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THE picaro is the first great anti-hero of Western literature. Born in the early sixteenth century from the social soil of Renaissance —and Inquisitorial—Spain,1 and flourishing throughout the Spanish “Golden Age,” he gave his name to an entire literary genre: the picaresque novel, Spain’s distinct contribution to world literature. Later there were also French, English, and German varieties, but the original picaresque model and invention came from Spain. Parallel to the literary picaro,2 and not unrelated to him, was another specific Spanish phenomenon that marked the same period—the Conversos (also called “New Christians” and “Marranos ”),3 tens of thousands of former Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity, and their descendents. They were ready targets of the Spanish Inquisition, which was prone to accuse them of “Judaizing” (keeping their Jewish customs or identity in secret)—an often false or exaggerated offense for which they suffered acute public humiliation in stylized rituals known as Acts of Faith (autos-de-fé),4 or more severe punishment, including burning . In addition, all Conversos, regardless of their religious practice or belief, were officially pronounced as having impure blood, and barred on that account from public office and other social honors. They were a disgraced class in principle, bearing an existential or ontological shame in their very being (in their “blood”). Despite these conditions—and partly because of them—Conversos were at the forefront of Spanish culture during the Golden Age, both in literature (scholarly and fictional) and in creating SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Winter 2003) The Birth of the Picaro from the Death of Shame YIRMIYAHU YOVEL new, unorthodox forms of Catholic reform and devotion. The dissent of these Conversos did not mean they were Jews; on the contrary , most of them had opted for being Christian; but their way to Catholic Spain was unconventional. It was through various forms of dissent and nonconformity that these intellectuals were able to link onto a Spanish society that both accepted and excluded them—in which they were “the other within.” These intellectuals did not accept Spain as it was, with its extant social and religious conventions; they either gave their allegiance to a better, more spiritual society that they advocated as reformers, or adhered to the Spanish social body in an incomplete fashion— through a critique of its values and a general ironic (sometimes even irreligious) outlook. Their explosive cultural creativity, including their dominance in the picaresque genre, does not, therefore, indicate that the Conversos had been “fully integrated” in the Spanish body, as some scholars argue today (Alcalá, 1992: 91-118). On the contrary , it was their lack of integral identity—their inner duality, the restlessness deriving from the typically Converso severed identity and split mind (of which I have written elsewhere)—that explain their outstanding creativity during the Spanish siglo de oro.5 The present paper is adapted from a book-length manuscript that brings out the presence of the Converso experience in Renaissance Spanish literature by following a close reading and analysis of major representative texts. These include the two founding novels of the picaresque genre, Lazarillo de Tormes and Guzmán de Alfarache. Here I shall concentrate on one episode in Guzmán, which deals with the treatment of shame. Shame is important, because of its negative relation to honra—social honor or prestige. A distinguished Hispanist, Marcel Bataillon, had stressed the key role (indeed, the exclusive function) of honra in linking the picaresque model and the Conversos. I think there are other, no less important elements that explain why the parallel between the picaresque literature and the experience of the Conversos and Inquisitorial Spain is nonaccidental. But honor is cer1298 SOCIAL RESEARCH tainly among the central ones—and shame, in one of its senses, is a negative corollary of honor. Shame and disgrace are not the same. Disgrace is a social attribute, and as such a direct contrary of honra. Shame often means an inner sense guiding or barring a person; as such shame is not shameful—not a cause of disgrace—but, on the contrary, is often praised as the bedrock foundation of civilization. (This is the sense in which...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 1297-1326
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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