Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Este . . . Cíclope: Góngora's Polifemo and the Poetics of Disfiguration

Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Este . . . Cíclope: Góngora's Polifemo and the Poetics of Disfiguration

Article excerpt

[E]n su Polifemo y Soledades parece que vence lo que pinta, y que no es posible que execute [sic] otro pincel lo que dibuja su pluma.

- Vicente Carducho, Diálogos de la pintura

It is my own self that I am painting.

- Montaigne, "To the Reader"

Introduction: Góngora and the Skeptical Crisis

Under the title "On the Lame," Michel de Montaigne cloaks an essay about the power of witches in which he challenges the dogmatic certainty of both those who assert and those who deny such powers. The human mind, Montaigne claims, can marshal reasons to support either position, and while miraculous phenomena, malignant or benign, are within the realm of the possible, it is impossible to subject them to sure judgment. Our understanding of the world remains solely our own, and is distorted by our perception and experience. The only valid understanding is of the self, a collection of phenomena and appearances constituted by the mind that is contradictory, in constant flux, and which fails to reflect more than the mind's own processes. Rather than speak about the miraculous in the world around him, Montaigne reflects inwardly: "I have not seen anywhere in the world a prodigy more expressly miraculous than I am. Time and custom condition us to anything strange: nevertheless, the more I haunt myself and know myself the more my misshapenness amazes me and the less I understand myself" (1164). One of the remarkable accomplishments in Montaigne's Essays (1580) is his recognition of the distorting effects of narcissism. The random, mutable nature of our being runs counter to our desire for stable self-identity and meaning. Consequently, the narcissist denies the inconsistency of his being rather than evaluating experience, and constructs an image of fixity in both identity and relationships with what he desires. Montaigne's awareness of this process of figuration leads him to conclude that the more one attempts to figure oneself, the greater the disfiguration.

This essay proposes that Luis de Góngora is a skeptical poet, that is, a poet who responds to an epistemological crisis that dominated Spanish intellectual and artistic production. His elliptical, anamorphic poetics in the Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea contain an inevident symmetry concealed beneath a chaotic complexity. This form of poetics engages with the Spanish Baroque obsession with the problems of ser and parecer and engaño and desengaño. Góngora's poem enacts, both in plot and method, a process of desengaño in which a literary figuration becomes disfigured, thus exposing the contingent nature of perception and interpretation. While mapping the movement from Renaissance to Baroque aesthetics in its imagery, conceptual scheme, and verbal style, the Polifemo's poetics of disfiguration addresses epistemological problems precipitated by the skeptical crisis. The protagonist of Góngora's poem, the Cyclops Polyphemus, perceives his world distortedly, suffering from the illusions created by his narcissism.

This process of disfiguration and desengaño creates an effect analogous to that of pictorial anamorphosis. By characterizing Góngora's poetics as "anamorphic," I do not wish to imply equivalence with the optical process, since literature and the visual arts operate, obviously, in completely different forms. Rather, my argument is that literature, art, cosmology, and other discourses of the early seventeenth century produce analogical effects, and it is therefore productive to juxtapose and analyze them as representative responses of their age that participate in a pervasive epistemological crisis.

What is at play in Góngora, then, is an aesthetic expression of skeptical arguments that increasingly found purchase as conventional knowledge came under attack. By the late sixteenth century, a complex of factors - religious conflict, the discovery of the New World, an increasingly educated public, scientific discoveries and technologies, as well as economic, political, and legal changes - challenged world views and promoted a growing epistemological doubt that found confirmation in ancient Greek skepticism. …

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