Celestina's Brood: Continuities of the Baroque in Spanish and Latin American Literature

Celestina's Brood: Continuities of the Baroque in Spanish and Latin American Literature

by Roberto González Echevarría

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Published in 1499 and centered on the figure of a bawd and witch, Fernando de Rojas' dark and disturbing Celestina was destined to become the most suppressed classic in Spanish literary history. Routinely ignored in Spanish letters, the book nonetheless echoes through contemporary Spanish and Latin American literature. This is the phenomenon that Celestina's Brood explores.
Roberto González Echevarría, one of the most eminent and influential critics of Hispanic literature writing today, uses Rojas' text as his starting point to offer an exploration of modernity in the Hispanic literary tradition, and of the Baroque as an expression of the modern. His analysis of Celestina reveals the relentless probing of the limits of language and morality that mark the work as the beginning of literary modernity in Spanish, and the start of a tradition distinguished by a penchant for the excesses of the Baroque. González Echevarría pursues this tradition and its meaning through the works of major figures such as Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca, Alejo Carpentier, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, Nicolás Guillén, and Severo Sarduy, as well as through the works of lesser-known authors.
By revealing continuities of the Baroque, Celestina's Brood cuts across conventional distinctions between Spanish and Latin American literary traditions to show their profound and previously unimagined affinity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822396239
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 09/15/1993
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Roberto González Echevarría is Bass Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literatures at Yale University. He is the author of numerous books on Latin American and Spanish literature.

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Celestina's Brood

Continuities of the Baroque in Spanish and Latin American Literatures

By Roberto González Echevarría

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9623-9


Celestina's Brood


[T]he wit with which racy words and concepts are strung together in this book is almost a national catastrophe, because it does not allow one to handle without caution one of our greatest classics.

—Ramiro de Maeztu

Fernando de Rojas's Celestina (1499) is the most suppressed classic in Spanish literary history, and one of the least known outside Hispanic letters. An account of the readings to which this disturbing work has not been subjected in the past hundred years could of itself constitute a monograph. A book in which perverse desire drives the characters, Celestina still awaits a Freudian analysis, as well as an interpretation according to Bataille's theories linking eros, evil, and literature. A story in which lower-class characters bring about the downfall of their masters, Celestina has yet to be subjected to a rigorous Marxist reading. A text in which rhetoric figures so prominently, Celestina has still to undergo a deconstructive dismantling. While it is true that there has been some incisive commentary recently from what could be loosely termed a post-structuralist perspective, what have prevailed in Celestina studies, beyond the ordinary fact-finding and source-hunting scholarship, have been existentialist interpretations, inquiries dependent on Américo Castro's propositions about the role converted Jews played in Spanish cultural history, debates about the sincerity of Rojas's pious intentions as stated in the prologue, and many discussions about the work's genre.

None of the major statements of the century about the origins and nature of the novel deals with Celestina, though Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo included a study of Rojas's work in his Origenes de la novela and Hispanists see it as a precursor to the picaresque. But Georg Lukacs, Erich Auerbach, Michail Bakhtin, and Northrop Frye ignore it altogether, as do others, like Ian Watt and Julia Kristeva. Asa literary model, Celestina has suffered a similar neglect. While Cervantes has an infinite number of imitators in and out of the Hispanic tradition, and Tirso's Don Juan spawned a rich literary and musical following, there are few obvious heirs to Celestina after the beginning of the seventeenth century. In fact, one could say that the last truly worthy follower of Rojas was Cervantes himself in two of his Novelas ejemplares [Exemplary Stories], published in 1613 (see chapter 2 of this book).

Except for the work of Menéndez y Pelayo, and a few other academics, it was not until the Spanish Generation of'98, which did so much to explore and exploit Spanish literary myths, that Celestina was taken up as a force to contend with. Even then, the extent of the reappraisal was limited. There is a beautiful rewriting in Azorín's Castilla (1912), where Calisto and Melibea appear as a very domestic married couple with a daughter named Alisa, after her maternal grandmother, and a nice estate. As is characteristic of Azorín, the emphasis is not on drama or tragedy, but on the tranquil banality of life and the quiet passage of time. After a loving description of the house and garden, Calisto appears and watches as a hawk enters the latter, pursued by a young man who meets the daughter. The story told by Rojas in dramatic, even tragic terms, will be repeated as part of nature's plan to replenish the species. In Azorín the disquieting elements at the core of Rojas's work are neutralized. Ramiro de Maeztu, on the other hand, writes a powerful essay that emphasizes the most disturbing aspects of Celestina, particularly what appear to be its radical immorality and lack of a Christian sentiment, a conception of the world so fatalistic as to be post-Shakespearian. Rojas, according to Maeztu, is a man who has abandoned the faith of his elders, Judaism, but has not accepted that of his nation, Catholicism. At a point in history when he must decide between the two because of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, he writes a work that challenges both religions and exudes despair as well as a complete moral relativism. But that was the extent of the reappraisal of Celestina by the Generation of '98 and the thinkers and writers that followed. Azorín never wrote a whole book on Celestina like his La ruta de don Quijote. Miguel de Unamuno did not feel compelled to write anything resembling his Vida de don Quijote y Sancho about Rojas's masterpiece, and José Ortega y Gasset wrote no book comparable to his Meditaciones del Quijote about Celestina.

It is indeed an ironic paradox that a culture that has produced writers like Juan Ruiz, Rojas, Mateo Alemán, Cervantes, Quevedo, Caviedes, Valle Inclán, and Cela, and that in painting boasts of the likes of Velázquez and Goya, has had precious few critics willing to take on the most radical features in those artists's works. Spanish can boast of a Juan Ruiz, a Rojas, and a Quevedo, but there is no Nietzsche, Freud, or Bataille. It is not simply a question of prudishness. The repression of Celestina is due to its possessing a quality that Cervantes was the first to note, in the most-often quoted statement about the work: "Libro, en mi opinión, divi-[no] Si encubriera más lo huma-[no]" ["would be a divine book, in my view,/if it concealed more the human"]. I take human in its broadest and most caustic Nietzschean sense to mean a congenital immorality, a depravity so deep-seated that only through careful suppression or sublimation can social life endure. Hence, at the origin of modern Spanish literature, in the beginning of what is a rich novelistic tradition, there lies such a shocking, unadorned vision of humankind and of literature itself that it cannot be easily imitated. In fact, except for the many minor works cited by Menéndez y Pelayo and others, which tend to wind up as pornography, Celestina is more often than not averted. This is the reason for Celestina's paltry brood, and perhaps why the figure only reappears in the most recent and experimental Latin American fiction, particularly in four works: Aura (1962) and Terra Nostra (1975) by the Mexican Carlos Fuentes, "La increíble y triste historia de la Cándida Eréndira y de su abuela desalmada" ["The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother"] (1972) by the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, and Cobra (1972) by the Cuban Severo Sarduy.

My title is a pun that plays precisely on the dialectics of infertility and dissemination present in Celestina. It alludes to the bawd's array of potions, ointments, cosmetics, and other drugs with which she brews the philters that will incite others to passion, the paraphernalia to restore hymens and change the appearance of bodies in general, as well as the trappings of her witches' craft. These are skills, substances, and objects that do not lead to reproduction, however, but only to love and pleasure. Though Celestina is often referred to as Mother by her charges, she is childless. She is, at best an aunt, as others call her. Celestina's role is maieutic, rather than maternal, but what she helps bring about is only pleasure or pain or both and ultimately death, never life. A mistress of love, Celestina is hardly the agent of social restoration and continuity. She is the enabler in a commerce of bodies, desires, and reputations that is the opposite and sometimes the parody of the rituals through which society renews itself: courtship and marriage. Celestina's brew works against the brood. In fact, her brew may very well be intended to heighten our awareness and see through the concert of lies that would make up the foundation of those rituals. Celestina's brew is meant to let loose the demons. Her lack of reproduction is also a most powerful critique or representation. There is no faithful mimesis obtained with the brew. In fact, the brew beclouds the mirror and distorts all reflections. The bawd creates an impasse in transmission, an interruption in reproduction, because she is concerned only with the process, not with the result. This impasse is one of the main themes of the work; an impasse within the work that may account for the work's own impasse in literary history, for the scarcity of its brood. What really is Celestina's brood?

It should be obvious, as my epigraph from Maeztu indicates, that a work as salacious as Celestina could not easily become a national literary monument, particularly at the time (Romanticism) when nation-building led to the creation of literary canons. If, according to Maeztu, Celestina is a work that taught Spaniards "how to live without ideals" (p. 145)—one, according to Menéndez y Pelayo, redolent with an "Epicurean pessimism" (3:385)—it could hardly be touted as the expression of national identity, as was Don Quijote. One could hardly expect statues of the old bawd to spring up in Madrid's plazas, alongside those of the mad knight and his squire. Yet, it is clear evidence of Celestina's powerful appeal that the work endures, even as a kind of subterranean classic, condemned to the nether regions of academic specialization. My hardly original point of departure here is that Celestina inaugurates literary modernity in the Spanish-speaking world, or to use Menéndez y Pelayo's revealing metaphor, that it is the "seed" of modern literature, particularly of the novel, that most modern of genres. But I would add that Celestina inaugurates modernity by taking at once to its very limits the radical critique of all values subtending modem works. Celestina's brood is, in that sense, all literature written in the West since 1499. The scarcity of the obvious brood is due to the totality and finality of Celestina's inaugural gesture: a work that has not only opened the dark abyss of modernity, but appears to have filled it all with its gloom, can have no heritage. Even the most recent imitators of Rojas flinch, as shall be seen.


It bears repeating unambiguously that Rojas produced an essentially secular, pessimistic, and drastically negative work at the height of the reign of the Catholic Kings. It is a work that deals with sex, corruption, violence, and general human depravation explicitly, and in which the conventional gestures of acquiescence to the generally accepted morality and religious doctrine are so perfunctory that only the naive or pious could not see their disingenuousness. It is also a work that eschews genres and styles, an amalgam of traditions, a hybrid of comedy, classical dialogue, tragedy, and sentimental romance, in which characters who represent the nobility, or at least the ruling commercial bourgeoisie, commingle not merely with lower-class types (such as peasants) but with the dregs of society: whores, pimps, thieves, and thugs. These characters speak untrammeled by modesty or decorum. The protagonist, whose perseverance in evil and essential humanity, in the sense mentioned, is such as to elicit admiration, is an old whore and go-between, who runs a brothel and arranges for the illicit sexual dealings of people from all ranks of society, including the church. Previously, tragic characters, or characters with Celestina's elevated sense of self, were male and noble. It is impossible to exaggerate how innovative it was to have Celestina be the protagonist of this work and not be simply a comic figure. This is the enduring and indisputable breakthrough of Celestina: that tragedy, or as close to tragedy as can be expected in a world no longer meaningful or heroic, is embodied in an old whore and go-between. Celestina's is the only grandeur in the work, even if sullied by her evil doings and the tawdriness of her world.

In that world, as Dunn has observed, the exchanges between people that constitute human society are largely ruled by greed. All characters ultimately engage in this commerce, in which it is not only goods, but as Mary M. Gaylord has rightly seen, words, that are the most coveted commodity: "Celestina's genius lies not only in her acute sensitivity to the desires of her fellow human beings, but in her recognition of the fact that human desire—physical, sexual, metaphysical—is in large part a hunger for words, a hunger which seeks not only to express itself but also to satisfy itself verbally." From this comes Gaylord's most remarkable insight that Celestina stands for language, the quintessential mediator: "In the Tragico-media, language is the means by which a beginning reaches an end— for Celestina, the manto and cadena; for the servants, sex and money; for Calisto, the possession of Melibea—, but it is also that which fills the space of the play's entertainment (entretenimiento, literally a holding between) and of life. In this sense, Celestina—as the means, the medium, the medianera—is language" (p. 8). But is Celestina truly a vehicle, a relay in that commerce of goods, bodies, and words? What is her true role in the practice of that commerce, and what are its consequences? If commerce rules Celestina, and that commerce is ultimately one of words, conveyors of pleasure and value, then the skein, the girdle, and the chain, those often-discussed objects of exchange in the work, are primarily related to language. They are its emblem. Let us see what they reveal about mediation, exchange, and desire in Celestina.

Much has been written about the three objects, which evidently perform functions beyond their ostensible use. The skein is Celestina's pretext to enter into Melibea's house; the girdle is the article of clothing Melibea agrees to send Calisto to relieve his toothache; and the gold chain is the final gift Calisto gives Celestina in payment for her services. Of the three, the girdle is the one that most obviously acquires significance beyond its primary use, as it becomes the object of Calisto's enraptured adoration in a memorable scene. But the chain, over whose possession Celestina eventually dies, is equally important. And there can be little doubt as to the skein's relevance the moment one sees it in relation to the other two and takes into account the rest of Celestina's activities, namely mending virginities, in which thread, and other instruments associated with sewing are used.

Javier Herrero has unveiled the historical and cultural sources and connotations of the skein and the girdle, linking them to the language of carnal love and witchcraft. He sees Melibea's girdle as "simply one more case of this magical binding which was a commonplace of popular witchcraft in the Spanish Renaissance and Golden Age." A. D. Deyermond has taken the case a bit further by showing that there is a significant sequence or pattern of exchange: "girdle is exchanged for gold chain, just as skein had been exchanged for girdle." This pattern would explain for the critic the behavior of the characters, who upon coming into contact with the bewitched object, begin to act in ways that are apparently atypical. Melibea surrenders soon after she touches the skein, Calisto goes berserk when he comes into contact with the girdle, and Celestina relaxes her wariness when she gets the chain. To Deyermond this pattern accounts for the odd actions of the characters, which are caused by the pact Celestina makes with the Devil: "If ... we accept that the Devil entered Calisto's body as soon as he touched the girdle, just as he had done with Alisa and Melibea on contact with the skein of thread, then his frenzy becomes explicable as part of a pattern" (p. 8). And "What of the chain and Celestina? As soon as she has received it as a reward for bringing the girdle to Calisto, she too starts to behave uncharacteristically" (p. 9).

Herrero's illuminating observations provide excellent contextual material and philological commentary, while Deyermond's show the sequence of an undeniable pattern of exchange, perhaps even a teleology. But the contextual material on witchcraft and the philological clarification concerning the contemporary meanings of words cannot fully explain how these elements function once inside the text of Celestina. A literary work is not the sum of its sources, nor the total of its linguistic debt, but more often the balance of how those sources and debts perform once taken outside their original context. To my mind, the witchcraft hypothesis is weak because it withdraws autonomy from the characters and thus detracts from the meaningfulness of their actions. If Melibea, Calisto, and Celestina are under some sort of spell that overcomes their will and judgment, then the story is not one of human action, but a kind of fairy tale, no matter how tawdry. Besides, Calisto did not need the girdle to rage madly; he does that on his own even before Celestina appears on the scene. And there is no evidence to suppose that Melibea, before Celestina knocks at her door (not for the first time by the way), was a demure virgin whose resistance is weakened by a magic spell. Celestina herself does not have to be bedeviled by the gold chain to act imprudendy. Her refusal to part with the chain is simply the culmination of a series of selfish acts that lead her accomplices to slay her. They had planned all along to take the goods from her by force if necessary: "que de grado o por fuerza nos dará de lo que [Calisto] le diere" (p. 143) ["Who by her will or by force will give us our part of her earnings"].


Excerpted from Celestina's Brood by Roberto González Echevarría. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Preamble 1

1. Celestina's Brood 7

2. The Life and Adventures of Cipión: Cervantes and the Picaresque 45

3. Poetry and Painting in Lope's El castigo sin venganza 66

4. Caledrón's La vida es sueño: Mixed-(Up) Monsters 81

5. Threats in Caledrón: La vida es sueño 1:303-8 114

6. Reflections on the Espejo de paciencia 128

7. Poetics and Modernity in Juan de Espinosa Medrano, Known as Lunarejo 149

8. Socrates Among the Weeds: Blacks and History in Carpentier's El siglo de las luces 170

9. Guillén as Baroque: Meaning in Motivos de son 194

10. Plain Song: Sarduy's Cobra 212

Notes 239

Index 273

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