From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America
12.1 (1992): 135-38.
Copyright © 1992, The Cervantes Society of America
Melancholy as a physical, mental and psychosomatic
disturbance describes a wide range of illnesses in Renaissance and Baroque
literature. The phenomenon has received considerable attention with regard
to British literary texts, but similar studies dedicated to Spanish prose,
poetry and theater are not as prevalent. In Melancholy and the Secular
Mind in Spanish Golden Age Literature, Teresa Soufas elaborates upon
her previous studies and definitively elevates melancholy from the status
of topos to its appropriate central position within the literature
of Golden Age Spain. Throughout the preface and five chapters, Soufas cogently
undertakes a reexamination of melancholy's importance as reflected in the
Catholic, post-Tridentine authors who engage[d] in a dialectical
transvaluation of values, that is, a reexamining and redefining of society
and traditional norms that nevertheless does not seek to invalidate those
norms or their inversion (ix). She analyzes the scientific and literary
transvaluation of melancholy in Cervantes (Chapter 1), religious melancholy
in Tirso (Chapter 2), love melancholy in two different manifestations in
Lope and Calderón (Chapter 3), the melancholy malcontent in picaresque
narrative (Chapter 4), and the melancholy debate as exemplified in the
conceptista/culteranista controversy, particularly in Góngora
The chapter on Cervantes, with its primary focus on Don Quixote, is a logical introductory locus for a general discussion of melancholy. Soufas brings to bear the important sources of Spanish and English Renaissance views on the illness as well as contemporary critics' readings of these sources. She provides concise summaries of Marsilio Ficino, Robert Burton, Timothy Bright, Juan Luis Vives, Alonso de Freylas and, naturally, Huarte de San Juan; the contemporary readers include Otis Green, Daniel Heiple,
William Melczer, and others who have seen melancholy exemplified in Cervantes'
characters. After carefully defining the kind of melancholy experienced by
literary characters and authors who overexercise the intellect, Soufas shows
how Don Quixote suffers from the excessive dryness brought on through study
that leads to his insanity. At the same time she refutes those critics who
see Cervantes's character as inspired in Huarte's Examen (which maintains
that certain humoral types are predisposed to certain occupations). This,
Soufas argues, is counter to Catholic doctrine of free will; rather, Cervantes
mocks Huarte's descriptions by relegating Don Quixote to the life of letters,
since Huarte would argue that Don Quixote as ingenioso is inherently
wicked. In the end and at the risk of this reviewer's egregious
oversimplification Don Quixote dies of his prolonged melancholy; Cervantes,
for his part, through a melancholy character, has recognized the secular
mind's power and autonomy while consciously advocating the continued validity
of a system of thought . . . intent upon performing reasoning
practices upon the world (36). Don Quixote may have taken his
appropriate place within society, but he has also recanted of sins
of the intellect (36).
In her chapter dedicated to religious melancholy, Soufas discusses acedia, or a weakness of the spirit related to tristitia, and focuses specifically on El condenado por desconfiado. Her treatment of this aspect puts this chapter somewhat at odds with the title and purpose of her book the secular mind and invites further questioning of the relationship between melancholy and religious asceticism (Fray Luis) and mysticism (San Juan and Santa Teresa). Nevertheless, Soufas details the role of melancholy and Saturn in Paulo's turn to a life of crime and in Enrico's decision to seek forgiveness and salvation. She shows again how the intellect is susceptible to the effects of melancholy; in this regard, her conclusions echo those of other critics, but much greater light comes from Soufas's explanation of melancholy's importance: Through the spiritual victory of Enrico, Tirso portrays the human capability to resist the devil's sway by means of turning to the higher power of divine forgiveness and grace. Paulo's damnation represents the alternative defeat through continued reliance upon the melancholic intellect that is corrupted by satanical manipulation (63). Paulo, like Don Quixote, has succumbed to the temptations of the intellect and must pay the price for that sin.
Chapter 3 (whose Latin epigraph is the only non-English quotation not translated) offers intriguing analyses of Lope's El caballero de Olmedo and three Calderonian wife-murder plays (A secreto agravio, secreta venganza, El médico de su honra, and El pintor de su deshonra). I will direct my comments to the first part of the chapter (with no implied negative criticism of Soufas's treatment of Calderón), in which the author undertakes a reexamination of amor eroico and the effect of love melancholy upon Inés, Alonso, and Rodrigo. Alonso and Inés are quite simply two young people mutually in love (73), yet Alonso s reliance upon rumination and his failure to act on his honorable love for Inés create a seriously afflicted pathological melancholic
(77) who then suffers from true melancholy that ultimately leads to the tragedy.
To hold, as Soufas does, that his propensity for thought (a self-isolated
thinker) turns him into an actor among the people of Medina, the
spectators, is perhaps to belabor the obvious (El caballero de Olmedo
as metatheater has been well studied). According to Soufas, Lope undermines
the conventions of love and courtship that Alonso emulates in part by becoming
melancholic. The greater his surrender to the illness, the more Lope subverts
his character. This analysis seems a bit forced. To consider Alonso as a
victim of self-induced melancholy is to undermine both the forcefulness of
his character and the tragedy of his death. I would suggest that Soufas take
into account Lope's El halcón de Federico; while many plays
deal with love and love-sickness, few are as graphic in tracing a love
melancholic's downward spiral into insanity.
Chapter 4 undertakes a discussion of the melancholy malcontent as seen in the picaresque. Though Soufas sees melancholy as a general condition of society and as an implied aspect in depictions of malcontentedness, her argument is refracted somewhat by the marginal character of the pícaro. Nevertheless, Soufas suggests that the rogue figure displays melancholic characteristics similar to those witnessed in certain stage characters. She equates theater audiences with readers, a comparison that yields a partial reception of melancholics. Soufas rightfully underscores the metatheatrical nature of the picaresque, particularly in light of Alban Forcione's conclusions concerning the Cynics' vision of life as a theatrical performance. Yet the readers of the picaresque differ from the spectators of, say, El caballero de Olmedo. Theater-goers are constituted by a much more heterogeneous population, and the less educated will, perhaps, recognize only the outer manifestations of melancholy and thus understand it on a very different level. Melancholy may be a pervasive symptom of the times (as is desengaño), but the ability to identify with it are two separate processes. Don Alonso of El caballero de Olmedo reaches one kind of audience, Guzmán de Alfarache touches a more select and thus limited one. It is that very limitation that more fully describes Guzmán's alienation from society.
Absent from this chapter is a description of the pícara, in spite of a reference to the pícaro and his or her text (120). This female character represents further marginalization of an already marginalized figure and raises a series of questions: Are the sources and manifestations of melancholy the same for female rogues? What can be said of La pícara Justina a female rogue created by a male author? Are there melancholic symptoms unique to female characters (or any characters) drawn by female authors? Do differences arise in this representation of melancholy?
The final chapter of Soufas's book is a synthesis of the preceding discussions, given the centrality of the conceptismo/culteranismo debate to seventeenth-century poetics. Góngora presents the darker, more self-consciously melancholic, introspective, and disjointed discourse of the age, which offended Lope de Vega, Quevedo, and other conceptistas (125). The effect of Góngora's culteranismo is, then, a recognition of the efficacy of
privileging the intellect (125). The conflict between the two schools
of thought centers on the source of creative activity. Soufas argues that
Lope reaffirms image production through mimesis via imagination, where
Góngora (considered by Paravicino as a source for the muses) relies
upon the intellect (entendimiento) for inspiration. Góngora
is, then, marginalized socially and spiritually. In the Soledad I,
Góngora's reference to Euterpe functions to transcend the myth
of her influence over tragedy because the poem tells of a wedding and
thus implies a happy ending. In Soledad II G6ngora becomes independent
of the influence of mythological figures (and thus the muses) in that he
does not even make reference to such a mythical figure (135).
He has taken a naturally evolutionary step (136) in humanism,
and in the Polifemo, Soufas implies, the poet subverts the poetic
tradition of which he is part. Polifemo becomes the author of his poem; the
muses are the medium of its repetition (136).
The analysis of the Polifemo ties together many aspects of melancholy Soufas has set out to delineate. Polifemo's song arises from his amor eroico and has a correspondingly melancholic effect of Galatea. Furthermore Polifemo recounts his own enactment of Saturn's role as patron of shipwrecked sailors, thus forging an even stronger link with Saturn and melancholy. The imagery of Góngora's major poems is but formal evidence of the ideological implications of the melancholy mind to be found in culterano poetry, and emanates from Góngora's peculiar vision and melancholic stance of isolation and uniqueness (147-48). In his epistemology of difference, Góngora fashions a new reality out of words that is a combination of destructive and constructive efforts (154-5). The extremes are inherently necessary to his art as well as to the dialectical nature of melancholy which, to the Golden Age, suggests the dangers of thinking gone wrong (155; 165). Góngora becomes in this light the sine qua non of melancholy writers who subverts an entire poetic tradition at the same time that he advances it. Nonetheless, the melancholy mind produces the great works of literature, even when it evinces a brilliance that cannot be trusted (165).
In the final analysis, Teresa Soufas's book is essential for a comprehensive understanding of Spain's Golden Age. She has written a discourse on melancholy, a running commentary of commentaries that exposes, analyzes, synthesizes, and subsumes primary texts, as well as treatises and critiques of melancholy. The author exhibits a sharp critical eye, a well-honed critical voice, and a comprehensive bibliography that amplify and expand upon work done by her predecessors. Few critics today can claim such widespread knowledge of Renaissance and Baroque melancholy as Teresa Soufas, and we should be thankful to her for opening new directions in looking at melancholy in the Golden Age of Spanish letters.
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