In his now-seminal book from 1974, Los hijos del limo (Children of the Mire), Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz points to the disconnections between modernity in Latin America and modernity as it was felt in Europe in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. There was, he says, a “radical difference” between Europeans and Latin Americans: “when Baudelaire says that progress is a ‘grotesque idea’ or when Rimbaud denounces industry, their experiences of progress and industry are real, direct, while those of Latin Americans are derivative.”1 Ultimately, Paz calls the latter’s experience of modernity “el reino de la máscara, el imperio de la mentira” (the kingdom of the mask, the empire of the lie) (127). Paz’s observation in the 1970s, as Alejandro Mejías-López has argued in The Inverted Conquest, prolongs an already longstanding contention about Latin America’s modernity as not only different, but tediously lagging. This absence is made clear in Paz’s alignment of the concept of the “mask” and the “lie,” highlighting the Latin American adoption of modernity as a performance on a stage stripped of all the accoutrements of a material sense of “progress.” The mask, in Paz’s account of Spanish American modernismo, is worn by the artist so that he can take part in Western modernity, take from it elements that allow for a reinvigoration of local modes of poetic expression, and in that way offer a rebuttal to the perception of Spanish American literature as the perennial inheritor of peninsular Spanish models. The artist, in this account, remains a kind of impostor in a world of clear geopolitical hierarchies.
In many ways, Paz’s take on modernism and modernity in the Latin American fin de siècle heralds the debates surrounding a singular modernity versus alternative and multiple modernities (as proposed by Fredric Jameson, Dilip Gaonkar, and S. N. Eisenstadt, respectively) that have emerged and been debated since the beginning of this century. In its focus on the places and periods of the tangibly modern, Paz also anticipates that most hotly debated of arguments in the New Modernist Studies: the notion of “planetary” modernist cultures, which Susan Stanford Friedman engages in her 2015 book. It is precisely within this great mass of exchanges and disputes that Andrew Reynolds and Bonnie Roos situate themselves in their new collection Behind the Masks of Modernism: Global and Transnational Perspectives. Reynolds and Roos find, in collections like Mark Wollaeger’s Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, Laura Doyle and Laura Winkiel’s Geomodernisms: Race, Modernism, and Identity, and Friedman’s own earlier writings on planetarity, a will to commence, however cautiously, a “global conversation” of what modernism is, how it might be distinct from ideas of modernity as such, and where and when it is to be found (10). They perceive in Wollaeger’s Handbook a “monovocal” conception of modernism, although the specifics of their contentions with the essays compiled in that volume are not clearly expressed (8). To counter this, their collection proposes the figure of the literal and [End Page 195] figurative mask as a “len[s]” to study “global modernisms and modernities,” in the “hope that it might help us to address what we see as a problem inherent in both Western modernist studies and global modernist studies, involving a suspect relationship with history” (9). This “suspect relationship” is weighty: for one, it points a finger at our preconceptions about the mask’s place in the grand narrative of modernism. It will come as no surprise that the first example of masks in the introduction and the book itself is Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). To many, this may well be the first iteration of the mask that comes to mind: a painting displaying a use of the primitive that, according to Reynolds and Roos, immediately asks us to question the artist’s intentions as either exploitative of the racial and cultural other, or as a conscious critique of imperial modernity. But Reynolds and Roos move beyond this, our initial assumption, to uphold a much more expansive understanding of the mask: it can be an object, but it is also a metaphor that allows us to gain a fuller sense of what subjectivity entails in the long twentieth century. In unleashing such a particularizing and expansive interpretation of masks, masking, and masquerade as it is used in art, literature, performance, and everyday life across different global locations, they furnish a complex story about the many negotiations of identity in the modern geopolitical sphere.
If publishing houses continue to support edited collections (and I hope they do), Reynolds and Roos’s Behind the Masks of Modernism is going to be among many to offer correctives to the meanings of the “global” as it is being conceived by scholars of modernism and beyond. As the subtitle announces, they are also attempting to stake a claim to the “transnational,” though neither the editors nor individual authors offer a clear differentiation between these two terms. In curating a collection that includes essays on Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore; Basque writer and artist Jorge Oteiza; Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos; the Spanish American modernistas; African-American poets Paul Laurence Dunbar and Countee Cullen; Vladimir Mayakovsky; contemporary writing like Keri Hulme’s The Bone People; and present-day West African and Chinese masked performances, Behind the Masks of Modernism moves confidently across continents. They also account for the modern as a phenomenon that stretches from the final decades of the nineteenth century to these first decades of the twenty-first—a periodization that stabilizes a definition of modernity, locating it within what Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, in his “Afterword” to this volume, addresses as the “twist and tussle between the two new Leviathans” of our times, “the market and the nation-state” (235).
If the list of topics covered in Behind the Masks of Modernism gives the reader a sense of the diversity of locations explored in the volume, there is an equally varied interpretation of what the mask is and the critical work that it performs. The essays illustrate what a panoply of signification this very idea elicits. In her excellent opening essay on the multitalented Tagore, for example, Aida Yuen Wong unpacks the famous line by the poet and artist: “My poetry is for my countrymen, my paintings are my gift to the West” (quoted on 26). To explore what she perceives as Tagore’s “fragmented” subjectivity, she moves across “an iconography that admits at least three levels of meaning: [Tagore’s] own interest in masked plays, the tension between public persona and private self, and cross-cultural heterogeneity of modernism through reference to Europe and Japan” (25). The mask works in a similar fashion in Sandro Barros’s essay on Heitor Villa-Lobos, “A Pedagogy for Modernity: Brazilian Modernism and Heitor Villa-Lobos Revisited.” Barros uses pedagogy as a lens to investigate the many roles that the Brazilian composer played in the national and transnational sphere to convey a sense of brasilidade (Brazilianness). Wong’s and Barros’s essays work very well alongside Andrew Reynolds’s piece on Spanish American modernistas in the late nineteenth century (“Unmasking the Journalistic Aesthetics of Spanish American Modernismo”). Here, the author moves from the object (Darío’s death mask, for example) to a larger discussion of the “metaphorical mask” of journalism worn by Spanish American poets in the age of professionalization and mass culture (79). This analysis of poetic subjectivity at a crossroads is considered to different and compelling effect in Steven Nardi’s essay “The ‘Colder Artifice’: Paul Laurence Dunbar, Contee Cullen, and the Mask of [End Page 196] Blackness”—in part, a recuperation of Cullen’s reputation, caught in previous literary criticism between “the political bent of the [Harlem] Renaissance and the emerging aesthetic goals of the broader American modernist scene” (121). While these essays speak for the masks worn by individuals, Jordan A. Fenton and Sylvie Beaud explore traditional collective performances in the Ekpe Nyoro masquerade competition in Calabar, Nigeria and in Chinese masked opera in Yangzong Township, respectively, following how performers negotiate the entry of traditional practices into the complex arenas of an expanding market economy. The temporal and spatial progression traced in this stimulating interdisciplinary collection is as rich and vivid as it is also demanding, for in each chapter we are confronted with distinct masquerades, with different interpretations of the local/global divide, and with alternative accounts of tradition’s potential ruptures and continuities. Ultimately, these perspectives help us to reframe many of our pre-conceived ideas about the world history of multiplying contact zones.
The editorial task of introducing a diverse group of essays is never easy, as it must perform a balancing act involving descriptive summary, disciplinary positioning, and critical justification. If I have one contention, it is that the introduction to Behind the Masks of Modernism is not altogether successful. (More successful, I would say, is Gaonkar’s generous “Afterword,” which performs quite a lot of heavy lifting in the way of synthesizing the main thrusts and stakes of the volume.) In their impassioned effort to make the case for historically locating non-Western modernist instances, Reynolds and Roos unfortunately rehearse some rather homogenizing assumptions about the tendencies of Western modernisms, such as the supposition that, in this context, artists and writers simply translated trauma into technique: they write that “[i]nstead of inviting us to respond to the history of violence that produces these ruptures [of modernization and globalism], such qualities are often aestheticized in Western modernist movements because fragmentation and disjuncture are lauded as inherent technical qualities” (10). This lack of specificity makes us wonder, for one, who or what is responsible for this aestheticization. More importantly, however, such a statement does a disservice to the carefully woven arguments made by many authors of the ensuing essays, who paint a much more complex picture of subjects’ navigations across different locations in the modern world, thereby making us think twice about positing an all-too-convenient division between the West and the rest.
Connor Doak’s beautiful essay on Mayakovsky’s “lyrical masks” (“The Emotion as Such: Un/Masking the Poet in Mayakovsky’s Work”) or Elixabete Ansa Goicoechea’s rich piece on the trans-atlantic search for art’s transcendence by Basque sculptor Jorge Oteiza (“From Pre-Columbian Masks to the Basque Cromlech: The Art of Unconcealment through Jorge Osteiza”)point to the relevance of “modernism” as a term within a collection that, because of its focus on the figure of the mask, traces recent and contemporary artistic trajectories that seem to transcend “modernism” itself. This issue echoes, for me, some of the problems that critics have pointed out about Friedman’s Planetary Modernisms with which Reynolds and Roos directly wish to converse. Recent scholarship has tended to target as many interpretive catchwords as possible (the global, the transnational, the modern) in an effort to appeal to a wide readership. With this in mind, what would we lose in definitively foregrounding themes other than the (re)definition of modernism on a global/transnational scale? What would happen if this volume were instead to emphasize the heterogeneity of the mask (which is what ultimately gives the collection its true distinctiveness), releasing the different subjects whose lives are traced here into more fluid accounts of artistic subjectivity than those freighted with the task of expanding modernism at every turn? For the narrative of modernism, like the mask itself, may not always fit.
1. “Hay una diferencia radical entre los europeos y los hispanoamericanos: cuando Baudelaire dice que el progreso es ‘una idea grotesca’ o cuando Rimbaud denuncia a la industria, sus experiencias [End Page 197] del progreso y de la industria son reales, directas, mientras que las de los hispanoamericanos son derivadas… La realidad de nuestras naciones no era moderna; no la industria, la democracia y la burguesía, sino las oligarquías feudales y el militarismo.” Octavio Paz, Los hijos del limo (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1987), 132; my translation.