Dark Humour in Fin-de-Siècle Chile: The Revealing Tidbits of Luz i Sombra and Instantáneas

For Europeans, Spring is traditionally seen as the time for birth of new life, symbolized astrologically with the Sun entering the Aries constellation on the Spring equinox. Pagan celebrations to welcome in the longer days centred around fertility symbols, celebrations which were later absorbed into the Christianity of the Spanish-speaking world. Perhaps this is too much of an esoteric explanation as to why magazines Luz i Sombra and Instantáneas were birthed within a week of each other (24th March and 1st April 1900 respectively), at both the dawn of a new zodiac and the dawn of a new century (calendar purists notwithstanding) in Santiago de Chile, an allusion particularly romantic given that in the Southern hemisphere, cultural celebrations of new life, rooted in the (Northern) European tradition, did not reflect the seasonal realities of the Latin American New World. Whatever the reason for their almost simultaneous appearance, both magazines also happened to be of a similar nature, and it may have been due to this overlap in offering that both titles eventually merged, with the new magazine, Instantáneas de Luz i Sombra, appearing the 9th of September 1900.[1] The complete sets of both individual titles have been preserved, as has the first magazine of the merger (numbered 25 to give a numerical continuity with Luz i Sombra, which ran a week ahead of Instantáneas), and this digitized corpus can be found at www.memoriachilena.cl.

In keeping with the middle-brow and often derivative content typified by both titles, there is a great deal of anonymity, initials and pseudonyms. Nevertheless, there are names listed, mostly Chilean writers and artists, with foreign writers and artists appearing only occasionally. This is fitting for magazines whose editors in their modest mission statements made clear that they wished their magazines to be a producto nacional. The first magazine to be launched, Luz i Sombra, which described itself as a ‘Revista Semanal Ilustrada de Arte i Letras’, was, in the words of its editor Alfredo Melossi, ‘un avance en el progreso de la prensa nacional i un esfuerzo en el terreno de las artes’. Melossi said of its mission for the magazine: ‘Una falanje de reputados literatos honrarán constantemente nuestras columnas, i sus pájinas reproducirán cuanto de hermoso, de notable, de artístico, de actualidad interesante ocurra por esas calles de Dios’ (Issue 1, 24/3/1900). A week later (1/4/1900), Instantáneas: Semanario Festivo, Literario, Artístico y de Actualidades went even further with its nationalist sentiment: ‘Instantáneas no es importada, no le gusta lo francés más que lo de su patria, no hará comparaciones de ninguna clase con Buenos Aires, y promete ser más santiaguina que la Alameda y el tajamar’.

For Luz i Sombra, the most assiduous named contributors (all from Chile unless otherwise specified) are Antonio Bórquez Solar, Francisco García Cisneros (a Cuban writing from New York), Augusto Goeminne Thomson, Ernesto A. Guzmán, Enrique Lynch, Alberto Mauret Caamaño, Alfredo Melossi, Carlos Pezoa Véliz, Sinesio Delgado (Spain), Manuel Thomson Ortiz, Froilán Turcios (Honduras) and Eduardo Valenzuela Olivos. In addition, there are occasional appearances from Spaniards José Selgas, Ricardo J. Catarineu, Ramiro Blanco and Miguel Echegaray, the Bolivian Eduardo Díez de Medina, the Peruvian poets Fransisco Mostajo, Domingo Martínez Luján and Samuel Velarde, the Mexican Francisco A. de Icaza, the Argentinian Manuel Baldomero Ugarte and the Panamanians Alejandro Dutary, Darío Herrera and Adolfo García. Outside of the Spanish-speaking world, occasional work from Jacques-Louis David, Leon de Tinseau, Octave Pradels, Théodore Dubois, Jean Richepin, Schiller, Goethe and Verlaine also features.  

For Instantáneas the most assiduous identifiable names are all Chilean, with the exception of Francisco Flores García of Spain. These contributors are Eduardo de la Barra, Diego Dublé Urrutia, Nicanor González Méndez, Carlos E. Keymer, Alberto Mauret Caamaño, Agustín Undurraga, Alfredo Valenzuela Puelma, Francisco Zapata Lillo, Marcial Plaza Ferrand, Pedro Reszka Moreau, Manuel Thomson Ortiz and Alberto Valenzuela Llanos. Of the remaining Spanish-speaking world, Nicaraguan Rubén Darío features twice, as does Spanish Emilia Pardo Bazán, while Mexican Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera, Peruvian Alberto Lynch, and Spaniards Emilio Sánchez Pastor, Mariano Ordóñez, Armando Palacio Valdés, Eusebio Blasco and José de Siles all feature once. Of contributors from outside the Spanish-speaking world, Heinrich Heine, Alfonse Allais and Constant Puyo (a professional photographer) are each seen on one occasion. The Italian Domenico Brescia, living in Chile, contributes a musical score while the Greek Juan de Saridakis (Ioannes Saridarkis), similarly domiciled in Chile, contributes artwork, as does his Chilean mentor Pedro Lira.

In the full list of contributors one can see a preponderance of artists and photographers, which is no surprise as the image, whether the photograph, the painting or the illustration, is given primacy within the magazine, making the most of the recent advances in lithographic and photolithographic technology of the time.[2] This desire for the image spills over into the advertisement section, particularly in Instantáneas, in which many of the page-sized advertisements are triumphs of the Modernist aesthetic (see pictured).  However, what I wish to concentrate most upon for this analysis are the textual and visual elements which typically receive the least critical attention – the cartoons and the jokey, light-hearted ‘tidbits’ that typically fill the space between articles, particularly at the end of the magazine where the magazine editors try to get readers to linger on the advertisement pages by inserting some non-advertising text at intervals. As we will see, the lines between entertainment and advertising soon become blurred.

As would be expected for such ‘insignificant’ elements of the magazine, authorship is difficult to ascertain. Cartoonists, if they sign their work with more than initials, go under pseudonyms (‘John Bull’, ‘Zeuxis’, ‘Bull Mich’). These cartoons, as well as the throwaway textual snippets of jokes, puns, advice and humorous philosophy are not seen as important enough to merit a by-line, but I will argue that the dark nature of some of these elements is very revealing about the zeitgeist of the time. While the Spanish refranero never said ‘Dime de que te ríes y te diré quien eres’, I feel nevertheless that a discussion of the humour used in these Chilean magazines says something about the underlying culture of the period.

The staple of comedy in Luz i Sombra is the mother-in-law joke, with several variations on the theme seen over the course of the magazine’s run. However, levels of animosity reach the morbid, as can be seen in the following example in issue 18:

The laughter doesn’t stop there, and the following joke in issue 11 of Luz i Sombra no doubt left older women readers struggling to hold their sides:

Indeed, suicide and death is treated lightly throughout the funnies sections of both magazines, and one cartoon begins with a fat man deciding to kill himself in issue 9 of Instantáneas because he cannot afford to fill his fat stomach (thankfully a band of passing musicians suggest using his belly as a giant drum, to the delight of the pueblo, whose lavish donations ensure that the fat man’s troubles with hunger are over). Even the serious section of both magazines reports on suicides and murder with a tone which can tip into salaciousness.[3] As it might be gathered, the humour of these Chilean magazines is not sophisticated by any measure, and indicates a culture experiencing these now-hackneyed jokes and puns for the first time. The cartoon humour is for the most part crude, visual and slapstick.

As might be expected with such a level of culture, jokes about racial difference are not off the table, and the following ‘anecdote’, which makes the father of Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Montecristo, the butt of a racialised joke (and so by extension mocks Dumas himself), is representative of this:

It is likely that this rather uninspired joke originated in France, because here we see it has to be explained to readers that Alexandre Dumas’ father was a mulato, so that they can make sense of the ‘joke’. In France this information was well-known, and hence no explanations were needed. The ‘joke’ itself has no basis whatsoever in historical fact – Dumas’ father Thomas-Alexandre had died in 1806 when Dumas was a toddler, and all of Dumas’ writings about his father refer to him with great reverence and love. While Thomas-Alexandre Dumas would have indeed had a right to a bit of vanity, with many famed military feats behind him as well as enjoying the rank of General-in-Chief of the French Revolutionary Army, studies of his noble character indicate that this joke/anecdote is false. Indeed, such was his martial prowess and natural leadership ability that Napoleon saw Thomas-Alexandre as a rival that needed to be neutralized, for Napoleon himself to achieve ultimate power. That a man of such stature is reduced to being the subject of such a joke is offensive to 21st century eyes, but it is unlikely that Chilean readers saw any cultural subtext to this joke. In fact, this joke was most likely designed to degrade his son Alexandre Dumas, through reminding people of his racial origins. Such jokes and cartoons about the quarter-black Dumas were common in mid-century France, portraying him as an African tribesman, complete with bone through a flat nose, overly fleshy lips, and stirring a cannibal’s cooking pot.[4] We cannot know what was in the heart of these ‘satirists’, but it is pretty sure bet that professional envy was a great motivator, as Dumas’ prolific genius and vast commercial success could not be denied, even by the biggest of his detractors. What is amusing is that this very success is the subject of a ‘filler’ article in Luz i Sombra itself (issue 3, 7/4/1900), thus undercutting any sense that the magazine would have any racial motive for publishing the joke about Dumas.

Indeed, it appears that the jokes about black people in either Luz i Sombra or Instantáneas are not printed in either magazine out of some kind of racial animus, but because their presence is simply a foil for the (clumsy) joke being set up. This supposition is supported by the printing of the short story in Issue 21 of Instantáneas ‘El Corazón de un Mulato’, a sympathetic portrayal of a mixed-race soldier, who takes pity on his wounded former slave-master after a battle, rather than vengeance for the cruelties he has suffered.[5] The following are jokes and rhymes which illustrate the low level of cultural sophistication of the ‘funnies’ section:

However, while attitudes towards black people in Instantáneas can be described as ambiguous, there is no such doubt about the magazine’s attitude towards the Chinese, an attitude informed by the bloody Boxer rebellion, the unfolding events of which were reported extensively within Instantáneas’ pages. While in the main section of the magazine the atrocities were reported upon with serious analysis, the cartoons section took great delight in revelling in the macabre aspects of the killings, and joked about the sadism of the Chinese.

It would appear that the artistic depiction of heads being removed from shoulders is a regular comedic trope in Instantáneas, as can be seen from the below extract of the cartoon (‘Último procedimiento para la extracción de muelas’, issue 8), a genre that can only be described as ‘extreme slapstick’.

However, by far the most bizarre element of the cartoons satirizing the atrocities of the Boxer rebellion is that existing advertisers use them as an opportunity to promote their products. The biggest advertiser in Instantáneas, Té 18, has a full-page pictorial advertisement in every issue up (barring issues 21 and 22) until the magazine’s final issue (23), and in issue 13 decides to add a new style of advertisement to the standard full-page picture at the start of the magazine (advertisements were always placed before or after the main magazine contents), by agreeing/paying to have their name feature in the following cartoon, which was situated in the middle pages of the magazine. Because there is nothing like having a bloodied severed head endorse your tea brand:

This innovative approach to magazine content, combining social commentary, humour and advertising, was clearly enjoyed so much that it was repeated with the first magazine of the merger (Instantáneas de Luz i Sombra, issue 25), this time with Té Santa Filomena, Té 18’s rival and the biggest advertiser in Luz i Sombra, being the tea preferred by Chinese tyrants. We do not know the nationality of the pseudonymous ‘John Bull’, who authored these Chinese cartoons, but with a high level of European immigration into Chile, the puerile but cynical humour (seen a century later with the English Viz comics) and the use of English in the cartoon ‘Fabricación de la pepsina animal’ (issue 11), there is every possibility that ‘John Bull’ derives his pseudonym from his English heritage.

This blurring of lines between content and advertising is not confined to the tea advertisers; tailor Pedro Pascual avails himself of product placement in the cartoon ‘El Chaqué Nuevo’ (Instantáneas, issue 15), and also disguises his advertisements as poetry in the back pages in the hope that readers looking for final snippets of literary content will read his advertisements (see issues 8-23, and issue 25 of the new magazine). Nevertheless, these tea advertisements are particularly startling to the modern reader. In this politically correct age in which Western peoples are increasingly squeamish about the realities of war, and in which ribald discussion of death, ageing, gender and race are social taboos, such humour is seen as socially transgressive.

It is, of course, integral to understand the context in which these jokes were produced, and I am convinced that, as offensive as people might find them today, absolutely no offense was intended, with these magazines being seen as unpretentious, family-friendly content. Indeed, Instantáneas said humbly of its mission on the first page of the first issue:

Instantáneas no pretende hacer desenvolvimientos de ninguna clase, ni contribuir al adelanto de las arte y las ciencias, que bien se están ellas sin nosotros y nosotros sin ellas. Aspira modestamente á valer los díez centavos que cuesta, á entrar en todos los hogares, á presentar bajo forma artística ó simplemente amena todo lo que pase por esas calles de Dios, y á ser, en una palabra, la buena amiga del Domingo.

Instantáneas tratará de gustar á todos: tanto al refinado hombre de letras que lee á Bourget y á Rostand y admira sólo á Beethoven, como al que se encomienda sólo á Fray Andresito, lee á Guajardo y oye al maestro Lucero.

It goes without saying that such macabre humour is still popular today, still anonymous (or signed pseudonymously), but now it is found rather on the internet, especially as the 21st century sees the printed periodical continue to cede cultural terrain to online spaces. However, what IS different is that it is much less likely that one will find high and low culture side by side, as the cultures and ideologies of differing social classes have diverged to the point that they seek to define themselves against each other. Such off-colour jocularity would be much less likely to find a place in the po-faced cultural magazines of today, which is why I felt them worthy for the subject of an article.

[1] Technically, the management of Luz i Sombra had bought the rights to Instantáneas, but the resulting magazine has the feel of an amalgamation of both titles.

[2] For a full description of how these technologies transformed the potential of the periodical of the epoch, see Lou Charnon-Deutsch, Hold That Pose: Visual Culture in the Late Nineteenth-Century Spanish Periodical. Pennsylvania: Penn State University, 2008.

[3] See ‘La mesa de los suicidios en Monte Carlo: Sillas que traen mala suerte’ (Luz i Sombra, Issue 6), ‘La Maffia’ (about various Mafia killings, Luz i Sombra, Issue 9), ‘Actualidad: El crimen de la calle de Santa Rosa’ (Instantáneas, Issue 2), ‘Un gran crimen’ (Instantáneas, Issue 19).

[4] For more on the outstanding life of Thomas-Alexander Dumas, and of the race-based sniping of his son in the 19th century French press, see the excellent Tom Reiss, The Black Count: Napoleon’s rival, and the real count of Monte Cristo – General Alexandre Dumas (London: Vintage Books, 2012).

[5] Note the English capitalization. Chilean magazine article titles often took English capitalization rules, which I assume was due to English/German immigrant influence in the country at that time.