- Queering Buen Amor
The naturalization of both heterosexuality and masculine sexual agency are discursive constructions nowhere accounted for but everywhere assumed. . . .—Judith Butler, Gender Trouble
Américo Castro’s España en su historia: Cristianos, moros y judíos (1948) not only instigated the “culture wars” that rocked Hispanism in the mid-twentieth century, but also made the fourteenth-century Libro de buen amor a centerpiece of debate.1 In a crucial chapter of his study, Castro tackles head-on Eurocentric readings of the Libro de buen amor by arguing for its cultural hybridity, or in more extreme terms, its fixedness in the cultural prerogatives of Arabic-speaking al-Andalus. “Los métodos usados para entender la poesía románico-cristiana fallan,” he affirms in an opening salvo, “porque el Libro de Buen Amor es un reflejo castellano de modelos árabes [The methods used to comprehend Romance-Christian poetry are doomed to failure because the Libro de buen amor is a Castilian reflection of Arabic models] . . .” [España en su historia 355]. By relocating the author’s poetic impulse in the Arab world, Castro seeks to explain not only the Libro de buen amor’s open, “arabesque” structure—its spontaneous gliding from holy to profane, serious to comical, generic-abstract to concrete-sensible—but also the ambiguous nature of buen amor. For Castro, buen amor is the simultaneous compulsion toward spiritual transcendence and sexual fulfillment, best understood within the context of an Islamic theological system in which sexual desire is not categorically opposed to godliness.
Not surprisingly, Castro’s scholarship was judged harshly by his critics as historical revisionism of the most pernicious sort, a deliberate erosion of those values and certainties that make it possible to read Spain as a full player in the march of Western civilization. Most vehement in his attack was Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, who authored the two volumes of his España: Un enigma histórico (1956) as both an explicit defense against the “magnetic seduction” [1: 9] of Castro’s prose and a reaffirmation of national consciousness. Sánchez-Albornoz’s take on the Libro de buen amor falls neatly in line with the thinly disguised nationalism of his opus as a whole. He rejects soundly Castro’s claims of cultural hybridity in favor of a Libro de buen amor located safely on this side of the cultural “abyss” between Latin Christendom and the Islamic world. What is more, he resists the queernesses that spin out of Castro’s scholarship, the threat of contamination of the national character in unspeakable ways. If Spain had been exposed to the cultural proclivities of al-Andalus, Sánchez-Albornoz argues, so too would it have been exposed to al-Andalus’s “ambiguous” notion of love, a love “que no excluía las ‘amistades particulares,’ ni la sentimental inclinación, e incluso la pasión carnal, de varón a varón [that did not exclude ‘special friendships,’ nor sentimental inclination–and even carnal passion [End Page 104] –between one man and another]” .2 Here Sánchez-Albornoz slams the closet door shut by constructing Spain as the bastion of straight desire and Juan Ruiz as its virtual posterboy: “En el clérigo de Hita triunfaba la robusta, natural y simplista concepción heterosexual del amor de la Castilla de su época [There triumphed in the cleric of Hita a robust, natural, uncomplicated heterosexual concept of love characteristic of the Castile of his period]” [458–59].
I begin with the Castro/Sánchez-Albornoz polemic because it exposes the presence and functions of “normativity” in Libro de buen amor studies throughout much of the twentieth century. With few exceptions, readings prior to Castro’s overlooked what was odd about the Libro de buen amor in order to engage in an obsessive archaeology of sameness, a plotting of conventional values and meanings that served to render the work as familiar, if not necessarily equal to other master works of the Western canon. Félix Lecoy emerged as the doyen of this critical school, publishing in 1938 an excruciatingly detailed study of the work’s language, structure, and sources whose primary objective was...