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.






  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).

Acts of Engagement: on Marranismo e Inscripción. (Djurdja Trajkovic)

What is the relation between negative engagement and deconstruction? Negative engagement is a singular engagement of separation that instead of proposing a binary problem/solution proper to contemporary thinking, offers new questions and the possibility of pushing thought further. It is negative since it does not look for empathy nor compassion, neither redemption nor recognition. It is an engagement that abandons the “state of things”, only to open up thought to the unthinkable, and to the difficult experience of freedom. It is engagement as a form of life, since what is at stake is a relation to existence outside of hegemony, identity, and quality; that is, at the margins of institution (if there is such a thing anymore).

In Moreiras’ anti-book, Marranismo e Inscripción (Escolar & Mayo, 2016), we bear witness to such a difficult intervention. It is a book made up of heterogeneous writings, some highly intimate, others profoundly distant, which overwhelms the reader with their arduous insistence and demand for thinking. It is as if Moreiras is repeating the Heideggerian conclusion that we have not even begun to think. And what is there to think about in “times of interregnum”?

Firstly, the crucial task that Alberto offers up for thought is what cannot be said: the crisis of the Humanities. Suggesting that we do not posses even the concepts or language with which we could start this process, Moreiras is suspicious of returns to national history and grand (canonical) literature. If this is a crisis of crisis, how do we think about the Humanities within the eye of the storm? What kind of crisis are we bearing witness to? It seems that the Humanities has become sort of a bad word: it is a space where a fundamental interrogation on the state of humanity could have been put into question once, and that today increasingly mirrors only the loss of academic jobs of academics and its contingency. Global capitalism turns a necessity, the cultivation of thought and the letter, into contingency by naturalizing the status quo and refusing to recognize the conflict.

Important as it may be to address the contingency of academic work, however, the crisis is profound since what is at its heart is the very crisis of thought and intellectuality. It seems that the brutal acceleration and instrumentalization of life itself has surpassed our capability to rethink it without falling into nostalgia and melancholia and other “solutions” that lead nowhere. I am not suggesting here embracing all too quickly a “happy” form of living without really dwelling into the question of globalization. But does anyone really need the Humanities anymore, if anyone ever really did? Is the university, as a space of hospitality without condition, possible today? Can the Humanities offer once again a thought of/for transformation? How is transformation to be enacted irreducibly to wishful thinking and pure dreaming? Critical thinking stutters here, as it fears its own disappearance.

There is no room for cynicism or nihilism, however. And even if there is, we must reject it. The situation is difficult, unbearable. Inviting us to abandon recognition, Moreiras underlines the acknowledgment of finitude; the very possibility of doubt and doubting of decolonial and communist impulses (you may want to revise this last phrase, as it is difficult to figure out what you mean). He is one of the rare thinkers who trace the problem of the temporality of thinking itself. For example, he asserts that our accustomed “tools” fail us today as the exhaustion of modern (political) concepts is beckoning us. Perhaps we are bearing witness to the death of modernity. And yet, Moreiras does not offer to salvage those concepts but instead proposes without proposition a further deconstruction of politics. One must ask then what is left of politics and the political after deconstruction? What is unthinkable after deconstruction? Is deconstruction in need of deconstruction? Is deconstruction possible in the eye of a mass depolitization that the failure of neoliberalism made visible?

Infrapolitics, as something that happens, offers itself as the radicalization of deconstruction. It is a labor of difficult passion, of possibilization of the impossible, and a constant search, a desire, for the outside. Moreiras himself is hesitant to affirm if and when such a possibility might open up. Certainly not today when the conditions of possibility of/for thinking in the university of equivalence have closed even the possibility of putting into question the university itself and division of labor. Not even to mention the anti-intellectuality and anti-theoretical turn haunting the Humanities. After all, all is said and done, right? And yet, at the same time, Moreiras does not want to abandon the possibility of a new historicity, a new writing of history irreducible to instrumentalization and to the capture of history for supposedly progressive goals.

How to exercise such a demand? I believe that the question is not anymore ‘what is to be done’ but how to think the end of doing and the beginning of thinking. At the heart of his intervention is a thinking of radical democracy, a demand for a freedom of life liberated from the identitarian and hegemonic drives, a demand for other thought and time irreducible to the techno-political machine which captures experience and knowledge into another fetish and concept to be applied. In Moreiras we are distant from destruction, and what is being offered is the very possibility of experiencing freedom anew.

How so? He suggests in his reading of Javier Cercas’ El impostor that thinking is inseparable from freedom, not inseparable from love as for Jean Luc Nancy, but freedom itself. Thinking is irreducible to philosophy and literature is the risk one must take if there is going to be freedom at all. Thinking is sick thought. And only patient attention to this sickness (how could it be otherwise after the violence of metaphysics?) through the cultivation of other thought and letter could bring about the “cure”. However, the cure is not restoration of health but precisely the opening, the region, where freedom could appear. Moreiras uses here a curious word, “appearing,”- which is not appearance but “appearing.” For example, freedom appears when and if, a (wo)man opens herself to letting it be, when the character is separated from destiny, and when we consider what we are not and what we have not been able to be. Also letting it be so that the unknown can appear. Not doing but being. Is this the attempt to write a history of what has not happened and could have been? It is certainly a demand irreducible to “restorative nostalgia.”

This is a similar suggestion to what Sergio Chejfec exercises in his Los incompletos. We are not speaking here of mourning, but of the possibility of confronting the real as unforeseeable, as imperfect and inconclusive past. When we understand that, as Javier Marias reminds us, grace without use is also “la suma de todas las posibilidades no realizadas en nuestras vidas no como destino fallido”. Perhaps only then we will be ready to let freedom appear in its inexhaustibility. This is the task and promise of brave negative engagement for any Hispanist.