Academic journal article Romance Notes

(MIS)reading the Libro De Buen Amor: Exemplary Ambiguity and Ambiguous Exempla

Academic journal article Romance Notes

(MIS)reading the Libro De Buen Amor: Exemplary Ambiguity and Ambiguous Exempla

Article excerpt

Ian Michael counts thirty-five popular tales in the Libro de buen amor (LBA) calculating that they comprise more than twenty percent of the entire text (177). (1) Regarding early works, Northrup Frye adds that "[n]early every work of art in the past had a social function in its own time, a function which was often not primarily an aesthetic function at all" (344) and adds that "[o]ne of the tasks of criticism is that of the recovery of function, not of course the restoration of an original function, which is out of the question, but the recreation of function in a new context" (345). Given the didactic intent of the LBA, combined with its patent ambiguity, along with the inherent polysemy of language of which Juan Ruiz was eminently aware (Read 240), his employment of anecdotes to impart life lessons with a salvific intent creates a literary tension begging resolution. This study examines the exemplum of the "Ass and the Lapdog" not only by Juan Ruiz, but also by the contemporaneous Libro del cauallero Zifar (Zifar; c. 1301), and the later Esopete ystoriado (Esopete; 1488) to recover its social function to the extent that these three witnesses permit and to recreate a function in a new context. Examining how this tale fits within the frame text and observing differences between the versions enable surmising what the didactic functions of these versions may have been. Doing this permits viewing how the Ruizian version includes a dimension lacking in the other two, turning his version into a "bawdy fabliau" (Vasvari 13). In line with Frye's suggestion, a second appraisal of this tale from a postmodern view, specifically from a psychoanalytic one, however, offers another perspective which leads not only to "the recreation of function in a new context," but also, perhaps, to a pleasure of the text, not an original pleasure of a postlapsarian, medieval audience who heard or read the story, but certainly to one of a postlapsarian, postmodern audience.

When Terry Eagleton examines the nature of literature in order to determine what it is, he concludes that just as "it will not do to see literature as an 'objective', descriptive category, neither will it do to say that literature is just what people whimsically choose to call literature" (16). Literature goes beyond "private taste" in that the value judgments which determine literature are grounded in social ideologies by which certain groups maintain power over others (Eagleton 16). The medieval Spanish anecdote examined here manifests a social ideology in which natural law held that "[e]verything has its right place, its home, the region that suits it, and, if not forcibly restrained, moves thither by a sort of homing instinct" (Lewis 92).

The Aesopic tale known as "The ass and the lapdog"--the source for the Medieval fable examined here (Lecoy 114; Holmer 59; Vasvari 15) offers a fairly unambiguous moral, which to a twentieth-century audience, especially in the "land of the free and the home of the brave" where the "sky is the limit," may not be as palatable as it may have been to a Medieval audience with its particular Weltanschauung. Viewing the tale through a psychoanalytic lens, however, allows the unpalatable or at least the less acceptable to become more so, and the little valued to acquire greater value as well.

The fable, in itself uncomplicated, may be reduced to its bare essentials as follows: an ass sees a lapdog frolicking with its owner. Considering itself to be of greater utility than the dog, the ass too tries to frolic with its owner only to end up being rejected and beaten. The accompanying moral in all three versions--Zifar, LBA, and Esopete--, in one way or another, alludes to the idea that what pertains to one, may not pertain to another. People should keep their natural place. In the LBA, however, the fable and its moral acquire nuances that invite detailed consideration.

Although the Esopete's rendition has no frame within which to fit, it too is fairly straightforward: 1) the owner praises and prizes the dog; 2) the donkey denigrates the dog calling it "pequeno" and "inmundo" (38); 3) emphasis falls on the donkey's considering itself better than the dog: "soy mejor que ella et para mas cosas e officios. …

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