- The Theater of Truth: The Ideology of (Neo)Baroque Aesthetics
William Egginton’s book fixates on the opposition between appearances and reality that we learned about in Plato and drags it through swaths of the history of Western thought and literature, displaying it under various guises, as literary texts bring to his mind philosophers from Kant to Heidegger, and, of course Deleuze, Lacan, plus the rest of the usual suspects of current critical [End Page 311] thought—mostly through the commonplaces that we all know about them. The book’s focus is on Cervantes, Calderón, Góngora, Gracián, Moreto, Carpentier, Lezama, Sarduy, and Almodóvar, or what Egginton calls the “historical Baroque” and the “neobaroque.”
Egginton’s thesis is that the historical baroque presented a world of appearances that presumably concealed behind them a truth about the self and about reality. This is what he calls the “major strategy” of the baroque, while the neobaroque deploys a “minor strategy” by means of which it offers appearances as all that there is, with nothing behind them—a “theater of truth.” The interplay of appearances and reality and the opposition of these two strategies extend all the way to present-day politics, where the ploy of passing off appearances lies, as the truth prevails. In the case of the baroque Egginton argues, credibly, against Maravall’s simplistic thesis that the baroque created compliant subjects for the crown, that the “major strategy” is in fact a form of criticism. This is his most valuable contribution, and it is a proposition more fully developed in Antonio Carreño-Rodríguez’s recent book about the baroque theater, Alegorías del poder. But baroque and neobaroque are artistic periods, and Egginton makes no attempt at to set the chronological limits of either or to define them. When does the baroque begin and where does it end? His elastic concept of the neobaroque widens to include Almodóvar and even Judith Butler, ultimately replacing the “postmodern” in its improbable capaciousness.
Egginton’s reading of Calderón’s La vida es sueño, complicated by a confused and gratuitous comparison with Kant’s critiques, is ultimately simplistic and misleading. Calderón’s distinction between dream and reality is classically Neoplatonic, but the overall structure of his thought is neo-Scholastic, one of the few philosophical schools that Egginton fails to mention. Segismundo does realize that he might never be able to distinguish dream from reality, that the world is like a stage, but wills himself to act morally and in accordance with Christian doctrine. The clash in the baroque is between an obsolete system of thought, scholasticism, and a reality that, observed with more modern scientific and philosophical approaches, refuses to submit to its rigid categories. The resulting distortions and convolutions of thought and style in the baroque stem from this conflict, dramatized in Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s poem “Primero sueño.” Herein lies the critique of the crown’s ideology. That in the neobaroque appearances are the only “reality” is not news, but a commonplace, theorized by Octavio Paz and Severo Sarduy and deployed in fictional works by Carpentier and Lezama (with variations). Egginton fails to provide an explanation as to why Latin [End Page 312] American authors espoused the baroque in the twentieth century. There is an ample bibliography on this that he could have cited.
There are a number of questionable scholarly practices in the book, of which I will mention four. First, Egginton cites his translations of the texts studied, not the originals. The absence of the Spanish veils crass misreadings. In Moreto’s play El desdén con el desdén, for instance, Carlos expresses the commonplace that when he looked at Diana and noticed her indifference to him, “she whom I had seen as common/seemed to me a pilgrim,” in Egginton’s mistranslation, who comments that disdain turns “her appearance from common to pilgrim-like, or almost holy” (47). The original reads...