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Ifigenia III

Teresa de la Parra, Ifigenia

And so Teresa de la Parra’s novel ends as the title always indicated that it would: with a sacrifice, and a willing one at that. María Eugenia has at least two opportunities to avoid her fate of an unhappy marriage with César Leal, which she variously describes as a “death sentence” and “hidden slavery” (336). She could take the risky route of eloping with her former suitor Gabriel Olmedo, whose impassioned letter urges her towards an early-morning street-corner assignation, from which he would whisk her to the port and a steamship and on to a voyage of discovery through Europe. She seems about to take up this option, but hesitates as she runs into Aunt Clara while seeking out a suitcase in the darkened house. Then her second chance to escape her fearful destiny comes when, shortly afterwards, she summons Leal to see her, determined to break off the engagement. She has her speech ready: “In the past few days while you have not been here, I have confirmed that I do not love you enough to marry you [. . .]” (331). When the time comes, however, she cannot bring herself to say these words. And again, Aunt Clara has something to do with her unwillingness to follow through: she imagines herself like her, an “old maid,” her beauty long gone and dependent on Uncle Eduardo. At least with Leal she would have a house of her own, a place of asylum.

In any case, the truth is that her fiancé barely lets her get a word in edgewise: his voice is “full of energy and absolutely clear, always knowing what he wants and always saying exactly what he has to” (332). By contrast, María Eugenia ends up without a voice at all: ”he didn’t let me speak, and as he carried on explaining things to me so loquaciously, I didn’t say another syllable, but set to watching him as I sat mute, perplexed, and absent” (333). Far from being the protagonist of the novel of her own life (as she had, at the outset, excitedly exclaimed to her friend Cristina), she is now at best a bystander, at worst a victim of decisions made by others. She has been an object for some time: a commodity for sale. Now, however, she faces the horror of being an object aware of her objectification and the treatment she is undergoing, but without the chance of calling out or doing anything about it. Like the nightmare of the patient on the operating table whose anaesthetic has failed but who cannot move a muscle, any self-awareness she has won only makes everything worse.

Of course, in theory María Eugenia’s options remain open as the book comes to a close: the wedding with Leal is still a week away, and Olmedo, rejecting her negative response to his suggestion as a sham, seems to be offering her one more chance. But one can hardly imagine her making such choices. Indeed, one can hardly imagine her making any choices of any significance at all. To put this another way: if the traditional Bildungsroman is a narrative detailing the birth of the adult subject, through trial and error, experience and gradual self-knowledge, Ifigenia is better described as an inversion of the genre. Here we have a subjectivity that is almost comprehensively dismantled, that enters into utter crisis; and the only knowledge that María Eugenia seems to have gained about herself is the fact of her own unknowability, the otherness that haunts her and that, at the crucial moment, “spoke through my own mouth, took my destiny in its claws, [and] cruelly destroyed it” (328). More broadly, this is a tale of psychic disintegration; as such, it perhaps has more in common with ”The Yellow Wallpaper” than would first appear to be the case. In other words, the essence of María Eugenia’s tragedy has little to do with the fact that she does not (cannot) elope with Gabriel: his paean to natural rights and Romantic freedom hardly disguises the fact that the choice he’s offering her is merely between two forms of patriarchal subjugation.

Our would-be heroine’s tragedy, rather, concerns the nearly catatonic state, dominated by fear and anxiety, to which she succumbs by the end. She is unable to achieve liberal subjectivity and personhood, and at the same time has failed to establish any alternative path. She has failed, for instance, to write her way out of her predicament: the literary project that at first seemed to offer some kind of liberation finally loses its way. María Eugenia tells us that this novel’s final chapter is also her adieu to writing: it’s the “final page of [her] spiritual life” (315). What had begun as gossipy and jocular confidences to a far-flung friend has by the end taken on the tone of a suicide note: when she drops the suitcase, signifying that eloping is no longer an option, she describes herself as “forsaken and suicidal” (329); later she says she is “pale, lifeless, hollow-eyed, almost ugly” (331; of course, that “almost” indicates the hook with which her anxiety has snared her). This novel that is obsessed with the idea of “life” in all its various connotations (a span of time as well as a form of intensity) ends up being the tale of a woman consigned to what Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life.” This is the sacrificial logic of the modern-day Iphigenia, who chooses oblivion only because all other choices are impossible or unimaginable, and what remains is mere habit.


Ifigenia II

Teresa de la Parra, Ifigenia

It turns out that writing can be addictive. Teresa de la Parra’s heroine, María Eugenia, finishes off her long letter to her friend Cristina de Iturbide, only immediately to then embark on a diary however much she thinks (as she tells us) that this is “a great foolishness, [. . .] a kitsch Romanticism, out of date and very much out of fashion” (83). For someone who values fashion and being fashionable as much as María Eugenia does, it’s quite something that she should take up a practice that’s so clearly unfashionable. She can barely even give a name to what she’s doing: “it will be like what in novels they call a ‘diary’” (83). But the urge to write is stronger than the desire to keep up with the latest trends. It’s as though she can’t help herself: once she’s taken up the pen, she can’t put it down. It’s not fully in her control.

What follows, and what therefore opens the diary, is a reflection on how what we think (our convictions) and what we do (our conduct) can get out of synch. You would have thought that conviction and conduct should go hand in hand: we think something, and then we act on our thoughts. But far from it. María Eugenia thinks to write a diary is kitsch and passé, but she does it anyway: writing has become a custom or “habit” (84), and habits are hard to kick. But there are other ways and other reasons for there to be a slippage between belief and behavior: our actions may be only “acting,” for instance; a performance that doesn’t necessarily reveal our true natures. We act otherwise than we feel for motives both good and bad, and at times it can be hard to tell the difference: we might be trying to deceive or merely trying to fit in; we may be being underhand, or simply polite. Or we may feel ashamed about some secret that we feel the need to hide, so as not to expose ourselves to ridicule or humiliation.

All these situations, and more, are explored in Ifigenia. For instance, María Eugenia confesses (if only to herself, in her diary) that lying has also become a habit, which has taken root in her with surprising “speed and reach” (97). Hence she has few qualms about telling her grandmother that she and her new friend, Mercedes Galindo, will be dining alone when in fact the whole purpose of the dinner is to meet the long-awaited Gabriel Olmedo, who has been set up as a potential suitor. One might ask, moreover, of the habit of dissimulating and the habit of writing are not connected in some way: however much María Eugenia began her letter to Cristina with the assertion that she couldn’t lie when she wrote (3), it has become clear that there’s nothing straightforward about putting something down on paper, not least when almost all the terms and feelings are somehow themselves borrowed from literary sources.

Take for instance the love letter that is embedded within María Eugenia’s diary. This is a missive that she spontaneously decides to compose, while out and about with her young cousin Pedro José (Perucho). She addresses it to Olmedo, whom she has now met and with whom she has, so she believes, almost instantly fallen in love. And she writes it (much to her grandmother and aunt’s later distress) en plein air, with her knees for a desk, and “feverishly [. . . with] the mad sincerity of all those ardent and silent love letters that are never sent” (164). In theory, this should be the most honest of missives, written in the heat of the moment and without regard for audience or schoolroom niceties. But it turns out to be extraordinarily stylized and affected, with extended metaphors that compare her putative beloved alternatively to Jesus (“You are the sweet Messiah of my soul” [165]) and Solomon of the Song of Songs. Or put this another way: if María Eugenia were trying to avoid kitsch Romanticism, here she spectacularly fails. This most sincere and honest of letters is in fact the creation of supremely literary habits of reading. What’s more, it’s clearly also the product of a rather hyper-active imagination and fantasy of what it must be like to fall in love. When it turns out that Gabriel has gone off and gotten engaged to someone else, we can’t but think that (for now, at least) María Eugenia has dodged a bullet.

So we have more than a mere slippage between thought and deed, emotion and expression, and more broadly essence and appearance. We have a thorough upending of all these overlapping distinctions. Performance and fidelity, fakery and authenticity, representation and the real, are all increasingly hard to tell apart, or rather increasingly seem to change places. Mercedes’s boudoir, to take another example, is both an intimate site for the exchange of confidences between women (such as Mercedes’s confession about her unhappy marriage) and also a cushion-filled imitation–or, better, fantasy–of some kind of Oriental antechamber. It’s a place where femininity is sacrosanct, but also where Mercedes and María Eugenia can try out otherwise “masculine” practices such as smoking a cigarette; it’s moreover a transitional space where femininity (and modernity) is itself constructed, through make-up and clothing and the like. In short, Teresa de la Parra is interested both in the psychic spatiality of transnational gender relations, trading off Paris with Caracas, writing and speech, public and private, ornament and utility, and so on, all around the basic division of inside and outside, essence and appearance. But she is equally concerned with the tipping points at which inside becomes outside, essence becomes appearance: the strategic moments when everything, however briefly, is turned inside-out, upside-down.


Ifigenia I

Teresa de la Parra, Ifigenia

Teresa de la Parra’s Ifigenia: Diario de una señorita que escribió porque se fastidiaba gives us women’s writing twice over: not only is de la Parra herself a woman writer, so is her protagonist, María Eugenia Alonso. Indeed, almost the entirety of the book is presented as María Eugenia’s writing, in diverse genres, the first section being a letter from Venezuela to her friend, Cristina de Iturbe, whom she last saw in France. Or, as the section heading has it, it is “a very long letter in which things are told as they are in novels” (3). Which, however, interestingly distinguishes protagonist from author: if Teresa de la Parra is writing a novel, her heroine by contrast writes something that is (only?) like a novel. She is, in short, a woman writing but perhaps not really a “woman writer” or “author,” someone defined by and recognized for what she writes. As the novel’s subtitle suggests, writing is important and yet also somehow only a phase for María Eugenia: she is a “young lady who wrote because she was bored.” This indicates that writing is some kind of psychological escape or relief. But on the other hand, if she had not been bored, perhaps she would not have written; and the use of the past tense implies that she no longer writes. In short, the novel offers the possibility of an investigation into why (Latin American) women write, and why they don’t, and what stops them from becoming “writers” or authors (authorities?) in the fullest sense of the term.

María Eugenia opens her long letter to her friend by apologizing for the fact that she has not written. Her first line is: “At last I’m writing to you,” as though writing were the culmination of a lengthy process, here much delayed. She then refers immediately to a long letter that she had “thought to write you from Paris, and which I already began to draft in my head” (3). So the letter we’re reading is a delayed compensation or replacement for a letter that was never written (except in its would-be author’s head). In lieu of that letter, Cristina has so far written no more than postcards–and it’s clear that for María Eugenia, these don’t really count; we certainly have no idea what they may have said. We do, however, have a sense of what an earlier letter might have contained: if she had written while she was still en route between Paris and Venezuela, it would have been full of the optimism she felt at the time. And though María Eugenia claims she doesn’t know how to lie when she writes, arguing therefore that writing is somehow more honest than the spoken word, an optimistic letter would have been profoundly deceptive.

For the surprising truth that María Eugenia has discovered on her return home to the land of her birth is that her riches and privilege were all illusory: everything has been spent and/or stolen; she is dependent on the generosity of her family; and she finds herself practically confined to her grandmother’s house in Caracas, her only possible salvation a good marriage to an eligible bachelor. This is the situation she has now to confess through writing, though she also recognizes that there is something entertaining about the tale of her decline and fall: it’s “not so much humiliating as picturesque, interesting, and somewhat medieval” (3). In short, her life has come to approximate a Gothic romance: a classically feminine (and often derided) genre in which defenceless damsels routinely find themselves incarcerated in an unfamiliar environment, hoping for a dashing young man to save them. María Eugenia can write the story of her life as though it were a novel because there is now something novelistic about it. It is as though she were acting out a script, something that has already been written down, and yet the disappointment of economic distress is tempered, if not redeemed, by its aestheticization, by the fact that her plight can at least be represented and recorded, albeit in a derivative language and structure, borrowed from popular culture.