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Chapter 7. Mirrors of Alcoholism: Nation, Self and Modernity in Fin-de-Siècle Mexican Literature

posted on 2015-03-18, 16:07 authored by Deborah F. Toner
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, alcoholism was a relatively new and ill-defined concept in Mexican society, but despite this conceptual lack of clarity, alcoholism loomed large in public discourse and public policy as a source of concern. Mexican politicians, intellectuals, and medical professionals, who were engaged in major public health reforms, informed by positivist philosophies and degeneration theories, and devoted to the governmental motto of “order and progress”, considered alcoholism to be a major threat to national development. The unstable edges of alcoholism as a concept, together with its place within era-defining discourses and policies, therefore, make it a very useful theme to explore the multifaceted and layered engagement of intellectuals and public figures with questions of identity, selfhood, and authenticity during a time of landscape of modernising change and development in Mexican society. This chapter will examine the fictional biographies of alcoholic characters across different genres and styles of Mexican literature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, to illuminate the larger intellectual process through which Mexican writers participated in the construction of Mexico’s “biography” as a nation. While symbols associated with alcohol and drinking were intertwined with the articulation of an “authentic” past, or birth, of the Mexican nation, alcoholism as a kind of medical and psychological condition was frequently used to explore Mexico’s present and potential future as a nation. José Tomás de Cuéllar’s Las jamonas (1891) and Federico Gamboa’s Santa (1903) narrate the life stories of two fictional alcoholics, and, through their exploration of the characters’ alcoholism and its impact on their selfhood, these texts identify aspects of modernity that conflict with an idealised, traditional Mexican identity of the past. Consequently, alcoholism features prominently in the articulation of anxieties about the Mexican present and, in particular, about the destabilising effect of social change on “authentic” images of Mexican identity. The works of Rubén Campos and Heriberto Frías, meanwhile, also chart the biographies of various real and fictional alcoholics to look to the future, and, particularly, to dwell on the potential death of Mexican nationhood (or, at least, the death of its contemporary form). Within each biography, alcoholism makes possible the realisation of a more authentic self, but this experience also reveals the emptiness of nationalist ideals like fraternity, sacrifice, and patriotism and of modernist ideals like order, progress, and development, without necessarily offering any alternatives to replace them. Through the exploration of these different literary biographies of alcoholism, therefore, this chapter will show how the biography of the Mexican nation was imagined at the turn of the twentieth century.



Toner, D.F, Mirrors of Alcoholism: Nation, Self and Modernity in Fin-de-Siècle Mexican Literature, ed. Toner, D.F;Hailwood, M, 'Biographies of Drink: A Case Study Approach to our Historical Relationship with Alcohol', Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015, pp.158-183

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/Organisation/COLLEGE OF ARTS, HUMANITIES AND LAW/School of History


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Toner, Deborah F.;Hailwood, Mark



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