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Epic Descent: The Filiations of Don Juan

From: MLN
Volume 111, Number 2, March 1996 (Hispanic Issue)
pp. 255-274 | 10.1353/mln.1996.0029

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MLN 111.2 (1996) 255-274

A form of literary representation little probed by contemporary theory is propagation, the part that one work of art plays in the getting of another. In view of the multiplicity of elements which combine to produce a seemingly new writing, that omission is understandable, especially since recent theory has striven, not unsuccessfully, to weaken the myth of sole authorship, much as Plato, in his mortal conflict with poetry, designs to disarm philosophy's major foe by depicting poets themselves as instruments played by the gods rather than as players original in their craft. All art is for Plato second or third rate, and he justifies its inferiority by means of a theory of representation in which the copy can never be the equal, still less the superior, of its original. But the fact is that all artists imitate extant models of their art, which some equal and a few surpass.

Over the past twenty years, largely owing to the efforts of a small, unrelated group of mainly North American critics, the awareness that José Zorrilla's Don Juan Tenorio is not an unworthy descendant of Tirso's El burlador de Sevilla has grown. Despite major differences between the two plays, they have increasingly tended to be seen as not incommensurate. Greater stature for the presumed offspring has not, however, occurred at the expense of the putative parent. If anything, the prestige of El burlador has increased. Thus the two plays are now truly comparable and, exploiting the opportunity that their relative equality appears to provide, I wish to study the connection of Zorrilla's play with other works as a function of what I call filiation. The prime relationship is that with El burlador de Sevilla but it is far from being the only one.

For a work itself rich in posterity, El burlador shows a surprising lack of antecedents. Indeed, even in the near term, it has not yet been possible to determine precedence between the two earliest redactions of Don Juan, Tan largo me lo fiáis and El burlador de Sevilla. Does El burlador issue from Tan largo, or is it the reverse? The authorship of each version is an equally vexed question. Furthermore, positivist criticism failed to find a historical model for the Tenorios but did disclose in European folklore and Spanish balladry the source of the double invitation and the stone guest. Dorothy MacKay prints seven old ballads on the subject. The multiple is significant, because the romances viejos seem to spawn promiscuously as congeries of more or less equal variants rather than in a tidy line of descent where a progenitor brings forth a discernible succession. In truth, nearly everything about El burlador de Sevilla, internally as well as externally, is problematical. In being so, the issue it most importantly raises and regularly confronts is that of paternity, artistic and human. With the earliest versions of the myth, as well as in later avatars, the indispensable element is the double invitation, a basic strand drawn from the ballads in which a young male mocks the remains of a dead male elder by inviting his corpse, skull, or skeleton to a feast. The horror is that the ghostly guest reciprocates by bidding the young host to partake of a fatal meal with him. The action here is intergenerational, as between father and son, young man and old, and it is impious in that it denies the traditional reverential order, in which the son defers to the father, that has characterized western literature from its beginnings in epic. In Book II of the Aeneid, Aeneas unmistakably draws the classic design for male precedence when he organizes the escape of his familia from Troy:

Ergo age, care pater, cervici imponere nostrae;
ipse subibo umeris, nec me labor iste gravabit.
Quo res cumque cadent, unum et commune periclum,
una salus ambobus erit. Mihi parvus Iulus
sit comes,et longe servet vestigia coniunx.


Aeneas's first thought is for his father, whom he takes up and bears away on his shoulders. The two men are as one, facing the same danger, desiring the same escape: "una salus ambobus." The parent's...

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