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“Refractions of Queer Iberia: Post-Francoist Peninsular Camp”
Leora Lev, Bridgewater State College


I’d like to sketch some of the multitudinous pathways opened by Queer Iberia for twenty-first-century Spanish Studies, and the tapestried resonances between issues raised by this brilliant and pioneering scholarly enterprise and that of contemporary writers, visual artists and cultural critics who also queer Iberia in ways that are both contemporary and uncannily familiar. I hope to gesture toward some of the fruitful, and perhaps surprising, consonances between Queer Iberia’s project of exposing a rigid Inquisitional logic which, paradoxically, both underwrites medieval and Renaissance Iberian identities (linguistic, cultural, ethnic, theological, gendered, sexed, etc.) and is undermined by the latter; and the impetus of queer post-Francoist literary and visual artists who allude to Inquisitional logic as a means of linking it to Francoist thinking. Contemporary figures such as Lluís Fernàndez, Terenci Moix, Carlos Varo, Juan Goytisolo, Miss Shanghai Lily and Pedro Almodóvar weave connections between dark hegemonic moments in Spanish history as a means of envisioning new identities, social structures and political possibilities that depart from the dichotomized hierarchies of cultural value encoded within Inquisitional logic and its institutional laws.

These writers and filmmakers create an idiosyncratic camp aesthetic that probes, unsettles and reconstructs regional, national, cultural and gender histories within a post-Francoist Spain. This aesthetic performs a celebratory dismantling of the Inquisitional and Francoist logic that has underwritten official histories of absolutism, surveillance and self-other ontologies that privilege a self who is castellano, Catholic, heterosexual and male over a series of tainted “others”: catalán, Semitic, homosexual, female, Latin American. I do not mean to suggest that Inquisitional hegemonies can be conflated with their fascist counterparts, or that twentieth-century militaristic fascism can be mapped wholesale onto the oppression of Inquisitional institution and law, or that the Francoist firing squad is reducible to the auto-da-fé. However, these writers do unveil and identify consonances between Francoist fascism (and the ideological agenda that it set forth as a means of controlling Spanish social-political configurations during the dictadura) and an unyielding Inquisitional logic that similarly informed social mores, law and culture during the period encompassed by Queer Iberia.

Complementarily, these authors position clandestine or marginal-ized histories center stage and hypothesize a post-Francoist future of permeable identities shifting toward, to borrow from Michael Warner, a productively queer planet. They do so by elaborating a camp aesthetic that reconstitutes suppressed histories, and that both converges with and diverges from its Anglo-American counterpart. They often enlist transvestism and transsexualism as poetic tropes to redress Inquisitional ideologies in a camp performance that slips from the giddy to a grand guignol carnage sharing affinities with the grotesque of Velázquez, Quevedo, Goya, Dalí and Buñuel. The frothy fun of cross-dressing is cut with a strychnine dose of violence, of bodily and textual dismemberment and disfigurement. The interstitial liberatory moments, while remaining peculiar to a contemporary post-Francoist moment, are also resonant with the queer spaces that, as Queer Iberia essayists have shown, marginal Iberians carved for themselves even amidst an existence sketched in the grey contours of Inquisitional law.

I’ll limit myself to looking at Carlos Varo’s 1987 novel Rosa mystica, whose queering operations, like those of the aforementioned writers, are both eerily and felicitously resonant with those of the essays in Queer Iberia. Rosa mystica deploys an elaborate aesthetic to foreground the constructedness of all identities naturalized as immutable and divinely sponsored by Peninsular theological and cultural mythologies. Varo destabilizes identities fixed in dichotomous pairs by fascist or neo-colonialist thinking: holiness and blasphemy; masculinity and femininity; homosexuality and heterosexuality; limpieza de sangre and Semitic sangre manchada; Peninsular and Latin American. Varo’s destruction of the fascist boundaries that separate these categories yields new possibilities for post-Francoist and transnational subjectivities and identities. The latter are emblematized by the two protagonists of Rosa mystica: the eponymous fin de siglo Spanish hermaphrodite turned beautiful, mysterious, founder-in-drag of a convent for wayward women, and Divina, a puertorriqueño street tough named “Juniol” who is transmuted into Divina, an international transsexual celebrity. Connections between these two protagonists’ narratives cross-reference Spanish, Puerto Rican and North African transnational, cultural and gender identities against a nationalist rhetoric that would binarize them as discrete. This continual defamiliarization and recontextualization, further, enacts the paradox that Moe Meyer articulates in his axiomatic on camp, which makes queer identity visible and present through parodic performances of precisely those heterosexist structures and scenarios that render queerness invisible (5).

Varo enlists a lush, high modernista prose to evoke the trajectory of Rosa Mystica, born at the turn of the nineteenth century, and a first-person puertorriqueño Spanglish to tell the tale of Juniol/Divina. These heteroglossic, allusive discourses mirror the labyrinthine trajectories of the two disparate characters. Here, as in Juan Goytisolo or Lluís Fernàndez, linguistic cross-dressing highlights that which fascist and neo-colonialist ideologies would submerge: the shifting boundaries between abjection and epiphany, blasphemy and holiness, perversion and normalcy. The mystic epiphanies of San Juan are cross-referenced with the corporeal prison excesses of Jean Genet; both experiences are shown to nourish and correspond to each other in a manner that recalls the linguistic ribaldry explicated by Louise Vasvári as core to the Libro de buen amor. Like Fernàndez, Varo re-constructs the theological mythologies that form the basis of Spanish culture: “¿Sería blasfemo interpretar la Trinidad como una mítica alegoría homofílica? El Padre se mira, se conoce y se ama en el Espejo de su con-Ciencia y engendra al Logos, el verbo. Su Amor recíproco se hace también Persona, el Espíritu Santo, Paloma de Fuego. Ménage à trois” (145). This reformulation of the theological explications of the mysteries of the Trinity reveals the bias that is both inherent in theogical stories and submerged from heteronormative fascist consciousness: that holiness and heterosexuality are mutually reinforcing ideological constructs.

The essentialist myths that constitute the Marian cult are likewise denaturalized: “La iglesia, a falta de esa diosa de tantas religiones orientales, entroniza en su nicho vacío a María, y la inviste de la doble y mágica condición de Virgen y Madre, pero no de Hembra” (141). As contemporary feminist and cultural critics from Marsha Kinder to Mary Daly have shown, the medieval Marian cult is an ideological foundation of a whore/madonna dichotomy in which femininity is idealized and de-eroticized through the icon of a female body that is immaculately impregnated by the grace of God. This cultural fantasy both apotheosizes and reduces femininity to a vessel that nurtures the son of a male-identified god within a masculinist, theological patrilineage. The virgin’s counterpart is, of course, the vampiric, lascivious whore who lives only to ruin men through her own blasphemous sexual appetite; Mary and the still unrepentant Magdalen, Eve and Lilith, Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the characters played by Glenn Close and Ann Archer in Fatal Attraction, and on.

Instead of naturalizing the ideologies that nourish the Marian cult, the novel valorizes Muslim culture, and the significance within it of sensuality and the ephebe, while also exposing the eroticism that underlies much of Catholic spectacle. Rosa Mystica’s fetishizing as a beautiful young boy by the nuns, monks and villagers who cast him as a star in religious spectacles mirrors the fetishizing of the handsome young Puerto Rican “Juniol” by the other prisoners for whom he becomes, in a Genetian power hierarchy, “mami” and “mujel”. Likewise, nationalist ideologies of empire and boundary are dismantled by the very body of Juniol, who has now become Divina: “a veces pienso si de verdad tuve un hijo. ¿Qué soy yo, su padre o su madre? Que a veces pienso que yo soy como el Estado Libre de Puerto Rico: ni canne ni pescao” (133). This indeterminacy and self-fashioning within the interstices of machista puertorriqueño culture, as well as the imperialist impetus that still underwrites some Castilian thinking about its Caribbean ex-colonies, are reminiscent of the ingenuity of Eleno/a de Céspedes, as explicated in Queer Iberia by Israel Burshatin.

The arbitrariness and constructedness of Inquisitional and fascist ideologies of religion, gender and nation are revealed and resisted by Varo and contemporaries from Lluís Fernàndez to Pedro Almodóvar with a violent retooling of bodily contours. Masculinity is redefined through the looking-glass of certain Muslim homoerotic practices in which the homosexual/heterosexual divide is less significant than is the location of masculinity in the active, rather than passive, performance of sodomy; or the Genetian prison microcosm of the macho who takes another man as his hembra. Both femininity and bodily sex are shown to be ever-shifting constructs that can be attained, reassigned, or broken down by the subject in question. For Rosa Mystica and Divina, the pleasure yielded by their new, or undecidable, body parts only highlights the constructedness of gender identity; the physical accoutrements, maquillage, props, prostheses and demeanors are shown to be just those, supports naturalized by society as feminine or masculine, hetero- or homosexual.

At stake in Rosa mystica, then, is not accession to some immutable, essential identity, but the right to pursue whichever version of gender, political, national, or cultural identity that, for whatever complicated matrix of reasons, yields pleasure and meaning to the subject. Personal agency is not easily separable from the politico-cultural, psychosexual, socio-economic and historic epistemes that constitute these characters. But perhaps it can be located, suggests Varo, in the willful decision of which identity to appropriate, perform, or embroider within the crawlspace of fascist ideologies. Inquisitional and Francoist ideologies have, in turn, given way to new dangers of a cannibalistic, corporatized society of the spectacle in which performance can become yet another glossy product to be sold for profit. Yet this camp aesthetic, eschewing both feel-good political utopianism and bleak, cynical nihilism, re-hypothesizes new possibilities for queer and feminist self-constructions that avoid the landmines of fascist agendas. This is a dangerous but liberating aesthetic, whose rewards and risks are articulated by Lluís Fernàndez’ character Eugenio in El anarquista desnudo: “El precio de la libertad siempre es una u otra clase de cáncer.... Sumergir la ciudad con la pornografia de nuestros cuerpos ... habrá ruidos de vida o silencio de muerte” (86).

Queer Iberia illuminates the byzantine and artful intricacies of such refashionings, such productive crossings over of regional, cultural, linguistic, gendered, theological and physiological boundaries. In enabling a critical unveiling of postmodernist camp spectacles’ resonances with Renaissance resistance to Inquisitional logic, the volume brings into indispensable polylogue crucial moments in Iberia’s secret histories across time. Queer Iberia continues to envision fruitfully perverse disciplinary hybrids and recombinations that signal new life for twenty-first-century Iberian Studies.


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© 2019 · La corónica
A Journal of Medieval Hispanic Languages, Literatures, and Cultures
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