On Spain and literature – V

retrato de soledad anaya
 
My Mac broke down again (I didn’t fix it properly the previous time for lack of funds) but I’ll use a borrowed laptop because I’ve read a classic in Spanish literature and would like to say something about it.

Quoting Julio Rodríguez-Puértolas, on page 7 of The Culture of Critique Kevin MacDonald wrote:

A prime example is The Celestina (first edition dating from 1499) by Fernando de Rojas, who wrote “with all the anguish, pessimism, and nihilism of a converso who has lost the religion of his fathers but has been unable to integrate himself within the compass of Christian belief.” Rojas subjected the Castilian society of his time to “a corrosive analysis, destroying with a spirit that has been called ‘destructive’ all the traditional values and mental schemes of the new intolerant system. Beginning with literature and proceeding to religion, passing through all the ‘values’ of institutionalized caste-ism—honor, valor, love—everything is perversely pulverized.”

I confess that I found La Celestina quite boring, but I am not sure if it would be proper to catalogue this comedy—because it is a comedy—as “destructive” in the sense that MacDonald (who doesn’t seem to have actually read it) put it.

en la estacaHowever, it is true that Fernando de Rojas felt alienated in the late 15th century Spain. Some of his biographers even claim that, when Rojas was a bachelor studying in Salamanca, he received the tragic notice that his father, a Jew converted to Catholicism, had been condemned to die at the stake by the Inquisition.

As crypto-Jews usually did, Rojas married a converso woman; i.e., an ethnic Jewess, the daughter of Álvaro de Montealbán. De Montealbán also suffered a trial by the Inquisition and, although Rojas was a very successful lawyer by profession, he was not allowed to defend his father-in-law because Rojas was also of Jewish heritage, and therefore suspicious.

La Celestina was a huge bestseller of the time, even in translations outside Spain, but Rojas was always scared for having written it in his youth and, for forty years, remained silent about his authorship.

See my recent entry about the Spanish Catholic Kings Ferdinand and Isabella, who in 1492 promulgated a law to expel those Jews who didn’t want to convert to Christianity. The Jews who had lived in Spain for centuries had to go and the conversos who stayed became second-class citizens for the next centuries. The mission of the Inquisition was to keep under close scrutiny the conversos and see if they continued to practice their religious ways in secret.

Except for the first act, which was not authored by Rojas but by a non-Jew (either Juan de Mena or Rodrigo de Cota), as I said I found the comedy boring. Whatever the influence of this searing exposé of the Neo-Platonic idealization of women, an idealization so common in popular authors those times such as Petrarch, it probably didn’t go beyond the similar exposé by Cervantes of the chivalric novels of the age. To my taste mentioning La Celestina in the first pages of The Culture of Critique is a little off the mark, especially when taking into account that the most hilarious pages against women were authored by a gentile.

Rojas died in 1541, four years after Pope Paul III granted the bachelor soldiers in America permission to mix their blood with Amerind women. Now that I’ve just read the book I’d say that, although there’s a ring of truth in what MacDonald quoted, it should be obvious that the Spaniards’ lust for gold (see my previous entry about my teacher of literature), together with Catholicism, were the main cause of their racial suicide in the Americas. In those centuries conversos rarely got—as Rojas did—positions of cultural influence in this society that seriously tried to get rid of the subversive tribe. For those knowledgeable of the history of Spain and of Spanish literature, it would be laughable to hear that the book written by Rojas was a factor in the mestization of the New World.