Pious Humor: on José Luis Villacañas’ Freud lee el Quijote. By Gerardo Muñoz.

villacanas freud leeThe almost banal simplicity of the title of José Luis Villacañas’ most recent book, Freud lee el Quijote (La Huerta Grande, 2017), could incite false expectations. This is not a book about the esoteric references of the Quijote in the father of psychoanalysis, and it is most certainly not a psychoanalytic contribution on Cervantes, the author. Although these principles are at the center of Villacañas’ meditation, they do not exhaust his argument. There are, I think, at least two other important premises that deserve to be noted at the outset: on the one hand, Freud lee el Quijote is a continuation, a sort of minimalist diagram, of Villacañas’ massive Teología Política Imperial (Trotta, 2016); while on the other, it is an exoteric ongoing polemic with Carl Schmitt, who understood Quijote as a Catholic hero of the European destiny in the wake of secularization and the crisis of the Catholic ratio. Although Villacañas does not explicitly cite Schmitt’s early essay on Quijote (preferring to polemicize with the late work Hamlet or Hecuba), Schmitt lingers as an accompanying shadow figure throughout Villacañas’ intervention [1].

It must be said that, at a time of contemporary debates around political theology and the future of Europe, Freud lee el Quijote is a salient exposition of a decisive question on the political and historical defeat. Villacañas’ book is really about an affirmation of defeat as an irreducible condition of the political. It does not come to a surprise that Villacañas is fully honest when he writes in the prologue: “… [este libro] es mi hijo menor, pero en verdad el de más larga gestión, y el más querido de todos mis libros” (Villacañas 9).

The names of Freud and Schmitt work jointly and at opposite ends and they limit the frame of Villacañas’ strong reading of the Quijote. The central idea is that Cervantes wrote neither a work of cruelty or tragedy, nor of comedy.  El Quijote for Villacañas is a work of humor. But let us step back from this assertion. Villacañas is generous and attentive to the archival sources (Freud’s letters to Silberstein, among other things), which allows him several factual connections, such as the mimesis between the Academia Española as an antecedent of the Psychoanalytic Association, or even the Coloquio de los perros as a formal precedent of the psychoanalytic session. But more importantly, these juxtaposed scenes pepper the ground for the question that Villacañas is after: how to think the heroic figure of the Quijote, and what relation does it contract with the origin of psychoanalysis?

Villacañas’ thesis is that the Quijote is an eruption beyond the comic and the tragic into the humorous. This is, he tells us at the very end, a process of moral rationalization that Freud understood only after Cervantes’ discovery of the “pious humor” (humor piadoso) (Villacañas 25). To understand the way to Freud’s reading of humor in Cervantes, Villacañas first needs to cross paths with Schmitt. He recalls that in Schmitt’s reading of European secularization, there are three potential mythical representatives. We should bare in mind that the three are intellectual representatives: that of the Catholic Quijote in Spain, the Protestant Faust in Germany, and that of the rational and doubtful Hamlet, pulled by the tragic phantasm of the Law-Father. Throughout the essay, Villacañas wants to correct Schmitt’s perhaps too hasty typology of the first heroic type. It is not that Villacañas wants to dispute Schmitt’s circumscription of Cervantes’ Quijote into the Spanish catholic tradition; the problem is that Quijote only emerges in the ruinous aftermath of the catholic imperial ratio. Quijote in La Mancha is an existential and moral figure of a defeat that confronts reality without resentment or guilt. Hence, Quijote, like the Marranos and the Spanish pícaro, affirms without reserve the time of the interregnum as a profane Post-Reform location. Spain is the land of a double fissure into modern secularization. Villacañas tells us:

“…allí donde dominó el catolicismo nacional posterior, tal proceso fue imposible, pues ese catolicismo se puso al servicio de toda tradición mundana. Entre un catolicismo que ya no podía ser universal y un Estado que nunca sería soberano, don Quijote es el héroe errante en un mundo escindido y roto, sin soberano estatal ni Iglesia universal: el mundo español. Por eso es que es mito existencial y concierne a cualquier español que reflexione sobre su destino histórico” (Villacañas 32).

Cervantes’ profane epoch is that of the newborn Leviathan, which Villacañas reminds us did not need to wait for Hobbes, since the myth was noticed by Juan de Santa María, a Felipe III’ censor, in his Tratado de república y policía cristiana. The mythic Leviathan demolishes the old principles of medieval history based on the absolute potentiality of God in the name subjective freedom protected by the new mechanicist secular state (Villacañas 34). Up to this point, this narrative is very much consistent with Schmitt’s The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes. But Villacañas abandons Schmitt when contenting that Quijote cannot amount and should not be reduced to a mythical Spanish katechon. Quijote is, in fact, the very opposite of any positing of time restrainer of terrestrial time. He is, unlike Schmitt, not the last witness of the European ius, but the prima witness of the time of ruin and devastation: “Don Qujiote es un héroe católico, pero su figura emerge de entre las ruinas de Roma y del Imperio” (Villacañas 37). Villacañas seems to place Schmitt, vis-à-vis Quijote, on its head: whereas in Hamlet and Hecuba, Shakespeare’s tragedy inscribed the irruption of history within the work, in Cervantes’ Quijote irrupts the historical end of the roman imperium, and the Catholic Church as form of the gnosis. But how does the humor play out within this configuration?

Quijote represents a turning point of the triumph of the modern gnosis, which in a turn to Hans Blumenberg’s Legitimacy of the Modern Age, equips Villacañas with the possibility of fleeing the stereotype of the reformist and salvific composition of the modern subject. For Villacañas, Don Quijote “es la paranoia del impotente y del solitario, mientras el reformado se entrega a la experiencia entusiasta y sin fisuras del que es consciente de su poder y lo ve compartido por los que confiesan con él” (Villacañas 68-69). Quijote is a marrano figure away from Protestant salvific subjection, but also turning its back to the messianic kingdom of the Catholic fidelitas. The wonder and uniqueness of the Quijote is that he represents a third option that does not run through resentment or will to power, since its compensation is a pious humor in the face of the ruinous and the powerlessness (impotencia). Villacañas summarizes the point in an important moment of his book:

“Lo decisivo está en la forma de interpretar las derrotas. La autoafirmación moderna no trata de culpabilizar a un poder mágico por sus fracasos, ni a una finalidad perversa del mundo, ni a un manipulador chapucero y cruel, sino solo a una falla del principio epistemológico respecto a lo real, lo que constituye un nuevo reto a la curiosidad” (Villacañas 73).

The disheveled Quijote can only compensate the wake of the imperial absolute trauma with humor. This is a complex game, Villacañas notes, since it is done through phantasy as the possibility of exodus for what otherwise could amount to the acceleration of the death drive, the sublimation of the Ideal, and the proximity with the speculative teleology of the genius and the superhuman. This latter was the rubric by which German Romanticism read and appropriated the “Catholic” myth as fetish after the failure of the Protestant bourgeois transformation. The work of humor is the possible thanks to the work of self-affirmation in the face of tragic finitude: “Está diseñado para mostrar la finitud del héroe que un día fuimos, y que todavía somos, y ese el trabajo del humor, el que asegura a pensar de todo el triunfo del yo y su condición narcisista” (Villacañas 88). While the joke and comedy are blind to loss, Villacañas goes as far as to claim that the joke or the prank are always potentially on the side of aggression (Villacañas 92). Not so the humor, which can divide itself in a psychic equilibrium between the Ego and the Super-Ego, between the playfulness of the youngster and the theatrical seriousness of the elder. The joke, as reactive mechanism, does not recoil back to the Ideal. Humor – as in “tiene sentido de humor” – is always a singular form of humility.

This is, at heart, the latent gnosticism of Cervantes as Quijote, and Quijote as Cervantes. The function of comedy, which Giorgio Agamben has elevated in work as a phantasm of Italian culture and of his own potenza, dissolves in the Hispanic Marrano tradition in which Villacañas places Quijote as a humorous figure [2]. The work of compensation of the super-ego makes humor a substrate of the psychotic figure of disbelief, while affirming the narcissist drive of a modern fragile and gracious “I”. It makes sense that Villacañas argues at the end of his book this superego cannot be tyrannical (Villacañas 99). This could open rich and important discussions that we can only register here.

As a treacherous hidalgo, Alonso Quijano is never a psychotic leader, but a humorous madman. And humor is only an aftereffect of an epistemological rupture of the modern, of an unclear and unforgotten defeat that characterizes modern man, and that characterized, no doubt, Cervantes himself in his attempt to find a proper balance to nihilism. But, did he succeed? The book does not say openly, but it is fair to say that the impossible balance to nihilism is also symmetrical to the nihilism of the political.

 

 

 

 

Notes

  1. Schmitt in his early essay on Quijote notes some of the aspects that he will take up in the late book on Hamlet, such as the “image of the Hispanic heroism”, and the “great sense of humor of the work”. See, “Don Quijote un das Publikum” (1912). There is a Spanish translation of the essay by Isabel Moreno Salamaña (2009).
  2. For Agamben on the comic as a category of Italian thought in the wake of Dante, see “Comedia” in Categorie italiane: Studi di poetica e di letteratura (2010). Most recently, this is also the problem at the heart of his book on the Neapolitan puppetry figure Pulcinella, Pulcinella ovvero divertimento per li regazzi (2016).
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