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ArribaAbajoSome aesthetic implications of Galdos' El amigo Manso

Arnold M. Penuel

A principal distinguishing feature of the 19th-century realistic novel was the effort on the part of the novelist to create a greater illusion of reality through the reduction of the aesthetic distance between the fictional world and the real world. The novelist endeavored to create the illusion in the reader that the world in which his characters moved was essentially the same world in which his readers lived. The techniques used to achieve this illusion are well known: a contemporaneous setting; imitation of colloquial speech; allusions to authentic places, persons, and dates; accumulation of details about the characters; exposure of the characters to many different situations to reveal their multiple facets; an objective or documental point of view; etc.

In the second half of the 19th century in Spain the foremost representative of the realistic novel was Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920). So successful was don Benito in creating an illusion of reality in his novels that his readers and critics were constantly searching for the real-life models of his characters. And they sometimes found217 -and still do find218- such models. Galdós was never very expansive about his literary sources and he was decidedly reluctant to talk about his own creative processes219. Now, I believe that Galdós created an autonomous character in El amigo Manso (1882) to combat the tendency of his contemporaries to focus on the similarities between certain characters in his novels and specific living persons of his day. Moreover, with the creation of an autonomous character Galdós obliquely attempted to educate his readers as to the nature of a literary work.

It is in El amigo Manso's first and final chapters where we observe the autonomy of the novel's protagonist-narrator Máximo Manso. In the opening chapter the author approaches Manso, asking for his collaboration in writing a novel on the subject of education. Manso agrees, and the author gives him some of the tools of the writing profession in exchange for his cooperation. The author then begins his work and Manso soon feels that he has become transformed into a man. After the first chapter there is no further allusion to the unusual relationship between the author and his protagonist, until the final chapter. Here, Manso declares that he has performed his mission, and pleads for the author to finish with him, relieving him of his mortal flesh. The author promptly complies with his request and Manso dies. Having been released from his mortal bonds, Manso then, from no place in particular, comments briefly on the characters with whom he has coexisted in the world and the novel ends. Critics have frequently commented on the meaning of these chapters taken separately, as well as within the context of the novel as a whole220. My intention here is to limit my analysis to what these two chapters alone reveal of Galdós' ideas on the nature and function of art, the creative process, and the artist's place in the world.


The most fundamental idea of these two chapters is that the characters and events described and dramatized in a literary work are virtual, not actual. Real persons and literary characters do not commingle in a literary work. Whatever materials a writer may use, he converts them into literary elements in the process of writing the work. Notwithstanding appearances to the contrary, the world of a novel, to take the most pertinent example, can never be the real world. It can only appear to be the real world. The world of the novel has its own logic, unity, tensions, rhythms, and in short its own laws. In part, this is what Manso means when he begins his narration of the novel with the assertion, «Yo no existo...» (IV, 1165)221. Manso does not exist outside of the fictional world of the novel: «[...] protesto contra toda evidencia a suponerme investido de los equívocos atributos de la existencia real». The protagonist's subsequent assertion that «ni siquiera soy el retrato de alguien», is designed to discourage readers from looking for live models.

Manso then declares that he is «una condensación artística, diabólica hechura del pensamiento humano (ximia Dei), el cual, si coge entre sus dedos algo de estilo, se pone a imitar con él las obras que con la materia ha hecho Dios en el mundo físico; soy un ejemplar nuevo de estas falsificaciones del hombre que desde que el mundo es mundo andan por ahí vendidas en tabla por aquellos que yo llamo holgazanes, faltando a todo deber filial, y que el bondadoso vulgo denomina artistas, poetas o cosa así». The implication here is that the artist creates something real, just as God does. The artist, like God, somehow condenses chaos into order. Furthermore, since God has created both the artist and the materials which he uses, in a sense the artist by imitating God is collaborating in the task of creation. Ultimately God continues his creative work on a finer scale through the artist. One might also infer from Manso's statement Galdós' attitude with respect to the importance of art vis-a-vis science. Just as God has created matter and the physical world, the properties of which it is the concern of scientists in particular, and mankind in general, to determine and appreciate, so has the artist created works of a different nature for man to contemplate and enjoy. Manso's comparison of the artist with God not only stresses the similarity of their creative tasks, but, combined with the reference to the work of art as a «diabólica hechura», also suggests that creative powers, like supernatural powers, are ultimately inexplicable.

While Manso's reference to himself as another example of those «falsificaciones del hombre» is made in a playful tone, since he goes on to refer to artists as «holgazanes», it also has a serious meaning. Manso first says that a character, and by extension a literary work, is a condensation, then he speaks of it as a falsification. In what sense are these characterizations true? A literary work is created through the selection of certain materials which are then transformed into literary elements. The resulting literary work is an abstraction of some newly apprehended aspect of reality. To create such an abstraction the artist must select only those materials which are suitable for his purposes; and he rejects those which are irrelevant to them. This is the nature of creating abstractions. Having chosen some materials and rejected other, he then transforms them into combinations and arrangements which result in a work of art. The artist then, through his superior vision and creative ability, condenses some   —147→   aspect of reality which, for most of us, would otherwise remain chaotic, were it not for his giving it form and meaning. At the same time reality is in a sense falsified. What the artist gives us is not raw, actual reality, but rather an interpretation of it in which the original materials have been twisted, squeezed, compressed, telescoped, and finally combined to form a unified whole which though «false» is meaningful and affords man valuable insights into reality.

The idea of the literary work as an abstraction of cognitive value is further elaborated in the following statement made by Manso: «[...] me pregunto si el no ser nadie equivale a ser todos, y si mi falta de atributos personales equivale a la posesión del ser». Thus, while Manso the literary character does not exist as a flesh and blood being, what he and, by extension, the literary work symbolize and mean is real. Manso's statement, «Yo no existo...», is full of meaningful ambiguity. While Manso does not exist in the actual world, he does acquire existence as a virtual entity. He does not come into existence as a virtual entity, however, except through the efforts of the author. Manso exists first only in an incomplete or prenatal state in the mind of his creator the author. Then, in the process of writing the novel, the author through his creative ability and traditional rhetorical devices infuses virtual life into the character. This is what Manso means when, after denying his existence, he makes the following statement: «Vedme con apariencia humana. Es que alguien me evoca, y por no sé qué sutiles artes me pone como un forro corporal y hace de mí un remedo o máscara de persona viviente, con todas las trazas y movimientos de ella».

There is yet another implication in Manso's initial denial of his existence. That is, the character does not exist objectively until he is completely elaborated in the fictional form in which he appears. By virtue of his talent or genius the artist creates a form in which what was previously subjective becomes objective, that is to say, suitable for contemplation by others.

In the last chapter of the novel, Manso, realizing that he has fulfilled his mission, makes the following statement to doña Javiera: «He dado mi fruto y estoy de más. Todo lo que ha cumplido su ley desaparece». He then vehemently requests -a request which the author grants- that the author relieve him of his human form: «-Hombre de Dios -le dije-, ¿quiere usted acabar de una vez conmigo y recoger esta carne mortal en que, para divertirse, me ha metido?» Here, in this last chapter, Manso's autonomy as a character is revealed to its fullest extent. The significance of the first statement is that literary characters, unlike many other entities and processes, possess a rhythm which is primarily functional in nature, rather than based on objective time. After all, Manso's literary life begins at the age of thirty-five and lasts only a few months. It is psychic time that is important, not objective time. Manso's insistence, in the second statement, on the author's putting an end to his literary life is tantamount to saying that a literary character is to a great degree autonomous, having a rhythm, logic, and other necessities which the author must allow to be fulfilled if the character is to be convincing.

Galdós, then, in El amigo Manso through his presentation of an autonomous character reveals to us a remarkably coherent theory of the novel. Not only does he anticipate Unamuno and Pirandello in the creation of an autonomous character, as numerous critics have pointed out, but he also presents a theory   —148→   of the novel which transcends the, not invalid but often superficial, theory which critics usually advance to explain the nineteenth-century realistic novel. It is safe to affirm also that Galdós anticipated the New Criticism of the thirties in implying that the literary work is an organism which has its own laws and unity and can be profitably understood without recourse to extraneous materials.

Centenary College of Louisiana

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