Spain of Fernando de Rojas: The Intellectual and Social Landscape of La Celestina

Spain of Fernando de Rojas: The Intellectual and Social Landscape of La Celestina

by Stephen Gilman


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As a major piece of historical detective work. Stephen Gilman's "La Celestina" and the Spain of Fernando de Rojas adds a new dimension to critical studies of the fifteenth-century masterpiece. Using the text of La Celestina as well as public and private archives in Spain, Mr. Oilman builds up a vivid sense of the man behind the dialogue and establishes Fernando de Rojas indisputably as its author—a figure whom critics, while ranking his novel second only to Don Quixote, have treated as semi-anonymous or non-existent.

We cannot really know what the Celestina is, says Mr. Oilman, without speculating as rigorously and as learnedly as possible both on how it came to be and on how it could come to be. Thus he reconstructs the world of Rojas, country lawyer and converso, the social, religious, and intellectual milieu of Salamanca, of Spain during the Inquisition, of the converted Jew. He makes it possible for us to see the author—the law student writing feverishly during a fortnight's vacation from classes—in the context of his own times and thus to understand Rojas' achievement: his unconventionality; his sardonic judgment of the Spain in which he lived; the explosive originality, in fact, of La Celestina.

Originally published in 1972.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691619620
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1279
Pages: 576
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 3.90(d)

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The Spain of Fernando de Rojas

The Intellectual and Social Landscape of La Celestina

By Stephen Gilman


Copyright © 1972 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06202-0


The Reality of Fernando de Rojas

No quiere mi pluma ni manda razón
Que quede la fama de aqueste gran hombre
Ni su digna fama ni su claro nombre
Cubierto de olvido ...

— Alonso de Proaza

The Testimony of the Text

Not long ago a distinguished American humanist proposed to the present generation of scholar-critics a radical and disconcerting query as specially appropriate for changing the course of our meditations. The question he asked, and urges us to answer, was simply: "How is literature possible?" And, as far as I am concerned, the troubled critical reception of a book of mine entitled The Art of "La Celestina" justifies the proposition. Labeled by reviewers either as an "Existentialist" or as a "New Critical" interpretation, its close textual analysis of La Celestina seemed to them anachronistic. In my opinion, the labels are contradictory and the accusation of anachronism is unfounded. Yet at the same time I must admit that the misunderstandings are my responsibility. Captivated by the vitality of speech and speakers, I failed to consider the preliminary historical question: "How was the completely unprecedented, immensely original art of its author, Fernando de Rojas, possible?" By which is meant primarily: "How could a man living at the end of the fifteenth century in Spain have written a book so significant to us and our concerns?" And, secondarily: "What can be found out about him and his life which may help provide an answer?"

The question just set forth is manifestly identical to that presented by every time-traveling masterpiece — by Don Quijote, by Oedipus Rex, by Hamlet, and by their limited number of peers. The only difference is that in these cases the would-be answerer may take advantage of a great deal of previous historical and biographical spadework, whereas in the case of La Celestina he has very little, neither a known life nor an adequate understanding of the times, upon which to support his insights. As a result of this lack of foundation, Celestina interpretation has gone in two directions. On the one hand, there are those who attempt to supply historical comprehension of an archaeological sort from their own stores of erudition. La Celestina is a creation of fifteenth-century rhetoric, a mirror of medieval morality, or an allegory of the seven deadly sins — which is to say, it is interesting but dead. On the other hand, there are a few of us who have been so concerned with the bursting life of Rojas' dialogue that we are open to the charge of ignoring what La Celestina was historically speaking. A new approach, therefore, is not only appropriate but urgent. Having tried to show how the work lives, we must now try to provide the background necessary for understanding how the book came alive so immortally. Evaluation of La Celestina as one of man's major creations, I now see, requires more than textual analysis of style, structure, or theme. A sustained effort to comprehend the historical agonies of its birth is also necessary. We cannot, in other words, really know what La Celestina is without speculating as rigorously and as learnedly as possible both on how it came to be and on the broader query of how it could come to be. It is to nothing less than this that the present book is dedicated.

Such a statement of purpose confronts both writer and reader with theoretical problems of the sort for which confessions of commitment are more proper than attempted solutions. To begin with, interrogation in terms of possibility was designed to eliminate positivistic search for historical causation. La Celestina was not written by its "race" (Judea-Spanish), "milieu" (Salamanca), or "moment" (the Isabeline Renaissance). Instead, it was written (setting aside for the time being the excruciating problem of Act I) by a man called Fernando de Rojas, who encountered and experienced these three determinants, who lived within — and through! — his historical climate. Not out of history, but from deep inside individual awareness of history, masterpieces make their way up into the light. Which is to proclaim the obvious: that history shapes art only insofar as it works through the whole of the artist's life. There are no short cuts or short circuits. La Celestina may perhaps be conceived of as a historical possibility realized by a Fernando de Rojas de carne y hueso. But it cannot be conceived of as a historical necessity.

Thus our commitment and thus our program. If literature is, as Jean-Pierre Richard would have it, "an adventure in being human," we must accordingly view the "times" of a work from the point of view of their impingement on and assimilation to the biography of a "human being." We shall not be concerned with what happened in history but with history as we may relive with Diltheyesque reverence its immediate presence for a man alive and super-sentient within limited carnal, rural, and urban circumstances. Domesticity in the broad sense will above all be decisive. Furthermore, since our only significant knowledge of the man who concerns us is his work, it is through the prism of our reading that we shall have primarily to look. In this sense it can be maintained without paradox that La Celestina creates its times rather than the other way around. What it has to say to us is our only possible measurement of the historical and biographical meaning of whatever facts, old and new, we may present. The work does not select the facts (such license when so few are available would be grossly improper), but it does evaluate them and arrange them in an inevitable hierarchy. Only by allowing La Celestina to perform this essential function may we hope to avoid the critical fallacy against which we are warned by Jose F. Montesinos, the fallacy "according to which the real life of a poet conditions comprehension of his art, when the truth of the matter is just the opposite."

A second and perhaps more vulnerable flank separates us from those who are discouraged by the perils of relating historical and biographical information to literature. In spite of all precautions, certain critics feel, approximation of the two is at worst noxious and at best nonsensical, a foolishly complacent mixture of irreconcilable criteria. Against such beliefs, two separate lines of defense may be erected. The first is that of my master, America Castro: comprehension of history itself as a dominion of value within which literature rather than being alien is indigenous — and among the most respected inhabitants. Characteristic of Castro's valiant and unceasing effort to recapture history for the humanities is the following unpublished judgment: "The literature of an epoch and the epoch of that literature are indivisible phenomena. Without the light cast by literature and art, the 'historiability' of a given period of the past cannot be determined." I have translated Castro's "dimensión historiable" with the neologism "historiability," since by it he means a period's worthiness of an historian's attention. Among other reasons, the life and times of Fernando de Rojas are important insofar as they constituted the human soil in which La Celestina could be, and, in effect, was, grown. We must understand literature historically and biographically, Castro would maintain, if only in order to save biography and history from triviality.

It is easy to accept this commitment for a work of the inherent significance and immortality of La Celestina. As far as my own efforts are concerned, Castro's denial of disparity between literature and history provides at least preliminary justification for writing about the Spain of Fernando de Rojas. And afterwards, although the proof, as usual, will be in the pudding, with such ingredients the risk is not grave. If an essay on Rojas' life and times can bring to light even one hitherto unknown fact, even one hitherto unperceived condition of creation, the essayist — whatever his sins of omission and commission — has nothing to fear. All of which leads to the second line of defense: the situation of La Celestina at the headwaters of a genre, the novel, which has traditionally been composed of great chunks of raw, unprocessed experience, much of it experience of historical circumstance. What the author feels about the historical world into which he has been thrust has been expressed in every important novel from Lazarillo de Tormes to Finnegans Wake and beyond. Precisely for this reason those opposed to biographical and historical criticism have generally preferred to treat other more formally elaborated varieties of literature. The student of La Celestina, however, cannot allow himself to be so fastidious. As I hope to demonstrate in the course of the many pages to follow, its dialogue cannot rightly be understood if we eliminate from it Fernando de Rojas' profound experience and sardonic judgement of the Spain in which he lived.

These assertions should not be taken to mean a Romantic equation of what happens in La Celestina with presumed events in Rojas' biography. As contrasted with a Stendhal who left us every possible facility for observing the transformation of his life into art (apparently conceiving of such observation as a necessary component of the kind of appreciation he sought), Rojas offers us nothing at all — not even the few playful hints of a Cervantes! Although he is willing on occasion to let us glimpse his sources, his models (and surely they existed, since no creation of La Celestina's magnitude can be grown only from sources) are quite deliberately hidden from our view. He is even reluctant to indicate in any way the name of the city which is the scene of his tragicomic "argument." Every artist imposes the acceptance of the terms of an implicit compact, and since these are evidently Rojas' own conditions, we must live with them. Which was my answer to a well-intentioned person who once asked me how I could possibly write about Rojas' life without knowing the identity of Melibea. Obviously, if we were in a position to identify Rojas' models or to relive his personal experiences of love and death, the temptation would be irresistible. So that in a very real sense it may be fortunate for La Celestina that this first attempt to describe Rojas' life has been made more than four centuries after his death.

Like most qualifications, this one needs to be qualified further. Assertion of the undesirability (not merely the impossibility) of revealing the anecdotic incubation of La Celestina is not intended to cast doubt on the living and breathing reality of its maker (or of its makers). It is historical, as we said, precisely because it is autobiographical — autobiographical in a far deeper sense than that of mere narrated reminiscence. "How to write a novel? Rather, why write a novel?" Unamuno asks and goes on to answer: "In order that the novelist may create himself. And why should the novelist create himself? To create the reader, to create himself in the reader. And only by becoming one can the novelist and the reader of the novel be saved from their radical solitude." We shall have occasion in a later chapter to meditate at greater length on La Celestina as such an "autobiography," concluding, with the collaboration of Kenneth Burke, that Rojas sought in his writing not so much to create himself as, by a process of transmutation of his most intimate burdens, to save himself. But for now it is sufficient to confess belief in the Unamunian "weight on the ground" of the fifteenth-century man whose experiences are about to haunt us.

Those unfamiliar with the body of criticism which adheres to La Celestina may not realize the unprecedented nature of these commitments. For Fernando de Rojas from the very beginning has been surely the least recognized of the major authors of the Western world. Lope de Vega, whose admiration of La Celestina yields to no man's, failed to mention him in the company of Jorge de Montemayor, Fray Luis de León, and other earlier writers in his Laurel de Apolo. Even more telling is the brief mention of him by the proto-historian of Spanish letters, Nicolás Antonio. Rojas' name, as we remember, only appears in passing in a paragraph devoted to Rodrigo de Cota, whom most readers of the time supposed (not unreasonably) to have been the author of Act I. More anonymous during the "Siglo de Oro" than his fully anonymous predecessor, Rojas has not fared better since then. Not only is there no street in Madrid named af ter him, not only is he confused by careless scholars with Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla, but, even when he is mentioned, it is usually as a nonentity, an empty human label. Blanco White's remark that "no author has enjoyed less the glory of his achievement than he of the famous tragicomedy" still holds good.

The most distinguished exception of this generalization was, of course, don Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo, the virtual founder of Hispanism. But in spite of his valiant efforts at the beginning of this century to establish Rojas as a major, though admittedly enigmatic, writer,8 few of his successors have cared to assert so much. Those aware of the history of the problem will understand why. Both for Blanco White and for Menéndez Pelayo, Rojas needed to be reinvented in order to fortify a critical perception of La Celestina's organic unity. For them it could have only been the child of a single father, a father whose virtual disappearance made critical assertiveness all the more necessary. But now that Rojas' statement that Act I was written by a predecessor is generally accepted, his reality as an author seems even more doubtful and uninteresting than before.

Thus, Menéndez Pidal refers to La Celestina as "semi-anonymous," while Claudio Sánchez Albornoz, inexcusably ignoring unequivocal documentary evidence, doubts whether it was really "Fernando de Rojas, the converso and not another Castilian of the same name" who was referred to in the acrostic verses. Others, admitting that Rojas probably did exist, de-emphasize his role as an author. Carmelo Samonà, for example, sees him as a "non-crystallized personality," gathering and reflecting the commonplaces and the rhetoric of the age. Less baldly stated, this seems to be somewhat the same position as that of Marcel Bataillon. Not only because, at least by implication, Bataillon seems to consider Rojas merely as a talented imitator of the "primitive Celestina," but also because his thesis that the dialogue is a mirror of medieval morality leaves little room for personal creation. But perhaps the most devastating judgment of all is that of the editors of the most recent scholarly edition: "Replacing former belief in a single author (a belief which represented the idealistic approach and the great authority of don Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo) is the conviction that diverse epochs and authors are superimposed in the text. According to our present concept, La Celestina, far from being an improvised and personal creation, is the result of a long and varied elaboration in the course of which an extensive quantity of medieval and Renaissance elements were brought together." Rojas' friend and editor, Alonso de Proaza, showed singular insight when in the concluding verses cited in the epigraph to this chapter he expressed the fear that "the fame of this great man" along with his "clear name" might remain "covered with forgetfulness."

In the presence of such a chorus of authoritative voices, the reader may well ask, "Why bother to argue?" There is only one equally brief answer to be given: "For La Celestina's sake." As Menéndez Pelayo knew, the peculiar character of this literary orphan makes discovery of a parent imperative. By which I mean specifically: to think of it as spontaneously generated, or, even worse, as the offspring of an indefinite number of characterless progenitors, leads to the kind of misinterpretation that is implicit in many of the above remarks. Unlike, say, the Poema del Cid or the "Romancero," La Celestina (Proaza was absolutely right!) is ill-suited for anonymity. To eliminate its presiding mind tends necessarily to convert it into a bundle of sources, a sampler of styles, a "breviary" of fifteenth-century doctrine, or a congregation of "medieval and Renaissance elements" — whatever these last may be.


Excerpted from The Spain of Fernando de Rojas by Stephen Gilman. Copyright © 1972 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. v
  • PREFACE, pg. vii
  • CHAPTER I. The Reality of Fernando de Rojas, pg. 1
  • CHAPTER II. The Case of Alvaro de Montalban, pg. 65
  • CHAPTER III. Converso Families, pg. 111
  • CHAPTER IV. The Times of Fernando de Rojas, pg. 157
  • CHAPTER V. La Puebla de Montalban, pg. 205
  • CHAPTER VI. Salamanca, pg. 267
  • CHAPTER VII. Fernando de Rojas as Author, pg. 355
  • CHAPTER VIII. Talavera de la Reina, pg. 395
  • APPENDIX I, pg. 491
  • APPENDIX II, pg. 498
  • APPENDIX III, pg. 505
  • APPENDIX IV, pg. 530
  • INDEX, pg. 537

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