Monday, May 01, 2006

Week 14, Lope de Vega, Flor. Codex, Cantares, The Popol Vuh

Notes on Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna

In the first act, the peasants treat the audience to a “Philosophy 101” roundtable not unlike the discussion between Pietro Bembo and the courtiers in Castiglione concerning the merits of earthly and heavenly love. Mengo “stands up for bastards”—for the selfish and the lustful—while Frondoso and Laurencia are more polite towards the polite discourse of the city.

Still, I think they see through the game-like aspect “respectability,” and they treat love playfully, favoring neither priggishness nor repression, but also not sanctioning complete license. In the second act, we will see the Comendador’s viciously serious attitude towards this game: he sees women as objects, and supposes that “lower-class women have no honor.” For him, that is, honor is purely a matter of rank.

It seems that the bet placed by three characters on whether or not love exists is important. The Comendador and Frondoso display different ways of expressing “love.” The former is selfish and rapacious, while the latter shows much more courtesy even though he is a peasant. The Comendador takes advantage of his martial status—he treats civil life as if it were a war.

The Comendador, having been defeated by the kings of Aragon , turns his tyranny back upon Fuente Ovejuna, spoiling the wedding of Frondoso and Laurencia. The Comendador has lost everyone’s respect because of what he did to Laurencia already; he asserts the ancient chivalric values in a perverted way—rank above everything, with military glory covering for any number of offenses. His values are fundamentally confused—honor has become an empty word for him. The community of Fuente Ovejuna is tightly knit, and everyone asks everyone else’s blessings.

There is a contrast between the two peasants Frondoso and Mengo, but either way the whole community will have to stick together if they are to overcome the Comendador’s violent arrogance. We notice that the kings of Aragon are unifying Spain and asserting central royal authority over ancient feudal prerogative. In the view of Lope de Vega, it is the kings of Aragon who will show respect for Spain’s ordinary people, whereas feudalists like the Comendador obey only their own selfish whims.

The marriage quickly turns into a funeral-like spectacle, with Frondoso and Laurencia carried off to prison. Then there’s a renewal of male honor, spurred on by women’s insults—if the men “act like women,” the women will have to take the place of the men, becoming Amazons or even Bacchantes. That change, says Laurencia, will astound the world—a revolution. The men respond. We then see what Bakhtin might call a “carnivalesque” overturning of the local order, with the Comendador and his henchmen being barbarously, if somewhat comically and suggestively, slain. The women take part in the whole thing—there’s a community barbecue of those who represent unjust feudal authority, and a symbolic emasculation of men like Guzman who use chivalric language and expectations to further their selfish desires. But Lope de Vega isn’t interested in “permanent revolution”—the rioting takes place in the name of adherence to Ferdinand and Isabella, not just local honor (though that’s part of it). It takes place, in other words, in favor of establishing Spain as a centrally controlled, unified kingdom. The law must therefore be invoked to adjudicate the disorder in Fuente Ovejuna. But the community sticks together—the only way they can survive since otherwise there would have to be a sacrificial peasant to offer up to the principle of rank and authority. The peasants respond with humor to the tortures that Ferdinand’s Judge visits on them. Their willingness to suffer actively may remind us of Christ’s active suffering in the Gospel narratives. Ferdinand wisely decides not to destroy the whole town, but rather to pardon them all since they are loyal, and he takes paternal responsibility for them. The townspeople have rejected an oppressive and petty order in favor of a gracious royal couple, Ferdinand and Isabella, who with their marriage united Castile and Aragon and who understand that centralized state power must go hand in hand with acknowledgment of the common people’s dignity.

Notes on The Florentine Codex

The mother is represented in these poems as a kind of warrior and goddess; her pain and self-sacrifice are equated with valor on the battlefield. Even though mothers are given credit for embodying the principle of generation, they are warned by the poet not to take personal pride in their sacrifice or their status. The collectivity is honored, not the individual.

Notes on Cantares Mexicanos

The songs seem to be inspired by earth and by the gods directly. They appear to be composed in an exuberant state, and their effect on the hearer is described in terms of intoxication. The poems are like psychedelic flowers growing from sky, soil, and water; they put the hearers in touch with the divine, with life’s highest purposes. Moreover, the songs should lead naturally to action.

The power of transformation is very direct and strong in them—the hesitant warrior is addressed with transfiguring metaphors; the point of these metaphors is sacred. It isn’t just to explain the unfamiliar by means of the familiar; it is to engraft the hearer into the entire religious system. That’s different from explaining and comforting. It means that the action to take place differs from whatever the hearer may be hesitating to do. And in the fourth song, the power of words is sensuous, physical—identified with the intoxicating scent of flowers. The singer describes nature as a life-world that has the power to take us beyond our ordinary ourselves, and he ascribes the same power to his words. That reminds me a bit of the Symbolists with their incantatory, sacred-word theories about poetry.

Notes on The Popol Vuh

The Mayan Quiché kingdom is post-classical in that the Classical Period runs from 300-900 AD. It seems that the Popol Vuh or Council Book is much older that that, at least in its earliest form. The Norton editors say that the book was said to have been derived from a pilgrimage to the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and that it was used as a visionary instrument in governing the kingdom. The current authors are post-1520’s conquest-era, after Pedro de Alvarado’s invasion in 1524. So the Council Book must be brought to light anew. What we have is a hybrid text, therefore: the stories seem to be partly an act of defiance by an author or authors confronted with the claims of Christian Spaniards to superiority. It is partly a protest work, and partly performance art—with the Ancient Word as the thing to be performed. Christian iconography and narrative have entered the picture. There are plenty of echoes of Genesis—the creation story with its emphasis on the ex nihilo aspect of creation, the idea that men were created to praise God, Eve plucking the forbidden fruit, the idea that the creation must be as full as possible etc. But the outcome isn’t the same, and the gods (the Sun God being supreme lord) don’t hold the same attitude towards earth and humanity. Not only that, there is more than one attempt at creation. Yahweh doesn’t “worry” about creating anything, but these gods do; they worry about how the cosmos will be perpetuated, how order may be maintained and light perpetuated.

In the account of the time before humanity, evil anarch-gods or celestial jokers hold sway, but these darkness-loving, deceitful, vain gods are rightly defeated by divine heroes who, with their craftiness and ingenuity, are more than a match for the jokers’ excessive bloodlust and arrogance. The underdogs combat the underworld lords by means of asymmetrical warfare, so that order, light, and respect may emerge. The human order that later comes into being seems to share some of the anarchs’ tendencies.

The gods worry that their creatures will rival them in “distance vision,” so they make humans become narrow, limited, and literally short-sighted. The Quiché account states this anxiety very bluntly, and with no moral justification to back it up. Yahweh’s concern in the Bible is similar, but he makes his case majestically and with reference to the moral transgression of Adam and Eve. As for the creation itself, humanity is close to the earth, close to and even created from the earthly things that sustain it: corn or maize would have been the Quiché people’s staple crop.


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