Academic journal article Romance Notes

The Picaresque School of Learning: Modernity and the Critique of Classical Humanism in Guzman De Alfarache and the Ortografia Castellana

Academic journal article Romance Notes

The Picaresque School of Learning: Modernity and the Critique of Classical Humanism in Guzman De Alfarache and the Ortografia Castellana

Article excerpt

MORE than four centuries after the publication of the first part of Mateo Aleman's Guzman de Alfarache, this seminal picaresque text continues to invite profoundly divergent, even contradictory, interpretations related to both style and language, on the one hand, and textual interpretation, on the other. (1) Where one group of critics interprets the protagonist's confession literally, another group questions its validity and views the confession as an unstable and ambiguous discursive space. (2) My purpose is not to definitely resolve this fundamental question on which interpretation of the novel inevitably rests, but to suggest that such a contested debate may be enlightened by positioning the Guzman within the larger context of Aleman's reformist agenda--an agenda that privileges the modernity of "los presentes" over the inherited tradition of "sus pasados" (Ortografia castellana 59). (3)

Before exploring how Aleman sought to empower the individual to (re-)consider what Dunn calls the "historically contingent cultures of antiquity" (130), it is essential that we define the intellectual debates and preoccupations which informed Aleman's life and work. Throughout the sixteenth century, the absolute authority of the classics and the church eroded as the Middle Ages yielded to the Early Modern period. Historical events which contributed to this erosion or crisis of authority in Spain include the Reformation, the inconsistent application of limpieza de sangre statutes, a series of astronomic discoveries, and the shift to the Gregorian calendar (Butterfield 67-80, Dunn 126, Kamen 6). (4) At the same time, the publication of the skeptical works of Sextus Empiricus by the printers Henri Estienne and Gentian Hervet provided a philosophical and classical methodology through which to study and question medieval "truths." (5) As Dunn aptly observes, "[t]he ideal was everywhere contradicted by experience" (127). The impact of these revisions to classical knowledge and the skeptical tradition was compounded by the rise of print culture which fomented the dissemination of these discoveries in standardized editions that actually promoted a "more atomistic and individualistic" reading public than had existed with manuscript transmission (Eisenstein 84, 132). Cervantes reveals his awareness of this challenge in the prologue to the first part of Don Quijote that purposely deconstructs and rejects the precedents that guide the writing of a prologue (Friedman 103-4).

For his part, Aleman reacts to this crisis of authority by articulating a new epistemology that empowers the experience of the individual subject over classical knowledge. Just as Pope Gregory XIII was forced to correct the growing inaccuracies of the Julian calendar in 1582, Aleman forces the reader to confront the abyss which separates theory from reality: words from actions in Guzman de Alfarache, and orthography from speech in the Ortografia castellana. Likewise, this conflict privileges the individual and promotes the self-fashioning that is central to picaresque discourse. As will be seen, Aleman invites the reader to resolve these textual, linguistic, and cultural divergences.

Although its title positions it within the context of such works as Nebrija's Gramatica (1492) and Reglas de ortografia (1517), or Juan de Valdes's Dialogo de la lengua (1536), the Ortografia castellana transcends its title and reveals Aleman's commitment to a modern, dare one say postmodern, epistemology based on the splintered authority of individual experience. What is revolutionary is not the proposal of new orthographic symbols as much as his acceptance and validation of the individual idiolect and "rational humanism" and his rejection of classical authority, as seen in Chapter two dedicated to the "inorancia de los maestros pasados" (Dunn 131). Aleman may have been well aware of the controversial nature of the Ortografia as it remained unpublished from the date of its composition--between 1590 and 1593--until his successful emigration to Mexico in 1609 (Cavillac 398, Tomas xiv-xvi). …

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