism, and provides analyses of several of his short stories. Fetish is privileged rather than pathologized in Gómez Carrillo’s fiction as a way of rewriting the sexual status quo.
The public conservatism of bourgeois sexual mores in late nineteenth-century Latin American society has been well documented (Barceló Miller, Salessi, Suárez Findlay). For men from families of means, sexual intercourse could begin with the onset of puberty with a prostitute or woman of a lower social class, so that the individual might avoid the scandal of deflowering a “decent” woman out of wedlock. Honorable women were to be virgins (or at least have the public reputation thereof) until they married. Homosexuality or other sexual “aberrations” were not viable options for respectable members of the bourgeoisie. The medical and ruling communities viewed homosexuality, transvestitism, and female (but not male) promiscuity as threats to the health and integrity of society. Prescribed gender traits also fell into neat dichotomies. Members of the middle and upper classes expected their women to be domestic, maternal, and passive while men could be professionally aggressive, public, intellectual, and idealistic.(1) Gómez Carrillo was part of the group of modernista writers identified with European decadence who disturbed the sexual status quo and gender norms by including erotically charged material in his short prose.
I. Fetish in Gómez Carrillo’s Autobiography
Gómez Carrillo is among the most prolific Latin American writers of his time, yet his name is rarely mentioned as a major contributor to the modernista movement in Latin America, as the literary critic José Ismael Gutiérrez notes (423).(2) Gómez Carrillo is considered decadente owing to his bold use of erotic, sadomasochistic, exotic, and orientalist themes. The journalist, novelist, essayist and diplomat spent most of his life in Paris and published more than eighty books and approximately three thousand crónicas that kept Latin American readers up to date regarding the latest Parisian trends in the arts and culture. According to the Guatemalan literary scholar Juan Carlos Escobedo Mendoza, Gómez Carrillo’s crónicas from Paris and his travel narratives from Europe and Asia made him the most read journalist in Guatemala. His prose fiction was also widely read in Spain and Latin America. Gómez Carrillo’s journalism and fiction influenced his readers’ notions of culture and cosmopolitanism in an age defined by its push toward progress and internationalism in the city centers.
The epigraph to this study is from Gómez Carrillo’s autobiography Treinta años de mi vida in which he speaks of his fetish experience in the women’s department as a shopkeeper in Guatemala at the age of fifteen, a career choice that vexed his impoverished but “aristocratic” parents, to use Gómez Carrillo’s term. His arousal while handling articles of women’s clothing is one of several types of sexual fetish experiences in Treinta años. Before venturing further into this text it is important to note that the veracity of the work must be viewed with some degree of skepticism. In this entertainingly narrated life history, a Gómez Carrillo in his late forties recounts many specific dialogues and recalls in detail scenes that took place more than thirty years prior to the time of writing. Whether he tells of true events or whether these tales are somewhat embellished is not as important as the role that Gómez Carrillo assigns to erotic fetishism in his memoir. A critical counterpoint between fetishistic desire, highlighted in Gómez Carrillo’s autobiographical writing, and the representation of such desire in his fiction, signals the centrality and impact of the topic in question, not just for Gómez Carrillo but also in the broader context of modernismo’s ambiguous, highly stylized transgressions of the mores and taboos of the period.
Gómez Carrillo as autobiographer tells the story of his sexual initiation at the hand of a cultivated married woman of status in her mid thirties, Edda Christensen, the French wife of a Spanish foreign minister living in Guatemala. The future novelist and journalist meets Edda when she enters his place of work. Gómez Carrillo’s physical descriptions of her focus in a fetishistic manner on the artificiality and mask-like aspect of her person. Decked out in the latest fashion, the woman is ghostly pale, heavily made up with powder and lips as red as blood, with dark circles under huge shining green eyes (95-6). The shop owner comments on her ugliness, an attitude Gómez Carrillo attributes to the proprietor’s simplistic taste for “la hermosura morena y sana” (healthy, brunette beauty). This comment reveals the future writer’s own unapologetic awareness of his attraction to the unnatural, “morbid,” haunting beauty of artifice. When Edda returns to the shop under the pretext of buying a multitude of frivolous items, she has the handsome young man box and, most importantly, deliver the items personally to her home. The beginnings of their relationship, then, is marked by the acquisition of objects and, subsequently, Edda’s gifts of rare jewelry to Gómez Carrillo’s mother and sister as a way of (unsuccessfully) attempting to earn their affection and acceptance. Gómez Carrillo’s entrancing lust for Edda in the early stages of their courtship is inextricably linked to the exchange of fetishistic gifts and the ambiance of luxurious adornment in the lady’s well-appointed home.(3)
The diverse emotional and physical sensations of pleasure and pain the adolescent Gómez Carrillo experiences with Edda resurface later in his fiction. Moreover, the seeds of the writer’s interests in French literature, sadomasochism, and fetish may be found in his narration of this early sexual relationship, whose fire was so heightened by his introduction to French novels and poetry, and the silks, ribbons, rouge, and gems in Christensen’s midst. The golden statue of Buddha in her boudoir is mentioned most frequently and becomes a symbol of the young man’s spiritual and almost religious reverence for the sexual act, which reminds us of fetish’s original use to denote amulets and other objects revered in certain cultures as sacred, magical, or spiritual talismans.
Significantly, gender roles are inverted in Gómez Carrillo’s affair with Edda. Throughout the narrative the Frenchwoman simply refers to Gómez Carrillo as “petit” (little one). Says the autobiographer of his lover: “Disponiendo de mí á su antojo, tratábame cual yo me figuraba entonces que los amantes verdaderos debían tratar á sus queridas. Todas las iniciativas voluptuosas partían de ella. Ella solía llamarme: « mi novia… mi mujercita… »” (Using me at her will, she treated me as I thought, back then, true [male] lovers must treat their sweethearts. All of the voluptuous initiatives came from her. She would call me: “my bride…my little woman”; Treinta años 143). After his liaison with Edda comes to an end, Gómez Carrillo looks back and feels indignant about her treatment of him, which burns his “orgullo de machito ingenuo” (ingenuous young macho’s pride). However in the moment he passively accepts his low status and recognizes the huge gap in social class and experience between him and Edda (“A su lado… mi sumisión era absoluta”; At her side…I was completely submissive; 144). There can be little doubt that part of Gómez Carrillo’s retelling of this story as an adult is influenced by the modernista fascination with the femme fatale, the seductive woman who preys on the weakness of male flesh. The personal nature of this story, nonetheless, carries it beyond types. The powerful break with traditional notions of feminine passivity and male aggression common in 1880s Guatemalan society (as evidenced, for example, by the traditional behaviors Gómez Carrillo describes in his mother, father, and acquaintances) is not a myth or symbol for the writer, but rather a reality that marks his fictional conceptions of gender and sexuality.
Ten years later when Gómez Carrillo is twenty-five years old, he has made a name for himself as a journalist and literary critic, and Guatemalan President Manuel Estrada Cabrera grants him a diplomatic post in Paris. The writer is free to explore multiple modes of sexuality in the relatively permissive ambiance of the City of Lights. The first year of his tenure in Paris yields the 1898 book-length collection of short stories and vignettes, Almas y cerebros: historias sentimentales, intimidades parisienses, etc. (Souls and Brains: Sentimental Stories, Parisian Intimacies, etc.), in which the author considers, in his fictional narratives and essays, various aspects and functions of sexual fetishism.
II. Definitions of fetishism at the turn of the nineteenth century
Gómez Carrillo was savvy in regard to contemporary psycho-medical definitions and discussions of fetishism. In his essay “El fetichismo,” he mentions the work of two theorists of sexual “infirmities,” the Austro-German psychiatrist and medical doctor Richard Freiherr von Kraft-Ebbing (1840-1902) and the German psychiatrist Albert Moll (1862-1939). Notably, the writer prefers the more inclusive (less essentialist) view of Moll and cites a case study by Moll of boot fetish. By the early 1880s doctors had observed and described patients’ fetishistic perversions without assigning them a name. The French psychiatrist Alfred Binet (1857-1911) is considered the first to use the term fetishism to describe an erotic attachment to objects or body parts in his study “Fetishism in Love,” which appeared in the widely circulated Revue philosophique in 1887 (Nye 20-21). Historian Robert Nye notes that around this time fetishism emerges as a pathological behavior, particularly in France. That is to say, that by treating fetishism sympathetically in his fiction, Gómez Carrillo’s view of sexuality is more progressive than the French medical opinions during that period.(4) We may note here that the Francophilia of which Gómez Carrillo has been so often accused is not present in his use of fetish, although a superficial evaluation of the topic may suggest the contrary. In fact, his treatment of fetish is based more in his own life experiences than in any specific theory.
Two of the most important scholars of the erotic fetish at the turn of the century are Krafft-Ebing, author of Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), and the British psychologist Havelock Ellis (1859-1839), whose Studies in the Psychology of Sex came out in sections between 1897 and 1910. An important difference between Krafft-Ebing’s work and that of Ellis is their categorization of fetishism, “inversion” (homosexuality) and other “abnormal” sexual behaviors as pathogolical (Krafft-Ebing) or as suppressed desires that are part of normal human sexuality (Ellis). Krafft-Ebing groups these behaviors as paraethesia or “perversion of the sexual instinct” due to misplaced desire onto objects, body parts other than the primary sexual organs, or members of the same sex (Krafft-Ebing xii). From the case studies he enumerates and from Binet’s findings, Krafft-Ebing proposes that fetishism often results from heredity of a nervous constitution, early masturbation associated with the fetish, shame associated with sexual experiences involving the fetish, and engaging in relationships of a sexual nature before or during puberty in which the fetish is present (although sometimes the fetishization is simply “spontaneous”). For the Austro-German, these behaviors are pathological when coitus cannot take place or is difficult without evoking an image of the fetish item or body part. Fetish is particularly pathological in the case of theft of fetish items (most often handkerchiefs, but also ladies’ underwear, “live” hair clippings, aprons, and other miscellaneous items); such pathology is of “forensic importance” (220). In sum, Krafft-Ebing views erotic fetishism as a potential social problem because it: 1) hinders marriage and procreation (core elements of bourgeois Judeo-Christian social modalities) or 2) inspires theft, robbery, and, more rarely, assault or murder.(5)
work is well known for its sympathy toward individuals who take their
in members of the same sex, a certain body part, or an inanimate fetish
He was a pioneering advocate for “non-inverted” women’s
sexual freedom and the right of “inverts” of both sexes to erotic
pleasure and social acceptance. An exemplary case study of Ellis’s
the story of an educated married woman of high social status who uses
fetish for applying a certain type of whip to her buttocks to discover,
into adult life, that she can finally achieve heightened pleasure,
rather than the prescribed reproductive vaginal variety.(6)
this case, Ellis “normalizes” the fetish by pointing out that an
frigid woman’s exploration of desire allowed her to get closer to the
goal of deriving pleasure from coitus. While Ellis couches his
a discourse that appears to recognize happiness within marriage as its
does not view non-heterogenital sexual acts as pathological. In fact,
numerous examples of each type of sexual conduct in order to show how
these desires are in European society.
Gómez Carrillo’s sympathy toward fetishistic desire (which predates most of Ellis’s writings) is apparent in the definition he offers in “El fetichismo”: “en el fondo el fetichismo no es sino: la exaltación morbosa de las preferencias” (in the core fetishism is nothing but the morbid exaltation of preferences; Almas y cerebros 373). This definition generalizes fetish to an extreme form of preference without assigning pathological qualities to it. While his use of the adjective “morbosa” shows the influence of contemporary psycho-scientific definitions, a closer look at Gómez Carrillo’s fiction reveals that fetish functions as a device to highlight desire and sexuality in the human psyche that is stifled by bourgeois codes of behavior and values. Characters’ fetishes reveal a constructionist (rather than essentialist) view of gender, one in which typically masculine and feminine characteristics are combined or inverted in the fetish object. This representation of the fetish suggests psychological sexual desires beyond or between the hetero- and homosexual.
III. Erotic Fetishism in Almas y cerebros
Gómez Carrillo’s choice of subject matter often made his more conservative contemporaries uncomfortable. The perception was, perhaps, that he included risqué themes for their shock value or to titillate readers. Further research and analysis about the context of his works show that his use of fetish is sophisticated, critical, and timely. The well-known Spanish journalist, novelist, and literary critic Leopoldo Alas (penname Clarín; 1852-1901) composed a harsh prologue to Almas y cerebros. The tone of his comments reflects the emphasis on a cultural return to Spanish roots typical of the era of the Spanish American war and the Generation of ’98. Alas praises Gómez Carrillo’s artistic potential, yet derogatorily categorizes the collection as “cosmopolita” and accuses the author of exhibiting “entusiasmo de snob.” Alas vacillates between admonishing Carrillo for is love affair with the new French fashions in literature and vigorously encouraging him not to distance himself from his Spanish origins (although Gómez Carrillo was, of course, born in Guatemala), a critique which reminds the reader of Gómez Carrillo’s falling away from the center, as suggested in the Latin root of decadence: de-cadere. Specifically, Alas urges the young modernista not to drag his readers into a moral decline hastened by “exotic” European trends. Alas’s fears regarding the content of Gómez Carrillos’s prose is apparent, as he refers to the “peligro de su cosmopolitismo literario para la juventud á [sic] quien principalmente se dirige” (the danger his literary cosmopolitanism represents for the youth to whom it is primarily directed; xiv). Some of the themes in Almas y cerebros that likely disturbed Alas are psychopathy, lesbianism, female pursuit of sexual satisfaction, crimes of passion, and, of course, fetishism. Further, the Guatemalan writer’s repetition of the historical, biblical, and eminently decadent fin-de-siècle figure Salome functions to present a pleasantly erotic version of the castration fantasy/fear and serves as the basis for questioning gender norms.
“La cabellera de Cleopatra” (Cleopatra’s Mane) may appear to be a story about how a fetishistic obsession ruins a meek poet named Teodoro Sylarus. Rather, it is the story of the detrimental effects of prescribed matrimony on a man with complex desires. We learn in the first few lines of his scopophilia: one of the poet’s favorite distractions is to walk through the business district and gaze, mesmerized, at the many objects for sale. He stares longingly at the tiny curvaceous Greek figurines of the female form, Tanagras, which might serve as muses. His eyes hungrily take in everything from the antique books, to diamonds, to his preferred object: a wig in the barber’s window.
The first part of the narrative reveals the impromptu nature of Teodoro’s less-than-ideal marriage: “Se había casado, sin saber cómo, entre dos cantos de su poema, con una modista algo marchita cuyo perfil le pareció griego una tarde de primavera” (He had gotten married, not knowing how, between two cantos of his poem, with a slightly withered dressmaker whose profile seemed Greek to him one spring afternoon” 21). The reader may infer that Teodoro, interested primarily in an afternoon fling, acquiesced to marriage as the socially expected outcome of coitus with an unmarried woman. The financial burdens of the fruits of his union, two children, lead him to take an undesirable job teaching grammar.
All of the passion missing from Teodoro’s life after marriage is channeled into his creative mind and work. His musings produce his masterpiece, the dithyramb Cleopatra Victrix (Cleopatra the Victorious), which is the ultimate manifestation of these suppressed yearnings:
El poeta no había querido hablar únicamente de la querida de Antonio y de César, sino de toda la belleza femenina.---Para realizar su ideal alegórico, atribuía á su Cleopatra vencedora las gracias crueles de Salomé y la divina majestad de la Venus griega. Fundidas en un solo cuerpo de carne rubia, esas tres diosas de la voluptuosidad formaban un monstruo de belleza turbadora, lleno de hipocresía felina, de majestad perezosa y de atractivo sanguinario.
---La Trinidad del Amor—decía el poeta.
The poet had not wanted to speak only of the lover of Marc Anthony and Caesar, but rather of all feminine beauty.---In order to realize his allegorical ideal, he gave his victorious Cleopatra all of the cruel graces of Salome and the divine majesty of the Greek Venus. Fused in a single body of golden flesh, those three goddesses of voluptuousness formed a disturbing monster of beauty, full of feline hypocrisy, of slothful majesty and of sanguine attraction.
---The Trinity of Love—as the poet used to say. 18
Teodoro’s lack of satisfaction within marriage combined with years of suppressing his urges finds an outlet in his dreams of this trio of mythical and historical women (Cleopatra, Venus, and Salome); three is the number of the charm, the magical number that marks his release.
One day Teodoro’s fortunes turn and he is faced with the decision about how to spend the earnings. A former acquaintance offers to publish his short prose work of secondary importance, entitled La evolución psicológica del beso (The Psychological Evolution of the Kiss). Teodoro marvels at the fact that his masterpiece Cleopatra Victrix languishes unpublished, while this mediocre analysis of the kiss earns him two hundred francs. The editor’s acceptance of Teodoro’s second-rate manuscript makes a critical statement about the market demand for a study that categorizes and renders ascetic a spontaneous human act, detaching it from its instinctual impulses. Gómez Carrillo’s ironic treatment of bourgeois literary tastes brings to mind Alas’s juxtaposition of Gómez Carrillo’s dangerous modernista cosmopolitanism to “another genre” of young intellectuals in America, who look toward “novedades más serias, más profundas y más compatibles con la conservación del carácter nacional” (more serious and profound new trends that are more compatible with the conservation of the national character; xv). These nationally salubrious “new trends” are, for Alas, those in science and philosophy (viii, xv). One also finds an analogous connection between Teodoro’s study of the kiss and Binet’s and Krafft-Ebing’s “scientific” pathologization and/or categorization of human sexual urges. The fictional Teodoro, then, momentarily participates in the trend of “scientific” realism, just as he passively slips into marriage to meet social expectations. Despite his earlier conformism, Teodoro’s deeper instinctual impulses, awakened by composing the Dionysian dithyramb, eventually prevail.
Teodoro hands over the sum of his earnings to be the sole owner of the
coveted fetish, which he believes to be, in his concupiscent state of
a wig made from the original hair of Cleopatra herself:
Era una cabellera de mujer, rubia, muy rubia, rubia obscura, rubia veneciana, con tonos de cobre pulido, sedeña, enorme, espléndida. Durante media hora sus ojos no se cansaron de admirar esa cabellera sin cabeza, que tenía, para él, algo de enigmático y que le hacía pensar vagamente en Cleopatra, en Salomé y en la decapitación de San Juan Bautista. (…) La gran cabellera inmóvil le atraía, le subyugaba, le obsesionaba.
It was a woman’s head of hair, blonde, very blonde, dark blonde, Venetian blonde, with tones of polished copper, silky, enormous, splendid. For half an hour his eyes did not grow tired of admiring this hair without a head, that held, for him, something enigmatic and that vaguely made him think about Cleopatra, Salome and in the decapitation of John the Baptist. (…) The great immobile head of hair attracted him, subjugated him, he was obsessed by it. 22
The wig represents the return of Teodoro’s long lost virility, but, ironically, it is also his welcomed castration. This is clear in the narrative through Teodoro’s great interest in putting himself in the place of Marc Anthony, Caesar, and even the doomed John the Baptist. While Teodoro’s withered virility in his everyday life is apparent in the passive role he assumes with colleagues, the dreamlike state that the wig produces in him allows him to escape to a fantasy in which he is the potent lover of the most powerful women in the world.
His subjugation to the wig and the merciless, seductive cruelty of the women he associates with it (Cleopatra, Salome) imply a degree of masochism in this erotic encounter. The daughter of Herodias’s request that her stepfather/uncle Herod grant her John the Baptist’s head on a platter is an often-noted example of fetish, one that Oscar Wilde, a friend of Gómez Carillo’s, exploits fruitfully in his 1894 play Salome. (7) While Charles Bernheimer finds that European decadent writers’ “seminal fantas[ies]” of Salome are “fearful fantasies of feminine difference” that embody the horror of castration, Gómez Carrillo’s notion of symbolic castration implies a profound degree of pleasure for the poet, who embraces this castration and appears relieved of the burden of the phallus and all of the responsibilities it entails in late nineteenth-century society (Bernheimer 62).
The fact that Teodoro cannot reproduce with the wig is essential to the intensity of his delight; lusting after a wig defies expected social outcomes of the sexual act—bearing children whose material needs chain the poet to a life of drudgework. Freud’s definition in Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex (1905) emphasizes this aspect of fetish: “the normal sexual object is substituted for another, which, though related to it, is totally unfit for the sexual aim. (…) the sexual object is generally a part of the body but little adapted for sexual purposes, such as the foot or hair…” (534). Apter’s interpretation of the fetish provides useful perspective here; although she speaks specifically of feminist essentialism, her thoughts apply to the case of masculine essentialism as well:
resisted through fetishism’s implicit challenge to a stable phallic
referent (…) The imaginary phallus, venerated elsewhere, ultimately
to occupy no fixed place at all. And the idea stipulated by classical
psychoanalysis that virtually any object—fur, velvet, chair legs…
can become a candidate for fetishization once it is placed on the great
metonymic chain of phallic substitutions ultimately undermines the
presupposition of a phallic ur-form,
or object-type. If the phallus no
longer resembles a phallus…, then perhaps an epoch obsessed with
castration anxiety has reached its twilight days. Apter, 4-5
I am not suggesting that Gómez Carrillo advocates a constructionist view of gender to free women and men from essentialist assumptions about their sex and to further women’s rights; his views of women in many selections outside this study contradict such a notion. However his own pleasurable yet unfamiliar feelings of emasculation in his relationship with Edda Christensen and the androgynous nature of his fictional characters’ eroticized objects offer a reading of desire that is beyond heterogenital.
“Amor ideal” is a story of a woman’s fetishization of her suitor’s hands. Gómez Carrillo’s choice of women as subjects of fetishistic desire is relevant, as Krafft-Ebing does not attribute this “illness” to the delicate sex and offers no case studies of women who show sexual interest in body parts or objects. In the selections below women are agents of their sexual desires without falling prey to death, disease, or vilification, as often happens in the case of desirous women in fiction of the period (Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are two well-known examples).
The story is written in the style of a personal diary so we do not know the young lady’s name. The description of her suitor Gabriel isolates her arousal to looking at or touching his hands; “no es guapo ni mucho menos” (he is not handsome, nor even much less)
Lo único que en él me parece bello, verdadera, completa, delicada y exquisitamente bello, son sus manos---esas manos aristocráticas y nerviosas, blancas como las de una princesa de Wislers [sic], y tan largas, tan afiladas, tan armoniosas, que habrían podido servir de modelo al escultor Rodín para completar la belleza incorpórea de su Bautista de bronce!
The only thing
in him that seems beautiful to me, truly,
completely, delicately, and exquisitely beautiful, are his hands---
aristocratic and nervous, white as those of one of Whistler’s
and so long, so tapered, so harmonious, that they would have been able
as models to the sculptor Rodin to complete the incorporeal beauty of
bronze Baptist! 84-5.
In the passage above the allusion to Salome is evident in the reference to Rodin’s bronze of St. John the Baptist. The woman compares her intended’s lovely hands with those of Rodin’s Saint, putting herself metaphorically in the position of the decapitator/castrator. However, the narrator shifts the phallic emphasis back and forth between her and her intended; at times she is the one who feels “domada” (dominated) and at others she sees him in a role that is “suplicante” (supplicating). The story subtly juxtaposes two sides of the narrator: the outwardly proper young lady of the privileged class and the woman who is a product of sophisticated influences and times.
Several of the scenes in “Amor ideal” make reference to the older generations of women of the narrator’s family. It is in these references that the reader is given some perspective on new explorations in sexuality for the modern era. The narrator painstakingly devises elaborate strategies to prolong activities that allow her to touch her suitor’s hands. One such strategy is conceived when she finds that “un anillo muy feo” (a very ugly ring), a gift from her grandmother, is stuck on her finger. She begs Gabriel to help her “separar[se] de tan odiosa joya.” (free herself of such a hateful piece of jewelry; 89). Her distaste for her grandmother’s preference in jewels suggests the new generation’s rejection of passé mores, while her irreverence toward tradition is apparent in the way that she uses the gift as a pretext to achieve a sexual thrill.
As the narrator’s obsession with Gabriel’s hands intensifies, she finally decides to confide in her mother and seek an explanation. Her mother responds: “La razón es muy sencilla: las manos de Gabriel te gustan, porque la mano es el símbolo del amor puro. Dar la mano es dar de alma.” (The reason is simple: Gabriel’s hands please you because the hand is the symbol of pure love. To offer one’s hand is to offer the soul; 91). The story ends abruptly with the narrator’s compassionate yet disdainful exclamation that reveals the full extent of the sexual component of the fetish: “¡Inocente mamá!...” . Just as a man might imagine his mistress in many states of dress, the narrator imagines her young man’s hands in all permutations from waxen saintly hands, to large feline claws grasping at prey; she imagines them sweet, cruel, and despotic (90). The stark contrast between the young woman’s involved intimate fantasies about Gabriel’s hands and her mother’s simplistic and romantic explanation leaves little doubt that the 1890s woman is in tune with her desires in a new way, although restricted in the pursuit of their satisfaction.
The protagonist/narrator of “Amor ideal” reminds the reader of fictional women in tune with their desires featured in Gómez Carrillo’s “La suprema voluptuosidad” and “La guillotina”. In the first story a young wife is sorely disillusioned with her conjugal routine and longs for the supreme sensual pleasure about which she has read. She discovers that viewing erotic paintings is the key to igniting these passions. “La guillotina” is the story of a young woman’s arousal upon watching a public beheading. It appears the gruesome intensity of the act and perhaps the power-fantasy of castration inspire her to rush home with her husband. Both of these stories explore the subversive erotic desires of otherwise “normal” women of the bourgeoisie. Unlike other modernista novels and short stories in which the sexually subversive woman is punished for her “unnatural” desires--José Asunción Silva’s protagonist José Fernández comes to mind as a misogynistic character who seeks out but then physically abuses the sexually adventurous women Nini Roussett and “La Orloff” (137; 107)--Gómez Carrillo’s women in these short selections are not demonized or punished. It is significant, however, that Gómez Carrillo’s lusty women live out their newfound libido with their respective husbands (which may explain why they are presented relatively favorably), while Silva’s characters seek partners outside of marriage. Like other types of early attempts to question and subvert conservative social mores, then, Gómez Carrillo’s is framed to resemble sexual propriety familiar to the typical middle-class reader, yet the content within this frame is provocatively unfamiliar.
Gómez Carrillo’s foray into the struggle against prescribed sexual and gender norms, on a symbolic level through fiction, anticipates Ellis’s thoughts on the natural diversity of human sexual desire, Freud’s recognition of the primacy of “uncivilized” sexual urges in human beings (Civilization and its Discontents) and, in the late twentieth century, Michel Foucault’s inquiries into the history of sexual repression in Western culture, as well as Judith Butler’s ideas on the mutability and performativity of gender. Gómez Carrillo’s use of fetish in short prose to highlight the restrictions on sexuality and suggest a new, more sexually ambiguous era likely gave pause to contemporary readers taught to view non-traditional desires as aberrations. His choice of title, Almas y cerebros (Souls and Brains), draws attention to the importance of the deep-seated psychological, emotional, and even spiritual dimensions of erotic desire that were bypassed in the unwavering focus on the procreative functions of the heterosexual union in mainstream discourses. Gómez Carrillo’s popularity during his lifetime might rest in part to his appeal to these very readers, many of them women, who saw alternative representations of gender and desire in these bits of fiction that contradicted highly categorized and pathologized notions of alternative sexualities in the “scientific” literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
(1). Note that Doris Sommer makes a case for the acceptability of the somewhat effeminate romantic hero in the nineteenth-century novel, whose vulnerability and sensitivity would make him a desirable companion in the eyes of women readers. However this flexibility of gender traits and more pliable definitions of romantic virility did not translate easily to print media. Generally, mainstream journal articles maintained conservative gender norms by publishing articles about men’s public feats and women’s chastity, religiosity and domestic virtues. Modernista journalists, many of them quite popular in their day, evidently had other agendas and wrote material that subverted strict gender categories and traditional notions of the normative family unit.
(2). Nellie Bauzá Echeverría’s 1999 monograph is the most recent critical book-length study of Gómez Carrillo’s novels. Most of the few dozen scholarly journal articles on Gómez Carrillo’s writing focus on his travel narratives, on his orientalist representations of Japan, on his Francophilia, or on his relationship to other well-known writers of his day.
(3). A reading of Gómez Carrillo’s writing based in Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism is tempting here. However this idea was elaborated in 1867 and Marx’s use of fetishism refers to the anthropological definition in primitive religions, rather than to the psycho-medical notion of the fetish later in the century. While a Marxist reading is outside of the scope of the current study, Gómez Carrillo’s short prose, replete with references to consumerism, productively lends itself to such an exploration.
(4). The interconnectivity between psycho-medical science and literature at the end of the nineteenth century was strong owing to the union of these two areas in the French novelist Emile Zola’s naturalism, a literary movement that took scientific method as its core principal. Indeed both Krafft-Ebing and Ellis cite popular contemporary novels frequently as evidence to support a claim or a particular behavior in a case study.
(5). See Robert Nye’s article “The Medical Origins of Sexual Fetishism” for a complete discussion of the pathologizing of non-reproductive sexual practices to inhibit depopulation in fin-de-siècle France. An example of fetish that could result in murder or assault is found in Krafft-Ebing’s chilling case study of a man obsessed with the idea of cutting and eating white female flesh (238-240).
(7). The story and topic of Salome appears frequently in Gómez Carrillo’s work. In Treinta años de mi vida he dedicates a chapter to his conversations with Oscar Wilde about the creation of the Irish writer’s Salome character. Later the Guatemalan wrote a short story about a young woman, a professional dancer, who composes her own music to a dance performance piece, El triunfo de Salomé (which is also the name of the short story). “El triunfo de Salomé” focuses on a perverse fetishization of dance, rather than on erotically charged act of decapitation. Please see José Ismael Gutiérrez’s article for a detailed comparative analysis of Wilde’s and Gómez Carrillo’s works about Salome.
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