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JAVIER Cercas's 2014 non-fiction novel El impostor, regarding the massive fraud of alleged Spanish Holocaust survivor Enric Marco--who, it turns out, was a voluntary guest worker in Germany, not a leftist persecuted for his political leanings, as he claimed--raises important philosophical questions about the nature of truth and its vulnerability to manipulation by a cynical charlatan. This case of imposture, widely publicized in Spain, has become a national litmus test for gullibility and an occasion for soul-searching as Spaniards ask why they were taken in by him--essentially, why they wanted to believe his fabricated stories of life in a German concentration camp were true. The purpose of this essay is, first, to explore the novel's own comments about truth and lies (which, as we shall see, are explicitly posed within the context of Spanish Catholic penitential discourse) before turning to a curious text from the renaissance titled A Treatise of Equivocation. If his case were slightly different, this text might have provided the Protean Enric Marco with his best shot at a defense of his actions within the realm of moral philosophy. As it stands, el caso Marco still opens up for our analysis significant issues of secrecy, sovereignty and absolutism as discussed by political philosopher Alberto Moreiras and French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida. The essay will conclude with an assessment of whether, according to internal criteria laid out for the renaissance doctrine of equivocation, Marco's actions would have been justifiable to early modern casuists or not.

Some of the most appealing features of Javier Cercas's El impostor are the novel's multiple layers of metadiscourse. The narrative voice frequently compares himself to Enric Marco and thereby develops a capacity for empathy with this so-called moral monster. He also engages in periodic detours or tangents away from the main thread of the story line where he meditates upon questions such as " es moralmente licito mentir?" (Cercas 184). In response to this question, he offers an erudite survey of thinkers ranging from Plato, to voltaire, to Kant, to Montaigne, a group which he divides into two categories: relativists and absolutists (Cercas 184). He quickly arrives at the rather startling conclusion that most of the thinkers out there are relativists when it comes to lying. In The Republic Plato spoke of the noble lie (Cercas 184), while voltaire concluded that lying is a vice only when its effects are evil (Cercas 184). As the novelist summarizes the spectrum of these "relativistic" positions,

Razonan que la mentira no siempre es mala y a veces es necesaria, o que la bondad o la maldad de una mentira dependen de la bondad o la maldad de las consecuencias que provoca: si el resultado de la mentira es bueno, la mentira es buena; si el resultado es malo, la mentira es mala. (Cercas 184)

In contrast, he argues, the absolutists see a lie as evil and culpable in and of itself, regardless of its potentially beneficial effects:

Por el contrario, los absolutistas argumentan que la mentira es en si misma mala, con independencia de sus resultados, porque constituye una falta de respeto al otro, y, en el fondo, una forma de violencia, o un crimen. (Cercas 184)

He ultimately concludes that the only true absolutist in the realm of truth-telling was immanuel Kant, who claimed that the prohibition against lying admits of no exceptions (Cercas 185). He notes that in this area of his dogmatism, Kant had few followers.

Javier Cercas--or, more accurately, the narrative voice in his non-fiction novel--goes on to apply these tidbits from the history of moral philosophy to the specific case of Enric Marco. Latching onto Plato's concept of the noble lie, he applies it to Marco's imposture, playing devil's advocate just long enough to explore what his self-defense might look like against the charges brought against him of massive fraud and imposture:

Los defensores de Marco ... sostienen que las mentiras de Marco eran mentiras nobles, por decirlo como Platon, o mentiras oficiosas o altruistas, por decirlo como Montaigne; sostienen en suma ... que el fue un impostor, si, pero, como de sus labios jamas salio una falsedad historica, sus ficciones dieron a conocer urbi et orbe la realidad de la barbarie del siglo XX y por tanto sus mentiras fueron buenas mentiras, puesto que su resultado fue bueno. (Cercas 186)

In other words, the end justifies the means. Enric Marco brought needed attention to the plight of real Holocaust survivors, who might not have proven so telegenic as he. Cercas goes on to discard this hypothetical argument on the grounds that historical untruths did come forth from Marco's lips, one of the most notable being the claim that there was a gas chamber at the Flossenburg concentration camp (there never was one). But in this passage, Cercas lays the groundwork for a philosophical defense of Marco based upon the hypothetical nature of truth and the nature of lies.

The narrative voice takes up this line of reasoning once again a few pages later. This time, the discussion becomes more explicitly metaliterary with the questions " es mentira una novela?" and " es mentira una ficcion?" (Cercas 202). Here the author engages in more than a little hair-splitting with the assertion that a falsehood is not technically a lie:

Por supuesto, una falsedad no es una mentira--una mentira es peor que una falsedad: es una falsedad intencionada--, pero, hartos de ser considerados enemigos de la verdad, y quizas hartos tambien de las mentiras que se dicen en nombre de la verdad, al menos desde Oscar Wilde muchos creadores han reivindicado, desafiantes, su condicion de mentirosos. (Cercas 202)

Here he references Wilde's scandalous essay The Decay of Lying (1889). As he makes his way through related literary manifestoes such as Mario vargas Llosa's La verdad de las mentiras and Louis Aragon's Le mentir-vrai, he presents the contrasting view that works of creative fiction are not in fact lies:

Pero muchos niegan que las ficciones sean mentira. Sus argumentos pueden resumirse en dos. Primero: a diferencia de las mentiras, los hechos que ocurren en una ficcion no son contrastables y por tanto no es posible verificar si son ciertos o falsos. Segundo: a diferencia de las mentiras, las ficciones no buscan enganar a nadie. (Cercas 203)

He of course discards both of these arguments as well, stating the obvious fact that novelists do set out to deceive, but venturing that readers want to be deceived and are therefore actually complicit in novelists' deceit. In this remarkable passage, he turns the tables on the moralists to make the astounding claim that fiction aspires to a "higher" truth which is only accessible via the path of the imagination:

El deber intelectual del lector o el espectador de ficciones consiste en dejarse enganar, a fin de captar la profunda y contradictoria e ironica verdad que el autor ha construido para el. La ficcion es una mentira, por tanto, un engano, pero una mentira o un engano que en el fondo resulta ser una variante peculiar de las "nobles mentiras" de Platon o de las "mentiras oficiosas" de Montaigne: se trata de una mentira o un engano que, en una novela, no busca el perjuicio del enganado, quien solo creyendose esa mentira o ese engano podra alcanzar una verdad peculiar: la verdad de la literatura. (Cercas 204)

Faced with this noble sentiment, the novelist Cercas asks whether the 'wannabe' novelist Enric Marco ever attained this higher truth. He ascertains that he did not, on the grounds that there are (or should be) clear distinctions between literature and life:

Lo que hizo puede hacerse en las novelas, pero no en la vida ... las reglas de las novelas y las de la vida son distintas. En las novelas no es solo legitimo mentir; es obligatorio: esa mentira factual es el modo de llegar a la verdad literaria ... en cambio, en la vida ... mentir es "un vicio maldito" ... una bajeza y una agresion y una sucia falta de respeto y una ruptura de la primera regla de convivencia entre humanos. (Cercas 206)

Given that he has committed this sin, Cercas goes on to ask (through the mouth of Amezaga) whether the sin--in terms posed by Catholic penitential discourse--is mortal or venial:

Para mi, diciendo las mentiras que dijo, Marco cometio un pecado mortal, pero, si lo viera entrar ahora mismo por esa puerta, me alegraria de verle, le daria un abrazo y comeria con el; en cambio, otro cometeria un pecado venial y no querria ni volver a verle. (Cercas 250)

He may be a sinner, but like so many of Spain's unforgettable picaresque heroes, he is also a likeable rogue.

Cercas returns to his metadiscourse or extended meditation on the nature of lies some fifty pages later to extend this accusation of lying beyond the single case of Enric Marco to encompass all of Spanish post-war society:

La democracia espanola se fundo sobre una gran mentira colectiva, o mas bien sobre una larga serie de pequenas mentiras individuales, porque ... en la transicion de la dictadura a la democracia muchisima gente se construyo un pasado ficticio, mintiendo sobre el verdadero o maquillandolo o adornandolo ... todos inventandose una biografia de opositores secretos, malditos oficiales, resistentes silenciosos o antifranquistas durmientes o activos, con el fin de ocultar un pasado de apaticos, pusilanimes o colaboracionistas. No sabemos si esa mentira era una mentira necesaria. (Cercas 299, emphasis mine)

Here Cercas slyly introduces another possible defense of Enric Marco: he only took to an unusual extreme what everybody else in his society was already doing anyway.

At various other points in his text Cercas invokes the word "equivocation," but without explaining it, as in "todo el mundo le perdonaria su equivocacion" (Cercas 350). (2) He seems to equate this word with a certain "deformation" of reality, a synonym for lying employed by Enric Marco himself in a statement he issued in real life, retracting his previous claims ("haber hecho publica mi biografia, con aspectos que deforman la realidad" [Cercas 351]). The Spanish language contains no equivalent phrase to the english little white lie, but this is certainly the idea expressed in the proposition that "su mentira era una mentira buena o al menos venial, pues habia contribuido a difundir verdades que necesitaban difusion" (Cercas 371), or alternatively that "su mentira fue una mentira beneficiosa y tan minuscula que apenas es una mentira o merece ser considerada una mentira" (Cercas 379). He ends in a triumphant flourish with the rhetorical question, " No es la mentira de Marco una mentira vital nietzscheana, una mentira epica y totalmente asocial y moralmente revolucionaria porque pone la vida por encima de la verdad?" (Cercas 386-87). In the last pages of his non-fiction novel, Cercas is still mulling over the particular combination of truth and falsehood which Enric Marco perpetrated as one of the alltime great pseudo-historical scams:

Las mentiras puras no se las cree nadie ... Las buenas mentiras son las mentiras mezcladas, las que contienen una parte de verdad. (Cercas 405)

This could almost serve as a textbook definition for an early modern casuistical notion called the doctrine of equivocation. Javier Cercas was unaware of the renaissance version of this doctrine per se when he wrote his work. (3) But the ideas explored in his novel resonate strongly with the tenets of early modern Spanish casuistry, or the study of case morality, a promising field of inquiry which William Childers in the pages of the journal Hispanic Review declared has "room to grow" (Childers 2011). (4) The writer of ecclesiastes had it right: there is nothing new under the sun. (5)

In relation to the subject matter of Cercas's El impostor, i would like to introduce a fascinating renaissance text with the curious title A Treatise of Equivocation (figure 1):

A Treatise of Equivocation: Wherein is largely discussed The Question whether a Catholicke or any other person before a magistrate beyng demaunded uppon his oath whether a Preiste were in such a place, may (notwithstanding his perfect knowledge to the contrary) without Periury and securely in conscience answere, No, withouth this secreat meaning reserued in his mynde, That he was not there so that any man is bounde to detect it (composed ca. 1592-95). Edited by David Jardine, Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1851.

This work was published for the first time in the nineteenth century, but the text itself is much older than that. Of anonymous authorship, the manuscript, which was discovered in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, was composed between 1592 and 1595 by a male author, a Catholic resident in England who cites the Holy Scriptures from the Latin vulgate.

Almost 100% of the authorities cited in the text are Spanish or Portuguese theologians and casuists, including Doctor Navarro [Martin de Azpilcueta, 1491-1586] (Treatise 20); Francisco Suarez [1548-1617] (Treatise 28); Bartolome de Medina [1527-1580] (Treatise 28); Domingo de Soto [1494-1560] (Treatise 31); enrique Henriquez [1536-1608] (Treatise 43); Gregory of valencia [ca. 1550-1603] (Treatise 43); emanuel Sa [Manuel de Sa, 1530-1596] (Treatise 43); Domingo Banez [1528-1604] (Treatise 43); Gaspar de Borja [Cardinal of Toledo, 1580-1645] (Treatise 44); and "one Penna [Juan de la Pena, 1513-1565] a predecessor of his [Soto's] in the chaire of Salamanca" (Treatise 43). The Spanish provenance of many of the ideas contained in the treatise makes sense when we consider the presence of the Jesuits in England during this time: for example, the furtive exorcists in Denham during the decade of the 1580s whom Shakespeare satirized in King Lear (Brown low 1993) and even Spanish women who were followers of the Jesuit missionaries in London such as Luisa de Carvajal (Redworth 2010). The presence of Jesuits was prohibited at that time in England, so they lived in hiding; and more than a few died as martyrs for the Catholic faith. Several persons with directly provable connections to the manuscript (including Henry Garnet, Francis Tresham, and George Blackwell) were implicated in the so-called Spanish Treason, a plot which occurred soon after the accession of King James to the throne. The conspirators' plan was to invite the King of Spain, Philip iii, to invade England with an army, promising him the support of english Catholics (Preface to A Treatise of Equivocation vii). So in terms of historical context, this doctrine of equivocation bore ramifications for the real world: it was a strategy employed by persecuted english Catholics to evade questions about their participation in treasonous plots against their government.

What is equivocation? Technically it is a mixed proposition; but to understand this, we must understand what this anonymous author means by the Scholastic word "proposition":

Veritye and falsitye beyng proprietyes of an enunciative speech, as Aristotle teacheth us, that is, of that speech eyther conceived onely in the mynde or vttered by wordes or wrytinge ... We may say with the Logitians, that there be four kyndes of propositions. The first is a mental proposition, onely conceived in the mynde ... The second is a vocall proposition, as when i vtter wordes with my mouthe. The thirde is a written proposition ... The last of all is a mixte proposition ... [P]art of it is expressed, part reserved in the mynde. (Treatise 8-9)

A more succinct definition is offered later in the text, calling equivocations "these kyndes of propositions which we haue hitherto defended not to be lyes, although by them alwayes some trewth is concealed" (Treatise 48). Finally, the author takes into account what we might call reader-response theory to allow even for the production of misimpressions in the minds of readers or listeners, describing a hypothetical situation in which "whan [when] we vtter certaine wordes, which of themselves may engendre a false conceite in the mynde of the hearers, and yet with somewhat which we vnderstand and reserve in our myndes maketh a true proposition" (Treatise 52).

A term closely associated with the doctrine of equivocation is "mental reservation" --the equivalent of crossing one's fingers behind one's back when telling a lie to signify that one really means the reverse or opposite of what has been spoken. This doctrine is presented perversely in the context of a verse from ecclesiastes (3:7), namely "there is a time to speak, and a time to be silent" (Treatise 56), in which silence is interpreted as the omission of key information. The anonymous author takes pains to distinguish between two kinds of equivocation:

--"when we vse such wordes as according to the accustomed manner of speech may have two senses" (Treatise 29), or the classic double entendre; --and what the author terms "an other kynd of extraordinary equivocation ... when besides the wordes vttered we understand some thinge, which according to the usuall speech cannot be vnderstood" (Treatise 30).

In the process of explaining these ideas the author makes some spectacular claims, for example that the equivocator "doth not say false or lye before God, howsoever he may be thought to lye before men" (Treatise 10-11) and that "God understandeth the speech of the mynde" (Treatise 13). In this moment of the text we experience the strange sensation that suddenly we are in the realm of telepathy, a la Star Trek. To further convince us, the author produces examples of equivocations by Biblical characters:

--"So did Abraham and isaac say, that theire wives were theire sisters" (Treatise 48).

--Jacob cheated esau out of his birthright by pretending to be his brother (Treatise 51).

--"Rahab the harlott ... with a flatt lye saved those which were reputed spyes by the king of Jericho" (Treatise 95). [God rewarded her faithfulness by making her an ancestor to Christ.]

--The midwives of Egypt claimed they could not kill all the newborn Hebrew baby boys because the Hebrew women were just too vigorous and gave birth too quickly (Treatise 105).

He also includes examples of equivocations by the saints, such as Saint Francis:

--"So it is recorded of Saint Frauncis, that beyng asked of one who was sought for to death, whether he came not that way, he aunswered (putting his hand into his sleeve, or as some say into his eare), 'He came not this waye'" (Treatise 50).

The author even gives examples of equivocations uttered by Jesus Himself:

--That He did not know when Judgement Day would come (Treatise 3). [if Jesus as God's Son is omniscient, then He knows this along with all other things.]

--That He would not go up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover (Treatise 3). [He did].

--That the centurion's daughter was not dead, but merely sleeping (Treatise 17). [She had stopped breathing].

The logical consequence of this argument is that we cannot condemn all equivocation without falling into blasphemy, since Jesus Himself did it.

The author then moves on to more contemporaneous examples, such as:

--"A farmer hath come to sell. He selleth all that he can sell because he reserveth the rest for his owne necessary use. Than [then] cometh one and desyereth to buy corne. He may trewly say and sweare (if it be needeful) that he hath none; for the circumstance of the person interpreteth the meaning to be, that he hath none to sell" (Treatise 17).

--A down-and-out ne'er-do-well says to another, "i will give you an hundred pounds; vnderstandinge, if i fynd it in Cheapeside" (Treatise 31).

--"Sometymes it is necessary that a Confessour do say, that such a one did not confesse such a synn vnto him, vnderstandinge so that he is bound to tell" (Treatise 34). [The modern equivalent of this type of confidentiality would be doctor-patient or lawyer-client privilege.]

--"if the Queene upon a sudden insurrection were pursued by her enemies with intention to deprive her of her crown and life, and A.B., knowing where she was, was asked where she was, what must he do? He could not discover her, for that would be against his duty" (Treatise 3).

The intellectual foundation for this doctrine finds its roots in moral philosophy. These arguments are specifically couched in terms of probabilism, a branch of casuistry. This text defines probabilism thus: "when both opinions are probable, a man may without sinne folow either, if it may be done without preiudice of our neighbour; and if one be lesse probable than the other, yet so long as it is within the compasse of probability, which it is if it have 2 or 3 grave autours [authors] ... then may a man be bound ... to chuse the less probable" (Treatise 44-45). In fact, this text traces the exact relationship of equivocation to probabilism: "Then do i conclude that, considering the probability of this our opinion ... a man may not only lawfully, but ought also to practise it in many cases occurrent in these our dayes, if he cannot otherwise auoide such inconueniences as may ofte insew to himself or to his neighbour" (Treatise 46). Parallel arguments may be found in that Baroque political text par excellence, the mirror of princes. In 1595 in Spain Pedro de rivadeneira wrote in his Tratado de la religion y virtudes que debe tener el principe cristiano the following words:

esto no es mentir, sino hacer las cosas con prudencia para bien de la republica. Y como dice el doctor Navarro, hay dos artes de simular y disimular: la una, de los que sin causa ni provecho mienten y fingen que hay lo que no hay, o que no hay lo que hay; la otra, de los que sin mal engano y sin mentira dan a entender una cosa por otra con prudencia, cuando lo pide la necesidad o utilidad. (Rivadeneira 525b)

In this passage rivadeneira cites Doctor Navarro, one of the same sources cited in A Treatise of Equivocation (Treatise 20). Through a painstakingly genealogical approach to intellectual history, here we seem to have found some of Enric Marco's moral ancestors.

Now, why is all this important? in its most interesting moments, A Treatise of Equivocation amounts to a defense of the secret, celebrated by the Marquis de Sade in the "Fifth Dialogue" of his La philosophie du boudoir (1795) and commented on by theorists such as Jacques Derrida in A Taste for the Secret. (6) Near the end of his Fifth Dialogue, De Sade has his mouthpiece Dolmance assert, "there are certain things which strictly require to be veiled" (De Sade 347). This utterance occurs at the very moment when this originary 'sadistic' character is about to leave the room, dragging his sex partner away to perform an act so inconceivable that no one else is allowed to view it. Political philosopher Alberto Moreiras, in an Open Seminar on Contemporary Political Thought (October 21, 2010), called this textual moment the essence of opposition or resistance to biopolitics, where De Sade enacts the exception or the secret which is the strongest political claim made by his text: the right not to be seen. According to Moreiras, this is the same right defended by Guatemalan testimonialist and Nobel Peace Prize winner rigoberta Menchu when she refuses to answer certain questions posed by anthropologist elizabeth Burgos Debray in the course of their interviews (Menchu 1983). As Doris Sommer explains in "rigoberta's Secrets,"

Rigoberta's refusal to tell secrets remains on the page after the editing is done. Either the informant, the scribe, or both were determined to keep a series of admonitions ... in the published text. The refusals say, in effect, that this document is a screen, in the double sense that Henri Lefebvre uses the term: something that shows and that also covers up. (Sommer 32) (7)

According to Moreiras, the right to keep secrets--symbolized by De Sade's dark room--is ultimately a defense of subjectivity itself. (8)

In A Taste for the Secret, Jacques Derrida and Maurizio Ferraris begin with reflections on the material object of a secretaire, the type of desk where the writing surface folds down but can be raised again and locked for the express purpose of storing secrets:

A secretaire is a writing desk in which papers are locked away. A secretary is an assistant, like Theuth with the Pharaoh in the egyptian story in the Phaedrus, or perhaps like Phaedrus himself, who conceals Lysias' speech under his cloak, and again like Phaedrus as a sparring partner--or interviewer--of Socrates. But, by analogy with 'syllabary', 'secretary' could also be a catalogue, even an iconography or a portfolio, or more exactly an ichnography in which one collects, writes or describes traces, which are, at bottom, secrets. (Derrida and Ferraris vii)

Derrida's and Ferraris' invocation of the ich (the German word for the first-person singular pronoun I)--in spite of their alleged alternative etymology deriving from ichnos, or trace (Derrida and Ferraris vii)--here once again slyly hints at a defense of subjectivity.

In the course of their interview, Derrida declares that for him, "the autobiographical is the locus of the secret" (Derrida and Ferraris 57). However, he resists the tendency of critics to search within a person's autobiography for "the key to a secret, be it conscious or unconscious" (Derrida and Ferraris 57). Instead, he characteristically breaks down the etymology of the word absolute as it relates to his concept of the absolute secret:

In consensus, in possible transparency, the secret is never broached / breached [entame]. If i am to share something, to communicate, objectify, thematize, the condition is that there be something non-thematizable, non-objectifiable, non-sharable. And this 'something' is an absolute secret, it is the ab-solutum itself in the etymological sense of the term, i.e., that which is cut off from any bond, detached, and which cannot itself bind; it is the condition of any bond but it cannot bind itself to anything--this is the absolute, and if there is something absolute it is secret. (Derrida and Ferraris 57)

Ultimately Derrida relates the right to keep secrets to nothing short of a defense of democracy; for once our lives are an open book, we have lost any pretense to privacy:

There is an analogy that makes me prefer the secret to the non-secret, the secret to the public expression, exhibition, phenomenality. I have a taste for the secret, it clearly has to do with not-belonging; i have an impulse of fear or terror in the face of a political space, for example, a public space that makes no room for the secret. For me, the demand that everything be paraded in the public square and that there be no internal forum is a glaring sign of the totalitarianization of democracy. I can rephrase this in terms of political ethics: if a right to the secret is not maintained, we are in a totalitarian space. (Derrida and Ferraris 59)

But we must return to Javier Cercas's El impostor. Perhaps this is the real essence of Enric Marco's resistance to fascism: not the outrageous lies he propagated as a falsely heroic autobiography, but his insistence upon the right to keep those lies a secret. However, in his essay "The Secret, the Sovereign, and the Lie: reading Derrida's Last Seminar," Charles Barbour sees an important difference between a secret and a lie:

We should distinguish between the lie ... and the secret ... The former implies an intentional and sovereign human subject, while the latter represents a limit to such a thing, and arguably, to the concept of sovereignty as such. (Barbour 117)

He repeats at the end of his essay: "the secret ... eludes sovereignty, and cannot be contained by the structures of the law" (Barbour 126). The secret is the prerogative of non-transparency, or the right for our lives not always to be an open book. The anonymous author of A Treatise of Equivocation sums it up like this: "we beyng not bound to deale playnely, and lay open our secrets to our owne preiudice" (Treatise 87). This unexpected nuance to his little farce raises the case of Enric Marco above maudlin kitsch to something truly revolutionary.

The seemingly abstract early modern casuistical doctrine of equivocation produced real-life consequences: Henry Garnet, a conspirator in the Gunpowder Plot and one name that has been put forward as a possible author for this anonymous manuscript, went on record on March 20, 1605-6 (depending on old- or new-style dating) in his trial for treason as making the following statement regarding this practice:

Concerning equivocation, this is my opinion. In moral affairs, and in the common intercourse of life, when truth is required among friends, it is not lawful to use equivocation, for that would cause great mischief in human society; wherefore, in such cases, there is no place for this remedy. But in cases of necessary defence, or for avoiding any injury or loss, or for obtaining any considerable advantage, without danger to any other person, then equivocation is lawful. ("Epistola ad Frontonem Ducaeum," p. 111, quoted in the Preface to A Treatise of Equivocation, xxi-xxii)

For these words, he was executed (Preface to Treatise xxii). It should be noted that Garnet had been party to a treasonable mission made by Thomas Winter to Spain right before Queen elizabeth's death (Preface to Treatise xxiv-xxv).

In what may seem a primitive effort at meta-analysis, the text's nineteenth-century editor David Jardine made the following observations:

The Jesuits adopted, in the most rigid and literal sense, the doctrine that a lie is always a sin, and that a falsehood is not to be told, even for the saving of a life, or averting a calamity, however great. Without considering whether this rule is entirely inflexible and universal, or whether some exceptions are not, of necessity, to be allowed they justified the evasion of it by distinguishing between a lie in terms and a lie in intention and effect. Regardless of the general principle upon which the moral obligation to truth is founded, namely, the maintenance of that confidence which is essential to the intercourse between man and man, they held the intentional conveyance of a false impression to the mind of the hearer to be immaterial, provided the speaker guarded himself by some ambiguous expression, or some mental reservation from the utterance of a false proposition. If "the speech (to use Garnet's language) were thus, by equivocation, saved from a lie," the intention to deceive and actual deception were not a sin. (Preface to Treatise xxvi-xxvii)

Now in the twenty-first century, in some contexts this linguistic register of sin, intention and consequence has perhaps lost the same resonance it held in the nineteenth. But i would argue that in the context of Spain, where for all practical purposes high casuistry was born, (9) the impostor Enric Marco's fraud proved uniquely possible. The framework of casuistry is undoubtedly important for understanding his case's popular reception, and it may also prove crucial for understanding this novel's creation. Let us not forget that Javier Cercas is a Spaniard who would have imbibed the discourse of equivocation by osmosis in the course of his Catholic upbringing, (10) whether he had ever heard about the early modern doctrine of equivocation prior to his book's publication or not.

So where does all of this leave us vis-a-vis Enric Marco, the protagonist of Cercas's novel El impostor, who pretended to be a Holocaust survivor when he was not? even early modern defenders of equivocation insisted that it should only be used when necessary--i.e. That there must be an urgent reason to equivocate:

For in all our conversation we ought to deale sincerely, so that whansoeuer [whensoever] eyther the health of our bodye or sowle, pietye, charytye, iust profitt or necessitye, vrgeth vs not, these equivocations are vtterlye to be abolished, as veniall synnes at the leaste, if not mortall. (Treatise 57)

So much for Cercas's categorization of his protagonist's sin as merely venial.

Does Enric Marco meet the criterion of having had an urgent reason to equivocate? i would like to submit that he does not, and that this is perhaps the most disturbing part of El impostor: not that he lied, but that he did not need to lie. There is an apparent arbitrariness to his charade.

Nonetheless, Cercas himself expresses a certain sympathy toward his own character, in spite of the commonly held opinion that Marco is a moral monster, and so might we. Why? Because his case touches upon issues of secrecy, sovereignty, the absolute, and the exception which are essential to our efforts to construct a new political philosophy. In that sense, Enric Marco is not a monster, but a hero (the equivalent, even, of the Marquis de Sade). It is perhaps indicative of our neoBaroque era--the essential topos for which is the upside-down world--that our heroes have become monstrous.


Abramson, Julia Luisa. Learning from Lying: Paradoxes of the Literary Mystification. U of Delaware P, 2005.

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(1) "How to conceale a trewth without makinge of a lye" (A Treatise of Equivocation 52).

(2) This word appears again on p. 407 of Cercas's novel in reference to Marco: "habia decidido aceptar su equivocacion y pedir disculpas."

(3) I know this for a fact because he heard an early draft of this paper at a symposium hosted by the Department of Hispanic Studies at Texas A&M University where he spoke in September 2015. I had the privilege on that occasion of sitting next to him at dinner, where we engaged in extended conversation about our mutual interests.

(4) William Childers, "Hispanic Casuistry Studies: room to Grow (review essay)," Hispanic Review vol. 79 no. 2, 2011, pp. 317-26. This double review was devoted to Hilaire Kallendorf's Conscience on Stage: The Comedia as Casuistry in Early Modern Spain (2007) and elena del rio Parra's Cartografias de la conciencia espanola en la Edad de Oro (2008).

(5) Ecclesiastes 1:9.

(6) On the concept of the secret in the thought of Derrida, see Almond (2003). Almond calls Derrida's obsession with the concept of the secret a type of "cryptophilia" (Almond 462).

(7) Sommer cites Lefebvre (1988), p. 78.

(8) in the same discussion, Moreiras nonetheless noted that "subjectivity" (along with "freedom," "democracy," and "sovereignty") is a word belonging to a discourse of political philosophy which now, in the wake of biopolitics and technopolitics, has become obsolete. He encouraged seminar participants to move toward a Derridian second register, also known as a "second incarnation" or "second ghost" (here referring to the last chapter of Derrida's Specters of Marx, "Apparition of the inapparent: The Phenomenological 'Conjuring Trick'" [Derrida 158]) and search for new terminology instead.

(9) See Jonsen and Toulmin, "High Casuistry: Summists and Jesuits," in The Abuse of Casuistry (1989), 139-51, where the authors chronicle the zenith of european casuistry under the Jesuits. The Jesuit order, or Company of Jesus, was founded by a Spaniard, Saint ignatius Loyola (1491-1556). In previous chapters Jonsen and Toulmin lay the foundation for casuistry's heyday through reference to classical and religious antecedents ranging from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics to Cicero's De officiis and the Jewish tradition of rabbinical disputation.

(10) Cercas's overtly Catholic formation during childhood is confirmed by an interview with the writer conducted in 2011 by Maya Jaggi ("Javier Cercas: A Life in Books") published in The Guardian.

Hilaire Kallendorf

Texas A&M University

Caption: Figure 1. A Treatise of Equivocation (ca. 1592-95).
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Date:Jun 1, 2017

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