From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 10.1 (1990): 79-86.
Copyright © 1990, The Cervantes Society of America


Old and New Mimesis in Cervantes


  With appreciation, affection, and admiration to Celia Weller and Clark Colahan without whom I would not have been able to read this last work of Cervantes.

IT would be difficult to imagine an author writing more continuously, more obsessively, and more explicitly about the genesis and nature of human desire than Cervantes. In Don Quixote, he presents us with numerous illustrations of mimetic desire, that is, desire mediated through a model, desire whose origin can be situated outside the desiring agent. Thus, Quixote desires through Amadís de Gaula, Sancho and Sansón through Quixote, Anselmo through Lothario, Fernando through Cardenio, even Avellaneda through Cervantes. The triangular nature of these desires can be read at the literal level in the novel. Cardenio notes, for example, that “[his] words aroused in [Fernando] the desire to see a young woman adorned with so many good qualities,”1 and the reader can see on every page how the written

     * This is a paper from a symposium on Los Trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda, as is explained in the Foreward of this issue of the journal.
     1 Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote de la Mancha, trans. Samuel Putnam (New York: Viking Press, Inc., 1949), p. 192. All future references will be to this edition and will be inserted parenthetically in the text.


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words of Amadís arouse the desires of the protagonist. Once more, the entire novel, literally from start to finish, depicts the contagious nature of this ontological disease where the actors are repeatedly transformed into the parts they play and instinctual desire gives way to the mimetic impulse. Regarding Quixote, whose model does not compete with him for the objects of desire, the situation is, from this point of view, harmless; but, in the case of Anselmo and Lothario, for example, it leads to mimetic rivalry, the double, violence, and death.
     General statements about desire in the novel support the mimetic paradigm established by René Girard in his analysis of this and other literary works.2 “When a painter wishes to become famous”, writes Cervantes, “he strives to imitate the works of the most distinctive practitioners of his art; and the same rule holds for all the other arts” (p. 198). The reader quickly learns that the principle applies to the art of chivalry. At another level, throughout the novel, denial of a loved object increases desire for it while possession of that object reduces one's passion for it. In the words of the author, “Once appetite has had its fill, the dominant impulse is to hasten away from the place of satisfaction” (p. 241). The Tale of the Curious Impertinent demonstrates that what makes the lover run back to the place of satisfaction is the other's desire to take his place. While in the Girardian framework, the woman is only a means of getting at the rival, one recalls the words of Denis de Rougemont who observed that “One reaches the point of wanting the beloved to be unfaithful so that one can court her again.”3
     This is not to say, however, that all desire in Don Quixote is mimetic. Basilio stands as a clear example of one who uses tricks to avoid mimetic rivalry and violence, and, at times, Sancho shows flashes of instinctual desire. “Let's come back to earth and walk with our feet once more,” he remarks after losing his governorship; “I was not born to be a governor . . . .  I know more about plowing and digging” (pp. 858-59). It is Quixote himself, however, and Quixote alone, who ultimately marks the return to the self and the triumph over mimetic desire. As Sancho exclaims, the don returns “vanquished by the arm of another but a victor over himself” (p. 978). He speaks now of the “hateful books of chivalry” (p. 984), repudiates the mediator —“I

     2 René Girard, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965).
     3 Ibid., p. 48.

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am the enemy of Amadis of Gaul” (p. 984)— and, “in full possession of his faculties” (p. 985), defines the self— Alonso Quijano the good.
     Rephrasing one of Yeats' famous statements, we can assert that, until the very end of the novel, Don Quixote can know the truth but he does not embody it. This is particularly apparent when he claims: “Upon a foundation of folly no edifice of wisdom can be reared” (p. 787). To a large extent, the folly in Don Quixote is the protagonist's lack of self-knowledge and his obsessive mimetic behavior. It is certainly no accident that Cervantes mentions Persiles in the Prologue to Part Two of Don Quixote and in the accompanying dedication to the Count of Lemos, for while completing Don Quixote, he was writing the work that would show us the nature of the foundation upon which an edifice of wisdom can be constructed.
     From the very first page of Persiles, the reader is forced back into Don Quixote. On that page, Persiles, disguised as Periandro, is pulled by a rope out of a cave. The cave recalls Montesinos; the imagery suggests a birth; and we soon learn that a new Adam has emerged, a new Quixote, a spiritual offspring of the don who, like his ancestor, is in disguise, has a false name, and is “on the road”. Unlike his forefather, however, Persiles knows who he is and at no time mistakes the disguise for the man; he never relinquishes his deep self-knowledge. Whereas Quixote set out on a series of sallies, Persiles is on a pilgrimage; that is, a planned trip with a definite religious goal, accompanied not by a squire but by an equal, the woman he loves and wants to marry. Homo viator but not homo errans, Persiles has undertaken a steadfast journey from northern mists to the clarity of the Roman sun, from the confused Catholicism of the north to the radiant illumination of the papal monstrance. The aim of these wayfarers is not to be other than they are but rather, and precisely, to remain faithful to their truest selves. As such, they move together through time and space amidst trials, disorder, and pain, to Christian order, unity, and a lifetime of happiness and plenitude.
     Persiles succeeds in part because he refuses all triangular situations and avoids rather than confronts love rivalry. Initially, he would not betray his brother Magsimino, who also was in love with Sigismunda, and only went off with her when his mother, worried about his failing health, suggested the trip to Rome. Later, with Arnaldo and the Duke of Nemurs, he employs tricks, disguise, and misrepresentation to manipulate reality, escape rivalry,

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and avoid violence. At all times, he remains faithful to his instinctual desires. He has no neurotic fascination with the other and, unlike relationships in Don Quixote where jealousy is not what destroys love but rather what keeps it going, Persiles's desire is never fed by the love of others for Sigismunda. He refuses other women, such as Sinforosa, and flees the temptation of the flesh in the person of Hipólita. Unlike the lover of Feliz Flora who was moved “not by a perfect love but by one growing out of vice,”4 and dissimilar to the Duke of Nemurs “whose love . . . had been inspired by Auristela's beauty” (p. 334), Persiles's love of Sigismunda is one that encompasses her entire person: body, soul, mind, and free will. Love, for him, cannot exist without fears —“and fears strong enough to take a person's life” (p. 291)— but it can, and does in his case, exist “without jealousy” (p. 291) —a sentiment, he claims, that “diminishes [one's] self-respect” (p. 259).
     For her part, Sigismunda too tricks and misleads suitors such as Policarpo, Arnaldo, and the Duke of Nemurs. She also wages long battles against jealousy and the temptation to reject in toto the material world. She tells Persiles, for example, to marry Sinforosa while she enters religious orders. Once again, after her instruction in Rome, when she has completed her vow and is free to marry Persiles, she becomes even more enamored of chastity (p. 320) and wants to enter heaven as soon as possible. She then asks Persiles to return the promise she made to marry him, alludes to the Gospel of Luke and tells him “I'm leaving you for God” (p. 338). This is at once Persiles's final trial and Sigismunda's last temptation to reject the world. Shortly thereafter, the text informs us, “Auristela came back to her senses” (p. 339) and definitively decided “to take the more open road to companionship” (p. 347). Her life, then, effectively rewrites the story of Manuel and Leonora which functions as a cautionary tale within the larger narrative. All parties concerned —Persiles, Sigismunda, Cervantes, and the reader— can exclaim joyfully: “Sigismunda optimam partem elegit”.5
     Just as all desire in Don Quixote is not mimetic, all desire in Persiles is not instinctual. We witness, for example, the mimetic rivalry between Arnaldo and the Duke of Nemurs, who falls in

     4 Miguel de Cervantes, The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda, trans. Celia Richmond Weller and Clark A. Colahan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), p. 274. Future references will be inserted parenthetically.
     5 Cf. Manuel's: “Maria optimam partem elegit”. Ibid., p. 57.

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love with Sigismunda without ever having seen her. Smitten by a painting of her —that is, a concretization of the other's image of an object of desire— he vows to marry her and enters into a vicious rivalry with Arnaldo that almost costs them both their lives. The author demonstrates convincingly Girard's view that the woman is, finally, only a means of getting at the rival by having Arnaldo explain that the Duke consents to allow Periandro to keep the painting in his hands “simply because I don't have it in mine” (p. 314). Throughout his work, while probing deeply the relationship between desire and happiness, Cervantes systematically depicts the hell of human suffering that results from desiring through the other. In Persiles, however, the novelist creates a central male character who, unlike Don Quixote, desires authentically and succeeds, ultimately, in being happy —although, as the text tells us, “. . . in most cases good desires never came to an end without obstacles blocking their way” (p. 212).
     Only by accepting the full allegorical thrust of the pilgrimage to Rome can we begin to understand how these obstacles are removed and overcome. It is Queen Eustoquia, Persiles's natural mother, who sends him to Rome, the home of his spiritual mother, the Catholic Church. Human happiness in our world, Cervantes suggests allegorically, can be attained, not by the rejection of the natural or the exclusion of the spiritual, but solely by the spiritualization of the material or natural universe. This spiritualization of the natural is accomplished in the novel by the strict observance of the Sermon on the Mount. Persiles's philosophy of non-violence elevates the gentle, the pure of heart, those who pardon and do not judge, the merciful, the peacemakers. Here forgiveness triumphs over revenge, kindness over scorn, even mercy over justice. “This Holy Law teaches us [that] we shouldn't punish those who offend us”, remarks the elder Antonio, “rather counsel them to mend their ways” (p. 147).
     Persiles and Sigismunda forge a Christian road to Rome and when others literally find themselves on their path, in most cases they are morally transformed. In the main, this begins to happen in Book Three when the protagonists, now on land and going to Rome on foot, meet another mother, The Black Madonna, in the monastery of Guadalupe. One is tempted to say that a series of “miracles” occurs, but we have been informed earlier in the novel that “miracles happen outside the laws of nature while mysteries are things that seem like miracles but really

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aren't, rather merely events that rarely happen” (p. 104). So we have a succession of “mysteries” in which human beings triumph over their baser instincts by following their higher spiritual nature. As one of Periandro's fishermen had told him: “we want no other glory than that of having overcome our animal instincts” (p. 162), a triumph that Rutilio too gained in changing a life of violence to one of charity by remaining on an island to “light the lantern that guided lost sailors” (p. 191).
     Once the heroes reach the monastery of Guadalupe, these “mysteries” are multiplied. The father of Feliciana of the Voice enters the monastery itself dagger in hand intent on killing his daughter for marrying against his wishes. He ends by forgiving her, accepting her, her husband, and their child. All these people receive the sacraments and the novelist stresses the joy that results from these actions. Later, Ortel Banedre is saved by the mother of the man he killed. “With a soul full of generosity and Christian pity” (pp. 227-28), she triumphed over her “desire for revenge” (p. 228) claiming that “one death is very badly set right by another” (p. 228). Ortel himself planned to kill his wife for her infidelities but, when counseled by Persiles to “show some compassion and [not] race headlong after justice” (p. 233), changes his mind. In an attempt to preclude revenge, a count pardons “his killer and everyone who shared in his guilt” (pp. 242-43). He then marries Doña Constanza on his deathbed so that he can leave her his fortune. She later pardons and feeds one of the persons responsible for his death. Finally, a woman named Ruperta actually sets out on a false pilgrimage “on the road to Rome to ask the princes of Italy for their favor and help” in what she refers to as her “just —if not Christian desire [to avenge the death of her husband]” (p. 279). Claiming that “the less his guilt, the greater my revenge” (p. 281), she decides to kill the son of the man who killed her husband, but falls in love with him and ultimately grants “mercy in exchange for injury” (p. 283).
     The text contains, then, numerous examples of the victory of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness over natural instincts for revenge and justice, many of which are accomplished through the intercession of Persiles. By following the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, Persiles engages in a new mimesis, the imitatio Dei, that enables him to avoid mimetic rivalry and violence. Our heroes accept the human community; they are in the world. Their desire to spiritualize that world, however, indicates that they are

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not of it. Throughout the text, Auristela, the shining star, radiates the modesty associated with the Virgin Mary which is, once again, underscored in the aphorism she contributes to The Flower of Unusual Aphorisms: “the best dowry a noble woman can have is her purity” (p. 304). In her painting too, she is portrayed according to the traditional iconography of the Blessed Mother “wearing a crown on her head . . . with her feet set on the globe of the world” (p. 320). To that aptly entitled Flor de Aforismos Peregrinos, Persiles adds the following: “Happy is the soldier who knows his prince is watching him while he's in combat” (p. 304). In this allegory, certainly he is the soldier whose prince is Christ and whose strength comes from imitating Him.
     In Persiles, this new mimesis creates a double through the sacrament of matrimony. “I've been wrong to speak of our two souls as separate”, Auristela tells Periandro, “for they're really only one” (p. 302), to which Periandro replies: “There's no happiness to match the pleasure shared by two souls made one” (p. 302). This is the good, holy, Christian double, the foundation upon which human happiness must be constructed. All of Cervantes's work indicates that the choice of a marriage partner is the single most important choice in a human life. The bond is eternal and so intimate that one is either ennobled or contaminated by it. As Lothario tells Anselmo in Don Quixote: “the woman's flesh being one with that of her husband, the stains and blemishes that she incurs are reflected upon his flesh, even though . . . he has given no occasion for her sinning” (p. 290). Shakespeare's Adriana makes the same point in The Comedy of Errors:

For if we two be one, and thou play false,
I do digest the poison of thy flesh,
Being strumpeted by thy contagion.
Keep then fair league and truce with thy true bed,
I live unstain'd, thou undishonoured.6

It is important that the marriage elevated in the Persiles by Cervantes bears maternal approbation and is freely chosen by the participants. In the Erasmian tradition of joining human nature and religion, it combines eros and caritas, the natural and the spiritual, instinctual desire and Christian love.

     6 William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors (London: Methuen & Co., 1962), Act II, Scene ii, ll. 142-146.

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     For Girard, the Fall was precisely the fall into mimesis which, in turn, led to the creation of the double and inevitable violence. One is tempted to view Persiles, then, when compared to Deceit, Desire and the Novel, as an anti-Girardian text. Girard, however, in a later work, like Cervantes, depicts the road to Rome, to the imitatio Dei, that new form of mimesis which breaks the chain of violence. Although he writes in Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World that “Following Christ means giving up mimetic desire,”7 which, of course, it does, both for Girard and Cervantes, he also makes it clear, as does Cervantes, that “the Gospels and the New Testament do not preach a morality of spontaneous action. They do not claim that humans must get rid of imitation; they recommend imitating the sole model who never runs the danger . . . of being transformed into a fascinating rival” (p. 430). “If you look carefully at the text of the Gospels”, continues Girard —and at Persiles, we might add— “you will see that throughout runs the theme of the obstacle that is dreaded by the faithful but is removed at the last moment —when all hope seems to be lost” (p. 431). “Look again at the Sermon on the Mount”, notes Girard three hundred pages earlier in the same work. “We can see that the significance of the Kingdom of God is completely clear. It is always a matter of bringing together the warring brothers, of putting an end to the mimetic crisis by a universal renunciation of violence” (p. 197).
     Both Girard and Cervantes portray the dead end of desire through the other and the benefits received from instinctual or natural desire accompanied by the imitatio Dei. “The Kingdom of God”, notes Girard, “means the complete and definitive elimination of every form of vengeance and every form of reprisal in relations between men” (p. 197). Girard had good reason to use Don Quixote for his paradigm of mimetic desire in Deceit, Desire and the Novel. A reading of Persiles, however, unveils other things which, if not hidden since the foundation of the world, are nonetheless worthy of revelation.


     7 René Girard, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), p. 431. Future references will be inserted parenthetically.

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