Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Narratives of Don Juan: The Language of Seduction in Seventeenth-Century Hispanic Literature and Society

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Narratives of Don Juan: The Language of Seduction in Seventeenth-Century Hispanic Literature and Society

Article excerpt

How do men seduce? With looks, gestures, and movement, with voices, sighs, and sounds, with promises, words and stories. Seduction is not any one thing said, seen, or done, but a whole elaborately joined set of scenes containing movement, sounds, and gestures. Yet in our society, as in all societies, the sights and sounds of seduction are far from random. Rather seductions occur through culturally proscribed codes. Gestures or promises must occur in a certain order, follow a prescribed form, certain language must be used, or the seduction will not succeed. A seducer, above all, must persuade his audience; if not, there is no seduction. Hence both the content of the cultural code that he employs and how he evokes it must have the power to convince. Defining exactly how seduction operates and why it succeeds even in contemporary society is difficult: the obstacles are multiplied by historical distance and cultural difference. Physical gestures and body language are hard to retrieve; the sight of bodies in movement nearly impossible to recreate. The exact tone and register of sounds are equally difficult to resuscitate. What remains of the past is written language. Some of this language describes movement and sounds, but it leaves to us the task of re-imagining how a voice sounded or how a movement looked. All that written language can disclose is what was said and when. It thus can tell us the order in which declarations of intentions were made, promises of marriage proffered, and love declared. Besides establishing the sequence by which seduction unfolds, written language also provides us with the range of rhetorical expressions--the metaphors and comparisons, images and reflections--that lay at the core of the speech. While written language therefore cannot tell us exactly how men seduced, it can tell us about the cultural codes used in seducing women: the sequence of rhetorical stratagems. Hence to understand how these cultural codes operated in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Hispanic America is difficult. Our principal and indeed only source of detailed information is the formal allegations (known as breach of promise cases) prosecuted in church courts. Yet these suits had to institute a complaint using a series of legal formulas. These formulas were highly stylized, and found in the ubiquitous legal handbooks of Spanish society.(2) Initiating a complaint required no more effort than copying the wording, filling in the name of the two parties and signing the name of the lawyer at the end of the petition. According to this formulaic complaint the woman was an innocent victim of a man who had led her astray. The legal phrases reflect an explicit cultural construct of seduction, the conviction that sexual activity resulted from a woman's being deceived. About the looks, gestures, and conversation that led to this deception strictly legal proceedings remained relatively silent. Even in the subsequent allegations and counter-allegations that characterized these proceedings, Spanish-American church officials were concerned with the sequence of events, not with the rhetorical tactics. They were concerned with what happened when--the formal dimensions of the cultural code--rather than how or why seduction succeeded. Cultural analysis--whether in history, anthropology or sociology--has always been about the domain of such mediating practices, addressing questions of how and why. For cultural analysis deals with the motivations, emotional expectations, and systems of signification by which a whole or part of a society understands itself. In colonial Spanish-American society, this entails understanding the cultural dynamic of mutual emotional expectations intervening in the process labeled seduction. Seduction differs from other cultural practices, in that it operates principally as an exchange of feelings. Yet insight into those feelings has proved especially troublesome for historians because men's and women's accounts of their emotions are extremely sparse, especially in Spanish-American societies where literacy had scarcely penetrated the social hierarchy, leaving little by way of letters or other documentary traces abundant in other Western European societies. …

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