- The “Positive Power of evil” and the “Prose of Bureaucracy”:a Deviant Materialist reading of Cervantes
Unpacking this book's title in reverse, Echevarrías's approach to Cervantes is a continuous double play between traditional historicism in the manner of José Antonio Maravall and postmodern meditations on human sexuality and ancient myths à la Sigmund Freud. First, Echevarría pitches the familiar thesis that the rise of the nation state in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain and its attempts to mold individuals and umpire class tensions made for the bureaucratic discourses that writers found so compelling precisely because they involved wildly irreverent people constrained by acts of accusation, judgment, punishment, confession, contrition, and reconciliation. Then he underscores the uncanny, unnarratable and ultimately irrational bases for these same legalistic discourses. Accordingly, the marriage contract tames the narcissistic, violent and undifferentiated aspects of human desire in the same way that rules and laws repress the possibility that just which acts a society tags as criminal might be the result of arbitrary decisions far too unconscious or ancient for human reason to explain. For Echevarría, the most striking moments [End Page 423] in Cervantes's prose occur when he pits his attraction to myth, with its deeply driven investigations of transgression, against the crushing weight of the early modern patrimonial bureaucracy, with its stylized political symbolism, its obsessive record keeping, and its expanding efforts to regulate the behavior of its citizens.
Chapter 1, "The Prisoner of Sex," interprets one of the galley slaves in Don Quijote 1.22 as an emblem for the novel's themes of love and the law. The episode as a whole echoes the dissonant tones of the entire period: "The collision between love and the law is at the core of Spanish literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries" (4). Echevarría culls out details from the text which indicate that the unruly prisoner is himself a law student who has been condemned for an incestuous relationship. Not only do the rebellious qualities of this sexualized figure anticipate those of the modern libertine, they are precisely the reason why Don Quijote releases him: "He has found a kindred spirit. Like him he is a slave of desire" (15). Chapter 2, "Spanish Law and the Origins of the Novel," runs through the interwoven histories of fictional narratives and legal codes in the medieval and early modern periods, starting with a nice review of the legal aspects of the Poema de mio Cid and then pointing out the literary impact of Alfonso X's Siete partidas, the artis notariae (notarial arts) imported from Bologna, and the unification of the judiciary under the Catholic Kings and the Hapsburgs. Echevarría makes much of the importance of the relación (deposition) for the picaresque, arguing that it is this written record of deviants, a reflection of the emphasis on casuistry in Spanish legal proceedings, which coaches the new novel toward an encounter with its "most coveted subjects" as well as "a whole program of representation that is more detailed, technical, and stringent than the one inherited from traditional literary sources and practices" (30–31).
Chapter 3, "Engendering Dulcinea," begins by reviewing traditional interpretations of Dulcinea as Cervantes's parody of the courtly love tradition. But Echevarría finds deeper issues here. Linking the novel to the comedia, Alonso Quijano's impossible relationship with Aldonza Lorenzo manifests the role that new laws proscribing rape play in the social landscape. Previously, rape would have been a foul but logical option for an aristocrat attracted to a peasant girl; now, Quijano simply cannot afford the consequences of such an infraction, which would include marriage and fines. Thus Dulcinea stands not only for the laws of courtly love but the law itself. In one of his typically quick moves from historical considerations to Freudian musings, Echevarría further argues that the manliness of so many of Cervantes's women characters [End Page 424] represents a kind of "reaching back into the deeper, primal forces of desire, where the object is still undifferentiated...