From Antigone to Creon: 
Traditional Masculine Models 
in the Poetry of Alfonsina Storni 
and Rosario Castellanos

March 17, 2013 // by tania

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Published in: Identity, Nation and Discourse: Latin American Women Writers and Artists, Newcastle, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009.

 

To Elisenda, who passed onto me

her passion for Zambrano’s Antigone.

 

Antigone, Sophocles’ tragic heroine who was condemned to death by her own uncle Creon due to her wish to give a proper burial to her brother Polynices–whom according to social laws she loved too much–is a myth which has been interpreted on a number of occasions by various thinkers. As we know, the fatal destiny of the characters in Greek tragedies is the result of destabilising acts; they dare to exceed the limits imposed upon the mortals by the Gods, they commit hubris–“excess”, “imbalance”. According to Sophocles’ text, Antigone’s hubris lies in the love that dominates her, a love of such magnitude and scope that it cannot be accepted by society since accepting it would weaken its own foundations. Her excessive love defies both human and divine laws and therefore, Antigone must die. Even though later interpretations of the myth differ in several aspects,1 all of them coincide in that they underline Antigone’s audacity due to the fact that she is a woman. This is precisely the reason why Creon is so inflexible when confronting the challenge of a woman who behaves like a man:

 

So we must vindicate the law; we must not be

Defeated by a woman. Better far

Be overthrown, if need be, by a man

Than to be called the victim of a woman. (Sophocles 1998, 24)

 

This analysis will begin with the interpretation of the Antigone myth by the Andalusian philosopher María Zambrano. I will then move on to comment on some poems by Alfonsina Storni and Rosario Castellanos where the poetic I becomes a kind of Zambranian Antigone who tries to shape or establish a communication with different versions of man, or with diverse representations of the traditional masculine values. These traditional values form a centre of reference from which the authors were marginalized and, in some extreme occasions, relegated to a metaphoric grave, as also happened to Antigone herself. However, being consigned to this anguish-ridden space has enabled them to look to their inner selves in order not only to interpret human relationships, but also to ask themselves: if men have traditionally been the reference point, is it possible for women to establish a non-hierarchical affective and intellectual relationship with them?

***

María Zambrano’s philosophical proposal defends what she called “poetic reason”. For Zambrano, reason is one of the highest human capacities, but not the only one. From her Cuban exile, she contributed to the innovation of the Spanish intellectual scene of her time, and proposed a new type of philosophical approach which attempted to incorporate another type of knowledge into the rationalist epistemological method. This was an intuitive, emotional and aesthetic knowledge, a knowledge that is not only born of reason but also of the mysterious and hidden domain of the poetic revelation; something that is not definable in empirical terms. In other words, it is a method that tries to give a voice to those hidden levels of reality in order to “ir llevando el sentir a la inteligencia” (Zambrano 1989, 93). It attempts to use delirium, loneliness or crying as catalysts to achieve knowledge of the private and the secret. It is a knowledge that is born from the etymological sense of passion, that is, from pathos: “capacidad de sufrir”. According to Zambrano, this new knowledge must be incorporated into the purely rational one in order to revitalise and widen the function of philosophy as well as to try to elevate it through the poetic word. Her Antigone is shaped around these philosophical premises.

María Zambrano wrote two pieces about the character: “Delirio de Antígona” and La tumba de Antígona.2 In both versions, Antigone is saved from her death by philosophy, that is, she moves away from the destiny Sophocles imposes on her (suicide by hanging). This is justified in the text by Zambrano, who wonders: “¿Podía Antígona darse muerte, ella que no había dispuesto nunca de su vida?” (Zambrano 1986, 2001). By contrast, Zambrano gives Antigone the crucial time she needs to be able to acquire self-consciousness. Thus, through these texts Zambrano describes Antigone’s poetic-philosophical journey towards those “oscuras cavernas del sentido” (1948b, 7). The reader witnesses this descent when Antigone enters her own grave, that intermediate space between death and life and–through a ritual process characterised by pain, loneliness and delirium that finally allows her a different and more authentic perspective on life–she is reborn, she reveals her soul and, finally, she rebels. The life she had not lived until that moment awakes; she is. In other words, Zambrano gives Antigone a chance to live, to develop a different idea of desire, to express her love in a visible way through the poetic word, through a process that will make that love intelligible both to Antigone and to the readers. This heroine represents the crisis, the questioning of the universal character of the social norms that impose the terms on which legitimate love should be recognized. This is precisely the reason why Antigone must be eliminated, according to the supporters of such norms. However, Zambrano’s Antigone embodies a type of love that transcends binary oppositions; it goes beyond the hierarchies that regulate both private and collective life. Thus, Antigone becomes a reinvented archetype; she is the founder of a new lineage of nonconformist beings who will devote themselves to their hidden dreams, to the hope of a New Law.

The new type of knowledge proposed by Zambrano arises from the factors denominated as “pathical” (pathis) which are connected to the experience of feeling and suffering. Thus, Zambrano places this knowledge: "En un orden anterior al meramente teórico, en el orden del corazón, en el orden cordial, el lugar de la auténtica comprensión de la existencia, pues sentirse siendo, sentir el propio acto de ser, constituye la primera forma de autoconcienca, de descubrimiento de uno mismo." (Gómez Blesa 2004, 16)  Roland Barthes expresses a similar opinion in A Lover’s Discourse (1977): "The subject (since Christianity) is the one who suffers: where there is a wound, there is a subject (…) and the deeper the wound, at the body’s center (at the “heart”), the more the subject becomes a subject: for the subject is intimacy (…). Such is love’s wound: a radical chasm (at the “roots” of being), which cannot be closed, and out of which the subject drains, constituting himself as a subject in this very draining." (1996, 434)  In other words, the recognition of what takes place in the interior affective domain permits the growth of the transcendent aspects that will shape the subject as such. This is the domain where the self establishes its deepest relationships with itself, from and within intimacy, and therefore the subject discovers herself, becomes conscious of her persona, she exists.

As previously stated, Zambrano’s Antigone–not Sophocles’–enters her own grave and transforms the suffering, her love causes her into something intelligible, which brings as a consequence her self-discovery. Hence, she becomes a full and active subject. It is this reinterpretation of Antigone that can be related to the poetic I found in Storni and Castellanos.3

Thus, the poetic I of both Storni and Castellanos descend to the inferno and, from that experience of pain, they adopt a position that allows them to break down traditional forms of loving and the conventional codes of masculinity.4 The poets analyse both their female condition and the prejudices that surround that condition with the intention of outlining a different paradigm of the female being. Storni exemplifies the first representation of the modern woman, the one who freely expresses her desires and her identity. Castellanos embodies the woman who breaks the mirror in which she has seen herself reflected in order to invent a new feminine image free from inherited codes. Three common aspects can be identified in their poetic propositions: they both choose the lucidity of irony–Castellanos, in fact, admired Storni’s “ironic smile” (Castellanos 1995, 199)–; they opt to express themselves through intelligence and awareness without renouncing the feminine body; and they also manifest the fervent commitment to interpreting their own experience. In this way, they both search for knowledge about humanity, whether female or male, and it is precisely this type of human knowledge which will define the concepts developed in their poetry.

The aforementioned experiences were determined by an inherited and immobile system of beliefs: a system that decides both women and men’s social circumstances and cultural constructions. If in that conventional system man is the centre of reference–the law of reason–it is not surprising that in both authors’ poetry man becomes a recurring figure that is portrayed as the Lord, the undefeated one, the hero, the alleged guardian of morality in opposition to a female poetic I who depicts him with irony, who challenges and interrogates him whilst, at the same time, reinforcing her own different paradigm of female selfhood. The underlying dilemma in Storni’s and Castellanos’ poems that question the relationships between sexes, seems to be the following: is it possible to reconcile the rejection or the distrust found in the traditional man due to our gender, with our need to love and be loved? In synthesis, these authors attempted to undertake a critical analysis of relationships as the starting point for a possible, tentative human dialogue.

In this respect, it is essential to mention, among others, Michael Kimmel and David Gilmore’s recent studies in which they attempt to prove that masculinity, as well as femininity, is nothing but a cultural construct.5 These critics have brought to our attention some aspects that, though traditionally considered masculine, have caused psychological and emotional harm in men to the extent that, nowadays, we are living a real “crisis de la masculinidad” (Carabí 2000, 17). For instance, why do men have to renounce the emotional, the instinctive, the affective, the pathos, in order to be men? More and more published studies are critical of the traditional concepts of masculinity and make an effort to redefine this conceptualisation as more complex.6 A relationship free of hierarchies between men and women will be established when both become conscious of the fact that gender conceptualisations are cultural products. More importantly, when both parties understand that they are not the way they were expected to be, the way they have been idealised and constructed; but rather that both males and females are complex, heterogeneous, plural and diverse human beings. However, female writers and poets have also questioned different discourses about masculinity, often even before their male counterparts did. In other words, men had already been “escritos por mujeres” (Puleo 2000, 65), in which women had questioned the distant and prejudiced masculine attitudes in affective relationships, by ironically commenting on their unquestioned position of power or by analysing their sense of losing the battle.7

 

Alfonsina Storni (1892-1938)

Storni’s personal story is widely known: at twenty she became a single mother, something mercilessly censured by social conventions and moral prejudices of the time. She also dared to create a truthful poetry in which the erotic, the questioning of the relationships between sexes and the ironic went hand in hand with broken-heartedness, pain and a denunciation of patriarchy, whilst using at the same time heart-rending images of feminine self-sufficiency. By the end of the 1920s, she had become a professional woman with an established position in the intellectual scene of Buenos Aires: there are several photographs in which she appears as the only woman in various literary gatherings. In a few words, Storni broke the feminine mould of her time and helped to outline the modern Argentine woman.

Even in early poems such as “Tú me quieres blanca” (El dulce daño, 1918), Storni creates images in which man can see himself reflected. In this poem, the poetic I does not merely give back the myth of feminine purity to her interlocutor, but she destroys it. Whilst attempting to make the superficiality of this patriarchal ideal clear, Storni allegorically describes the man in such a way that she reveals his double morality and not only ridicules his demands, but at the same time transforms them into an accusation. Thus, as Rachel Phillips pointed out (1975, 34), Storni creates images and uses them as a mirror for him to see himself naked, deprived of both soul and body. The aforementioned technique results in a portrait in which the masculine being resembles a degenerated and decaying skeleton: “Tú que en el banquete / Cubierto de pámpanos / Dejaste las carnes / Festejando a Baco / … / Tú que el esqueleto / Conservas intacto / No sé todavía / Por cuales milagros, / Me pretendes blanca” (143). She seems to ask herself: “Is it really you who tries to ask for my purity?” With a lively rhythm, the poem creates a strong visual impression; however, it is not that of a woman, but one of a man who lives in an illusory and decaying world. In the final stanzas, the narrator uses various imperative verbs while urging the man to regenerate himself through an integral contact with nature (“Huye hacia los bosques/ Vete a la montaña…”). The poet tries to make him understand that only when he is clean of hypocrisy he will be able to love her for what she really is and not for his idealised image of her:

 

Y cuando las carnes
Te sean tornadas,
Y cuando hayas puesto
En ellas el alma
Que por las alcobas
Se quedó enredada,
Entonces, buen hombre,
Preténdeme blanca,
Preténdeme nívea,
Preténdeme casta. (144)

 

Nevertheless, even though the hope for regeneration is present in the poem, it is also true that there exists a dramatic sensation of being confronted with a silent and impassive interlocutor incapable of any reaction. In the poem “Hombre pequeñito” (Irremediablemente, 1919), the poetic I declares to her interlocutor that she is calling him pequeñito because he does not understand her; nevertheless, she also realizes that she does not understand him either:

 

Hombre pequeñito, hombre pequeñito,
Suelta a tu canario que quiere volar…
Yo soy el canario, hombre pequeñito,
Déjame saltar.

Estuve en tu jaula, hombre pequeñito,
Hombre pequeñito que jaula me das.
Digo pequeñito porque no me entiendes,
Ni me entenderás.

Tampoco te entiendo, pero mientras tanto
Ábreme la jaula que quiero escapar;
Hombre pequeñito, te amé media hora,
No me pidas más. (189)

 

It is possible that the reason why she calls him pequeñito is that she now knows she is a human being with the same rights as a man and, also, she knows she has an erotic desire that is her own and that exists independently of her masculine counterpart. In her personal imagery, he is not the mythical being, the hero of yesteryear. The essential message of the poem seems to be that the relationship between the sexes is always under threat due to the fact that to love somebody does not automatically mean to understand his or her needs. But in this mutual state of incomprehension it is the man who embodies a certain cruelty: it is he who wants to keep the canary imprisoned. As is known, Lacan claimed that it is not reality that gives language meaning but that our linguistic system is the means we use to understand the world (Morris 1993, 103).8 The arrival of the infant into the linguistic system is what provides him with his social and gender identity since he will only be able to recognise himself in the available oppositional terms (binary oppositions). Once we enter the social order, we are subject to its laws thanks to the language system–otherwise, this order would only be a flux of non-differentiated experiences. Thus, our identity is created from what we can represent and symbolise, and that is why Lacan calls language the symbolic order, our total organization of meaning. In this sense, in “Hombre pequeñito”, Storni uses the symbol of freedom in opposition to that of the cage. In other words, she emphasises the binary opposition between freedom and captivity: a bird that has always enjoyed an absolute freedom and has never been imprisoned is incapable of conceptualising it. Only the captive bird knows the meaning of freedom, since he recognises it as something he lacks. Only the bird in the cage can conceptualise the opposition and ask for freedom.

Storni was a liberated woman, especially if we take into consideration the time period in which she lived.9 Therefore, it cannot be argued that “Hombre pequeñito” is a call for freedom on the part of a traditional woman imprisoned in her home. Storni is making reference to the prison of customs, of the cultural ideas of her time. In an erotic relationship in which woman is independent and is fully conscious of that independence (“(…) te amé media hora, / No me pidas más”), the framework of cultural ideas that attempt to limit the way in which she loves seems ridiculous and out of date. Consequently, she also sees the attitude of the “hombre pequeñito”, who does not want to accept her erotic and amorous freedom, as ridiculous.

In general, there are two main interconnected ideas that seem to stand out in the poems in which Storni refers to men: men refuse to develop their emotional capacities and that is the reason why it is easier for them to remain free and without emotional attachments. In fact, one of the constants that can be found in her work after Ocre (1925) is that the poetic I scrutinises man and, even though in some of the poems he remains untouchable and superior, the new tone she uses to portray him reveals a biting irony. For instance, in “Saludo al hombre”, she emphasises the fact that woman is a prisoner of the situation of her body–on one hand, she longs for enjoyment and pleasure and at the same time these desires are repressed and controlled by social conventions–whilst man, with his “adiestrada libertad” (306) (men are taught to be free, they grow up believing in their freedom), has a privileged position free of hindrances. He is the Master, that is, the Father, the embodiment of authority, the Lord. Even though the woman in the poem surrenders to the ancestral differences between genders which seem impossible to change (“Omnivoro: naciste para llevar la cota”) (306), she also attacks them in a subtle but sarcastic way:

 

Con mayúscula escribo tu nombre y te saludo,

Hombre, mientras depongo mi femenino escudo

En sencilla y valiente confesión de derrota.

Omnívoro: naciste para llevar la cota

Y yo el sexo, pesado como carro de acero,

Y humilde (se delata en función de granero)

Brindo por tu adiestrada libertad, la soltura

Con que te sientes hijo claro de la natura (…)

 

¿No eres el Desligado, Sire, por excelencia?

¡Salud! En versos te hago mi fina reverencia. (306)

 

As can be observed, thanks to its ironic tone, the poem reverses the terms of masculine “independence”; the qualities apparently praised are transformed into defects, since they are subject to mockery and attack. Man moves from being portrayed as victorious to being portrayed as defeated due to the witty poetic I who seems to accept the facts of traditional life but in reality, ridicule them through mockery. By praising them in this manner, the poem parodies a traditional masculine attitude. The poem alludes to the common notion of woman being inferior due to her sensitivity, whilst man is superior due to his supposed capacity to be part of a relationship without being hurt. However, the poet’s attitude clearly shows some sort of pessimistic determinism concerning the different gender roles: woman is chained to her body–“pesado como el acero”–and therefore she is more bound to the unstoppable passing of time than man is. She is conscious of the fact that according to tradition her body is conceptualised as something desired but also as a receptacle of the forbidden. This is why she and her body represent darkness, sin and death whilst he will certainly think of himself as light, integrity and life: “La soltura/ Con que te sientes hijo claro de la natura” (306).

The poem “Duerme tranquilo” seems to follow the same line of thought. Here, the poetic I talks to a flattering lover in an open way. She advises him to avoid suffering and to sleep well in order to be able to continue with his romantic conquests since, rather than being censured, those conquests will always be celebrated by a system in which other supposedly heroic actions–such as those committed in irrational wars–are also highly appreciated: “Te reclaman destinos más gloriosos / Que el de llevar, entre los negros pozos / De las ojeras, la mirada en duelo. / ¡Cubre de bellas víctimas el suelo! / Más daño al mundo hizo la espada fatua / De algún bárbaro rey. Y tiene estatua” (283).

In other poems, women demand their own right to flirt as well as man’s right to cry. For instance, in “Tímido amante”, we are presented with a man who complains about the fact that the woman in the poem has had lovers previously. She then answers to him: “Palpando las almas / Mi alma se afinó, / En el desencanto / Concebí tu amor” (317). Feeling hurt, he tells her he repudiates her “experienced” mouth and he is not ashamed to cry in front of her. A similar idea can be found in the earlier poem “El hombre sombrío” (Irremediablemente, 1919). Although in this text we find a colder and more arrogant man who “ama a muchas mujeres”; the confident poetic I emphasizes the following in the last verses: “Mas mi mano de amiga, que destrona sus galas, / Donde aceros tenía le mueve un brote de alas / Y llora como el niño que ha extraviado la ruta” (186). Thus, the traditional gender attitudes of the earlier decades of the twentieth century are revised and reversed.

It is also worth noting that these poems coexist with those in which the poetic I seems to be longing for the love of a man.10 However, through the pages of the collections we can observe how man loses his mythical character; little by little he ceases to be a menacing being. Storni insists on portraying man as a beautiful but fickle lover and, in that sense, she seems to be ambivalent. On the one hand she desires him and she offers dreamed images of the masculine body; there is an attitude of emotional dependence on the lover. On the other hand, she openly expresses her disagreement with the existing relational hierarchies, partly due to her own failed amorous experiences, but mostly due to her acquired consciousness of the uneven terms of erotic-affective structures. This consciousness is clearly portrayed in “Veinte siglos”: “Para decirte, amor, que te deseo, / Sin los rubores falsos del instinto, / Estuve atada como Prometeo, / Pero una tarde me salí del cinto. / Son veinte siglos que movió mi mano…” (193).

The personal dilemma of the poet draws mainly on a dichotomy: she considers man to be emotionally stunted, but she always reacts when in his presence, faced with his beauty or when hearing his voice (this can be seen, among others, in her poems “Ante un héroe de Iván Mestrovic”, “Una voz”, “Uno”) (303, 305, 360). Therefore, even though man is somehow dissected, the poetic I always gives in when the possibility of love exists. Storni acquired a consciousness of the fragility of the man of her time, and she does not hesitate to confront him with stereotypes of masculinity. However, in her best moments, she moves beyond mere sexual conflict to attempt a real knowledge of the relationship between male and female. Thus, there are three aspects that stand out in her poetry: the modern woman, the conventional man, and social prejudices, three aspects which are tightly related. The poet tries to be faithful to herself. She attempts to reinforce her identity in a patriarchal and hostile environment through a vital process that carries with it both a painful emotional lesson and personal awareness. Storni’s suffering is palpable in many of her poems but we can also notice her genuine conviction that in order to achieve self-knowledge, one must descend into the hellish pain: “Al regresar, ya de tu amor cortada, / me senté al borde de la Sombra y sola / lo estoy juntando al sol con gran cordura” (“Regreso a la cordura”, 408). In these verses it can be observed that like Zambrano, she knew that the only honest way to express herself must necessarily imply a devastating process: “pues vivir humanamente debe ser ir sacando a la luz el sentir, el principio oscuro y confuso, ir llevando el sentir a la inteligencia” (Zambrano 1989, 93).

Although Storni in her poems is proud of her singularity, she knows that her position in life comes with a wound that may never heal. However, in her later poetry–especially that composed around the 30s–Storni adopts a lighter tone when dealing with this topic; the woman over forty seems to have learned to enjoy masculine beauty without any resentment. She is not shy to proclaim her desire for younger men (“Uno”, “Retrato de un muchacho que se llama Sigfrido”, “El adolescente del Osito”, included in Mundo de siete pozos, 1935), although she limits herself to simply observing from afar, adopting more a Platonic or idealistic attitude, probably in order to avoid the irremediable disappointment that occurs when real interaction takes place.

 

Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974)

As Norma Alarcón pointed out, Castellanos “deconstruye las estructuras metafórico-conceptuales para reconstruir críticamente lo femenino” (1992, 105). That is to say, she breaks down the feminine being into two opposed forms; on the one hand, there are the old aesthetic-philosophical representations of the feminine. On the other hand, there is the emerging being (already filtered by a critical consciousness), who is her own daughter and a product of her own dreams. In her first collections of poems,11 Castellanos deals with the limits imposed upon our imaginations which are derived from the cultural symbols of eroticism and maternity. She has no doubt about the fact that these symbols reduce our possibilities of imagining the female being in her true and authentic dimension. This is the reason she needs to project herself into a wider arena through the adventure of poetry; a poetry capable of shedding light–and overcoming–the traditional concepts and metaphors devised by men and male poets.

Conversely, the poems in her second stage12 are a way of distancing herself from those aesthetic-philosophical representations. This separation is achieved through language; a new, reinterpreted, and subverted language, the purpose of which is to discover meanings that diverge from those we have inherited and do so from the margins of difference. In her poetry, there are some paradigmatic figures that embody these revisionist re-inscriptions: Eve, Salome, Judith, Dido and Hecuba. When subverting/inverting these feminine prototypes (biblical, literary, historical, mythological and traditional), Castellanos brings forth a differentiated paradigm of the female being and she reinterprets, not only the Bible and the classic authors of Antiquity, but also those authors who have worked on the very same figures, transforming their meaning into something immobile and unchanging. In literature in particular or in the arts in general, these female figures have been portrayed as sexual agents, provocative and fearsome. The only exceptions are those whose actions helped save their own people (Judith) and those who were assimilated (Dido); although this latter group faced a bleak end. Castellanos seems to ask to herself: how can we freely perceive feminine archetypes so that they can be appreciated in a different way to conventional conceptions, and so change their fixed meaning? Due to her interest in relational constructions, this same question applies to masculine models and archetypes.

In general, in her first stage, the poetic I does not relate to man in everyday terms, but rather in mythical terms. That is, the traditional hero from the epic stories of a bygone age is recreated with the aim of showing the difference between him and the woman who loves him. In other words, Castellanos plays with the classical archetypes of masculinity and accompanies them with a feminine counterpart who has her own voice and presence. Therefore, the woman becomes an epic heroine capable of overcoming the hero thanks to her acute ability to feel. Such is the case, for instance, in “Lamentación de Dido” (Poemas, 1957). As it is widely known, Dido is condemned by Virgil to a dismal end: when Aeneas abandons her, she lights a pyre and throws herself on to the flames. Virgil’s Dido tragically and inevitably accepts the masculine system of thought and morality: Aeneas must fulfil a destiny more heroic and transcendental than simply loving Dido; he must found Rome far away from the African shores as Jupiter commanded. In contrast, Castellanos’s Dido narrates her own story and acquires consciousness not only of herself but of her acute pain. This gives the reader the chance to understand why her survival is even more heroic than her lover’s deeds and allows Dido to displace both Virgil (the man who “invented” her13) and Aeneas. The most interesting aspect of this Dido is the fact that she represents the counter-epic; her deed does not work within the recognisable terms of tradition, but her heroism acquires value within a different system of meaning. Aeneas is the paradigm of bravery, the protagonist of an epic story who undertakes heroic actions: “Nada detiene al viento. ¡Cómo iba a detenerlo la rama de sauce que llora en las orillas de los ríos!” (109). Dido is the paradigm of the heroic survival, of the emotional strength, of the epic of the pathos: “Rasgué mi corazón y echó a volar una bandada de palomas negras” (109).

It is in this way that throughout the poem, Dido stands out as the subject that embodies the metaphor of pain. Thus, the way in which Aeneas’ loss “illuminates” Dido’s heroism is more important than the loss itself (Alarcón 1992, 122). It is precisely this new heroism that eventually prevents her death: “Yo sé que para mí no hay muerte. / Porque el dolor −¿y qué otra cosa soy más que dolor?− me ha hecho eterna” (109). As can be seen, this Dido mirrors Zambrano’s Antigone since both of them adopt pathos as another form of knowledge and, while doing it, they become immortal. When she presents Aeneas as the paradigm of the heroic search in mortal opposition to Dido’s passion, eroticism and nature, Castellanos is really making reference–in a critical and poetic way–to ontological predetermination, to the roles imposed a priori by the symbolic Order: “Hombre con el corazón puesto en el futuro. / −La mujer es la que permanece; rama de sauce que llora en las orillas de los ríos−” (107-108). Castellanos brings to light some beliefs that are rooted in our traditional imagery: the hero’s character and values are determined by his actions; he does not hesitate, he stands firm, he renounces love because he must accomplish a more transcendental task, a task that represents collective ties. In this sense, battles reinforce his virility because they represent sublime goals. Conversely, in this imagery women represent the “natural law of affection”.

In summary, Castellanos shows us the dark side of that epic known and invented by the male poet. If “nada detiene al viento” and Dido is sacrificed by “el poder y la gloria”, in Castellanos’s counter-epic, the heroine has no end, since she is eternal. In other words, Dido’s spirit reveals the most human and truthful story of the hero: “Y cada primavera, cuando el árbol retoña, / es mi espíritu, no el viento sin historia, es mi espíritu el que estremece y el que hace cantar su follaje” (105). Therefore, it is also her pain that sets the story into motion. From this perspective, Aeneas’s figure shrinks and Dido’s grows; since her story has no end, it repeats itself over and over. In synthesis, it is a story that overcomes those political and kinship arrangements inspired by the divine and situated in the heroic. The merit that can be attributed to Castellanos’s Dido is the illumination of experiences of those persons condemned to “la mitad oscura de la casa” (Alarcón 1992, 130), as it was the case with Virgil’s Dido. The figure of Dido is important in Castellanos’s work because in creating a new version of the character, she also created a poetic being capable of assuming her pain and, most importantly, interpreting and understanding it. In general, the opposition found in her work is the following: “those who suffer” versus “those who conquer”, or “the repressed ones” versus “the ones in charge”. From Al pie de la letra (1959) onwards, it seems that Dido splits into two and maintains a dialogue with Aeneas’s descendants or with that hero’s prototypes. Castellanos seems to point out that, through the centuries, these masculine topics or archetypes have created certain models of conduct in male-female relationships. Therefore, these archetypes have been transformed into paradigmatic figures in a deterministic historical and cultural scene. At the same time, sisters or descendants of Dido, of the survivors, appear in her poetry.

In the second part of “Dos meditaciones” (Al pie de la letra) the following can be read:

 

Hombrecito, ¿qué quieres hacer con tu cabeza?

¿Atar al mundo, al loco, loco y furioso mundo?

¿Castrar al potro Dios? (122)

 

As can be observed, this kind of modern Dido wonders about the hombrecito’s position of power. However, when using the diminutive –ito to describe the man (which strongly reminds us of Storni’s “hombre pequeñito”), Castellanos ironically addresses his absurd pretensions of undisputed power and of conquering the world, as if he were a god. In her poetry, the reader is constantly presented with the antagonistic positions of certain masculine cultural prototypes and the variety of feminine voices which oppose them. The drama resides in the fact that both of them exist within a suffocating world built precisely by a patriarchal imagery. In this sense, the images recreated are always inspired by her Dido in opposition to Aeneas. That is the reason why, on several occasions, the wind is used as a symbol of the marginalising and subordinating masculine principle. Even if it is true that the first Dido suffers, her descendants will reject the hero hungry for supremacy and domination. This is emphasised in “Agonía fuera del muro” (Lívida luz, 1960):

 

No te acerques a mí, hombre que haces el mundo

déjame, no es preciso que me mates.

(…)

Yo muero de mirarte y no entender. (196-197)

 

The man is not Aeneas anymore, or more accurately, he is not the unquestionable hero in the eyes of the woman. In the twentieth century, the hero must confront the world he himself has created, that is, he must confront his own symbolic constructions, a fact that, in the long term, has also harmed his identity and self-esteem. Norman Mailer has already written that being a man is a never ending battle that takes place throughout an entire life (Alsina y Borràs Castanyer 2000, 83). Studies on masculinity precisely emphasise that man has no enemy but himself, or to be more specific, his own inherited constructions. In this sense, Castellanos reverses some traditional masculine values in some of her poems. In “Una palabra para el heredero” (Al pie de la letra), she describes a declining, vulnerable and lost man; a man in crisis:

 

Aquí la planta del jardín, que antaño

era lujo y adorno,

hoy medra devorando lo constuido.

(…)

 

Pues ¿quién soy yo, paseante de una ciudad que duerme?

(…)

 

A veces rememoro y se encabrita en mí

el potro del heroísmo y la rapacidad,

el ulular del rapto.

(…)

 

No, no escuchéis mi pulso. Su latido es tan débil

como el del grillo oculto en la hojarasca.

(…)

 

Ved mi botín después de la pelea:

no es más que una perdiz de torpe vuelo.

 

¿Quién me castró de mi posteridad?

¿Quién me puso esta giba monstruosa del pasado?

(129-130)

 

That man must confront the images of historical and cultural prototypes, of the inheritors of the nation, of Aeneas’s paradigms. The past glory contrasts with the present ruins and this comparison allows him to see himself: what he was and what he is. This vision ends up in a real crisis; the hero has been defeated by his own yearning for power. Therefore, man has nothing to live for but the heroic memories he insists on recreating. But when remembering the past grandeur, he feels diminished due to the fact that he has been dispossessed of his inheritance. Because he has ceased to be the man of action (“Hago lo que no hicieron los que vivían: sueño”), he feels trapped in his personal nostalgia and paralysed by the weight of History. In the same way as Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas (1938) when she ironically commented on the mistakes in History and the irrationality of war and destruction, Castellanos also writes about the self-defeating man who still embodies the centre of reference.

In “Ajedrez” (En la tierra de en medio, 1972), Castellanos portrays a couple embarking on an intellectual duel. She attempts to unravel male-female relationships which, even though they have existed from time immemorial, do not seem to quite come together. In this confrontation, it is evident that the female being has undergone an important process; she has strengthened her expression, she has not silenced herself and, due to this, she is capable of speaking to the man face to face: “Porque éramos amigos y, a ratos, nos amábamos; / quizá para añadir otro interés / a los muchos que ya nos obligaban / decidimos jugar juegos de inteligencia” (321). This new position in their relationship has allowed her to know the masculine world and its rules: “Aprendimos las reglas, les juramos respeto / y empezó la partida”. The woman is conscious of the social hierarchy that affects intellectual relationships with the man; in other words, it is not only that she is conscious of herself, but she is also conscious of the man’s position. Even though in the poem the winner of the game is not revealed, the sharpness of the poetic I seems to stand out due to her ability to see beyond the result of the game. She is interested in the reality that surrounds them both and that is the reason she explains it to him, so that he can think about the different cultural roles each of them has to follow; roles that prevent true human empathy and understanding: “Henos aquí hace un siglo, sentados, meditando / encarnizadamente / cómo dar el zarpazo último que se aniquile / de modo inapelable y, para siempre, al otro”.

 

Conclusion

Russian linguist Mikhail Bahktin claimed that being able to “communicate dialogically” means to be. In other words: “Nos convertimos en sujetos mediante el lenguaje y tan sólo podemos afirmar la existencia de un ‘yo’ si existe un ‘tú’” (Carabí 2000, 20). However, as Pierre Bordieu stated, due to the way cultural codes have been conceived: “Être homme, c'est être installé d'emblée dans une position impliquant des pouvoirs” (1990, 21). This is why we need to establish a relational dialogue and, in order to achieve this, it is important that men become conscious that masculinity is not only a stereotype but also an ideology. In this sense, by transforming themselves into the subject of the discourse, Storni and Castellanos have contributed to drawing attention to the “dualismo jerarquizado” (Puleo 2000, 81). It could be argued that they gave men the chance to see themselves reflected in the mirror; not as an act of vengeance but in an attempt to redefine inherited concepts. Men could also break that mirror to give masculinity the chance to become a rich structure without the need to oppress and build upon the subordination of other social groups; an anti-sexist, anti-racist and anti-homophobic masculinity. According to Alicia Puleo, it should be “una redefinición del ser humano que supere los dualismos jerarquizados. Tanto los hombres como las mujeres somos naturaleza y cultura, razón y afectividad, intelecto y cuerpo” (2000, 81).

In their search for alternative feminine meanings, both Storni and Castellanos asked themselves: is the realisation of romantic/erotic love compatible with the search for a differentiated female being? By killing Eros in her poem “A Eros” (Mascarilla y trébol, 1938) Storni seems to deny that possibility. Castellanos seems to agree with Storni when she writes in the last poem of “Viaje redondo” included in Poesía no eres tú: “Ninguno es necesario / ni aun para ti que, por definición / eres menesterosa” (377). In their attempt to reformulate themselves using their own realities as a basis, both writers knew they were condemned to pain and loneliness, the metaphorical grave previously mentioned. If irony was the sword and shield they used to attack and defend themselves from the inherited system of beliefs, loneliness was the price they had to pay.

From her own grave, Zambrano’s Antigone thinks about the necessity of a New Law and, talking about Creon, she states: "Si el del poder hubiera bajado aquí de otro modo, como únicamente debía haberse atrevido a venir, con la Ley Nueva, y aquí mismo hubiese reducido a cenizas la vieja ley, entonces sí, yo habría salido con él, a su lado, llevando la Ley Nueva en alto sobre mi cabeza. Entonces, sí. Pero él ni lo soñó siquiera, ni nadie allá arriba lo sueña." (Zambrano 1986, 258)

Storni and Castellanos dreamed of such a change; they dreamed of a relationship between genders which would be sincere and non-hierarchical in every field of life. Even though the opposition to change on the part of patriarchal society caused both authors frustrations, disappointments, disillusions and pain, their merit resides in the fact that they bravely embraced their dreams. Loneliness together with intelligence allowed them to observe complex human phenomena which gave them the chance to discover, to value and to understand. Both Storni and Castellanos were and still are the Antigone María Zambrano imagined, the one that will continue to be delirious whilst things remain immovable: “No podemos dejar de oírla, porque (…) Antígona está enterrada viva en nosotros, en cada uno de nosotros” (Zambrano 1948a, 18).
 

Bibliography

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—. 1995, Mujer que sabe latín…, México, D.F.: FCE

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Gilmore, David. 1990, Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Maculinity, New Haven: Yale University Press

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Kimmel, Michael., Jeff Hearn, Robert W. Connell (eds.). 2004, Handbook of Studies on Men and Masculinities, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

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Notes

 

  1. The essay “Delirio de Antígona” was first published in the Cuban magazine Orígenes in July 1948. This essay was the seed of the book La tumba de Antígona published in Madrid nineteen years later.
  2. The essay “Delirio de Antígona” was first published in the Cuban magazine Orígenes in July 1948. This essay was the seed of the book La tumba de Antígona published in Madrid nineteen years later.
  3. Even though this study will not deal with the references to the Greek mythology found in both authors’ works, it may be worth mentioning some of them. For instance, in Storni’s poetic work, texts such as “A Eros”, “Las euménidas bonaerenses” y “Máscara griega” stand out. Also, in one of her farces included in Dos farsas pirotécnicas (1931), Polixena y la cocinerita, Storni adapts Euripides’ Hecuba to Argentinean reality in order to draw a satiric portrait of the customs of her time. Both Sonia Jones (1979, 96-101) and Rachel Phillips (1975, 66-74) mention this farce in their studies on Alfonsina Storni. Also Castellanos reinterprets Greek mythological characters in two of her poems: “Lamentación de Dido” and “Testamento de Hécuba”. However, Castellano’s poetry tends to deal more with reinterpretations and subversions of characters, symbolisms and episodes from pre-Columbian Mexico or the Bible.
  4. In the final stages of the construction of this essay I came across Milena Rodríguez Gutiérrez’s Lo que en verso he sentido: La poesía feminista de Alfonsina Storni (1916-1925) published by the University of Granada in 2007. Rodríguez dedicates a whole section to the study of the representations of the masculine figure and to the proposal of a new model of relationships in Storni’s poetry.
  5. See Harry Brod (1987), David Gilmore (1990), Lynne Segal (1990) and Michael Kimmel (1996).
  6. See Marta Sagarra y Àngels Carabí, eds (2000), Judith Kegan Gardiner, ed. (2002), and Michael Kimmel, Jeff Hearn, Robert W. Connell, eds., (2004).
  7. In 1978, the magazine Achilles Heel published the testimony offered by a group of men conscious of the cultural construction of conventional masculinity. In their testimonies, they gave evidence of the limitations imposed by it: “Nuestro poder en la sociedad, no solamente aprisiona a las mujeres, sino que nos aprisiona en una masculinidad tan rígida, que mutila todas nuestras relaciones entre nosotros, con las mujeres y con nosotros mismos” (Segal 1990, 287).
  8. See Jacques Lacan, “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis”, en Écrits: A Selection (1977).
  9. According to some testimonies, Storni used to express her desires aloud, without any inhibitions, provoking confusion among her masculine interlocutors who were not used to such frankness coming from a woman. Manuel Mujica Lainez, a writer who used to visit her in 1927, wrote in his diary: “A Alfonsina Storni la conocí cuando tenía yo diecisiete años (…). Solía visitarla yo por entonces, en su alto y pequeño departamento de Córdoba y Esmeralda. Era muchísimo mayor que yo (tenía treinta y cinco años), desgreñada y vehemente. Una admirable poetisa, sin duda, pero los matices se me escapaban. Dejé de ir, mejor dicho, me escabullí de su casa, espantado, el día que quiso besarme. (Y ella me afirmó): ‘yo considero amigo a un hombre sólo después de haberlo besado’” (Delgado 2001, 156). In another occasion, in the lobby of the hotel where she was spending the summer in Mar de Plata, she was introduced to Francisco López Merino, a young poet fifteen years her junior. The grey sky and the rough sea that foreshadowed a stormy afternoon could be seen through the lobby’s windows. The young poet commented on the unpleasantness of the weather to which Stormi replied: “Sí, sí, pero ideal para estar entre dos sábanas, con alguien como usted, por ejemplo” (Delgado 2001, 187).
  10. Many poems in this phase (1916-1925) belong to what is known as the “miel romántica”, a type of verses that coexist with the purely feminist ones. Most of the literary historians consider those poems in which the poetic I appears as passive, “Nacido para amar”, and waiting for her lover (“Oye”, “Desolación”, “Sábado”…) to be representative of the author. Delfina Muschietti has analysed the inherent contradiction found in Storni’s poetry very thoroughly: “Mientras un poema levantaba la figura de la yo-loba que se disponía firmemente a combatir toda convención hipócrita y todo prejuicio, otro-yo defendía la débil y lánguida figura (…). Dos voces, dos retóricas, dos formas de decir yo” (Muschietti 1999, 15). See also Delfina Muschietti, “Las mujeres que escriben, aquel reino anhelado, el reino del amor”, Nuevo Texto Crítico, 2:4, 1989, pp. 79-102.
  11. Apuntes para una declaración de fe (1948), Trayectoria del polvo (1948), De la vigilia estéril (1950), El rescate del mundo (1952).
  12. Her transitional collection of poems is Poemas (1957); her second stage begins with Al pie de la letra (1959) and is developed in Salomé y Judith (poemas dramáticos) (1959), Lívida luz (1960) y Materia memorable (1969). The maturity of this stage (with a colloquial, direct and ironic tone that contrasts with the hermetic, allegorical and metaphorical tone of her earlier poetry) is portrayed within the works En la tierra de en medioDiálogos con los hombres más honradosOtros poemas, y Viaje redondo, which were published together for the first time in the collection Poesía no eres tú (1972).
  13. The legend of Dido, Queen of Carthage, is known thanks to Virgil’s Aeneid. However, Virgil built his Aeneid using an even more primitive story as a base. It narrates an episode of the Phoenician migrations towards the West of the Mediterranean sea (Grimal 1981, 137).

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