Celebrating the 500th Anniversary of Spanish Literature’s Most Audacious and Subversive Work

<i> Juan Goytisolo is the author of numerous books, including "The Marx Family Saga" (City Lights Books). His essay was translated from the Spanish by Peter Bush</i>

Good and evil, prosperity and adversity, glory and grief, over time all lose the energy of their impetuous beginning. For moments of wonder, so desired in their coming, once attained are immediately forgotten. Every day we see and hear new things, move on, leave them in our wake. Time diminishes, makes contingent. . . . All was ever thus, all fades, all is forgotten, all is cast aside.



The celebration by the Town Hall of LaPuebla de Montalban of the fifth centenary of the anonymous publication in Burgos, Spain, of the first 16 acts of what would soon be known as the “Comedy” and then as the “Tragicomedy of Calisto and Melibea” (and sometimes called “The Spanish Bawd” or, more simply “The Celestina”) commemorates the birth of a work crucial to the development and flowering of Spanish literature and language: A voice burst on the scene, unique in its lucid pessimism, corrosively destructive of consecrated values (with a loyalty to the author’s personal ethics) and unprecedented in the medieval literary canon, a voice that decisively influenced the creation of the skeptical Hispanic genre of the picaresque and Cervantes’ own genial inventions.

Successive editions of the book, with the acrostic reproduction of the author’s name, the university graduate Fernando de Rojas, born in La Puebla de Montalban, are only the start of a tangled web that academics in the field have struggled to unravel, more or less successfully. The second printing in Toledo with the letter from “the author to a friend” reveals the existence of a new writer, the one disguised in the acrostic, into whose hands the first act somehow fell, and which he was encouraged to continue by “beauty, subtle artifice,” a “strong, clear timbre . . . never before seen or heard in Castilian.” The discovery of the first act, attributed by many to two converted Jews, Juan de Mena and Rodrigo Cota, thus became the seminal nucleus from which Rojas, the young 23-year-old graduate, supposedly wrote the “Comedy” in “a couple of weeks’ vacation.” This is an astonishing assertion to be treated with caution, the same caution the half-disguised author uses to protect himself against the “common beliefs” of the time, a defense strategy precociously learned in the course of the unspeakable horrors suffered by his family:


“And since he [the first author], fearful of detractors and harmful tongues, readier to reproach than to create, decided to conceal and hide his name, don’t blame me if I don’t include mine in the base conclusion I add.” After a new printing in Seville, the Toledo edition of 1504, now lost, and the 1506 Rome edition, based on it, give us the work as we know it today--the “Tragicomedy of Calisto and Melibea” in 21 acts and stanzas in which the author “apologizes for erring in this work” and a Petrarchan philosophical prologue. As if so many false trails, turrets and parapets weren’t enough, the 1507 Saragossa edition boasts moralizing verse by Alonso de Proaza, the proofreader of the Toledo edition, as a “conclusion” to chide the author whereby he darkens further the agnosticism oozing from the “Tragicomedy” by making a profession of his Christian faith and for good measure flagging up his condemnation of “false Jews.”

Whether the first act is by Mena and Cota or its discovery is mere artifice on the part of Rojas himself will always be subject to doubt and debate. Some stylistic and linguistic differences between the first act and the rest lead many to believe an author before Rojas existed, but one would then have to explain how the anonymous manuscript, composed decades earlier, came into the hands of a graduate from La Puebla who was able to exploit its potential with such skill and speed to create in a couple of weeks a literary work of enduring magnetism.

Whoever fathered the literary embryo of the first act, we have here a process that a century later climaxes in Cervantes’ literary engineering. If Cervantes leads the reader into a fertile territory of doubt, of creating an atmosphere in which the reader discovers, invents and constructs along with the author, Rojas’ wary stratagems pursue a similarly urgent design: to surround the work with protective fences and ditches in order to veil its subversive burden. This design led him to apologize to a fresh round of predictable detractors of the 1504 edition. The “existential tension” of Jewish conversos (Jews who had converted to Christianity to protect themselves) and new Christians in “The Celestina” forced its authors partly to conceal themselves after they had unmasked themselves in a continuous game of hide-and-seek.


“The Celestina” is a story about the mischief caused by Celestine, a witchlike go-between who brings together two lovers, Calisto and Melibea. At the end, they lose their lives and give Melibea’s father occasion to lament the emptiness of the world. It is a chilling speech that, like the rest of the work, provides a startling lens with which to view Spain in the 15th century.

The “false witnesses and bitter torments” evoked by the old procuress in her dialogue with Parmeno reflected the experience of the young graduate in a “world of perpetual conflict and struggle,” sunk into “litigious chaos” and for whom it was undoubtedly better to be judged “by the hand of justice than by any other means”; that is, clearly, by the Inquisition established in Castile in 1478. The inquisitional trials in 1485 included a relatively close family of the author of “The Celestina,” and in the inquisitional trials in 1488, his own father was sentenced as a Judaizer--like thousands of their fellows--in those days of “holy fury” and public celebration. When the desolate Pleberio, in the final act, berates the world that bred him--an indirect way of berating the author of Creation--and bitterly tells the author “the wood your flame burns are the lives and souls of human creatures, that are so many I can barely think with whom to begin,” the reference to the Holy Office could not be more transparent. Denunciations, dungeons and burning pyres of the condemned were part and parcel of Rojas’ moral landscape and environment.

Regrettably, the young 23-year-old knew what he was talking about. The living death of the conversos, caught in a mesh of inquisitorial vigilance, likely economic ruin and society’s disdain, was the crucible that distilled literary works whose nihilistic pessimism and existential anguish unexpectedly relate to more recent situations. To paraphrase Gunter Grass--for whom, over almost a century, the Jews created the great culture of Germany while Aryan Germans burnished their anti-Semitism--one could say with true irony, and not at all spuriously, that first the Jewish conversos and then the new Christians created the majority of the significant works written in Spanish in the 15th and 16th centuries while old Christians waved the specter of contagion with Jews and strove to bestialize Spanish Muslims.


Academics specializing in “The Celestina” have engaged in barren debate over which genre to slot “The Celestina” into: comedy, tragedy, dramatic novel or a novel in dialogue. But this is idle speculation: “The Celestina” is a unique, unrepeatable work, beyond concepts of model or genre. Not medieval, Renaissance, stoic or moralizing. It isn’t trying to enliven or develop previous themes or forms but to attack them and to destroy existing social and literary hierarchies and subvert their meaning. It is the most audacious, virulent work in Spanish literature, but its destructive ambition to de-mitre bishops and behead puppets is matched by uninhibited, original, unbridled language, by a modern, individualized ego, freed from the straitjacket of conventions, archetypes and molds that previously bound and tied it.

The references to Petrarch, the source of a large part of the philosophical prologue to the “Tragicomedy” and the frequent use of classical aphorisms and quotations from Greek mythology, have persuaded some historians to try to pigeonhole “The Celestina,” clearly a work beyond classification, within the Western Christian canon of didactic literature. They seem not to notice how the wealth of grandiloquent maxims and sentences of Latin origin that stud the rhetoric of Calisto, Melibea, Pleberio and even of the servants and prostitutes merely frame the unleashing of radically new harsh, demanding voices, whose possible filiation must be sought elsewhere. Sempronio’s mocking of his master’s lyrics and the mention of Ovid and those whose “mouths spontaneously spout arguments in rhyme” shed some light on the precise function of such cultured references, because “it’s not friendly speech,” he says, “if it’s not common to all, if everyone can’t take part, if few can understand.”

A work like “The Celestina” can only be judged according to its own lights, and these are hardly Latin or Christian, although the young student employed an enviable treasury of proverbs like an “epidermal gold inlay” (as Severo Sarduy styled it). In any case, the idiosyncratic qualities of “The Celestina” must not prevent us from seeing Rojas’ genius. Apart from citing Ovid, Petrarch, collections of proverbs and “Pamphilus,” Rojas shows that he had some knowledge, at least from hearsay, of the philosopher-physicians, Avicenna and Averroes, as well as the satirical verse of Cota and other converso Jews. And his remarkable creation of the character of Celestina would have been impossible outside the Arab tradition of the procuress that had taken root in Spain. If we do not understand the eclectic quality of “The Celestina” and instead, westernize it and other works, such as “The Book of Good Love,” in an attempt to make them more familiar, we continue, as Francisco Marquez Villanueva suggests, “a long history of hypocritical, tub-thumping polemic, driven by Europeanizing cultural centralism, the privileging of the northern over the Mediterranean, and inveterate anti-Islamic prejudice.”

The prehistory of “The Celestina” has to be understood alongside that of Rojas: the collapse of his family hearth, the purifying zeal of the Holy Office and the atmosphere of discontent, fear and nihilism in the ghettos of the Peninsula. Scholars have analyzed the spread of Averroist rationalism in the Christian West in the 14th and 15th centuries and its lasting impact on Hispanic-Hebraic philosophy. Staring at a gloomy, precarious present that cast a shadow over the future, Jews, Marranos and Jewish conversos often embraced an individualist amoralism that expressed their skepticism toward the values generally respected by their fellow countrymen. In a declaration directed at Henry IV of Castile, some prelates and nobles in his kingdom denounced the presence in the court of enemies of the Catholic faith who, “though Christian by name . . . believe, say and affirm that there is no other world, beyond this being born and dying like animals.” Browsing through the pages of the “Tragicomedy” enables us to glean many similar examples of such materialism and the consequent lack of belief in eternal punishments and rewards:

“I’d rather my spirit accompanied those of simple animals than go via purgatory to the glory of the saints.”

“Don’t cry over the estate your master inherited, for you will not take this with you from this world, for we only have it in our lifetime.”

“As your mother suffered here below; we must believe that God will repay her up above, if it be true what our priest told us.”

“We won’t live forever. Let’s enjoy and take pleasure, for few see old age, and of those who see it not one starved to death.”

This agnosticism, largely concealed during Henry IV’s reign, was to become one of the targets most pursued by the inquisitorial pack. The young Jewish conversos of Rojas’ generation were forced to live the cruel experience of an iniquitous, merciless society, where the so-called official values of the faith exercised imprisonment, torture, confiscation of property, autos-da-fe, sambenitos and other examples of ignominy upon nonbelievers. The hidden part of Rojas’ astonishing artistic maturity belongs to his experience as the son of a well-off family suddenly cast into abysses of infamy and desolation. In a universe funneling to “a bitter, catastrophic end,” human beings lived without protection or Providence, subject only to the determinism of passions, strangers to any rule of morality or in thrall, as Marx would say, to the “icy waters of selfish calculation.” This despairing, negative philosophy that shaped the life and death of other Jewish thinkers, like the Portuguese Uriel de Costa (1585-1646), today sounds modern and sometimes Kierkegaardian. The intense modernity of Rojas’ work surged from such inner disharmony and subversive social and artistic impulses. Five centuries after its first edition, the “Tragicomedy” portrays with disturbing lucidity and precision the fast-approaching universe of chaos and litigy that we struggle with now.

Deprived of the “delicious sin of love” that she enjoyed for almost a month, Melibea conceives of her suicide as “a relief” and “a respite,” as an “agreeable end,” not worrying about the church’s condemnation of a step that would keep her forever from the beatitude of the blessed. The death of his only daughter confronts Pleberio, the heartbroken father, with irremediable solitude: “I complain of the world, because it created me within it,” he exclaims and, far from religious resignation, he berates it bitterly, harshly, in one of the most beautiful paragraphs in the whole work:

“In my tenderest youth I thought you and your actions ruled by a sense of order: now I’ve seen the ebb and flow of your ways, I think you a labyrinth of errors, a fearful wilderness, a habitat of wild beasts, a bauble of rancorous men, a lagoon full of slime, a country full of thorns, a steep mountain, a stony ground, a meadow full of snakes, an orchard flowering without fruit, a fountain of cares, a river of tears, a sea of misery, toil without profit, sweet poison, vain hope, fake joy, true sorrow.”

After that, can one speak of Christian teachings and Senecan Stoicism? Like his father-in-law Alvaro de Montalban, twice tried by the Inquisition in the course of his life, Rojas belonged to that group of conversos who had lost the faith of their ancestors without receiving the grace of the new law so brutally being imposed. In such an existential cleft, a youth endowed with his literary genius could not but assault the walls and language of society until he had knocked them down and built his “Tragicomedy” from the ruins.


The only laws that rule “The Celestina’s” universe of sound and fury are the sovereign rule of sexual pleasure and the power of money. From the moment of his casual encounter with Melibea in the orchard, Calisto proclaims the priority of the pleasure of the senses over any reward beyond this Earth (“the glorious saints who take pleasure in the vision of the divine have no more enjoyment than I have in contemplating you”), and when his servant Sempronio asks him whether he is Christian, he answers in no uncertain terms: “Me? I am Melibea and adore Melibea and in Melibea I believe and Melibea I love.” No divine precept or human norm will prevent him from “laying waste” with his “shameless hands” to the “comely body and delicate flesh” or of the prey he has snatched. Not even the bad news of the execution of his servants will be enough to distract him from the imminent enjoyment of the object of his desires (an impulse described in terms that recall De Sade’s nihilistic amoralism): “And since your life owes nothing to their service, you need not fear the death of others, for no pain [of another] will equal the pleasure received [by yourself].”

Celestina’s cynical observations that “there be no difference between women of the world, who love, and sheltered virgins, as they all say ‘yes’ at the hint of a first request,” given that “they’re all aflutter, but once they’ve let their riders in the saddle they’ll never want to rest for pleasure”--adapt to the fatal passions that structure the plot of the “Tragicomedy.” After lamenting Calisto’s “harsh behavior” (“Don’t distress me or mistreat me as is your wont,”) in a scene of three-way love play that gives a “toothache” to her servant Lucrecia, similar to the one suffered by the “old whore” at Parmeno’s romping between the sheets with Areusa, Melibea readily admits: “Master, I’m the one enjoying herself, I’m the one rewarded; you, my master, the one whose visit bestows on me a favor beyond compare.”

In this way, Celestina, with her “wheeler-dealer” arts as a go-between, levels prostitutes and noble women, erases differences, knocks down the walls raised between Pleberio’s family mansion and the brothel and destroys established hierarchies. Significantly, Rojas puts the same revealing phrase into the mouths of Areusa and Melibea: “[S]ince I got to know myself” and “After I got to know myself.” Knowledge linked, quite obviously, to the implacable laws of the body, to the radical equality of the whole human species and to the blind fury of passions that, by virtue of a rigid chain of cause and effect, will turn Parmeno’s dark predictions to his master into rock-hard truths:

“Master, your losing of your hawk the other day was the reason for entering Melibea’s garden; the reason you saw and talked with her; talk engendered love; love bore you pain; pain will lose you your body, soul and wealth. What grieves me most is your falling into the clutches of that bawd, thrice tarred and feathered.”

The somewhat cryptic references to Melibea’s “pure blood” and Calisto’s “high birth” point to the prehistory of the “Tragicomedy.” At the time of the conquest of Granada and the discovery of the New World, when reality seemed to be submitting to the religious, bellicose imperatives of the Spanish, the solitude, silence and obscurity in which Calisto takes refuge must have seemed at first sight incomprehensible.

Calisto’s unsociable spirit and retreat from the urban society around him reflect the spirit of many Jewish conversos upon whom inquisitorial persecution and the harassment of lives and property had descended like a bird of prey. It is not far-fetched to relate Rojas’ own traumatic experience to Calisto’s fall from favor and inexplicable lack of family context. The almost cloistered existence and social isolation of the hero of the “Tragicomedy”--consider Sempronio’s enigmatic, impolite reference to his grandmother and the chimpanzee--remain shrouded in the same carefully thickened mist blurring the author’s presence. The frequent mentions of pure blood, lineage and honor scattered through the satirical works by 15th century Jewish conversos spring with equally biting sarcasm from the lips of the socially inferior characters. On the one hand, Celestina, Areusa and the ruffian, Centurio, boast of their professional honor (“Men must suffer in this sad life to uphold their lives and honor,” says the procuress), and on the other, servants and prostitutes energetically attack arguments that, for centuries, had underpinned the religious and social status of the old Christian caste:

“And some say that nobility is praise that comes from the just desserts and antiquity of the parents; I say another’s light will never shine on you if you don’t have any light of your own.”

“Nothing is farther from the truth than common opinion. You’ll never be happy if you let yourself be ruled by the will of the many. . . . Works are what make lineages, for are we not all the children of Adam and Eve. Each one should try to be good in himself and not go looking for virtue in the nobility of their forefathers.”

The difficult living conditions of Jews and conversos gradually worsened through the 15th century with the pogroms in different cities of the Peninsula, and Isabel’s victory against the supporters of Juana la Beltraneja (note the spread of terms of insult and contempt coined in a few decades of that century: marranos, moriscos, judiadas). “Inquisitous is the law that’s not the same for everyone,” the desolate Pleberio tells the world, only to add, with that cosmic pessimism that suffuses Rojas’ religious skepticism: “Others called you God, badly misled by their senses. Note God kills those he created; you kill those who follow you.”

Attacks on the clergy, and by extension the church, are also numerous in the “Tragicomedy”: from the young woman put in Celestina’s charge by a pot-bellied priest, to the order to restore at top speed the virginity the betrothed gave over on Christmas Day to a prebendary, to the toing and froing of the “old whore” for Masses and vespers between monasteries of both sexes where she weaves her “concerts and choruses.” These characterizations are part of a well-researched tradition of go-betweens of Arabic origins. The literary figure of the go-between, drawn affectionately and delicately by the Archpriest of Hita, the first great Castilian writer in the 14th century, responded to a well-established social reality in the Castile of the Trastamaras: Catholic monarchs rewarded fidelity by concubinages.

As a go-between, Celestina is a professional who keeps an exact tally of the “virgins in her charge,” the “best patrons” and the “sparkiest” canons. But to her acute awareness of her trade, shared by other literary predecessors, Rojas adds dark features and traits--witchcraft and a repellent, almost phantasmal appearance--which are extended, as later in Goya, to deeper, darker zones. Just as the monsters and nightmares from the Goyesque subconscious abandon their dismal lairs suddenly to take on before our eyes a sinister, tangible precision, the appearance of Celestina in the temple, mid-service, seems plucked straight from one of Goya’s etchings, the “Caprichos” or “Disparates.” She relates how she is entertained by ecclesiastics of every distinction, from bishops to sacristans: “[A]s soon as I entered the church, I saw caps doffed in my honour, as if I were a duchess. The one who had the least business with me was considered the most vile. When they saw me half a league away they left their prayers: one by one [and] two by two they came to where I stood, to see if I wanted anything, each to ask after their mistress. For there were men saying mass, who seeing me come in, got all flushed, who couldn’t do or say anything aright. Some called me milady, others aunt, others, beloved, others honest old dear. There we arranged times to come to my house, my visits to theirs, there they offered me money, promises, other gifts, kissed the edge of my cape, and some even kissed me on the face, to keep me in even better temper.”

The usurping of the role of the Virgin and the honors with which she is received in the temple couldn’t be clearer. Rojas’ irreverence and his mocking of ecclesiastical hypocrisy was something new and only later surfaced in the visual field, in Goya’s dream of reason.


Iconoclastic attacks on the church and militant genealogies of the advocates of blood purity are accompanied in “The Celestina” by the prostitutes and servants’ criticism of the selfishness, rapacious ingratitude of the masters of that era (applicable, I would say, to ours). Areusa’s sharp tongue in the dialogue initiated with praise to Melibea is a biting counterpoint to the affected rhetoric of other passages in the work and is one of the most incisive achievements of the graduate from La Puebla. The mistresses never look to treat them as equals, to “speak to them as thou to thee” and their servants, according to Areusa, never hear their own names from their lips, but “come here, whore, do this, whore” “Where you off, blackface? What did you do, scum? Why did you eat this, greedyguts? How did you scrub the pan, filthy sow? Why didn’t you clean the cape, filthy bitch? How did you say this, fool? Who lost the dish, saucy wench? Where’d my hand towel go, thief?: you’ve given it to your pimp. . . . And then a thousand slaps, pinches, lashes and cuffs.”

Rojas’ onslaught on the social conventions and codes of his day are expressed in corrosive language in which the virulence of the attack is expressed in terms we feel and experience as our own. Rojas plays masterfully with different registers of speech, verges on sublime obscenity, decants crudity, vertiginously accelerates the pace, threads arguments and phrases like beads or pearls, harries, hustles and converts verbal matter into a vibrantly alive organism:

“I did this to myself, he told me that way, we had such a laugh, thus I did win her over, I kissed her this way, she bit me like that, I held her this way, came nearer. What a din! What fun! What sport! What kisses! Let’s go thither, come back hither, play music, paint mottoes, sing songs, invent riddles: what pretty device shall we make or what letter? She’s off to mass, tomorrow she’ll be out, let’s prowl down her street, read her this letter, hold the ladder, wait by the gate, how did it go? Look at the cuckold, leaving her all alone. Round once more, give it another try.”

Subject to the whims of untrammeled egoism, sunk in bitter, unavoidable conflict, the characters in “The Celestina” know no other law than immediate self-interest. Plautus’ homo homini lupus, as expounded by Gracian and Hobbes, shape the reality forcing them to fight each other to the point of destruction. Sempronio and Parmeno forget the loyalty they owe to their master and instead seek the reward promised by Celestina (“Destroy, break, snap, harm, give the go-betweens their due, for some will come my way, as they say: a disturbed river’s good for fishermen”) and finally murder the procuress (“In money there’s no friendship”) when she refuses to share the fruits of her trade. The violence unleashed soon takes its toll: The two men are beheaded in the town square and, after his first anxious moment, their master Calisto repays them posthumously in the same coin: “For I will earn more from the glories awaiting me [the enjoyment of Melibea] than losing to death those who died.” The perverse chain of cause and effect will in due course bring Calisto’s death and Melibea’s suicide.

Certainly there are some chinks of light in the work--the maids and prostitutes’ self-esteem, their rebelliousness against their masters’ abuse of power, Areusa’s moving solidarity with Elicia, an explicit defense of female sexuality. But these bursts of light against the horizon of this universe ruled by the power of pleasure and the pleasure of power only help to deepen the shadows of gloom: melancholy confirmation that the dizzy techno-scientific progress of the last decades--the uncontrolled modernity that, leviathan-like, is emerging on the horizon at the end of the millennium--is not accompanied by any cultural or moral progress.

Reading “The Celestina” in the international disarray following the collapse of communist utopias and the overwhelming triumph of the most extreme ultraliberal credos gives little grounds for optimism. The frequent references characters make to the world as a “market” or “fairground” in which people and merchandise “are held dear as soon as purchased” and are “worth as much as they cost,” and Pleberio’s distraught invective against the world (“sales and purchases of your fallacious fairground”) take on a disturbing meaning when read in the light of the ceaseless decline of democratic, humanist values of solidarity in today’s Global Village, Shop or Casino, a place ruled by uncontrollable powers, where the only law is the immediacy of self-interest and profit.

Does human life exist outside the laws of the market, or is it just another salable, marketable product in the cold, pitiless economic tangle? To the anguished question posed by growing inequalities, a close reading of “The Celestina” brings us a harsh, inexorably negative answer: Nature and its blind laws reduce us to an expendable commodity in a godless, iniquitous world.