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  • Góngora's Soledades and the Problem of Modernity

Cory A. Reed, Crystal Anne Chemris, Góngora's Soledades and the Problem of Modernity, Luis de Góngora, Soledades, Baroque Literature, Poetry, Spanish Literature, Modernity, Epistemology, Subjectivity, Fragmentation

Crystal Anne Chemris . Góngora's Soledades and the Problem of Modernity. Woodbridge: Tamesis, 2008. 174 + xx pages.


This monograph focuses concisely and with exceptional clarity on Luis de Góngora's most complex and enigmatic work, arguing that the Soledades consciously breaks with existing literary models to articulate a baroque expression of modernity. Throughout her study, Chemris builds on the foundational contributions of John Beverley, Mary Gaylord, Paul Julian Smith, and other scholars [End Page 111] who have revisited the Soledades, in order to conceptualize the work as "an aesthetic response to the crisis of early modernity" (xv) rather than as a historicist or materialist artifact. Localizing the text in a period of epistemological crisis, Chemris carefully analyzes the literary tropes and poetic structures of the work to demonstrate how they reflect artistically the issues of fragmentation, subjectivity, and ontological insecurity that characterized the loss of the medieval worldview and the advent of the modern (1).

The book's introduction deftly sets the parameters of the study and localizes the Soledades in the context of the Renaissance aesthetic of individualism and the "solitude of individual consciousness" (19) expressed in literary works at the beginning of the Spanish Golden Age. Chemris reads La Celestina as a prototype that offers a critical breakdown of the courtly love tradition and evokes self-destruction, meaninglessness, and an absence of moral order reflecting a historical moment of change and uncertainty. She then continues to trace similar motifs and meanings in the poetry of Boscán and Garcilaso de la Vega, demonstrating in the eclogues and sonnets an increased interiority and emotional estrangement of the subject, the fragmentation of the body, and an escapist impulse that moves these Renaissance poets away from conventional modes of lyric emotional expression. Taken as a whole, the innovations of La Celestina, Boscán, and Garcilaso create a foundation upon which Góngora would build in order to express poetically a consciousness of "the Baroque crisis of self " (19).

Chapter 1 elaborates on this concept of crisis with a discussion of the emergent rationalist and empiricist worldviews and the declining Scholastic Aristotelian mode of knowledge. Utilizing an especially pithy phrase from Paulo Rossi, Chemris characterizes the failing, outdated episteme as a "sacerdotal conception of knowledge" (21) which gives way to more subjective approaches in understanding reality at the dawn of the Cartesian era. The literature of this period, Chemris argues, is fraught with textual contradictions that echo the crisis of the times. In the Soledades, she identifies ambivalences of genre, tone, syntax, and semantics as examples of this consciousness of crisis. This interpretation views the Gongorine silva as a mixed generic form, caught between epic and lyric conventions, and representing a modernization of Petrarchan lyricism. This juxtaposition of high/serious and low/burlesque enables a self-reflexivity and self-critical tonality that approaches what Smith has termed the "axiological nihilism" of La Celestina (42). A syntactical ambivalence is likewise visible in Góngora's manipulation of word order conventions to parallel the difficult process of human perception. A semantic ambiguity, with its rhetoric of absence and defense of obscurity, establishes the Soledades as a work of crisis at all levels of organization (49–50).

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 are short studies that focus on imagery of violence, human perception, and ruptured boundaries of time and space, respectively, as examples of the characteristic disorder of Góngora's work. An intensive scrutiny of the poem's mythological rape imagery and its relationship to wounds, the hunt, and the "cruel decorativeness" evoked by such images as bleeding jewels (61) reveals "the real horrors of equating violent conquest with love" (60), bridging literary aesthetics and the historical context of Spanish imperialism. Góngora's critique of sexual violence leads Chemris to read a broader commentary on the [End Page 112] "process of epistemological and aesthetic mediation" in the Soledades (72). Chemris writes, "The Soledades thus portrays human thought, our capacity to perceive and to represent, as inherently solipsistic, revealing more about the nature of the self than about the reality it attempts to apprehend" (76). She interprets the text's reflexivity, cultivated style, images of subjectivity, telescopic and microscopic viewpoints, and the breakdown of boundaries of perception as a Gongorine celebration of the power of the human mind "in an imaginary transcendence of the restrictions of the human condition upon knowledge" (81). The prevalent images of epistemological instability, particularly those related to time and space, further question the established limits of knowledge and perception by playing on apocalyptic traditions, messianic beliefs, and Spanish baroque culture's obsession with mudanza and the passage of time.

The longest of the book's five chapters is also the last, which proposes that Góngora's poetics be considered a "New Poetry" that anticipates many of the structures, themes, and aesthetic concerns arising later in the modern age. As the introduction previously identified antecedents to Gongorismo in the literature of early Renaissance Spain, this final chapter provides a sort of structural symmetry to the study by analyzing twentieth-century Latin American poets whose works show marked indebtedness to Gongora's baroque representation of crisis. Chemris contends that it is no accident that writers of the last century rediscovered the baroque aesthetic; the ontological crisis articulated by Góngora finds its natural affinity in the subjective vision of twentieth-century poetry. This chapter offers some of the closest readings in the book, both of Góngora (the chapter no longer rests its analysis on the Soledades, but includes the Polifemo and other works as well) and those of Octavio Paz and César Vallejo, most often by way of comparison to Mallarmé and Symbolist poetry. The analysis here, as elsewhere in the book, is persuasive and concise, but this longer chapter curiously seems somewhat removed from the central focus of the first 100 pages. As elsewhere, Chemris is subtle and sophisticated in her expansion of Góngora's poetics of modernity, and her skillful analysis makes the comparison between Góngora's fragmented lyric subject and later poetic movements seem self-evident, but the chapter perhaps says more about those other poets, relegating Góngora to a subordinate position in the service of a more recent episteme. Her final point, however, joins the two periods (and their critics and writers) in an optimistic search for "a future beyond the terrible contradictions of the legacy of modernity" (142) that effectively emphasizes commonalities in modern thought as expressed in the age's earliest poetic works as well as its most recent.

Overall, this monographic study of Góngora's Soledades succeeds and makes a substantial, original contribution to the field with its well-conceived analysis of an early modern poetics of crisis. The study is a model of concise writing and clear exposition of complex literary and epistemological issues. Chemris does forego a substantive consideration of the historical and social contexts she describes, relying summarily on Maravall for her conception of the baroque, on John Elliott (whose name, incidentally, is misspelled in footnotes and in the bibliography) for history, and on what other literary critics have said about the early modern crisis instead of citing additional sources or examples from Góngora's time. This is a minor complaint, however, and it is beyond the scope of [End Page 113] the present monograph, which is focused on the aesthetic manifestation of the early modern episteme rather than the events in the realms of technology, science, religion, and philosophy that ushered in this remarkable era of change.

Cory A. Reed
The University of Texas at Austin

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