This essay juxtaposes original translations of contrasting images from the novel En una silla de ruedas [In a Wheelchair] by Costa Rican writer Carmen Lyra and Poemas de la inmovilidad [Poems of Immobility] by Uruguayan writer Luisa Luisi to reveal how representations of intellectuals who are paralyzed might complicate discourses of the artist, social hygiene, and eugenics in early 20th-century Spanish America. Lyra portrays her protagonist's paralysis as a tragedy, but his disability is also the source of social mobility that allows the novel to depict marginalized members of Costa Rican society. Luisi contests modernista aesthetics of perfect forms, countering with a multifaceted exploration of inner space enabled by physical stillness. Through their depictions of hospitals, asylums, and sanitariums, both writers bear witness to bodies the modernizing project would prefer to hide, and imagine alternative forms of progress.
The first chapter of Costa Rican writer Carmen Lyra's 1918 novel, En una silla de ruedas [In a Wheelchair] lingers over a detailed description of an extraordinary wheelchair:
[A] wheelchair was ordered for him from the United States. It was a chair with a mechanism allowing the seat and back to expand, an apparatus that would grow as Sergio needed. It was made of termite-proof wood, and wrought steel; it had golden ornaments and the cushions were covered in velvet. All of it was polished and shining, but nevertheless, it was a sad piece of furniture.
Cinta, Sergio's mother, and Canducha never forgot the first day the little boy was placed amongst the chair's soft cushions. The poor child laughed and clapped as though it were a toy.
The old servant secretly dabbed at her eyes with the corner of her apron. Virgin of the Angels, may Sergio not remain in that chair! Give us a miracle! She offered some golden legs that she would hang on her altar as soon as she saw that her little one "decided to walk properly."
Cinta pushed the chair. She wheeled it toward the garden and the creaking of the wheels on the sand pierced her heart like a thorn. Years went by, and the miracle Canducha longed for did not happen. Many times the chair's golden ornaments lost their shine and were given a new polish, and many times as well the velvet cushions were reupholstered. There the boy remained. Sergio and the chair were growing side by side. 1
At a time when many wheelchair users did not have their own personal chairs, this singular chair is lovingly described as an extension of the singular main character, Sergio. The expansion mechanism Lyra describes predates 1930s innovations allowing folding wheelchairs to become widespread. 2 Sergio and his chair paradoxically allow Lyra's fictional novel to signal both faith in modern technology to improve health and society, and criticism of the social marginalization of non-normative bodies.
Rather than focusing on her own wheelchair, Uruguayan poet Luisa Luisi opens her 1926 Poemas de la inmovilidad [Poems of immobility] with a poem, "Inmovilidad" [Immobility] that looks at physical stillness itself:
The flight of time, for me, has ceased.
I am no longer of the world…
I am the Absolute and the Definitive,
in their immobility.
I burn still and silent like a candle;
I am but a thought;
vulgar episodic existence
has lost its meaning. I am eternal
and I am unmoved.
I have freed myself from Life:
I am Immobility. 3
This book, coinciding with the progressive paralysis Luisi experienced during this time in her life, begins by equating the female speaker and her condition of paralysis through metonymy, and highlights how this position allows her to access a specific perspective on existence. The wheelchair, lingered over in Lyra's opening chapter, has no place at all in Luisi's opening poem and is scarcely mentioned as the book's inward movement develops.
This essay provides the first English translations of selections from En una silla de ruedas and Poemas de la inmovilidad, juxtaposing and contextualizing them to question how representations of intellectuals who are paralyzed might complicate discourses of social hygiene and literary modernismo in early 20th-century Spanish America. 4 Sergio's fictional experiences imagined by Lyra, and Luisi's own experiences informing her lyrical voice, contradict the era's modernizing narrative based on European thought requiring the regulation and confinement of nonconforming bodies. New technologies and infrastructure for mobility (often implemented by foreign companies) and isolated, bucolic public welfare hospitals for people with chronic illnesses and disabilities were hailed as proud symbols of modern progress. 5 Sergio's imported luxury wheelchair is a modern transportation technology that serves as both a space of social isolation and an impetus for social mobility. Luisi's embodied experience allows her to evoke the anguish of isolation in the sanitarium, countering celebrations of such institutions as guardians of modern progress. Although Lyra and Luisi came from differing national and class backgrounds, they were contemporaries who were engaged in feminist and social justice efforts through their work as writers and educators.
While early 20th-century Spanish American writers and artists were seen as unusual, rare individuals, the modernista aesthetic of the time was obsessed with perfect forms and their decadent others, and few literary works within this tradition turn their attention to experiences of disability. 6 This piece pairs translated excerpts from Lyra's novel and Luisi's poetry to consider how these texts portray intellectuals whose exceptionality lies in the relationship between extraordinary minds and bodies with non-normative mobility. As Susan Antebi writes, cultural representations of "disabled or unusual bodies point toward a geopolitically determined history through which corporeal difference has acquired its conventional meanings and, at the same time, challenge and diversify such meanings through unexpected juxtapositions of texts, bodies, and disciplinary traditions"; these bodies are "both performing subjects and represented objects" (3). While Luisi wrote her poetic performance from a position of authority drawn from her embodied experience, Lyra lamented decades later that she had not done enough to consider Sergio's physical experience in her representation. Despite these differences, paralysis enables both works to explore the relationship between bodies, minds, and their contexts: a physical movement throughout various social spaces in Lyra's novel, and a profound metaphysical search in Luisi's poetry. [In a Wheelchair] portrays Sergio's paralysis as a tragedy, but his disability also affords Sergio unique social mobility and allows the novel to depict other marginalized members of Costa Rican society. Luisi's poetry bears witness to life behind the closed doors of a sanitarium and represents multiple, clashing facets of paralysis as symbol, embodied experience, and pathway of knowledge.
María Isabel Carvajal (1888-1949), better known by her pseudonym Carmen Lyra, is recognized as Costa Rica's first prominent female writer, and her writing was always intertwined with her efforts as an educator and political activist. She worked with the Daughters of Charity in the San Juan de Dios hospital, but she was ultimately unable to become a nun because her parents were unmarried. Throughout her life, Lyra pursued advancements in education and social justice in Costa Rica, but she died in exile due to her communist activities. Lyra was a pioneer: she co-founded and co-edited Costa Rica's first children's magazine (San Selerín, which ran from 1912-13 and 1923-24); served as her country's first professor of children's literature; founded Costa Rica's first female teachers' union; and studied pedagogy in Europe (in 1920) to then cofound Costa Rica's first Montessori school (in 1925). She also held lively intellectual gatherings in her home. Lyra's 1920 Los cuentos de mi Tía Panchita [Tales of My Aunt Panchita], a Costa Rican adaptation of European and North American folklore, is one of the most beloved works of Costa Rican children's literature. Because Lyra's writings for adults were suppressed for decades due to her association with communism, she has been remembered mostly as a teacher and as an author of children's literature. 7
Recently, increasing critical attention has been paid to the relationship between these seemingly innocuous children's stories and Lyra's political program. Ann González, for example, reads Lyra's children's stories as "a 'fractured' attempt of subaltern thinking to engage in a repressed dialogue with hegemony, to complement it as well as to interject it into discourse" (37). Lyra's work for both children and adults directs a sharp eye for detail at Costa Rican social injustices. Her acerbic 1923 social commentary about a snobby neighborhood called "El Barrio Cothnejo-Fishy" contrasts the narrator's piercing gaze at human suffering with high society's inability and unwillingness to read their own actions critically. In the later Bananos y hombres [Bananas and Men] (1931), Lyra's narrator directs a similarly unflinching gaze at social instability, lack of education, malnutrition, and rampant disease among the families of banana plantation workers, particularly women and children. Lyra's writing for children during this time works to cultivate well-rounded young readers who take in the details of the world with wonder, and deploy reading and learning to solve problems. In her work as editor of the children's magazine, San Selerín, Lyra's social concerns are evident in the inclusion of hygiene instruction and the promotion of social ideals.
In a 1946 prologue to a new retouched edition of [In a Wheelchair,] Lyra writes that she realized over time that her representation of Sergio's life had not reflected a keen eye, but rather, was superficial and influenced by stereotypes:
An intelligent friend of mine, a woman medical doctor to whom I gave my novel to read, made a critique that I find very pertinent: she told me that I was only dealing with the sentimental side of the conflict, that I had not dared to descend into the hell that develops within a human mutilated by paralysis. I barely touch the sexual drama. My ignorance of that situation at the time, and possibly prejudices, forced me to tiptoe over the surface of that phenomenon." 8
Despite these limitations, scholar Dennis Arias Mora credits this book with "producing a discourse of disability when disability did not exist as a concept or a political identity" in Costa Rica ("produce un discurso sobre la discapacidad cuando esta no existe como concepto ni identidad política", 112). The novel envisions its disabled protagonist as both a marginalized victim and a member of an authentic intellectual community.
[In a Wheelchair] (1918) imagines in Sergio a modern Costa Rican intellectual, a select being whose social marginality as a person with a disability provides opportunities for the novel to depict contradictory aspects of the country's modernization. Sergio's marginal status moves him from relative to relative, from special schools to the Asylum for the Incurable, and even to the prestigious National Theatre. Likewise, the narration jumps between third person and first person: the novel's relationship to its protagonist is mobile. Sergio is surrounded by other characters who are also marginalized because their bodies counter social norms, and who, like Sergio, are admired by the sympathetic narrating agent: women who have sex outside of marriage, people with indigenous ancestry, orphans, an alcoholic. The novel floats between costumbrista regionalist description and an episodic storyline, third person and first person, past and present, but a central question moving the story forward is whether Sergio and his adopted family of misfits will find a place of their own where they can be happy together 9.
The novel is a Künstlerroman, following the education of Sergio the artist, a select being. Sergio's exceptionality is not limited to mobility. Physically, his face is striking ("moreno y pálido, "dark and pale"), especially his large, intense eyes, as well as a brain and heart that are unusually developed because his energy was not spent moving his legs (10). Sergio has an extraordinary capacity for love, not only for his family but for his natural surroundings, and that love is returned to him. This artist's education is unconventional in that it takes place primarily through Sergio's interactions with socially marginalized mentors. His first teacher is his devoted primary caregiver, the dark-skinned servant Canducha, a storyteller who is wise in regional tradition, a devout syncretic Catholic, and creator of delicious tortillas and sweets (13-17, 21). Sergio's younger sister María de la Gracia "made up all the games they played, and always figured out a way for Sergio to be able to play just as if he had good legs." 10 Humble Austrian laborer and amateur violinist Miguel, the alcoholic character, has an immediate spiritual connection with Sergio and enriches his environment with clever handmade fireworks and toys made from unwanted scraps; a perfectly tended garden; songs in his native language; and stories of his faraway homeland and his travels sharpening knives throughout Costa Rica (18, 21, 22, 45). Most importantly, Miguel's talent as a violinist and his ability to imitate the sounds of nature through music inspire Sergio to learn to play the violin (24). Miguel teaches Sergio to play on his old violin made of wood from the Alps, and through his music, the novel tells us, Sergio's heart runs and takes flight (25). As an adult, Sergio feels that music allows him to transcend the physical: "he listens to the music within him and around him, forming sweet melodies and harmonies that carry his soul to regions where the notion of the suffering body is lost." 11 He reflects "on what my life would have been without this man who came from a foreign country across the sea, to show me, with my dead feet, the path to the wonderful world of sound. My existence is not a wasteland, because he taught me to listen." 12 Sergio's mentors provide him with tools and guidance that shape his artistic trajectory, but his innate curiosity and big heart sustain him throughout episode after episode of physical and emotional suffering.
Because of his paralysis, Sergio is forced to move from home to home, institution to institution, and has the opportunity to compare and criticize these social spheres, somewhat like a pícaro. After Sergio's mother abandons her children to go live with her lover in Peru, Sergio is sent to live with his stepfather's overbearing (and masculine) sister Concha, who grows beautiful roses and begonias but only to make a profit, not out of appreciation for their beauty (41). Concha and her husband also have cages where they raise many types of birds from all over the country, perhaps for the beauty of their song, but certainly for profit (43). In their large, frightening, bleak house, the cook, Engracia, tells delightfully spooky folktales and young orphan Ana María turns her endless chores into imaginative games (38-39). Ana María cares for Sergio physically and also offers him opportunities to learn and explore: she takes him to school and to explore the coffee processing plant, and gives him a prism and teaches him how to see things differently through it. Sergio also learns from Pastora, a kind young woman who works sewing up coffee bags and is cruelly condemned as a loose woman by her neighbors, even when she is terminally ill (56).
Sergio's next stop—when his aunt and uncle, along with Ana María, travel to Europe to seek cancer treatment for the aunt—is a vocational school, the Colegio de los Salesianos in the colonial capital of Cartago (57), which he reaches by train. A few years later, Ana María returns transformed by travel and time, in love with a Costa Rican man she met on the ship back from Europe (and secretly pregnant); Sergio goes back to live with his aunt and uncle. Miguel, too, is changed when he returns from the Chapuí insane asylum, which is notorious even today. When Ana María's son (named after Sergio) is born, Concha throws her out for being an immoral woman and Sergio is sent, at his request, to live at the Asylum for the Incurable.
Sergio is happy to live in this beautiful, peaceful place with Canducha and his violin. In the logic of the novel, his marginalization here and the public's othering gaze lead directly to his socioeconomic ascent and the ability to form a new national family of socially marginal, authentic artists. When the famous English organist and composer Clovis Shirley just happens to pass by the asylum while Sergio is playing the violin, he is profoundly moved by the music, and they instantly become friends (83). They play violin and piano together, and Clovis arranges for them to perform at the National Theatre, a cherished symbol of Costa Rican national identity. The narrator surmises, "perhaps it was curiosity to see a paralyzed violinist on stage, rather than the desire to listen to good music (which our public does not appreciate) that filled the theater." 13 This unsophisticated gawking, however, leads to publicity through which Ana María learns about the performance. Sergio makes enough money through the concerts to leave the asylum for a modest home with his adopted sister, mother (Canducha) and father (Miguel), along with his sister Gracia and godson Sergio. Together, they make an honest living through their creative work: music lessons, dressmaking, and toy making. After Aunt Concha dies and leaves them some money, the family finally returns to Sergio's yearned-for childhood home. As Sergio reflects on his life, he visualizes an array of wheelchairs: "Before my eyes there is a row of chairs with a Sergio sitting in each one; he leaves this house and has made so many turns to come back to it!" 14
From the beginning, the wheelchair is a character in the novel, described in detail before Sergio himself; the importance of the chair is further highlighted by the novel's title. The chair is seen in opposite ways by different characters. The narrator describes it as a lovingly maintained luxury item imported from the U.S., featuring both technological advances and aesthetically pleasing details. Little Sergio loves it, while his caretakers see it as a curse. Looking back at his life as a series of chairs, adult Sergio views his chair as an extension of himself, as the narrator did in the opening depiction of the chair. Despite the limitations of Lyra's representation, her depiction of Sergio's identification with his chair resonates with Fiona Kumari Campbell's assertion that "the technology of the chair, cane, voice machine is not mere prosthetic but signifies an ontological emergence that is not able to be cut off from the visceral" (55).
Although Sergio's disability ultimately resolves the novel's central conflict by creating social mobility, the narrator and characters view Sergio's paralysis as a terrible affliction. The novel is set into motion by the sudden illness (West's morning paralysis, later known as polio) that results in Sergio's partial paralysis at age two. The narrating agent does not offer Sergio's perceptions of this event, perhaps reflecting an older Sergio's inability to remember something that happened when he was so young. Sergio's legs and his chair are the object of many sorrowful yet admiring stares, both at the level of the story and at the level of the narration. The narration underscores the sadness his youngest sister, Merceditas, feels when she realizes for the first time that his chair is not a toy and that his legs will never be like hers. She asks if she can cut off her own legs and give them to him, since she does not need them (11). From that day on, she only does activities that Sergio can do and tries to make his legs better by kissing them every night. Lyra has Sergio take part in this pitying gaze as if from outside his own body: "there I am, sitting in my chair: I smile at myself… I feel sympathy and compassion for this pale boy who cannot walk. I give a friendly wave and he waves back." 15 The narrator (and Sergio, too) distinguish between the genuine feelings of Sergio's family and the condescending attitude of his stepfather, Juan Pablo: "He had a way of patting him on the head, saying 'my poor son!' And these words fell upon the boy's heart like unbidden alms." 16
Performing at the National Theatre, Sergio the artist is the object of the fascinated gaze of spectators and, later, newspaper readers:
His black clothing highlighted the delicate pallor of his face. Women were attracted to him: they commented on his eyes, his shape, his hands: the haughty, careless way he tossed his straight hair backwards: they talked about his melancholy smile and the distinctiveness and ease of his movements … One [newspaper] said that watching Sergio sitting in his chair, with his legs covered by a costly dark fur, one recalled the handsome and unfortunate prince in that Oriental story, with his torso and lower body transformed by a curse into a block of black marble. 17
While the theatre review references this image in the context of an exoticizing stare, it seems hardly coincidental that famed Nicaraguan modernista poet Ruben Darío had previously invoked the same tale from the Arabian Nights in a poem dedicated to Cuban poet Desiderio Fajardo Ortiz (1862-1905), known as "El Cautivo" or The Captive because he used a wheelchair (Loynaz 23):
Like the storybook prince,
your legs are of marble;
as a poet and artist,
your eyes watch the stars. 18
In the Arabian Nights, the young king is turned "half man, half marble" by a terrible curse. For the modernistas, the perfect shape and precious material of a marble statue was an ideal after which to model their poetry, so Darío's comparison seems intended to cast Fajardo Ortiz as an embodiment of that aesthetic. Lyra's newspaper account both links Sergio the artist to this modernista discourse and underscores the public's fascination with the trappings of affluence and a body they view as exotic in its otherness.
Sergio is not the only one to be stared at in the novel. As the protagonist moves through new spaces, Lyra presents through his gaze an insider's view of institutions not normally seen by the general public, likely informed by her work in the Hospital San Juan de Dios. This view of suffering and isolation provides glimpses of unique individuals who are nonetheless not developed into full-fledged characters. Because this gaze comes through Sergio, who is himself the object of staring, the novel gives readers license to stare-as-Sergio, both objectifying the asylum residents as Other and testifying visually to their existence in a society that works to hide them from public view. The narrator tells us that to Sergio, the Asylum for the Incurable is like "a hive reverberating with the incessant buzzing of bees making not honey, but pain."
Sometimes he imagined himself on the planet of the broken: the blind, the one-armed, the noseless, the legless men who crawled on the stumps of their thighs protected by thick skin, or who walked hitting the ground with a peg leg or with crutches. There was a tall, strong young man who would suddenly fall into convulsions and bounce around like a rubber ball, his mouth contorted into a diabolical grimace, covered in foam. A small, grey old man with bug eyes, with a developed torso and half-stick legs, seated in a toy car he made himself and that he himself could drive. He was intelligent and cheerful and he liked to poke fun at himself. … A boy without a nose, with very swollen hands and feet, who was always buying lottery tickets in the hope of having money to buy himself a new nose. There was a thirty-year-old man with a face like a ball of lard, dressed in a woman's robe. A teenager who was blind from birth, lying in a small cart, so skinny his skeleton was showing; his legs were thin as fingers, and looking into his open eyes was like peering into an empty house at night. 19
This parade of difference goes on for another page or two, and Sergio realizes guiltily that he feels better about his own situation in comparison with the other patients. Sergio shifts from staring at the patients to joining their community when he discovers that they share his love of music. Still, he feels sorry for their suffering and isolation, and he observes critically that the people in charge of the asylum have superficial motivations—caring more about their own reputations and the appearance of the institution than about their patients' comfort and wellbeing—and that some of the patients are workers whose employers refused to take responsibility when they were injured on the job (80-81).
As Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes, the public presence of "people with stareable bodies" "can expand the range of the bodies we expect to see and broaden the terrain where we expect to see such bodies […] This is what stares can show us all." While Lyra's novel sees Sergio as an exceptional person whose paralysis makes him the artist he is and enables his story to move in and out of social institutions, she also asks readers to view the utter lack of social mobility of many people with non-normative bodies in early 20th-century Costa Rica. The alternative national family that forms in Lyra's novel imagines a happy community of authentic artists motivated by beauty, whose bodies do not conform to the modernizing project, but not without recognizing the reality of social and physical isolation, and criticizing the elites who are more concerned with their image than with improving their fellow citizens' quality of life. Lyra makes it clear that Sergio's social mobility is an idealized scenario that does not reflect the general institutionalization of people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. The happy ending she creates for his marginalized adopted family represents an alternative potential for Costa Rica to move into modernity through the authentic creativity and solidarity of oppressed social groups.
Carmen Lyra's Uruguayan contemporary Luisa Luisi (1883-1940) was also a teacher, and her work as a writer spanned journalism, literary criticism, and poetry. Luisi came from a progressive, well-off family that included a number of trailblazers: her sister Paulina, Uruguay's first woman physician, her sister Clotilde, who was the country's first female lawyer, as well as another sister, Inés, who was a surgeon. Luisa shared Lyra's passion for improving all children's access to spaces and practices promoting health and education. She advocated for free and compulsory education, and more schools with smaller class sizes and a cheerful and hygienic environment full of light, plants, and good air circulation. Luisi represented her country at the Child Congress in 1916 and 1919 (López 23-25). At the first of these congresses she gave a speech arguing that professional careers did not harm women or the family in any way, but when denied the opportunity to be financially independent through a career path, women were condemned to begging, prostitution, and suicide; she argued that all careers available to men should be open to women, and that the law should view women as all that they are naturally capable of doing.
Luisi was an active contributor to several cultural and literary magazines, and between 1916 and 1935 she published four books of poetry: Sentir [Feeling] (1916), Inquietud [Restlessness] (1921), Poemas de la inmovilidad y Canciones al sol [Poems of Immobility and Songs to the Sun] (1926) and Polvo de días [Dust of Days] (1935). Major themes throughout her work include passion and longing for the other; longing, too, to know the self and its relationship to the body, to the past, and to the universe; mysticism, pantheism, an often joyful feeling of connectedness between the speaker and Mother Nature; and anguished experience of the limits of both knowledge and the body. By 1926, Luisi was using a wheelchair due to an unnamed disease causing progressive paralysis, and by 1921 she had already written poetry depicting life inside sanitariums where she had gone seeking to regain her health. Luisi was influential as a writer and educator during her life. Fellow poet and educator, Chilean Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral, wrote with tremendous admiration and affection about her friend and intellectual colleague Luisa upon her death. But by the 1950s, Luisi's poetry was largely forgotten, and it has remained almost completely ignored since then by literary critics. 20
Luisi's poetry from the 1920s bears witness to life inside a sanitarium and represents paralysis as a multifaceted concept, an intellectual experience of an inner journey, as well as a physical experience of frustration, anguish, and isolation. Beth E. Jörgensen has observed that disability life-writing "may […] record negotiations of the spaces of exclusion in an innovative and subversive way" (67). Indeed, Luisi's embodied self-portrait as an artist develops a paradoxical image of physical paralysis and institutional isolation as a metaphysical journey. Luisi rewrites modernista tropes of perfect forms and interior artistic spaces (Aching) as a medium for personal physical and metaphysical experiences shaped by paralysis.
In her 1921 book, Inquietud [Restlessness], creativity and intellectual activity are associated with unrestrained movement:
(from "My Art")
No, my soul does not fit into a sonnet,
Mosaic verse of patient labor:
My art is for my soul a restless steed, free,
Beguiling space, and cloud, and flower! 21
Yet in the same book, stillness can also be a creative force:
Oh! divine idleness of animal or plant!…
I am slowly reborn in this Spring:
The warm sun wraps me in its golden caress
And my flesh blooms in brown corollas.
Attentive to the mysterious work of Life
I hear my growing cells' affirmation.
Oh supreme blessing! Psyche sleeps, defeated
In her useless effort to conquer matter.
Reclining softly in my invalid chair,
I sink deep into sweet, languid idleness.
The afternoon is longing for peace and repose
That submerges me in lazy somnolence… 22
The speaker's stillness in "Convalescence" allows her to attune to levels of movement (blooming flesh, growing cells) that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Stillness, in this volume, is primarily associated with bodily and mental illness, distress, and death, above all in the section of the book titled "In the Sanitarium." Like Lyra's portrayal of the patients at the Asylum for the Incurable who lack Sergio's social mobility, Luisi's poems provide an insider's view that counters the modernizing discourse celebrating such institutions as beacons of social health:
Immobile in bed, both hands
Resting on the sheets,
Eyes open in the dark,
I feel life slowly escaping
Through my fingertips. 23
In the next poem in the collection, Luisi juxtaposes movement and life with stillness that may seem to be peaceful rest, but is actually the oppressive presence of death:
(from "The Suicide")
Through the screen of my room,
Filtered in green, summer enters,
With the buzzing of its flies
And the lustful song of its cicadas…
No voice, no laughter, no lament…
One would say the awful stillness, august calm
Of an ancient, stately park.
But there, in the shadows of that room,
There, close to my own,
Skull fractured by the fall,
The tragic suicide continues to bleed… 24
Readers are made to see this unseen suffering again in Luisi's 1926 poem "In the Sanitarium," contrasting the serene beauty of the sanitarium by day with its unseen suffering by night:
Ah! The still of night
knows the ultimate secret
of our feverish existences
under imposed calm;
night knows the pain that bursts in stifled
moans, in sobs, in prayer…
Night knows the mystery of the wounded lung;
it knows the horror of cancer, the martyrdom
of forced immobility;
all the secrets that by light of day
are covered up by smiles, by activity,
quips at the ready,
the quiet heroism of a smile… 25
Luisi's 1926 book, Poemas de la inmovilidad [Poems of Immobility], continues to explore multiple aspects of an experience of paralysis, focusing on the intellectual and emotional more than the physical. The poet has returned to more structured verse with 14-syllable lines and regular rhyme, as if exploring the creative possibilities of that restraint she defied in her earlier ars poetica. As mentioned in the introduction to this essay, the opening poem, "Immobility," views paralysis as a path to freedom from physicality. But in the very next poem, "To the Winged Victory of Samothrace," the embodied perpetual potential for motion of the famous statue expresses the speaker's desperate longing to move—rewriting the perfect form of a beautiful marble statue as seen earlier in Darío's and Lyra's references to the Arabian nights: 26
Oh! Victory, Victory, divine marble,
Like me, condemned to immobility;
All her soul set upon open wings,
Mutilated in the supreme impetus to fly!…
Yearning for movement! Yearning to rise,
To run, to take off in masterful flight!…
Desire, painful in its impossibility,
To walk… to walk… to walk!…
Oh, Victory, Victory of Samothrace,
Image of my life, all immobility;
In divine marble turned prison of flight
Tremendous, desperate yearning to fly!… 27
Curiously, Darío also had written a poem in 1914 to the Victory of Samothrace, but his poem exalts the eternal artistic power of this beautiful image: "This illustrious figure sees though it has no eyes, / It has no arms, and yet its entire lyre sings. / It has no mouth, yet unleashes its supreme cries, / embracing infinity with Pentelic wings" (translation by Greg Simon and Steven F. White, Darío 187). 28
Luisi explores the juxtaposition of the will and the body further in "Mutilación" ("Mutilation"), where the speaker describes losing arms, legs, sight, and the ability to open her mouth, yet is left with strong desires to move, see, and drink. In "Frío" ("Cold") the speaker is so cold and lonely she imagines throwing her own heart onto the fire, and in "¡Oh, largos años de prisión!" ("Oh, Long Years of Imprisonment!") the speaker's soul undergoes a metamorphosis and sprouts wings to fly "to harmony, to the sun!" Seemingly answering the famous Darío poem "Lo fatal" (which expresses a wish to be like a tree or a stone to avoid the unbearable pain of consciousness), Luisi uses nature imagery to express frustration and isolation in "Soy la piedra inmóvil…" ("I am the immobile stone…"):
They pass by… pass by! I am always in my place;
I am the stone, seated day in and day out;
The tree, mounted in the same position:
Tree… person… stone… I no longer know what I am!… 29
In the next poem, "Yedra amarga" ("Bitter Ivy"), the speaker finds meaning in the experience of having her life slowly choked by a parasitic plant:
I die, still and stifled, beneath the green branches
that choke my existence in their endless embrace.
But the great embrace that crucifies and kills,
is the supreme reason that forces me to live… 30
This paradoxical knowledge is echoed in "Y otra vez la esperanza," ("Hope again"), where the speaker finds purity and contact with God in her suffering and "noble cautiverio" ("noble capitivity"); in "Silencio" ("Silence"), where silence contains the potential for all things; in "Alma…" ("Soul…"), where the speaker commands her soul to suffer more to reach Infinity; and in "Lázaro," where Lazarus curses his return to the limits of life after witnessing the expanse of eternity:
Pupils that had looked "beyond"
no longer saw the living realm;
nostalgic, his body
stretched long like a grave.
Centuries fell upon him. His eyes,
dazzled by Eternity, sought in vain
their vision of Mystery. Lazarus cursed
the awful gift of his new life,
the living realm too narrow for
the broad vision of a sleepless Sphinx. 31
Paradoxically, too, the speaker in Poems of Immobility makes sense of her physical paralysis and her relationship to the universe through imagery of vast expanses of space. In "¡Ay! Me he hundido tan hondo…" ("Oh! I have sunk so deep…") the speaker evokes an inner space so vast that she has lost contact with the outside. The next poem, "Bajo la sugestión de tu palabra" ("Under the Suggestion of Your Word"), contrasts monstrous movement of a new railway across the vast Chaco with the speaker's immobility, and in "Cansancio" ("Weariness"), the speaker is weary of her journey across the arid, thorny space of time and wants only to rest.
Luisa Luisi's poetry expresses a situated knowledge of space, of movement and stillness, of isolation, and of daily life in a sanitarium seen by the outside as a bucolic place of modern progress. Even as Luisi laments the loss of movement and social interaction, her images of nature, the Victory of Samothrace, and the figure of Lazarus revise tropes equating beauty and wisdom with a perfect, self-sufficient body, fashioning an alternative resembling what Lennard Davis has called a "dismodernist subject," a "partial, incomplete subject whose realization is not autonomy and independence but dependency and interdependence" (30). Luisi's poetic speaker yearns for the ability to move even as she demonstrates ways that immobility has profoundly opened her awareness. She counters the modernista intellectual crisis of turn-of-the-century existential angst with a more immediate personal crisis where body and mind are inextricable.
Carmen Lyra and Luisa Luisi made paralyzed intellectual figures a subject of literary attention at a time when non-normative bodies were seen as a threat to the modernizing project, and within a cultural tradition that relegated people with disabilities to private and institutional spaces. They ask readers to consider the relationships between modernity, modernismo, and space through texts of individual embodied experiences in which, as Kim Sawchuk describes it, "our sense of self in the world around us is constituted in and through tactility and our embodied relation to […] landscapes that continually shape and re-shape our movement-abilities" (409). As part of Carmen Lyra's larger project of championing marginalized Costa Ricans, Sergio's physical and artistic nonconformity create a space for a more diverse national family to emerge. Luisa Luisi contests modernista aesthetics of perfect spaces contrasting with the chaos of modern life, countering with a multifaceted exploration of inner and institutional spaces enabled by embodied immobility and isolation. Through their depictions of hospitals, asylums, and sanitariums, both writers bear witness to bodies the modernizing project would prefer to hide, and imagine alternative forms of progress.
- Aching, Gerard. The Politics of Spanish American Modernismo. Cambridge UP, 1997.
- Antebi, Susan. Carnal Inscriptions: Spanish American Narratives of Corporeal Difference and Disability. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230621664
- Arias Mora, Dennis. "Las obsesiones corporales de Carmen Lyra entre la mirada biopolítica, el saber literario y las metáforas del poder." Cuadernos Inter.c.a.mbio sobre Centroamérica y el Caribe, vol. 11, no. 1, 2014. https://doi.org/10.15517/c.a..v11i1.14236
- Aronna, Michael. "Pueblos Enfermos": The Discourse of Illness in the Turn-of-the century Spanish and Latin American Essay. U of North Carolina P, 1999.
- Barrán, Juan Pedro. "Biología, medicina y eugenesia en Uruguay." Asclepio vol. 51, no. 2, 1999. https://doi.org/10.3989/asclepio.1999.v51.i2.309
- Campbell, Fiona Kumari. Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230245181
- Chase, Alfonso. "Prólogo" and "Carmen Lyra en su tiempo." Carmen Lyra, Relatos escogidos, edited by Alfonso Chase, Costa Rica, 1999.
- Cueto, Marcos and Steven Palmer. "National Medicines and Sanitarian States." Medicine and Public Health in Latin America: A History. Cambridge UP, 2015, pp. 58-105.
- Darío, Rubén. Selected Writings. Edited by Ilan Stavans. Translated by Andrew Hurley, Greg Simon, and Steven F. White. Penguin Books, 2005.
- Davis, Lennard. Bending over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism and Other Difficult Positions. New York UP, 2002.
- Fumero, Patricia. El advenimiento de la modernidad en Costa Rica: 1850-1914. UCR, 2005.
- Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Staring: How We Look. Oxford UP, 2009.
- González, Ann. Resistance and Survival: Children's Narrative from Central America and the Caribbean. U of Arizona P, 2009.
- Horan, Elizabeth Rosa. The Subversive Voice of Carmen Lyra. UP of Florida, 2000.
- Jörgensen, Beth E. "Negotiating the Geographies of Exclusion and Access: Life Writing by Gabriela Brimmer and Ekiwah Adler-Beléndez." Libre Acceso: Latin American Literature and Film through Disability Studies, edited by Susan Antebi and Beth E. Jörgensen, SUNY Press, 2016. pp. 63-80.
- López, Sara. El legado de las hermanas Luisi, cien años después… U de la República Uruguay, 2013.
- Loynaz, Dulce María. Ensayos literarios. Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 1993.
- Luisa Luisi. Autores del Uruguay. http://www.autoresdeluruguay.uy/biblioteca/luisa_luisi/
- Luisi, Luisa. Antología: Verso y prosa. Edited and with an introduction by Myriam Álvarez. Editorial Biblioteca de Textos Univeritarios, 1998.
- ---. Inquietud. Pegaso, 1921. http://www.autoresdeluruguay.uy/biblioteca/luisa_luisi/
- ---. "Inquietude." Translated by L.E.E. The Pan-American Magazine, vol. 34, Jan. 1922, p. 31. http://books.google.com/books?id=xwdBAQAAMAAJ
- ---. Poemas de la inmovilidad y Canciones al sol. Cervantes, 1926. http://www.autoresdeluruguay.uy/biblioteca/luisa_luisi/
- ---. "I Am a Tree." Translated by Alice Stone Blackwell. Some Spanish-American Poets. Greenwood Press, 1968, p. 450.
- Lyra, Carmen. En una silla de ruedas. Imprenta Nacional, 2012. https://www.imprentanacional.go.cr/editorialdigital/libros/literatura%20costarricense/en_una_silla_de_ruedas.pdf
- Muricano Mainez, Carlos María. Hacia una revisión de la poesía posmodernista femenina en el Uruguay (en su primera época). Dissertation. 2002 http://eprints.ucm.es/3663/1/T21299.pdf
- Palmer, Steven. From Popular Medicine to Medical Populism. Doctors, Healers, and Public Power in Costa Rica, 1800-1940. Duke UP, 2003.
- Portillo, José. "Historia de la medicina estatal en Uruguay (1724-1930)." Revista médica del Uruguay, vol. 11, no. 1, June 1995. http://www.rmu.org.uy/revista/1995v1/art2.pdf
- Rivera Garza, Cristina. La Castañeda: Narrativas dolientes desde el Manicomio General, México, 1910-1930. Tusquets, 2011.
- Rodríguez, Julia. Civilizing Argentina: Science, Medicine, and the Modern State. The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
- Rojas, Margarita. "Nación y familia: En una silla de ruedas, de Carmen Lyra." Letras vol. 1, no. 23-24, 1991, pp 163-85.
- Sawchuk, Kim. "Impaired." The Routledge Handbook of Mobilities, edited by Peter Adey et al, Routledge, 2014, pp. 409-20.
- Stepan, Nancy Leys. "The Hour of Eugenics": Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America. Cornell UP, 1991.
- Trambaioli, Marcella. "La estatua y el ensueño: Dos claves para la poesía de Delmira Agustini." Revista Hispánica Moderna vol. 50, no. 1, 1997, pp. 57-66.
- Wolfson, Penny Lynne. "Enwheeled: Two Centuries of Wheelchair Design, from Furniture to Film." M.A. thesis, 2014. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.parsons.201511240747
I am grateful to the University of Kansas Hall Center for the Humanities Disability Studies Seminar for feedback on an earlier version of this project. All translations are my own unless otherwise indicated; the corresponding Spanish quotations appear as end notes.
"Más tarde se pidió para él a los Estados Unidos, una silla de ruedas. Era una silla que mediante cierto mecanismo podía ensanchar asiento y respaldo, un aparato que crecería conforme Sergio lo necesitara. Estaba hecha de madera a prueba de comején, y de acero labrado; tenía adornos dorados y los almohadones forrados en terciopelo. Todo en ella era pulido y reluciente, sin embargo, era un mueble triste.
Jamás Cinta, la madre de Sergio, ni Canducha, olvidaron el primer día en que el chiquillo fue colocado en la silla, entre almohadones suaves. El pobre reía y palmoteaba como si se tratara de un juego.
La vieja criada se enjugó los ojos, a escondidas, con la punta del delantal: —¡Virgen de los Ángeles! ¡Que el niño Sergio no se quedara en aquella silla! ¡Que hiciera un milagro! Ella le ofrecía unas piernas de oro que iría a colgar en su altar apenas viera que su cholito "se decida a andar como los cristianos".
"Cinta empujaba la silla. La rodó hacia el jardín y el chirrido de las ruedas en la arena, se le metió en el corazón como una espina. Pasaron los años y el milagro que anhelaba Canducha no se realizaba. Muchas veces los dorados de la silla perdieron su brillo y se hicieron relucir nuevamente, y muchas veces también fueron renovados los almohadones de terciopelo. El niño continuaba en ella. Sergio y el mueble iban creciendo a la par." (9-10)
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For more details on the evolution of wheelchair design in the United States, see Wolfson.
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"EI tiempo, para mí, detuvo el vuelo.
Ya no soy más del mundo...
Soy lo Absoluto y lo Definitivo,
en su inmovilidad.
Ardo callada y quieta como un cirio;
soy sólo un pensamiento;
ya no tiene sentido la existencia
vulgar del episodio. Soy eterna
y soy inconmovible.
Me he libertado de la Vida:
Soy la Inmovilidad." (Luisi Poemas de la inmovilidad 7)
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The only English translations of Luisi's work I have been able to find are two bilingual publications of single poems: "Inquietud" in a 1922 issue of The Pan-American Magazine, and "Yo soy un árbol" in Alice Stone Blackwell's 1929 Some Spanish-American Poets.
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See, for example, Aronna, Barrán, Cueto and Palmer, Fumero, Palmer, Portillo, Rivera Garza, Rodríguez, Stepan.
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To my knowledge, studies of modernismo have not yet extensively considered discourses of disability. Susan Antebi discusses modernista texts by José Martí and José Juan Tablada, asserting that in this context, "the question of the objectification and potential agency of displayed bodies and the effects of representation on the lived experiences of bodies … now enter the framework of a transnational encounter between disparate discursive traditions and between literature and spectacle" (17).
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For more on Lyra's life and work, see Chase and Horan; Horan translated a selection of Lyra's writing including Tales of My Aunt Panchita.
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"Una inteligente amiga mía, una doctora en medicina a quien di a leer mi novela, me hizo una crítica que encuentro muy atinada: me decía que yo trataba solo el lado sentimental del conflicto, que no me había atrevido a bajar al infierno que se desarrolla dentro de un ser humano mutilado por la parálisis. El drama sexual apenas si lo toco. Mi ignorancia de entonces alrededor de esa situación y posiblemente los prejuicios me obligaron a pasar en puntillas sobre la superficie de ese fenómeno" (8).
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Margarita Rojas discusses the peculiar narration of the novel (170-72) and observes that the novel presents its socially marginalized characters as sufferers (173) who are marked as other and lack a family (174).
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"inventaba todos los juegos a que se entregaban, y se ingeniaba de modo que Sergio siempre pudiera jugar como si tuviese buenas sus piernas" (11).
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"Sergio está inmóvil: escucha la música que hay dentro de él y en torno suyo, que forma melodías dulcísimas y armonías que se llevan su alma entre sus redes a regiones en las que se pierde la noción del cuerpo que sufre" (78).
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"Mientras oía el ruido de sus zapatones claveteados y el que producían las ruedas de mi silla, he meditado en lo que habría sido de mi vida sin este hombre que vino de un país desconocido, del otro lado del mar, a mostrarme a mí, que tengo los pies muertos, el camino que lleva al mundo maravilloso de los sonidos. Mi existencia no es un desierto, porque él me enseñó a escuchar" (59).
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"Y quizá fue más la curiosidad de ver en el escenario a un violinista paralítico, y no el deseo de oír buena música, a la que nuestro público no es aficionado, lo que llenó el teatro" (84).
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"Ante mis ojos hay una hilera de sillas con un Sergio sentado en cada una; ¡sale de esta casa y cuántas curvas ha descrito para volver a ella!" (92)
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"allí estoy yo sentado en mi silla: me sonrío a mí mismo... Siento simpatía y compasión por este muchacho pálido que no puede caminar. Le hago una seña amistosa con la mano y él me contesta con otra" (28).
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"Tenía un modo de darle golpecitos en la cabeza acompañados de un '¡pobre hijo mío!'. Y estas palabras caían en el corazón del niño cual si fueran una limosna no implorada." (26)
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"Su vestido negro hacía resaltar la delicada palidez de su rostro. Las mujeres se sentían atraídas: hacían comentarios sobre sus ojos, su perfil, sus manos: el gesto arrogante y descuidado con que echaba hacia atrás su cabellera lacia: hablaban de su sonrisa melancólica y la distinción y naturalidad de sus movimientos. Los periódicos lo pusieron en las estrellas y uno dijo que al contemplar a Sergio sentado en su silla, con las piernas cubiertas por una costosa piel oscura, se pensaba en el hermoso e infortunado príncipe de aquel cuento oriental, con su tronco y sus miembros inferiores convertidos por malas artes en un bloque de mármol negro" (85)
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"Como el príncipe del cuento,
las piernas tienes de mármol;
como poeta y artista,
tus ojos miran los astros" (Loynaz 23).
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"un panal en donde se escuchaba el incesante zumbido de las abejas que fabricaban el dolor y no la miel" (76). "A ratos se imaginaba en el planeta de los estropeados: ciegos, mancos, hombres sin nariz, sin piernas, que se arrastraban con los muñones de los muslos protegidos por un cuero grueso, o que caminaban golpeando el suelo con una pierna de palo o con las muletas. Había un mozo alto, fornido que de repente caía con un ataque y se ponía a rebotar como una pelota de hule, con la boca contraída por una mueca diabólica y cubierta de espumarajos. Un hombre ya canoso, chiquito, de ojos saltones, con el busto desarrollado y con las piernas apenas de media vara, sentado en un carro de juguete fabricado por él mismo y que él mismo podía manejar. Era inteligente y risueño y gustaba burlarse de sí. … Un muchacho sin nariz, con las manos y los pies muy hinchados, que nunca dejaba de comprar lotería, con la esperanza de tener dinero con qué comprarse una nueva nariz. Había un mozo de treinta años con el aspecto de una pelota de manteca vestido con una bata de mujer. Un adolescente ciego de nacimiento, acostado en una carretilla, tan descarnado, que se le veía la calavera; las piernas eran delgadas como un dedo y al mirar por sus ojos abiertos, se creía asomarse a una casa deshabitada por la noche." (76)
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For more on Luisi's life and works, see López, Murciano Mainez, the anthology by Myriam Álvarez and the website http://www.autoresdeluruguay.uy/biblioteca/luisa_luisi/
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"No, mi alma no cabe en un soneto,
Mosaicismo del verso. de paciente labor;
Mi arte es para mi alma libre corcel inquieto,
Que enamora el espacio y la nube, y la flor!" (Luisi Inquietud 86)
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"Oh! divina pereza de animal o de planta!...
Renazco lentamente en esta primavera;
El tibio sol me envuelve en sus caricias de oro
Y mi carne florece en corolas morenas.
Atenta al misterioso trabajo de la Vida
Escucho como crecen y se afirman mis células.
Oh beatitud suprema!... Psiquis duerme, vencida,
En su inútil empeño de rendir la materia.
Tendida muellemente en mi sillón de enferma,
Me abismo en una dulce y lánguida pereza.
La tarde es un anhelo de paz y de reposo
Que me va sumergiendo en vaga somnolencia..." (Luisi Inquietud 99)
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"Inmóvil en el lecho, las dos manos
Quietas sobre el embozo de las sábanas,
Y los ojos abiertos en la sombra,
Yo siento que la vida, lentamente,
por las puntas de los dedos se me va..." (Luisi Inquietud 93)
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"A través de la estera de mi cuarto,
Tamizado en verdor, entra el verano,
Con el zumbido de sus moscas
Y el lascivo canto de sus cigarras...
Ni una voz, ni una risa, ni un lamento...
Se diría la espantosa quietud, augusta calma
En un antiguo parque señorial.
Pero allí, en la penumbra de aquel cuarto,
Allí, cerca del mío,
El cráneo fracturado en su caída,
El trágico suicida sangra aún..." (Luisi Inquietud 94)
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"¡Ah!, la noche, la noche silenciosa
sabe el secreto último
de nuestras existencias afiebradas
bajo la calma impuesta;
sabe el dolor que estalla en sofocados
gemidos, en sollozos, en plegarias...
Sabe el misterio del pulmón herido;
sabe el horror del cáncer, el martirio
de la inmovilidad forzada;
todo el secreto que a la luz del día
se cubre de sonrisas, de bullicio,
bromas a flor de labio,
y heroísmo callado al sonreír..." (Luisi Poemas de la inmovilidad 15-16)
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Uruguayan poet Delmira Agustini, whose work Luisi greatly admired, had also rewritten modernista statue imagery. In "Plegaria," for example, she reimagines the perfect aesthetic object as a potential erotic subject denied the capacity to act. Trambaioli reads Agustini's statue poetry within the modernista context it subverts.
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"Oh! ¡¡Victoria, Victoria, mármol divino,
como yo condenada a la inmovilidad;
con toda el alma puesta en las alas abiertas,
mutilada en el ímpetu supremo de volar!...
¡Ansia de movimiento! ¡Anhelo de elevarse,
de correr, de subir en vuelo magistral!...
Deseo doloroso a fuerza de imposible
de andar... de andar... de andar!..
¡Oh, Victoria, Victoria de Samotracia,
imagen de mi vida, toda inmovilidad;
en el mármol divino, hecho cárcel del vuelo,
ansia desesperada, enorme, de volar!…" (Luisi Poemas de la inmovilidad 8)
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"Esta egregia figura no tiene ojos y mira,
no tiene boca y lanza el más supremo grito;
no tiene brazos y hace vibrar toda la lira,
y las alas pentélicas abarcan lo infinito." (Darío 186)
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"¡Pasan... pasan!... Yo siempre en mi lugar estoy;
soy la piedra sentada un día y otro día;
el árbol, engarzado en la misma actitud:
árbol... persona... piedra... ¡Ya no sé lo que soy!..." (Luisi Poemas de la inmovilidad 9)
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"Muero, callada y quieta, bajo las verdes ramas
que ahogan mi existencia en su abrazo sin fin.
Pero el abrazo enorme, que crucifica y mata,
es la razón suprema que me obliga a vivir..." (Luisi Poemas de la inmovilidad 10)
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"De mirar 'más allá', ya no veían
sus pupilas el reino de los vivos;
y su cuerpo nostálgico, tenía
Ia actitud alargada de las tumbas.
Cayeron siglos sobre él. Sus cuencas
deslumbradas de Eternidad, en vano proseguían
su visión del Misterio. Lázaro maldecía
el don funesto de su nueva vida,
estrecho reino de los vivos, para
su amplia visión de Esfinge desvelada." (Luisi Poemas de la inmovilidad 24)
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