Academic journal article Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

Del 'Hernán Cortés del Género Femenino': Imperial and Other Conquests in Cartas Marruecas

Academic journal article Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

Del 'Hernán Cortés del Género Femenino': Imperial and Other Conquests in Cartas Marruecas

Article excerpt

'All nationalisms are gendered; all are invented; and all are dangerous' (McClintock 1997: 89) - Anne McClintock's compelling observation provides a fitting entrée into an analysis of José de Cadalso's Cartas marruecas (1774). The invented nature of this epistolary novel and, by extension, its subject - 'el carácter nacional, cual lo es en el día y cual lo ha sido' (148) - is on display from the very first self-referential pages of the text. The prologue nods admiringly to literary forebears such as Montesquieu's Lettres persanes, Marana's L'Espion turc, and Goldsmith's Chinese Letters and engages in a Cervantine game of authorial hideand-seek. The gendering of the national imaginary in the narrative is equally conspicuous. The editor/implied author is male, as are his implied readers. The three correspondents who share their critique of the Spanish nation are male. The hombre de bien, or the Enlightenment model of the virtuous citizen of the world whom editor and correspondents alike laud and strive to incarnate, is by definition male. And the Spanish conquistador, heralded throughout the letters and typified by Cortés in America and Cisneros in Africa, is the hyper-masculine embodiment of past imperial glory. Women, on the other hand, play a substantive role in only ten of the ninety letters that comprise Cartas marruecas. The onset of Spain's national decline is traced to the ascension of Juana la Loca to the throne. And both the feminized petimetre and 'feminine' vices of frivolity and luxury are associated with the contemporary ills that beset Spain, such as depopulation, weak manufacturing, and the decomposition of family bonds.

The relative exclusion of female characters in a narrative claiming to appraise the national character, even as in Cadalso's lifetime women's increasingly active public role constituted one of the most significant alterations in traditional custom, is a striking omission and one that implicitly reinforces the gendering of national agency as male. Michael Iarocci has eloquently shown that To que no se dice' (1997: 162) in Cartas marruecas is as fundamental to the text's potential interpretations as its explicit utterances. Iarocci is concerned with the ways in which the silences arising from the epistolary form (the lapses in time between one letter and another, the allusions to missing letters, the unspoken reflection of one correspondent upon the missive of another, or of the editor upon the arrangement of the letters) point to an extra-textual reality whose implied stability contrasts with the instability and artifice of language, a theme explicitly evoked in Cartas marruecas and a philosophical and linguistic topos in the eighteenth century. We would extend this insight about silences in the novel by affirming that omissions with respect to the category of gender are as influential to its construction of nation as what it includes.

When Cartas marruecas does portray women, the portrayals are disproportionately negative, an inclusion that acts as a form of exclusion. Oblique erotic metaphor in the text associates America with the feminine, describing Spain's relations with the continent in terms reminiscent of amorous conquest, and representing America as a geographical body suitable for exploitation and domination. Direct metaphor associates contemporary Spanish women with America and extends to them the American continent's subordinate status at a time when women's social advances had put traditional gender inequalities in question. Through a motif of invasion, conquest, and subjugation the text further develops these metaphorical associations by figuring their outcome. By situating the American Other on the Spanish mainland, the narrative implies that Spain's dominance has been diminished, leaving it vulnerable to the type of invasion and overthrow of which it had once been master. The Spanish home is the metaphorical site of infiltration, made accessible by new social customs and altered gender roles that encourage socializing between the sexes and invest women with greater authority. …

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