From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 10.1 (1990): 93-102.
Copyright © 1990, The Cervantes Society of America


Persiles and the Remaking of Spanish Culture


IN the final decades of the sixteenth century, a major debate was initiated about how Spain was to be constructed as a social body. The attempted transformation of this imagined community took place through a variety of cultural practices and discourses and had at its center the refunctioning of two basic categories: “maleness” and the “barbarian.” My use of the term “maleness” has less to do with differences of gender than it does with prescribed forms of conduct and behavior for specific social groups. In the early modern period, the modern (i.e. middle-class) opposition based on gender was still subordinate to other distinctions of status and class so that inferior positions could be occupied by any group not marked as male, aristocratic, and Catholic.1 In a

     * 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 My point here is not that differences between the sexes went unrecognized in pre-modern cultures. Rather, I am suggesting that gender was but one among many determinants of subjectivity (and not the primary one). In seventeenth-century Spain in particular, social hierarchy was a much more powerful category. Thus aristocratic women could more easily gain access to education, for example, than a man from a subordinate group. On this issue, see Leonard Tennenhouse, “Violence done to women on the Renaissance stage” in N. Armstrong and L. Tennenhouse, eds., The Violence of Representation: Literature and the history of violence (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), pp. 77-97.



similar manner, many of these same groups were attributed characteristics, such as insufficient rational powers, associated with non-European peoples. Within this cultural frame constituted by the traditional ideologies of the Castilian ruling class, a Jewish man or a newly-rich former peasant returned from the Indies (indiano), a gypsy, Amerindian, or mestizo male, could all be written as insufficiently male and therefore barbarous because they were considered deficient according to the terms established by the dominant culture. At the most basic level, it was this notion of deficiency or lack that linked “maleness” to the “barbarian” within the semiotic field of early modern culture in Spain.
     To say that there existed social groups that were represented as inferior in certain texts is to repeat a commonplace about early modern Spanish literature. The point I want to make is a different one. I believe that in a period situated during the reigns of Philip II and Philip III a vast project was undertaken in writing to rethink what “Spanishness” might mean. The emergence of “new” groups of people —indios, indianos, mestizos, criollos, and others who were made visible through the contact with America— sufficiently problematized the idea of the social body so that the frontiers marking cultural inclusion or exclusion had to be radically realigned. Central to this rearticulation of Spanish identity was the integration of those formerly excluded groups with a long history on the peninsula (e.g. Jews), not in a gesture of democratic openness or even of enlightened absolutism, but rather as a way to reinvigorate the monarchical apparatus and the aristocratic ideologies that sustained it. The most dramatic example of this process was Olivares' unsuccessful attempt in the 1620's and 30's to attenuate the blood-purity statutes and propose a plan to invite the return of Jewish bankers. But already in the late sixteenth century, a discourse of toleration had taken shape through the writings of those Spanish humanists who had not yet been forced into exile. I am thinking in particular of the Valencian thinker Fadrique Furió Ceriol. In his Concejo y consejero del Príncipe published in 1559, he wrote: “No hay más de dos tierras en todo el mundo: tierra de buenos y tierra de malos. Todos los buenos, agora sean judíos, moros, gentiles, cristianos o de otra secta, son de una mesma tierra, de una mesma casa y sangre, y todos los malos de la misma manera.”2

     2 BAE 36, p. xx.

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What was being suggested here, in the midst of growing absolutist and inquisitorial reaction, was nothing less than an entirely new kind of imagined community founded upon virtue and moral worth. The “land,” “house,” or nation of the virtuous in effect might produce a new bloodline unrelated to biological and racial determinants. It is within this discursive formation that we must situate Persiles and many of Cervantes' other texts.
     In my remarks today I will be following two very different kinds of historians —J. H. Elliott and Michel Foucault. Elliott is known to most of you as one of the foremost liberal commentators on early modern Spanish history. Foucault is perhaps less familiar to Hispanists in the U.S., although his genealogical critique of traditional historiography has had a noticeable impact on literary and cultural studies in recent years. What interests me about the work of both these writers are the ways they construct the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly the radical transformation of European life produced by the encounter with America. In his lectures delivered at Belfast in 1969, Elliott said the following: “The Judeo-Christian and the classical traditions were sufficiently disparate, and sufficiently rich and varied in themselves, to have brought a large number of different and often incompatible ideas, into uneasy coexistence within a single frame of thought. Some of these ideas might for long have been recessive, and others dominant. But a sudden external shock, like the discovery of the peoples of America, could upset the prevailing kaleidoscopic pattern and bring alternative ideas, or combinations of ideas, into view.”3 There are at least two inferences that I want to draw from this remark that will be central to my argument: 1) that the intervention of multiple and previously unknown Others into the European imagination produced nothing less than a mortal wound to traditional social categories, and 2) that this upheaval worked to radically reshuffle the entire field of ideas about society (Elliott's language) or (in Foucault's language) it realigned the discursive formation that made those ideas thinkable.
     Foucault's theory of discourse is useful, I think, because it allows us to better understand the alterity of earlier historical moments in relation to our own. In the final chapter of Volume One of the History of Sexuality, Foucault marks the beginning of

     3 The Old World and the New, 1492-1650 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 47.


modernity in the eighteenth century as a passage from a “symbolics of blood to an analytics of sexuality.” To my mind, this is an important distinction which has received little attention in conventional studies of the early modern period. For if in our own culture the exercise of power has been inextricably linked to psychology, sexuality, and the human body, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries power was the product of blood and its symbolic appropriations. This is nowhere more clear than in the case of Spanish society in the time of Cervantes in which one's position in the social hierarchy, one's inclusion or exclusion from that society, even one's fundamental identity or subjectivity was constituted by the relative value or worthlessness of one's blood. More importantly, it was the blood of the aristocracy that stood in for the social body as a whole. As the pilgrim's collection of aphorisms at the beginning of Book Four of Persiles reminds us, the spilling of blood in the defense of the monarchy (and thus the aristocratic body) was yet one more activity that attested to the symbolic value attributed to blood: “Más hermoso parece el soldado muerto en la batalla que sano en la huída”—Croriano; “Dichoso es el soldado que, cuando está peleando, sabe que le está mirando su príncipe” —Periandro; “La honra que se alcanza por la guerra . . . es más firme que las demás honras” —Antonio el Bárbaro.4
     Acts such as the expulsion of the Spanish Jews, the expulsion of the moriscos a century later, and the proposed deportation of the Spanish gypsies (1619) were designed to simplify the problem of blood purity on the peninsula. But the appearance on the world stage of previously unimagined peoples and social types forced the metaphysics of blood to even greater heights of abstraction and complexity in terms of deciding who was Spanish and who was not. Put another way, the physiology of the social body had to be theorized anew in the face of its invasion by “foreign” impurities. It is important, therefore, that the Persiles be read as one more text in a vast series of writings that worked to represent the barbarian (lo bárbaro). In Spain, intellectuals such as Alonso de Zorita, José de Acosta, and especially Las Casas had attempted to come to terms with the multiple significations of to bárbaro in light of the American experience. At the level of

     4 Miguel de Cervantes, Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda, ed. Juan Bautista Avalle-Arce (Madrid: Castalia, 1986), p. 417. All subsequent references are to this edition.

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social organization in particular, new world cultures had problematized the traditional oppositions that governed Spanish thinking. As late as 1614, for example, Joaquín Setanti, a Catalán gentleman, still complained: “Se cose in Europa la planta del vivir político, y para mayor confusión nuestra, florece entre los bárbaros de Africa y América.”5 The fact that non-European peoples demonstrated a high degree of social organization confused not only conventional notions of what was barbarian and what was not, but challenged Europeans to rethink their own most fundamental principles. Again, I am less interested in the impact that the old World exercised upon the new than I am in the transformation of traditional discourses that took place when confronted with the new data produced by the project of colonization.
     Let me now turn to the Persiles and the character of Antonio hijo, the so-called mozo bárbaro. Because of the union of their parents (Ricla and Antonio), the younger Antonio and his sister Constanza are the bicultural consequences of the encounter between Spain and its Others. (And I should add that in my opinion they are much more interesting figures than the title characters who are little more than “ángeles humanados”.) Both Antonio and Constanza are creatures who arrive in Europe from “beyond the line,” the sixteenth-century's rather hazy term for those lands and seas considered to be non-European, and you will recall that the entire Villaseñor family is represented as being dressed in animal skins (279). By participating in the newly configured system to which historians now awkwardly refer as the encounter between the old world and the new Antonio and Constanza point towards the social reality of the mestizo and beyond, through their barbarian mother Ricla, to the more radically other figure of the Indian.
     Now, according to early modern definitions of the barbarian, Antonio qualifies as one only in the most general sense. Clearly, he is not completely alienated from the sphere of reason, that is, a barbarian simpliciter, a term refunctioned from the Aristotelian text and applied to those peoples considered to be hopelessly savage. Because Antonio is both a Catholic and a speaker of Spanish, he cannot be considered barbarous for reasons of language or religion. Having said this, however, it would still be the case that Antonio be placed into the only slightly less pejorative

     5 Centellas de varios conceptos (1614) in BAE 65, p. 524.


category of secundum quid barbaros, that is, any person whose behavior was thought to be defective in some way. In his 1611 dictionary entry for bárbaro Covarrubias listed as a final example those men who were merciless and cruel (“desapiadados y crueles”). In the earlier stages of the colonial project, other writers had constructed more elaborate classical and scripture-based arguments. Las Casas, for example, in the Apologética historia theorized that there were four categories of barbarie, the third of which had to do with the “aspereza y degeneración de costumbres.”6 It is here that we must locate Antonio in order to follow his personal pilgrimage out of the domain of the non-European and uncivilized.
     The progress of the younger Antonio, the character identified by his emplematic bow and arrow, is particularly interesting because it is structured upon a series of transgressions and acquittals that signify his gradual assimilation into the sphere of the European. It is no accident that he is the object of the illicit desire of the novel's two most dangerous women —Rosamunda and Cenotia— nor is it coincidental that it is he who most often reveals a lack of familiarity with civilized convention. His undecidability as both Catholic and savage, Spanish and barbarian, situates him at the center of a new conjuncture which can only be articulated in the residual language of unbridled eroticism and violence, that is, the well-worn reason/passion opposition. In Chapter 9 of Book Two, for example, in his attempt to murder the witch Cenotia, Antonio accidently kills the despicable Clodio. The gravity of his actions momentarily forces him to view himself as Other: “. . . cayó en la cuenta de su yerro, y túvose verdaderamente por bárbaro” (204), and his father's harsh words foreground the need for further moral instruction. But as I have already suggested, Antonio's transgressive acts are consistently recuperated into the dominant order. In this case, he is quickly pardoned by Prince Arnaldo and decides not to reveal the witch's sexual overtures so that his status as a savage not be made public (“para que a él no le tuviesen de todo en todo por bárbaro”).
     To a great extent, the long voyage to Rome is the story of the transformation of Antonio's narrative function. That is to say,

     6 For Las Casas, the link between political protest and barbarousness is clear. As a contemporary example of a sudden descent into the irrational, he cites the Castilian comunidades, an anti-seigniorial movement of the 1520's designed to limit the power of the monarch. Apologética historia sumaria, ed. Edmundo O'Gorman (Mexico City: UNAM, 1967) II, p. 653.

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the evolving nature of Antonio hijo's conduct works as a problem-solving device for deciding where the limits of “Spanishness” could be drawn. When his new companion, Feliz Flora, is forcibly abducted by the cruel Rubertino, Antonio comes immediately to her defense and kills her attacker (375). The narrator judges his actions to be just and so describes Antonio as one “que nunca se pagó de descortesías.” The brief but revealing juxtaposition of Antonio and Rubertino works to diminish the reader's sense of the former's status as a barbarian since Rubertino is described as being “de áspera y cruel condición, y de mudable y antojadiza voluntad . . .” (379), in other words, much more barbarous than the younger Villaseñor had ever been. Not unlike the episodes with Rosamunda and Cenotia, the confrontation with an essentially evil character marks Antonio as morally superior and decidedly more Spanish than his title “el bárbaro mozo” had indicated. It comes as no surprise, then, that at this moment in the novel Antonio, who had been wounded by Rubertino's accomplices, is positioned as one who is attended by servants: “Bartolomé tomó en brazos a su señor Antonio . . .” (my emphasis). As a sign of his now completed inclusion into the cultural order, the mestizo offspring occupies a slot in the social hierarchy superior to that of the impoverished Spanish porter.
     The gradual process by which one sheds the barbarous skin of the mother is achieved more easily by Antonio's sister Constanza, for it is she who is catapulted into the Spanish aristocracy upon her marriage to the Count in Book Three. But the case of Antonio is the more complicated and therefore more interesting one. Although both are the product of miscegenation, Antonio hijo carries the burden of impure blood to a greater extent than does his sister. Because in this period the condition of maleness was central to the definition of agency and even “humanness,” it is he who must challenge the ideology of blood purity through competition in both deeds and moral integrity. This is why his “debarbarization” is achieved on the textual level through contact with fundamentally negative characters who function as foils. Ultimately, Antonio's inclusion depends upon the influence of the wealthy aristocratic French woman, Feliz Flora, whom he eventually weds. But even then, according to the rigid typologies of the period, his position is a precarious one since Constanza's children would have been placed into a higher rank in the social order than that of Antonio's children. Despite the inevitable inclusion of Antonio into the order of Spanishness (a fact signified by the name he shares with his


father), the impurity of their paternal blood-line would have marked the younger Antonio's offspring as non-Spaniards.
     The alterity yet sameness of these and other characters in Persiles must be read in relation to the social project I outlined briefly at the beginning of my paper. To what extent could traditional Spanish society, which was constructed upon a series of exclusions and issues of blood purity, to what extent could this Spain accommodate the “new” peoples born of the contact with indigenous groups in America? The problem of where the mestizo and the more immediately threatening group of wealthy indianos might be positioned within a relatively inflexible system would be of central concern to the ruling elites on the peninsula. While the mestizo problematized the blood-based social body, the indiano figured an entirely separate domain of subjectivity premised on the accumulated capital acquired through contact with the new world. I believe that all of these issues found their way into literary discourse, especially in Cervantes' last published text. I have focused my argument on the complex case of Antonio hijo, for as an “impure” hybrid he is doubly marked as both a barbarian and a deficient male. This is to say, those groups formerly excluded from Spanishness for reasons of blood or religion would in the late sixteenth century be allowed entry into the culture but only after they had been remarginalized according to a new set of exclusionary practices.
     In the final analysis, the character of the younger Antonio is only slightly more complex than that of the other members of his immediate circle. The Villaseñor family is one of the few nuclear families to appear in early modern Spanish literature, and as an emblem for the meeting of the old and new worlds it is the site of socio-cultural contradictions facing Spain in the late sixteenth century. Instead of being the social unit assigned a civilizing function as it would be in the nineteenth-century bourgeois novel, the family here is precisely that which must be civilized. The assimilation of the two Antonios, Constanza, and Ricla is in effect an enactment of the process by which the imagined community of Spain reconstitutes itself in the new historical situation. The barbarous mestizo and the indiano may enter the domain of culture but only as undecidable figures. The power of the dominant passes through these groups, therefore, but it is never allowed to permanently reside there. Instead, traditional discourses and practices emerge on the “other side” renewed and reinvigorated for the arduous task of maintaining the hegemony

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of the ruling elites. Ultimately, however, the traditional nexus of blood and caste could no longer hold together. The inclusion of disparate groups meant that the old notion of the aristocratic body would have to give way to a different kind of imagined community, one still founded on blood but one sufficiently problematized so as to bear only a vague resemblance to earlier models. In the coming centuries, yet another kind of community would take shape and be marked as the nation-state.
     In the 3rd century, Heliodorus had populated his text with barbarous people from beyond the borders of the Empire. By inventing the land of the Gymnosophists and their followers, he retextualized the barbarian and produced a book that from its rediscovery in 1534 would figure among the favorite readings of humanist thinkers and imitators of the romance form. My point, however, is that the genealogy of Cervantes' barbarians cannot be understood by limiting our analysis to the sphere of literature and thus separating it from the transformation of Spanish culture that was taking place in the mid- to late sixteenth century.7 The first complete Spanish translation of Heliodorus (1554) entered the field of writing at precisely that moment in which there was a vast proliferation of cultural materials having to do with groups that filled the function of the Other.8 We need only think of the texts generated by the Las Casas-Sepúlveda debate, the commentaries by Sandoval and Albornoz on the status of Africans, or even the first picaresque novel and its representation of a Castilian lumpen. By the time Cervantes was beginning his career as a writer, books like Ercilla's La Araucana (1569, '78, '89) flooded the marketplace; we know that Cervantes consulted not only Ercilla but most of the classical and contemporary documents that depicted distant lands: Pliny, Olaus Magnus, Torquemada, the Inca Garcilaso. To these we might add the writings of Furió Ceriol and others that, as I suggested earlier, constituted nothing less than an emergent discourse of pluralism.
     As Professor Avalle-Arce taught us, the dialectical movement between history and myth is what structures the Persiles and is that which produces a novelistic space at once familiar and strange. But today I want to turn the conclusion of

     7 E. C. Riley once remarked that “Cervantes seems to clutch obsessively at historical reality . . .” Cervantes's Theory of the Novel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), p. 197.
     8 The 1554 translation was from a French version. The second Spanish translation, by Fernando de Mena, was published in 1587.


“Conocimiento y vida en Cervantes” on its head. In that essay of some thirty years ago, Avalle-Arce said the following: “Por ello, Cervantes, el inventor único imita conscientemente un género que ya había pasado su cenit. Pero en esta forma, y en el Persiles, Cervantes trasciende la verdad relativa y eleva la materia novelística al plano de lo absoluto. He aquí la razón por qué, para su autor, el Persiles es el major libro de entretenimiento escrito en lengua castellana.”9 I believe that rather than raising the raw materials of his writing to some transcendental realm, Cervantes' book forcefully inserts them back into the cultural reality of early seventeenth-century Spain. As a gesture aimed at emptying out the form of the Byzantine novel in order to refunction it at a particularly complex moment in Spanish history, Cervantes' text does not efface relative truth but instead shows the contemporary reader the relativity and social origins of all cultural assumptions whether they have to do with language, religion, or fundamental propositions about what it means to be civilized. The fact that by the end of the novel we learn that even the “eternal City” of Rome is not immune to violence and contradiction suggests that absolutes are unreliable constructs or at least inaccessible to most human subjects. The Cervantine strategy of objectively reproducing residual discourses and cultural stereotypes only to deconstruct them through the actions of characters is well-known. It is at work in the two Quixotes, “La gitanilla,” and elsewhere. Put into the contemporary language of theory, we can say that in Cervantes conventional signs such as “peasant,” “gypsy,” or “barbarian” are shown to possess no unified referent or essence and thus signify nothing more than a written trope for the elaboration of cultural, juridical, and literary disciplines. Put more simply, Persiles is a book that participated in a vast cultural project struggling to make sense of previously unimagined worlds and peoples. In doing so, it worked to define one moment in the constantly shifting construction of humanity itself.


     9 Deslindes cervantinos (Madrid: Edhigar, 1961), p. 80.

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