From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America
5.1 (1985): 45-57.
Copyright © 1985, The Cervantes Society of America
Robert ter Horst, Calderón. The Secular Plays. (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1982), 254 pp.
EVERY READER of the Odyssey knows of the dreadful danger that awaits Ulysses if he listens to the beautiful song of the sirens. But there was another side of this mythical tradition. It was also said that whoever listened to the sirens' song would become learned and wise.
Here, as in so many other instances, mythical discourse links the best to the worst. Destruction as well as fruitful knowledge may spring from the same source, an awesome and mysterious origin that can be seen, like the Greek pharmakon, as both a lethal poison and a miraculous remedy. No wonder that such ambiguous sources or substances could only be treated with utmost care and reverence, and after much ritual and sacrificial preparation, as one must treat the sacred, in whose irreducible ambiguity they participated.
In the Republic, as readers may remember, Socrates advises similar precautions before any citizen of the ideal republic be permitted to approach the old stories of the poets. Although, in the view of this founder of Western philosophical thinking, the best thing would be to ban all such poetic stories from the city as dangerous. Why dangerous? Because they run counter to the guiding spirit of philosophy; they treat the same things, especially divine things, as both good and bad, they do not define and differentiate, therefore they are a scandal to the truth. They confuse things, because they only deal with appearances, and they excite the desires and passions of men.
* For Robert ter Horst's response to
this review article, see On the Importance of
Being Earnest: a Reply to Cesáreo Bandera, Cervantes
5.1 (1985): 59-63.
In La estatua de Prometeo, the drama
considered by ter Horst as The Model of Calderonian Dramaturgy,
Prometeo, another one of Calderón's typical sabios, like the
Basilio of La vida es sueño, guided only by natural
logic (La lógica natural / que estaba en el alma
infusa) had been studying the principles of all the sciences, specializing,
as usual, in the master science, astrology, among the Syrians. His natural
anhelo de saber was motivated in particular by his difficulty
in accepting que una / estrella en un mismo instante, / de un mismo
horóscopo infunda / dos afectos tan contrarios [as those of his and
his twin brother, Epimeteo] . . . que una causa / varios efectos
Once in possession of all the scientific knowledge he was able to obtain about causas y efectos, back among his primitive Caucasians, he had tried to give them leyes, a political constitution that would free them from their barbaric ways and make them live rationally in civilized society. He failed. His scientific effort produced among the uncivilized Caucasians the opposite effect. They took it as an attempt of his to set himself as tyrant over them. They rebelled, they twisted the meaning of his effort from benefit to injury (con tan infame calumnia / como torcer el beneficio en injuria).
As a result of this scientific failure, he turns to art and the sacred, making with life-like realism a simulacrum of wisdom, the statue of Minerva:
|Llegad, pues, llegad, veréis|
|su efigie; y pues mi cordura|
|ya no os da leyes, sino|
|a políticos consejos|
The artistic and sacred simulacrum inspires
awe and fear in the Caucasians. They see it as an amazing prodigy, on the
borderline between life and non-life, a todos pertuba / verla algo
menos que viva / con algo más que difunta. In other words, the
statue has a tremendous impact, it is a big success.
However, it is important to notice that this impact is not the result of a rational and scientifically controlled plan. On the contrary, when Prometeo's scientific plan failed to bring civilization to the Caucasians, he shut himself in the typical Calderonian cave, tenuously lit or crepuscularly dark, a Calderonian breeding ground for strong passions and vehement, obsessive desires. It was there, seized by some sort of madness (bien ser locura pensé) and
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yearning for the image that his fantasía had formed of
the supreme goddess of wisdom, that he fashioned the fascinating statue.
To say that the statue is a success does not mean that it is going to become an instrument of peace and harmony among its worshipers. It will simply become a catalyst of their desires. They did not want the laws, now they all want the statue.
Inevitably, as soon as the object of Prometeo's intense desire is exhibited, the desire of his twin brother, Epimeteo, is aroused with equal vehemence. And the drama continues as the rivalry of the two antithetical siblings for the same object unfolds. Thus showing how una estrella en un mismo instante de un mismo horóscopo infunda dos afectos tan contrarios. In fact, what the drama shows is the unfolding of this prediction in reverse; how dos afectos tan contrarios can attract each other mimetically towards the same object, the same conflictive spot, where they are bound together precisely by what opposes them, each other's identical desire. If rational Prometeo wanted to know what he could possibly have in common with his beastly brother, now he ought to know: his own desire.
The statue itself must be seen as a physical representation of this conflictive spot, where the two original twins meet each other in pursuit of each other's desire. Because the statue has no other reality beyond the purely physical, than the one given to it by the vehement desire that shaped it in phantasy. Therefore, its ambiguity, repeated emphasized by Calderón, does not belong to it as an apriori essence. It can only be the ambiguity of the desire that generates it, which also generates at the same time its own antithetical double; in other words, the ambiguity of a desire that will inevitably find its own contradiction.
The Caucasians are given to worship as a god a representation of the same cause of violence that can destroy them. An appropriate gift: if they cannot rule their own violence, let their own violence rule them.
Apart from all the theatrical apparatus of mythological gods and goddesses, in Calderón's eyes the primitive sacred is nothing but the imaginary projection or poetic objectification, the simulacrum, of primitive violence. A simulacrum that disguises violence. That is to say, it is violence disguised, camouflaged, and perceived as transcendent through a blind desire that fails to see or to control its own violence.
And yet, when nothing more rational, truthful,
or logical can work, the simulacrum does work to some extent, and it allows,
no matter how precariously, for the emergence of primitive science.
By means of the simulacrum, in the poetic language of the drama, Apollo's
fire is introduced in human society.
This could take us very far. All I want to emphasize here is that a real, coherent, and extraordinarily perceptive intuition into the origins of human culture animates Calderón's dramatic thought in this play as elsewhere. There is an entire anthropological theory implicit in his merging of the first philosopher-scientist and the first image maker or artist in one, and presenting him as a twin brother of the original warrior, the two rivals for the possession of the same two-faced, ambiguous object.
This Calderonian intuition is badly misrepresented when the different and contradictory faces of the same are conceptually differentiated and viewed, one after another, as separate possibilities along a neutral, purely formal, range or scale, as in the following words in the book that motivates these comments: Prometheus and Epimetheus, the rival siblings . . . represent a range of human response that extends from the tightest contractions of brotherly love . . . to the broadest expansions of deep mutual aversion, from the bestial to the divine. The intermediate portion of the scale between their two extremes is the very large field of normal social behavior in man (p. 10). Thus, instead of Calderón's reason-defying mystery, where attraction and repulsion are generated together, in the same instant, we are invited to witness a wonderful array of possibilities, which in their purely formal existence neutrally maintain their spatial and temporal distance from one another. Nothing could be less Calderonian than that, except what the critic says as a consequence of his cutting up of the violent same into discrete, separate pieces, which, nevertheless, the critic feels obliged to relate somehow to one another: Calderón's politics are poetics which creatively extend consciousness of the range of human social experience so that gods, men, and beasts become partial modes of one another (ibid.).
It would certainly be very interesting, from a Calderonian perspective, to find out how gods become partial modes of men, and even more interesting how men become partial modes of beasts. But since Calderón's politics are poetics, perhaps we should not worry too much about these, otherwise unsettling, metamorphoses.
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But it must be said that what Calderón
is contemplating would be much better described as a contraction
of consciousness, something like a cavernous darkening of the mind towards
the point of vehement obsession, when all kinds of monstrous shapes may haunt
the subject, or when it becomes increasingly difficult to tell one thing
from another. It was there, deep inside the cave, according to Calderón,
that politics became poetics, that the failed law-giver
became a genial artist, a creator of simulacra.
To call this failure of the philosophic-political project and the subsequent descent of Prometeo into the cave to fashion the sacred statue, truly a política de Dios (politics divinely inspired) effected through art, and an ascent from the political to the religious (p. 10), (italics mine), seems to me like a turning of Calderón upside down. The reason may be that the critic finds it difficult to believe that such an uplifting, consciousness-expanding, thing as art could dwell anywhere but in heaven. For he never faces up to the fact that Calderón is no liberal optimist and that his vision of unaided human nature is definitely unflattering, as other more perceptive liberal optimists have always remarked, though in fruitless disapproval.
In the context of this aesthetic optimism the following statement of principle must be viewed with caution: I . . . take the literary text to be the fount of all meanings, structures, and systems associated with it, and would resist efforts to make it serve primarily as a witness to other constructs (p. 145).
As a defense of literature against the reductionism of much psycho-mythic criticism [where] the original text ceases to be its own best evidence and becomes ancillary to another system Freudian, Jungian, Levi-Straussian thought to be primordial (ibid.), there is, perhaps, little to object to the quoted statement. But if it also means, as I am afraid it does in the general context of the book, that a great literary text, as such, has nothing important to say of its own about those or any other non-literary systems, then the statement must raise serious objections.
It is one thing to defend the possibility of a literary text to speak with its own voice about anything, it is quite another and futile thing to try to isolate it, to save it from contamination, so to speak, by other non-literary modes of discourse.
From Plato on, especially in the Renaissance, there were frequent discussions about what should be the proper subject of poetry. But taken as a whole, literary history clearly shows, as Tasso knew, that
practically anything under the sun can become a poetic subject. In fact,
one of the things that worried Plato was precisely poetry's lack of clearly
differentiated boundaries, the poet's claim to speak with assumed authority
about anything. Of course Plato worried about what poetry could do to something
else, especially philosophy, not about what something else could do to
It is not easy to go beyond Plato. Modern defenses of literature are usually a kind of Platonism in disguise. Enjoy and even revel in the wonderfully ambiguous creations of the poetic genius we are told, but keep such creations within themselves. This modern injunction not to contaminate literature with anything non-literary can only be the other side of the Platonic injunction not to contaminate anything with literature. In other words, there is no real progress in this type of modern thinking. There may, in fact, be a regress. Because at least Plato knew that he was dealing with a two-faced prodigy, like the sirens' song. Plato . . . and Cervantes . . . and Calderón. Which should make us wonder whether modern aesthetic thinking, in spite of its vaunted secularization, has ever left the boundaries of the sacred.
The critic is right. To read the creations of a Cervantes or a Calderón from an external non-literary perspective is like trying to fit them into a straight jacket. It is also not very rewarding, because it misses the profound reflection that those works contain about their own literary character. It is, on the other hand, very revealing to see what happens to any general systematic and / or philosophical premise when its historical relevance and its objectivity are placed at stake and tested in the interplay of human relations, which is the stuff literary creations are made of.
Many of us complain when a great literary work like the Quijote, for example, or La vida es sueño, is reduced to, say, socio-economic or psychoanalytical theory. But, have we ever thought of what socio-economic or psychoanalytical theory would be reduced to if read as literary fiction? I suspect that the serious theoreticians of such disciplines would not feel very comfortable with this suggestion. And yet, if the reduction is thought to be possible in one direction, should it not be possible in the other?
We also like to think that a great literary work can contain within itself all of those scientific or philosophical perspectives, but none of them can contain the literary work fully. What is, then, this extra something that the literary work possesses and the other modes of discourse do not?
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Well, whatever it is, it is no accident that
those other modes of discourse do not have it. As a matter of fact, it is
important for them not to have it. They constitute themselves as either
scientific or philosophic discourse, by carefully avoiding this unneeded
and unwelcome supplement, without which, on the other hand, literature would
lose its name.
We must insist that it is important for science and philosophy to keep their discourse free from the unwelcome literary extra, and literary critical discourse often obligingly acquiesces by turning the extra something into a mythical aesthetic idol dwelling in the never-never land of pure transcendence. Once placed there, science and philosophy applaud and proceed in peace with their business.
But to the extent that the literary extra may have real historical relevance, it must come into play at the point where any scientific or philosophical discourse loses its own objectivity and fails in its attempt to ground itself permanently. In other words, at the point where any human discourse may become an argument ad hominem, an instrument of human desire. Or to put it in Calderonian terms, at the point where Prometeo's scientific design fails and engenders the beautiful and conflictive statue of Minerva.
There is real thought about real things in Calderón's literary text. But it is not the thought that interests the book under review.
One might expect that a book that affirms the deep congeniality (p. 71) of Calderón and Cervantes, would offer some view on the subject of both authors' understanding of literary fiction as such, this being such a characteristically Cervantine theme. Instead the critic is interested in what he calls [Cervantes'] discovery of the feminine, and we are told that it is this Cervantine progress away from maleness and into femaleness which Calderón brilliantly exploits for the theater (ibid.). We are also told that the fundamental sympathy [between the two authors] is in their understanding of honor as a means of seeing man and woman in new perspectives. Accordingly, although both certainly deplored extremes, they adhered to the tenets of honor as to an artistically essential construct (ibid.).
I do not know, but I would be quite ready to admit that, in the light of more general considerations about Cervantes' or Calderón's vision of human nature or of their specific understanding of the character of human relationships, women acquire special significance in their works. But in the absence of any such considerations that would explain the critic's statement, I must look for unequivocal textual evidence showing that either Cervantes or Calderón are
aware of the special importance that they attach to women. The critic does
not produce that evidence. So, whatever he is talking about must have escaped
the explicit attention of both authors.
One play demonstrates a major congruence between the two authors . . . Calderón's No hay cosa como callar [and] Cervantes' tale La fuerza de la sangre . . . . The immediate similarity is plot . . . . Thematically, the tale and the play are distinct (p. 75). In the pages that follow these words I have struggled to find the major congruence without success. I always come back to the immediate similarity [of] plot, which is rather thin and general: a wealthy and idle young man rapes a lovely young noblewoman whom, ultimately and not unwillingly, he is brought to marry.
What I have found instead is an elaborate critical construct on the far-reaching implications of the difference between silence and speech, all of which concerns Calderón only, because we are told explicitly that the theme of the eloquence of silence is absent from Cervantes' tale, just as Cervantes' theme of a well-developed sense of the family is absent from Calderón (p. 76).
Silence is manful, that is to say, men talk less and do more, silence equals deed, action. A woman's weapon is speech. Dramatically speaking, women rely on talk and do less. Although there can be numerous exceptions, as in No hay cosa como callar, where the female protagonist, Leonor . . . owes her salvation to the fact that she manfully masters the weapon of silence, just as womanfully she can manipulate the arms of speech; but in the last two acts . . . they are in abeyance. In El médico de su honra, for example, the great symbols of the speechless male world are the dagger and the sword. They literally are Mencía's undoing (p. 92)
This is why the world of comedy, and the world of literary art in general, are essentially a woman's world, since literary art is essentially the art of speech. This is also why women are totally out of place in tragedy. In El médico, being a tragedy, poor Doña Mencía does not have a chance: All protestations are unavailing now and Mencía's pathetic cries of ¡Inocente muero! are the death-rattle of the cruelly displaced spirit of comedy throttled by the deed of death . . . . In Calderonian tragedy the logos of conflict [i.e. verbal conflict], for Calderón almost tantamount to the logos of art, dies. That may be why Calderón wrote so few tragedies. For him they are anti-art, comedy deprived of speech and run amok (ibid.).
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A less elegant way of putting it might be to
say that male deeds tend to be rather messy, an offensive stain on the beauty
of pure verbal sparring, at which women are masters.
Leaving completely aside for the moment the question of whether this type of thinking is an accurate reflection of the spirit that animates the works of Cervantes and Calderón, we seem to be confronted here with a rather bold theory of literary art. What Cervantes and Calderón have discovered we are told is that, contrary to what almost everybody had thought before them, literature, the art of beautiful speech, is in its essence, in spite of all de facto variations, a female art.
So be it. But if I were a feminist critic I am not sure I would be happy with this type of femaleness. First of all, one may feel a certain discomfort at the rather unfeeling way in which the critic describes Mencía's pathetic cries, and the way the horrible image of this premeditated crime becomes in the end some sort of comment about the death of the logos of art, an allegory of the death of art, rather than an artistic allegory of a possible real death of a real woman. The fact that she is innocent apparently does not change anything, and even less do the rest of her unquoted words as she dies, que el cielo no te demande mi muerte, so many more pathetic cries of an out-of-place artistic logos.
But we should not complain. This is supposedly the price that Calderón, a follower in this respect of Cervantes as an adherent to the tenets of honor as to an artistically essential construct, asks us to pay as a way to progress away from maleness and into femaleness, away from tragedy and into female comedy. Ideally I imagine Calderón would have been pleased if the original spectators of El médico would have come out of the theater in disgust and clamouring for comedies. Although on second thought their disgust would have betrayed their lack of understanding, for no real woman really died, even in phantasy, only a symbol of the spirit of art. But on third thought if they were not disgusted their understanding would not be any better, for they would not progress away from tragedy and into comedy. So perhaps the ideal formula would include a certain amount of disgust, a moderate amount, not too much. But, wait! This is the Aristotelian recipe for tragedy, not for comedy!
We were talking about the pathetic
cries of an out-of-place artistic logos. This is quite in keeping with
the critical approach that pervades the entire book. Every key concept in
Calderón or in Cervantes is cut from its referential meaning to possible
historical reality and left hollow as a mere rhetorical device. Honor, as
we have seen, is an artistically essential construct, or as he
says later on, an independent ground for the work of art, one not in
the domain of the moral law, amoral if not immoral (p. 146). Or still,
honor, like classical myth, is a ready-made literary hypothesis likely
to enlist the belief of nearly everyone attending a play (p. 147).
But why, one may ask, would such a literary hypothesis enlist
such a widespread belief?
A few more samples: Dishonor is in consequence a metaphor rather than a morality . . . a logical result of honor, and death a logical result of dishonor, with the following clarifying comment: logical, that is, in the deductive process that grows out of the artistic premise or hypothesis that is honor' (p.146). And turning to Cervantes, Don Quijote's renunciation of books of chivalry in the face of death becomes, a classic palinode in which Don Quijote abjures his former chivalric self and reverts to the name [italics mine] Alonso Quijano, until that time unknown to the reader (p. 120).
After a while one gets the definite impression that the critic is performing some sort of interpretive dance on the flat surface of the text. And all of a sudden, the following passage at the beginning of the book on one of the first scenes in La estatua de Prometeo becomes something like a symbol of the whole thing:
There next occurs a choreography of rhetoric, an incarnation of antithetical modes of speech into behavior. The figure is chiasmus. The antithesis is a god against beast. The chiasmus is the constant, dynamic shifting of the terms from place to place and from person to person, so that what began as relatively distinct opposition becomes a whole unpredictable field of conflict, campaña de primer lucha.
The rhetorical terms start developing into interchangeable behavior when the beastly Epimetheus, at the sight of the statue, falls in love with its beauty. Accordingly, to the Promethean trajectory from human to superhuman, there is now added an imitative action progressing from subhuman to semidivine. Beauty sways the beast, and the stage is set for the appearance of gods on earth and men in heaven. (M.C. 10)
There is hardly anything missing of what in Calderón is a description of the original battlefield, but in the critic's eyes the
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whole thing is nothing but a choreography of rhetoric, a beautiful
Now, one may certainly enjoy this ballet for its own sake, without asking any questions about its referential meaning. But if one believes that there is some intellectual content attached to the ballet, some coherent understanding of the origins of human society, and presses for an answer, he will get nothing but more and more rhetorical ballet.
Literary art is exalted and celebrated but also drained of any referential meaning. It becomes an arabesque of metaphors ultimately about nothing beyond itself, which is a way of saying simply about nothing. Honor, like art, separated from the real sources of power, from church and state, is a third and artistic force quite apart from them, for it obeys its own laws (p. 148). A world of pure interiority with an inwardness of retraction from other jurisdictions (ibid.), where one may engage in anything at all without restrictions, because whatever it is one is engaged in means nothing to anything else. And this is called artistic freedom, which should rather be called the purely formal or imaginary freedom of the meaningless, because it is ultimately grounded in a desire to be free of the responsibility of meaning something. Precisely the type of meaningless freedom with which Calderón is so familiar, and that he personifies in such characters as the gracioso Clarín in La vida es sueño. But in the context of this book we must ask, is this the secret reason why, unwittingly, the critic feels that literary art is essentially female?
And yet, the critic is not totally without foundation in what he says, in spite of the way he says it. This supposedly female character of art, this artistic process whereby powerful historical forces and conflict-breeding situations are removed from their violent relevance and turned into beautiful objects, is not something that the critic simply imagines. The problem is that he does not see this process for what it really is. That is to say, he does not see the removal or expulsion of the real, as such, and imagines he is dealing with two different things. Hence his attempt to preserve a non-existent artistic essence from contamination with real violence. Thus he cannot see what is truly fundamental for an understanding of Cervantes or of Calderón, namely the profound ethical manner in which they view their own artistic achievements.
It is futile and misleading to set apart (except perhaps provisionally and for strictly methodological reasons) the ethics of the
man from the mastery of the artist. Both Cervantes and Calderón know
that in the final analysis their art, qua art, inevitably lies, in
the sense that it masks and plays with something which, outside of its artistic
domain, is anything but beautiful. They know that the transformation or removal
of real violence is only apparent and, if not properly understood, a moral
trap. This is why they always take an ironic distance from their own artistic
About twenty of Calderón's plays have references to the author of the Quijote and the Novelas ejemplares . . . . The situation that most readily calls for a Cervantine comparison is one in a light play in which the Sancho-like servant marvels at his master's alacrity in getting himself into high-minded scrapes (p. 71). However, this self-parodic attitude of the author with regard to his own characters and / or situations, which serves as an ironic reminder of the distance between reality and conventional literary rhetoric, plays no part in the critic's own high-minded rhetorical exaltation of literary art as the creator of a separate reality of its own.
This lack of critical sensitivity to the self-parodic irony of the author is only the other side of an equal insensitivity to those other moments when Cervantes and Calderón become deadly serious. The moments when the tragi-comic fictional game enacts its own collapse. Don Quijote's renunciation of the chivalric game, for example, or Doña Mencía's death in El médico. These are the moments when the literary representation of reality transcends all ready-made literary hypothesis and points beyond itself like a sudden awakening.
It must be noticed that these moments, even the most recalcitrant graciosos stop laughing, while, on the contrary, they are constantly parodying the comedic, female, chatter as long as the latter may appear to have a chance of success.
If famous Calderonian honor is like classical myth . . ., a ready-made literary hypothesis, why is it that any gracioso may bluntly dismiss as silly the mythical death of an Eco, a Narciso, a Faetón, etc., but not that of any of the murdered wives in the honor plays? For there is no doubt at all that what the graciosos dismiss with such comments as, ¡Y habrá bobos que lo crean!, at the end of Eco y Narciso, is precisely their ready-made literary character, their lack of historical reference. Concerning the famous honor plays, to the best of my recollection, there is nothing in the entire dramatic production of Calderón comparable to the sustained and grotesque parody of the mythological play as a class that we find in Céfalo y Pocris, for example.
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The irreverent laughter of the graciosos
would be meaningless if they never stopped laughing. If everything in the
literary text were equally fictional or equally real the interplay between
reality and fiction, fundamental in the works of Cervantes and Calderón,
would disappear. If everything existed at the same distance between the author's
ethical sense of what is real and pure irresponsible phantasy, all sense
of depth would vanish, irony would be impossible.
What distinguishes Cervantes and Calderón is their extraordinary exploration of the ease with which, in the most unsuspected ways, reality can be fictionalized or fiction can become reality with either comic or tragic consequences. But such an exploration presupposes an incredibly fine perception of slight changes of degree along the ethical scale between the real and the entirely fictional.
They knew, of course, that they were engaged in a rather dangerous performance. For one can play with such fine differences only up to a point, beyond which the dance of the differences turns into undifferentiation, carrying along with it the very ethical sense that made differentiation possible, as well as the secret of their fascinating artistry. That they could play the game at such depths, without becoming ethically indifferent or artistically flat, is the clearest testimony to their greatness as men and as artists.
All this admirable flexibility, this sense of relative distances and depth, is entirely ignored or simply unperceived when the literary text becomes a self-supported, independent enclosure, and amorally free. In actuality, this purely formal freedom without ethical content becomes a hermeneutical license to play with a meaningless text as one may whimsically choose, or to zig-zag endlessly among numerous texts, changing directions at the flimsiest of suggestions, in an exercise that frequently becomes sheer intellectual frivolity.
|STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK AT BUFFALO|
||Prepared with the help of Myrna Douglas||
|Fred Jehle firstname.lastname@example.org||Publications of the CSA||HCervantes|