restricted access Celestina and the Ends of Desire by E. Michael Gerli (review)
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Gerli, E. Michael. Celestina and the Ends of Desire. Toronto-Buffalo-London: University of Toronto Press, 2011. 258 pp. ISBN 978-1-4426-4255-3

This is an aptly titled monograph. It deals with the Spanish classic, Celestina, in a straightforward, unequivocal and almost driving manner. Its main objective is to plumb the depths of desire in all the possible varieties present in the work and in which the fuller understanding of how desire takes over the text can function as a hermeneutical tool for readers. The readers Gerli surely had in mind while composing Desire are, clearly, scholars and students of the work who know the text very well: these readers will profit greatly from this dense, well-written and cohesive study.

Desire is a study subdivided into one teaser of an introduction and nine well-turned chapters, each one focussing on an aspect of desire as the underpinnings of a work produced in the transitional period spanning the tradition-bound world of Spain in the fifteenth century and earlier, to a surprisingly modern and liberal world unmatched by any other work in its time. Specific acts of the 21-act Tragicomedia center the chapters and these are usefully structured so that Gerli’s narrative sequence follows the action itself. This is important to observe since, in essence, the study presents a methodical and original reading of the work, following its development from scene I of Act I to the tragic conclusion of Act XXI, in order to explicate the role of Desire as it attempts to bind, crossing boundaries but doomed to fail, its fictional (and real) world together. In one form or another, the strong message that results from this reading of the work is inscribed time and again in each of its chapters, expressed in different ways: the leit-motif of desire is always illusory, non-transcendent, irrational, and it produces, finally, only despair, death and silence. [End Page 239]

Gerli is extremely well-grounded in theories appertaining to his subject and many are explored in the book without any of them dominating the discourse, which is always brought back to bear directly on the Celestina text. Still, it is worth noting that the two basic theoretical strands to which the author returns time and again are Freud and Lacan, both interwoven into the cloth of the desire which in the postulates bridging death, desire and language in a conflicted world are so prominent.

In Gerli’s introduction, it is stated clearly that: his study “seeks to show how Celestina, situated at the bounds between the medieval and the early modern, has its own particular fascination, and clearly extended the notions of desire beyond their traditional medieval formulations directly into the social, economic, physiological, and psychological fields of human activity: to the transformation of libido amandi (lust for love) into libido dominandi (lust for power) and finally into libido capiendi (lust for knowledge)” (3). In essence, that statement serves as a capsule summation of what is brilliantly accomplished in the following pages. In stating that the true intentions of the characters and the desires that drive them are rarely on display or even fully disclosed in the dialogued text of Celestina, it is left—Gerli affirms—to “irony and close reading” to reveal them (4). This is the large task that Gerli takes upon himself to accomplish and he does it splendidly, one step at a time, taking us from the medieval discourse of desire aligned with transcendence in both the courtly and the religious realms to the appearance of Celestina, when desire and ambition combined produce a non-transcendental panoply of “conflict, violence and, ultimately, death” (5). As one might imagine from these statements, language itself is the main point or focus of The Ends of Desire. Indeed, as Gerli rightly claims, desire is a main force in the still-commanding appeal of the work, “and for the disturbing sense of amazement and revelation readers still feel after their first experience with it” (12).

In Chapter One, we are privy to the linkages of language and longing, symbolized on various levels by the image of the ill-fated chain Celestina...