Transgressive Sexualities and Urban Form in Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Vida privada [Private Life] (1932)

The first recorded use of the word urbanisation occurs in an 1861 text on a proposal for the reform of Madrid written by the Catalan engineer and politician Ildefons Cerdà (1815-76). The word transformed from a mere neologism to the name of a complex theory of civilisation elaborated in the two-volume, 1500-page General Theory of Urbanisation that Cerdà published in 1867. The exhaustive work includes far more than a manual for city planning. It details a holistic scheme for the total reorganisation of the built environment into a grid layout that can be spread over the entire world, as summarised in the chiasmus on the frontispiece: “Rurizad lo urbano: urbanizad lo rural: … Replete terram” (“Ruralise the urban: urbanise the rural: … To fill the Earth”). Painstakingly justifying every minute detail of his visionary urbanised world, even working out an intricate mathematical theory to determine the precise width of streets, pavements and doorways, Cerdà believed his system of a geometric pattern of streets and buildings would pave the way towards a better future. He was convinced that his radical reformation of society would drive forward technological progress and promote natural, fraternal law between citizens that would see the end of political conflicts between nation states, which would all be connected by the uniform grid network.

The General Theory of Urbanisation has a special relevance for Barcelona. In the mid-nineteenth century, the city suffered from severe overcrowding as a result of the medieval walls that surrounded it, preventing its growth. As the Spanish government recognised the need to expand Barcelona as its industry and population continued to grow, the walls were gradually demolished between 1854 and 1868 to make way for the construction of new suburbs. Cerdà’s design for the extension of Barcelona, based on emergent ideas that would take full form later on in the General Theory, was chosen in 1859 as the design for the new city. Its gradual construction over the following decades resulted in a modern Barcelona whose urban form reflected Cerdà’s egalitarian ideology. The highly regulated grid structure promoted equality, while the carefully delineated spaces for families to live in, separate from the streets, promoted a high standard of hygiene. This was desperately needed as four devastating disease epidemics had each wiped out around three percent of the population throughout the nineteenth century (Aibar and Bijker 5).

Cerdà coined the neologism intervías to describe the spaces where people live. This word is intended to illustrate a conception of space that blends movement and stasis, which Cerdà identifies as fundamental requirements for humans to live prosperously. Cerdà defines human life as “una alternativa constante entre el quietismo y el movimiento” (“alternating constantly between stillness and movement”), and the intervías is a space designed for repose and intimacy, yet must still facilitate easy movement within its walls (368). This dual function is also apparent in other aspects of Cerdà’s theory of urbanisation, as he notes that activities that usually take place in the home may also happen out in the street and vice versa because urban space is defined by “encuentros, encruces y enlaces” (“encounters, crossroads and connections”) (362). As I will argue, the resulting crossing over of public and private activities plays a crucial role in the construction of the identities of city inhabitants.

The intervías takes perhaps its most significant novelisation in Josep Maria de Sagarra’s novel Vida privada (Private Life) (1932). In the novel, Sagarra, known for his journalism and satirical poetry, traces the financial and moral decay of the urban aristocracy and bourgeoisie through the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, which lasted from 1923-30. Causing scandal upon its publication, when many readers identified the characters with prominent figures in the city, the novel draws attention to the corruption concealed in the drawing rooms and boudoirs of Barcelona’s high society. This salacious exposé of the aristocracy’s private life focuses on intimate spaces within the intervías of the newly built city.  The aristocracy and bourgeoisie flocked to the luxurious apartments of this area, called the Eixample after the Catalan word for “extension,” in the years following its construction. Sagarra criticises the moral decay of the inhabitants of this new area of the city designed by Cerdà, which, I argue, reflects the highly regulated nature of its urban form. The grid structure produces straightforward and linear journeys, in contrast to the confusion of the historic centre with its “tortuous” and “anarchic” streets that twist and turn (Cerdà 286), frustrating the journey of the moving subject. By describing the form of the medieval city centre as “anarchical,” Cerdà implies that this area of the city obeys no authority and follows no order, in contrast to the highly regulated Eixample and the strict bourgeois moral code that controls everyday life there.

These different characterisations of Barcelona’s urban form are expressed most effectively through the exploration of the transgressive sexual practices that take place in them, as Sagarra devotes a considerable amount of the novel to examinations of the characters’ sex and sexuality. Transgressive sexuality, or perversion (“perversió”) as Sagarra calls it, is understood here as an unstable subjectivity that creates the personal and social expression of the self by challenging binarised positions such as male/female and heterosexual/homosexual (MacCormack par. 2), which is expressed through transgressive sexual acts. Such acts are defined by Hastings Donnan and Fiona Magowan as “sex that crosses or threatens to cross boundaries and … flout[s] social, moral and cultural convention” (1). Transgressive sexuality is also negotiated via the complex interplay between “exhibitionism and secrecy, [and] public and private responsibilities” (McCormick 2), aspects that are dealt with expressly in the intervías, the space that combines private and public notions of space. My analysis will draw on Eve Kosofky Sedgwick’s deconstruction of the binary opposition heterosexual/homosexual and Patricia MacCormack’s association of perversion with monstrosity to investigate to what extent Barcelona’s urban form dictates the process of identity formation in the two opposing spaces of the Eixample and the old city.

The connection between urban form and conceptions of sexuality and gender is also highlighted in the word intervías itself. The neologism demonstrates Cerdà’s desire to endorse dominant codes and conventions that are sanctioned by a higher common authority. He achieves this by grammatically defining the word as masculine singular rather than feminine plural, defying the grammatical logic of its feminine plural “-vías” ending. He justifies this decision by comparing it to the Real Academia Española’s designation of the same gender and number to “afueras”, another conception of space (Cerdà 365). Cerdà thus demonstrates an attempt to label the gender of concepts and entities that defy gendered interpretations in a way that resembles, as we shall see, the narrator of Vida privada, by deferring to established conventions that promote gendered norms. Sagarra’s novel therefore lends itself to be read in light of Cerdà’s urban theory due to the tension between established norms and transgressive practices that shapes both writers’ texts.

Sagarra represents the Eixample as the private side of Barcelona, while the old city is portrayed as its public side. In the Eixample, the aristocratic and bourgeois characters spend their time indoors, the narrator focusing his or her critical attention on bodies and material possessions inside apartments in order to reveal the private lives of the inhabitants (Davidson 193). By contrast, in the old city, indoor activities are presented as spectacles to be appreciated visually. For example, the Liceu Theatre on the Rambles shows opera for the moneyed classes and away from this wide, central boulevard, spectators attend dance clubs and burlesque shows in the red-light district, where the street is also used as a site of activity. These separate public and private zones of the city, where transgressive sexual practices are carried out, are the locations of different flows of knowledge and power. Foucault argues that practices of knowledge and power create sexuality (32), which is defined by Sedgwick as “the essence of both identity and knowledge” (26). Whereas in previous centuries, an individual’s identity would have been understood by society in terms of their social standing, bloodline and public honour, in the modern era, individual identity is created in private spaces and is defined in greater part by personal and psychological characteristics (Pernas 15). It is our private life that lets us develop our own personality and identity as it is in our own private space that we feel “free” from the scopophilic and judgemental gaze of others (Pernas 13). Therefore, these personal qualities are the factors that determine social value, rather than status or privilege accorded to a person at birth.

In the Eixample, the private space of the intervías is used as the location for transgressive sexual acts which form their participants’ identities. Like many of the aristocratic characters in the novel, dressmaker Dorotea Palau keeps two separate public and private lives. In addition to her dress shop, she rents a room from where she operates a business that capitalises on the perversions of Barcelona’s high society. She symbolically calls this room “la cambra del crim” (“the scene of the crime” (Newman 62) (where “cambra” (“chamber”) suggests a private room reserved for intimacy and “crim” (“crime”) the violation of a moral code. But Dorotea is not just in it for the money: she is herself sexually transgressive. A “coŀleccionista de casos clínics” (“collector of clinical cases”), the “secret” and “abnormal” tasks she carries out “donava a la seva sexualitat deformada, o si es vol, a la seva perversió, una vivacitat ondulant” (Sagarra 66-7) (“gave her own twisted sexuality, or if you prefer, her perversion, an undulating vivacity” (Newman 67)). To satisfy the demands of her perversion, she regularly contracts Guillem, the youngest member of the Lloberola family, to the special room in his role as prostitute. Described as “un xicot feble, amoral, egoista, sense dignitat” (Sagarra 93)  (“a weak, amoral, and selfish person, a man lacking in dignity” (Newman 100))  he provides his services to the well-known baron Antoni Mates and his wife. Dorotea provides Guillem with clothes and make-up so he may disguise himself as a vagrant to keep his identity secret from the pair. The baron, described as a “faldilletes” (Sagarra 63), a term for an effeminate man, has previously had joint sexual relations with his wife and younger men, which have the effect of bringing the married couple closer together, giving them the public appearance of an ideal couple who love each other madly. Indeed, a customer at the dress shop remarks that “S’estimen bojament” (Sagarra 63) (“They are madly in love” (Newman 63)). The baron and his wife, concerned about the secrecy of the location, site their transgressive sex in a private, concealed space because news of their ‘perversion’ would be ruinous to their position in society. Their sexual identities are therefore also kept secret from public view, which appears to reinforce the binary of heterosexuality/homosexuality, where the former is normative and the latter deviant.

However, Sedgwick demonstrates how this dichotomy is inherently unstable as both of these terms “subsist in a more unsettled and dynamic tacit relation” (10). Homosexuality is not symmetrical, but subordinate to heterosexuality, which in turn depends for its meaning on the submission and exclusion of homosexuality. Each category is therefore “irresolvably unstable” because homosexuality is constituted as at once internal and external to heterosexuality (Sedgwick 10). The “cambra del crim” episode demonstrates that the same “unsettled and dynamic tacit relation” exists between privacy and publicness, secrecy and exhibitionism. Guillem visits the baron at his home, where he reveals himself to be the vagrant from the dress shop flat and threatens to disclose the baron’s transgressive sexuality to the members of the Barcelona bourgeoisie if he does not write off the enormous sums of money his brother owes him from gambling losses. The baron is quick to comply, as public knowledge of his activities and associated identity would ruin his reputation. Following Foucault’s theory of the construction of sexual identity, public knowledge of the secret would represent the production of knowledge of the baron’s secret sexuality, thus entirely reconstructing his identity. Public knowledge of his identity would submit him to the power of Barcelona’s privileged classes and, racked with fear and shame as Guillem ensnares him in an ever-thicker web of blackmail, the baron, unable to bear the weight of his secret any longer, shoots himself. The complex intertwining of public and private realms that Sagarra presents demonstrates how each sphere cannot be delineated and separated as neatly as the characters, or Cerdà, imagine they can be, as the public/private dichotomy transcends urban boundaries.

The “cambra del crim” episode takes place in the “in-between” space of the intervías, which literally means “between ways”. In a similar vein, MacCormack’s alignment of perversion with monstrosity draws on Rosi Braidotti’s definition of monsters as “human beings … who represent the in-between, the mixed, the ambivalent as implied in the ancient Greek root of the word monsters, teras, which means both horrible and wonderful, object of aberration and adoration” (77). The bourgeois moral code is patriarchal and heteronormative, a position which the narrator upholds, identifying a hidden monster in Dorotea Palau: “Probablement, en el clima secret de Dorotea s’hi devia criar també algun monstre insospitat, i probablement, una de les conseqüències d’aquell monstre era l’escena que acabava de passar a la casa de modes” (Sagarra 66) (“In her inner depths she must be harboring some unsuspected monster, and one of the consequences of that monster was probably the scene that had just taken place in that house of fashion” (Newman 67)). In her discussion of perversion as monstrosity, MacCormack recognises that if “monsters” are to name themselves as such, “they accept the terms of their bodies given to them by phallologocentric culture” (par. 21), affirming a condition for them that they did not choose. The public fascination with the deformed sexuality that the baron imagines, a fascination echoed in the narrator’s labelling of Dorotea’s sexuality as “monstrous,” subjugates the characters to the established norms of the bourgeois realm. Falling foul of this moral code is what brings about the characters’ deaths. The baron is not the only one to die as a result of his transgressive sexuality: Dorotea is later stabbed to death, apparently out of spite for her secondary line of work. Their deaths connect to the urban form of the intervías in the Eixample. Attempting to keep their transgressive sexual practices private within a space characterised as both private and public proves tragically impossible.

MacCormack also points out that conditions of subjugation are often glamorised in society (par. 21), which further reaffirms traditional patriarchal and heteronormative discourses. This is also the case in Vida privada, as Sagarra’s lively portrait of the red-light district in the old city demonstrates. A group of aristocratic and bourgeois characters who had met through regular games of poker go on a night out in the old city. Their night out turns into a voyeuristic tour of the red-light district, as they observe all kinds of people out in the streets: different kinds of men, prostitutes, gypsies and disfigured people exhibit themselves to the passers-by. Practices of transgressive sexuality in the red-light district take place outdoors in the streets, where people flaunt their body’s characteristics and display appearances that cross boundaries, flouting the conventions the group of tourists are accustomed to. The people they encounter blur the strait-laced, normative conceptions of gender enshrined in the bourgeois moral code: “D’homes, se’n veien de tota manera, des dels mariners, els mecànics i els obrers perfectament normal, fins als pederastes amb els llavis pintats, les galtes amb crostes de guix i els ulls carregats de rímmel” (Sagarra 205) (“There were all kinds of men, from perfectly normal sailors, mechanics and workingmen, to pederasts with painted lips, cheeks crusted with plaster and eyes laden with mascara” (Newman 233)). Later on, they are pursued by Lolita, an “homenot” (“big man”) with a masked face and hair gleaming with coconut oil who begs them for a cigarette “amb una veu de mascaró que vol imitar la d’una dona i fent aquell ploriqueig assossegat i llepissós dels invertits professionals” (Sagarra 212) (“in a high-pitched tone meant to imitate a woman’s voice, with the unhurried, sibilant lisp of the professional invert” (Newman 241)). Afraid of this character, the group try to hurry away as Lolita makes “uns ‘ais’ inaguantables a l’orella dels quatre homes que fugien; uns ‘ais’ com si volguessin imitar l’orgasme femení” (Sagarra 212) (“whimpering and crying ‘Ay!’ into their ears, intolerably, over and over again, as if imitating a female orgasm” (Newman 242)). Indoors, transgressive sexuality is expressed through performances of dance and movement. In the La Criolla club the dancers and a boy with a full face of make-up and a woman’s hairstyle prepare the group for the burlesque friezes they witness later on at the sex show at La Sevillana: a pornographic performance by four women and “dos éssers que probablement eren homes” (Sagarra 214) (“two beings who must have been men” (Newman 243)). This episode highlights the narrator’s taxonomic gaze and upholding of heteronormative discourse, as it attempts to define all subjects as either ‘male’, ‘female’ or a combination of the two, expressing sexuality solely through these gendered terms.

In the riotous, winding streets of the old city there is a much less clear distinction between public and private spaces as the streets are much narrower and there is much less room for a pavement buffer zone to separate public and private areas. Private spatial practices that develop the identity of an individual are therefore forced out into the public domain, where they are witnessed as performance. There is consequently no layer of secrecy surrounding transgressive sexuality in the old city: it exists out in the open and invites no public quest for knowledge as in the Eixample. The people of the red-light district attract viewers, which is reflected in the narrator’s comparison of the area to a stage being set up for the 1929 International Exposition where the inhabitants are performers: “és possible que aquells barris els donin un maquillatge especial” (Sagarra 205) (“maybe it is the neighborhoods themselves that apply a special sort of maquillage” (Newman 233)). The flouting of bourgeois social, moral and cultural conventions, which are understood in the middle- to upper-class residents of the Eixample as heterosexual relationships and normative sexual practices, is reflected in the old city’s urban form. Whereas Cerdà regulated and controlled the form of the new city with its rigid grid pattern of streets and an intervías consisting of apartment blocks made of single-family units and hence a great deal of private space, the old city underwent no similar planning project.

Vida privada thus establishes links between transgressive sexualities and the form of the city. The layout of the Eixample advocates the dominance of binary modes of thinking that protect normative identities, as exemplified by the presence of transgressive sexual practices within the private space of the intervías and the secret nature of the sexual identities that are constructed as a result. Dorotea’s hidden flat in the Eixample is the baron’s “closet,” where his transgressive identity is developed and where it is kept a closely guarded secret, along with the identity of Dorotea herself.

Cerdà’s urbanisation is based around human interaction and interrelationships which are constantly shifting, thus making themselves “open to the subversion of normalcy and the multiplication of alternative potentials” (Green 142). While this process of subversion happens publicly in the streets and clubs of the old city, when it takes place in the private-public in-between space of the intervías, it results in tragic consequences. Private sexual identities are shown to be incompatible with the conventional values that regulate daily life in the Eixample. The potential for privacy and secrecy was meant by Cerdà to create a more balanced place for humans to thrive by allowing them to combine movement and stasis in equal measure and creating universal harmony. Yet Vida privada would suggest that the promotion of this human solidarity and fraternity appears contingent on the upholding of phallologocentric values, as the tragedies in the Eixample and the glamorisation of conditions of subjugation in the red-light district convey.


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