Celestina and the Ends of Desire by E. Michael Gerli
This is an aptly titled monograph. It deals with the Spanish classic, Celestina, in a straightforward, unequivocal and almost driving manner. Its main objective is to plumb the depths of desire in all the possible varieties present in the work and in which the fuller understanding of how desire takes over the text can function as a hermeneutical tool for readers. The readers Gerli surely had in mind while composing Desire are, clearly, scholars and students of the work who know the text very well: these readers will profit greatly from this dense, well-written and cohesive study.
Desire is a study subdivided into one teaser of an introduction and nine well-turned chapters, each one focussing on an aspect of desire as the underpinnings of a work produced in the transitional period spanning the tradition-bound world of Spain in the fifteenth century and earlier, to a surprisingly modern and liberal world unmatched by any other work in its time. Specific acts of the 21-act Tragicomedia center the chapters and these are usefully structured so that Gerli’s narrative sequence follows the action itself. This is important to observe since, in essence, the study presents a methodical and original reading of the work, following its development from scene I of Act I to the tragic conclusion of Act XXI, in order to explicate the role of Desire as it attempts to bind, crossing boundaries but doomed to fail, its fictional (and real) world together. In one form or another, the strong message that results from this reading of the work is inscribed time and again in each of its chapters, expressed in different ways: the leit-motif of desire is always illusory, non-transcendent, irrational, and it produces, finally, only despair, death and silence. [End Page 239]
Gerli is extremely well-grounded in theories appertaining to his subject and many are explored in the book without any of them dominating the discourse, which is always brought back to bear directly on the Celestina text. Still, it is worth noting that the two basic theoretical strands to which the author returns time and again are Freud and Lacan, both interwoven into the cloth of the desire which in the postulates bridging death, desire and language in a conflicted world are so prominent.
In Gerli’s introduction, it is stated clearly that: his study “seeks to show how Celestina, situated at the bounds between the medieval and the early modern, has its own particular fascination, and clearly extended the notions of desire beyond their traditional medieval formulations directly into the social, economic, physiological, and psychological fields of human activity: to the transformation of libido amandi (lust for love) into libido dominandi (lust for power) and finally into libido capiendi (lust for knowledge)” (3). In essence, that statement serves as a capsule summation of what is brilliantly accomplished in the following pages. In stating that the true intentions of the characters and the desires that drive them are rarely on display or even fully disclosed in the dialogued text of Celestina, it is left—Gerli affirms—to “irony and close reading” to reveal them (4). This is the large task that Gerli takes upon himself to accomplish and he does it splendidly, one step at a time, taking us from the medieval discourse of desire aligned with transcendence in both the courtly and the religious realms to the appearance of Celestina, when desire and ambition combined produce a non-transcendental panoply of “conflict, violence and, ultimately, death” (5). As one might imagine from these statements, language itself is the main point or focus of The Ends of Desire. Indeed, as Gerli rightly claims, desire is a main force in the still-commanding appeal of the work, “and for the disturbing sense of amazement and revelation readers still feel after their first experience with it” (12).
In Chapter One, we are privy to the linkages of language and longing, symbolized on various levels by the image of the ill-fated chain Celestina receives from Calisto in Act XI, symbolizing the inevitable conjoining of Eros and Commerce. The impulse to possess is a prime mover for all the characters in the work: it is a public form of desire, one that impels all human action (34). However, the presence of something always –in Lacanian mode– signifies an absence. In their discourse, the characters constantly fail accurately to identify their sublimated desires, and satisfaction of desire ever remains beyond their reach. Language [End Page 240] usage does not produce a cathartic release but instead leads only to distance and despair. This chain of desire in Celestina stimulates its interconnected lives and actions, sparks their future actions only to, finally, immolate all of them in a final silence.
Chapter Two is entitled “Celestina: Mistress of Desire” and draws much substance from varied approaches to the many possible meanings of the scar she wears on her face, but Gerli interprets it, revealingly, as “a powerful icon of her turbulent world” (44). Gerli is good at rehearsing her mastery of, first, fanning and, then, realizing the desire of others, sweeping them all into in her own vortex of creating and satisfying desire. None escape her manipulations, and the proof of her absolute mastery resides in Gerli’s reading of Celestina’s toying with Melibea subliminal desire in Act X. At this juncture, Gerli treats us to a valuable digression: he takes up the theme of desire as expressed by the author in the paratexts, when his desire to reread over and over, lead to his desire to finish the work (twice). This is later matched by the desire of other authors to imitate and copy, a trend which is still alive in our time, showing both how desire can be perpetuated but also never fully realized.
“Calisto’s Hunt and the Desire for Carnal Knowledge” is the topic taken up in the third chapter. As the hunt symbolizes the insatiable hunger for knowledge, it is also seen as the universal pursuit in which humans are both hunted and hunter. Hunting is a form of desiring and the hunt of love proves deadly. Gerli’s commentary of Act I’s initial scene is bolstered by other hunting scenes from courtly romance. Gerli centers his commentary about the desire for carnal knowledge on Melibea’s cordón, surrendered to Celestina in Act IV but the principal fetishistic object of Act VI, in Calisto’s hands. The cordón as bait is both offered and withheld by the mistress of desire, and performs as both a presence and an absence. Calisto’s desire is pathological and he is blind to the implications of his longing. The cordón is a fetish (as was the chain in Chapter One). Although the end will be doom or death, it is postponed again by Calisto’s copious use of language interwoven with his desire, speech being the true realm of eroticism (86). Unlike earlier lovers’ hunts (courtly romance), Calisto’s love never ennobles, is never sublime or transcendental. His speech in Act VI serves an onanistic (91) purpose but the extreme fantasizing serves to distance himself (absence) from Melibea’s real body (presence). His discourse, in short, here overwhelms his desire for Melibea. [End Page 241]
Chapter Four takes up voyeurism in Celestina. It is forever linked to the unattainability of the desired object (as proposed by Freud). Calisto, a classic narcissist, is a frequent voyeur, even wishing to be “seen” making love (Act XIV). All of Celestina’s characters are caught in scenes of voyeurism. Gerli catches, amusingly, both Celestina (117) and Lucrecia (117-120) performing masculine voyeuristic roles. Desire is captured in fleeting moments but remains elusive, and is filtered, as Gerli shows, in the sensory means of sight, touch, smell and taste, but is not, in fact, satisfied. In fact, as the author concludes, Celestina’s voyeurism is a touchstone for “understanding of representation and formulation of human desire at the threshold of modernity” (121).
The following chapter is devoted to complicitous laughter and the two cases followed are those of Pármeno in Act I and Alisa in Act IV. Laughter seems better connected with underlying passions than with language itself and Pármeno’s giggling would be seen as Freud’s “tendentious” laughter (126). I think the reading of Alisa’s laughter is more problematic, but Gerli makes the most of what he sees as her “snicker”—when told Celestina’s name by Lucrecia— and sees it as the present-day product of their “long friendship and association” and as Alisa’s “unequivocal recognition of the bawd and her trade” (128-129), advancing the suggestion that she would be complicit in her daughter’s fate in Celestina’s hands. For me, this is the most difficult of Gerli’s notions, as the text offers little solid evidence of such a long association of the two women, other than Celestina’s vain boast in Act VI (“tratava con ellas, hablava y reýa de día y de noche; mejor me conosce su madre que a sus mismas manos”) which need not be taken at truth value, as almost none of Celestina’s versions of the past can be challenged by her interlocutors at the moment. Gerli again invokes this conviction in the following chapter.
Chapter Six, “Melibea Speaks, Language and Feminine Desire”, returns us to the main threads of the thesis that desire leads to calamity. Gerli contrasts the medieval negative view of women by assigning to each of his female characters a voice of yearning; they are complex desiring subjects rather than female stereotypes and victims of medieval misogyny. The crashing irony of this freedom to express desire is that none of the explicit desires of any of the women is fulfilled; each is destroyed as the objects of their carnal desires remain out of reach, unattainable. Melibea, for example rejects Calisto with harsh words but Gerli rightly sees this rejection as “ambiguous” (142). Later, the implicit collusion of Melibea and Celestina in Act IV is convincingly interpreted as [End Page 242] a “mutually understood act of charity” (145). Melibea frees her body from patriarchal prohibitions, gains self-knowledge, and pays a high price for that freedom with death in her final sacrifice: suicide. Elicia demands of Sempronio what she cannot—as a sex worker—give him, an “incongruent fidelity” (155). Areúsa vilifies Melibea but, like her, has come to share a quite modern sense of self-assurance. Lucrecia’s desires increase as she witnesses the love-play of the protagonists but is harshly rebuked when she cannot resist embracing Calisto (Act XIX). Alisa, Gerli claims, is a non-vigilant mother and projects her own unattended desire vicariously in the amorous adventures of her daughter (157). Maybe, but I fail to see any textual justification for this reading. These women, all of them conscious of their bodies, are in the end betrayed by desire and suffer disillusionment.
Chapter Seven deals with the desire to belong and the body politic and it is here that Gerli grapples with the rich implications of the banquet scene staged in Act IX. Civic non-conformity takes over in the strong language of Areúsa, Elicia, and Lucrecia. The social and sexual fabric of the world of Celestina is chafing and the attacks on Melibea and on the treatment of maids by their “señoras” deepen the social rifts as these representatives of the underclass probe the gentry’s “distortions of truth” (174) and dramatize different erotic and social desires. Gerli calls it a “ritual of social solidarity” (177). The proliferating discontent and the contradictions expressed effectively underscore new or at least alternative social identities in open opposition to the reigning social order. In some sense, Act IX can be seen as a map of social tensions in late fifteenth-century Castile, in which the body, seen as a vehicle of pleasure, an engine of desire, establishes Celestina firmly at the threshold of modernity.
Notes on locating desire and ideology in Celestina are the essence of Chapter Eight, and the creation of space is its prime focus. How is space created? Spaces in the work are created by language, speech actions, and thought, but a specific space may either be propitious or not to one or more of these. As such, space creation is complex, both in the instance of the physical world and of the individual houses that dominate the action. Homes can serve two masters, as havens or sanctuaries, and as sites for homosocial bonding (Celestina’s house, and Areusa’s quarters); they are safe places for the open expression of rebellious thought. Pleberio’s home is the opposite, a fortress that must be breached with fear and trepidation. Its garden of desire (hortus conclusus) is turned into a place of rupture, grief and death (195). The one is opposed to the other, inclusionary [End Page 243] versus exclusionary. Thus, Celestina’s spaces are locales constantly criss-crossed by conflicting forces of representation and desire (198), a situation which makes this work a touchstone of ideologies suited to the early modern as opposed to the medieval world view.
Chapter Nine brings these threads together in a stunning analysis of Pleberio’s lament (Act XXI), aptly titled “Pleberio and the Ends of Desire”. He is the traditional figure of the interpres of elegiac lamentations, but has been given a new role in that his questioning of his suffering is distinctly individual (202). Long-held beliefs of Creation are overturned and instead of inspiring hope, instead lead us to non-reassurance and debasement. For Pleberio, the World itself is revealed as a leveller, levelling all in it to a final deception, misery and solitude. The appearance of fullness is deceptive as life is empty, its end is nothingness, and, he discovers, there is no possible meaning. The end of desire (termed as Love in his lament) is revealed as death (209). The belief in language is broken, shattered, revealed for what it is, a mask for insubstantiality. In lamenting not Melibea’s death, but the “desastrada causa” that brings it about, the ennobling and transcendental fictions of the earlier courtly romance and religious mysticism of the Middle Ages fall flat. Desire is itself inhabited by death; it is a lie that is built on the shifting sands of illusion and self-delusion (213). When speech fails Pleberio, he faces the Real, which is the abyss of death. We understand, with him, that desire’s end is desire itself, it is non-transcendental and is and will be forever unattainable (218). Only death can silence the constant wanting, the desire that drives all of life. And Gerli ends his own written speech acts with a conclusion well worth the wait: Celestina leads to “the growth, cultivation and exercise of a secular human conscience” that dominates the literatures to follow in its wake (221).
This study contains, in my view, a few slips which in no way subtract from its power to illuminate the Celestina text. For example Gerli speaks of a 1502 edition of the Tragicomedia, though there is no extant copy to confirm this. Rojas is considered the author of all but the first act, but many modern scholars in the past dozen years have taken up the challenge of that author’s involvement in the history of the work’s many versions. He translates “hechicera” as ‘witch’ when the more accurate ‘sorceress’ would avoid a polemic in Celestina scholarship (Celestina is not referred to as a bruja). In Act XXI, Gerli says Pleberio is alone, “in absence of any living being” (205). This is not completely accurate: his wife, who has either fainted or passed away as the result of shock (this is ambiguous [End Page 244] as Pleberio states only: “O mujer mía, levántate de sobre ella, y si alguna vida te queda, gástala conmigo en tristes gemidos …)”, may not be lifeless. Few scholars have assumed that Alisa lies lifeless in actual death, but Gerli’s reading—that Pleberio speaks with no living person to hear him—is in error, as a silent, mourning Lucrecia is there and has been from the very onset of Act XXI, clearly seen in this statement of Pleberio to his wife: “La causa supe della [Melibea], más la he sabido por estenso desta su triste sirviente”, the deictic “esta” clearly indicating her presence within view of both. Though not speaking a word, she hears what we hear in Pleberio’s powerful lamentation.
I recommend this insightful and important monograph as a must for all interested scholars, for advanced students involved with the text, and for acquisition by any research library as a volume that will not stay long on its shelves.