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  • Modern Times: Francisco Umbral’s Chronicle of Distinction
  • Paul Julian Smith

If, in Vattimo’s apparent tautology, “modernity” is that time in which “the modern” is the highest or only value (Vattimo 73), then the Spain of the 1980s is surely the most modern of societies. And the journalist and novelist Francisco Umbral is its arbiter of elegance: both a commentator on and a contributor to social and aesthetic manners. The author of over one hundred books, Umbral is perhaps best known for his daily newspaper column, once in the Socialist-supporting El País, now in the maverick upstart El Mundo. An idiosyncratic chronicle of the Zeitgeist and the genius loci, Umbral’s column (which has been run under titles which include the Baudelairian “Spleen of Madrid” and the Proustian “Pleasures and Days”), charts the specific intersections of time and space in a thousand book launches, film premieres, and press conferences. But in its knowing combination of politics and poetics, as in its fleeting references to such fashionable concepts as Vattimo’s “weak thought” or Lacan’s “discourse of the other,” Umbral’s column has ambitions far beyond those of gossip writers in other countries or his rivals in Spain itself. For his aims are at once total and partial: to give a general account of the glittering social life of a “Dior-issimo” Madrid and a specific social critique of that same elite’s decadence and arrogance as the ironically named “Red Decade” advances. As dandy and moralist, Umbral presents himself as a “Proustian Marxist” (La década roja 56), an apparently trivial mondain whose devotion to the daily discipline of writing transmutes the ephemera he chronicles into the [End Page 324] resonant symbols of profound social malaise. The “portable culture” 1 of the period is thus subjected to an increasingly explicit critique of the Left which Umbral mounts (or claims to mount) from within the Left itself (Los cuerpos gloriosos 281). 2

Umbral’s column thus serves as a chronicle of distinction in a double sense: it both marks out those figures worthy of the reader’s attention (a painter, a politician, a supermodel); and confers value on itself through the writer’s intimacy with those same figures: in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, each secures social and symbolic profits “by exhibiting signs of recognition” to the other (485). In this article I shall argue that Umbral’s writing practice, unique in Spain, is exemplary of Bourdieu’s concept of “distinction” or “the judgment of taste.” For Bourdieu the sense of distinction is always subject to “the mark of time” (295): “art and cultural consumption are predisposed . . . to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences” (7). But if distinction is culturally constructed, it is not determined or exhausted by social class: even what Proust called the “abominable, voluptuous act called ‘reading the paper’” (the consumption of grotesquely varied events over coffee and croissants) is a complex, mediated experience (21); and where culture is concerned, “class condition” is not identical with “social conditioning” (101). Thus the most crucial aesthetic education (the most socially significant and the most difficult to acquire) is not that of the legitimate arts such as painting or music, which can be formally taught, but rather that of “illegitimate” tastes, such as clothing or cookery, widely and erroneously held to be the result of innate “sensibility” (13). Or again, the middle brow contempt for popular culture (Bourdieu’s example is a sugary photograph of a First Communion) is not shared by the “aristocracy” of cultural capital. Ironically coinciding with the most impoverished in education, the “nobles” manifest the acquired disinterestedness of their taste by declaring that “any object can be perceived aesthetically,” however vulgar or banal (39).

As we shall see, both of these points hold for Umbral who prefers to demonstrate his mastery of the finest distinctions of taste in the vulgar fields of fashion and food, rather than in the high arts such as classical music, to which he professes indifference; and whose titles of cultural nobility rest as much on his aestheticization of everyday life [End Page 325] as on his sensitivity to the works of the artistic and political elite. Like...

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pp. 324-338
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