- Celestina and the Ends of Desire by E. Michael Gerli
Modernity, Desire, Subjectivity, Lacan, Augustine, Celestina, Visual Culture
In this study, Gerli proposes that the Celestina should be read as an early modern text that gives voice to the individual and societal anxieties of an emerging modern subject. Gerli brings together the work of several critics who have analyzed various aspects of the text (Gossy and Douglas on feminine subjectivity; Lacarra and Gilman on the socio-historical context, and Severin and Foothergill-Payne on rhetoric, etc.) in service of his larger thesis about desire and modernity. He offers a Marxist and psychoanalytic reading of the characters and spaces through which they move—arguing that, as readers, we find in this late fifteenth-century text an ironic/subversive repurposing of medieval genres such as courtly lyric and romance, and the social system from which they derive and which they perpetuate, in order to give expression to the social and economic frustrations of Spain’s incipient working class in fifteenth-century Spain. In the individual chapters, Gerli teases out the implications of material desire in the objects, names, images, scopophilia, laughter, speech, bodies, and spaces depicted in the work. Through close readings of the text, as well as comparative readings of contemporary visual texts, Gerli develops the argument that the work marks a pivotal and transitional historical moment in which we find the first stirrings of what will become the personal and self-reflective subjectivity that defines modernity.
Chapter 1 explores the chain of desire that serves as the motor for much of the narrative in the Celestina. Gerli offers a Lacanian reading of this desire and the language in which it is couched, maintaining that both are always contingent and metonymical, and that the objects in the work form the characters’ chain of desire and embody the “slippage of signified from signifier” (29). In Celestina’s hands, through which these objects move and take on meaning, desire and economy merge: “[S]ecular economic and libidinal desire become one” (30). Behind Rojas, Gerli finds Augustine, for whom desire is the lust of the intellect, the teleology of desire that Gerli describes as “the constitutive feature of subjectivity” (34). In the second chapter Gerli explains how the objects of desire in the Celestina transcend the physical, and are, in large part, also emblematic of knowledge and control, and how Celestina’s art consists in the promise of fulfilling the desires she manipulates. Crucial to her skill is her ability to give shape to desire in language: “[S]he helps form it into words, into language, into discourse, and then finally into action” (53). According to Gerli, the author himself, Fernando de Rojas, like the characters within the work, falls prey to Celestina’s promise of fulfillment, seeking satisfaction by continuing to add chapters to the initial first act he encountered, and eventually expanding the work to some 21 chapters. [End Page 99]
Gerli includes early modern images, paintings, and woodblock prints from early printings of the Celestina as supporting materials that illustrate key concepts. In chapter 3 he uses Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors (with its anamorphic skull just below the ambassadors’ feet and visible only if the viewer changes the angle from which he/she views the painting) as visual analogue for the allusions to death that pepper the Celestina and which “must be seen askance” (96). Chapter 5 focuses on laughter in the work, which Gerli describes as “a complex referent of a character’s authenticity” (123). Looking at Murillo’s painting of two women gazing directly at the viewer (A Girl and her Duenna), one older, one very young (a teenager at best), and both smirking, Gerli compares the Iberian tradition to the young, attractive girl on the verge of sexual awakening, whereas her older companion, still given to thoughts of sex, embodies other European traditions—the French, the Dutch, the Italian—as well as the relationship not only between Celestina and Areusa, but also between Melibea and her mother. In this Pan–European context, Gerli...