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ArribaAbajoCritique / Dialog

ArribaAbajo Healthy Bodies in Not-So-Healthy Minds

Cesáreo Bandera

State University of New York at Buffalo

And finally we come to Professor Efron's paper,63 to the surrealistic explosion of the body in the second part of the Quijote, projected and splattered in a collage of bearded faces, buttocks, and cheeks, «to the accompaniment of killing», with «all those bodies hanging from trees by virtue of law and order».64 I think it is true that something has happened to the literary representation of the human body in Quijote II. «The overplus of beautiful maidens is gone. There is no luscious cluster like Zoraida, Dorothea, Luscinda, and Dona Clara de Viedma, so important in the inn-scene climax of Part I». And we owe it to Efron to be aware of that.

Furthermore, he is probably right when he «proposes» that «the increased body boundary confusion and its intermix with violent death is functionally related to the increased exploration, in the last part of the novel, of social authority». But this is a rather ambiguous statement. For it is perfectly possible to interpret such bodily confusion as a reflection of the collapse or mismanagement of social authority, since we see so many outlaws, and we also see so many   —166→   people in authority, like the Duke and the Duchess, stepping below the dignity of their functions in a manner which is explicitly described as reprehensible.

Why would this obvious, reasonable, and rather traditional interpretation not be acceptable? Efron does not say, does not even stop to think about it. For him, the «body boundary confusion and its intermix with violent death» does not in any way reflect a parallel confusion and intermix in social and political authority. On the contrary, the authority that he envisages is whole and powerful, sure of itself, unquestioning and unquestionable. (It is precisely this unquestioning certainty about itself that Cervantes' novel, according to Efron, questions in a radical way.) It is under the influence of such an authoritative and authoritarian power that the poor human body scatters and splatters all over the place. Everything that is denied to the body is absorbed by and nourishes the authoritarian power. Like a leech or a parasite, authority feeds on the body. As body power weakens, authority is strengthened. There is a transfer of power from one to the other. Apparently you cannot have healthy body rhythms and healthy authority at the same time. It is an either/or situation, in which social authority always proves the stronger of the two. But precisely because, if you look at it with Efron's eyes, you cannot see bodily power when you see social power and vice versa, it becomes obvious that you are not seeing two different things but the same in both cases. The same thing, which looks good and natural when seen in the body and evil and tyrannical when seen in society. Which means, in turn, that this radical, uncompromising opposition between the body and civilized society is totally self-referential, has no basis whatsoever beyond its own self-feeding, self-perpetuating dynamics. Which means that the whole thing is a myth, and we will wait forever in vain if we expect Efron to provide us with a rational, objective explanation of why civilized society as such -not this or that particular society, or this or that aspect of society- cannot accept, in principle, by definition, the reality of the human body.

In fact, if we press the question, there is a better than even chance that we will get an answer along the following lines: «Don't ask me, ask her (her: la sociedad, la civilización, etc.), she is the one who is pursuing me, I'm the victim, I don't know why she is so arbitrarily doing this to me; all I know is that she is doing it, as she has done throughout history. I can give you a whole list of cases that prove my point». In other words, the arbitrariness of the situation would be   —167→   recognized, but only insofar as it can be transformed into a weapon within the dynamics of the violent opposition between the body and society, an opposition which remains irreducible to and unexplained by anything outside itself. This type of explanation cannot explain the genesis of the opposition, because the explanation itself is a result of the opposition. Regardless of what society would have to say on its behalf, it would stand convicted beforehand. For society's answer will either explain why it is so repressive, or it will talk about something else (like scientific advances for example, that help raise bodily life expectancy in a civilized society higher than in a less civilized one). If it talks about something else, well, it talks about something else, i. e., besides the point. If it explains why it is so repressive, well, it explains it, whatever the explanation may be. Thus the accusation could never be disproved, because the society that the accusation contemplates has no relevance except within the terms of the accusation itself. Society stands before a court where the prosecutor is also the judge and the jury; no evidence is admitted except that which will condemn the accused.

And yet Efron is apparently convinced that he is providing us, through Cervantes' novel, with a valid explanation: «Cervantes was not intent... on showing miscellaneous misbehavior... in the society of Part II; instead, he created a series of presentations of the body that show exactly what his fictional society cannot accept, and why: the human body itself». I have looked all over the paper to find out how one can go from the «miscellaneous», the circumstantial, to the radical question of principle and I have not been able to find a single clue.

In Efron's paper the irreducible opposition between society and the body is an unquestioned, a priori postulate, which is never tested, never subjected to critical scrutiny. He simply looks for textual instances that can only mean what he wants them to mean, if one is willing to accept without questioning the unexplained basis of his argument. He never bothers to tell us why such instances are better, more convincingly explained by reference to such a postulate than by other traditional and perfectly possible explanations. That's not his style.

So, let me paraphrase things in a different style. Since the absence of a coherent theoretical basis for his fundamental premise turns the whole thing into a matter of rhetoric, why not use a rhetoric of my own?


Let us begin with the natural flow of energy in the body «from upper torso and head to lower torso and genitals, and back again, in a continuous rhythm that is healthy functioning». This energy is then compressed under «civilized pressure». Law and order come crushing down on it. Morality, the spirit, even ethereal lovely maidens frolicking in grassy meadows disrupt the healthy rhythm, until, bang!!, the body explodes, refusing to function properly under such unnatural pressures. Sexual features merge, members are scattered, one head here, half a nose there, etc.

So, what is one to do when confronted with such crushing dangers? The most elemental, animal, feeling of self-preservation dictates that one should lie low. If one really cares for the healthy rhythm of one's own body (for we are not talking, of course, about the concept of the body, but the real thing, my body for me, his body for him, her body for her, etc.), one should stay home, for example, one should go to bed early and rise early, do moderate exercises, eat wholesome foods low in cholesterol (and perhaps supplement them with one-a-day or geritol pills), get a healthy mate and have sex at proper intervals, and above all, keep away from trouble (which means keeping one's nose out of other people's business). Especially, one should avoid reading anything too exciting, for example, books of chivalry, or whatever their equivalent might be. In fact, this is in essence what Don Diego de Miranda apparently did and what Alonso Quijano should have done.

But, you see, such a civilized solution cannot be a solution, precisely because it is civilized. Therefore, it can only be a trick. So insidious and pervasive is the wickedness of civilization, that it tries to seduce even the most elemental bodily instinct of self-preservation into believing that bodily functions and energy can be protected by such deceitful, civilized, values as moderation, stability, and organization. Certainly, the body, whose mission it is to refuse itself to civilization under any guise whatsoever, is not going to fall for that. For it knows that behind every sign of organized society lurks a deadly danger to its energetic rhythm. Thus, even in the privacy of one's home, civilization raises its wicked head. Every comfortable chair is a potential monster, every inviting feather bed a trap. Every wine skin in your cellar can become a giant at a moment's notice, and so can the deceitfully innocent windmills in the fields nearby. So, as the menacing civilizing monsters close in on you from every direction, what are you going to do?


Well, if you are Cervantes, you immediately realize what is going on and you write a novel to expose the dangers attending to any enterprise that in one way or another turns wine skins and windmills into menacing giants. But, if you are A. Efron, you can do indifferently one or the other of these two things: you can charge against those monsters and tell the world about the wicked power that lies behind the comfort of the chairs and of the feather beds, using such comfort as bait, enticing you to lower your ever-vigilant guard; or you can write in your head a novel in which you show how the pressures of civilized society can fill a man's head with civilized monsters and force him to abdicate or repress his bodily rhythm, go out to fight unnatural civilized battles, in which he can only get his body bruised; and worst of all, you will show, oh infinite outrage!, that he must deny his healthy sexual urges, by substituting some idealized, disgustingly spiritual and dulcineated maiden, for the real, healthy, plump thing. In other words, you can either charge the monsters, like Don Quijote, or you can see Don Quijote as the very representative of the monsters you are charging against. Wherein lies the truth of which Cervantes is talking, which can be described as the perfect reciprocity, the interchangeable identity between repressor and repressee, or in more popular terms: tell me what you are charging against and III tell you what you are.

On the other hand, this makes me think that perhaps I have got it all wrong. You see, I have been postulating at the basis of my argument a theoretical human subject who is really worried about his body in civilized society. Now I realize that that's not it. The human subject that my argument demands is not really worried about his bodily functions. He is just as relatively healthy as anybody else (after all, nobody is always totally healthy; even in the most advanced society, things like age, genetic characteristics, climate, viruses, etc. still play a role, in spite of all the wicked effort of civilization to control such natural and spontaneous factors). What my subject really wants is not to defend his body but to prove that his body is threatened by civilization. And his trouble is that he finds it very difficult to convince anybody of that. He would gladly disrupt and sacrifice his bodily rhythms if he could only prove beyond doubt that such a sacrifice is demanded by civilization.

You can understand now why that life of moderation and stability of which we spoke a moment ago is the worst threat of all, because such moderation would make it even more difficult to prove that the   —170→   threat is for real, which is what must be proven at all costs. What really gets to him is the nagging possibility that perhaps it is not society that is threatening him. The mere thought of it, rather than calming his fears, profoundly disrupts his bodily rhythms. In the final analysis, if society does not do it to him, he will have to do it to himself, which is, of course, a very unnatural thing to do, and he knows it, and the knowledge of the unnatural thing he is forced to do to himself will, in turn, be blamed on society, since, indeed, it is because society did not believe him that he was forced to apply such unnatural pressures to himself.

Perhaps you can also understand now the kind of fascination that Don Quijote must exert on my theoretical subject: on the one hand, here is a character constantly punishing himself, suppressing his own body; on the other hand, nobody really understands why he is doing it, everybody treats him like a fool, they think he is punishing himself because he is mad. So, he is going to show those laughing unbelievers a thing or two. He is going to show them, first of all, that the important thing is that Don Quijote is punishing himself, and secondly, that he is doing it in the name of all those idealistic and heroic values that civilized society has created. There is nothing natural in Don Quijote, not even his rage.

If you think that this portrayal of my theoretical subject desperately trying to prove that he has an enemy out there, by inflicting upon himself the damage that he is convinced his enemy wants to inflict on him, is something farfetched, or has nothing to do with Cervantes' novel, read again Grisóstomo's desperate song just before he goes to hell.

All of which goes to show that Arthur Efron is right, in the sense that what he is talking about is far from being mere arbitrary elucubration. On the contrary, I am convinced that what concerns him is also a major concern for Cervantes. I have only tried to propose a modest modification of perspective: instead of reading Cervantes in the light of Efron, why not read Efron in the light of Cervantes? If we do it this way, we should forever be grateful to Efron's work for providing us with such a striking and totally spontaneous confirmation of the prophetic power of Cervantes' masterpiece.