From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 1.1-2 (1981): 95-107.
Copyright © 1981, The Cervantes Society of America

An Open Letter to Ruth El Saffar*


Dear Ruth:

     I have read your article on Mimesis conflictiva with the greatest interest. You are right, as you say in your letter, that “there is something, built in the very nature of discourse, and even more of academic discourse, that brings out the insistence on difference.” I trust, though, that your “insistence” on our differences will be transparent enough to offer a vision of what we share to all those with eyes to see.
     So, after all, you are a feminist! Of a rather uncommon variety today, but a feminist nonetheless. Since you make such very high claims indeed on behalf of the “absolute otherness” of the feminine.
     First, let me comment on your apparently deeply felt need to posit an “absolute otherness” and then we will see what it means for such an otherness to become literarily incarnate, so to speak, in any of the heroines you mention. These two aspects constitute —it seems to me— the very core of your thinking in the article.
     I speak of your need to posit an “absolute otherness,” and I think I know why you feel that need when you read my work. It appears to be something like this: Bandera is right, but if he is right he cannot possibly be right, for if he is we would all be doomed. Something is missing, there has to be an exception to his rule somewhere, an absolute exception, a saving one. So, why doesn't he talk about it? Besides, I, Ruth El Saffar, have read Cervantes just as much as he

     * This discussion began with On Beyond Conflict (Cervantes 1.1-2 [1981]: 83-94), by Ruth El Saffar and is continued in Response to Cesáreo Bandera (Cervantes 1.1-2 [1981]: 108-10 ), by Ruth El Saffar. F.J.



has, and I know that Cervantes is not a prophet of doom, there is hope in Cervantes. And if there is hope in Cervantes he must have portrayed that hope in his novel, where else? But still Bandera is right, Cervantes does show how men become violently entangled in the reciprocal mimetism of their desires. So let's see, on account of what do they usually get so entangled? A woman! And Bandera himself shows that through their own reciprocal entanglement they totally misrepresent the object of their desires, the woman. Whenever they rival with each other on account of a woman, which is most of the time, they never see the real woman, so that's it! Woman, womanhood, that which they never grasp, is what stands outside their mimetic entanglement. That is the needed exception, the otherness, the other than man. To be sure, there is a certain entanglement on the part of some women, like Luscinda, but it is never like that of men. Luscinda does not go mad, like Cardenio; Grisóstomo goes mad, not Marcela; and look at Dorotea. Isn't she the one who intervenes and pleads and convinces Don Fernando? So there is hope, at least in Cervantes, through womanhood. How can Bandera equate that with someone like Calderón who has his women murdered by husbands, brothers, or fathers? Calderón is the one who doesn't see hope. Doesn't Bandera himself prove that La vida es sueño, for example, will endlessly spin upon itself? How can he forget at that moment what he said about Cervantes being the first one to really end his novel? I really caught him there! There is no way he can square such a contradiction, and on top of everything, there is plenty of psychological and psychoanalytical evidence today telling us that woman is the real psychological other to man. Etc., etc.
     Does it not go a little bit like that, Ruth? I could immediately identify for you a number of weak points along that chain of argument, but very little would be gained by that. Destroying your argument would be futile, because no amount of destruction is going to shake your conviction and your need for the saving exception, for an absolute otherness. And that, which will always give you the strength to reconstitute your argument, I, most certainly, do not want to destroy even if I could.
     Instead, I will try to make you see that you do not have to wage such an exasperating battle against what you yourself consider the strength of my argument, in order to preserve the saving exception. I will try to make you see that you could be convinced without being threatened at the core. You may still want an answer to all those

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other specific textual objections that you raise. But if I succeed in making you see at the core, you will also see that they are objections to nothing, for they do not even touch the basis of my argument. Their logic is only granted to them by the self-created needs of a battle for the core, which does not have to be fought. Nevertheless, in deference to the effort you have spent in weaving them into your argument, I will try to answer those that appear more important to you, when the occasion arises while dealing with what is really fundamental.
     Don't get me wrong, though. I am not trying to blame the misunderstanding entirely on you. I am sure I have contributed to it. I am just saying that it is a misunderstanding. And this is as good an occasion as any for me to try to clear things up the best I can for the benefit of both of us.
     Let me begin by saying that your need to posit an absolute exception to the mimetic entanglement, an absolute other to it, is in all likelihood as old as humanity itself. Human society has never been able to function without some sort of absolute other. You should be familiar with that, if you have been reading Girard. Thus the question is not whether there should be an absolute other. There will always be one. The only pertinent question is whether the absolute other is really the (one) which is absolutely other or, on the contrary, a fake; that is to say, any one which in absolute terms —not circumstantially— is like any other one but is, either arbitrarily or by mere unpredictable chance, turned into, dressed as, or made to look like the absolute other.
     As you should also know if you have been reading Girard, the process whereby human society has managed to cater to its ever-present need for the absolute other, the process whereby the absolute other has been fabricated, is called the sacrificial process. Which, as you know, is a rather neat and simple trick: if everybody is tangled up with everybody else in such a way that it becomes increasingly difficult or ultimately impossible to tell which is which or what is what, kick one out, exclude him or her totally and absolutely from all the rest, and there you have your absolute other (I am rhetorically simplifying, of course, for the sake of brevity and because, if you have read Girard, I trust you can fill the gaps).
     One can easily recognize this sacrificially absolute other, that is to say the sacrificial victim. First of all, since it has become absolutely other, none of the usual distinctions that apply in the sacrificial


society before its relative entanglement reaches the point of undifferentiation can apply to him/her/it: it can be the most beautiful or the most ugly, adorable or hateful, hailed as a saviour or utterly despised as an outcast, praised for everything or blamed for everything. Society kills the victim and then builds magnificent temples to it. The sacrificial other is a Protean monster. All differences collapse in and around it because all differences belong to it equally: the difference between man and woman, between humans and animals, and even those elements of nature that have cultural significance, the trees, the waters, the fire, etc.
     Needless to say, the absolute otherness of the victim weighs heavily on the sacrificial community. Its presence is felt everywhere. Anything or anybody that looks in any way other than the core of adult males (who are the ones that in times of crisis do most of and the most dangerous of the quarreling and who constitute, therefore, the core from which undifferentiation spreads) immediately becomes associated with the victim. Among these others, women in particular have often provided a handy reservoir of sacrifiable victims, their otherness being so obvious. It goes of course without saying that because of their sacrificial otherness, women have been perceived as endowed with a particularly saving power and they have also been especially despised as different and inferior creatures. Anything or anybody that bears the imprint of the sacrificially fabricated otherness of the victim will also bear its irreducible social and cultural ambiguity.
     What an unwittingly profound intuition you had when you said that the saving heroines of Cervantes would have been killed if transplanted to the literary world of Calderón! What you did not see is that it is the same world in either case, that both Cervantes and Calderón are borrowing their characters from a multisecular literary tradition that has always cast its heroes and heroines in a sacrificial role. What makes both of them far greater than most others is that they feel very uncomfortable and uneasy in such a world. They have doubts, profound doubts. Cervantes is far from certain about the saving grace that can flow from his beautiful heroines. He senses time and again —and he shows it, as we will see later— that not everything about such saving roles is legitimate. While at the other end of the ambiguity, Calderón, as opposed to his predecessor, Lope, is quite intent on showing that the apparently clear guilt of all those

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wives that were being killed for the sake of honor in Lope's theater, was more than a little suspect. In fact he really went a long way to make the murdered wives look like the saving heroines of Cervantes and countless other romances. It's the same world, my friend, the same world. This is why it is essential to read Calderón alongside of Cervantes.
     And —may I add— to read Ruth El Saffar alongside of Bandera. For, don't you see? What in “Bandera's text remains undifferentiated” and what in your text becomes “the most absolute of all the others, the feminine other” is also really the same thing. How could it be accidental for you to rebel against “Bandera's undifferentiated” space and to turn it precisely into the space of the absolute other? For it is indeed right there where your absolute other belongs. Your critical intuition —which is to say your sacrificial intuition— is guiding you there unerringly.
     However, this rebellion of yours against the undifferentiated is not your only rebellion. For it is also quite clear that you do not want to kill the victim (even though, at times, you come pretty close to wanting to kill the killers, which is just as bad). When all your sacrificial scenario is ready, “something,” almost two thousand years of history to be precise, tells you that the space of the undifferentiated, of the absolute other, of the victim, is the space for forgiveness. And you are right, of course. It is then and there that forgiveness must take place if the whole messy cycle is not going to start all over again.
     Forgiveness, not the feminine other, is the vehicle of grace. And you are wrong if you imagine that forgiveness will unveil the sacrificial victim and reveal it as an absolute other, for it is such fabricated otherness that veiled the fragile humanity of the victim to begin with, and made it sacrifiable. When forgiveness unveils that victim, all you can see is a trembling and anguished human being, just as vulnerable as any other, male or female, and just as guilty. What you will not see is any untouchable, ineffable, sacred subjectivity. All you will see is something deserving your forgiveness, because it is no different from you. In other words, when you truly forgive, all you see is forgiveness.
     In spite of the burden of a hermeneutical apparatus, borrowed from traditional academia, which still weighs heavily on you and which I hope you will some day shake off your shoulders, you have seen a lot in Cervantes, a lot more than, for instance, Ciriaco. But


what has guided you through Cervantes' text is your sacrificial instinct, so to speak. A sacrificial instinct against which you obviously rebel at the same time in the deepest of you heart. You are, therefore, both right and wrong. Right, because you are certainly touching the truth, wrong because your best feelings, paradoxically, still drive you to turn that truth into a stumbling block. I can well understand why you “felt most of the time as if you were walking a tight-rope.” Unfortunately, in such a situation, the chances are one will fall on the side of least resistance, on the side of the established sacrificial differences, on the side from which, in addition, countless generations of academic critics are constantly pulling.
     Let's assume for a moment that your analysis of the meanderings of the plots in which Cervantes' heroines are engaged is correct. That is to say, let's assume that such plots are deliberately engineered to cast the heroines in a saving role. So what? What would Cervantes be doing in this case, with his usual deliberation (and/or irony), that countless other more mediocre romance writers would not have done a hundred times without knowing what they were doing? What I mean is this: take such a Cervantine deliberation or intuition away, and consider for a moment the heroines by themselves. What is the difference between these lovely ladies and a thousand other lovely ladies in an endless list of literary romances? Couldn't you find a dozen Doroteas for every Dorotea, or a dozen Luscindas, or a dozen Marcelas? And shouldn't that have given you pause about the authenticity of their absolute otherness? To put it a little bluntly, if you will forgive me, how many absolute others does it take before one is forced to raise an eyebrow at their absolute otherness, or before one begins to suspect that such an absolute otherness is nothing but a disembodied metaphysical abstraction, in other words, an attractive cover-up for their disturbing (and rather boring) undifferentiation? Had you forgotten the story of a Don Quijote who while capable of listening avidly and expectantly to each one of a thousand love stories, could not wait for poor Sancho to finish counting his three hundred goats? And don't you think “the absolute otherness of the feminine” would have sounded like heavenly music in Don Quijote's ears, while he would have found impertinent and even offensive my insistence on the sameness of all those lovely “others”?
     How seriously can one take the reality of a novelistic salvation achieved through such an abstract and sacrificial otherness? At best,

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all one can say, in the case of the deliberative Cervantes, is that he is groping in the midst of all kinds of novelistic cobwebs for even a faint sign, no matter how blurred or distorted, of the real thing. But one cannot possibly believe (or even believe that he believed) that such a contrived salvation is a true image of the real thing.
     Take the case of Rosaura, about whom you “could have included a long section.” The Rosaura “whose role in Life is a Dream has been reduced by Bandera to that of the bringer of violence and disturbance into the court.” I suppose this case interests you because there you have an ambiguous lovely lady if there ever was one. She certainly produced confused responses in male Segismundo. And so there would be no mistake about her ambiguity, Calderón dresses her up “con las galas de Diana y los arneses de Palas,” beautiful and deadly.
     Now, let me ask you, who was “the real woman beneath the images of her” that so confused Segismundo? For a long while he couldn't tell; can you? Or is “the real woman,” “the absolute other,” some sort of transcendental signifier? Surely, you would not want such a male-fabricated, intellectual, even Platonic, concept to define your “real woman.” So perhaps she was all feeling. Then, what kind of feeling? It seems to me she was quite burning with feeling, a feeling of outrage at having been dishonored. In fact, you will no doubt remember, she was determined either to have her honor restored or to kill the one that dishonored her. But that you wouldn't want either, because, my God, it looks so much like the sort of thing that a Calderonian male would feel! So perhaps the “real woman” in her is something ineffable, beyond definition, unique. Well, here again, to judge by the number of Rosaura-likes in romances and epics, such a uniqueness must have been a rather popular and attractive thing, one of the keys to literary success. And how would you then separate the “real woman” from such a literary fascination? For surely you would not want to have your “real woman” so closely associated with the sort of thing that would drive an eager crowd of males to the theater house.
     Furthermore, poor Segismundo, locked up in a tower since he was a baby, hadn't had much of a chance to form an image or an opinion about “the feminine other.” He had thought about a lot of things but, like his father Basilio, he just hadn't thought of that. So it was really quite a test for him. And what was the test? Well, when he was confronted with such an ambiguous and mysterious apparition, his eyes went popping, and his head spinning. And so he stayed rather


confused for a while, not knowing whether he was coming or going, here or there. Until he finally realized (and that's what the test was all about) that the only sensible thing to do was to give up such a fascinating and exasperating personage and compose himself.
     Now, it seems to me that Segismundo's renunciation of ambiguous Rosaura ought to fit your own conception about the impossibility for a male to grasp the “absolute otherness” of the female. But I also think that once you fit it in, it will turn your theory upside down. Because in the context of your theory, Segismundo's gesture can only mean, first, that the ambiguity of the absolute feminine (its good/badness, so to speak) is irreducible in itself, it cannot be pinned down, disentangled, second, that the only sensible thing to do with it is to give it up, since it cannot be either defined or possessed (i.e. it always turns out to be something else or somewhere else), and third, that one gives it up when one gives up one's desire, which also means that the ambiguity of the absolute feminine and the ambiguity of one's own desire are tightly interconnected.
     Both Segismundo and Basilio had learned a lot by the end of the play. Not the least of which was the following: there is some kind of puzzling and central ambiguity in the world of man, some kind of “ley” capable of turning white into black and black into white; when you think you are going you may be coming, and the other way around. And the more you try to unravel that law, the more you get caught in it. So the moral of the story is: don't try to master it, keep your intellectual powers away from it if you want to preserve your sanity, be as humble as you can and do good, because that is the only thing that will escape the ambiguity of the puzzle.
     Ambiguous Rosaura, on the other hand, learned nothing. She just had her way, got what she wanted. The only worldly triumph in the play was hers. Which leads me to suspect that perhaps she is the very symbol of that ambiguous center around which this wretched world turns now white, now black in endless alternations.
     Thus if you want to know the reason why Don Quijote on his death-bed said no to further literary solicitations, and why Cervantes wanted to bury his Don Quijote forever, ask Calderón. He will tell you all about it. I will grant you, though, that Calderón was somewhat more pessimistic than Cervantes about Don Quijote's chances to stay buried or about those of his Rosaura ever to learn anything. I will leave up to you to decide (if you feel you have to decide —something which I do not advise) which of the two has been proven historically more correct in evaluating those chances.

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     There is no way, for you or anybody else, to cut your absolute other clean from its sacrificial roots. On the other hand, perhaps you do not really want to. There are certain things in your article that make me wonder about it. Perhaps you are willing to settle for the fragile and relative security those roots provide. After all, so far, one has always been able to hope that the world would outlive any individual's life, that there would be a posterity to straighten things out. And, of course, that kind of a hope is certainly better than no hope at all. But then, don't call that postponing hope a hope in the absolute because that absolute is indeed very tentative and very relative. We can only be less and less sure about the straightening capabilities of posterity.
     At any rate, whether you really want to cut those sacrificial roots or not, the absolute other that even a mixed-up hope can still call for cannot, by definition, be found within the novel, qua novel, that is to say, qua fiction. If it is truly and absolutely other, it cannot participate at all, it cannot even be tempted to participate in the ambiguous games of desire that, tightly interconnected, constitute the world of the novel, or the real world insofar as it can be reflected in the novel. If such an antisacrificial other is going to be truly and absolutely other than sacrificial, it has to be, by definition, absolutely clean of human blood. Now tell me, for which one of your heroines can you claim such a status? Show me a single one who cannot be tied to the game of desire, and then I will believe that the novel is capable of portraying a true image of the truly absolute other.
     Let's take, for instance, the feminine character that, perhaps you will agree, is the purest and cleanest of all the female characters in the Quijote, the Zoraida-María of the captive's story that, as you well point out, was not “interrupted”; a story, furthermore, that, because of its strong religious content, can be seen as a forerunner of the Persiles; a Zoraida-María just as pure as pure Auristela. And let me ask you, why did you not mention the obviously Christian, religious content and intention of the story which is clearly absent from the other stories? Why you did with such a story what —as you have noticed— I also did in Mimesis conflictiva, that is to say, relate it to, lump it together with the story of Cardenio and Luscinda, Don Fernando and Dorotea? Why indeed did even Cervantes do just that? There is a very good reason for it: formally, within its novelistic context, such a story looks a lot like all the other love stories of mimetic entanglement. It is so incredibly easy to slide from one thing to the other. So easy,


in fact, that the very purity and cleanness of the one becomes the bait, the decoy, through which one also swallows the other and justifies it. And what is it that tangles them up? The novel itself. As soon as the “intención sincera,” the sincerest of intentions, is novelized, made into a beautiful story, it becomes tangled up with all the other stuff. A certain undifferentiation, a certain oscillation of the difference between the two, creeps in, and the sacrificial machine is set in motion.
     Nobody came to know that better than Cervantes. It was that, the insidiousness of this process, that he dramatized in the person of his Auristela, towards the end of the Persiles, as I pointed out in Mimesis conflictiva, obviously not as clearly as I thought I did.
     So let's look again at pure Auristela, a pure girl if there ever was one, who had successfully resisted every assault on her purity, ready to die rather than be soiled. And yet so vulnerable to two things: jealousy (the obvious door to mimetic entanglement), and —can you imagine!— the seducing power of her own purity. A purity which, as soon as she was seduced by it, became something “other” than herself, a fictional image of her, a portrait of her, if you remember. And, as you will also remember, no sooner was she so seduced, turned into the pure heroine of her own novel, than Periandro became another version of suicidal Grisóstomo or crazy Cardenio.
     Don't you think that that was Cervantes' commentary, towards the end of his life, not only on the novelistic otherness of Auristela but also on that of all his other beautiful and pure “female others”? And if pure Auristela could be seduced by her own purity, what hope is there for less pure readers of the beautiful story about Auristela's purity?
     I believe there is real hope in the real world; the problem is that we can be seduced even by hope and turn it into a fiction. And as soon as we do that we step into the realm of the undifferentiated, of the same, out of which all the novelistic heroic characters rise up promising to liberate us from it, but in fact only covering the shifting sands of undifferentiation, postponing once more any real liberation.
     We cannot truly hope through any novelistically beautiful and pure Auristela. If there is real hope in the real world, there has to be somebody somewhere —in other words, not a metaphysical or mystical abstraction— who has absolutely nothing to do with literature. If there is no such real other, then we truly live in a world of fiction, or as it is fashionable to say today, in a world of sheer inter-textuality.

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In other words, I do believe that there is a real world in which, to use the old Spanish saying, you can really call “el pan, pan y el vino, vino.” But the historical possibility of my saying so truthfully, without ultimately deceiving myself, is inseparable from the antisacrificial revelation. Within the parameters of the sacrificial world, the sacrificial mind cannot truthfully say that “el pan es pan y el vino, vino.” When a primitive man (and not so primitive) sacralizes a tree, or a rock, or a river, he is deceiving himself, but there is a tremendous, objective truth supporting his deception. This is why in our modern sacrificial world, literary fiction, fiction-making in general, has become such a privileged access to and reflection of its sacrificial truth. As I have tried to demonstrate elsewhere (“The Doubles Reconciled,” MLN, 93 ([1978], 1007-1140, it is by no means a historical accident that René Girard went from Deceit, Desire, and the Novel to Violence and the Sacred and not the other way around. Within the parameters of the sacrificial world, the ontological difference between a real apple and a fictional apple is ultimately arbitrary. That is to say, it can only be accounted for in a sacrificial manner. The empirical difference between the two remains isolated and does not reveal anything beyond itself. The radical difference between the fictional and the real apple can only be revealing to the extent that we step out of the sacrificial circle.
     There has to be something totally outside the novel even to allow for the historical possibility of the greatest novel, the Quijote, to be written in order to tell us that all novels, including itself, are nothing but “otherness”-producing machines, alienating mechanisms; a novel that tells us that as long as we keep hoping through such fabricated differences we have not truly advanced beyond the “otherness,” the difference-producing mechanism of the most primitive community, all cultural, metaphysical appearances notwithstanding. Which is also the reason —once again— why one must read La vida es sueño in conjunction with the Quijote.
     All this may also help you to understand why a novel such as the Persiles was, historically speaking, so short-lived, as well as the historical meaning of such a short life. Auristela's purity, all by itself, does not make for a good novelistic character. It doesn't look “realistic” enough, by which, of course, we do not really mean realistic, we mean novelistic. And we are right, even to our own detriment. What makes for a good novel is not Auristela's purity, but the seducing power of her purity. As soon as we would see her purity through the


avid eyes of an eager male, for example, it would immediately look beautifully real to us, while we would be enraged at the sex maniac who wants to have his dirty hands on such a real and beautiful thing. We do not want purity in a novel, we want desire, and some dirty rascal on whom to blame it. Novelistically speaking, beautiful and pure maidens only belong in the company of avid males (or females).
     When a novel like the Quijote manages to see through this whole sacrificial mechanism and lifts the veil just a little —not too much (for that would also destroy the novel)— we call such a novel the greatest. And it is, of course. But even its greatness has been so far of no use to us, for we immediately cover it up too, sacralize it, turn it into a genially unapproachable, unfathomable profundity, where no one dares to see the bottom; its ambiguity, its polyvalence, its self-referentiality —whatever— being something inexhaustible. We are so sacrificially determined not to see! All our novelistic thrills depend on it.
     So, maybe you are right, maybe I was too one-sided in Mimesis conflictiva. And I am sure that the reason would be that, as you say, “Bandera himself is caught, fascinated and horrified, by the very violence and unfulfilled desire that he sees as leading inevitably to catastrophe, [and] exposes himself to be judged on the terms by which he has made judgment.” There you are reaching deep, and if you had made of that the center of your argument and stayed with it, you could have deepened Mimesis conflictiva considerably. There your language is fresh, because you are meeting my own concerns head-on, directly, without all those intellectual preservatives that I find elsewhere in your study. There you are talking —to use your own terminology— from the heart. And with good cause, for isn't that exactly what is happening to you, “fascinated and horrified” by what you see in my book?
     We are all sacrificial seers, like Tiresias, like Basilio. And not only the novel, but also the critical discourse about the novel is sacrificial. We only really see to the extent in which we get caught up in what we see. It is just a question of who knows it and who doesn't. Anyone who would likely think that the old saying de te fabula narratur, is an old topos to be understood by analyzing the history of ideas, obviously doesn't. I think you know it, though. And that has made a difference in the way I have framed my reply to you.
     From your article and from your letters I already get a sense of what your new book may look like: Bandera tied to the pillory while

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Ruth El Saffar keeps turning and turning around him (with a few decoying side trips, to be sure, which have always been an integral part of the ritual), and throwing stones at him, while bewailing the need to do so.
     It's all right with me if that's the case. I am sure I deserve it. But you should meditate a little about it, just as I am doing now. What you call “walking a tight-rope” I call turning around the sacrificial altar.
     At any rate, I am sincerely glad to have had this opportunity to rethink my own thoughts, not only, I hope, for my benefit, but also for yours.


P.S.: As I finish this letter, I already begin to realize what my sacrificial discovery of the sacrificial character of the novel is doing to the novel: it is turning it into another absolute other. So perhaps there is real hope in the real world even for the novel, though not in the novel. If this is so, however, it will only come about through an increasing historical realization of its sacrificial character, like everything else. What the form of this new kind of novel may be, I do not know. I do not think anybody does at this moment. And to try to look for it in any of its historical forms so far can only be a dangerous and delaying exercise. Cervantes could not find it either. All he could do, and still all we can do, is clear the way, just clear the way. And I must insist, it is specially dangerous to look for it with our imaginative powers. Blake or no Blake, especially Frye's Blake.

Fred Jehle Publications of the CSA HCervantes