Cervantes' Christian Romance: A Study of Persiles y Sigismunda

Cervantes' Christian Romance: A Study of Persiles y Sigismunda

by Alban K. Forcione


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ISBN-13: 9780691619750
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Essays in Literature
Pages: 178
Sales rank: 889,618
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.50(d)

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Cervantes' Christian Romance

A Study of Persiles y Sigismunda

By Alban K. Forcione


Copyright © 1972 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06213-6


Imitation and Innovation


THE Persiles "ha de ser o el [libro] más malo o el mejor que en nuestra lengua se haya compuesto, quiero decir de los de entretenimiento; y digo que me arrepiento de haber dicho el más malo, porque según la opinión de mis amigos, ha de llegar al estremo de bondad posible. In this judgment we can hear the voice of Cervantes the ironist calmly considering the contiguity of the antithetical possibilities. We can also hear the voice of the writer nervously recognizing that his work is radical in character and that, like all literary innovations, it must face up to the possibility of complete failure. Cervantes' earlier pronouncement concerning his final work is equally ambivalent but much more revealing: "libro que se atreve a competir con Heliodoro, si ya por atrevido no sale con las manos en la cabeza." The author fears that the offspring of his inventiveness, education, and imitation may be deformed. The metaphor has a classical ring, recalling the monstrosity to which Horace likened poems composed haphazardly and perhaps also Aristotle's description of the tragic plot as a body which can be embraced in a single view. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the analogy was repeated by literary theorists, and it was generally used in reference to the structure or disposition of the plot of epic and tragic poetry. The Spanish neo-Aristotelian Francisco Cascales criticized improperly constructed plots by paraphrasing Horace: "Como sueños de enfermos se describen / Sin que conforme el pie con la cabeza," and the Italian Giraldi compared the well-composed poem to a body, its subject to the skeleton, its episodes and their arrangement to the members, nerves, and ligaments, and its variety of colors to the soft skin. In voicing his fears, Cervantes is revealing that what he considers most radical in the Persiles is its highly complex disposition.

It is probable that Cervantes was attempting in the Persiles to resolve an aesthetic difficulty which had troubled him from the beginning of his career as a writer. His continuing concern about the problem of disposition in a work of art is easy to trace. In the prologue to the Galatea he admits that there are weaknesses in the construction of the work and asks the reader to excuse them. His judgment of the early work becomes harsher in the first part of the Quixote, where he writes that "su libro tiene algo de buena invención; propone algo, y no concluye nada," alluding undoubtedly to its unfinished state and the maze of incomplete narrative threads in which the reader finds himself enmeshed at the conclusion of the romance. It is interesting that in the Viage del Parnaso Cervantes heaps praise upon himself for his powers of inventio, but makes no mention of the second major category of rhetorical writing, dispositio.

Concern about criticism (undoubtedly Aristotelian in its orientation) of the episodic structure of the first part of the Quixote prompts Cide Hamete's discussion of the episodic "flaws" of the work in Part II and his decision to limit his wandering imagination to the treatment of "un solo sujeto" and to introduce only episodes which are "nacidos de los mesmos sucesos" (II, 848-849). Although Cide Hamete is certainly half-serious in such obvious con- cessions to Aristotle, Cervantes never employs in Part II the loose manner of inserting an episode which his critics had attacked in the Curioso impertinente and the Capitán cautivo episodes of Part I.

The concessions which Cide Hamete ironically makes to the Aristotelians on the question of the episode are in the Canon of Toledo's discourse on the romances of chivalry the serious literary principles underlying his theory of unity. Invoking the familiar analogy, he laments that he has never seen a romance "que haga un cuerpo de fabula entero con todos sus miembros, de manera que el medio corresponda al principio, y el fin al principio y al medio" and adds that all have "tantos miembros, que mas parece que llevan intención a formar una quimera o un monstruo que a hacer una figura proporcionada" (I, 482). The canon appears to be more concerned with flaws in verisimilitude than with flaws in unity in romances and does not go into detail as to exactly how the desired proportion in plot is to be achieved by the writer, a matter which aroused a vast amount of theoretical activity among Cervantes' contemporaries. Nevertheless, his use of the body analogy, his emphasis on structural tightness in the relationship between the beginning, middle, and end of a plot, and his adverse judgment of the boundless variety of the books of chivalry identif y h:is position unmistakably with that of the Aristotelian critics of Ariosto and the other romancers on the question of unity.

Attempting to meet the compositional demands of the neoclassical literary school, Cervantes in the Persiles turned to a model which was universally praised for its flawless structure. It is worth considering what Renaissance theorists observed in Heliodorus' narrative methods. The first to comment on them was the French translator of the Aethio pica, Jacques Amyot, in 1547:

... la disposition en est singuliere: car il commence au mylieu de son histoire, comme font les Poëtes Heroïques. Ce qui cause de prime face vn grand esbahissement aux lecteurs, & leur engendre vn passionné desir d'entendre le commencement: & toutes-fois il les tire si bien par l'ingenieuse liaison de son conte, que l'on n'est point resolu de ce que l'on trouue tout au commencement du primier liure iusques à ce que l'on ayt leu là fin du cinquiesme. Et quand on en est la venu, encore a l'on plus grande enuie de voir la fin, que l'on n'auoit au parauant d'en voir le commencement: De sorte que tousiours l'entendement demeure suspendu, iusques à ce que l'on vienne à la conclusion, laquelle laisse le lecteur satisfait, de la sorte que le sont ceux, qui à la fin viennent à iouyr d'vn bien ardemment desiré, & longuement atendu.

In his treatment of the rules for epic disposition Julius Caesar Scaliger repeated the familiar demand for the in-medias-res beginning while making another, based on Aristotle's discussion of the epic poet's license to incorporate into his work varying but relevant episodes to relieve the hearer of the boredom that the poet would inevitably arouse if he limited himself to the narration of the main plot. The poet must employ interruptions and fragmentations of the major narrative thread for the sake of holding the hearer in suspense and arousing in him admiratio through the variety which episodes afford. Scaliger concludes his arguments by invoking Heliodorus' Aethiopica: "Quern librum epico Poetae censeo accuratissime legendum, ac quasi pro optimo exemplari sibi proponendum." Similarly Tasso saw in Heliodorus a master of the elusive technique of fragmentary exposition: "Il lasciar I'auditor sospeso, procedendo dal confuso al dist'into ... è arte perpetua di Virgilio; è questa è una de le cagioni che fa piacer tanto Eliodoro." Claiming to have employed the technique many times in this work, Tasso points to the history of Erminia in the Liberata: in the 'third canto of his poem the reader discovers "alcuna ombra di confusa notizia" about the maiden; "più distinta cognizione se n'ha nel sesto; particolarissima se n'avrà per sue parole nel penultimo canto." It is well to note how Tasso's words on his development of 'the Ermin'ia narrative thread could be applied to Cervantes' exposition of the history of Periandro- Persiles and Auristela-Sigismunda, which is offered to the reader in shadowy fragments and is fully illuminated only in the final chapter of his work. El Pinciano's poetics presents all of these analyses of Heliodorus' narrative methods and adds something new. The plot of the Aethiopica is a perfect example of Aristotle's formula for the plot of tragedy — the complication and the unraveling. The knot of complication is tightened until there seems to be no way of unraveling it. However, the skillful poet leaves a "cabo de donde asir," and at the moment of highest tension the knot is unraveled and the catastrophe or peripeteia occurs, bringing a relaxation of tension. Heliodorus surpasses Virgil in the process of "atar y desatar," for despite its length his work presses toward the final peripeteia, which is accompanied by a most artfully constructed recognition, with ever increasing tension. Implicit in all these judgments of Heliodorus' narrative techniques — the inmediasres construction, the delayed exposition, the fragmentation of the narrative through episodic additions, and the peripeteia and recognition-is the theorists' admiration for coherence, tightness, and, above all, suspense a:s literary qualities.

A glance at the Persiles reveals that Cervantes' major debt to Heliodorus and the theorists who analyzed his methods lies in his use of delayed exposition both through the in-medias-res beginning in his introduction of individual narrative threads and in the subsequent fragmentation of their development by the introduction of other threads. The process is visible both in the major line of narration, the adventures of the protagonists, whose identity and motives are not fully disclosed until the final chapters of the work, and in the numerous secondary lines of narration, the episodes.

The episode of Feliciana de la Voz demonstrates the narrative methods of the Persiles very well. As the protagonists journey through Extremadura, a rider emerges from the darkness, deposits an infant with the group of pilgrims, and disappears. Almost immediately thereafter a disheveled woman staggers into the group and begs for protection and food. Some shepherds of the region hide her in a hollow tree trunk, and on the following morning she reveals that she has given birth to an illegitimate child and is being pursued by her vengeful father and brother. Following the clarification of the preceding events, the narration shifts to another episode, and only after its completion does it return to the persecuted mother. The pilgrims visit the monastery of the Virgin of Guadalupe where, much to their surprise, they witness the climactic moment of Feliciana's ordeals. The avenging brother, the father of the infant, and the populace converge on the mother before .the altar of the Virgin, and the moments of danger, reconciliation, and rejoicing quickly follow.

The brief episode separating the first and second appearances of Feliciana is essentially the same in structure. As if in recollection of Tasso's recommendations on episodic integration, Cervantes' narrator introduces the episode as an obstacle in his heroes' path: "... nunca los buenos deseos Hegan a fin dichoso sin estorbos que los impidan, quiso el cielo que el de este hermoso escuadrón ... fuese impedido con el estorbo que agora oireis." The group of pilgrims is resting beside a brook when a young man transfixed by a sword staggers forth from the foliage and collapses. After discovering a small picture of a woman and some lines of poetry in his possession and assuming that he is a victim of a love intrigue, the startled pilgrims find themselves surrounded by the officers of the Santa Hermandad, who arrest them as murderers and throw them into prison. After the protagonists have been threatened with torture and the narrator has used the opportunity for some satirical thrusts at bureaucrats, an innkeeper appears to clarify the death of the young man, Diego de Parraces, and allow the release of the captives. The clarification is barely satisfying; for it reveals merely that a relative of the young man committed the murder. Nothing is said of motive or circumstances. This event illustrates how brief and undeveloped the episodes of the Persiles can be, how the process of fragmentary exposition and subsequent clarification is maintained even in the briefest episode, how weak the links binding episode to main plot can be, and how self-conscious the narrator can be in drawing attention to the legitimacy of the links.

In the episodes above, the subsequent clarification follows closely on the introductory fragment, and the curiosity that is occasioned in the reader is quickly satisfied. However, in the introduction of other episodes, Cervantes offers an illumination of the obscure fragments only af ter much delay. The episode of Augustina Ambrosia begins with the puzzling encounter of the pilgrims with a cart bearing thirteen prisoners to the galleys. In it they observe a despairing young man who has covered his face with axle grease and has determined to die of hunger. The compassionate Constana offers the youth a tin of fruit, and the wanderers continue on their way to Valencia. There they survive an attack by Turks, who pillage and burn a town and assault its church before departing with their plunder and their accomplices, the treacherous local moriscos. Following this long episode, the pilgrims journey to Barcelona and on the way meet a beautiful shepherdess, who steps forth from a grove of trees, challenges the company with an enigma concerning love and jealousy, and promptly disappears into the grove. On arriving in Barcelona, they visit the harbor, where unexpectedly a beautiful woman emerges from a group that has just disembarked, approaches Constana, recounts the story of her life, and reveals that she was the "youth" whom Constana had aided on the road to Valencia. A similar case of such delayed clarification occurs in the Isabela Castrucho episode, which is introduced by a description of the maiden's entourage as it passes the pilgrims and the brief comments of one of her servants, who asks them for some water. We learn only that Isabela's father is dead and that her rich uncle is escorting her to Italy, where he intends to marry her against her will. After affording us a brief glimpse of Isabela, the narrative shifts to the thread of Bartolomé's and Luisa's fatal passion, then to the arrival of the pilgrims in Milan, and finally to a discussion of love and jealousy. At this point the fragment concerning the unwilling bride is picked up, as the pilgrims arrive in Lucca and witness the successful deception of the uncle by the young girl and her beloved.

If it is obvious that the fundamental narrative method of the Persiles derives from Heliodorus, it is no less obvious that Cervantes employs that method to produce a work of much greater complexity than the Aethiopica. It is as if he were testing the limits of the method in full awareness that he was running the risk of seeing his creation disintegrate into chaos. Two of the most radical structural features of the Persiles, both the result of the Heliodorean technique of fragmentary exposition and subsequent clarification, could be described as extreme involution and nodes of extreme complication. The work is full of characters' narrations of past events — stories within the story — and such stories are generally fragmented by the continuing development of the main plot. This common feature of the Greek romances is complicated in the Persiles as occasionally the reported story contains the report of another character — thus, the story within the story within the story. The outstanding example of this type of involuted construction is in Periandro's recitation at the court of King Policarpo, when his description of his encounters with Sulpicia and King Leopoldio contains their accounts of their misfortunes.

If such involution taxes the patience and the memory of the reader, the nodes of extreme complication push his curiosity toward the limits beyond which it ceases to be pleasurable. Events always follow one another at a very rapid pace in the Persiles. When several occur nearly simultaneously and the circumstances leading to them are to be clarified subsequently, we witness a node of extreme complication. The outstanding example is in Book III: a woman falls from a tower, a man struggles with another woman at its top, Periandro ascends the tower to save her, both he and the woman's assailant plunge to the earth below, a group of horsemen appears and attempts to abduct one of the companions of the protagonists, and the youthful Antonio drives them off with his arrows. Nothing in the narration has pointed toward these various occurrences, and it is only in the subsequent chapter, which introduces two separate narrative threads, those of the madman in the tower and the attacking horsemen, that the reader learns the identity and the motivation of the participants in the violent scene.


Excerpted from Cervantes' Christian Romance by Alban K. Forcione. Copyright © 1972 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Preface, pg. v
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Introduction, pg. 1
  • Chapter One. Imitation and Innovation, pg. 13
  • Chapter Two. Plot, pg. 64
  • Chapter Three. Episodes, pg. 108
  • Chapter Four. Literature in the Quixote and the Persiles, pg. 149
  • Epilogue. The Poet's Farewell: Where Life and Literature Meet, pg. 157
  • Index, pg. 165

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