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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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"Yo Soy Lo Otro, Pero, ¿ Qué?"

[Autobiography] is the most self-assertive and self-revealing of genres.[18]

To understand one's life as a story demands that one perceive that life as making sense; autobiographies record the sense their authors hope their lives make.[19]

As the picture of a young Argentine woman of the upper class coming of age in the early part of the twentieth century, Ocampo's work differs dramatically from the nineteenth-century male testimonial/autobiographical tradition of the founding fathers of Argentina, in whose company she is usually placed by dint of class. Indeed, her work is more accurately inserted in the


"autogynographical" company of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European and American women writers.[20]

As much recent study of women's autobiography reveals, no matter how traditional critics and theorists of autobiography define the genre, women who dare to take themselves as the primary focus of their own first-person narratives have generally been considered either arrogant and self-centered (thereby offending accepted codes of women's behavior) or trivial, since the "private" life of even a "public" woman is traditionally devalued when judged by the standard of autobiographies of men of accomplishment. Female autobiographers who try to bridge the gap between public images and private lives have often found themselves in a paradoxical double bind: efforts to reveal their "true" self throw them into direct confrontation with critical expectations of trained readers and social expectations for women's propriety. Telling the truth becomes even harder than it first appeared.

Nancy Miller attributes some nineteenth-century writers' hesitancy to name names of lovers to the backlash against Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "tell-all stance—especially in the area of the sexual connection, the erogenous zones of the self." In her study of George Sand, Simone de Beauvoir and others, she shows that "full disclosure" is obviously not the aim of male or female autobiographers, but that the issue poses a special problem for women autobiographers even when they are distinguished writers and "already figures of public fiction." For women autobiographers, "the concern of notoriety, then, functions as an additional grid or constraint placed upon the truth." For women, the self's being justified is "indelibly marked by what Simone de Beauvoir calls 'feminitude,' a culturally determined status of difference and oppression."

Like the works of the writers in Miller's study, Ocampo's work presents an "official reconstructed personality" while it also broaches the author's " 'submerged core,' [and] the 'sexual mystery that would make a drama.' " The difference between women's autobiography and that of men, according to Miller, is located in "the 'I' of the beholder, in the reader's perception and identity": although both male and female writers inscribe their sexuality on a literary text, male gender "is given and received literally as a mere donnée of personhood." Thus Miller proposed the notion of gender-bound reading, "a practice of the text that would recognize the status of the reader as differentiated subject . . . named by gender and committed in a dialectics of identification to deciphering the inscription of the female subject."[21] The intertextual self-examination in which Ocampo engages in Testimonios , the Autobiografía , and Sur is significantly informed by such gender-bound reading.

The consistently peculiar vision of women's autobiography in discussions among traditional (male) critics of the genre (and critics reading male texts) has drawn the attention of feminist critics rereading these works. Although critics of male texts share only a basic consensus about the definition of auto-


biography, their consistent lack of attention to the voluminous personal writing by women is striking.[22] When Domna Stanton began in the early 1980s to trace the history of women's autobiographical production in literature, she was mystified by the plethora of autobiographies by men listed under the catalog heading and the "ghostly absence" of titles by women:

Even in phallocratic terms, it made no sense. How could that void be reconciled with the age-old, pervasive decoding of all female writing as autobiographical? One answer . . . was that "autobiographical" constituted a positive term when applied to Augustine and Montaigne, Rousseau and Goethe, Henry Adams and Henry Miller, but that it had negative connotations when imposed on women's texts. It had been used, I realized, . . . to affirm that women could not transcend, but only record, the concerns of the private self; thus, it had effectively served to devalue their writing.[23]

In the lengthy debate about the relative merits of and distinctions between various forms of personal narrative, critics have generally tended to privilege "autobiography" above all others. As Ocampo's avoidance of this term until the last years of her life shows, she also believed in this hierarchy. In the context of her collected work, the Autobiografía is, then, the boldest possible affirmation of self-narration: it represents an attempt to lay down the shield of the mirrored reflections of her self through others which she has used in the testimonial project. Ironically, the title also suggests that the taboo against discussing her body explicitly can be broken only after her death.

Stanton, Estelle Jelinek, and other feminist theorists point consistently to the need to read the difference in self-fashioning in women's autobiographies; they call for dispensing with polemics among critics eager to limit discussions to genre and focusing instead on the gender of self-representation. It is in this context that Ocampo's very different emphasis on her corporality and female sexuality can best be understood.

In her groundbreaking studies of women's autobiography, Jelinek is not interested in the traditional male critical tendency to "legitimize autobiography as an aesthetic genre in order to distinguish it from mere historical document" or to perpetuate a hierarchy among autobiographical forms which privileges autobiography over memoirs, testimonies, or diaries. Jelinek terms this tendency an "autobiographical fallacy" and examines the problems such reading has posed for women autobiographers.[24]

According to Jelinek's hypothesis of differences between male and female autobiography, Ocampo's work combines primary features of both male and female autobiographies: it displays "a unity [and unidirectionality] that betokens a faith in the continuity of the world and [her] own self-image," while in narrative form and organization it reveals much of the "disconnectedness" and "fragmentation" traditionally linked to women's autobiographical writing.[25] The Autobiografía combines various forms—from historical sum-


mary and fragments of childhood memories to previously published material and letters, inserted in groups or singly, sometimes with little introduction. Transitions between these parts can be loose, tight, or not initially apparent.

Ocampo was as familiar through her reading with the European and American traditions of women's autobiography—from Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and St. Teresa de Ávila to George Sand, Mme de Stael, Colette, and Virginia Woolf—as she was with the Argentine male "generación del ochenta" of Domingo Sarmiento and Manuel A. Pueyrredon (1802–1865) through her family connections. She combined facets of both traditions in her own testimonial and autobiographical works, just as she struggled in her life to reconcile her sexuality and feminism with her oligarchic class connections. Ocampo belonged to the upper class by dint of family heritage, but her sex and experience determined a unique evolution. She was not a player in the political world of her forefathers, but rather combined the role of female salon leader with extensive writing and the direction of an important literary magazine—a combination of roles not shared exactly by any of her contemporaries, male or female, in Argentina.

In a study of five activist women autobiographers born in the nineteenth century—Emmeline Pankhurst, Emma Goldman, Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Worker ), Eleanor Roosevelt, and Golda Meir—Patricia Meyer Spacks characterizes their accounts as "female variants on the high tradition of the spiritual autobiography." Although only Day could be said to adhere to a formal tradition, Spacks compares the "certainty" characteristics of spiritual autobiographies (which "draw energy and conviction from the affirmation of transcendent meaning") to the "rhetoric of uncertainty  . . . about the self, about the value of womanhood, about the proper balance of commitments" evident in these modern women's autobiographies.

The women in Spacks's study possess two traits in common with Ocampo: they all "describe themselves, implicitly or explicitly, as gaining identity from their chosen work," and yet "all won not only fame but notoriety, each the object of bitter attack for her public achievements." Ocampo always explained her commitment to Sur in terms of its "spiritual meaning" (Spacks's term), often to the dismay of friends and foes alike.[26] She also characterized her own story as a "proclamation of faith" (1: 59) in the confessional tradition of Catholic mystics like St. Teresa (1515–1582) and Sor Juana (1648/51–1695).[27]

Argentine critics of Ocampo's Testimonios such as Blas Matamoro and Juan José Sebreli have positioned her in the tradition of the male "generación del ochenta" [the generation of 1880], describing testimonial writers of the oligarchy who make "el inventario de sus posesiones, hablando sobre sus parientes, sus amigos, sus casas, sus viajes, sus libros"[28] [the inventory of their possessions, and speak about their relations, friends, houses, travels, and books]. She demonstrates the tendency that Adolfo Prieto identifies


within "buena parte de la literatura autobiográfica [masculina] argentina durante el siglo XIX: el actitud del hombre que necesita justificarse ante la opinión pública"[29] [a good portion of Argentine (male) autobiographical literature in the nineteenth century: the attitude of the man who must justify himself to the public], yet the "triviality" for which she is criticized by Matamoro and Sebreli only highlights the difference in social experience, expectations, and self-perception of female members of the same class.

In discussing the problematic relation of literate women in history to "the culture of the alphabet," Gilbert and Gubar concur with Claude Lévi-Strauss that "writing may always have been associated with class oppression." Yet they distinguish the literary production of women, regardless of class affiliation, from that of men: "as feminist theorists from Woolf to Beauvoir have argued, the situation of women goes beyond class: no matter what their socioeconomic status, those who reproduce the species have never controlled the production of culture."[30] The undifferentiated classification of Ocampo's autobiography and collected work still maintained by critics of the Argentine male oligarchy ignores the sexual difference central to a full understanding of her self-image and the cultural myth that surrounds her. The unresolved search for an identity as female oligarch which lies at the center of Ocampo's collected work and represents the explicit focus of the Autobiografía raises questions about the role of women in propagating high culture. Ocampo's identification with the patriarchal legacy of Argentina's founding fathers constitutes the dilemma at the core of her cultural ideology and her sexual identity.

Argentine women writers roughly contemporary to Ocampo such as Delfina Bunge de Galvez, Norah Lange, Silvina Bullrich, María Rosa Oliver, and Carlotta Garrido de la Peña have also written autobiographical accounts that provide a challenging basis for comparison with Ocampo's Autobiografía .[31] Unlike these women, however, Ocampo wrote exclusively in explicitly autobiographical forms. Also unlike her female contemporaries in Argentina, she was a businesswoman of letters. Acknowledged as a central figure in the production of high culture, she was not only mistress of her own texts but also editor and coordinator of others' literary production.

Elizabeth Winston's study of autobiographies by North American and British women writers published after 1920 helps to place Ocampo's among the unprecedented number of autobiographies written by women and men in the Americas and Europe in the 1930s:

Women who published autobiographies after 1920 . . . no longer apologized for their careers and successes, though a few still showed signs of uneasiness at having violated cultural expectations for women. . . . This change in the autobiographer's relation to her readers reflects an important change in the writer's self-image and the kinds of autobiographical intentions she exhibited. That is, the more confident these women became of the legitimacy of their way of life,


the more freely they used autobiography for explicitly personal and, thus, more self-validating reasons—to express strongly held beliefs, explore and understand the self, or experiment with the conventions of the genre.[32]

Winston summarizes common reasons given by women like Gertrude Stein, Edith Sitwell, and Harriett Monroe for writing autobiographies: "to inform or exhort their readers, to clarify the past for themselves, . . . to experiment with the autobiographical form, or to assert their personal superiority." A recurring conflict in these works also seems to apply to Ocampo:

Yet, even in these vigorously self-affirming narratives, especially in Sitwell's angry autobiography, one detects the signs of struggle, the force spent in challenging criticism and fighting restriction. One gets a glimpse, in other words, of the price of success for a woman writing.[33]

The posthumous publication of the Autobiografía reinforces a reading of Ocampo's entire testimonial and autobiographical opus as a lifelong struggle to shape an integrated persona. Although the Autobiografía suggests that her disappointment in love and doubts about her own talent as a writer in the 1920s would be assuaged by the founding of Sur , like the Testimonios , this account rather emphasizes a series of dilemmas that she seemed never to resolve. Her primary adherence to French as a literary language in her own writing conflicted with her commitment to publish in Spanish for Argentine readers, causing a sense of linguistic displacement in more than metaphoric terms. As a woman, she was torn between adherence to male models and the need for self-affirmation. And in her search to define her self, she was torn between dependency on patriarchy and defense of her own autonomy.

Ocampo's Autobiografía betrays a self as divided and disparate as those of the women writers who served as her literary models. Yet, as Nancy Miller has explained in her study of French women autobiographers, the exercise of justifying an unorthodox life by writing about it is an assertion of power which must also be understood as a reviolation of masculine turf. Ocampo's Autobiografía is also "a defense and illustration, at once a treatise on overcoming received notions of femininity, and a poetics calling for another, freer text."[34] Though Ocampo's work displays the prejudices of her class and economic status, as does that of her male predecessors, the subject of her autobiography is similar to that of other women: "a self both scotomized and overexposed by the fact of her femininity as a social reality."[35] In Sur y Cía [Sur & Company], the last volume of the Autobiografía , Ocampo promises to resolve the conflict of her dual identity through the founding and directing of Sur , undoubtedly the literary project for which she is best known. On the last page of her narrative (6: 86) she declares that the story of her life was melded with that of the magazine from the day it was born in 1931, thus justifying the closure of this Autobiografía .

In an essay commemorating Ocampo in 1979, Emir Rodríguez Monegal called for a rereading of her Testimonios and suggests her problematic position


in the modern literary history of Argentina: "Se va a necesitar mucho tiempo para que [Los testimonios ] sean leídos como lo que son: la crónica de una mujer que en país de machos condescendientes se atrevió a pensar y a sentir y amar como se le dió la gana" [much time will need to pass before the Testimonios will be read for what they are: the chronicle of a woman who dared to think, to feel, and to love exactly as she pleased in a country of condescending machos]. And he disagrees with Borges's cavalier assessment of Ocampo as impervious to social convention and the judgment of others—" 'Victoria siempre hizo lo que quiso, and she got away with it ' " [Victoria always did what she wanted. . . .]. In his epitaph he responds to Borges—"Si, se salió con la suya, pero a que precio"[36] [yes, she always got her way, but at what price]—and signals both the problem and the solution for it.

Elaine Showalter has argued that "the specificity of female writing will emerge . . . from the study of the woman writer's interaction with both her male and female literary heritages." It is precisely this combination of traditions which Ocampo straddled so uncomfortably throughout five decades of autobiographical production and editorial involvement. Like other "women writing," Ocampo is not "inside and outside of the male tradition," but rather "inside two traditions simultaneously."[37] Despite the impressive volume of her literary production, she made an uneasy peace with the two "traditions." Ocampo's work represents a challenge to accepted theories of literary influence and to conventional role divisions in the business of letters. The "price" she paid for her accomplishments is reflected in the persistent disparity between her public image and the private self which emerges from an integral reading of her collected work.

Ocampo determined Sur 's official policy and was called to account for it publicly, but she was marginalized as a writer and a woman when she applied these ideals within the very pages of the magazine. While she might have wished that the story of her life were contained in Sur , only the official half of it can be read there. The unofficial one is better reconstructed through the ensemble of testimonial and autobiographical writings.

In the Autobiografía , Ocampo presents a previously unarticulated look at her struggles to conquer expectations to which she was intuitively and intellectually opposed. Though it is a provocative picture, unique in modern Argentine letters, of a young woman coming of age in the early part of the twentieth century, it also has the air of official epitaph. The work reveals in one bold, consolidated text both the extent of Ocampo's feminist rebellion and the restrictions imposed on it by her loyalty to the upper class into which she was born.

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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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