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The Persistence of Presence: Emblem and Ritual in Baroque Spain (review)

From: Bulletin of the Comediantes
Volume 64, Number 2, 2012
pp. 201-202 | 10.1353/boc.2012.0039

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Bradley J. Nelson connects the study of two essential elements of Baroque erudite culture, literature and emblems, to create an innovative approach to analyzing early modern Spanish culture. His thesis is that “emblematic structures are powerful tools for the creation of presence effects” (4). He defines “presence” as “the way which certain encounters or events compel us to transcend our mundane existence,” allowing contact with “a higher, more universal—more real—experience of meaning and being” (3). Since emblems are a means for creating these experiences, they are “a primary indicator of the social and political functions of literary practices” (4). Reading through the lens of emblematics, Nelson makes a nuanced and novel analysis of works by Lope, Calderón, Gracián, and Cervantes.

The study is divided into three distinct, though cohesive, sections. The first is a study of early modern emblems books and their reception. Chapter 1 is dedicated to Spain’s first original emblem book, Juan de Borja’s Empresas morales. Nelson compares this work to Lope’s Arte nuevo de hacer comedias in order to emphasize its theoretical nature. He views Borja as “an author who seeks to control the place and potential function of his enterprise in Counter Reformation Spain and Europe” (33). In chapter 2, he turns his attention to Juan de Horozco’s Emblemas morales and their treatment of classical antiquity in order to demonstrate “how the definition and deployment of a remote literary and cultural corpus says as much or more about those who study it as it does about the object of study itself” (59). In other words, his analysis reveals the process by which early modern emblematists assigned new hegemonic significance to visual symbols completely unrelated to Baroque society.

In the second section, Nelson applies the concepts established in the first section to the study of Baroque theatrical works. In chapter 3, he analyzes Lope’s El mundo nuevo descubierto por Cristóbal Colón. His central interest here is the “ritualistic-emblematic fragmentation and reconstitution of the central religious symbol of the Counter Reformation: the cross,” as well as Lope’s emblematization of the New World indigenous Other (78). In chapter 4, he turns his attention to Calderón’s auto El gran mercado del mundo. He argues that the playwright depicts the conflict between “legitimate and illegitimate frames for seeing and acting in the world” and that this conflict is actually more about ideology than liturgy. Chapter 5 is dedicated to one of Calderón’s comedias, El alcalde de Zalamea. Nelson reads the climactic slaying of Don Álvaro as if it were an empresa and explores Calderón’s views on the honor code as apparent in the work.

In the third section, Nelson discusses the relationship between emblems and the human body in prose works. Chapter 6 is dedicated to Gracián. Nelson signals a slight change in focus, noting that “my discussion of Gracián is not strictly based on his use of emblems but rather [. . .] the emblematic mode will serve as a point of departure and reference” (163). He concludes that, unlike emblematists, Gracián “brings out the inherent contradictions that arise when sacred symbols circulate in a secularized symbolic economy,” which means that artists become “masters of this new sphere of political activity” (194). In chapter 7, he analyzes Cervantes’s Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda. Here he notes that Cervantes makes use of emblems, but simultaneously undermines them by making them “resist the closure and presence effects typical of the emblematic operation” (203).

Nelson’s approach is unique, and its application makes for a very sophisticated analysis, particularly of the works by Lope, Calderón, and Cervantes. The discussion of early modern emblems is a useful introduction to the subject for specialists whose training is primarily in literary studies. Although he succeeds in developing a very complex argument, his prose is at times unnecessarily difficult. Despite this weakness, his work is a major contribution to baroque studies and is of great value to comedia specialists.

Copyright © 2012 Bulletin of the Comediantes
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Charles Patterson. "The Persistence of Presence: Emblem and Ritual in Baroque Spain...



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