1915: Antonio de Hoyos y Vinent
This week I'm thinking about El monstruo, Antonio de Hoyos y Vinent's landmark decadent novel, first published in 1915 but frequently reprinted in the years since.
Antonio de Hoyos y Vinent was born a marquis twice over: both his parents bore noble titles (if not particularly distinguished ones, dating only from the mid-19th century), and although his older brother inherited the patrilineal estate, Antonio assumed his mother's title, not to mention considerable wealth, and when he took up literature as the hobby that most suited him, he flaunted his aristocratic name in the popular press as if in defiance of the deeply conservative parent who had refused to recognize him after he decorated his quarters with half-naked portraits of popular sportsmen. Taking full advantage of the license allowed to the nobility, Hoyos y Vinent was openly gay, and although his writings only occasionally overtly address same-sex desire, they're full of queerness: deviance, contraventions of conventional gender roles, forbidden libidinities, and the perfume of damnation are all over his fiction, which are generally divided for the convenience of scholars between "social" themes, "erotic" themes, and "horror" themes, but which blur the lines between the three constantly. Having achieved the full flower of scandal during World War I, his work had almost nowhere left to go by the 1920s, as the rest of Spanish letters started to catch up with his ornate, pitiless style; and by 1930 he had dedicated himself fully to left-wing politics, becoming part of an anarchist collective and fighting the Falangists (the memorable image of the "marqués rojo" marching to the Madrid barricades in a custom-tailored workman's jumpsuit, with a pistol in his belt and a monocle screwed in his eye, is requisite in any biographical sketch) before being captured and ultimately dying alone, blind, syphilitic, and penniless, in one of Franco's prisons in 1940.
Although he produced over fifty novels and novellas and a dozen short-story collections, El monstruo (The Monster) is probably the best-remembered of his works, perhaps less for its inherent quality than for the sense that after it, he could push his devotion to Decadence to no further extreme: the limit, as it were, had been reached.
The plot is typically slight and overheated: Helena Fiorenzo, a beautiful actress, takes a weak-willed lover (Marcelo Edembroke), and pushes him through ever-descending circles of depravity in various European cities until, like some Old Testament punishment for her wickedness, she discovers that she has been infected with leprosy. She retreats to an opulent palace in the Far East (where her faithful, inscrutable maidservant Edhit was born), assuming the posture of a Christian ascetic, and then finally, as the sickness consumes her, participates in an insane orgy with the Chinese pirates sacking the city, finally condemning Marcelo to her same fate.
As even that brief summary should indicate, the book is full to the brim of breathtakingly virulent racist caricature, taking the Orientalism of the Flaubert of Salammbô and La Tentation de Saint Antoine and expanding it to delirious, fever-dream heights. Not that Hoyos y Vinent's other principal models, French Decadent writers like Huysmans, Lorrain, Mirbeau, and Rachilde, were any less racist: in fact, making the widespread European anxiety about "infection" from the non-Western world an explicit element of the text is if anything clarifying. His rhetorical strategy of associating anything that isn't humdrum bourgeois European modernity with the language of revulsion, degradation, and decay is so consistent and thoroughgoing that it's difficult in the twenty-first century not to read it as parodic, a kind of gross-out black humor rubbing the noses of the imagined bourgeois literary audience in the shit they most fear.
But I'm not defending it: it's too gross to be shrugged off as merely absurd. Helena's naked dance for a sly Moorish guitarist and a brutish Senegalese soldier is so clearly meant to be disgusting on specifically racial terms that only my not-particularly-laudable habit of compartmentalizing pseudo-objectivity could keep me engaged with such a deeply racist text. Hoyos y Vinent's subsequent antifascist bona fides doesn't make the work any less racist (even if it wasn't meant to be malicious, satirical racism is still racism), but they do perhaps encourage a reading of it as modernist rather than "merely" Decadent. Lots of unimpeachably modernist work is hell of racist, of course: what makes it modern is the wholesale rejection, not just the gleeful épatant, of the bourgeois West.
And even though the text reads it as horror — physical, moral, spiritual — that is precisely what Helena does, renouncing the self-sacrificing Catholic mysticism she embraced for three chapters (Hoyos y Vinent heading those three chapters and those three chapters alone with epigraphs from Saint Ignatius rather than the French Decadents is a delicious little irony) and declaring that the only two truths in the world are "gozar y pudrirse" — to enjoy and to decay, or (my choice of phrasing, were I to attempt to translate the novel) pleasure and putrefaction. But the evident relish with which Hoyos y Vinent describes her decaying, pustulent body toward the end of the novel is much greater than the pro forma descriptions of her beauty at the beginning; and indeed putrefaction is far more present in the book than any pleasure.
Which was intentional: in a publicity-stunt 1916 interview with fellow sicalíptico writer José María Carretero (better known by his pen name El Caballero Audaz), Hoyos y Vinent gives the following key to his oeuvre (my translation): "They say my books are immoral. But indeed, there's no voluptuousness in them at all; in my books love is a horrifying and flesh-crawling thing!" Which is precisely true, at least as far as El monstruo goes; but although the text explicitly condemns Helena's fanatical, sadism-beyond-sadism lasciviousness, it's hard to avoid a suspicion that in detailing it so heavily in order to condemn it, Hoyos y Vinent is covertly celebrating all desire which would have been named queer, deviant, perverse, unnatural, or pestilent, and that the macabre, horror-show tragedy of the climax is also readable as a Nietzschean triumph over conventional Western morality.
The censors were right: his books really were immoral.