- Sacred Realism: Religion and Imagination in Modern Spanish Narrative
What is the relation between faith and fiction, between belief and the novel? In exploring this intriguing question Noël Valis has created a remarkable book that challenges the prevailing view of religion as a spent force that has withered away in the age of modernity and the secular novel. In lieu of the split between religion and secularized modernity, she posits the concept of secular realism as an intertwining of the two within novels written by Spanish liberal writers during three historical periods of change and crisis: the late eighteenth-century through the 1840's; the Bourbon Restoration; and the Second Republic through the Civil War. Lamenting the "dismal impact of Michel Foucault" and other posthumanist and poststructuralist approaches, which have fostered "the academy's own contemporary prejudices" toward religion as primarily a repressive instrument of power, Valis calls for a "fuller understanding" of Spanish literature that acknowledges novelistic expressions of "religiously infused, humanitarian sensibility" (5-6). Both spiritual belief and fictional belief depend on the ability to imagine the intangible, and Valis shows how sacred realism incorporates structures of religious imagination—resurrection, communion, confession, and martyrdom—into secular narratives.
She begins with the crisis in religion brought on by Enlightenment ideas. Rather than viewing faith and reason in opposition, Valis sees them working together in texts such as El evangelio en triunfo by Pablo de Olavide and Noches lúgubres by José Cadalso to create a "new embryonic psychological-social realism, which serves to project spiritual feeling onto the page but also to shape it through humanitarian purposefulness" (242). She traces how the moral and ethical concern for others that informed early Christianity found new expression in the social reforms of the Enlightenment, with the poor and marginalized lower social orders becoming "resurrected" from the "symbolic death" to which they had been relegated into the "social realm of existence" where they were made visible not only within society, but also "as a new subject of novelistic inquiry" (61). This renewed regard for the welfare of the underprivileged further developed and became institutionalized in the nineteenth-century through religious and secular organizations. By the 1840's Ayguals de Izco's María, la hija de un jornalero emerged to explore how both the Church and society could better address the problems of urban poverty and social inequality by reestablishing the "social-spiritual contract" of "communitas" among all classes (97). The novel advocates "socially responsible religious feeling" and interconnectedness between the many levels of society as a new urbanized and class-conscious variation of clientelism's personal and "paternalistic reciprocity between the privileged and the lower orders of society that had obtained for centuries throughout Europe" (104, 117).
Valis sees this concept of communitas finding its supreme fictional representation in Benito Pérez Galdós's Fortunata y Jacinta, which is "a fully realized world of complex relations that bridges but does not erase the vast divide between rich and poor" through a [End Page 152] social-religious philanthropy "which is, symbolically, practically, and spiritually speaking, communion with the other" (120). The philanthropic and communitarian embrace of the characters is epitomized by Guillermina Pacheco whose "comings and goings crisscross the narration, connecting characters thematically and structurally by shaping a vast scope of Galdós's map of the world into a recognizable urban geography of reciprocal relations" (136). Based on the reconfigured model of clientelism, these reciprocal relations "provided a common bond between those who suffered and those who would help" (138). As such, it is not simply the poor who could benefit from the charity of the rich, but also the upper-middle-class Jacinta who could receive the gift of a child from the lower-class Fortunata. Valis also shows how communitas is developed through metaphors of communion, and she discusses how the religious concept of transmigration unites different social classes in spiritual fellowship through Fortunata's mental conflation of Guillermina with Mauricia, and through Fortunta's identification with Jacinta. Valis is quick to...