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  • Miau and Spanish Science
  • Leslie J. Harkema

A pivotal scene in Benito Pérez Galdós’ Miau (1888) focuses on the intellectual capacities of Ramón Villaamil, a lifelong civil servant whom the novel presents as both marginalized by and thoroughly representative of modern Spanish society. In the story’s twenty-second chapter, Ramón lays out a plan for reforming the Spanish economy that he has worked out over decades as an employee of the Ministry of the Treasury. Now caught in a desperate situation after losing his job only two months before he would have qualified for a pension, he has returned to his former place of employment out of habit, and in hopes of finding a way back into the fold. When he is unable to secure any assurance that he will be re-hired, the frustration that will ultimately lead Ramón to suicide at the novel’s end begins to take hold of his mental state. As he takes his leave, his former colleagues prompt him to describe his idiosyncratic economic theory. They do so not out of genuine interest, but in order to poke fun at the unfortunate old man. Ramón, oblivious to their intentions, enthusiastically complies. When he finishes explaining the four points of his plan (whose initials ironically spell out the feline epithet used to denigrate the Villaamil family throughout the novel, “Miau”), one of the listeners comments with feigned amazement, “Sabe usted más, don Ramón, que el muy marrano que inventó la Hacienda” (Pérez Galdós 259). “No es que sepa mucho,” Ramón responds, “es que miro las cosas de la casa como mías propias, y quisiera ver a este país entrar de lleno por la senda del orden. Esto no es ciencia, es buen deseo, aplicación, trabajo” (259).

Ramón’s disavowal of his own knowledge and his refusal to describe his proposal as “science” run counter to the narrator’s earlier characterization of his plan as “sistemático” and the result of [End Page 266] “estudios y experiencia” (257). Though Ramón admits to working hard, the conversation quoted above suggests that for him and his peers specialized knowledge and scientific rigor are not “cosas de la casa,” that is, that they are in some way foreign to Spain and Spanish ways of thinking. The interlocutor’s use of the word marrano (a derogatory term for a crypto-Jew) and Ramón’s implied opposition of ciencia to diligent, honest—and one might infer, castiza—labor emphasize this foreignness. What is more, they affirm an understanding of Spanish identity that founds itself on the historical exclusion of ideas deemed heretical.

In Ramón Villaamil’s words we hear echoes of the Black Legend, as filtered through Enlightenment discourse and assimilated by Spanish society at large. Since the eighteenth century, foreign observers of the Iberian Peninsula suggested that Spain’s history of religious intolerance had crippled its people’s capacity for scientific inquiry. By the 1870s (the period in which Miau is set), this idea had become a recurring source of debate and a problem for a nation striving to enter into—but also ambivalent about—modernity as defined by the European center. In Miau, Galdós entertains and explores the questions at the heart of this longstanding debate about Spanish science, taking a representative sample of Spaniards as his object of study. As it examines the thought processes of Ramón and other members of his lower-middle-class Madrilenian family, the novel reveals a fundamental concern with the makeup of the Spanish episteme. Miau ultimately asks what—or better, how—Spaniards know, and how their ways of knowing shape their place in the modern world.

Studies of this novel, arguably one of the most complex of Galdós’ novelas contemporáneas, have addressed a wide array of topics, ranging from the interpretation of Ramón’s final suicide to the novel’s representation of Madrid’s urban landscape, to its zoomorphic descriptions of its characters.1 This last has led several critics to reflect on the role of Darwinism or Social Darwinism in the novel’s portrayal of Madrilenian society...


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pp. 266-285
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