“The Medusa Archive: Clemente Palma’s “Los ojos de Lina” (1904) and the Horrors of the Female Gaze”

“The Medusa Archive: Clemente Palma’s “Los ojos de Lina” (1904) and the Horrors of the Female Gaze” by Christopher Conway, Journal of Hispanic Modernism (March 2014, Issue 5, 43-52).

The Peruvian Clemente Palma was one of Latin America’s most able practitioners of the Gothic. By Gothic, I mean a Romantic mode of literary expression defined by the uncanny, mystery, terror, and shadowy psychological drama. In the Gothic the subject is not an isolated monad, safely separate from the outside world, but rather an entity manipulated by forces (real or imaginary) that cut against the grain of Enlightenment rationalism (Smith 2-3). As Allan Lloyd-Smith writes: “The Gothic situates itself in areas of liminality, of transition, at first staged literally in liminal spaces and between opposing individuals, but subsequently appearing more and more as divisions between opposing aspects within the self” (Lloyd-Smith 6). This fracturing of the self, or at least the exploration of the self as a changeable and unsettled persona, is understood both literally and figuratively in Gothic literature as a kind of haunting. The genre’s commonplace of ruins, castles, and labyrinths are the traces of the repressed that haunt the conscious self (Hogle 2). This eruption of mystery into the world of the real, of the fantastic into a rational world, challenges both characters and readers to experience fear and uncertainty and to call into question their experience of reality. While it is true that the experience of fear in Romanticism was a generative, creative force, the disquieting fear sown by the Gothic represented forms of excess and extremism that the self could not transcendentally repurpose as something moral and elevated (González Moreno 14). In Latin American literary history, the concept of the Gothic has been less influential than the Fantastic, which, as theorized by Todorov and others, is a broader and more mechanistic/structuralist mode relating to the classification of literary effects as real, marvelous or uncanny. Although undisputably valuable, the Fantastic is too general and formalist to acknowledge the complex, psychological dimensions of fear, especially when speaking of stories inspired by the European Gothic tradition and Edgar Allan Poe. Moreover, as I will show below, most readers of Palma have rarely looked beyond the epistemologies of the real and the unreal to dwell on the psychological and existential themes that the Gothic puts forward.

No other Latin American writer of the fin-du-siecle wrote so many tales that pushed the limits of the nineteenth-century Gothic into the territory of outright terror and science fiction as Clemente Palma. In his short story collections Cuentos malévolos (1904) and Historietas malignas (1925), as well as his novels Mors ex vita (1923) and XYZ (1934), Palma explored vampirism, satanism, altered states of perception, insanity, necrophilia, reincarnation and even the cloning of human beings. However, Palma’s literary recognition was eclipsed by the legendary reputation of his father, Ricardo Palma, the author of the Peruvian Traditions, and by the international reputations of Modernistas like Rubén Darío, José Martí and Enrique Gómez Carrillo. Contemporary critics have been rediscovering Palma over the past few decades, thanks to our interest in exploring gender and power. The Gothic, with its intense psychologism, is an excellent laboratory for exploring the self in relation to the “other,” however this other is defined or constituted.

The focus of this article is one story by Clemente Palma: “Los ojos de Lina,” from Cuentos malévolos (1904). My aim is twofold: to isolate one tale by Palma to showcase its conceptual complexity and to deepen our understanding of his treatment of gender. My argument is that in this story Palma explores man’s fear of woman’s sexuality through a device (Lina’s eyes) that is symbolically tied to the power of the Medusa. The story thus belongs to a well-defined geneaology of texts —a literary and philosophical tradition—that is rooted in exploring the fear of Woman by way of the myth of Perseus and the Medusa. As I explain below, I call this geneaology the “Medusa Archive,” and argue that it is an ideal critical apparatus for defining the text’s treatment of Man’s paralyzing fear of Woman. In short, the Medusa Archive provides us with models for historicizing and theorizing Palma’s representation of Lina.

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