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Eight— A Question of Blood: The Conflict of Sex and Class in the Autobiografía of Victoria Ocampo
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"La [Otra] Mitad de la Verdad"

Cada autor, grande o pequeño, genial o mediocre, escribe un solo libro a lo largo de su vida, aun cuando cambie de título y de tema.[11]

[Every author, great or small, brilliant or mediocre, writes a single book during his lifetime, though its title or theme may change.]

Lo cierto es que no conozco por dentro ninguna materia fuera de la que usaba [Montaigne]: 'Je suis moy mesme la matière de mon livre.'[12]

[It is certain that I know no other material than that used by Montaigne: 'I am myself the material of my book.']

Ocampo's six-volume Autobiografía is remarkable for its prehistory of the author. Obviously foreseen for posthumous publication (and prepared by the author with complete photo-inconography, it traces her ancestry, childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood through the first three decades of the twentieth century and stops with the inauguration of Sur in 1931. In references sprinkled throughout her work, Ocampo says she began composing her "memorias" (memoirs) in the 1930s; she continued to work on them until shortly before her death in 1979. She undertook the major revisions in 1952–1953.


The years from puberty in the early 1900s through first great love lost in 1929 are the focal points of the narrative. These three decades are characterized by a seemingly endless series of rites of passage; anecdote and confession are accompanied by letters written and received from key personal friends and correspondence between historic ancestors central to the story. In the Autobiografía , unlike the Testimonios , the history of her family which grounds the story and the rites of passage and existential crises which punctuate it all take her body and female sexuality as their explicit battleground.

The focus on her corporality as the point of integration and conflict is a remarkable departure from the typically disembodied and ethereal discussion of her self which permeates the testimonial essays published during her life. The story is built around moments of crisis and transition: she is portrayed as a sexual being coming of age in a patriarchal ruling-class environment and forced to confront rigid Victorian codes of behavior. Key stages in her sexual coming of age—menstruation, rejection of her maternal instincts—form the base of the personal, social, and professional choices she says she made in the first forty years of life. The tale culminates in the founding of Sur , the work she considered her greatest achievement.

Ocampo depicts herself in the decades that preceded the founding of Sur as an initially timid rebel victimized by a complex system of double standards that held her prisoner—first in her father's house, then in her husband's—until she rebelled, first into passionate adultery and then into the world of literary production. The Autobiografía must be considered as a parallel text, for it was composed over the same forty-year period in which the Testimonios and volumes of Sur established Ocampo's reputation and kept her relentlessly in the public eye. Given the magnitude of her published work and the dearth of critical consensus about its import in Argentine letters, this Autobiografía raises particular questions. The first concerns Ocampo's exclusive choice of focus upon her early years from the vantage point of the 1950s. What image of her formative years did she compose in the last three decades of her life for publication after her death? From a writer whose "yoismo" was legendary for over half a century, and whose entire corpus constitutes an exercise in autobiographical form, does this work represent "la [otra] mitad de la verdad," as she insisted, or is it merely the concluding chapter of her official history, filling in the early years before she became a public figure and entered the world of international personalities? What, finally, did she hope to add to—or change in—the reading of her life story by this posthumous pubication?

Purposely withheld from publication until her death (although she circulated versions of the manuscript among friends), the six volumes were released at regular intervals of about one year from 1980 to 1985. The spiciest parts of the narrative—especially the account of her illicit love affair with "J" in the 1920s, described in passionate if abstract terms—have been excerpted


by Argentine equivalents of Life, Time , and Cosmopolitan to form the basis of continuing "human interest" stories in the popular press.[13] But neither the sensational reproduction of photoessays nor her continued presence in the book review pages of the Buenos Aires press has provoked the serious reconsideration of her life or work called for by this posthumous publication. The Autobiografía gives impetus to a rereading of Ocampo as a woman and literary personality whose public image as "Señora cultura"[14] approaches mythic status, but whose self-image and consciousness as a woman remain surprisingly guarded by the author (although amply debated by acquaintances).

What seems to have concerned her most is the revelation of her emotional and physical development as a woman—important grounding for her identity as writer, publisher, journalist, or society matron, but never focused on in her other writing on its own terms. Describing the Autobiografía as a "documento"—"cualquier cosa que sirve para ilustrar o comprobar algo" (1:60) [whatever works to illustrate or prove something]—Ocampo states her intention to tell the truth about her coming of age as a member of one of Buenos Aires's first families at the height of the Victorian era:

No me cabe duda de que se podrá pensar, con todas las apariencias de la razón, que el único drama sufrido, las únicas dificultades vencidas en mi adolescencia y juventud, eran de la índole del desayuno que no llegó a hora fija, o del baño sin agua caliente por una momentánea descompostura de la caldera. Sin embargo, esto que parecería ser la verdad no es toda la verdad, ni siquiera la mitad de la verdad (2:9–10).

[I have no doubt that one could think, with all apparent justification, that the only traumas I suffered, the only difficulties I overcame in my youth and adolescence, were along the lines of a breakfast that wasn't served on time or having to take a cold bath because of a temporary loss of hot water. Nonetheless, that which would appear to be the truth is not the whole truth, not even half the truth.]

She envisioned this work as a means to self-discovery ("alumbramiento") and thus a liberation from the sense of feeling so different from others that plagues her. Through the process she hopes to give birth to herself. At the same time, by reconciling who she was with who she wishes she had been (6: 11–13), she will also exonerate herself in the eyes of present and future critics:

Hay dos sentimientos diferentes que me llevan a escribir estas Memorias. Uno es esa necesidad de alumbramiento, de confesión general; es el más importante. El otro es el deseo de tomar la delantera a posibles biografías futuras, con una autobiografía explícita (6: 13).

[There are two different sentiments that motivate me to write these memoirs. One is the necessity for enlightenment, for a general confession; this is the most


important. The other is the desire to get a jump on possible future biographies with an explicit autobiography.]

Her final choice of the title Autobiografía for the posthumous volumes (as opposed to the Testimonios , memoirs published during her life) signals a bold distinction between this autobiographical "tale of becoming" and previously published memoirs of "the outer world for people and events."[15] Until the late 1970s Ocampo intended to title the autobiography "Memoirs," indicating a paradoxical resistance to validating the work as more than occasional writing, the shield she used to defend the Testimonios . As she considers the applicability of terms like "confession" and "document" in her autobiography, her dual purpose of vindication in the public eye and self-revelation takes clear shape.

In the Autobiografía , Ocampo's story is framed as a classic case of feminist consciousness-raising. The story outlines a conflict between who she is and who others want her to be, and offers a justification for who she became. By its posthumous publication, Ocampo offers this text as the concluding installment in a fifty-year project to balance official history and intimate memoirs in all her literary activities.

It is hardly a coincidence that she resumed this project in 1952—the year in which Eva Perón, died and Juan Perón began his second term as president. Eva Perón's autobiography La razón de mi vida was published in 1951 and helped inscribe her permanently in Peronist hagiography.[16] Eva's presentation of her public persona in the Peronist Party, with almost no mention of her origins, family, or career before she met Juan, could not contrast more with the blood legacy Ocampo retraces so painstakingly. When spoken of together, Ocampo and Eva Perón are usually placed at opposite ends of the Argentine feminist spectrum, yet these autobiographical texts illustrate the straddling of traditions—male/female, national/international, contemporary/historical—and the conflict between class and sex which are central to rereading the lives of and myths surrounding both.

Eva's autobiography seeks to strengthen the official history of the Peronist Party: it is the story of Eva's self-sacrifice to her mission to serve the people, and a song of praise to Juan Perón, the figure who subsumes all other points of reference in her personal and political history. An iconoclastic figure, she presents herself as an exceptional but at heart conventional woman. Ocampo, by contrast, steeps herself in the oligarchic, patriarchic tradition into which she was born, loudly proclaiming her unconventionality and iconoclastic tendencies. Yet Ocampo's autobiography is as distinct from those of her male oligarchic forefathers and peers as it is from the officialist memoir of Evita couched in working-class, saintly, and feminine terms. Ocampo demonstrates the problematic position of female members of the Argentine elite: clearly at odds with the male autobiographical and literary traditions,


they have been accorded no similarly stable position in the elite mythology, yet they continue to claim it as their own. Both Eva Perón and Ocampo present their life stories in forms that expose the paradoxical status of their positions in Peronist and anti-Peronist mythology.

In the 1950s, Ocampo was increasingly defensive about her own brand of feminism (women's suffrage was granted in 1947 through Eva's decisive influence), and Sur 's standards of "culture" were constantly under attack from Peronists and the anti-Peronist left (Contorno , for example, was initiated in 1953). Sur celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 1952 with the most deluxe issue of its history; yet recent historians mark this period as the beginning of its decline.

The three major phases in the dramatic (melodramatic?) story of Ocampo's coming of age take her body as their central battleground and metaphor. A detailed outline of her lineage in volume 1, recognizable from Argentine history books and her own writings, sets the stage for her struggle to reconcile an imposing family heritage with the double standard applied to female children's birthright, a conflict that permeates the Autobiografía from beginning to end. The menstrual blood, which comes as a terrible shock, symbolizes her exclusion from the "derecho de primogenitura" she had never questioned (as the oldest of six female children) but which her parents had never considered. But primogeniture refers to the right of the eldest son to inherit the property of his father, and was not understood to apply to female children. The sexual difference became clear to Ocampo only when she began to menstruate:

Un dia al abrocharme al calzón en el cuarto de baño ví que tenía una mancha roja. . . . Era sangre. . . . Me sentí de pronto como aprisionada por una fatalidad que rechazaba con todas mis fuerzas. ¡ Huir! Pero como huir de mi propio cuerpo. . . . Me sentía presa . . . de mi cuerpo que odiaba (1: 146).

[One day while fastening my pants in the bathroom, I saw a red stain. . . . It was blood. . . . Immediately I felt imprisoned by a fate that I rejected with all my strength. Flee! But how to flee from my own body. . . . I felt trapped . . . by my body that I despised.]

Her upbringing is depicted as only apparently privileged; emphasis is placed on her attempts to evolve her own code of ethics among hypocrites and tyrants (family members) while avoiding open rebellion. Expressions of anger and regret punctuate accounts of the paltry formal education—primarily studies in French and English literature—given young girls of the upper class. Educated by tutors at home with only her sister Angélica as classmate, she was never supposed to make history on her own: "La educación que se daba a las mujeres era por definición y adrede incompleta, deficiente. 'Si hubiera. sido varón, hubiera seguida una carrera,' decía mi padre de mi, con melancolia probablemente" (2: 16) [The education given to girls


was by definition and on purpose incomplete and deficient. 'If she had been a boy, she would have pursued a career,' my father said of me, probably with regret].

The record of four generations of ancestors paraded before the reader in volumes 1 and 2, buttressed by genealogical research Ocampo conducted in the 1960s, serves as much to set the stage for who she is not as for who she is. The elaborate backdrop of forebears serves primarily to focus the most alienating experience in the early years—the onset of menstruation and first incontrovertible evidence of her femininity. She depicts herself as a "prisoner" in her female body, marginal to this impressive patriarchal heritage.

Apparently unlike the writers and characters discussed by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar who name women's names in order to construct "grandmatologies" that reclaim their female heritage, Ocampo seems to seek shelter in the traditional family name.[17] The Autobiografía is an attempt to ground her female experience in a family name that is both overwhelming and nullifying. Yet the ambition to expose her femininity and confront the patriarchal traditions is complicated by the same patriarchal (and particularly Victorian) conventions that govern personal writing by women. She relegates all boys and men with whom she had romantic liaisons or sexual relations to an anonymous system of initials (for example, "J"), a practice that contrasts sharply with her obsession with naming names of ancestors in the same text.

How are we to judge, for example, the bold iconography of photographs and reproductions of herself (on the cover of each volume and spread throughout the volumes) and of selected central figures (family members, ancestors, and "great" men like Tagore), when contrasted with the use of initials for all of the men toward whom she acknowledges a series of childhood crushes? The use of initials at first seems to parody the openness she claims to demonstrate by revealing the evolution of her experience in love. Most of all, it contrasts curiously with the obsession with naming family members and friends of historical importance which permeates most of the autobiography.

This contrast between personal/sexual expression and the weight of family tradition is extended and reinforced by the bold photo-iconography that runs throughout the volumes, which were printed exactly as they were composed. Pictures of four generations of Aguirres and Ocampos are distributed throughout volumes 1 and 2, along with a photograph of Domingo Sarmiento dedicated to her great-grandfather, Manuel Ocampo. Famous friends and mentors, such as Marguerite Moreno (the diva who was Ocampo's voice teacher), Keyserling (two pictures), Ernest Ansermet, and Tagore, are also represented by imposing photographs. Naturally, numerous full-page photographs of herself grace the pages, as well as two portraits of her by well-known artists of the day—Helleu (1909, a drypoint done in Paris) and Troubetskoy (1913)—and the classic photograph by Gisèle Freund. Most


are head-and-shoulder portraits of her alone; thus they do not convey a sense of her imposing height or size—she was over six feet tall. All are of herself as a young woman; none brings her beyond the early 1930s. Again, the body is suppressed. Yet the uniformity in size of most of the photographs of herself and others (mostly single shots of single figures which cover a full page) manages to convey the grandeur of her project by other means. The cover of each volume is dominated by a large photograph of the author; only volumes 1 and 4 vary from the format of the elegant young face in a designer hat, with the body cut off at the shoulders. The cover photograph of volume 1 depicts her as a small child on the knee of her imposing father; volume 3 (which contains the story of her romance with "J") departs from the other likenesses with a highly stylized oil painting of a full-body pose.

Even while she refers to her lovers by initial only, the tactic of hiding their identity reaches its contradictory height when she reproduces a photograph of "J" (3: 32–33) and of a statue of Joan of Arc, which is labeled as a likeness of "L. G. F.," the focus of an adolescent crush nipped by her elders (volume 1). Possible reasons for such tactics abound—irony, modesty, flaunting of tradition as she breaks it, respect for the families of these men. But in view of the flaunting of famous names and their photographic likenesses, the refusal to name these three symbols of her social development as a sexual being—the men involved in her first romantic fantasy, her ill-fated first marriage, and her first love affair—is remarkable indeed. Such differing treatments of two central facets of her life before Sur signals a lasting division in her attempts to reconcile personal aspirations and emotions with the weight of official family history.

In volumes 2 and 3 she passes from prisoner in the house of her parents to passionate adulteress in the house of her husband. Likening her world of the 1910s to that of García Lorca's Casa de Bernarda Alba and the nineteenth-century "esclavitud tremenda" of Charlotte Brontë or Elizabeth Barrett, she depicts the impossibility of directly confronting the intransigent moral code imposed by her family on her relations with men or her professional aspirations. In her discussion of her long-term clandestine love affair with "J" during the height of her childbearing years, she explains that maternal instincts were overshadowed, with regret and resignation, by the stigma of illegitimacy of any offspring (divorce was illegal in Argentina until very recently). Forever the outsider, Ocampo thus transformed the "curse" of menstruation into a symbol of a unique "women's privilege" now forbidden her.

In volumes 4, 5, and 6, the dramatic conflict is focused on her passion for ideas and those who generate them, and her keen disappointment with their passion for her body, not her mind. The disintegration of her love affair with "J" combined with disappointing experiences with better-known intellectual jet-setters to provoke an identity crisis. She depicts the existential dilemma that peaked in 1929 as the inspiration to give birth to Sur , a literary endeavor more ambitious than she had imagined.


The 1920s represent years of critical turning points in her life, the years between her break from both parents and husband and the publication of the first issue of Sur . This was the decade in which her two greatest passions and ambitions—for love and for literature—sought their meshing points and in which her search for a self was a graphic struggle to reconcile body, mind, and spirit. These 1910s and 1920s barely hint at the political turmoil sweeping Argentina—the anarchist movement and struggles for workers' rights, women's rights, university reform. Nor does she mention avant-garde projects in the arts, for she took little part in any of these. This is a private drama, whose historical background comprises her own blood relatives (and their close friends), whose literary and spiritual guides are English and French writers like Proust, Montaigne, George Sand, Henri Bergson, and Stendahl, and whose characters are a batch of foreign intellectuals—Keyserling, Ortega y Gasset, Tagore, Waldo Frank—whom she was to cultivate first in Buenos Aires, then in Europe and the United States.

Yet both the Argentine blood heritage and the European intellectual one provide a plethora of mixed messages and apparent contradictions. Ocampo seems to promise their resolution through her own writing and magazine endeavors (announced in volume 6), but she appears more often strung between these two sets of antecedents than at peace with either. Speaking of the early 1930s, she claims discomfort with her dual role in the magazine: as beneficent mecenas she feels at home, but as literary editor/publisher soliciting and judging others' literary production she feels inadequate (6: 69).

What is the overall picture the reader draws of the young (aged twenty to forty) Victoria Ocampo? A rich young woman who does not fit; deeply alienated, but tied to the primary representatives (both family and mentors) of the system of values that provoke her alienation. A young woman who first intuitively, then with forethought, creates from this alienated body a literary corpus and offensive. Though Ocampo capitalizes on class privilege, unlike her forefathers she battles the internal and external cultural expectations imposed on her sex.

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