From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 5.1 (1985): 59-63.
Copyright © 1985, The Cervantes Society of America

On the Importance of Being Earnest: A Reply to Cesáreo Bandera*


. . . there is from of old a quarrel between philosophy and poetry.

Mi intento ha sido poner en la plaza de nuestra república una mesa de trucos, donde cada uno pueda llegar a entretenerse, sin daño de barras; digo sin daño ni del alma ni del cuerpo, porque los ejercicios honestos y agradables, antes aprovechan que dañan.

Sí, que no siempre se está en los templos; no siempre se ocupan los oratorios; no siempre se asiste a los negocios, por calificados que sean. Horas hay de recreación, donde el afligido espíritu descanse.

Het drama, opperste en zinrijkste uiting der poëzie, behoudt zyn hooge spelkarakter tot het einde toi.

Spel is ouder dan cultuur . . .

Una fiesta hacer quiero
a mi mismo poder, si considero
que sólo a ostentación de mi grandeza
fiestas hará la gran naturaleza,
y como siempre ha sido
lo que más ha alegrado y divertido
la representación bien aplaudida
y es representación la humana vida,
una comedia sea
la que hoy en tu teatro vea

Qu'on ne dise pas que je n'ai rien dit de nouveau: la disposition des matières est nouvelle; quand on joue à la paume, c'est une même balle dont joue l'un et l'autre, mais l'un la place mieux.

Tous les grands divertissements sont dangereux pour la vie chrétienne; mais entre tous ceux que la monde a inventés, il n'y en a point que soit plus à craindre que la comédie.

Tragedy, as it was anciently compos'd, hath ever been held the gravest, moralest and most profitable of all other Poems . . .

     * This is a response to Cesáreo Bandera's review article, “About ‘Female’ Art, ‘Male Silence’, and the Frivolous in General”, Cervantes 5.1 (1985): 45-57.



. . . the poet too must become a pharmakos. This situation goes unperceived by rationalist and humanist critics. Their pursuit of what one might perhaps call “the meaning of meaning” leads them away from the source of tragic inspiration and away from undifferentiated violence.

IN Violence and the Sacred, René Girard writes that: “The City of Athens prudently kept on hand a number of unfortunate souls, whom it maintained at public expense, for appointed times as well as in certain emergencies. Whenever some calamity threatened . . . there was always a pharmakos at the disposal of the community” (p. 94). Although somewhat perplexed as to whether Calderón: The Secular Plays constitutes an emergency or an appointed time, I, languishing at public expense in the dungeons of Arizona, find that the handling of my book and me in the previous pages, opaque and ill-composed as they are, amounts to an academic rite of sacrifice for the spiritual well-being of one exceedingly small interpretative community. Intellectual violence has been done to my thought in behalf of a peculiar notion of the sacred. At first, like any victim, one feels bewildered at being ritually abused. But, as anyone who has ever been a captive knows, one of the great resources of a prisoner is inwardness and self-containment, that solipsism so rightly dreaded by Girard. In not a few such solipsistic moments, then, I have meditated on the aggressions of my assailant and have come to understand them.
     The notion of society as something both primordial and sacred has dominated French interpretative thought since Molière's Misanthrope. Even that misfit Rousseau was enraged when Diderot characterized him as bad because Rousseau lived apart. But of course Rousseau's preoccupation was with a society to which he would not have to feel hostile. Similarly, for René Girard society is the indispensable critical context. Athens comes first, we pharmakoi last. And, as my reference to the exalted status of the community as created and guaranteed by the debased condition of those victims who supposedly ensure its health makes clear, this society is a nonarchical one based on religion and one in which there are infinite gradations of degree. Even the most casual reader of the memoirs of the Duke of Saint-Simon will recognize this world with its rivalry for difference and distinction, its pursuit of tabourets de grâce and of a better position in the funeral procession of coaches. But many a reader will also recognize at least one of its alternatives in a withdrawal from the tyrannies of society

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into the interiorities of monasteries like that austere one founded by Saint-Simon's friend M. de la Trappe. Even in Saint-Simon, then, religion is previous to and greater than society, which looks frivolous once it is abandoned for an observantine cloister. Girard posits, however, quite another ordonnance. Community bringing together humans and their hostilities is primeval. Community as the conflictive catchment for that aggressiveness which fundamentally characterizes the species is thus his commanding idea. Next in the sequence comes that violence which is the inevitable result of social grouping —the plague, catastrophe, or calamity. And third in the series comes the tragic sacrificial cure —the immolation of the pharmakoi, the rise about them of the sacred. Accounts of this genetic event must, according to Girard, always mask and misapprehend it. Art therefore conceals reality rather than revealing it: “In order to retain its structuring influence, the generative violence must remain hidden; misapprehension is indispensable to all religious or postreligious structuring.” Generative violence is thus the core, and the corps, of one vast monomyth of origin: “All religious rituals spring from the surrogate victim, and all the great institutions of mankind, both secular and religious, spring from ritual. Such is the case . . . with political power, legal institutions, medicine, the theater, philosophy and anthropology itself” (p. 306). Moreover, this “single mechanism . . . [is] continually functioning because perpetually misunderstood” (p. 299). Girard unmistakably subordinates society, culture, and art to a violent tragic vision, by turning away from which those only fortify and renew, as he would have it. Thus aversion from the tragic is what Pascal would call, generally, “divertissement,” and specifically, “la comédie.” Like him, Girard castigates both.
     In Calderón: The Secular Plays I have quite consciously and methodically interpreted the narrative and the dramatic art of Cervantes and of Calderón as moving apart from the tragic sense in which it nonetheless so richly abounds. For both, I think, the tragic is a datum in their distance from which, a distance ever so intimate, a comic or, better, comedic vision is generated. Since the comic parodies the tragic, it necessarily misapprehends it or at least misrepresents it. The purpose of the distortion is liberation and, ultimately, domination of the dominant. Guard would say that this misreading simply increases tragic potency, which is wise when one considers how often power has been reduced or destroyed by ridicule. Now the usual view of Calderón and Cervantes is that their art, though ludic, is ultimately


subordinate to religion and society. Don Quijote's exemplary death would, for example, be adduced to support such an understanding. I would argue to the contrary in terms of art, which not only in Cervantes but well before, in Manrique's Coplas, appropriates the ultimate moral reality —death— in the form of the ars moriendi. Grisóstomo stages death, as does Basilio, as does Don Quijote himself. Similarly, in El gran teatro del mundo Calderón theatricalizes human destiny and God's part in it. Life becomes fiesta, holy day and holiday, the sacred and an evasion of the sacred. His characters do not stay at home in Pascal's room to meditate on death. They embark on that sanctified escape, a pilgrimage, and find death along the pathways of divertissement, with varying fortune in the afterlife yet having experienced the enormous consolation of a non-violent society along the road. This pilgrimage, this perpetual motion so detested by Pascal, is the basic structure also of Cervantine narration, the multiple salidas of the novelas and the Quijote culminating in that magnificent romería which is the Persiles, in which art masters a congruent morality. In this dual approach to a non-tragic dispensation, Cervantes and Calderón also begin to overhaul the previous subordination of the female to the male. Women in their works come to the fore, perhaps because they realize that women are less addicted to ritual sacrifice than are men. Modern tragedy for both writers centers on honor, and honor on the female victim. Comedy is a surrogation of tragic immolation. In El galán fantasma, the duke of Saxony does not quite murder his rival, and the competitor and the woman the duke and his rival both desire are banished, the Platonic, rather than executed, the Athenian solution.
     Comedy in Cervantes and Calderón by and large turns the tables on the tragic and so comes to dominate that by which it had once been dominated. Though very close indeed to a much darker ancient perspective, this is a modern outlook, what my antagonist would call “liberal optimist” or “secular humanist.” Girard's strategy is to use the very same technique against the comic vision so as to return it to a tragic anthropological monomyth over which he himself is dominant. Speaking of the quarrel between Tiresias and Oedipus, he writes that “Truth is on the side of Tiresias and of that interpretation in depth which turns the tables on a former interpreter,” but prudently adds “Are we so sure that this is the end of the road?” So far as I am concerned it is not. Yet I strongly suspect that Girard feels that he has completed his journey, or should I say pilgrimage? His will have been an Odyssey rather than an Iliad, a return rather than an advance:

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“Far from subordinating religion to sport or play (as does Huizinga in Homo Ludens), we must subordinate play to religion, and in particular to the sacrificial crisis” (p. 154). “Huizinga's famous theory of play should be inverted. It is not play that envelops the sacred, but the sacred that envelops the notion of play” (p. 312). But even though Calderón declares that “no hay más fortuna que Dios,” fiesta dominates his theatrical cosmos, as it does Cervantes fictive world in which “no siempre se está en los templos.” My own critical posture is one of subordination to the text, an attitude which my antagonist characterizes as “frivolous” and “meaningless.” Yet in treating the text with no small degree of reverence I believe I avoid that tyrannical struggle for interpretative dominance which would not only subordinate me to a monomyth but would also take my hermeneutical license away on grounds of levity. To try to suppress and silence others in the name of an unproven theory of the sacred is no mere academic dispute. It is a deadly game.


Prepared with the help of Myrna Douglas
Fred Jehle Publications of the CSA HCervantes