- The End Again: Degeneration and Visual Culture in Modern Spain by Oscar E. Vázquez
Reading Oscar E. Vázquez’s excellent The End Again immediately brought to mind Antonio Machado’s “Por tierras de España” (In the Lands of Spain) from his Campos de Castilla (1907–17), a work that I have spent a number of years unpacking with my undergraduate students for the variety of discourses it espouses. In this poem, a speaker contemplates the Castilian landscape directly before his eyes, moving from seemingly detached description of the landscape to a biting diagnosis of the ills befalling a post-1898 “Disaster” Spain—ailments so pervasive they are evidenced on the bodies of the subjects living within this landscape. One of the stanzas reads: “Abunda el hombre malo del campo y de la aldea,/ capaz de insanos vicios y crímenes bestiales,/ que bajo el pardo sayo esconde un alma fea,/ esclava de los siete pecados capitales” (The land and the villages are full of evil men/capable of perverse behaviour and bestial crimes,/ who hide an ugly soul under their dark cloak/like a slave to the seven deadly sins”).1 In class, I ask my students to consider the register of that voice (what is he judging, and why is he so judgmental?), but also the variety of information that seems to accompany the accusations posed herein. Machado’s observer insists on a character connection between man and landscape, as much as he sees in that everyman a generalized outlook on Castille, and Spain as a whole. The poem’s mournful register is weighed down by its stark indictment, which, in one fell swoop, merges references to those bêtes noires of the Catholic faith (the seven deadly sins) and the criminological discourse that was in vogue during the fin-de-siècle, conveying a seamless and problematic connection between physiognomy and behavior.
Machado’s sentiment and thinking in this poem is symptomatic of a pessimism over the country’s modernity that had settled in the minds of Spanish writers and artists of the fin-de-siècle. It was a pessimism that found a set of ripe justifications in the medical and sociological [End Page 893] discourses emerging from other European nations—particularly France and Italy—and that described patterns of moral and physical degeneracy in their populations. While critical histories of this sentiment as it is manifested in literature abound, Vázquez’s The End Again presents an original and necessary window into the question of how the visual arts, in conjunction with writing from the period between the 1870s and the 1920s, interpreted this multifaceted questioning of national character. Scholars and students of modernisms unfamiliar with the multi-region Spanish experience will find this an engaging book that digs down into the contradictions within discourses about modernity. Vázquez is clear in setting up his position vis-à-vis modernism: while the book, he writes, does not “take up anew the question of ‘singular,’ ‘comparative,’ or ‘alternative’ modernities,” The End Again “begins with the premise that there were competing definitions of what was modern or backward in Spain, and they were argued in different languages across multiple regional centers” (12).
This is a necessarily ambitious project, given the problematic nature of “degeneration” as a term in itself: pervasive as it was across the nineteenth century and beyond, this notion tended to align itself with other, somewhat similar ideas like “decay” and “decadence,” which in turn attracted a wealth of scientific, aesthetic, and historical interpretations. For Spanish thinkers in particular, the soul-searching related to the country’s place in the modern world at the dawn of the twentieth century entailed a tricky ethnic and cultural crisis. As Vázquez ably illustrates, degeneration cropped up in all manner of spaces: in medical journals, in political discussions about the nobility (and their lived spaces, from homes to gardens), or the future of the country’s arts. One of the key questions...