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  • Arabs, Jews, and the Enigma of Spanish Imperial Melancholy
  • Roger Bartra (bio)
    Translated by Amanda Harris Fonseca (bio)

In Latin America more than once over the last few years, we have asked ourselves if the old Spain still exists; the Spain whose black humors crystallized in the Golden Age and were celebrated and/or deplored for centuries as integral characteristics of Spanish identity.1 Personally the enigma of Spanish melancholy intrigues me because I have continuously examined the myth of melancholy as an ingredient of national Mexican culture. It also fascinates me as the child of exiled Catalans in Mexico, and for that reason, I am tinged with indefinable longings. I have been able to prove, additionally, that in many European cultures the myth of melancholy has been intimately tied to identity. The English Elizabethans wanted to snatch away Don Quixote's melancholy to erect it as a national monument; Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) no doubt contributed to this movement. Certainly, one of the distinctive symbols of the German Renaissance is Dürer's famous print that portrays the angel of melancholy. The French constructed the tristesse to emulate the English spleen, and the Romantics exalted melancholic sentimentalism as seldom before. It is possible that the Florentine Neo-Platonists first propelled the rebirth of ancient Greek melancholy in Europe, supported by the Arabic and Jewish philosophic traditions. And the long Spanish Golden Age most contributed to consolidating in the West the black humors as one of the propelling forces of politics and society. The era's immense Spanish melancholy shadowed all [End Page 64] of Western culture with such great force that its lengthened impact reaches all the way to the present. But when we gaze at Spanish culture, we will not easily find signs of the old melancholy. It seems that the archetype has faded: where are the dark paths of the mystics and the cabalistic signs of the Jewish doctors? Where are the sad demons that beset the other side of every border? Where are the melancholic kings and the dreamy courtesans? Where can one find the monks pursued by bitterness and the Arabicwise men that deciphered lycanthropy with the help of Avicenna?2 Today's Spain wants to show us a spectacle of luminous European luster that would have nothing to do with what some Spaniards consider its dark African heart, the image of a happy and satisfied society headed by healthy, democratic kings, a culture in which graceful, witty writers flourish, a political face of smiling technocrats that do not want to dirty their hands in the labyrinthine situations of North Africa and Latin America—metanarrative zones of refuge for terrorists.

I ask myself: where did modern Spain bury its melancholic past? As an anthropologist by profession dedicated to the ethnographic study of myths, I would like to journey to the postmodern archeological ruins of Spanish melancholy, wishing to find some hints of the uneasiness that we feel when contemplating fin-de-siècle Spain. But since we apparently deal with an illness, to approach the constitution of the cultural textures of Golden Age Spain, I have chosen some aspects of the medical tradition that were a fundamental component of Renaissance thought.

The fact that melancholy, an ancient problem specific to medicine, would become one of the principal cultural axes of the Renaissance remains a mystery not yet resolved. The topic of melancholy was fundamental because the exorcists of the Catholic Church had to learn to distinguish melancholy from demonic possession. To resolve the burning and practical problem at hand, in an era in which the persecution of witches extended all over Europe, the exorcists sometimes relied on medicine to recognize satanic signs in those who showed symptoms that the disease of melancholy could produce. The exorcists evidently connected the problem to the ancient Aristotelian idea of the relationship between temper and melancholy—which contributes to giving it an extraordinary aura and yet a mysterious appeal. Today sociologists and anthropologists usually handle the problem, so that they can determine if terrorist sickness produces certain kinds of violence, in which case it is a police affair or, if it has "natural" causes, can be...


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pp. 64-72
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