Thursday, August 17, 2006


Being somewhat mentally dehydrated these days, I find it hard to come up with anything interesting to say for myself. I'm in the middle of packing my house, preparing to move away to Montreal. I really don't like packing. And probably will like unpacking even less. But at least when I unpack, most of the upheaval will have been over. And I can look forward to some stability, however temporary, for a time. So, in absence of anything philosophical to chew on, I thought I'd post something about a favourite topic of mine: Luis de Leon. He is a man I could easily fall for. If only he were not 400 years older than me! Here's the first installment.

A Converso Experience

The Times and life of
Fray Luis de Leon (1527-1591)

How do I get to understand the essence of a man who lived 450 years ago in a strange country, spoke a language different than mine and acted in a time when state and religion ruled supremely and totally coordinated one with the other? Across the linguistic, temporal, geographical and cultural divide, I can only look at him through the prism of other people’s minds: translators, interpreters, historians and intellectuals.

Michel Foucault often sounded deep reservations about the possibility of a truly ethical interpretation. No text can ever have a moment when it is stable and fixed in meaning. An interpretation, being a text itself, requires further commentary. "Between word and image, between what is depicted by language and what is uttered … the unity begins to dissolve; a single and identical meaning is not immediately common to them. And if it is true that the image still has the function of speaking, of transmitting something consubstantial with language, we must recognize that it already no longer says the same thing.”[1] Interpretation is always a violation of the original message. Thus, imagining the life of a man across the ages falls short without the proper means of getting directly to him through what he said in his writings, letters, other people’s living memories of him, etc. Not being in good possession of Spanish proved an obstacle in trying to write this paper. Therefore, suspicion, vigilance as well as respect, were my companions as I walked through other people’s translations and interpretations, selective and politicized as they are bound to be. Maintaining strict neutrality was a worthwhile effort, not always possible. I am much more attuned to the accounts by Jewish historians, even if I am wary of certain exaggerations.

Luis de Leon was a descendant of conversos, a Spanish Golden age humanist, a poet, translator, writer, an Augustinian monk, and professor at Salamanca University. He lived in the sixteenth century in Spain and left his mark on his country’s cultural legacy. I will try to describe the events and atmosphere of the times leading to the century during which he lived. I will also try to focus, rightly or wrongly, on his converso experience at a time when conversos, even on the third or fourth generational level, were singled out, with unmitigated vigor, for merciless scrutiny by the Holy Inquisition, in complicity with the Spanish monarchy.

Jessica and the Old Christians

What did it mean to be a converso during that time in Europe? We don’t have many contemporary literary allusions to the inhospitable environment in which conversos lived in those days. There is Cervantes, presumably a converso himself, expressing admiration for Luis de Leon and writing the first known novel “Don Quixote”, a masked Jew according to Ruth Reichelberg. We get a small, but telling, glimpse in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” of what it must have been like.

“But who comes here? Lorenzo and his infidel.” Thus Jessica, Shylock’s estranged daughter, recently turned Conversa and newly-wed to Lorenzo, is announced by the ignominious Gratiano into Act III Scene ii of The Merchant of Venice. A lively repartee ensues, in which young Christians, scheming at love and money, participate easily and confidently. Jessica’s isolation reverberates in her silence. An outsider, she is transparent in this group of friends, ignored and marginalized. Her painful otherness resurfaces in Act III Scene V when she feels more secure in the company of Launcelot Gobbo, her father’s former servant. Launcelot offers her a “solution” for her problematic identity: she might be a bastard, and therefore not the daughter of a Jew. When Jessica playfully (but angrily?) rejects this smear on her mother’s memory, he concedes that “Well, you are gone both ways”, that is, you are Jewish on both sides. He then goes on to complain that there were enough Christians as it is, and “this making of Christians will raise the price of pork”. As Lorenzo enters, Jessica acerbically relays to him Launcelot’s jokes: “[Launcelot] tells me flatly there’s no mercy for me in heaven because I am a Jew’s daughter, and he says you are no good…for in converting Jews to Christians, you raise the price of pork”.

Already we see Jessica’s tragic future unfolding, marked by alienation from her father’s faith and people, and by her exclusion from her husband’s circle of friends. She will be a silent woman, en penitence from either side of the divide, the one unforgiving of her betrayal, the other grimly and relentlessly reminding her that as a New Christian, she will never be fully accepted and integrated into their midst.

Jessica’s character was created at the end of the sixteenth century, long after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and the flight of many conversos from that land, resettling in other European countries such as Holland and Italy. English audiences would have been familiar with the special condition of “Christian Jews”. A handful of Marranos from Spain and Portugal made their way to London during the reign of Henry VIII followed by a larger community of some twenty families in Queen Elizabeth’s time. One particular converso, Rodriguez Lopez, the Queen’s physician, was accused of trying to poison her. The charges were so obviously trumped up, that even the queen herself expressed grave skepticism about his possible guilt. He was, however, tried and executed. At his trial, both the prosecutor and the judges laid special stress on his being a Jew – “worse than Judas himself”. On the gallows, Lopez asserted his love for the queen and Jesus Christ. In response, the mob contemptuously shouted, “He is a Jew!”[2] A proclamation of Christian faith was not acceptable coming from a converted Jew.

Set against this political backdrop, Shakespeare’s oblique depiction of Jessica’s cold-shouldered welcome by her husband’s Christian milieu offers an iconic microcosm of the realities of the day: deep rifts of suspicion and ill-will in existence between converted Jews and the general society, in which factors of economy, religion and mass-mob psychology all come into play in their maximal intensity. The geography may have been different but the sentiments were strong and identical either in Spain, in Italy where Spain had much political influence[3] or England. This minor scene, in which Jessica’s nervous character comes into discord with her xenophobic “adoptive” society is an apt illustration of the proverbial tide that engulfed the many Spanish Jews who chose to convert to Christianity at an age that had no patience for energetic outsiders with ambiguous identity.

[1] Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, translated by Richard Howard, New York: Random House, 1965, p. 18.
[2] Gross, John, Shylock, A legend and its Legacy, pp.32-33
[3] Shakespeare would certainly be fully aware of this circumstance, as we can see in another comedy “Much Ado about Nothing” in which young Italian and Spanish aristocrats are in social and military partnership.


At 11:04 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

He is a man I could easily fall for. If only he were not 400 years older than me!

And what about me?


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