The Body, Blood, and Soul of Spanish Modernity: review of Life Embodied

It’s been quite awhile since I’ve been able to find the time to put up a new post! Aside from a few weeks during my summer trip to Spain where I managed to write about two fantastic new books (A New History of Iberian Feminisms and a collection of essays on Carmen de Burgos) and the amazing exhibitions on Fashion and Sorolla’s paintings in Madrid, essentially the entirety of 2018 was defined by extensive teaching responsibilities and “pedagogical experiments” — and not only in Kansas, but in Costa Rica, Canada, and Pamplona! I taught seven classes, including a 2-week service-learning trip to Costa Rica, our program’s advanced Don Quijote seminar (yikes!), and a graduate class on teaching AP Spanish Literature and Culture. I also designed a new 5-week summer study abroad program for K-State students, “Spain Today: Madrid, Pamplona, Barcelona,” which was approved for its first year this May-June, 2019. So while I haven’t been able to keep up with my blogging or academic reading as much as I wanted to, I had a very productive year and I’m excited to return to Spain this summer… with students!

That being said, I’m ALSO looking forward to having a bit more time to work on my own research, and especially to reading some of the fantastic new books that have been published over the past year. I’m particularly excited to have finally been able to make time to begin reading the book I’ll discuss here, written by Dr. Nicolás Fernández-Medina who, full disclosure, was my dedicated advisor during my PhD studies at Penn State University. His new book, Life Embodied: The Promise of Vital Force in Spanish Modernity, was published in 2018 with McGill-Queen’s University Press. This meticulously researched, innovative examination of Spanish modernity offers an intellectually stimulating look at many of the themes that most fascinate me in terms of my own research on maternidad (pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood): medical history; the physicality of the body’s blood, organs, and flesh; the uncertain boundaries between life and death; and the complexities of the substance and forces that comprise the “lived body”. Below, I’ll excerpt a few of my favorite parts of this book to add to my collection of somewhat informal and (hopefully) visually appealing, accessible academic book reviews (see others here, here, and here).


Image via McGill-Queen’s University Press

Although the premise of this book — the exploration of vital force throughout Spanish modernity — is extremely complex, rooted in or informed by both philosophical discourses and scientific theories, Fernández-Medina makes the terms very clear in his preface. “Vital force, he states, is “the immanent energy that promotes the processes of life and growth in the body and in nature” (xiii). It is “what makes life life,” as he succinctly describes it on his website. In the book’s thorough Introduction (3-40), Fernández-Medina first positions Spain within broader European historiography, reminding readers that previous notions of Early Modern or Enlightenment-era Spanish science and culture as intolerant, too religiously conservative, or even ignorant have been debunked; instead, “the assimilation of scientific knowledge and the resistance to authority” was diverse and often mutually dependent (4-5). He presents vital force as a “transnational phenomenon” in Europe from roughly 1770-1830 as the sciences expended, particularly because “the enigma of vital force disclosed new relations between the creative and analytical” (28). Finally, drawing on Foucault, Fernández-Medina connects vital force to the modern subject, and especially to the “elusive and compelling” concept of modernity (34), itself fraught with “paradoxical tensions” (35) and the “impossibility of truth” (40). Rather that attempt to elaborate “a theory of (Spanish) modernity through the lens of vital force,” Fernández-Medina instead specifies one of the inquiries that frames his book: To what extent can the question of vital force in Spain… shed new light on the practices of self-constitution that were part and parcel of modernity? (34). By examining literature that imagined or theorized the locus of vital force within the body, Fernández-Medina ultimately argues that in Spain, examining the limits of vital force “proved to be a most formidable mode of critique in that it forced reason to reflect upon itself… [and] afforded momentary, yet profound, glimpses of the concrete, living body that transgressed the normative margins of authority and power” (40).

Anatomy of human body_Juan Valverde de Amusco_Rome-1559_via US National Library of Medicina

“Anatomia del corpo humano” (1559, Rome), Juan Valverde de Amusco. A flayed cadaver holds his skin in one hand and a dissecting knife in the other. The skin’s distorted face has the appearance of a ghost or a cloud, suggesting that spirit has been separated from, or peeled off of, the fleshy inner man. Image via US National Library of Medicine.

After the Introduction, Life Embodied is divided into three sections:

  • Part I: Blood, Circulation, and the Soul, containing Chapters 1-2, focuses primarily on the 17th-century, the point of departure for the book given the “marked expansion of theories of vital force” that were both “notoriously inconsistent” and characterized by their fusion of ancient and modern thought (3).
  • Part II: Political Reform and the Order of Nature, containing Chapter 3-4,  examines vital force in the 18th century, especially in terms of Spain’s “medical revolution”  in the early 1770s (121-22) and as a proposed bridge between Enlightenment and Romantic thought (194).
  •  Part III: From Neo-Hippocratism to the Avant-Garde, containing Chapters 5-6, traces the question of vital force through the late 19th-century spread of “romantic science, industrial development, technological progress, and the emergence of positivism and evolutionism” (199) to early 20th-century rise of the modernist movement and its “disenchantment with science and intellectual culture” (234).

The first chapter I want to discuss is Chapter 1, “The Heart of the Matter: Remapping the Body Economy in Juan de Cabriada’s Philosophical Medico-Chemical Letter (43-79), which begins in the 17th century with Cabriada’s “Carta filosofica-medico-chymica” (1687). Astoundingly, this letter was written when the physician was a mere 22 years old! For Fernández-Medina, this letter represents one of the most significant medical treatises on vital force, which also “boldly announced ‘modern medicine’ in the court” of late 17th-century Madrid (11).  The central claim is the bold assertion that “the body, in all its wondrous complexity and mystery, is not vitalized by the soul” (78) – a clearly subversive postulation in 17th-century Spain. Instead, Cabriada attributes the force of life to that which is produced when blood circulates through the heart and nourishes the body. The letter, then, challenged traditional beliefs by making the body the locus of inquiry, while at the same time pointing towards the liberating possibilities of new science (79).

Throat and heart_Jacques Fabien Gautier d'Agoty_1745

Throat and Heart, Anatomy of the Visceras, Dissected. By Jacques Fabien Gautier d’Agoty, 1745.

I particularly appreciated the twenty fantastic illustrations in Fernández-Medina’s book, many of which prompted me to seek out additional visual connections via art, media, and online archives. For example, Chapter 2, “Cartesianism and Its Discontents: Marcelino Boix y Moliner, Martín Martínez, and Diego de Torres Villaroel” (80-116), contains illustrations of the human heart from Martín Martínez’s The Complete Anatomy of Man, published in 1728. Sparking my curiously about the details of this 18th-century publication, I quickly found the fascinating and intricately detailed cover art (below), featuring a medical theater framed by a human bodies — one of flesh and blood, another of the skeleton — that effectively foreground both the layered complexities of the body’s materiality and the tenuous boundaries between life and death. This illustration also connects well to Fernández-Medina’s discussion of Martínez’s Skeptical Medicine and Modern Surgery (1722), in which the physician and philosopher voices concerns regarding “the implications and shortcomings of Descartes’ medical philosophy,” particularly that “Cartesian anatomy had not resolved any of the major difficulties facing the medical profession concerning vital force and the body-soul nexus” but rather “generated more confusion” (93). By examining Descartes’ reception in Spain, and the re-evaluation of the body’s vital force in the writings of Martinez (and Boix and Moliner to open the chapter), Chapter 2 demonstrates that these varied reappraisals of vital force had profound impacts on the direction of Spanish medicine in the 18th-century, making the body-soul nexus a topic of great relevance in medical literature in Spain throughout the Enlightenment.

martin martinez_anatomia completa_cover

Cover of Martín Martínez’s (1684-1734) Anatomía completa del hombre (Complete anatomy of man), published in 1728. The image, Amphiteatrum matritense by Matías de Irala, depicts an anatomy lesson in the Anfiteatro of Madrid’s General Hospital. Image via Wikipedia.

And of course since I always like to connect complex academic topics to contemporary pop culture(!), I wanted to highlight the concept of the operating theater — a space where medical students and other spectators could watch surgeons perform surgery — that is the focal point of the 18th-century Complete Anatomy of Man cover design. The Theater/Amphitheater setting is especially fascinating to me due to the way in which its function and appearance in late 19th- and early 20th-century medicine has been documented in paintings and photography of the era. But more recently it was meticulously represented in the 2014-15 television series The Knick, about the fictional Knickerbocker hospital in 1900s New York City. This series effectively demonstrates how much was still unknown about the human body, even a “mere” century ago (the importance of blood types, for example), and experimental surgical procedures often ended in the “shocking” death of the patient on the operating table. If medical history interests you from a less-academic perspective, you should absolutely check out this unique series.


A scene inside the operating theater (amphitheater) created for the two-season series “The Knick” (2014-15), starring Clive Owen. Image via LA Weekly.

Finally, the last chapter of the book before the conclusion, Chapter 6, “Degeneration, Regeneration, Corporealization: What the Lived Body Can Do According to Miguel de Unamuno, Pio Baroja, and Ramón Gómez de la Serna” (232-95), examines the Spanish modernist era, particularly how its disenchantment with science and intellectual culture and even “chaotic revolt against positivism” prompted a reaffirmation of the body and its creative powers, or a “more holistic conception of the body… as a lived body” (234-35). This sixth chapter examines these three modernist writers — also Avant-garde, in the case of Ramón — as a way of appreciating how the lived body, full health and vitality or conversely degenerate or infirm,  “laid the groundwork for new critical paradigms of subjectivity that propelled modernist aesthetics in Spain” (236). The discussion of a curious series of essays written by Unamuno in 1886 — “The Influence of Gymnastics on Building Character” — was particularly illuminating for me, first because their title and topic are so far-removed from what I had come to associate with the preoccupations and philosophy of the author of San Manuel Bueno, mártir and El sentimeinto trágico de la vida. Secondly, Fernández-Medina convincingly connects these articles to the personal journey of the author, from “physical debility” in his youth to the “invigorating courage and general salubriousness” of early adulthood (242). The biographical connection demonstrates the possibility of transforming the self by consciously cultivating and managing “the body’s innermost vital force” (243). For me, the implications of Unamuno’s writings on the physicality of the human body, “The Influence of Gymnastics on Building Character,” balance the abstract, philosophical musings for which he is perhaps most well-known. In other words, as Fernández-Medina states, they set up “the framework for the dynamic kinship… between body and soul that will frame his later theorizations” (245-46). This illustration accompanying this section of the book shows an 1875 Bilbao gymnasium, and when I looked into these types of images online I found an amazing cover from one of the first Spanish Physical Education journals – I particularly love the lion accompanying the shirtless man in his quest to perfect his physical form!


Source: Xavier Torrebadella i Flix’s article 2012 article, “Las primeras revistas profesionales y científicas de la educación física española” — PDF link at the end of this post.

Overall, Life Embodied has prompted me to think more deeply about where my own work on maternity and childbirth intersects with medical history and philosophical questions of life and life-giving forces. One of the limitations, which Fernández-Medina acknowledges in his Preface, is the lack of attention given to female intellectuals or artists, or the general underrepresentation of women (xx). While it is true that women did not participate in or have the opportunities to enter intellectual culture in the same ways as men, and that women’s writing was not necessarily produced or preserved in universities, libraries, or archives, many of the “remarkable texts about medicine women, women healers, nursing, midwifery, and women’s prominent role in folk medicine and homeopathy” that were beyond the critical parameters Fernández-Medina established for his book could add to the centuries-long exploration of the body and its “vital force” (though conservative author Ángela Grassi is included for her 1876 novel, El copo de nieve / The Snowflake, 217-22). Most of the texts analyzed ignore the sex or gender associated with the human body. On the one hand, we might presume this to offer an abstract and therefore possibly “universal” understanding of the human body and soul that transcends gendered specificities. Yet on the other, particularly as I see it in terms of explaining the force (or forces) that propels, creates, or defines “life,” the lack of attention these (almost all male) writers and intellectuals gave to the female body — a body capable of gestating and birthing a new human being, or a new human life — reflects the interpretation of the human body “through the dominant male culture of patriarchy,” a limitation that Fernández-Medina also directly acknowledges (xx).

Anatomical figure_Jacques-Fabien Gautier DAgoty_1765_Wellcome

Anatomical figures of the maternal body. By Jacques-Fabien Gautier d’Agoty, 1765. Images via Wellcome Collection.

In sum, Life Embodied‘s innovative approach to Spanish modernity, the modern subject, and the complexity of the (in)material forces that create and sustain human life, offers scholars of Spanish Literature, Culture, and/or Philosophy new points of entry into such vast, theoretical, and interdisciplinary subjects as the body, vital force, and modernity. It also introduces readers like myself, whose research tends to fall more within the realms of historical and cultural studies, to a wide variety of new texts that offer deeper philosophical insight and prompt further investigation into the artistic and literary production of their era. As an example I’ll end with another piece of late 19th-century realist artwork I discovered when preparing this post and exploring representations of medicine and the human body in literature and art, especially while reading the final chapters on the 19th-20th centuries: Spanish painter Luis Jiménez Aranda’s “La sala del hospital” (1889).

What are some of your book — or art, photography, or gallery — recommendations in terms of medical history and the theorization of the human body?

Luis Jimenez y Aranda_Sala del hospital_1889_wikimedia

“La sala del hospital en la visita del médico en jefe” by Luis Jiménez Aranda (1889). Displayed in the Mueso de Bellas Artes de Sevilla. Image via Wikimedia.


Fernández-Medina, Nicolás. Life Embodied. The Promise of Vital Force in Spanish Modernity. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018.

Fernández-Medina, Nicolás, and Maria Truglio, eds. Modernism and the Avant-garde Body in Spain and Italy. Routledge, 2016.

Torrebadella i Flix, Xavier. “Las primeras revistas profesionales y científicas de la educación física española / The First Spanish Physical Education Professional and Scientific Journals (1882-1936)”. Apunts. Educación Física y Deportes, no. 109, Jul-Sept., 2012, pp. 11-24. DOI: 10.5672/ – PDF

Image galleries:

Dream Anatomy Catalogue. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Bethesda, MD.

The Wellcome Collection of Images (artwork and photographs that reflect the cultural and historical contexts of health and medicine). Free Museum and Library. London.

Wellcome Collection on Instagram. Bio: “The free museum and library that aims to challenge how we all think and feel about health by connecting science, medicine, life and art.”

About Dr. Rebecca Bender

Spanish professor
This entry was posted in Art, Literature, Modernity, Science and Medicine, Spain and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Body, Blood, and Soul of Spanish Modernity: review of Life Embodied

  1. Pingback: Geographies of Urban Female Labor and Nationhood in Spanish Culture (1880-1975) (review) | Rebecca M. Bender, PhD

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