DIVIDUALS

THE SPLIT HUMAN AND HUMANIST SPLIT
 IN EARLY MODERN SPANISH LITERATURE
 

Centenary juniper split by lightning
near Maranchón, Spain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                  

                                                                                  BY

                                                               JULIO BAENA

                            PROFESSOR, DEPARTMENT OF SPANISH AND PORTUGUESE

                                     (UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER, USA)

                                                           ISBN: 978-1-952799-15-0

                                                        Photo: JULIO BAENA 

                                          Photo: DIEGO BAENA 

                                                                                         

        In the post-humanist era, we run the risk of becoming simple algorithms. “Individuality” is a venomous notion tied to this somber forecast. Just by chance, in the last State of the Union Address, the president, triumphant over any and all impeachment procedures, said that “freedom unifies the soul.” It made me shudder to think about the consequences of such “unified soul” (Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer) dependent on the peculiar notion of freedom that today’s Trumps or Bolsonaros or Putins have. Our current isolation due to the coronavirus only takes to the extreme the dictatorship of the algorithm: each one (each little unified One) of us in our own little square via Zoom.

Dividuals explores the other side, or hidden side of modern subjectivity, as seen in (mostly four) early modern Spanish classics. Veering away from the hypertrophied notions of individuality and identity, which constitute the bases of our own post-humanism and even anti-humanism, this essay looks into how, as humans, and as humanists, we have a long history of showing dividuality, a never-ending split in our beings. The split manifests itself in the humanist’s split between historicist, socio-economic explanations of subjectivity (i.e.: how “modern man” is historically bound to a time, a space, and a specific mode of production/ideology), of which Marxism has been the most characteristic expression, and explanations of subjectivity in which, on the contrary, the human psyche emerges every day of every era in relation to more universal traits such as language (i.e.: how “modern man” was always “there” as long as the construction of individuality depends on language and its endless signifying mechanics), of which psychoanalysis is the main discourse. But the split also manifests itself in the deeply contradictory nature of Don Quixote, Celestina, Lazarillo, or Diana.

        The split, then, can be seen as a split between production economy vs. libidinal economy, or between desire and need, or between love and food, or between idealism and materialism, or between character and fate, as Benjamin put it; or between acquisitive time and consumptive time, as Ferlosio saw, or between being and being other, as García Calvo or Levinas discuss.

        But Dividuals is not a pure book on philosophy. To the “philosopher’s desire,” as Egginton described it, it adds “the story-teller’s desire.” This book’s specific subject matter or corpus are the classics of 16th Century Spanish literature. It does not try to do a Marxist or psychoanalytical reading of these classics (that has already been done and is of less interest to its author). What Dividuals is doing, instead, is a reading of the classics in modern philosophy (Marx or Lacan or Guattari or Žižek) in the light of La Celestina, or Don Quixote or Lazarillo de Tormes, or Jorge de Montemayor’s La Diana. It attempts to show how the unsolvable contradictions that prevent humanism from explaining “Man”—and even more so “Woman”—are inherent to humanism, and to humans, and were there before and simultaneously with the shifts in ideology or socio-economic bases. It is in the classics of narrative that we find this fundamental dividuality, better perhaps than in the thoughts of the best philosophers, because philosophers, even post-modern or post-human ones, are supposed to make sense, when good stories are not so obliged. Good stories are good places in which to show contradiction (unsolved contradiction) as such, as close to the Real as can be. Only in stories can the old pirate actually get away with explaining how he lost his leg in both a battle with a Spanish galleon and a shark off a cove, answering to the sceptic’s remark “Aye, laddie, that too!”

        The author limits himself to his area of expertise (Renaissance and Baroque Spanish literature). The analysis is not extrapolated to the classics of France or England or Italy. Perhaps a parallel analysis of such texts in the same vein would yield identical results, or perhaps not so. That is another issue: the issue of how “Spain is different,” and different from what (it would be a matter of exploring whether or not Spain is, as Paul Julian Smith famously put it, “the woman of Europe”).

        From the corpus of Spanish classics, Dividuals focuses on four, with incursions into a few others. Using the heuristic formula/tool “Lazarillo is to Marx as Diana is to Freud,” a “diamond” is formed using Celestina (1499) and Don Quixote (1605) as the horizontal beginning and end of the 16th Century. In both, “Marx” and “Freud” (or “labor” and “desire,” or “fate and character,” etc.) can be seen as complements to one another and as unresolved opposites. But in the middle of the century, Lazarillo (picaresque) and Diana (pastoral) seem to completely diverge, going in opposite directions (they constitute the upper and lower corners of the diamond). Zero (or close to zero) “love” in Lazarillo (100% toil and material needs); zero (or close to zero) toil in Diana (100% love issues).  The obvious split of these issues as seen in the radical split of narrative genres post-Celestina and pre-Quixote is an obvious symptom of the fundamental split, of the dividuality that resides in any phantasmagoric “individuality” or “identity.” But the terms of the split, however, refuse to be absolute monads themselves. Parts of the study focus on how there is a political economy in the pastoral Arcadia, after all, or how in a love-less story such as Lazarillo we find a few tears, a few leaks of the body or of “the soul” into the dog-eat-dog world, or how a text like La lozana andaluza both follows and contradicts Celestina and both precedes and contradicts Lazarillo.

A peculiarity of this book is that it is structured in many small units of analysis (mini essays), rather than in a few long chapters. These sections analyze specific aspects of duality, with the results of the analysis going back to the general discussion, which interrupts and refocuses the specific analyses in the form of paseo or promenade, as the central theme of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an exhibition does between each picture. This paseo is Dividuals’ “peripatetic” counterpart to a pure Platonic symposium in which everyone invited would be sitting at the table. Dividuals is conceived as a “moving symposium” in which, unlike in Plato’s gatherings, there will be no “Socrates” to always have the last word. The mini essays and the paseo interludes combine into one large essay with no chapters.

The author thinks that there is one other aspect of this book that makes it an original and necessary contribution. Dividuals gives voice to magnificent Spanish contemporary thinkers who belong in the same league as Žižek or Levinas but who are virtually unknown in North American academia. It is time, perhaps, that American scholars and students can be persuaded to read them.

Baena’s previous books have been all written in his native Spanish language. But after some colleagues who couldn’t read Spanish asked him if a translation was available, and after having written some articles in English with little intervention from the copy editor, he decided to write Dividuals in English. His intended reader is somewhat different from his previous one. The intended reader now doesn’t necessarily read Spanish, or hasn’t necessarily read Don Quixote or La Diana, but s/he is interested in its main theme (the dividuality of humans and humanism) and in the Spanish culture through its masterpieces.

                                                                                  

 

  Julio Baena with his Mother, circa 1960.

                                                        Julio Baena's House in Maranchón, Spain    Photo: Javier Fraile

Julio Baena with Ernesto Cardenal, Puerto Rico, 2001.

Julio Baena in the Early 1970's.

Julio Baena is a Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he has taught for almost his entire academic career. A stubborn practitioner of critique as necessarily theoretical, and of theory as necessarily critical, he interacts with the Spanish early modern classics as our contemporary, relevant interlocutors. In his articles, books, and graduate seminars about Cervantes, Góngora, the Spanish mystics, the picaresque, and many other early-modern Spanish issues, it is the critical theoretical issues that arise from both close reading and attention to the cultural matrixes of texts (of novels, or poems) that supersede any and all philological rigor (mortis). Nicknamed by some of his graduate students “the Heretic,” Baena has often heard from them (now his colleagues and friends) that he taught them how to read.

A Spaniard by birth and upbringing, life had him move to Venezuela in 1975, and to the United States in 1980. An atheist, he graduated from two Catholic institutions: Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas, and then Georgetown University, where he received his Ph.D. An unrepentant leftist, he is an engaged American citizen. Uprooted time and again for much of his life, he has not moved from the University of Colorado Boulder since 1989. At home, in his library, hanging from a simple nail on the wall, he keeps the sword given to his great-grandfather, a schoolteacher, by the Gloriosa Revolución of 1868. The sword is mostly symbolic (no enemies were ever killed by it). The school and the teaching, the thinking and the writing are Baena’s weapons of choice.

        Dividuals is the (lucky) thirteenth book signed by Baena (his fifth scholarly monograph). His previous books are Quehaceres con Góngora (2011), Discordancias cervantinas (2003), El círculo y la flecha: principio y fin, triunfo y fracaso del Persiles (1996), and El poemario de Fray Luis de León, (1989). He also put together a collection of essays by his former students centered around a memorable seminar on Cervantes’ Novelas ejemplares (Novelas ejemplares: las grietas de la ejemplaridad—2008), and co-edited two scholarly volumes. His other five titles are four books of poems (he is proudest of Glosas de la naranja entera) and what perhaps is his favorite, dearest creation: Tosilos, an intellectual meditation, a loaded quasi-novel, or anti-novel, a spin-off, a pastoral-in-your face, almost a sequel to Don Quixote.

 

                                  Photo: OBDULIA CASTRO

    

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