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Spanish Romantic Literary Theory and Criticism.

This book is, in large part, an attempt to rewrite, or at least redirect, the course of Spanish literary history and, more specifically, the Romantic movement. Flitter argues that the twentieth-century dominant view of Spanish Romanticism as a liberal phenomenon is skewed. Instead, he says, we should look to traditional Romantic historicism, with its intellectual roots in certain German thinkers, as the defining principle behind peninsular Romanticism. He suggests that the role of Johann Nikolaus Bohl von Faber, Agustin Duran, Alberto Lista, and Juan Donoso Cortes, writers heavily immersed in Herder, the Schlegels, and other German Romantic thinkers, is far more significant and enduring in Spanish Romanticism than previous literary critics and historians have led us to believe.

Flitter characterizes this historicism as Herder's "historical sense," which is transformed into an "aggressive cultural nationalism" in the writings of the influential Bohl von Faber (and in those of his daughter, Fernan Caballero). Although he highlights Bohl von Faber as a key figure in the movement (see ch. 1), he also stresses his position as an "important pioneer" and links Bohl's ideas with the development of Spanish Romantic thought in later decades. He concludes that "the abundant evidence considered ... reveals the dissemination, in Spain in the 1820s and early 1830s, of a coherent historicist theory of Romanticism. Based upon Schlegelian principles, it was characterised by a stress upon the spiritual power of Christianity, by an idealised vision of the Middle Ages, and by the vindication of Golden-Age Age drama and popular poetry" (p. 48).

Traditional historicism meant a rejection of rationalism, materialism, and religious skepticism, in essence, many of the tenets of the Enlightenment. But it also meant a refusal of irrationalism and of the excesses of Romantic subjectivity as manifestations of the antisocial and the immoral. Thus a writer like Fernando Vera would claim in 1837 that "la mision del romanticismo es santificar al hombre, no desmoralizarlo" (p. 84). And a young Campoamor in the same year and in the same publication, No me olvides, would attack the exaggerated violence and irrationalism of French plays like Dumas' Antony, by saying: "Aunque impugno aqui el romanticismo, no se crea que impugno el romanticismo verdaderamente tal, sino ese romanticismo degradado cuyo fondo consiste en presentar a la especie humana sus mas sangrientas escenas, suenos horrorosos, crimenes atroces, execraciones, delirios y cuanto el hombre puede imaginar de mas barbaro y antisocial ... el romanticismo verdadero tiende a conmover las pasiones del hombre para hacerle virtuoso ... " (p. 84).

The Romanticism that Flitter finds in these and other sources joins this moralistic drive to a new emphasis on contemporary society, as Alcala Galiano's prologue to Rivas's El moro exposito (1833) reveals. Flitter also argues that by 1833 Larra had adopted a similar historicist view, albeit a more progressive one, which tied literature to contemporary society. This "actualizing" of the literary impulse would continue in the next decade. What I find especially pertinent and worthy of further study is the way this view opens up a potentially rich avenue of critical exploration by allowing us to relate historicist Romanticism to costumbrismo and, thus, to the later realists. Fernan Caballero (see ch. 8) is the perfect transitional hinge.

The manner in which historicist Romanticism points simultaneously both to preservation of the past and to revalorization of the present - indeed, the use of the past is sometimes a way either to defend or to reject certain aspects of the present - suggests an implicitly conflicted vision of Spanish society and letters. Flitter, however, does not exploit this particular angle. Because he is so driven to shoot down the liberal thesis of Spanish Romanticism (Shaw, Kirkpatrick, Navas-Ruiz, for example) and to promote in its place a predominantly conservative view (which may very well be the case for Spain), he misses the opportunity to see how traditionalist historicism and liberalism are also intimately bound together by a common preoccupation with contemporary society, with nation building and national identity. The "aggressive cultural nationalism" which characterizes both Bohl von Faber and Bohl's daughter Cecilia also runs through Larra (here, Flitter is quite perceptive) and other liberal Romantics. For all their traditionalism, writers like Bohl, Donoso and Duran could not help but be of their time, infused with a sense of the historical, of change. By setting the two Romantic positions (a simplification already, which Flitter recognizes) in dialectical opposition and privileging one over the other, Flitter doesn't get the big picture.

The smallness of vision has its compensations, of course. One can concentrate in exhaustive detail on ideas and sources often ignored or downplayed; one can establish fertile intellectual linkages previously missed or misunderstood. Flitter does all this admirably well. But by insisting, with good but I think misguided intentions, on what he calls a non-politicizing approach to Spanish Romanticism, he not only creates a narrow-tunneled image of the phenomenon, but he also ignores the politicization which lies within the very heart of Romanticism itself.

Flitter argues that equating Spanish Romanticism with liberalism constitutes a partial view, often reflecting certain politicizing aims on the part of some critics. The ideal is "to arrive at a true and impartial estimate of the character and significance of Spanish Romanticism" (p. 4). Therefore, he begins his study with no "prior definition of Romanticism either as a literary movement or as a wider cultural phenomenon" (p. 3). Flitter is right to reject the view of Spanish Romanticism as genuinely Romantic only when attached to liberalism. He is on shakier ground when he attempts to disengage Romanticism from historical and political events and phenomena, which may or may not be imbricated with Romanticism. But he contradicts himself by then acknowledging that earlier critics like E. Allison Peers failed "to take into account the extra-literary considerations essential to a full understanding of Romanticism" (p. 1).

Flitter does not, however, make altogether clear what constitutes the "extra literary." For him, it appears to be certain ideological and philosophical issues (as seen in the German Romantic thinkers, for example) that can be connected to Romantic literature. But these issues do not exist in a vacuum. Romanticism (or any other -ism) doesn't come to us as a neutral entity; it already comes encoded, inevitably and fatally distorted as seen both in its contemporaneity and from our late twentieth-century perspective. Both Bohl and von Faber and Larra, traditionalists and liberals alike, had political agendas on their mind and inscribed in their writings.

To think that one can "arrive at a true and impartial estimate of the character and significance of Spanish Romanticism" is critically naive. Flitter's critical blindness goes further: by selecting as his point of departure the writings of traditionalists like Bohl von Faber and others he has made an initial choice that influences any subsequent definition of Spanish Romanticism. It is impossible to begin a study by claiming no "prior definition." Think of what he has excluded. Here is just one "brilliant absence": the women Romantics such as Carolina Coronado, Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, Josefa Massanes, and a host of others, amply studied in Susan Kirkpatrick's Las Romanticas. Fernan Caballero is treated in isolation in Flitter's book. In effect, by his own exclusions and by his privileging of certain indisputably key elements of Spanish Romanticism, Flitter also implies a political position in his approach. In rejecting, rightfully I think, the excesses of "politicizing" literature, he steps too far backward to an earlier form of literary history and criticism, one which played isolationist politics by denying the political in literature. We can't do that anymore.

Flitter's book redresses the imbalance created in viewing Spanish Romanticism as exclusively a liberal, even radical project. He offers solid readings and groundwork in his use of the history of ideas and of primary texts. But I cannot help thinking how much more he could have done with "cultural nationalism," a notion fundamental to his analysis, had he enlarged his vision and truly allowed the "historical sense" full play.
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Author:Valis, Noel
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1994
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