Calderón, García Márquez, and the Deconstruction of Absolute Power
In El otoño del patriarca, García Márquez deploys the Baroque theater of Calderón to underscore the power of visual tropes in the establishment and erosion of political authority. Insofar as the rulers in Calderón's play La vida es sueño and García Márquez's novel rely on sensorial evidence for their knowledge of the world, they are shown to be implicit collaborators in the construction of reality through the visual sense. A correlative insistence in these works on the illusory aspect of visually perceived reality, however, reveals that sight itself may dissemble, and thus disassemble the power which it purports to reflect. Discernible traces of Calderón's masterpiece in García Márquez's text point to an antithetical relationship between the Baroque subtext and the dictator-novel: in the former, Segismundo's eye is averted to the deceptive nature of appearances, while in the latter, the patriarch, in his unwillingness to see that the world he constructs is a dream, is shown the ultimate incoherence of absolute vision and absolute power.
The patriarch, as I have tried to show elsewhere, (1) presents himself as a seer, capable of bridging the gap between visible and invisible realms. Constructing chimeras of similitude and images of the unseen, he deploys "the privileged trope and the trope of privilege" (2) --the ocular metaphor-- as an instrument of his will over the collective-narrator witness which tells his story (3). But one may ask whether this supervoyance is not in fact relative, and if certain key episodes of El otoño del patriarca do not illustrate this hypothesis. This, as I will try to prove, can be clarified by the notion of the Baroque worldview and mastertext, and its use by García Márquez.
The complex episode of Manuela Sánchez (chapters II and III of the novel) introduces the use of the Baroque by García Márquez. In this passage, García Márquez deauthorizes all powerful vision and authoritative rhetoric. The process through which the patriarch is deauthorized is love. The author of the novel poses the problem of the cognitive aspects of vision for the seer/patriarch, and for the collective voice in the constructed phenomenal world of the patriarch. The passages that follow deal with the patriarch's gaze scrutinizing the world in search of the truth amid the deceptive reflections of his power to create vision and reality: the vulnerable patriarch, destabilized by his fantasy for the beauty queen Manuela Sánchez, loses his control over the creation of reality.
In the throes of delirious passion, (4) the lover wonders if the object of desire herself is a dream, an engaño of his senses. In pure dictatorial fashion, the patriarch engages in a love duel with Manuela Sánchez in order to reinstate to his world the stability of authoritative discourse. Unable to do so, he experiences reality as the unity of contradictory experiences: day becomes night, night becomes day, life is a dream, the world is upside down (5). He concludes that others must share his present experience of the world as chaos, and his own confusion as a condition of experience for all. He then imposes the harmonization of disharmonies: day is night, night is created artificially over day.
Rhetorically, metaphor, the visual trope that conflates similarities, and which has supported the construction of an unchallenged authority, gives way to the tropes of paradox and oxymora. With these new tropes, the patriarch realizes the world like the Baroque realizador: the patriarch ressembles the Baroque theater author, the realizador, who, from the royal perspective (6) in the theater, creates a fictitious reality on the stage with the help of the new devices of perspectivas and trompe-l’oeil. These new devices, as Alicia Amadei Pulice explains, some of them the product of the new scientific explorations of space (7), were designed to reproduce exactly, that is, mechanically and artificiallly on the stage, the three dimensional perspective of reality (8).
Paradoxically, theater, the realm of illusion and artifice, was then in the Baroque period, the first medium to experiment the new Cartesian epistemology of optical origin. In this (Baroque) sense, the patriarch is a realizador, like the dramatist Pedro Calderón de la Barca whose mastery of perspective (9), whose ingenio was able to deceive even the royal eye.
One may now ask what are the consequences of the patriarch's ingenio for himself and for the collective narrator-witness. Can the patriarch really master his representation like the Baroque artist whose role is to avert the eye to the deceptive appearance of the fictitious scenic reality? Can he become the perspicacious individual of the Baroque period who can decipher the play of appearances and discover truth behind the artifice? During this critical breakdown of empirical vision, the collective narrator-witness (i.e. seer) becomes the attentive individual of the Baroque period described by José Antonio Maravall: " When one is conscious that the relations between one individual and the groups of a diverse nature in which he or she is included have suffered a serious transformation, the scrutiny of the experience of life is of outmost importance and interest" (1986, 168). Collective vision becomes atomized: individual eyes judge the patriarch's display of confusion; to see in order to know becomes part of the politics of survival in the phenomenal world of the patriarch's Authoritarian dictatorship.
It seems that García Márquez uses the Baroque in the Manuela Sánchez passage to support one of the main themes of the novel: the dichotomy between truth and lie, fiction and reality (10). The Baroque here can be interpreted two ways: first as a period concept born out of the consciousness of the social and historical crisis present in European societies during the XVIIth century (11). The severe social conditions described by Maravall, such as the strenghtening of Absolutist monarchies, the unrest caused by the nobility whose privileges were threatened, the protest against the state of submission in which the monarchy's subjects were held, "the moments of explosion caused by the harsh and eye-glazing discipline (italics mine) that existed everywhere" (p. 45) gave rise to a specific Baroque worldview. This culture was defined by precise topoi and sensibilities such as the world as mutable and confused labyrinth, the accomodation of the human eye to the logic of mutability and contradictoriness of experience, the state of warfare between individuals who experience the world as a struggle of oppositions, the confusion between appearance and reality and the struggle to grasp them. It seems that the Baroque worldview presents many common characteristics with the patriarch's worldview as presented by García Márquez in the passage analyzed below.
The Baroque as it is used by García Márquez is also the theatre of Calderón, since Calderón explores all the visual and philosophical aspects of what is seen (12). The dramatist appeals to sensorial evidence as the sole way to apprehend knowledge of the world, for "in the illusory world of deceptive perceptions, the eye allows to master self-knowledge, love and good deeds" (1990, 155). Hence can Segismundo from La vida es sueño convert from violence to prudence because through trial and error, in his trajectory through perspectives and trompe-l’oeil he can exercise perceptual doubt and ultimately detect illusion from reality.
It seems that García Márquez treats the patriarch's passage from violence to prudence (13) as Segismundo's antithesis. The patriarch's prudence at the end of the Comedia de teatro of which Manuela Sánchez is also the protagonist (14), amounts to the self-deconstruction of absolute power. If authority, according to Calderonian philosophy in La vida es sueño must be exercised with the purpose to liberate others from their illusion, their dream that the world is real (15), then the patriarch has failed. His newly acquired prudence confronts him with the evidence of his failure. The desengaño for the patriarch leads to the solitude of power.
The patriarch's failure may be analyzed and understood in the context of Segismundo's conversion in La vida es sueño. Segismundo, "hombre de las fieras/ y una fiera de los hombres" (Vida es sueño, Vv. 211-212), whose will of power transcends ethical limits, must awake from "asombros y quimeras" (Vv. 210) in order to be aware that the human condition is to dream in the world. He must awaken to the Platonic philosophy of the illusion and vanity of power and glory. The apprehension of the image of truth and beauty in the person of Rosaura is of prime importance in Segismundo's conversion. He implores Rosaura in the second act of La vida es sueño to not abandon him in the dark, the dream of this world: "No has de ausentarte, espera./ Cómo quieres dejar desa manera/ a escuras mi sentido?" (Vv. 1624-1626). He knows that in the midst of the vanity of this world, he has been able for a fleeting moment to awake to the domain of truth through love. Segismundo's passage from violence to prudence is condensed in the famous verses at the end of the second act of La vida es sueño. There, the Calderonian hero knows he is free because he liberated himself from the spell of the sensible/tangible aspects of this world: "Que el vivir sólo es soñar; y la experiencia me enseña,/ que el hombre que vive, sueña/ lo que es, hasta despertar/Vv. 2154-2157) . . . "¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,/ una sombra, una ficción,/ y el mayor bien es pequeño;/ que toda la vida es sueño,/ y los sueños, sueños son" (Vv. 2183-2187).
The patriarch's solitary freedom and awakening, on the other hand, reveal that his will to power, like the Nietzchean hero who pushed the boundaries of the ethical, has created "una ilusión . . . una sombra . . . una ficción." The liberated collective voice of the end of the novel testify to this:
. . . pero aprendió a vivir con esas y con todas las miserias de la gloria a medida que descubría en el transcurso de sus años incontables que la mentira es más cómoda que la duda, más útil que el amor, más perdurable que la verdad, había llegado sin asombro a la ficción de ignominia de mandar sin poder, de ser exaltado sin gloria y de ser obedecido sin autoridad cuando se convenció en el reguero de hojas amarillas de su otoño que nunca había de ser el dueño de todo su poder, que estaba condenado a no conocer la vida sino por el revés, condenado a descifrar las costuras y a corregir los hilos de la trama y los nudos de la urdimbre del gobelino de ilusiones de la realidad (emphasis mine) sin sospechar ni siquiera demasiado tarde que la única vida vivible era la de mostrar, la que nosotros veíamos de este lado que no era el suyo mi general . . . (270).
It seems then that if one wants to juxtapose Calderón's Segismundo to García Márquez's patriarch, the hero of La vida es sueño embodies the passage from violence to prudence according to Platonic philosophy, while the patriarch's passage from violence to prudence derives from the knowledge that the world created by his authority is a fiction. This realization in El otoño del patriarca leads to solitude. We need now to analyze in greater detail Segismundo's conversion at the beginning of La vida es sueño. We will then analyze the patriarch's, Segismundo's antithesis, in the tormentedly Baroque theatrical fiction that characterizes the Manuela Sánchez passage.
The first act of La vida es sueño is of prime importance in Segismundo's conversion from the world of dreams to the world of essential truth and beauty. Rosaura is the motive of this conversion. Hidden in the tower where Segismundo is emprisoned, Rosaura sees him awaken from his sleep, and hears his soliloquy where he laments over his condition. Even though he says he is awake, he has awakened to the world of illusions and dreams "entre asombros y quimeras,/ soy un hombre de las fieras/ y una fiera de los hombres" (Vv. 210-213). Rosaura discovers herself to Segismundo who, surprised and ashamed to have been overheard, says that he would rather kill her for having witnessed his weakness: "Pues la muerte te daré,/ porque no sepas que sé/ que sabes flaquezas mías" (Vv. 180-183). The time of day in which this scene occurs is of utmost importance symbolically: it is twilight (16). Rosaura is entering with the light into Segismundo's world of shadows, obscurity, and dreams. She is welcoming him (despite the fact that Rosaura is a "violent creature," a woman dressed as a man, a disguise that hides her true nature) into the world of the awakening: "Sale al día de sus hechos de la noche de sus sombras." It is then that Segismundo's search for essential truth revealed by Rosaura's beauty in the midst of "la noche de sus sombras" begins.
In El otoño del patriarca, the first page of the Manuela Sánchez passage illustrates the patriarch's decision to accept and strenghten the illusory character of the love experience and object of desire: the patriarch has just recalled the uncertain image of "the beauty queen of the poor," Manuela Sánchez, with whom he has danced. Despite the rumors of her beauty, he conjectures she is as common as "tantas Manuela Sánchez de barriada con su traje de ninfa de volantes de muselina y la corona dorada con joyas de artificio y una rosa en la mano . . . " (p. 67) (17). It is night in the palace of power. The patriarch has turned off all the lights in his kingdom (pp. 68-69). He is the only light, a diffusion/dispersion of the gold spur: " . . . iba dejando el rastro del polvo del reguero de estrellas de la espuela de oro en las albas fugaces de ráfagas verdes de las aspas de luz de las vueltas del faro. . . " (p. 69). This firework of signifiers ignites the darkness of the night and the page. It is a fainting visual echo of the burning and centered light of the patriarch's absolute power. His is a baroque image, repetition of a repetition of the original flame (18). The patriarch sleeps. He awakens to the sensation of having been seen: "eran las tres menos cuarto cuando se despertó empapado en sudor, estremecido por la certidumbre de que alguien lo había mirado mientras dormía, alguien que había tenido la virtud de meterse sin quitar las aldabas . . . Volvió a sentir que lo miraban . . ."(p. 70). Like Segismundo and every Calderonian hero who always feels observed, the eye of the other has an effect on the character who feels that he is being watched (19). Segismundo prefers to kill Rosaura than being robbed of his image by her gaze. The patriarch, accordingly, feels disempowered: " . . . Abrió los ojos para ver asustado, y entonces vio, carajo, era Manuela Sánchez . . . "(p. 70). The light of knowledge, the light of the one who has seen belongs to Manuela Sánchez.
How does the patriarch, in the symbolic shadows of his disempowered self, see Manuela Sánchez? Is she, like Rosaura for Segismundo, the symbolic entrance of light and essential truth in the shadows of the patriarch's world? Manuela Sánchez is indeed the light that the patriarch sees synesthetically represented by "la brasa de la rosa en la mano . . . El fulgor de su rosa . . . ’’(p. 71). The patriarch awakens like Segismundo to the world of illusions, but the illusion, unlike Rosaura for Segismundo, is Manuela Sánchez: " . . . dime que no es de verdad este delirio, dime que no eres tú, pero era ella, era su rosa . . . " (p. 70). Manuela Sánchez is indeed real, as realized as the replica of the Baroque artist, Calderón's rose that outdoes nature in the perfection of the artifice (20). Manuela Sánchez then, is unlike Rosaura who was the only "truth" in Segismundo's world of appearances, the one who ignited his conscience to the world of essences. The beauty queen is unreal and has the power to create the illusion of her "naturalness," her reality, throwing the patriarch in the depth of love as illusion and fantasy. She is the mechanical reproduction of the patriarch's dream on the stage, similar to the mechanical reproduction of reality constructed by the Baroque dramatist. She is, as this quote seems to indicate, l’effet du réel: " . . . cuando la vio aparecer (emphasis mine) en la puerta interior como la imagen de un sueño reflejada en el espejo de otro sueño . . ." (p. 77). The patriarch is deprived of vision, of perspicacity, the quality that the Baroque artist asks from the king whose royal/real perspective must detect the engaño of theatrical appearances. In the amorous warfare Manuela Sánchez engages in with the patriarch, the patriarch is deslumbrado (21): " . . . apágame esa rosa, gemía, mientras gateaba en busca de la llave de la luz y encontraba a Manuela Sánchez de mi locura en lugar de la luz . . . Manuela Sánchez de mi potra, hija de puta, gritó, creyendo que la luz lo liberaba del hechizo . . . "(pp. 70-71). The diffusion of light of the patriarch's gold spur has been sucked in by the darkness that represents the quarter of town where Manuela Sánchez lives: " . . . preguntándose asustado dónde podías vivir en aquella tropelía de nudos de espinazos erizados de miradas satánicas de colmillos sangrientos del reguero de aullidos fugitivos . . ." (p. 75). The violent duel of metaphors between the patriarch and Manuela Sánchez exceeds a pure "desperdicio barroco de la materia".(22) The patriarch has seen the light of illusion in Manuela Sánchez. He is seduced, deslumbrado by the representation of love.
Unlike Segismundo, he then tries to realize the illusion and reverses conceptually the philosophical order of La vida es sueño: life must be a dream, as perfect as the artifice of the Baroque Deus Pictor who can deceive the eye by creating the light of day in the night. The authoritarian gesture consists in dismantling the metaphor that dictates that life is a dream. Power lies in the creation of the artifice that the patriarch imposes on the nature of the text. The dualities natural/artificial, truth/fiction exist in the stable equilibrium of the oxymoron chiaroscuro when the patriarch is seen pasting "soles de papel dorado en los vidrios para que no se viera que todavía era de noche en el cielo" (p. 71) and watching "las estrellas de galletitas y las lunas de papel plateado que habían puesto en los cristales para que parecieran las ocho de la noche a las tres de la tarde" (p. 72). The authoritarian gaze accomodates itself to chiaroscuro, the baroque oxymoronic harmony of contraries. It is satisfied with its violence, with its obscure clearness.
He wants Manuela Sánchez and the collective narrator-witness to accomodate themselves to this logic of perception. Manuela Sánchez has witnessed the imposition of artificiality on nature : " . . . me quedé petrificada de pavor al ver lo que habían hecho de mi pobre barrio de las peleas de perro . . . ’’ (p. 81). It is no coincidence that one of the patriarch's gifts to Manuela Sánchez is an instrument of optical illusions (p. 81). The collective narrator-witness has disappeared in this part of the text, giving way to the attentive individual's gaze of the Baroque period. It refuses to sanction authority, and dicovers that chaos is the outcome of the patriarch's display of power and creation of apariencias: ". . . se vio a sí mismo inerme y solo en el extremo de la mesa de nogal con el semblante trémulo por haber sido descubierto a plena luz en su estado de lástima . . . se le quemó la vida en las brasas glaciales de los minuciosos ojos de orfebre (emphasis mine) de mi compadre el ministro de la salud . . ."(p. 73). Manuela Sánchez herself is not the beauty queen created by the patriarch, his Dulcinea, but a Caribbean version of Aldonza Lorenzo: " . . . ya sé quien es, señor, dijo alguien en el tumulto, una tetona nalgoncita que se cree la mamá de la gorila . . .’’ (p.76). (23) When she vanishes in the night of the eclipse (p. 86), the patriarch finally realizes he is a victim of his own fiction: ". . . y a medida que se disipaban las sombras de la noche efímera se iba encendiendo en su alma la luz de la verdad y se sintió más viejo que Dios en la penumbra del amanecer de las seis de la tarde de la casa desierta, se sintió más triste, más solo que nunca en la soledad eterna de este mundo sin ti, mi reina, perdida para siempre en el enigma del eclipse . . . "(p. 86). The educational purpose of XVIIth century Baroque theater has performed its function.(24) In his trajectory among his own deceptions, the king "now older than God" has been displaced from his throne of absolute master of vision and representation, and has seen what he never wanted to see: the truth about Absolute power.
Time and again, critics have talked about the links between the theater of Calderón and contemporary Latin American literature.(25) This essay expands the intertextuality between Calderón's theater and especially La vida es sueño and García Márquez's work. The sensorial evidence present in Calderonian theater and in La vida es sueño, is crucial to the main theme of García Márquez's novel, the portrayal of his authoritarian dictator. In La vida es sueño, the prince Segismundo, through deceptive scenic appearances will eventually discover the truth of essences through his love for Rosaura. She is the only reality he rightfully trusts in the midst of the illusions of this world. In contrast, García Márquez's dictator, in the Baroque passage of his fantasy for the beauty queen Manuela Sánchez, will only try to assert the constructed truth or artifice of the love object and the love experience, therefore also reversing conceptually the thesis of La vida es sueño. Unlike the wise ruler of the end of La vida es sueño, García Márquez's dictator is unable to discern the truth behind the artifice. This reversal of La vida es sueño's thesis in García Márquez's parable leads to a conclusion about the nature of absolute power and about the one who exerts it: the naturalness with which the ruler imposes a fiction as truth only leads him to experience solitude.