María Rosa Lida de Malkiel (essay date 1961)
SOURCE: Lida de Malkiel, María Rosa. “The Book of Good Love: Content, Genre, Purpose.” In Two Spanish Masterpieces: The Book of Good Love and The Celestina, pp. 18-33. Urbana, Ill.: The University of Illinois Press, 1961.
[In the following essay, Lida de Malkiel discusses why Ruiz chose to write in the form of fictitious autobiography, concluding that he did so as a means of promoting his views on moral conduct.]
The great Spanish poems of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, though vigorously original, have their counterparts in other European literatures: the Spanish Lay of the Cid is comparable, for example, to the Song of Roland, the Spanish Book of Alexander to the German epics about the same hero. But the Book of Good Love has no pendant in any other literature of Western Europe. This fact has in no small way detracted from its appreciation, because the concepts put to use by literary criticism have been fashioned by analyzing the standard European production and, consequently, are quite unsuitable for apprehending what is atypical of it.
Now, aside from a Prologue in prose, added in the 1343 version, the elements of the Book of Good Love include: (a) a novel in autobiographical form, repeatedly interrupted, which serves as a frame-story for (b) a series of tales and fables; (c) a large number of didactic disquisitions on civil and canonic law (stanzas 221 ff., 1131 ff.), on points of literature and music (Prologue, stanzas 15, 65 ff., 1228, 1634 ff.), on love and morals, moral teachings being scattered throughout the entire work. Additional elements are (d) a free version of Pamphilus (a twelfth century Latin comedy); (e) an allegorical story of the battle between Sir Carnal and Lady Lent, and the triumph of Sir Love; (f) a miscellany of lyrical poems: the devotional ones being almost all songs to the Virgin; the worldly ones comprise a mocking song and four burlesque pastourelles (all of them lyrical variations on themes previously expressed in narrative verse), and songs for blind men and mendicant students.
Of all these elements, the most important from the structural viewpoint is the autobiographical novel, which narrates thirteen amorous adventures, curiously similar; the locale is in nine cases the town and in four the sierras. In the town, the poet proffers verses and gifts through his messengers to various loves, among them a baker woman, a pious widow, a nun, a Moorish girl; all his efforts are of no avail. In the sierras, four enterprising mountain lasses try to make love to him: twice the poet manages to dodge them, twice he falls prey to the shrews; the result is always the same—a defeat exposing him to ridicule. Obviously, this is not a closed novel, with an exposition, a climax, and a conclusion, moving around a central action or a psychological trajectory of a character, as the modern novels of Balzac, Dickens, or Tolstoy. If it invites comparison with something, it is with the Spanish novel of the Golden Age—a century in which Juan Ruiz was totally unknown—the picaresque novel and Don Quixote, whose protagonists give unity to a succession of parallel adventures in which they always end up in an unenviable position.
What is the significance of this autobiographical frame-story? For the naïve reader it is an authentic record historically true. In addition to the scribe of the latest manuscript, various Spanish critics of our time maintain that much of what the Book of Good Love narrates in the first person actually happened to the man Juan Ruiz, since he recounts it “with a realistic criterion.” The truth is that with that same “realistic criterion” the poet reports his colloquies with Sir Love, with Lady Venus, and with Sir Carnal; moreover, the “biography” thus inferred from the poem turns out to be a fabric of unedifying adventures having among themselves a similarity quite remote from the variety of life, and finally, in two key passages, on commenting upon the longest episode, and on concluding the Book, the poet addresses his public and solemnly avers (909ab and 1634bc):
And realize full well I spin my tale of Lady Sloe To teach a moral, not because it happened to me so …
this my poem has been writ To check the wrongs and injuries which persons ill commit.(1)
The individual, Juan Ruiz, figures frequently in the poem, but this autobiography is no narration of his personal history. Autobiography, written directly, in the first person, was very rare in Western Europe, both in Antiquity and in the Middle Ages.2 In the vernacular literatures it remained unknown, I think, until the thirteenth century, when Ulrich von Lichtenstein wrote his Frauendienst, followed by Dante's Vita Nuova, so that the fictitious use of the autobiographical form was not natural as it would have been after the Renaissance, and above all, after the Romantic movement. Moreover, the Frauendienst and the Vita Nuova unfold a chain of dissimilar events and dynamically outline the character of the respective protagonist; Dante, above all, whatever the relationship between truth and fantasy may be, not only builds his book around his love for Beatrice, but also around the irreversible growth of his own character. His reactions on the last page cannot be confused with those of the first, very much in contrast to what happens in the Book of Good Love—and even in Don Quixote: Juan Ruiz, like Cervantes, absent-mindedly quotes as already written an episode which has not yet appeared, for the simple reason that the episodes are essentially repeated actions implying no psychological development nor causal relationship in time.3
Within the Christian environment of mid-fourteenth-century Spain, the autobiography of the Book of Good Love is entirely unique. For this reason, in 1894 the Arabist Francisco Fernández y González identified the poem, in terms of literary genre, with the Semitic maqāmāt. This genre was created in the tenth century by al-Hamadhani (an Arabic author, born in Persia, the same man who created the song for blind men, cultivated by Juan Ruiz), and perfected in the eleventh by al-Hariri, likewise a Persian Arab. In the maqāmāt a rogue preaches a virtue and piety which he is far from practicing. A master of grammar, rhetoric, poetry and schemes for thriving at the cost of his neighbor, he declaims in sessions (i.e., maqāmāt) where the narrator repeatedly confronts the rogue and reports in the first person the latter's deviltry (of which he, the narrator, is at times the victim), and transmits as well the rogue's declamations. These two persons give unity to the different adventures, set in bourgeois surroundings and expressed in rhymed prose with the interpolation of lyric poems, of debates and disquisitions on moral and erudite themes, in a style which is a display of verbal pyrotechnics. All this agrees remarkably with the Book of Good Love, but these Arabic maqāmāt differ in that their poems are not variations on earlier narratives, they contain no tales or fables, and hardly touch the love theme. Also their two characters are as far removed from the single “I,” which links the Book of Good Love, as al-Hamadhani and al-Hariri, Arabs from Persia, are removed from Juan Ruiz's Spain.
From the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, the Jews of Catalonia, Languedoc, and Provence, informed by a non-traditional and lay orientation and, consequently, sympathetic with the Arabic art and science, assiduously cultivated the maqāmāt, reworking them with great originality. If we compare the masterpiece of the Hispano-Hebraic maqāmāt, the Tahkemoni by Yehuda ben Selomo al-Harisi (between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries) with Arabic maqāmāt, we realize that the Jew coincides with Juan Ruiz in profusely commenting on the origin of his book, on its literary and moral intention, contents and merits, amid alternate professions of mastery and modesty. He further coincides with Juan Ruiz in that his hero is not a rogue, and that the inserted poems are lyrical variations on the subject-matter previously dealt with in a narrative form. A second example of the Hispano-Hebraic maqāmāt shows radical departures from the Arabic model, which are so many steps in the direction of the Book of Good Love: I refer to the Book of Delights4 by the physician from Barcelona, Yosef ben Meir ibn Zabarra (second half of the twelfth century), a work in which the protagonist and narrator appear fused into one character, identified with the author. He, exactly as Juan Ruiz, is the protagonist of a single, rather loose narration, functioning as a frame-story for debates, dissertations, aphorisms, proverbs, portraits, parodies, tales and fables which, in turn, may introduce other tales and fables. The Book of Delights begins and ends with explanatory pieces and dedications in lyric verse at the beginning and in rhymed prose at the end, characteristics which recall the 1330 version of the Book of Good Love, with its initial lyrics to the Virgin and its epilogue in narrative verse. The narrator-protagonist reports that there appeared to him, a giant, his future interlocutor throughout the rest of the work, a situation which recalls the appearance of Sir Love as “a tall man” (181c), who is Juan Ruiz's interlocutor in the most important debate in his poem. The giant, with all kinds of promises, offers to conduct Yosef to his city. After a long deliberation for and against trips, comparable to Juan Ruiz's deliberation for and against love, Yosef accepts, just as after the debate with Sir Love, the Archpriest starts his longest episode. The wanderings of the two travelers bring to mind Juan Ruiz's journeys through the cities and across mountains. Finally, Yosef's displeasure with the unfamiliar city and nostalgia for his native land recall the line in which the lonely Juan Ruiz, passing through the city of Segovia, expresses the nostalgia for his home—that exquisite line which stirred Azorín's imagination (973b):5
Neither well of waters fresh, nor eternal source I found.
Such is the skeleton of the autobiographical narrative in the Book of Delights; to the similarities already indicated, we should add an equal taste for reminiscences of the Scriptures, a tract on physiognomy, the caricature of an ugly woman, a humoristic portrait based on antithesis and verbal paradox, an invective against wine, a series of vilifications of the interlocutor, strung not at his first appearance, but much later in a quarrel ending in a reconciliation—all of which have their exact counterparts in the Book of Good Love. There are also various jokes common to both works; let me mention only one. Yosef reports that Socrates, married to a petite woman, apologized: “I have chosen the least of evil.” On finishing the droll sermon “Concerning the qualities which little women have” Juan Ruiz counsels his audience (1617cd):
Now of two evils choose the less,—said a wise man of the East, By consequence, of woman-kind be sure to choose the least.(6)
Into this fictitious autobiography—and the long intervention of a supernatural interlocutor, the giant or Sir Love, underlines its fictitious quality—the two authors introduce their personal learning, a pattern which explains why the dissertations are medical in the Book of Delights and ecclesiastic in the Book of Good Love. The obvious difference, in regard to the content, consists in that, although Yosef now and then treats of women, he refrains from narrating amorous episodes; but other Hispano-Hebraic maqāmāt, especially those of Selomo ibn Siqbal of Cordova, offer them, in the guise of repeated disappointments of the protagonist. It would be ill-advised to posit for Juan Ruiz the bookish imitation of the Hebrew maqāmāt, but the priceless confession: “Next after that I wrote the words to many a dancing song / For Jewesses,” and his familiarity with the Ghetto, prove that specific knowledge of such works may well have reached him.
What remains to be asked is why Juan Ruiz chose this autobiographical structure and not the frame-story in the form of a tale including a cluster of other tales—as in the Thousand and One Nights—a form no doubt familiar to him from several Arabic collections translated into Castilian in the thirteenth and widely imitated in the fourteenth century. The truth is that if anything stands out in the Book of Good Love it is an exuberant, irrepressible personality, which refused to be satisfied with a frame-story barring the author from a personal appearance. Therefore, Juan Ruiz preferred the fictitious autobiography of the Hispano-Hebraic maqāmāt, which permitted him to step into the foreground of the narrative in order to proclaim his instructive experience, be it true or imaginary. For a proven way, apparently spontaneous, to enhance the pedagogical efficacy of any teaching, consists in presenting it as the teacher's personal experience. The Psalmist, objectively asserting that the good man suffers no poverty, affirms (XXXVII, 25): “I have been young, and now am old, yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.” Ovid—if you will excuse the medieval juxtaposition of the Scriptures and the Art of Love—teaches that the penniless lover cannot afford the luxury of indulging in bad temper, and he brings home the point with a personal anecdote (II, 169 ff.):
Once in a rage her hair I towsed about. How many days that tantrum cut me out! I never felt … don't think … but she declared … I tore a frock; my purse the loss repaired. You, if you're shrewd, your master's errors flee: Shy from the damage my guilt brought to me.(7)
Summing up: the books that medieval learned men held dearest authorized the spontaneous habit of instructing in the first person, a habit which no doubt confirmed Juan Ruiz in choosing the autobiographical structure of the Hispano-Hebraic maqāmāt as a frame-story for his poem.
Concerning the didactic purpose that guided Juan Ruiz's pen, a heated controversy has been raging since the poem was first rediscovered. The reader of our days—I refer especially to the Hispanic reader—tolerates symbolic, indirect didacticism in the novel and in the theater: in poetry he categorically rejects it. Neither does he admit compromises and jests in moral and religious instruction, and condemns as antipedagogical any teaching through negative examples. For these reasons, many readers of the Book of Good Love challenge its didactic intention. Now, such reasons are ways or styles of our times: the resistance of those readers stems only from the fact that Juan Ruiz conducted himself as a fourteenth- and not as a twentieth-century man.
1. First of all, the didactic intent is not a conjecture; it follows from the poet's express and insistent declarations. Of course, every masterpiece, once achieved, transcends the specific intent with which the author started: the Aeneid is much more than the glorification of Emperor Augustus, just as Don Quixote has outgrown the mere attack on the romances of chivalry. But an author's avowed point of departure is an invaluable datum, which one ought not to cast aside simply because it is not in harmony with present-day thinking. Juan Ruiz's declarations agree with many traits of his text; those critics, unwilling to take at their face value the author's declarations, must venture for these traits explanations extremely hazardous. True, an author may, more or less sincerely, attribute to his work, once it has been written, an intent which did not guide him while he was at work on it.8 As for the Archpriest, he has stated his didactic aim in his Prologue in prose, in the first 71 quatrains by way of introduction, at the beginning and the conclusion of many episodes (76, 105 ff., 161 ff., 892 ff., 944d, 950, 951d, 1319c, 1503 ff., 1508d), at random junctures (for example, 986cd, 1390cd), and in the final peroration. Obviously, his didactic purpose, far from being an afterthought, permeates the entire poem.
2. The Book of Good Love belongs to the literary genre of the Semitic maqāmāt, an essentially didactic genre. The teaching of the maqāmāt is, above all, moralizing; they also display the author's literary virtuosity and diversified knowledge, that is to say, those very same categories of teaching which the Book of Good Love offers. Experts in the history of Spanish law, music and poetry do, of course, draw on Juan Ruiz's declarations though, paradoxically, they are wont to reject the moral declarations which the poet points out as his most important didactic purpose. Moreover, and again following the model of the maqāmāt, the didacticism of the Book of Good Love expresses itself not only in the autobiographical novel serving as a framework, but also in the tales, fables and satires enclosed in this framework, all of which would be jarring appendages if they were divorced from the general...
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