“The World of Calderón”
Arturo Farinelli devotes the entire first volume312 pagesof his two-volume work La vita è un sogno, published in 1916, to exploring the antecedents of the theme and title of Calderón's most famous play, La vida es sueño, in figures like Buddha, Plotinus, Algazel, Petrarch, Pandolofo Collenuccio, and Shakespeare, to name only a few. According to Farinelli, a host of authors and visionaries, Moslems and Christians, mystics and poets, foreshadowed some of Calderón's thoughts, in particular those of the following kind:
Farinelli was probably right. As a matter of fact, anyone who tries to prove that there is nothing new under the sun seems to be right. Perhaps the famous lines of Ecclesiastes: "That which hath been is that which shall be; And that which hath been done is that which shall be done; And there is nothing new under the sun" (I, 9), also had innumerable antecedents. We may be tempted to contend that not even the assertion that nothing is new, is new.
Should we conclude, then, that Calderón's "life is a dream" is just an echo of an old tired view? Such a claim would do little justice to Calderón's originality, and to the fact that what a great writer feels, and says, is to be fully understood only within the context of the writer's entire work. Thus, the idea that life is a dream may be as old as creation, but the meaning of this idea is as new as the writer's way of seeing, and describing, the world. I am presupposing here that each great writer has "a world," which he produces by means of his particular use of language, and above all by means of his "linguistic choices." In this sense I will speak briefly of "The World of Calderón."
Since the very inception of philosophical thought there have been interminable discussions concerning the relations between appearance and reality. Some have claimed that reality appears as it is, so that there is, in fact, no appearance: all that there is, and all that can be talked about, is "reality." Others have contended that appearances and reality are irreconcilable, and that we can only know appearances but never reality "in itself." Others, finally, have surmised that we know reality through appearances, and only to the extent to which we are capable of removing the veil of appearance can we hope to reach the hard core of reality. In every case, including the firstnamely, when it is assumed that reality is exactly as it appears to bea distinction between the concept of reality is taken for granted as the basis for any further philosophical elucidation. Let us briefly consider Descartes. This philosopher described a world in which the true reality of things is founded on the idea that realities should not be confused with appearances. Once an ultimate truth is guaranteed by the Cogitoand once the Cogito itself is guaranteed by Godwe are in a position to discover once and for all the difference between what appears to be and what really is. Thus, the dividing line between appearance and reality remains firmly in place. Either X is real or it is apparent; there is no middle term. Appearances, then, have to be discarded as deceptions. We end by "saving" the reality of the world on the basis of sacrificing what seemed to be real but proved not to be.
In Calderón's world any possible dividing line between appearance and reality shifts so constantly that we may as well conclude that there is little sense in speaking of any such "line," which is not altogether unrelated to Plato's "divided line." Why should we talk of "reality and appearance," to say nothing of "either reality or appearance"? For Calderón, everything is (or, should we say, paradoxically, seems to be?) real and apparent at the same time, and even in the same respect. For example, normally we consider life, the life we enjoy or suffer, in the state of wakefulness, as something real, while we view our dreams as something less real, or, at any rate, less real than life. A dream may reflect life, but it is only a pale reflection of it. To say then that life is a dream is to say that the sharp contours of life become diffuse in the dimness of a dream. Calderón would not agree with this commonsensical view. The fact that a dream may reflect life does not mean that a dream is always a faint and pallid duplicate of life. How can we know whether we are dreaming or awake?:
It would seem, then, that in Calderón's world, reflections ("copies of an original") are not mere delusions. Truth (reality) is just "another kind of confusion." Thus, realities themselves become reflections, while reflections not only mirror realities, but also mirror themselves.
G. E. Moore wrote that each thing is what it is and not something else. This is exactly the opposite of the way in which things exist and behave in Calderón's universe. Like a Leibnizian monad, each thing in his universe reflects everything else. Calderón's world resembles an infinity mirror. Natural realities mirror spiritual realities, and vice versa, in a constant play of mutual reflections. Each part of Calderón's universe, like each Leibnizian monad, is a point of view on the whole. There is, therefore, no correspondence, and least of all any univocal correspondence, between appearance (reflection) and reality. Nor is there any univocal correspondence between a symbol and what it symbolizes, for each symbol is a reflection of all other symbols, which are at the same time reflections of all things symbolized. In Calderón's world not only human beings, but all realities whatsoever, are a kind of microcosm. Such a world is not static, but essentially dynamic.
To be sure, when Segismundo talks to Rosaura, about love, he says that:
and this seems to mean that there is something, namely love, that truly endures. But love's permanence is the permanence of an all-embracing, infinitely twisting, maddeningly recurring, link. Love does not exist apart from the things or processes in the universe which it links together. Love is a relation, whose existence depends upon the relata. The nature of each reality is, thus, not "what it is," but rather "what it tends to be," or "what it points to."
Borrowing from the philosophers' language, we may say that "realities" are "intentions." Here "intentions" are not, however, mere "tendencies toward," but expressions of acts of will. This may or may not be a manifestation of the much talked about (and little understood) "Spanish will"perhaps some kind of "Will to Power through God." Such a "will," and its dynamic character, does not explain everything, but it may help to explain some features of the Spanish baroque, of which Calderón's world is a most illustrious, and extreme, example. "Voluntarism," by the way, as opposed to, or contrasted with, "intellectualism," seems to be a leitmotif of the Spanish classical tradition, which anticipates "Romanticism," and is thus at the same time thoroughly medieval and entirely modern. Even a world intellectually patterned upon a fixed system of beliefs, such as the one we find in Fray Luis de Granada's Introducción al símbolo de la fe, is permeated by dynamic forces. Miguel de Molinos' quietism also follows this tendency, for such a quietism is the result of an almost superhuman, "Faustian," effort: Molinos' "absolute silence" is at the same time an "absolute tension."
Calderón's conception of Nature as a symbol, or rather a system of symbols permanently intertwined, is a basic feature of such a world. Symbols, according to the Schoolmen, can be either natural (smoke as a symbol of fire) or artificial and conventional (the word as a symbol of an object). Calderón seems to follow in the footsteps of a "natural theory of symbols" when he writes:
Thus, at surface value Calderón's universe is one in which each thing has "its natural place," just as it does in the Aristotelian cosmos. Such a view is a far cry from the Cartesian conception, according to which the reality of a thing consists in its possibility of being measuredand, if at all possible, its being measured mathematically. Furthermore, the qualities of things, as in the Aristotelian view, are expressed in the form of contraries:
When all is said, however, the role of contraries in Calderón's conception of Nature, and even of the world at large, resembles Heraclitus'a "Romantic" avant la lettrerather than Aristotle's. For Calderón, contraries are in a state of constant change; they do not inhere in substances, for they are themselves substantial. The Schoolmen had expressed, and perhaps impoverished, the classical relation between things and actions, or acts, by means of the formula "Operari sequitur esse." If Calderón had been professionally interested in philosophical speculations, he would have turned the above formula upside down: "Esse sequitur operari." Now, in this respect, Calderón seems to have gone far beyond Heraclitus. This philosopher used the metaphor of a river in which there are no things but only waves and ripples; that is to say, movements. Whatever exists, Heraclitus thought, moves constantlyupwards and downwards, and vice versa. Life dies and death revives. For Heraclitus, however, all changes are subject to a Law, or an Order (a logos). For Calderón, on the other hand, reality is not like a river, but more like a stagewhich, rather than "supporting" the events, is simply the meeting point of events (or "actions"). In fine: the world is not a physis, a "Nature," as it still was for Heraclitus, but a theatre: "el Gran Teatro del Mundo."
Calderón's departure from any "classical" world view does not prevent him from developing a number of classical leitmotifs. Let us consider man:
"The brief world," the microcosm, that man isas well as "the brief heaven," el breve cielo, that woman is, or could bereflect one of the oldest and most persistent themes in Western civilization: the theme of "the little world of man" (el pequeño mundo del hombre), which Francisco Rico, among others, thouroughly investigated. Now, Calderón alters this theme in two ways. On the one hand, he extends the idea of "the brief world" to many, possibly all, things: each thing is a compendium of the entire universe. On the other hand, he gives this idea a dynamic twist. Properly speaking, man, as well as things, do not summarize, or reflect, the world; they summarize and reflect the constant movement of the world. Thus, not even symbols are fixed once and forever. It would seem as if the Autos sacramentales persistently belie this idea. Is there anything more rigid, inflexible, andas it werepedantic, than Calderón's representations of abstract ideas by means of "characters"? Even here, however, it is difficult to draw dividing lines. After all, Virtue, Vice, the Eucharist, and many other such "ideas" are not complete abstractions; they have a life of their own. On the other hand, the characters in Calderón's plays are not completely and totally dramatis personae. They embody abstractions and "ideas." Whether Calderón is doing anything more here than carrying a kind of baroque view to its ultimate consequences, is an interesting, although debatable, point. Both Calderón and baroque art are fond of the chiaroscuro. Now, whereas baroque artists, especially painters, fuse the light with the dark within a seemingly undefined texture, Calderón makes the light and darkness embrace each other as if in a struggle in which the light flashes through darkness, and darkness constantly zigzags through light.
All this may seem to be incompatible with Calderón's (or Segismundo's) assertion that "life'' is "an illusion," so that:
If interpreted literally, these lines, as well as many others of a quite similar "ascetic" character, seem to indicate that Calderón, a faithful Catholic, was firmly convinced that only "this" life is a dream and that we shall awake in "the other life," the everlasting life after death. No doubt this interpretation is correct in so far as Calderón's theological beliefs are concerned. Contrary to what I originally assumed, there appears then to be a sharp dividing line between appearance (this life) and reality (the life after death, the life of the blessed, the life in the bosom of God).
Nevertheless, I am not talking about Calderón's theological beliefs but about the world which he, as a writer, fashioned. This is a world in which the contemptus mundi is a rhetorical device rather than a bona fide material. If there is any "contempt" of this world, it is only in so far as this world does not seem to succeed in displaying all the splendors of "the world beyond." Splendors begin to appear, however, as soon as we try to depict "this world" with the galas and regalias of "the other world." Calderón points out that pomp, ostentation, and pageantry are "vain." The vanitas vanitatum is one of the themes which he obviously borrows from an immemorial, ultimately biblical, tradition. Vanity and pageantry seem to conceal some hidden, everlasting being. Roses wither for they last only "from morning to evening." An expression of this view is found in one of the most famous of Calderón's sonnetsthe one recited by Don Fernando to Fénix:
The destiny of man is like the destiny of the rose: failure follows triumph. Thus, glory, pomp, and joy are nothing but vanity, for we realize that they will end, and, for that matter, end promptly. The ceremonials of the Court, and the elaborate liturgy of the Catholic Church are, thus, doomed from the very first hour. Their brilliance and splendor go hand in hand with their temporality. Nevertheless, when they are all viewed as true reflections, the vanitas vanitatum theme becomes a mere rhetorical device. After all, reflections are indistinguishable from the reality which they reflect. This reality is itself pomp and pageantry, so that what is assumed to happen in the heavens should not be toto coelo different from what happens on earth. If anything interesting happens in the heavens, it is also pomp and pageantry. Both in heaven and on earth reality is decoration. Everything that is, in so far as it is, is ornate, embroidered, flamboyant, luxuriant, emblazonedin a word: theatrical.
Little by little we are thus approaching the core of Calderón's world. In a number of ways, it is a baroque world. As in all baroque style, decoration is the same as structure: the frame is the décor. Baroque art (and thought) are permeated by two features. One is the use (and often abuse) of "adjectives," as well as what may be termed "outrageous comparisons." The other is the emphasis on potency and possibility. Both are in strict opposition to substance and actuality, for what is substantial is, by definition, not potential; it is actual, namely, it is what it is and how it is. The powers and features (expressed by means of "adjectives" and "outrageous comparisons") are inherent in the substance; they never subsist by themselves. On the other hand, in a baroque universe the selfsubsistence of powers is firmly assured. Adjectives and comparisons are not used to predicate something concerning a noun (or "substantive"); they "constitute" the noun. It is as if nouns were collections and bundles of adjectives and comparisons. To be sure, adjectives and comparisons never succeed in completely exhausting their function, because their number is, in principle, infinite.
In any "classical" style, adjectives are correlated with nouns according to some relatively simple and well established rules. In the world of Calderón, this correlation breaks down; there seems to be no way of knowing which adjectives will accompany any given noun. Calderón's verbal imageryhis sudden shifts from the animate to the inanimate, and vice versaaim at depicting a world which does not seem to be ruled by the law of cause and effect. Despite claims to the contrary, such imagery is very different from Góngora's. Góngora's imagery was unpredictable, but not absurd. On the other hand, linguistic absurdity, reaching at times unintended comic effects, is common in Calderón. Here, for instance, is a description of a fire:
Notice that the fire is compared not only to the violent eruption of a regular volcano, but, as if this were not enough, to one under the deep blue sea. Moreover, a gentleman with a lady in his arms is described as a monster of fire, smoke, and dusta truly "outrageous comparison."
The description of a storm is even more contorted:
Here we have all the elements of a Hollywood superproductionsomething like "The Black Hole" or "The Empire Strikes Back," or perhaps, "Altered States"except that most movie producers and directors are less imaginative than Calderón. It has not yet occurred to them, for example, to include in their "special effects" firebirds or some foamy giant assaulting the dwelling of the gods.
Tiresias threatens to commit suicide by jumping into a lake:
Man is redundantly called "human"; the lake serves as a coffin made of glass.
In the midst of a mountain, or a wood (where some of Calderón's characters spend a substantial portion of their lives) Isabel proudly and loudly addresses the sun:
A wood is described by Lisandro as follows:
The sun is split by the leaves of the trees into a myriad of living torches; soon the leaves, which were green, do not simply turn brown; they are magically transformed into brown clouds.
Clarín announces the arrival of a woman riding on a horse. "A woman arrives on horseback" is transmuted, and almost incredibly stretched into the following:
Tolomeo asserts that he saw a person stabbed to death:
What Tolomeo saw, or what he says that he saw, was not an ordinary knife but an "errant comet of steel." As if this were not enough, this most peculiar comet crosses the air and hits a "human boat."
A witness is here a dagger, which is at the same time a "brilliant" and "elegant" tongue of steel:
Last, but not least:
Now, to speak of pistols as "metal asps" spewing poison whose fire will be a shock, a big noisean "escándalo"for the air, or to introduce "feather bugles" and "iron birds," is not only (although it most certainly is) a literary contortion. It is above all the consequence of Calderón's stubborn refusal to acknowledge that there are, as philosophers would say, "natural kinds." In Calderón's world animate beings are made of metal, gold, and paper, while metallic objects look like living beings. His world teems with horses made of fire, and with flames with equine shapes.
In a "classical" style potencies, powers, and possibilities are reduced to a minimum. A statement normally confines itself to say what the case is. To be sure, a statement can be interpreted in various ways, but there are rules to that effect: the rules of hermeneutics. In a "baroque" style, and a fortiori, in Calderón's "superbaroque," nothing is truly explicit. Implicit meanings constantly creep in; allusions multiply ad infinitum, and perhaps ad nauseam. Each word seems to conceal and at the same time display an infinite number of possible (and sometimes even quite "impossible") meanings. Phrases coil and curl; thoughts are tortuous and convoluted; events develop snakelike, sinuously and windingly. No doubt this style, as well as the world which it tries to describe, also abides by rules. Dámaso Alonso skillfully and painstakingly examined these rulessome of which fall under the heading "Correlation and Reiteration"as they apply to a better understanding of Calderón's linguistic usage. Ortega y Gasset, less charitably, although no less perceptively, spoke of Calderón's "formidable small wares (formidable quincalla) of formalist versifications." Calderón's works teem with grandiose "tirades" (andanadas) and "refrains" (cuplés). In my view, Calderón's procedures could be compared to some well-known types of computer programming. Calderón writes his "correlations"or his "tirades"as if he were operating a computer keyboard while trying to figure out what will happen when the program is run. Line after line, strings of words, and even variables to be eventually substituted for words, are entered, and appear on the videoscreen. At particular, crucial, points, subroutines are introduced. More often than not a command like "Goto" permits a line to branch off in apparently unsuspected, but in fact quite predictable, ways. When the moment comes to run the program in the printer, the results might look like the following four literally breathtaking examples:
"The World of Calderón" is a much more complex affair than I have described. The expression itself has its proper meaning only within a conceptual framework according to which each writer has constructed, or is capable of constructing, a world of his own, which is expressed by means of a particular style, as well asand above allby means of a number of linguistic preferences. If necessary, the world of a writer can be summarized in some rather simple terms. Thus, Lope de Vega's world is one in which spontaneity and naiveté go hand in hand with maliciousness and wit. Cervantes' world is a melancholy cosmos: a world of disillusionment which the writer confronts by means of irony. Belief, to Cervantes, is no longer a spontaneous and sincere attitude; it has been buried under a heavy bureaucratic structure that deserves pity rather than contempt. Quevedo's world is a world of despair; hopelessness is mixed with anxiety. The vocabulary of each of these authors reflects the nature of his world. Lope de Vega's "preferred terms" are: love, fragrance, courage, honor. Cervantes' preferred terms are: excellence (señoría), sadness. Quevedo's preferred terms are: dust, ashes, smoke. In Lope de Vega we find, above all, life; in Cervantes, kindness; in Quevedo, nothingness. Nature itself seems to follow suit. In Lope de Vega's writings, there are many names of flowers; in Cervantes' writings, innumerable oak trees; in Quevedo, solitary cypresses. Each of these authors has produced an artistic universe, with its particular "objects" and its particular "qualities." Now, if I were asked to summarize Calderón's world, I would say that it is a world of contrasts: pomp and vanity; luxury and misery; reward and punishment. Calderón's vocabulary suits this world perfectly: flashes of lightning and tenebrae; brilliant pallors; firebirds and steel horses.
Calderón's world is neither real nor ideal. It is a magic world: a world of wonders, symbols, and reflections. All this, of course, is typical of what happens on a stage, under the limelight. Calderón's world is fully, and almost exasperatingly, theatrical. Berthold Brecht might have argued that if something is really theatrical, then its "crafty" character has to be made perfectly explicit. I assume that Calderón would have strongly disagreed with Brecht's theory about the theatre (not to speak of any other of Brecht's theories or opinions). For Calderón, if something is theatrical, then it is real, and vice versa. No distinction between reality and appearance should be allowed. In Calderón's world characters parade like brilliant shadows speaking a language which no one else but they can use and understand. Anything can suddenly become anything else. Just as it has been said that Hölderlin was "the poet's poet," it might well also be said that Calderón was "the playwright's playwright."
I am afraid that my exploration of Calderón's world is not very orthodox. It does not belong to any recognizable school of literary criticism. It is neither philological nor historical. It follows neither a diachronic nor a synchronic approach. Worst of all (at least for some literary critics à la page), it has done nothing whatsoever to "deconstruct" Calderón or any of his texts. But, not being a literary critic, I can only view literary criticism from the perspective of an outsider. As such, I feel justified in being unconcerned with battles over method. In a way, I am thus revealing my ignorance. In another way, however, I am exhibiting my tolerance. I do not apologize for the latter. As to the former, my only apology lies in an old proverb, which I originally learned in Spanish, and which I profanely proceed to bring from heaven to earth: The Lord has many ways, Muchos son los caminos del Señor.
Ferrater Mora, José. “The World of Calderón.” Hispanic Review 52 (Winter 1984): 1-17.
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