The lecture of Professor Marco Antonio Joven-Romero, a visiting professor at the Department of Foreign Languages of the University of Santo Tomas, on the Golden Age of Spanish Literature was an exceptional learning experience that harbours close analysis of authors who shaped the literary landscape of the 16th Century and beyond.
Professor Joven-Romero first painted a clear picture of the economic and political atmosphere of Spain during Siglo de Oro, a turbulent yet significant period in the history of the country that dawned in 1500 and drew into conclusion in around 1660. During these years, Spain witnessed the peak of the Renaissance and its phenomenal transition to the Baroque age. The Golden Age interestingly covers two literary movements which I deem as the most unique characteristic of the era.
Renaissance and Baroque advocate two highly different sets of world views. The former perpetuated the belief that ‘man is the centre of the universe’, a concept which served as the foundation of humanism. Meanwhile, the latter provided a vindication to religion and the existence of God. Each age has its own literary champions but instead of simply shifting from one literary movement to another, the clash of ideals led to a constant rally of humanist views and mystic prose.
During his lecture, Professor Joven-Romero introduced the giants of 16th Century Spanish literature and how their bodies of work changed the face of writing forever. Literary compositions of the Renaissance, essentially the first part of the Golden Age, are characterised by its creative representation of social reality. One of its major proponents is Garcilaso de la Vega, a writer who was also served his country as a soldier. His commitment to both literature and civic duty places him in close similarity to Cervantes. Vega is known for producing picaresque works or picaresca. I was a complete stranger to picaresca before attending the lecture. After studying and researching further about this genre, I discovered that it is a type of prose which follows the life of a member of the low society and how he survives the world using ingenuity.
My personal favourite picaresque work is The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes written by an anonymous author in 1554. I consider the novella as a game-changer after it managed to present provocative themes and strong political undertones. According to Professor Joven-Romero, the chronicles of Lazaro de Tormes is the first literary composition to introduce the first-person treatment (the narrator as the main character). It is also a bold narrative about an interracial relationship and anticlericalism, both of which are ingredients in creating a disaster at the time it was published. I consider courageous approaches like this as the cornerstone of progress. We should always be reminded about the importance of nurturing brave perspectives, especially in our age when novel ideas are usually hectored by the tyrannous elite.
Another celebrity of Siglo de Oro is Santa Teresa de Avila who is known for his book called The Book of Life. She made her presence recognized after the publication of her book in 1562. Avila was influenced by the works of Descartes, and was described by Simone de Beauvoir as the ‘realist European woman of 16th Century Spain’. Avila is a talented writer because she is a strong voice of women in a patriarchal society. In fact, she is the only female author discussed during the lecture, which is either because she was the only one worthy of the discussion or she was the only woman at all who dared to express her views in the Golden Age.
Avila is acknowledged as one of the writers who granted vindication to religion and capitalized on mystic prose amid the widespread reception of Renaissance ideals. She somehow paved the way towards the second half of the Golden Age. However, no writer can ever steal the central spot of Siglo de Oro from Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.
It was about two years ago when I first read Don Quixote, the most famous and seminal work of Cervantes. The novel is often ranked as one of the most influential works in the Western Canon. At first reading, it is not difficult to see why Don Quixote receives praises from writers and scholars until today. Aside from its unconventional structure, the book also induced serious authorship scandals which made it attract more than average attention. Cervantes’ novel is literally torn between the two segments of Siglo de Oro, with the first volume of the story published during the Renaissance period and the sequel in the Baroque period. This only suggests that the Spanish author is at the heart of the Golden Age.
Before the second volume of Don Quixote was published, many fake sequels were produced across the continent in an attempt to tarnish or replicate the author’s success. Professor Joven-Romero likened the case of Cervantes to that of JK Rowling, who was forced to rush the publication of the Harry Potter books because of fake chapters of the series circulating online.
There are many great things to be said about Don Quixote, but one remarkable quality I will not forget about it is the level of humour it possesses. I can still recall the days I was reading the novel and I never thought that the 400-year-old story of a delusional man can send me to gales of laughter. Professor Joven-Romero also noted how the book pioneered polyphonism, a style of writing which incorporates multiple universes or realities in a single narrative. This concept is particularly appealing for a communication major like me. The polyphonic approach reminds of a communication theory proposed by George Herbert Mead called symbolic interactionism. It posits that ‘reality is just a collective hunch’, which means people assign the meaning to symbols and objects. In essence, the meaning is not innate to the things we see around us and we create our own reality based on our own set of constructs. In one famous passage from the book, Don Quixote saw giants from the objects that appeared nothing but windmills for Sancho Panza. This shows how polyphonism can teach us to acknowledge the existence of two types of reality in a single situation.
It is more than obvious that I had a fun afternoon learning about various types of writing and literary movements that I have never heard before. It is always exciting to learn the history behind the important books of the world because it provides a unique insight into how ideas are conceived. I certainly am looking forward to more experiences like this.
Professor Joven-Romero’s lecture was held at the Ayala Museum and was co-presented by The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.