- Through the Bonfires of Petrarchism:Flemish Aesthetics in "El coloquio de Los Perros"
Only recently has Cervantine criticism assumed the intertwining of graphic and literary imagination to be a constitutive feature of Cervantes's creative process and production (Chaffee-Sorace 208). Thanks to Helmut Hatzfeld, Kari-Ludwig Selig, Edward Friedman, Frederick De Armas, George Camamis, Edward Dudley, and Diane Chaffee-Sorace, among others, this visual and pictorial component has also become a constitutive feature of Cervantes criticism, one that allows us to consider and explore the Cervantine works for what they are: fully embodied works of art. Although Cervantes's pictorial imagination is usually explored in relation to the Italian Renaissance and its idealized premises,1 in these pages, by studying the exemplary novella "El coloquio de los perros," I argue for the existence of a much darker dimension in Cervantes's artistic sensibility. Through a departure from Italian molds, Cervantes's adoption of a Northern "Flemish" aesthetics provides "El coloquio" with a cohesiveness that allows it to unfold in the almost antagonistic directions of the exemplary and picaresque genres. My ultimate intent is to show how, despite its generic ambiguity, the dark aesthetic of this novella allows it to conduct an underlying moral critique of beauty.
A pictorial approach to Cervantes is a logical component of the general [End Page 23] consideration of a literary text as work of art.2 Traditionally, aesthetics has been considered the qualifying characteristic that allows us to identify an artistic object. As Arthur Danto states, "[a]n artwork is something produced with the intention of giving it the capacity to satisfy the aesthetic interest" ("The Art World" 571). The definition of such aesthetic interest, however, has proven to be a rather problematic postulation which many attempt to divert by identifying aesthetics with aestheticism: that is, by making beauty the ultimate interest or intention of the artist. This tempting identification conveys problems of its own; even though aesthetics and aestheticism both explore the conception of beauty, they do it quite differently. While aesthetics is devoted to the perception and contemplative delight of beauty in the form of the comic, the tragic, or the sublime, aestheticism considers art as self-sufficient, as the ultimate justification for its own existence.3
Cervantine criticism often makes notions of aesthetics and aestheticism interchangeable. When studying Cervantes's art theory, we tend to study Cervantes's conceptions of beauty and perception, perhaps (mis)guided by how Don Quixote—in the name of the beautiful—justifies what he does through what he sees. Inside and outside the Cervantine domains, beauty, especially female beauty, as a literary motif often becomes the ultimate justification for pursuits that transcend the artistic. As explored by Henry Higuera, Lisa Rabin and De Armas, Dulcinea embodies a link between beauty and imperialism, one which determines the creation of Don Quijote as an errant knight.4 These critics illuminate the indebtedness of Don Quijote's [End Page 24] characterization of Dulcinea to Petrarchan conceptions of beauty,5 pictorial and mnemotechnical techniques of Renaissance artists,6 and the military aspiration of the translatio imperii.7 Even though such a combination results in the somewhat monstrous figure of Dulcinea—never completely free from the lowly presence of Aldonza—Don Quijote succeeds in fixing in his mind, and that of his reader, the mechanics of female idealization.
"El coloquio de los perros" was one of the last works of Cervantes to be associated with any realm of beauty and pleasing or idealizing aesthetics. Female characters are almost totally absent from the novella, with the exception of an old woman, Cañizares, who is depicted as a monstruous "witch." In Cervantes and the Mystery of Lawlessness, Alban Forcione understands this absence as the revealing synthesis of the total design of the Novelas ejemplares (1613), which are for the critic a collection of stories grouped by their pessimistic tone, overwhelming ugliness, and vision of disorder. Similarly, Peter Dunn believes that "El coloquio de los perros" abandons Cervantes's most cherished aesthetic principles in order to construct the grotesque satire which constitutes the novella. For Henry Sullivan, however, the grotesque is a mode and sensibility more than merely an...