Queer Iberia: Sexualities, Cultures, and Crossings from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.
Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999. viii + 478 pp. $19.95. ISBN: 0-8223-2349-4.
Reviewing Queer Iberia, a collection of fifteen substantial articles and an introduction, in a limited allotment of space presents a difficult but rewarding challenge. To put it succinctly, I admire, endorse, and have learned a great deal from most of the pieces in this collection. Many of the articles sent me running to primary sources to discover new ways of seeing evidence. For that I am immensely grateful, and for that alone, for the way it forces the reader to reevaluate texts and the past, this book deserves praise. But, while embracing the methodological and interpretative perspective of most of these articles, I do not agree with the conceptual framework in which the editors have cast the collection as a whole.
Queer Iberia reveals aspects of Iberian medieval and early modern culture hitherto unexplored or dealt with as ancillary to mainstream history. The book allows us to see this culture through the (mostly) literary representations of same-gender sexual relations, cross-dressing, and gender-bending taxonomies. The introduction links the overall aims of the book with the efforts of the brilliant Spanish film maker Pedro Almodovar to depict the blurred boundaries of sexual identity and desire - most obviously in his recent film All About My Mother. The essays' implicit goal, one could say teleology, is to show, through diverse themes, the continuity and enduring quality of "queerness" in Iberia. "Queerness" is broadly defined as "that which normativity -- in this case cultural normativity -- must reject or conceal in order to exist. Its presence is always palpable in the incongruities, excesses, or anxieties of normative discourse" (3). But, by that criteria, what culture is not "queer?" Is all difference "queer? " Is this a particularly Iberian phenomenon, ascribable to its geographical location on the margins of Europe and to the presence of religious minorities on the peninsula? Or is there something intrinsically different about Iberian "queerness?" As to geography, Extremadura, which on the opening page functions as a leitmotif for Iberia's marginality, did not mean "the extreme territories," but the lands beyond the Duero. And religious diversity was not exclusive to Iberia, nor can its history be seen as an unchanging constant over la longue duree. By making exceptionalist claims, the introduction echoes the well-worn Francoist chant of "Spain is different."
Several points should be made as to how the introduction hinders the serious effort of bringing the history of "queerness" into the limelight of Iberian culture and society: 1. The word Iberia in the title is misleading. Only three of the fifteen articles deal with Catalan or Aragonese topics; the rest address mainly Castilian themes, with a few references to Galician subjects. Portugal is not represented at all. 2. Some articles -- those by Liu, Brown, and Hutchenson -- revisit old cultural debates on the nature of Spanish (read: Castilian) medieval culture. Siding mostly with Americo Castro's formulations (the most important of which was the notion of convivencia), these articles reengage in a debate so dated as to make the discussion almost anachronistic. No one in Spain under the age of sixty cares about these issues anymore; and, after Thomas F. Glick's demolition of both Castro and Sanchez Albornoz more than twenty years ago, the issue is really moot. 3. Most of the pieces are about literature and lite rary representations. With the exception of Perry's excellent and detailed account of Catalina de Erauzo, a nun who became a soldier in sixteenth-century Spain, served in the New World, and, when exposed, was permitted to keep her masculine garb and a royal pension to boot; Burshatin's dramatic reading of the inquisitorial trial of Eleno/Elena de Cespedes and his rendering of his/her tribulations as a hermaphrodite; and Lipton's richly contextualized study of Peter II of Aragon -- the contributions concentrate on explicating literary texts. This is, of course, not a problem per se. In fact, many of the readings seek to locate representations within a historical context and are themselves a rich mine for historical analysis. The problem is: which history, whose history?
When Iberia is described as having "a cultural and intellectual activity that was entirely foreign to Europe" (20), one must take immediate exception. These are historical views of almost thirty years ago; the editors ignore recent works on Iberian culture, most notably those of Adeline Rucquoi and others that show how deeply integrated Iberia (meaning here the entire peninsula) was in the European culture of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, how many Iberians traveled to the learned foci of northern Europe, and how many northern Europeans traveled to or stayed in Spain as teachers, bishops, royal advisers, and abbots. Nor was Arabic the language of culture in Alfonso X's court. Latin was the language of the Partidas, of the universities, of learned philosophical and theological treatises; Castilian was the language of royal chronicles, of Berceo's poetry, of material transactions, and wills; Galician was the language of the Cantigas, of sacred and profane lyric poetry. These views about Spanish exceptiona lism are a sorry return to Sanchez Albornoz's misguided essentialism about Spanish culture. 4. The collection's conceptual framework is whiggish. It envisions queernesss as a manifestation of cultural progress whereby old scholarly and ideological paradigms (those of Menendez Pidal, Menendez Pelayo, Sanchez Albornoz, as well as such vaunted concepts as the Reconquest) give way to boundary-blurring, gender-bending interpretations. But, as David Nirenberg has stunningly shown in Communities of Violence, we err when we attempt to create teleologies of violence. We similarly err, I would add, when we assess cultural developments teleologically. "Queerness," like every other historical category, must be contextualized in the local and in the particular. 5. There are no contributions from Spanish or Portuguese scholars, though over the last two decades they have been producing nuanced studies of gender-inflected history and literature. Should not a history of "queerness" be inclusive? Why not invite contributions f rom Iberia?
But my displeasure with the deficiencies of the introduction does not alter the significance of this collection. On the whole, this is a noble and successful attempt at presenting a more layered and complete account of Iberian (mostly Castilian) literature and history from the early Middle Ages to the early modern period. Queer Iberia uncovers new ways of reading canonical texts -- El libro de buen amor; the Arcipresse de Talavera; La Celestina; the works of Don Juan Manuel, Eiximenis, Alfonso de Palencia, and others -- in essays by Vasvari, Gonzalez-Casanovas Biseriberg, Solomon, Weissberger, and Gerli. Other contributions, such as Brocato's, juxtapose such dissimilar texts as Mena's Laberinto deforeuna, Rojas' La Celestina, and the bawdy Caraicomedia, enabling the reader to see them as markers of Iberian sexual history. Moreover, whenever the articles depart from the outdated critiques of Menendez Pelayo, Menendez Pidal, and Sanchez Albornoz, they offer superb readings of a wide array of sources and daring uses of critical approaches. Of these, the best examples are Jordan's essay on how the retelling of Pelagius' story of martyrdom reveals "the ambivalent relations of Iberian Christianity to the same-sex love it thought was preached and practiced by Islam" (23), and Vasvari's linguistic analysis of El libro de buen amor.
As with many exegeses, some interpretations can be stretched too far. To give one example, Vasvairi's argument that the archpriesr's encounters with the serranas signify Juan Ruiz's fear of being penetrated by the female overemphasizes the phallic symbolism of the women toll-keepers' staffs, ignoring the irony suffusing the text, not to mention the complex issues of class and social negotiations. A more nuanced analysis of these episodes, as well as a fuller exploration of their different versions, might in fact have strengthened the author's argument. Nor can I accept as fully accurate Eisenberg's depiction of Muslim and Jewish Spain as given over to "homosexuality" or his assertion that "pederasty among Iberian Jews was not just tolerated but the norm among the upper classes" (255). The representations of otherness, on which he bases his reading, are the same as those deployed against Christians in an earlier age, against Jews and lepers in areas north of the Pyrenees, and against natives in the New World. How seriously are we to take accusations of sexual deviance by sources that seek to denigrate the other in their midst? But these objections are not meant to detract from the overall quality of most of the contributions to Queer Iberia, or from the challenge they pose to Iberianists, medievalists, and early modern scholars: not to overlook this history; to integrate "queerness" into the way we write culture. On the whole, this is a first-rate and provocative collection, a must-read -- even if to disagree with -- not only for Hispanists, but for everyone else as well.
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|Author:||RUIZ, TEOFILO F.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2000|
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