From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America
3.2 (1983): 103-20.
Copyright © 1983, The Cervantes Society of America
||DIANA DE ARMAS WILSON|
|La costumbre es otra naturaleza, y el mudarla se siente como la muerte.|
|Persiles, I, 12|
OW THAT the modern novel, in both its British and Continental manifestations, is tirelessly being acclaimed as extraordinary in the feminization of its vision, it seems urgent to link this feminization more explicitly to Cervantes, who after all pioneered the genre. About a decade of increasingly confident scholarship has been struggling with questions about the centrality of female characters in the English novel: Why is Moll Flanders a woman? Why did Richardson write first of Pamela and Clarissa? Why Jane Austen, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot?1 Less tentative answers to questions like these may be found by looking back to Cervantes, specifically to his last work, Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda, a quest romance more attuned to our age than has been recognized. I wish to
Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Towards Androgyny: Aspects of Male and Female in
Literature (New York: Norton, 1973). See also, in this tradition, Janet
Sydney Kaplan's Feminine Consciousness in the Modern British Novel
(1975); Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own (1977); Sandra
Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic (1979); and Nina
Auerbach's Woman and the Demon (1982).
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suggest in this essay that the Persiles both risked and suffered
exclusion from the canon, not only for its bold evocation of
feminine consciousness but also, and as a logical corollary, for its
anti-conventional views about the myth of female
As Northrop Frye recalls it, the romance convention dictates a familiar sacrificial scenario: since a heroine will as a rule avoid the fate of being sacrificed, hers is commonly regarded as the role of a snatched-away sacrificial victim.3 At least a dozen heroines in Cervantes' romance, however, function as subjects not as passive participles within the rituals of sacrifice projected for them. As such, these women make a collective demand for revising the convention of the sacrifiable heroine, long a popular staple of escapist romance. These heroines further establish that the aged Cervantes, once again undeterred by the mystique of literary custom, could resist all the permutations of sacrificial closure, both for their fictional lives and for his final narrative.
Instantly focusing its central concern, the Persiles ushers its readers, in medias res, into an emblematic scene of human sacrifice. One of its anonymous editors, presumably as a call to readerly patience, even apologizes for what he regards as un largo comienzo repelente.4 As the background for these sacrifices Cervantes employs the icy cold wastelands of the remote Arctic oceans, with their enshrouding mists and pervasive timelessness. Somewhere in the North Sea, during some fictive date between 1558 and 1572, he situates his Isla Bárbara, a spatial metaphor for violent and sacred
K. Miller argues that La Princesse de Clèves (1678) has been
similarly discredited excluded from the canon for being
an extravagant work (See Emphasis Added: Plots and
Possibilities in Women's Fiction, PMLA, 96 , 36-48). I
use the word anti-conventional here in Hayden V. White's sense
of the more powerful threat to the mystique of the canon, the
unconventional, which can be actively ignored, being
the other (The Institutions of Literary Study, Special Forum,
RMMLA Convention, Salt Lake City, 22 Oct. 1982).
3 Northrop Frye, The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1976), p. 81. Italics mine.
4 Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de, Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda (Buenos Aires: Espasa-Calpe, 1952). I prefer and use exclusively in this essay the Juan Bautista Avalle-Arce edition of the Persiles (Madrid: Clásicos Castalia, 1969). English readers must content themselves with Louisa Dorothea Stanley's translation, The Travels of Persiles and Sigismunda (London: Joseph Cundall, 1854).
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sensuality, a kind of symbolic underworld for all human loves. Here a race
of barbarians is preparing for sacrifice, a ritual murder expected to predict
their long-awaited Messiah, the offspring of a sexual union founded on blood
and power. These linkages between power, sex, and sacrifice introduce the
main narrative and function as one of its fundamental structural devices.
It is against the pressures of this sacrificial context that the interpolated
tales of the Persiles struggle. They furnish erotic resonance to the
main plot's pilgrimage of love, a literary journey which Avalle-Arce traces
back to Dante's Vita nuova.5 These
tales, moreover, offer multiple variations on the theme of the sacrificial
altar, a site which both. protagonists barely manage to escape during their
captivity on Isla Bárbara.
The question of sacrifice concerned Cervantes from the beginnings of his literary career. One could say that La Galatea stops (for it does not end) just as the heroine is about to be snatched away from a sacrificial marriage. With Don Quixote the discourse moves into masculine self-sacrifice, a passion validated and even exalted by legions of traditional critics. The characteristic diction of this school may be instanced by James Fitzmaurice-Kelly's description, in 1916, of Don Quixote as a hero aflame with the passion of self-sacrifice or as an ascetic, burning to immolate himself for an ideal. Even as late as 1964, however, Alberto Navarro was still dreaming about a Dulcinea well worth immolating oneself for: Dulcinea, así, queda, a mi ver, como magnífica simbolización de un ideal terreno (no forjado en el vacío) a cuyo servicio, gustosa y generosamente, se inmola el propio vivir individual. Attacking similarly highminded interpretations of sacrifice, Arthur Efron has persuasively argued that the novel Don Quixote both questions and rejects the idea that willingness to die for a cause automatically confers dignity. As Efron reads it, Cervantes' masterpiece implicitly renounces the automatic connection of sacrifice with positive value.6 This anti-sacrificial stance is both endorsed and expressed through women in the later Persiles, a
Introducción, Persiles, pp. 23-24.
6 The above three critical views on self-sacrifice belong, respectively, to James Fitzmaurice-Kelly, Cervantes and Shakespeare, Proceedings of the British Academy (1916), vol. VII, p. 23; Alberto Navarro, Dulcinea del Toboso, in El Quijote español en el siglo XVII (Madrid: Rialp, 1964), p. 164; and Arthur Efron, Don Quixote and the Dulcineated World (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1971), p. vi.
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text which shuns the idea of immolation either of self or other
with unsentimental rigor and even, occasionally, with humor.
Unlike Don Quixote, which examines chivalric ideals (if not, indeed, the nature of the ideal itself), the Persiles focuses upon erotic ideals, specifically, on their cost to the human couple. A daring book of cultural criticism, Cervantes' last romance engages all the unfinished business of his first. From pastoral to Byzantine, the literary quest had this one constant: how does one really talk about desire? The pastoral and chivalric romances seemed to talk of little else, but their structures of desire were stubbornly mired in the courtly love topos, with its triangulated and fruitless dynamics. Don Quixote shows us the cost of maintaining a courtly love: asceticism, madness, and death. The full title of the Persiles reveals Cervantes' alternative to dying-for-Dulcinea: trabajos.7 The labors enjoined upon the multiple couples in Cervantes' romance are those of confronting not exalting, not escaping one's opposite. In this the Persiles is both a prescriptive and prophetic romance. Focusing insistently on the cultural myths that animate and destroy lovers, the text repeatedly urges its characters to question the literary language of desire, a language which breaks down at the level of ordinary human sexual experience. Ricla's summing up of her clandestine married life with Antonio Hame enseñado su lengua, y yo a él la mía (I.6) may be read allegorically as a syllabus for Cervantes' protagonists, the generic couple in quest of erotic integration. When Mack Singleton attacked the Persiles for its neglect of existential issues, he complained that the only psychological problems the work examined were erotic a perfectly accurate judgment, as it turns out.8 If the existential Quixote read us well in the past, the erotic Persiles may read us much better in these times of sexual upheaval.
The publishing history of this work may partially explain why it has been so thoroughly obscured by its more famous relative Don
7 It is
telling that the word trabajos was not used in the title of Cervantes'
Byzantine model, Heliodorus' Historia etiópica de los amores de
Teágenes y Cariclea, translated by Fernando de Mena in 1587. When
do amores become trabajos? Iris Murdoch's definition of love
as the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself
is real speaks to this shift (Chicago Review 13, Autumn 1959,
8 The Persiles Mystery, in Cervantes Across the Centuries, ed. Angel Flores and M. J. Benardete (New York: Dryden, 1947), p. 230. The Persiles was competing, after all, with one of the writers known as Erotici Graeci, who were in the habit of dedicating their works to Eros.
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Quixote. In his dedication to Part II of this last, Cervantes himself
declared the Persiles el libro más malo o el mejor que
en nuestra lengua se haya compuesto, quiero decir de los de
entretenimiento, disclaiming in the next breath the label más
malo, as his friends assured him of its eventual success: ha
de llegar al estremo de bondad posible. Cervantes had already declared
his intention for the Persiles in a statement of anxious competition:
libro que se atreve a competir con Heliodoro, si ya por atrevido no
sale con las manos en la cabeza. Published posthumously in 1617, the
work was hastily finished on Cervantes' deathbed, its dedication written,
as every cervantista recalls, con las ansias de la muerte.
The book's Aprobación, by Philip III's censor, borrows from
Jerome's Latin praises for Origen in order to privilege the Persiles
over the rest of Cervantes' canon: cum in omnibus omnes, in hoc
Immediately after publication the Persiles became a literary success. A current edition of the Oxford Companion to Spanish Literature allows that the work was long more popular than the superior Don Quijote and adds, as if trying to account for such popularity, that Cervantes inserted in his romance dissertations on a variety of matters to which he had given mature thought, including . . . love and women.10 Cervantes' contemporaries, in any event, were eager to read about this mature thought, since the text went through ten editions within its first year, and through numerous translations French, Italian, English and imitations, both in prose fiction and drama, within its first decade. Then around 1630, as one critic hyperbolically puts it, Cervantes' last romance sank without trace and has hardly since been heard of.11
There is little doubt that as the taste for romance dwindled down he next three centuries, so did the fortunes of the Persiles. Its literary
Dedicatoria, El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha,
II, ed. Luis Andrés Murillo (Madrid: Castalia, 1978), p. 39;
Prólogo al lector, Novelas ejemplares, in Obras
completas, ed. A. Valbuena Prat, 10th ed. (Madrid: Aguilar, 956), p.
770; Aprobación and Dedicatoria,
Persiles, pp. 41 and 44-45.
10 Persiles y Sigismunda, Los trabajos de, The Oxford Companion to Spanish Literature, ed. Philip Ward, 1978 ed.
11 Wyndham Lewis, The Shadow of Cervantes (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1962), p. 188. For a brief survey of eighteenth and nineteenth century scholars who regarded the Persiles favorably, see Rudolph Schevill, Studies in Cervantes: I. Persiles y Sigismunda: Introduction, Modern Philology, 4 (1906-1907), 1-24. In the main, however, Continental criticism has affected what the Austral editor calls un desprecio exagerado for the Persiles.
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history and canonical status were chronicled by generations of largely
disaffected male readers. In a curiously graphic parturition metaphor, one
of these even likened the work to a still-born child: el
Persiles vino al mundo con un pesado lastre de cosa muerta: el
género bizantino había cerrado su ciclo; nadie, ni el mismo
Cervantes, sería capaz de abrirlo otra vez. That Cervantes never
wished to reopen the Byzantine cycle but, by his own avowal, to
compete with it, seems to have escaped the many academicians who simply
inherited the notion of the Persiles as tasteless or derivative.
Cervantes' work, as I see it, was not a tired imitation but a strategic
experiment in the outdoing
topos.12 At any rate, it remained a
marginal work until, perhaps, 1969, when Rafael Osuna marveled that this
cenicienta of a novel should still be dozing in some neglected
corner.13 It dozed there until 1972, when
Alban K. Forcione interpreted the work as a Christian quest romance, allowing
that his study scarcely exhausted the thematic substance of an
encyclopedic book, whose profusion of event and episode
will always trouble its
Pointing to this same tidal overflowing of ideas, characters, events, aspirations, William Byron concludes in his recent biography of Cervantes that the Persiles is an exhausting book to read, a feast more for gluttons than gourmets. This dampening little judgment is extended to the book's protagonists, whom Byron trivializes, again through the imagery of gourmandism, as gluttons for punishment: Rather like diners without appetite at a Gargantuan smorgasbord, [the protagonists] filter through tribulations, trials, reparations, narrow escapes, injuries, perfidies, bewitchments, poisonings, shipwrecks, attempted and successful seductions, murders, [and] suicides
Díez-Echarri and J. M. Roca Franquesa, Historia general de la
literatura española e hispanoamericana, 2nd ed. (Madrid: Aguilar,
1966), p. 366. On the rhetorical convention of the outdoing topos
see Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages,
trans. Willard Trask (New York: Harper and Row, 1953), pp. 162-65. One could
also say that Cervantes kidnapped the Aethiopica, i.e.,
used its romance formulas in order to reflect certain ascendant
. . . social ideals (see Frye, Secular Scripture,
on kidnapping romance, pp. 29-30).
13 El olvido del Persiles, Boletín de la Real Academia Española, 48 (1968), 74-75.
14 Cervantes' Christian Romance: A Study of Persiles and Sigismunda (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), p. 60n., and p. 11. Forcione's allegorical reading of the Persiles discloses an orthodox Christian plan, a redemptive not an erotic one: the Persiles has yet to be read as an allegory of love.
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until they reach the Holy City with a gang of pilgrims they have gathered
along the way. The tone of this summary anticipates its ironic finale,
a judgment which ratifies the stance of numerous mimetically-minded critics:
There [in Rome], after some last-minute backing and filling, all lovers
are united, all enmities expunged in preparation for what one is confident
will be lives of unflinching
rectitude.15 I have given Byron's critique
the consent of attention because it so faithfully parallels J. Entwistle's
repugnance at the intolerable . . . spectacle of unrelieved
virtue presented by Cervantes' main couple. For a while, it became
an academic commonplace to see the protagonists, in Entwistle's terms, as
monotonously perfect, which they are not: the heroine is jealous,
self-regarding, even devious; the hero, oddly passive and relentlessly anecdotal.
Yet certain critics still prefer to regard the Persiles as suffering
from what Entwistle calls the exemplary
fallacy.16 Perhaps the most recent
attack on the monotony of rectitude comes from Cesáreo Bandera, who
feels that the Persiles was, historically speaking, so
short-lived because the heroine's purity does not make for good
novelistic character. This, of course, is to invoke a conception of
character founded on tenets of nineteenth-century realism, with
realistic and novelistic as interchangeable terms.
This is also to disregard Cervantes' explicit intentions of competing in
an altogether different economy the world of Greek romance. The sexual
and sacrificial antics portrayed on Isla Bárbara in the opening chapters
of the Persiles, however, do in fact give Bandera precisely
what he claims we all want in a good novel: We do not want purity in
a novel, we want desire, and some dirty rascal on whom to blame
it.17 In that emblematic opening scenario,
desire and a dirty rascal called Bradamiro may be blamed for a violent civil
war, an apocalyptic island-wide fire, and ashes: la isla se abrasa,
casi todos los moradores de ella quedan hechos ceniza (I, 4), the survivors
are told. And Cervantes pilots them away from his mimetic and sacrificial
island, now a panorama of ruin, in a quest for new structures of desire.
Henceforth in the Persiles the novelistic element will be embedded in a matrix of romance, to appear most conspicuously in some
Cervantes: A Biography (New York: Doubleday, 1978), pp. 511-14.
16 William J. Entwistle, Ocean of Story, in Cervantes: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Lowry Nelson, Jr. (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969), p. 166 and p. 163.
17 An Open Letter to Ruth El Saffar, in Cervantes, 1 (1981), pp. 104-06.
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thirteen interpolated tales. Like Shakespeare, who also culminated his life's
work in Byzantine romance land- and seascapes, Cervantes chose to include
an anti-romantic dimension in his work. Apart from giving readers satisfying
islands of mimetic realism, the interpolations in the Persiles serve
to qualify and complicate whatever triumphs the romance genre normally embraces.
Howard Felperin demonstrates this technique in The Winter's Tale by
noting how Shakespeare brilliantly gave wrinkles to Hermione's
statue.18 Cervantes' romance has its own
anticonventional wrinkles: they are its interpolated tales, each
one told in autobiographical form by some kind of erotic refugee a
victim or ex-victim of mimetic desire. Some stories span several chapters;
several have joint narrators husbands and wives, fathers and daughters;
all of the tales focus on the dynamics of sexual love and all advance the
pilgrimage of desire away from that initial barbaric landscape of
Collectively and strategically, the interpolated tales in the Persiles question all the masculine fictions of desire of Cervantes' age, as well as many of our own. Immediately after the resolution of the last tale, Cervantes himself appears in his work, thinly disguised as a Spanish man-of-letters collecting maxims (IV, 1). After identifying himself with a revealing little curriculum vitae, he tells his characters that he aims to publish their maxims, along with three hundred others he has collected, as a miscellany. This text within the text provides, I believe, what Wolfgang Iser would call an allegory of the reader's task in the novel.19 What readers confront in this miscellany is a kind of textbook demonstration of cultural maxims which fully divide the sexes. The miscellany's entries could function as early exhibits of what Freud was to call the ambitious / erotic antinomy.20 The male
Shakespearean Romance (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), pp.
19 Indeterminacy and the Reader's Response, in Aspects of Narrative: Selected Papers from the English Institute, ed. J. Hillis Miller (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1971), p. 29.
20 The Relation of the Poet to Daydreaming in On Creativity and the Unconscious, trans. I. F. Grant Duff (New York: Harper, 1958), pp. 47-48. Nancy K. Miller cites this passage in an essay which is itself a protest against the division of labor that grants men the world and women love (Emphasis Added, p. 40 and p. 47). The miscellany produced ad hoc by the characters in the Persiles (IV, 1) precisely reflects this division of labor; the novel itself protests it.
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pilgrims all talk about war (e.g., Dichoso es el soldado que, cuando
está peleando, sabe que le está mirando su príncipe),
the females about sex (e.g., No por el suyo, sino por el parecer ajeno
ha de escoger la mujer el marido). I have purposefully quoted two of
the more triangulated maxims among the pilgrims' entries, since their language
openly reveals the dynamics of triangular desire as experienced by the different
sexes. The men cultivate and exalt triangulation (Dichoso es
. . .), the women submit to it resignedly (No por el
suyo . . .). These are the cultural attitudes solicited
by the author from his own characters that perpetuate an economy of
male domination, where women are objects to be circulated by barbarians,
pirates, fathers, tyrants or lovers. A staple of romance, in other words,
has always been this vision of women in bondage tied either to masculine
games of desire, to coded laws of property, or to supernatural rituals of
But all of the interpolated tales in the Persiles seem to be questioning this conventional romance formula of female sacrifice what Frye calls the astonishingly persistent, indeed, the crucial episode of romance.21 Cervantes' romance asks why this episode should be crucial and persistent. Sacrifice of any kind is for barbarians. Everywhere in the interpolated tales one can read a protest against being sold, bled, or bartered in the name of love. The interpolation in the Persiles is the hub of its feminization, the romance plot its liberating vehicle. Over and over one reads the same structural questions about the Persiles. How does one discover unity in a work as intricate as a Chinese puzzle? And why did Cervantes divide the work into Byzantine and realistic modes of narration, a kind of schism which Osuna regards as sin duda . . . lo más misterioso del Persiles? And, finally, what is the precise relationship between the mimetic interpolations and the main romance plot that contains them?22
Secular Scripture, p. 81.
22 The Chinese puzzle simile belongs to George Northup Tyler, An Introduction to Spanish Literature (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1971). Osuna's structural conclusions are in El olvido, p. 61. As for the relationship of the interpolated stories to the main plot, Alban K. Forcione sees them as analogues reenacting the cycle of disaster and restoration against the background of the Christian myth of fall and redemption (Christian Romance, p. 108). His exegetical reading, though excellent, must ignore at least one central episode that does not reenact that cycle of near-death and salvation: Sosa Coitiño's death over unrequited love.
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Feminist criticism is beginning to enlighten the structural puzzle offered by the Persiles, essentially the grafting together of two modes which need not be discordant: the need to see novelistic thrills (realismo) in order to see through them (alegoría). For the Persiles is an allegory of desire whose distinction is that it addresses itself to female self-expression to feminine constructs of desire that exhibit agency rather than reaction. Critics like Ruth El Saffar, Ciriaco Morón Arroyo, and Arthur Efron have begun to look at the whole Cervantes canon from the side of the women including, strategically, its bearded waiting women.23 El Saffar, indeed, has made a pioneering claim about Cervantes' entire opus, which she reads as suggesting
that the way out of the hermeticism, illusion, rivalry, and violence of the solitary men who populate [Cervantes'] best known works begins with the woman: the woman not as the object of erotic desire, not as coquette, but as the most other of the others a man normally encounters, the other who, when he has learned to accept her as she is and not as what he thinks she is, rescues and recreates him.24
El Saffar, however, is currently in the tricky position of defending her healing vision of woman as the other from Girardian notions of the absolute Other, i.e., the sacrificial victim. Cesáreo Bandera has reminded her of Girard's discovery that the process whereby human society has managed to cater to its ever present need for the absolute other, the process whereby the absolute other has been fabricated, is called the sacrificial process. Human society, it bears noting, turns out to be a hard core male agency, as Bandera's own gloss on victims reveals. It appears that anyone who looks in any way
other than the core of adult males . . . immediately becomes associated with the victim. Among these others, women in particular
Ciriaco Morón Arroyo, Cooperative Mimesis: Don Quixote and Sancho
Panza, Diacritics 8 (1978), 83; see also Arthur Efron's
Bearded Waiting Women, Lovely Lethal
Female Piratemen: Sexual Boundary Shifts in Don Quixote, Part
II, Cervantes, 2 (1982), 155-64.
Efron's suggestion that readers attend to the body-text relationships in
Cervantes may be most fruitfully applied to the Persiles, a text rich
in imagery of birthing, sexual blurring, and disease.
24 On Beyond Conflict, rev. of Cesáreo Bandera's Mímesis conflictiva (Madrid: Gredos, 1975) in Cervantes, 1 (1981), pp. 86-88.
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have often provided a handy reservoir of sacrifiable victims, their otherness being so obvious.25
Both of these visions of woman as
other Bandera's sacrifiable victim and El Saffar's
rescuer find their way into Shakespeare's Winter's Tale where,
for instance, Hermione must be sacrificed, if only temporarily, before her
benighted husband can be recreated, or at least rehabilitated. But none of
the stories in the Persiles invokes the process of female sacrifice
as a societal mechanism. Quite the reverse: an alarming number of men sacrifice
their lives for love, quite needlessly, as it turns out, all of them tied
to self-propelled games of desire. But no one woman ever
does.26 The women in the Persiles
do not provide any handy reservoir of sacrifiable victims because
they have another mission in the work: to question the sacrificial process
altogether. They all manage to avert, circumvert, and even subvert the
sacrificial altar. Not one woman, it bears noting, even considers
self-immolation. They are transcendent not because they have paid their dues,
but because they have seen and understood the sacrificial mechanism. This
does not mean that they are exonerated from trabajos. Cervantes' huge
gallery of women in the Persiles must work hard to dismantle all those
masculine projections of desire that furnished his age both its victims and
its cherished maxims.
In the interpolated stories of Don Quixote Part I, Cervantes' concern had been with the freedom of choice available to his female characters, a freedom crucial to their amorous well-being. In the Persiles, published some 12 years later, that freedom is often a given: as pilgrims and wanderers, many of the woman have already detached themselves from the patriarchal envelope so evident in the Quixote. Some of the women in the Persiles, either through chance or destiny, have erupted entirely out of the economy of male domination. One of them, Sulpicia, a young Lithuanian widow, becomes an
Open Letter, pp. 97-98.
26 I exclude the allegorical figure of Rosemond Clifford, mistress of England's Henry II several centuries prior to the fictional time of the Persiles. Rosamunda's brief emblematic appearance in the novel is confined to the main plot, which relates her attempted seduction of a young Hippolytus figure, his angry rejection of her, and her subsequent conversion and death. She is one of the few cases in which the Persiles approaches pure allegory (Forcione, Christian Romance, p. 121). As she first appears literally enchained to an exiled court poet, she can scarcely be Cervantes' model of the autonomously desiring woman.
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avenging pirate after hanging some forty would-be rapists from the tackle and yards of her ship (II, 14).27 Another, Transila, exiles herself from her Irish homeland, having first taken up a lance against her new husband's kinsmen, who were hoping to enjoy the ius primae noctis or custom of the country, which legally obliges all brides to satisfy eager male in-laws (I, 12-13). An Extremaduran heroine, the unwed mother Feliciana, relinquishes her new infant son to its father, el caballero de la criatura, and begs to join the pilgrimage to Rome (III, 2-5). But those women who have not moved out of the economy of sexual exchange even temporarily remain there to question, judge, and reject a startling number of masculine assumptions those culturally fabricated, codified myths which normally require an other to be desired through, or an other to be sacrificed. All the old European games of desire are found in Cervantes' interpolated tales, and all are ignored, redeemed, defused, renounced, or subverted by the women: Spanish notions of deshonor; French dueling rituals; Portuguese suicides, Italian vendettas, Provençal poisonings all for presumptuous or unrequited loves; and, most pervasive of all, the Mediterranean double standard, firmly grounded on the patristic Eve / Mary paradigm, offering women that meanest of options, an either / or choice.28 It is precisely this paradigm which Joaquín Casalduero has ecstatically celebrated in a sentimentalized projection bearing not the remotest resemblance to Cervantes' heroines of Everywoman in the Baroque period: en el Barroco toda mujer es la mujer caída, hija de Eva, cuyos ojos llenos de lágrimas tienen que elevarse hacia el paradigma de gracia y virtud: la Virgen.29 Apart from such elevated projections of male desire, many of the heroines in the Persiles have to cope with the simply lustful antagonist, a dirty rascal who formulaically lapses into the rape-or-else routine of romance.30 These hard-working women mark a revolutionary advance from the bodiless Galatea and the absent Dulcinea. Unlike the pastoral or chivalric heroines of Cervantes' earlier fictions not all of whom are desexualized as well as
Efron's female piratemen in Bearded
Waiting Women, 156-57.
28 Elizabeth Janeway, Who is Sylvia? On the Loss of Sexual Paradigms, in Women: Sex and Sexuality, eds. Catharine R. Stimpson and Ethel Spector Person (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 7.
29 Joaquín Casalduero, Sentido y forma de Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda (Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1975), p. 17.
30 Secular Scripture, p. 77.
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idealized the women in the Persiles seem to be attempting a
conscious by-pass of the masculine dialectics of desire.
René Girard begins expounding his theory of desire, in the opening chapter of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, with the claim that Cervantes both fully understood and revealed the true nature of desire: that it is universally triangular and mimetic, that we all desire through the Other. Even the most cursory reading of El curioso impertinente would ratify Girard's claim about Cervantes' extraordinary insights into triangulation. But since Girard never moves beyond the Quixote for his structural supports, he cannot know that Cervantes himself moved beyond Girardian desire, beyond its pernicious and sacrificial dynamics, and reached in his old age for new paradigms. Triangular desire may justly describe the nature of desire for Don Quixote, who pays for it with his mind and life, but it by no means applies to the way that desire is understood by the later text of the Persiles. Girard may be correct in noting that all the ideas of the Western novel are present in germ in Don Quixote.31 It is critical to understand, however, that not all of Cervantes' ideas and notably his mature ideas about the dynamics of erotic love are present in Don Quixote.
Cervantes chose to compete in the field of Byzantine romance because only this version of romance, as its titles normally reveal, is couple-oriented does not escape, among other things, the equality of its lovers. And where such equality is even posited, the triangle is threatened or dismantled. In the interpolated tales of the Persiles, all psychological fictions, this parity could be further explored and tested through a novel (though not novelistic) element: the disclosure of feminine structures of desire; of women desiring autonomously instead of through the Other; of women vocal and critical about their experience of desire. The Persiles provides at least a dozen such portraits. Its marginal status within the male preserve of European literary history may be partly explained by its accounting for women as agents as desirers and not merely, Dulcinea-style, as desirable. The most vocal and unequivocably desiring woman in the Cervantes canon appears in the Persiles, perhaps with positional significance, in the last of its interpolated tales. I would like to close my argument
Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure,
trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1965), pp.
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with some speculations on the comic tale of Isabela Castrucha (III, 20-21),
whose protest of the myth of female sacrifice may shed light on why the
Persiles has so resolutely been denied canonical status.
Isabela's Guardian-uncle wishes to marry her off to a cousin whom she despises hombre no de mi gusto, ni de mi condición in order to keep the wealth within the family. In order to subvert her uncle's plans and to gain time until the man of her choice arrives a foreigner whom she has proposed to by letter Isabela decides to feign demonic possession, fingir[se] endemoniada. When we meet her, she is confined to a chamber in an Italian inn, her four limbs are being tied down to the bedposts, and she is wildly biting herself in a manic impersonation of the Devil. Her uncle, who seems acutely concerned about Isabela's diet (Encomiéndate a Dios, Isabela, y procura comer, no de tus hermosas carnes, sino de lo que te diere este tu tío, que bien te quiere), escorts a pair of clergymen into her chamber to sprinkle her face with holy water. All of Isabela's male bedside visitors are convinced that the Evil One is spread out in her angelic body: Vea . . . la lástima desta doncella, y si merece que en su cuerpo de ángel se ande espaciado el demonio. Isabela's demonio is wonderfully vocal about such topics as lice (animalejos) in men's breeches, and the classes of men who delouse or scratch themselves. The doctor in attendance, impressed with such coarse statistics, even begins to address Isabela's demon directly: Todo lo sabes, malino . . . ; bien parece que eres viejo. Much of the humor of this tale comes from Isabela's expert ventriloquism, from her mastery of the idiom of demonic possession. Isabela Castrucha's language of desire awakens our interest because it appears so inseparable from her desire for language, her need to metaphorize her real longings. Her demon, whom all the company are eager to exorcise, is Isabela's real spokesman: Yo saldré presto; pero no ha de ser cuando vosotros quisiéredes, sino cuando a mí me parezca. Many feminists today regard madness in women as a political rather than a psychological event. So does Isabela. Manipulating through madness, she subverts what Lévi-Strauss would describe, three centuries later, as elementary kinship structures, i.e., the exchange of women between men.32
Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology (New York: Basic Books,
1963). Specifically, Isabela is subverting a cross-cousin marriage, a union
which would facilitate the passage of inheritable property in a patrilineal
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The plot structure of Isabela's interpolated
tale affords a good sample of Cervantes' revisionary tactics in the
Persiles, his independence from all generic precepts. For this final
interpolation Cervantes borrows and inverts the centuries-old formula of
Greek New Comedy, whose normal formula (again according to Frye)
is that a young man wants a young woman, that his desire is resisted
by some opposition, usually paternal, and that near the end of the play
some twist in the plot enables the hero to have his
will.33 This antique comic formula
might almost furnish an abstract for Cervantes' tale of Isabela except for
his crucial exchange of gender. In Cervantes' version a young woman wants
a young man, but she cannot wait for some twist in the plot to help
her. She cannot remain the muta persona which Greek Comedy labeled
its heroines. She must create that twist herself, in order to
revise the social grammar of a powerful but credulous male society which
sees her as an object of circulation, as their possession. Isabela
must shift her grammatical position, in short, from object to subject of
Some thirteen chapters earlier in the Persiles, marriages de concierto y conveniencia such as those arranged to favor inheritance patterns were likened to renting out houses: como . . . alquilar una casa o otra alguna heredad (III, 7). Because Isabela's uncle (a surrogate of the formulaic senex iratus or heavy father in the Latin tradition of these comedies) wishes to rent out her body, Isabela's stratagem is to beat him to it to rent it out herself to the Devil. By feigning demonic possession, Isabela can best revolt against the sacrificial text being inscribed for her: she can triumph over a patriarchal society so mesmerized by the Evil One that it confounds him with women in love. Already possessed economically by her culture, Isabela simply translates that bondage into a charade of supernatural possession. She in truth does consider herself as possessed not by a demon but by the daimon Eros: una legión de demonios tengo en el cuerpo, she explains to her four women friends, que lo mismo es tener una onza de amor en el alma.
Isabela not only questions, she also rewrites the received ideas of her culture about the desiring woman. If Dulcinea is their ideally desirable and always inaccessible object, a cruel fair lady doomed ever
Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton Univ.
Press, 1957), p. 170.
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to be desired through the Other through the external mediation
of Amadis of Gaul and his countless chivalric clones then Isabela furnishes
us Dulcinea's precise antithesis. Accessible and desiring, she cunningly
arranges the day of her exorcism to coincide with the arrival
of her lover an obliging Italian called Andrea Marulo, who enjoys thinking
of himself as the husband of Isabela Castrucha: dadme la
mano . . . y alzadme de la humildad de ser Andrea Marulo a la alteza
de ser esposo de Isabela Castrucha. The diabolic little drama of their
marriage completely undoes Isabela's uncle, who dies in a paroxysm of rage.
In a twinkling, Cervantes switches his sacrificial victims: instead of a
woman's being sacrificed to a male economy, the man who would have bartered
her is snuffed out exorcised and the heroine has her will. Cervantes'
Isabela not only resists possession, she rescripts
Should we have missed her emblematic role of desiring woman, Cervantes signifies it, in the fashion of formal allegories, by her clothes. When the protagonists first see Isabela, in an earlier chapter, she is one of a party of eight horsemen, all galloping toward Milan: una mujer sentada en un rico sillón y sobre una mula, vestida de camino, toda de verde, hasta el sombrero, que con ricas y varias plumas azotaba el aire, con un antifaz, asimismo verde, cubierto el rostro (III, 19). As a Green Woman (the text soon after calls her dama . . . de lo verde), Isabela is unmistakably related to the European Green Man, a descendant of the Vegetation or Nature god of almost universal and immemorial tradition (whatever his local name).35 To these European hallmarks of ritualized fertility symbol, here re-sexed by Cervantes, may be added the sexual connotations of verde in Spanish. Isabela's erotic character, moreover, is meticulously counterpointed to the cultivated prudity of Sigismunda, the work's titular and more conventional heroine, who begins her career of trabajos as a Dulcinea-figure, desired by all men but and this by her own admission with absolutely no will of her own. Que ella no
Nancy K. Miller's discussion of Madame de Lafayette's dream in La Princesse
de Clèves (Emphasis Added, p. 42). Consider Isabela
also in the light of Catherine Clement's assessment that La femme doit
circuler et non pas faire circuler [Women must circulate and must not
cause to circulate], La Coupable, in La jeune née,
coauthored with Hélène Cixous (Paris: Union Générale
d'Éditions, 1975), p. 104.
35 John Speirs, Medieval English Poetry: The Non-Chaucerian Tradition (New York: Macmillan, 1957), p. 219.
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tenía voluntad alguna, is her response to the revelation that
Persiles is wildly in love with her (IV, 12). And when, much later, she muses
about people who, unlike herself, regard love as una vehemente pasión
del ánimo (III, 19), we know that Sigismunda is being primed
for a significant association with Isabela Castrucha. There is a typical
allegorical polarity at work here between Isabela's expressive libido, which
masquerades as her demonio (el que me atormenta), and
Sigismunda's worried chastity, her fears of her own sexuality. Bandera justly
maintains that we cannot truly hope through any novelistically beautiful
and pure Auristela through a woman ready to die rather
than be soiled.36 But perhaps we can
hope through Auristela's sub-character Isabela, whose daemonic element must
be absorbed by the protagonist before she can consider marriage. It is, after
all, Auristela / Sigismunda who loudly endorses Andrea's mano de
esposo for the feigning Isabela: Bien se la puede dar, que para
en uno son (III, 21). Beautiful but bloodless, the cautious Sigismunda
must be countered and educated by the greenest of all the
interpolated heroines, by the desiring Isabela a taker of risks, a
manipulator of maxims, a Trickster figure. That is how the allegory works.
Isabela's stratagems make her, like Odysseus, a sympathetic literary liar; they also shift the romance foundations of the Persiles temporarily into the comic realm, where the triumph of froda is often a driving force.37 Cervantes has regularly employed froda figures in his narratives, sometimes himself taking on what Ruth El Saffar describes as the burlador or Trickster role. El Saffar wisely sees many of the male characters in Cervantes' later narratives as types of froda who manage to win minus conflict. Her explanation of the Trickster's relationship to his prescribed role that he will take possession of that role instead of letting it manipulate him seems to me, with a pronominal change, equally apt for Isabela's anti-sacrificial tactics.38
By taking possession of a role of demonic possession, Cervantes' Isabela generates an early critique of the patriarchal economy of desire: where women must seem to be possessed in order to resist
Open Letter, p. 104. That
Cervantes knows how ridiculous this attitude is may be shown by one of the
maxims in his solicited miscellany: La mujer ha de ser como el
armiño, dejándose antes prender que enlodarse (IV, 1).
37 See Secular Scripture, p. 68 ff. for a discussion of froda.
38 Lecture on Don Quixote Part II at the Newberry Library, Chicago, August 2, 1982. I would like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities [p. 120] for a grant to attend Professor Ruth El Saffar's Summer Seminar on the prose canon of Cervantes. My position on the issue of the desiring woman in the Persiles has been greatly enriched by El Saffar's reading of Cervantes' entire opus, as expounded in her forthcoming book, Beyond Fiction: The Recovery of the Feminine in the Prose Works of Cervantes (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, to be published fall, 1983).
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possession, where they must go crazy in order to possess themselves. The very first speech by a woman in the Persiles is a lament precisely about being circulated. Taurisa's lament, which will resonate across the four books of the Persiles, is the old Cervantine cry of bondage and freedom but this time from the side of the women: Libre pensé yo que gozara de la luz del sol en esta vida; pero engañóme mi pensamiento, pues me veo a pique de ser vendida por esclava: desventura a quien ninguna puede compararse (I, 2). Isabela Castrucha, who also sees herself a pique de ser vendida, takes control of her own erotic destiny and gives herself where she chooses. Her desire, unlike Don Quixote's, is completely autonomous not triangular, never mediated, anti-metaphysical. Like Don Quixote, Isabela challenges a world view by means of her craziness. Hers, however, is a simulated dementia. By producing and directing the whole script of her lunacy, she politically violates all the masculine fictions of desire that would have marked her for sacrifice. As the female hero of the last inset story of the final work of his life, Isabela very literally represents Cervantes' last word on the myth of female sacrifice.
Department of English
|University of Denver|
|Fred Jehle firstname.lastname@example.org||Publications of the CSA||HCervantes|