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276 The Aesthetics of Excess Rococo Vestiges of Tartuffe in Isla’s Father Gerundio CASEY R. ERIKSEN Taking an occasional pinch of snuff, the narrator of the History of the Famed Preacher, Father Gerundio de Campazas, alias Zotes (1758, 1768) invites his reader to view the rhetorical excesses of the fictional preachers of his age. In his widely celebrated and heatedly contested novel, the Jesuit writer José Francisco de Isla presents a hyperbolic, satirical, and indeed scathing critique of the preaching practices of his day. Father Gerundio and his mentor, Father Blas, convey not only a caricature of ornamented, illogical discourse but an ideology of excess that privileges performance and stylized distortion over fidelity to theological principles. Father Gerundio in particular emerges as a disconcertingly problematic figure; he is a fool, educated by the supposed experts of his age, who achieves material success and broad acclaim for his ability to ignite, perplex, and inspire the masses with his pyrotechnic rhetoric. When one turns an eye to content, however, it becomes apparent that the sermons lack critical depth, theological accuracy, or sound academic reasoning. The stylized, visual discourse privileges the decorative qualities of language, and the narrative reveals the dangerous misapplication of both theological doctrine and reason itself. Isla situates himself within a broader tradition of writers, including Juvenal , Molière, and Cervantes, who used hyperbole and satire to reveal the hypocrisies and contradictions of their age. Though critics have explored the aesthetic characteristics of Father Gerundio’s rhetoric to some degree, the aims of this essay are to approach Isla’s novel through a comparative lens and to suggest that these rococo features contain vestiges of Molière’s Tartuffe. Such a comparison provides a valuable approach to better inform critical readings of Father Gerundio. In his prologue, Isla invokes the figure of Tartuffe to provide a discursive and aesthetic frame in which to discuss the protagonist as well as church predication generally: “Y ya que te has suavizado un poquitico, hablemos en confianza. ¿Hay por ventura en el mundo, ni aun en la Iglesia de Dios, The Aesthetics of Excess 277 estado alguno tan santo, tan serio ni tan elevado donde no se encuentren algunos individuos ridículos, exóticos, y extravagantes? . . . Y si algún satírico o algún cómico quiere corregirlas haciendo visible y como de bulto su ridiculez , ya en la sátira, ya en el teatro, ¿no se vale siempre de algún nombre fingido y por lo común estrafalario? . . . Pero dime, ¿ha habido hasta ahora en él alguno que se llamase Tartufa? Y con todo eso, el bellaco de Molière . . . da una carga cerrada a los hipócritas de todas profesiones.” (Let us speak with a more friendly freedom. Is there then in the world, or even in the church of God, any order of men so serious, so elevated, or so holy, that there are not to be found in it many most ridiculous, absurd, and extravagant individuals? . . . And if any satirist or comic poet endeavors to correct them, does he not always avail himself of a feigned name, and for the most part a whimsical or slovenly one? . . . But tell me; was there ever in the world a man called Tartuffe? And yet that rogue of a Molière . . . lays about him so unmercifully on the hypocrites of all professions.)1 This invocation points toward a way of reading Father Gerundio and recognizes the discursive potential of the world’s Gerundios to destabilize readers’ expectations, as well as institutions of power such as the Catholic Church. Isla’s narrative, then, proposes to laugh away tired practices and to cast idle theological training out of existence, specifically by drawing attention to the scathing humor and dangers of rhetorical excess. Irony and satire drive the author’s commentary; through hyperbole, false modesty, pun, and ornamented rhetoric, Isla envelops the sermons in a rococo aesthetic consistent with the Tartuffe model. Before discussing rhetorical and aesthetic similarities in detail, I should first define the bounds of such a comparison. Isla does not merely reproduce the figure of Tartuffe in his novel; rather, he employs irony and excess to convey the florid language, gestures, and allure of verbal seduction that also are characteristics of Molière. In her chapter discussing the meaning of irony, Claire Colebrook reminds her reader that “irony is a type of speech act, but it is one that also opens up the question of a theory of meaning (the...


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