From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America
19.1 (1999): 66-95.
Copyright © 1999, The Cervantes Society of America
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|Suele la indignación componer versos;|
|pero si el indignado es algún tonto,|
|ellos tendrán su todo de perversos.|
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
(Viaje del Parnaso 4.1-3)
eaders of Francisco de Quevedo's El buscón will already be familiar with the scatological aspects of the Spanish Baroque's disillusioned portrayal of society.1 In it poor Pablos is baptized with excrement and then traipses across a Golden Age Spain devoid of honor, before finally being expelled from Seville toward what we are told will be a fruitless quest for redemption in the New World. Thus the Spanish collectivity performs a kind of cultural bowel movement in which it evacuates its moral filth, the upstart, or the class of greedy conversos, which the author has compressed into the figure of Pablos, a pluralized and diminutive Paul the archetypal converso. Through El buscón's narrative and moral trajectories, Quevedo draws a geographical pattern whereby the anal margins of a national identity are
other interpretations of Quevedo's technique, see Goytisolo, Read, and Smith
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opposed to the ideal, and in such a way that the paranoid Catholic Peninsula
can now consider itself cleansed via the passing
Given the key political and moral role that excrement also plays in Don Quixote (fig. 1), I would argue that Quevedo's text is but one example of a topos in Golden Age literature that structures Spanish subjectivity and morality a kind of ontological graph which fuses the philosophical and the political to the geographical and the intestinal. Cervantes's Al túmulo del rey Felipe II en Sevilla (1598), because it so similarly deconstructs the national identity of Spain, is in my view foundational to understanding the significance of the scatological topologies at work in both Don Quixote and El buscón. It is an earlier version of Quevedo's technique, but one at the opposite end of the social spectrum and one with apparently opposite political and moral intentions. The poem befouls a king, not a pícaro, and it seeks to assert what Quevedo would supposedly purge. In general terms we can understand this kind of topology as a deconstruction of the coetaneous heroic images of Spain as the head of Europe. Regardless of their differences and I think the fashionable demonization of Quevedo's literary brutality is as facile as Nabokov's ingenuous disgust with Cervantes the anal narratives of Quevedo and Cervantes are surely both antithetical to the kind of bodily rendering of Europe found in Sebastian Münster's Cosmographia Universalis (fig. 2). The key difference is perhaps that while Quevedo thinks that Spain's salvation necessitates a purgative purification of the ideal, Cervantes recognizes that the ideal is always already impure and thus finds salvation within excremental existence.
Pinpointing the immediate source of Cervantes's technique is admittedly difficult. A list of candidates for the body/cosmos urtext that employ scatology as Christian morality would certainly have to begin with Dante's Inferno. Erasmus's Moriae encomium (fig. 3) and his boldly pacifistic scatological adage Scarabeus aquilam quaerit would immediately follow. Considering Phillip II's personal collection of art, we might also want to consider the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and El Greco (fig. 4). But the case could also be made for a more diffuse intertextuality within the popular realm.2 We cannot forget the portrayal of cowardice in the Poema de mío Cid nor certain images on Medieval churches or in the margins of
2 Of course,
Bakhtin's landmark work on Rabelais is fundamental to understanding the political
implications of the intimate early modern relationship between humor and
the material bodily lower stratum that is the subject of this
[p. 68] essay. Among his many observations on
Cervantes is the following: The fundamental trend of Cervantes's parodies
is a coming down to earth, a contact with the reproductive and
generating power of the earth and of the body (22).
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Medieval manuscripts (fig. 5). Put simply, scatology is a fundamental phenomenon of the Western canon from Virgil's Georgics to the contemporary novels of Joyce and Goytisolo that manipulates an everyday bodily concern of human beings. And in a number of these cases, the metaphysical end in mind (pardon the pun) is that of collapsing the difference between the Self and the Other.3 My goal here is to axialize and analyze a particular case: I will show how Al túmulo del rey performs this particular poetics of the body in conjunction with 1) a cartographic allegory of the Peninsula, 2) a self-containing critique of imperial Catholicism, and 3) a commentary on the historical events of Philip II's death.
|¡Voto a Dios, que me espanta esta grandeza|
|y que diera un doblón por describilla!;|
|porque ¿a quién no suspende y maravilla|
|esta máquina insigne, esta braveza?|
|¡Por Jesucristo vivo! Cada pieza|
|vale más que un millón, y que es mancilla|
|que esto no dure un siglo, ¡oh, gran Sevilla!,|
|Roma triunfante en ánimo y riqueza!|
|Apostaré que la ánima del muerto,|
|por gozar este sitio, hoy ha dejado|
|el cielo, de que goza eternamente.|
|Esto oyó un valentón y dijo: Es cierto|
|lo que dice voacé, seor soldado,|
|y quien dijere lo contrario, miente.|
|Y luego, encontinente,|
|caló el chapeo, requirió la espada,|
|miró al soslayo, fuese, y no hubo nada.|
Adrienne Laskier Martín begins her recent study of Cervantes's burlesque sonnets with a review of the Italian origins of the genre.
a succinct discussion of the potential iconoclasm of excremental discourse,
see Stallybrass and White (23-4, 45, 49, passim).
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Fig. 1. Gustave Doré's nineteenth-century illustration of Don Quixote 2.17:
Pero el generoso león, más comedido que arrogante, no haciendo caso de niñerías ni de bravatas, después de haber mirado a una y otra parte, como se ha dicho, volvió las espaldas y enseñó sus traseras partes a don Quijote, y con gran flema y remanso se volvió a echar en la jaula. Viendo lo cual don Quijote, mandó al leonero que le diese de palos y le irritase para echarle fuera (2.164).
This is a key emblematic moment in Cervantes's oeuvre that foregrounds the national nature of the Cervantes's reformist scatology. The protagonist, an Erasmian caricature of imperialist aggression who is also the ingenuous victim of the ideology of the novelas de caballerías, is transfixed between his frustration with the imperial behind and his affinity for the Erasmian Caballero del Verde Gabán. It is the exact same structure of the sonnet that is the subject of this essay.
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Fig. 2. Map of Europe from Sebastian Münster's Cosmographia Universalis (1544).
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Fig. 3. One of Hans Holbein the Younger's sketches of Folly (c. 1515). Given the secret double nature of so many of Erasmus's tracts (the oxymoronic irony of enchiridion being both a handbook and a sword for the Christian soldier, for example), and given Erasmus's explicit play with the name Moriae as both More and Mary, we should understand the second term of Moriae encomium as an anagram for meconium. This makes humanism into a Mariae meconium, a kind of trans-European, and even transgendering, scatological dissemination of Erasmus's self-debasing and self-castrating philosophia Christi the ultimate material or organic origin of which is, of course, Mary.
Cecco, the first true master of the form, was often the subject of his own verse, and many have read his poems as autobiographical artifacts. But Martín flatly dismisses such approaches: Burlesque and satire are built upon deformed caricature and exaggeration; to assume that their images faithfully reflect true reality or authorial sincerity would be critically naive (11).
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Fig. 4. El Greco's Sueño de Felipe II (c. 1580). Note how the body of the king is transfixed between sacred and diabolical sphincters.
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Fig. 5. Christ the real man with flatulence in the margins of a Medieval manuscript? (Camille illus. 22).
Nevertheless, Cervantes's Al túmulo del rey problematizes Martín's proscriptive model of reading.4 First and foremost, any effort to disengage the text from true reality runs up against the fact that the sonnet takes the spectacle of the royal burial as both its text and its context i.e., it participates in the very history that it relates. More than a poem, it is a self-critical exhibition. Citing the testimony of Francisco de Ariño, a contemporary witness to the bureaucratically protracted events surrounding the king's death, critics have agreed that Cervantes himself performed the sonnet in front of Philip II's tomb (Vranich, Martín). According to Ariño, someone with some very sincere satire performed the poem, which the chronicler duly recorded: Estando yo en la Santa Iglesia, entró un poeta fanfarrón y dijo una otava sobre la grandeza del túmulo (cited by Vranich 103). Though critics are quick to point out that Ariño understandably mistook the burlesque sonnet with its extra
Américo Castro rightly calls the sonnet irónico comentario
al monumental catafalco erigido en la catedral de Sevilla para los funerales
de Felipe II (Cervantes 99).
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estrambote tail for an octave, and that the poeta
fanfarrón was none other than Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, we
should consider the possibility that Ariño was in on an elaborate,
perhaps even a formal and traditional, mockery of the dead
king.5 A cynical attitude on the part of
Cervantes's audience with respect to the catafalque's gross ostentation and
the ridiculous clerical debates that surrounded the formalities of the king's
funeral would seem a necessary prerequisite to the poet's performance. Thus
Ariño's description of the verses as an octave, if not referring to
the epic genre, then certainly suggesting its more stately mode, could secretly
acknowledge the poet's sarcastic yet ritualistic attack on Philip II. As
Martín herself has demonstrated, the supplemental and parodic form
of the burlesque sonnet was standardized long before the Spanish Baroque.
We are left, then, with a quixotic episode in which fact and fiction
conflate. History here seems almost contrived at the service of Cervantes's
career: the epic and the heroic are burlesqued in a social commentary. Could
Ariño have been so naive?6
But whether or not we choose to believe that Ariño was aware of the poet's disrespect, he has provided us with the autobiographical keys to the sonnet's irony. Cervantes's disguise indicates that he was true to the genre's self-critical prescriptions, and I would further contend that he arranged the piece in such a way as to incorporate himself into its satirical structure. By playing the part of the poeta fanfarrón, Cervantes underscores and endorses the ironic comments of the sonnet's characters who are snubbing the superstructure of Catholic royalty, and most especially those of the more cynical character who has the last word the valentón. But neither can we ignore the fact that Cervantes was always proud of his status as a soldado who fought Philip II's war against the Turk at Lepanto twenty-five years earlier.7 The course of his career can be seen as a moral overcoming of a previous blindness, a constant and stereotypically Catholic effort to contain the sins of the self: the anxiety of idealism, or, in the scatological spirit of this essay, we might prefer the label Catholic anality. The poem offers testimony of this personal dilemma, for it would seem that the author, at one time or another
an anthropological/Bakhtinian reading of Don Quixote as a continuation
of this Medieval tradition of mocking kings, see Gorfkle.
6 Vranich, at least, finds Ariño, like Cervantes, to be extremely critical of the dawdling clerical bureaucracy.
7 While many have forgiven this biographical detail as the normal professional option for a young man of the sixteenth century, and still others allow that Cervantes's humanistic ideology could not yet be expected to have portrayed [p. 75] the war against the Turk as a non-Christian undertaking, Jean Canavaggio endorses Dámaso Alonso's interesting theory that the future author might have been fleeing the consequences of the Siguera affair (45-7). In any case, whether he willfully accepted the Turk as his enemy or was instead a sword-wielding fugitive from justice, Cervantes's early years are not exactly exemplary of the pacifistic ideals of Erasmian humanism.
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in his career, had a vested interest in each of the personae of the text,
from Philip II and the soldado on down to the valentón
and the poeta fanfarrón i.e., he is at each phase of
the poem/performance both the victim as well as the agent of
its satire. And as readers trapped between the perspective of an apologist
for Philip II and that of the irreverent valentón, we are left
to negotiate simultaneously the poem's sarcasm and its sincerity.
This critical ambiguity, literally built into the poem and its history, has endured the centuries. Today the problem of interpreting the irony of this sonnet is in yet another sense more difficult than what we might face in other Golden Age texts. For before we rush to unveil the poem's apparent disrespect, we have to contend with Cervantes's own desire that the poem be taken most seriously:
|Yo el soneto compuse que así empieza,|
|Por honra principal de mis escritos:|
|Voto a Dios que me espanta esta grandeza.|
(Viaje del Parnaso 4.37-9).8
This statement, taken out of context and combined with the canonical status of Spain's greatest author, has led numerous readers to some rather unfortunate conclusions steeped in the literal acceptance of their hero's wishes. Vranich testifies to this more recent delusion:
Yo he oído recitar este soneto con toda la solemnidad que se emplearía al leer Miré los muros de la patria mía de Quevedo, y hasta tan profundo conocedor de Cervantes como Francisco Rodríguez Marín calificó la alabanza del túmulo tan sincera como extremada, y la de Sevilla Roma triunfante en ánimo y riqueza tan acabada como breve (97).
Another critic, Francisco Ayala, seems equally overwhelmed by the poem's sincerity: Tras su lectura, uno se siente invadido de melancolía. Podemos quizá fijar el matiz de esa melancolía atribuyéndole las notas de profunda y solemne (661).
8 It is
interesting to note that the highly symbolic Christian number of 33 verses
separates perverse indignation from honor in chapter
4 of Viaje del Parnaso. See this essay's epigraph.
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Martín rightly shares Vranich's disdain
for these misreadings by the solemn camp. The hyperbole of phrases like
¡Voto a Dios!, Por Jesucristo vivo!, and
Apostaré . . . , along with the poem's
blasphemous performance, can combine to make Ayala's heartfelt reception
difficult to swallow. Martín is understandably at pains to unveil
the poem as the supreme example of the Golden Age burlesque sonnet, and so
for her it must stand as yet another example of brilliant Cervantine irony.
But a pause is in order. Has she not in some sense reduced that irony to
self-righteous humor and mere linguistic play? Does not the experience of
melancholy or sarcasm depend on one's relative interest in Spanish hegemony?
Without completely dispelling her endeavor, I think it appropriate to reassess
the notes of sincerity in Al túmulo del rey previously
perceived by Rodríguez Marín, Ayala, and possibly even the
eyewitness Ariño. Such a self-critical-response reading
helps us to understand the interdependent dialogical and evangelical aspects
of the sonnet as together composing an evaluation of Spanish Subjectivity
that is both a sorrowful lament and a vicious satire i.e., a tragicomedy
in miniature. For es mancilla / que esto no dure un siglo
may refer quite literally to the apparent rise and fall of the Spanish empire
between 1492 and 1588, which is here put finally to rest with Philip II in
1598. Laughing at the epic failure of one's people cannot be accomplished
with self-removed ease.
We can sort through this puzzle by taking Cervantes's biography and the political and moral intentions of some of his other texts into consideration. The result of such an approach will be an hermeneutic paradigm structured on a vacillation between the sincere and the sarcastic. Much more than a literary device, this ontological splitting reveals a portrait, even a confession, of ideological anxiety. In my understanding, Al túmulo del rey is a mediating text between the more subtle irenic dissidence of La Numancia and the outright sarcasm and irreverence of Don Quixote. In it we can find a kind of microcosm of the range of intentions and tonalities in both the first novel and the earlier play. As Cervantes himself recognized in Viaje del Parnaso, the poem is a condensed summary of his entire career. So we will focus on the self-critical quality of Cervantine texts, which always seem to put Spanish hegemony on trial in some manner, and quite often autobiographically. We cannot grasp the true nature of Cervantine burlesque until we see how it interacts with its epic context, thereby making manifest a conscious politico-poetic self-containment. Al túmulo del rey, if only by its performance, exhibits the dilemmas of self-judgment, the same self-judgment that has led so many critics to consider the
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autobiographical possibilities of Don Quixote. What is and/or was bad in Cervantes himself is what he abhors about the society that surrounds him, a society that has grown acritical and overzealous in its ideals just as they have been thrown into crisis by a series of historic failures. In this way, his once hegemonic Erasmism now serves up a radically self-reflexive critique, a dialectical interior Christianity deployed to combat its static misuse as a formal ideology. Like all of his texts, the sonnet concerns the dying struggle to maintain the enlightening essence of Christianity in the emerging modern world, and this is why he calls it the honra principal de mis escritos, as if to lead by the example of his own shame.9
The Contrary Lies:
We find the first layer of this bivalent judgment
in the sonnet's burlesque of the hollow ostentation of Philip II's funeral.
Cervantes sarcastically laments the growing materialism of his era: me
espanta esta grandeza, diera un doblón por describilla,
Cada pieza vale más que un millón, and the irreverent
Apostaré . . . . We sense the Cervantine
platitude of ironic and anxious dismay at the commodification of classical
values. At its core, the burlesque sonnet of which Cervantes was so proud
is a condemnation of the way in which Spanish material pride has overcome,
fragmented, and destroyed its more valuable moral and social
This is especially pertinent to the case of Seville, the paradoxically bankrupt conduit for Spain's importation of New World metals and artifacts. Geographically we are already setting up the poem's scatological intentions. As in Quevedo, Seville's recent Atlantic role with respect to Spanish imperialism is a decidedly anal betrayal of the Mediterranean ideals of the plateau.10 I am suggesting that we allow that the Spanish thinkers of the sixteenth and
cannot help but compare this gloriously self-deprecatory performance to those
by another infamous Spanish artist, Salvador Dalí, who would push
the envelope of acceptable aesthetics by lauding the act of masturbating
on a Paris subway or by claiming that the world's greatest living artist
was a man who could suck water into his anus. Where Dalí uses autoerotic
behavior to critique twentieth-century bourgeois ideology, Cervantes deploys
Erasmian scatology against sixteenth-century political and religious
10 Bakhtin points out a similar play between the geographical, the cosmological, the moral, and the bodily in Rabelais:
When the Sibyl of Panzoult showed her backside to Panurge he exclaimed: I see the Sybil's hole (trou de la Sybille), as the entrance to the underworld was called in antiquity. Medieval legends describe many of these holes in various parts of Europe. They were believed to be the entrances to purgatory or hell, [p. 78] but in familiar speech the word had an obscene connotation. [. . .] Rabelais used this interpretation in his Antidoted Flummeries (Fanfreluches antidotées), in which he mentions the hole of Saint Patrick, the hole of Gibraltar, and thousands of other holes. Gibraltar was also known as trou de la Sybille (a pun on Seville) and this, too, was an improper expression (377).
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seventeenth centuries had their own version of our dialectical hindsight. The self-containing double frustration of Cervantes's sonnet especially indicates that the author was meditating much as Fernand Braudel would some 400 years later. In the following quote, note in particular Braudel's metaphors for the perspectives of Marxist historicism. They are, like much of Cervantes's work, the skeptical regard of the traditional personification of nationality, the emphasis on the liberating encounter between human consciousness and so-called cosmic destiny, and the detached and materialistic reduction of politics to the level of mere theatrical performance:
In the 1580s the might of Spain turned towards the Atlantic. It was out there, whether conscious or not of the dangers involved, that the empire of Philip II had to concentrate its forces and fight for its threatened existence. A powerful swing of the pendulum carried it towards its transatlantic destiny. When I became interested in this hidden balance of forces, the physics of Spanish policy, preferring research in this direction to labeling the responsibilities of a Philip II or a Don John of Austria, and when I came to think moreover that these statesmen were, despite their illusions, more acted upon than actors, I was already beginning to move outside of the traditional bounds of diplomatic history (19).
We can think of the sonnet as centering on the Sevillian problem in the following way: the contrast between the church and the ship of state. The galleon has replaced the cathedral in the contest for the city's soul. The structure of the church has always been that of an inverted Noah's ark, but in this case it harbors Spanish power rather than universal spiritual salvation. And so, as Philip II's Armada falls, likewise do the tenets of what Jürgen Habermas would call positivistic religion.11 The overbearing significance of the catafalque
Positive applies to prescriptions according to which the
faithful are supposed to be able to earn God's benevolence through works
instead of moral action; to the hope for compensation in the beyond; to the
divorce of a doctrine in the hands of a few from the life and possession
of all; to the detachment of priestly knowledge from the fetishized belief
of the masses, as well as to the detour that supposedly leads to morality
only by way of the authority and miraculous deeds of one person; to the
assurances and threats aimed at the sheer legality of action; finally, and
above all, the separation of private religion from public life is
positive (Habermas 25-6).
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erases the difference between the ark and a warship, and the vituperative
reaction to church ceremony (voto can also be a blasphemous expletive)
underscores the funeral and its accompanying Eucharist as an ideological
apparatus based on fear and power rather than on true Christian morality.
The performance of the poem and the audience's consumption of it function
like a kind of anti-Eucharist. In the burlesque mode, the church
is turned upside down and inside out, so that it is understood for what it
should truly represent in reformist Erasmian terms a critique, one
that paradoxically allows the church to shed its institutionalized nonsense
and become an ark again. The catafalque must be reversed and exposed as a
hollow wooden structure, adorned only on its exterior with the foreign and
primitive wealth that was imported in the hulls of Spanish galleons. Hence,
given the nautical connotations of the verb calar (to strike
sail as well as to lower the nets), we should consider
the valentón's concluding words and actions mutinous, a properly
Christian rebellion. It would even seem that Cervantes is here trying to
catch (and save) his former Lepanto self in his own moral nets, as
if fishing through the national excrement for the only thing that can count
the moral intentions of the morally deleterious imperial enterprise.
It is a salvage operation, an attempt to renew an ecumenical idealism by
forcing it to learn from its previous mistakes.
Given the fetishization of structure implied both by the sonnet form in general and by this particular sonnet with its enigmatic estrambote and its angry commentary on political and ecclesiastical hierarchies, I would contend that the maritime suggestiveness of the poem (Seville as the gateway to the Atlantic, Philip II's demise as that of the Armada, and especially the verb calar) foregrounds the tradition of fishing as Christian evangelism. Cervantes is here alluding to the arching ceilings of Seville's cathedral as a Christian network (figs. 6 and 7). As the king's body decays, it lies in the horizontal plane of the structure and faces its ceiling. Similarly, the trajectory of the sonnet traces the problem of his spiritual ascendence into heaven, as if through the web-like material structure around him that will inevitably retain his corporal remains. It is an architectural journey through the experience of death in sixteenth-century Spain.
Politically, this allows the poet to attack exterior Christianity by pointing out its vacuous interior. The truth of the matter lies in the irony, and this is why the religiously affirmational Es cierto gives way through enjambment to the linguistic irreverence of lo que dice voacé, seor soldado. In another instance of this technique, instead of leaving his body and going on to the beyond, Philip II hoy ha
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Fig. 6. Exterior view of Seville Cathedral showing raised Latin Cross on roof (Falcón Márquez lám I).
dejado / el cielo instead of la tierra in order to take pleasure in this world's material wealth rather than the spiritual comfort of the beyond. The humor here is quite serious and designed for those in the know. While at first we are tempted to find the soldado's praise ironic and the valentón's response ignorant of his irony, it is subsequently just as plausible that they are subversive accomplices. After all, the ruffian's aggression does not result in a fight; to the contrary, no hubo nada. Instead, their humor is mutually covert, something like the fish drawn by early Christians in the streets of Imperial Rome. But if we are readers sincere in our allegiance to Philip II, then we are outsiders and we can never understand the dissenting discourse being carried on right under our noses.
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Fig. 7. Francesco di Giorgio's fifteenth-century groundplan of a church corresponding to the proportions of the human body (Von Simson illus. 7).
But just as both of these characters comprehend their marginal status with respect to royal ostentatiousness, Cervantes allows that they are equally aware of their unavoidable complicity. As Spanish critics of Spanishness they are trapped; quien dijere lo contrario, miente applies to them as well. We can read the phrase as if the valentón were giving the ironic soldado a self-conscious wink, the conservative reaction to one's own critique. Americans might
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understand this self-containment in terms of the traditional response to
the Viet Nam syndrome that clings to the idea that only in such
a great country can such radical dissent be possible. Pride and shame are
not mutually exclusive conditions of patriotism. I think the comparison between
the Spanish veteran of Lepanto and the Viet Nam veteran is appropriate for
a number of reasons. Chief among them would be the ex-imperial servant's
tendency to take on the identity of the rebellious margins on the home front.
Just as the disillusioned Viet Nam veteran fashions himself after the
counter-culture hippie who so often protested the war, Cervantes now plays
the part of the irreverent ruffian.
For lit-crits who prefer French post-structuralism to American history, we can also see how Cervantine Erasmism anticipates Foucault's vision of the inherent capacity of Power to bring about its own deconstruction. The leader's body is now paradoxically the site of ideological decay. The sonnet becomes a dutiful protest against Philip II's desiccation/defecation of the ideals of the Erasmian prince:
The prince who has been instructed in the teachings of Christ and in protecting wisdom will consider nothing dearer (or rather, nothing dear at all) than the prosperity of his people, whom he ought to love and care for as king and member of one body. All his plans, all his efforts, all his interests will be turned to the one aim of ruling over the province entrusted to him in such a manner that when Christ makes the final reckoning he will win approval and leave a very honorable memory of himself among all his fellow men (The Education of a Christian Prince 244).
The sonnet testifies that the King of the Counter-Reformation
naturally had difficulties fulfilling his role. I suggest that Cervantes's
honra principal de mis escritos refers to his poem about his
prince as an excretion of false honor (honra): the
escritor writer as excretor shitter.
Note that this thematic scatology also makes use of the material contrast
between ink and the page: the very act of writing and printing is already
an ideological excretion.
Hence we must understand that even Cervantes cannot be excluded from his satire. As his performance of the poem indicates, he well understood that he too was guilty of embodying non-Christian values. The expression diera un doblón por describilla is particularly telling of Cervantes's quest for national literary status and the monetary success that could conceivably accompany such dynastic service. Moreover, as a soldier at Lepanto, Cervantes was certainly
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guilty of the less-than-Christian violence of Spanish military hegemony.
Despite the more noble ideals of that earlier phase of Spanish imperialism,
Cervantes has come to understand that he was once made a puppet of Christianity's
darker side. He therefore unveils this other Christianity as
an ideological apparatus of the Spanish state. Never granted passage to America
and recently jailed in the wake of the Armada, Cervantes now has every reason
to lash out at the falseness of Philip II's ceremony by characterizing his
final voyage as a national bowel movement. But again, in so doing, he cannot
avoid denigrating his prior complicity (both as author and soldier) in the
imperial agenda. In this way he avoids becoming a simplistic anti-Catholic
critic of a crisis of Catholicism.
As a commissary officer for the Armada, Cervantes was twice excommunicated for the supposed incompetence of his collection efforts (Canavaggio 145-7). Perhaps, like the poem's braggart, he did not realize the depth of the lie of his nationalistic endeavors until long after the military disaster. But now, in front of his king's outlandish tomb, he is faced with the dishearteningly wasteful results of what must have already been an uncomfortable job. In other words, the funeral is his as well; or better still, it is the symbol of his and his culture's transformation: beginning at the tomb of King Philip II, the logos or account of the Spanish Subject, which we find both in the poem as well as its performance, passes down to a soldier and then to a valentón until we are left with only the parting snickers of a poeta fanfarrón. And all of these are denigrated derivatives of the original ideological symbol of Spanish superiority found in the enormous catafalque. The poem forces us to witness the freethinking commissary officer becoming a subversive author. In the event of the sonnet's performance, the hero of Lepanto is also a self-conscious poet who must remain split between the Spanish king and his most disloyal commentators. Similarly, within the poem, the seor soldado attempts to mediate the dialogue between the church ceremony and the valentón. Hence the double nature of the sonnet's sincerity as well as the way in which the poem decays linguistically, ideologically, and even economically from being al túmulo del rey to nada.12
should also note, continuing with the theme of the bodily in
reformist satire, that in reading this narrative and dialogic poem backwards
one must travel from Adam (Adán) to the willful selection of
God (Voto a Dios) via an anal-oral trajectory. Again, this map-like
structuring of Spanish Catholic [p. 84] Subjectivity
is both that of the poem as well as the cathedral, with the filth of the
marginal characters being the gateway to the memory of Christ found at the
altar and in the Eucharist. The text itself is architectonic and organic
in the most Catholic of senses.
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As I have already indicated, then, an important
key to this autobiographical desengaño is the poem's Erasmian
morality. Behind the more overt critiques of materialism and power, we find
the Erasmian ideals of a reformed Christianity that would return to what
the humanists felt were the essentially communal values of the early followers.
Cada pieza vale más que un millón also refers to
the relative value of human souls that the hierarchy of the Spanish state
no longer the Christian World Empire has thrown into disequilibrium,
or even to the souls it has literally spent in the process of
sustaining itself. Philip II's epic ceremony crushes this more basic economy
of Christianity by suggesting that the value of a fellow human being cannot
compare to that of the Spanish royal.
The antithetical status of the burlesque mode exposes this imperial hypocrisy. Seville has fallen short of the idealism previously invested in Spain's manifest destiny to disseminate Christianity throughout a barbaric world. Between verses 7 and 8, and hence at the very hinge of the traditional sonnet, instead of Amor, we have yet another case of Roma. Imperialism has conquered Christian idealism, which presently positions itself opposite the Spanish state. Erasmism now functions like the latent antithetical seed of Amor within Roma at the interpersonal level of Spain's more knowing citizenry. These are the disillusioned and the recently disadvantaged, Erasmians and others perhaps nostalgic for Carlos V's confident cosmopolitan atmosphere and yet just as wary of its potential for fanatical bloodshed. Could a more perfect hero for Spanish dissent be chosen than Erasmus? Just as the Low Countries are being oppressed by the hypocritical Christian state, Cervantes undertakes a literary career based in part on a Dutchman's interpretation of Christianity. Erasmus is appropriated to critique Spanish Imperialism, and in the process Cervantes enacts that other kind of cultural imperialism in the recognition of an irenic spiritual brotherhood. Indeed, depending on which side of the razor sharp edge between Roma and Amor one falls, one's experience can be either triumphantly celestial or what the British would call bloody hell. If Erasmian humanism is anything, it is this sort of irascible aesthetic dissent: a reforming irenic irony that is meant to enforce an awareness of the absurdity of the difference between the Self and the Other.
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Scatological Dissident Catholicism:
Cervantistas (and especially the many
disciples of Américo Castro and Marcel Bataillon) have long suggested
that the new consciousness's flight from religious positivity does not only
lead toward Luther and the land of German philosophers. Erasmus stands as
the chief example that even before Luther, Catholics were themselves eroding
the positivity of Orthodoxy. But I would hold that not only was Cervantes
an Erasmian, he was a disillusioned Erasmian, if you will, a
post-Erasmian. Now entering a more radical period of his career, part
of him even seems willing to attack the remaining positivity of his own
ideological hero. This is most certainly the attitude of the
valentón at the conclusion of Al túmulo del
rey. The sonnet's supplemental (read baroque or
comedic) and descriptive estrambote is an antitheological
vulgarity, a narrative as well as bodily ending.
Key here is the word encontinente. The literal and more common reading takes the word as an adverb, but even in that case, its meaning immediately derives from lacking restraint i.e., acting in a manner that is precisely not continent, or, we might say, a sudden letting go. The word's root also has serious political implications due to its affiliation with the ancient tradition of educating princes which here, as in Erasmus, is radically inverted by Cervantes: Continente bueno es cosa que face al home seer noble et apuesto (Alfonso X, fol. 83v). Hence the word is charged with Erasmian potential against Philip II, the king who lacked Christian restraint and perhaps inevitably betrayed the ideals and sacrifices of his precursors. The defensive Truth has become the offensive Lie; what was once the Christian passion for world peace has surrendered to an uncontrollable Spanish passion for world domination. Given Cervantes's play on Rome and Seville, the word encontinente can also have a geographical significance. Since Cervantes's Spain had mapped and exploited a new continent through Seville, the poet's word choice could deride the royal appropriation of the Americas. Or we might imagine a critique of the Hapsburgs' failed attempts to unite the European continent, subdue North African piracy, and restrain the insular Protestantism of England. In relation to Europe, Africa, and even the New World, Spain has always found itself an intercontinent with its desires and identities divided among them. In any case, the antithetical values of the soldado and the valentón are no longer contiguous with those represented by their leader. Recalling Cervantes's excommunication in the service of
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Philip II, encontinente acts like a sarcastic comment on the effects
of that official policy, expressing his blasphemous disdain at being cast
out from the religious body of the Church and the political body of the State.
Note that this is in perfect keeping with the poem's body theme as a
pre-formulation of Habermas's definition of the period's problem of
re-formed Subjectivity: the communal body of the spiritual king
(Christ) has been devoured and denigrated by a material king (Philip II),
and his self-centered subjects (a growing number of them excomulgados
and expulsados) are now left to swirl the drain at the end of the
But I claim that Cervantes is pushing the potential of encontinente a bit further. The sonnet form is, after all, and especially in its baroque burlesque rendering, one of the more dense sites of Western philosophical discourse. And here, in the estrambote of the form, such density is figuratively and literally intensified and then released. There are some etymological considerations. Continente, for example, is a noun by the middle of the thirteenth century and an adjective by the fifteenth (Cuervo 2.468-70).13 In the context of a marginado lampooning Philip II, the word encontinente must be allowed the full range of its poetic possibilities, and this includes its status as an adjective or noun derivative of incontinencia que no se puede contener. Whether this evinces the Golden Age penchant for neologism and cultismo semántico perhaps a reference to the Latin incontinentia or whether it is simply the covert convention of poetry in general, it seems clear that Cervantes intends a physiological connotation to complement the political and the emotional.14
The case for encontinente's nominative and adjective potential depends heavily on the questions of spelling and of pronunciation. But given the period's well documented orthographic and phonetic instability, encontinente can quite easily be reformed exactly as it was likely performed as incontinente.15 The sonnet's decaying teleology of Christianity is then complemented by the etymological events of the sixteenth century that accompanied the political or the theological i.e., the word (e->)incontinente is in itself an emblem of scatological eschatology, or, if one prefers, of secularly dialogic freedom from theological restraint. And recalling that calar evokes
Quixote, who is repeatedly subjected to fecal derision, says to Sancho at
the beginning of 2.32: No soy de los enamorados viciosos, sino de los
platónicos continentes (2.283).
14 Incontinente can also have a sexual connotation. According to Alfonso de Palencia, one of the three reasons that one might take a wife seems [p. 87] pseudo-medical: Si alguno es inco<n>tine<n>te (Universal vocabulario en latín y romance, fol. 541v). In any case, it is obvious from the word's history (Cuervo, Nebrija et al) that by the late sixteenth century it can be understood as both an adjective and a noun in addition to an adverb. And this is not to mention the word's clearly nominative status in Italian. See, for example, the ever popular (especially in Spain) Libro del Cortegiano (4.15) for a discussion of those misguided incontinenti.
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a complex net imagery in relation to the sonnet's soteriological mode, we
can both see and hear that e is meant to release something as it gives
way to i and then nada in the poem's final breaths. Note that
this occurs only if we catch its irony, for here coming into
aesthetic knowledge is tantamount to a humanistic conversion, to a glorifying
grounding and pagan christening of the Savior in one's fellow
But the crowning and admittedly more solidly historical detail in a scatological reading of Al túmulo del rey would have to be Philip II's notorious diarrhea. Not only did the monarch suffer intense attacks of diarrhea when faced with a sudden crisis (Walsh 195), but his deathbed experience was an incontinent nightmare:
According to all eyewitnesses, the worst torment of all was the diarrhea that developed about halfway into this final illness. Because the pain caused by being touched or moved was too great for Philip to bear, it seemed best not to clean the ordure that he produced, and not even to change the linens, so many times the bed remained fouled, creating an awful stench. Eventually a hole was cut into the mattress to help relieve this problem, but it was only a partial remedy. Philip continued to waste away, wallowing in his own filth, tormented by the smell and the degradation of it all (Eire 272).
In what now becomes an aesthetic record of Philip's death, the poem's conflations of a lack of moral and bodily restraint and its opening exclamation (¡Voto a Dios, que me espanta esta grandeza) can only suggest an irreverent bodily function in its strange conclusion; again, the trajectory of the sonnet is the oral passing to the anal.
Cervantes's vacillations between e and i, see Sieber (32) and
16 For a view of Cervantes's aesthetic that supports his capacity for such lexigraphical symbolism, see Lapesa (331-3). Lapesa even claims that Cervantes posee un finísimo sentido de la palabra en sí, a causa del cual se complace en juegos que operan unas veces con el concepto, otras veces con el cuerpo fónico de los vocablos (332).
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In addition to such thematic, lexigraphical,
and historical evidence, we are faced with two key structural facts about
this sonnet that imply a scatological conclusion: 1) the supplemental
estrambote is a very real metrical i.e., audible
variation, which 2) occurs in precisely the hind portion of the burlesque
sonnet (recall Cecco's sonétto caudato literally
tailed sonnet). It would even appear that within the
estrambote, the brisk words caló el chapeo have
a certain scatological musicality (peo=flatus via an even more vulgar
elision than that found previously in seor). Given the recuperation
of the phallus that follows (requirió la espada), the
valentón would seem to be finishing his business,
first urinating and then defecating over the impotent leader/corpse of San
Quintín and the Armada. That is, Philip II, the previous source of
power, has now become a shameful piece of excrement, deserving only of the
empty flattery of flatulence (¡fanfarronería!). Perhaps
history should have Cervantes read this last part of the sonnet with his
back to the catafalque (cf. fig.
Martín has claimed that the character's mirada al soslayo is indicative of his ruffian status (111), but I would add that since the entire poem is a kind of anti-Eucharist that denigrates clerical ceremony, this sidelong glance is meant to punctuate the valentón's emotional and physical incontinence. It is both the wry glance of Cervantine humor that seeks to include the interlocutor (both the soldado and the reader) in the author's irreverence, as well as an embarrassing confession of the author's former lack of Christian manners. Positivistic religion and its ideological appropriation by the state are thereby given their final snub. The non-theological evacuation of the body is already the farcical theme of the funeral that the men are scoffing, and just as there is no cielo, no ánima, and no triunfo for Philip II, there can be nothing but a burlesque passing of wind as its commentary, and this precisely in the descriptive (as in opposite the dialogical) portion of the poem that is broken off from its main body/voice. The epic ideals, once and somehow still those of Cervantes, are now obscene in retrospect; the heroic warrior is, and
another, if less elaborate, instance of Cervantes's capacity for scatological
humor, see McGrady. This is to say nothing of Don Quixote's famous
fulling mill episode (1.245-6). Indeed, both the class structure and the
religious irreverence of the sonnet are perceptible in the trajectory of
chapters nineteen and twenty, where the excommunication of the hero
is followed by his worldly sidekick's defecation.
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perhaps always was, never anything but an inflated and incontinent
valentón, and what was once positive is now
Yet is it not true that both the sonnet and the catafalque are indeed wonders? The tomb was described as the octava maravilla del mundo, but is there really nothing to be gained from it all as the sonnet seems to conclude? For Martín, this is most certainly not the case: And if there is any doubt regarding Cervantes's accomplishments as a poet, it is quickly dispelled by these memorable verses (102). But no doubt Cervantes would have it so only if we understand that his verses are meant to dispel the positive accomplishments of his culture's empire and make room for the negative dialectics of Erasmism. We can only grasp the poem as a gem if we see it as an Erasmian diamond in the dunghill. The wondrous catafalque opposes the irenic concerns of secular humanism, but precisely because of
18 Martín also claims that the term chapeo is a vulgarism, a rather presumptuous Gallicism (chapeau) to describe the wide-brimmed hat favored by ruffians (111). But in the context we have raised by calar, it needs pointing out that the presumptuousness is a much deeper political jab at the crown worn by Philip II, who betrayed (and was betrayed by) his own navy. We also have this extremely rare word's curious appearance in the Crónica de Aragón, where a tale of royal intrigue (as Don Carlos temporarily assumes the throne of Aragon) is typically dominated by excommunication and questions of pureza de sangre:
Y en señal de le poner en possessio<n>: le puso de su mano vn sombrero burgueryn de su tierra: que seria como corona. Otros dizen que no era sombrero: mas vn capirote françes: que tiene mas semejança de corona. y por esso le llamaua su hermano / don Phelipe: el rey del chapeu. faziendo burla de su corona. y la burla salio tan verdadera: que la casa de francia: la houo de llorar mas agramente / que nunca ella pensara: como adelante se diera. por que el rey de francia murio en la demanda: y antes de salir de catalueña. y la mayor parte de su gente: y ahun quasi toda. Mas el rey de Aragón: fue tan batalloso guerrero / y magnanimo / que oso fazer rostro: no solo el rey de francia: q<ue> abstara / y fuera sobrado: mas a todo el poder dela yglesia: que es mucho mas. al rey mismo su hermano: que era su carne: y su sangre: que no hay peor / ni mas peligroso enemigo (Fabricio de Vagad, fol. 138v).
Given the odd presence of chapeo
in a poem with characters who are obviously faziendo burla of the
crown of Philip II, it seems plausible that Cervantes could have ironically
reworked the chronicle in order to take advantage of the Erasmian potential
of one's own flesh and blood as the enemy. Moreover,
the decaying body of Philip II now allows the pathetic Carlos rey del
chapeu to have the last laugh (perhaps a reference to Philip's most
intimate critic, his own son Carlos of the leyenda negra?). Regardless,
Cervantes's piece underscores the fact that the endless dynamics of power
ultimately outlive their human hosts i.e., Renaissance Spain is just
a grander feudal situation in which the demise of the foreign Hapsburgs coincides
with the demise of the international power of the Church.
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this, it is the most appropriate locus for a more secret or other
kind of Eucharist to be conducted in a poem that will outlast its obscene
subject. And note that it is only through an inspection of the decaying
estrambote of the poem that we can understand the irony of what preceded
it. Diera un doblón now sounds like a truly double
donation from the poet's pockets (diarrea). And re-reading verses
7 and 8 (¡oh, gran Sevilla!, / Roma triunfante en ánimo
y riqueza!), if we can undo the exclamatory praise as the poem itself
ultimately does, then we can sense a pungent enjambment: the post-Erasmian
fart in Seville is indeed an a-Roma triunfante to the marginalized
We are now very near the essentially atheistic and pagan potential of a kind of Erasmian meta-Christianity that paradoxically grounds all religious superstructure.20 In order for Christ's pacific dissemination to be accomplished, He must be understood as the earthly and material he. For Death to have truly meaningful effects on social action, it must be absolute; there can be no Jesucristo vivo, i.e., the theological must become the secularly existential. With one eye still cast al soslayo on the inherent ideals of Christianity, the reformist moves away from the ornamentation of Christianity's more positivistic displays, departing the official Church forever and trying to make the Cathedral's interior heaven precisely outside. The importance of Death for humanism's ideals can be understood as far greater than even the octava maravilla del mundo, since it is the foundational motivation for humane sentiment and action. The Eucharist can then be taken in its metaphorical sense, since in its ritualistic sense it is but a farce, just a physical action with very real gastronomical effects. Through incontinence, bread and wine become the excrement and urine of humans, and this is the only way that they can ever be the real body and blood of Christ. But in this light, all of the sarcastic commentary of the poem turns quite serious. Catholic scatology is much more than humor or simple rebellion; it is a sincere and humbling look at an ideology's capacity to produce excrement in the name of its noble ideals, and hence its need to remain on guard against itself as if in a state of constant reform. If
connection between excrement and money is tempting here. I considered a Freudian
reading, but felt that the historical and literary evidence held its own.
For a most convincing case for Freud's appropriation/intuition of Cervantine
thought, see El Saffar and Wilson (Eds.).
20 As Luther put it, Erasmus was far from the knowledge of grace, since in all his writings he is not concerned for the cross but for peace (cited by Dickens and Jones 117).
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we can grasp the poem's irony i.e., if the poem has the desired effect, then we will still detect the dissonant scent of humanist idealism. For example, por gozar este sitio, hoy ha dejado / el cielo, de que goza eternamente is a classic stoical anticipation of the Feuerbachian/Marxian disdain for the opiate effects of an ultra-worldly religion that tends to impede the progress of humanism. Positivistic concerns must be shed once and for all if the utopian pleasures of the cielo are ever to be realized in the here and now.21
Comparative Ideological Supplement:
To label the likes of Erasmus and Cervantes anti-divine is no doubt asking for a polemic with certain Renaissance scholars.22 In conclusion, I would like to elaborate briefly the difference between a religious ethics based on a relative avoidance of the beyond mystique and that of an alternate, potentially nihilistic atheism. I would argue that the often inaccessible Jacques Derrida, in his essay Donner la mort (1992), has recently taken an Erasmian turn when he rejects the sacred as foundational to religion: What is a religion? Religion presumes access to the responsibility of a free self. It thus implies breaking with this type of secrecy (for it is not of course the only one), that associated with sacred mystery (2); and again, Religion is responsibility or it is nothing at all. [. . .] In the authentic
21 Whether this attitude is the result of neoestoicismo inherited from Seneca or a radical derivative of Erasmism will likely continue to be debated. For in both we are dealing with the dialectical interaction of paganism and Christianity that typifies Renaissance humanism. Castro raised the issue long ago in his seminal, if at times confused and contradictory, El pensamiento de Cervantes (1925). Only two pages after his famous Sin Erasmo, Cervantes no habría sido como fué, we find:
Vamos a demostrar que la moral de Cervantes es en su última raíz de carácter esencialmente filosófico, puramente natural y humana, sin ingerencia activa de principios religiosos. [. . .]
Sabe el lector que el neoestoicismo es la doctrina moral que en el siglo XVI trató de conciliar, en lo posible, el rigor del estoicismo clásico (fatalista y, en el fondo, panteísta y negador de la inmortalidad del alma) con las exigencias del dogma cristiano o católico. (322)
one insists on the loyalty of Cervantes to his king and his church, I would
insist that said loyalty be understood only in terms of the loyalty of the
office of the advocatus diaboli to Catholic theology. Politics, like
cathedrals and sonnets, are complex and self-critical affairs, and I fail
to see how a man only recently released from a Seville jail for supposed
disloyalty to the state could pen homenajes to the Crown.
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sense of the word, religion comes into being the moment that the experience
of responsibility extracts itself from that form of secrecy called demonic
mystery (2-3). The fact that Derrida begins his essay on the paradoxical
gift of death with an analysis of the ideas of the Czech philosopher
who died of a brain hemorrhage after a police interrogation in 1977, suggests
that the Marxist critique of deconstruction's aesthetic gamery
has had an effect on its supposed high priest. One notes a desire for, if
not an acknowledgment of, responsibility in the philosophical enterprise,
a discomfort with what Terry Eagleton has labeled the doctrinal obsession
with undecidability (146). Indeed, Cervantes's politics
help us to combine the aesthetic concerns of Derrida with the Marxist concerns
I claim that what one finds in Erasmian and Cervantine disdain for religious formality is precisely this appeal for social responsibility and hence a rejection of the Religion, with its potential for self-righteous aggression, and a call for a religion based on transnational humanity rather than the fetishization of spiritual transcendence. Scatology is a structuring principle of this logic that forces a bodily responsibility into the theological politics of the day. But here I would reject the radical one-dimensional application of Bakhtin to Cervantes, for Al túmulo's critique of the monarch is, by the sheer force of history, a reformer's soteriological service rather than an anarchist's or an atheist's flat rebellion. Furthermore, it would seem next to impossible to claim a radicality for these elite aesthetics; the institution of Christ (most especially in its Western Pauline version) insists on being only the reforming memory of such radicality. The self-inflicted lashings of Cervantes's poem are Catholic and we should not forget Philip II's final acts of charity from the midst of the awful stench of both his deathbed and his tyranny. Perhaps Alban K. Forcione had this more passive version of the reformer's aesthetic politics in mind when he summarized Cervantes's humanism thusly: The word is wrested from its familiar context, charged with the energy of an individual voice, and metamorphosed from the withering flatus vocis of conventional discourse into a revitalized mediator between two human lives (213). Although we have done much here to fill in the details of Forcione's mediating discourse, in the process we have also foregrounded ideological anxiety and even anger. We have discovered that the humanist vision can get quite red and even take obscene pleasure in the death of the king.
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. The Praise of Folly and Other Writings. Trans. Robert M. Adams. New York: Norton, 1989.
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Stallybrass, Peter and Allon White. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986.
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|Fred Jehle firstname.lastname@example.org||Publications of the CSA||HCervantes|