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ArribaAbajoSome considerations of the religious allusions in Pérez Galdós Torquemada novels

Terence T. Folley

As readers of Galdós' novels are aware, the Spanish author inherited the technique of the repeating character from the French novelist, Honoré de Balzac. One such repeating character, the usurer, Francisco Torquemada, also possesses an original model in Gobseck, the moneylender created by Balzac. When introducing Torquemada to his readers in El Doctor Centeno (1883), Galdós refers to him as «Gobseck», thereby acknowledging, as Professor Robert Ricard has pointed out, «sa dette envers Balzac».51 One aspect of the latter's characterization of Gobseck has a particular bearing on Galdós' presentation of Torquemada: the image of a nineteenth-century usurer as a form of modern inquisitor. The power wielded in contemporary society by the usurers, and the influence they enjoy, recall for Balzac the control exercised in former times over their fellow-men by members of the Holy Office. This striking parallel is brought out by Gobseck himself, when describing to the fascinated narrator of the novel the manner in which the usurers of Paris constitute a secret tribunal. At their regular meetings, they pool information, which enables them to sit in judgement on members of a society in which financial considerations have replaced questions of religious orthodoxy:

Casuistes de la Bourse, nous formons un Saint Office, où se jugent et s'analysent les actions les plus indifférentes de tous les gens qui possèdent une fortune quelconque et nous devinons toujours vrai.52

The picture presented by Gobseck awakens a responsive note in the narrator's mind, to the extent that the latter repeats the image, later in the novel, when referring to two debtors standing abjectly before the implacable Gobseck:

Ils étaient en ce moment tous deux devant leur juge, qui les éxaminait comme un vieux dominicain du XVIe siècle devait épier les tortures de deux Maures, au fond des souterrains du Saint Office.53

Apart from a single-minded passion for money and his implacable cruelty towards his victims -a cruelty which includes forms of blackmail- Torquemada also appears to have inherited from his French model the semi-religious quality referred to above. The Spanish usurrer is described initially as: «(un) hombre feroz y frío, con facha de sacristán.»54 The term facha would seem to emphasize the essentially false nature of Torquemada's apparent clericalism. The juxtaposition of two strongly contrasted elements, the cleric and the moneylender, stresses the basically deceptive quality in the usurer's appearance. We realize that this is pseudo-clerical, and our realization is in no way diminished by the fact that at the time there were clerics who engaged in the lucrative trade of usury. The pseudo-clerical aspect of Torquemada is repeated in La de Bringas (1884). The heroine of the novel borrows money from Torquemada in order to pay debts she has incurred without her husband's knowledge. On her first encounter   —42→   with the usurer, she notes his «cierto aire clerical». (IV, 1644) This impression is reinforced by Torquemada's peculiar gesture, which he makes while talking:

Acompañaba sus fatigosos discursos de una lenta elevación del brazo derecho, formando con los dedos índice y pulgar una especie de rosquilla para ponérsela a su interlocutor delante de los ojos, como un objeto de veneración.


The key expressions, elevación and veneración, suggest a religious significance for the gesture, but as we know we are dealing with a ruthless moneylender, this becomes a matter of pseudo-religion. Torquemada is not a priest consecrating the Communion Host at the Mass, but a cunning usurer preparing to trap yet another hapless victim. The element of cruelty implicit in the gesture is stressed by the misleading impression the listener receives, that Torquemada is offering something, whereas in fact he is refusing to show mercy. This is brought out on the occasion of a later visit by the heroine to Torquemada, in the vain hope of persuading the usurer to extend the time-limit for repayment of the loan:

Torquemada negaba y negaba y negaba, acentuando su crueldad con la pavorosa aparición de la rosquilla entre el espacio comprendido entre las miradas de los dos interlocutores.

(IV, 1654)                

The characteristic gesture also serves to emphasize the predicament of the heroine and her agitated state of mind. Consequently, we find that when Rosalía Bringas can repay the loan in the nick of time to avoid a confrontation with her husband: «La adoración de la rosquilla formada con los dedos no la mortificó tanto como otros días» (IV, 1665). Having established the individualizing effect of the gesture, Galdós also seems to have wished to avoid the risk of «flatness» and caricature arising from too frequent use of this particular pseudo-religious element. According as the usurer's character develops, the gesture receives increasingly less attention. It crops up in later novels, such as Fortunata y Jacinta (1886-87), where it retains its original religious connotation, e. g. «(doña Lupe) contempló la o con veneración» (V, 195). The semi-religious aspect of the gesture is less apparent on the few occasions the physical idiosyncrasy is mentioned in the Torquemada novels. When this stage of the usurer's evolution has been reached, the centre of religious, or pseudo-religious interest has moved elsewhere.

At the centre of the first phase of Torquemada's religious involvement lies the crisis concerning the illness and death of the moneylender's only son, Valentín. The latter, at the time of his death, is a twelve-year-old mathematical prodigy. His father carries an intense paternal affection for the child to the extreme limits of a fanatical devotion bordering on idolatrous blasphemy. As Torquemada states after Valentín has died: «Aquello no era hijo: era un diosecito que engendramos a medias el Padre Eterno y yo» (V, 935). When the boy falls fatally ill, the usurer, in a desperate effort to avert the inevitable tragedy, undertakes a series of acts of charity. Torquemada hopes to «bribe» Providence by means of these charitable actions, thereby persuading God to spare his son's life. All is in vain: Valentín finally dies and his grief-stricken father swears revenge against God and man for having turned a deaf ear to his pleas.

The second volume of the Torquemada series commences with the central figure in the same vengeful mood. He is living alone in part of a tenement property he owns in a popular quarter of Madrid. Torquemada resembles an eccentric   —43→   recluse, surrounded as he is by an assortment of furniture, objects d'art and junk. Only one thing is missing from the physical labyrinth Torquemada has created around his person: religious images and pictures. The usurer has rejected these, because they -including the particular image venerated by his deceased first wife, doña Silvia- represent a Providence that, Torquemada feels, has let him down in the hour of his greatest need.

Cortó, pues toda clase de relaciones con el Cielo, y cuantas imágenes había en la casa, sin perdonar a la misma Virgen de la Paloma, tan venerada por doña Silvia, fueron llevadas en un gran canasto a la buhardilla, donde se las entenderían con las arañas y ratones.

(V, 952)                

In the place of these conventional symbols of Roman Catholic devotional practices, Torquemada has erected a type of altar dedicated to a semi-religious cult of the late Valentín's memory. Galdós states explicitly that an enlarged photograph of the child is the sole object representing the Deity in the house. The picture is the centre-piece of a collection of objects associated with Valentín, which are gathered on top of a cabinet. The usurer spends the long, sleepless hours of the night arranging and rearranging this assortment of relics and communicating silently with the spirit of Valentín through the photograph, which seems to reply by grimaces and winks. The sensation of an altar is further intensified by the presence of a pair of silver candlesticks that Torquemada is continually polishing. The whole acquires an unmistakably religious, or pseudo-religious significance, and one night it crosses the usurer's mind that his solemn actions recall those of a priest saying Mass. (V, 953)

One should not overlook the obvious comical possibilities of these pseudomystical sessions, or «séances». The silent exchanges between father and son are communicated to the reader in the form of a dialogue. Valentín's spirit is conjured up at a critical stage in the usurer's life -as Ricardo Gullón has pointed out55- and it serves to give voice to ideas which have begun to emerge from the fringe of the moneylender's conscious mind. The ghostly communications represent a level of Torquemada's mind different from that revealed by the latter in his normal, day-to-day existence. For instance, when Torquemada is finally about to acquiesce in the matter of taking his family to the north of Spain for the hot summer months, Valentín's voice expresses the wish to travel in a train, but it states this in typically childish terms, «Papá, yo quiero dir en ferrocarril» (V, 1057). On an earlier occasion, while Torquemada is toying with the possibility of a second marriage, to the aristocratic Fidela del Águila (a step which would give the humble usurer access to the upper-class circles of society), the child's spirit places a seal of approval on the notion by expressing a desire to be «reincarnated». (V, 967)

Allowing for the fact that Valentín's spirit represents a more or less subconscious level of the usurer's mind, there is another aspect of the above-mentioned «séances» that has a direct bearing on this study of the religious allusions in the novels. In relation to the theme of religious imagery, a particularly interesting session takes place in the relatively respectable house the usurer owns in the calle de Silva. On this occasion, Galdós appears willing to give more or less free rein to what the late Professor Carlos Clavería has aptly termed the author's «veta fantástica».56 At first, Torquemada is lying half-dressed in his bed, where he is beginning to sink into a deep slumber. Suddenly, the voice of Valentín calls out, waking the   —44→   usurer and causing him to jump from his bed. Torquemada wraps a blanket around himself and rubs his eyes, in a vain attempt to come fully awake. Sleep once again overpowers the moneylender, who sinks into a chair, sprawling in it like a drunken man. The spirit voice continues to communicate, and as the dialogue between father and son develops, in response to the latter's statements the usurer's body adopts a huddling posture: «hecho un ovillo, la cabeza entre las piernas» (V, 967). Then he is seen lying on the floor, «tendido cuan largo era en medio de la estancia» (ibid.). Immediately afterwards, Torquemada begins to crawl around the floor on his hands and knees, imagining that Valentín is being reborn and searching frantically for the child's mother, as if her existence in the usurer's life were already a fait accompli. The physical effort awakens Torquemada, who comes to on his knees in the silence and darkness of his bedroom.

The «séance», we are aware, concerns a matter which has been preoccupying Torquemada for some time, namely, the question of his marriage into the Águila family, referred to above. The imagined desire of Valentín to be «reborn» is both the motive and the excuse for this important step in the usurer's life. A second marriage, and furthermore, into an aristocratic family, contains a certain element of risk, and Torquemada appears to be conscious of this fact, hence the usurer's hesitation and self-questioning. There is another aspect of the «séance» described above, which requires closer examination. It will be noted that, as the imaginary «reincarnation» approaches its climax, Torquemada behaves as if the event were actually taking place. His trance-like state, between sleeping and waking, would help to explain the usurer's actions, which also reveal an intense personal desire to witness the reincarnation of his semi-divine first son. Nevertheless, the series of physical positions adopted by Torquemada's body attracts the reader's attention. Allowing for the probability that the peculiar postures reflect the usurer's agitated state of mind at the time, and that they also correspond to the character's established trait of physical awkwardness, it is equally noteworthy that the «séance» referred to is the only such occasion on which Galdós devotes so much detail to the bodily actions of Torquemada. There is a certain ritualistic sequence to the movements; the huddling posture, lying stretched out on the floor, the first efforts at crawling and, finally, the action of rising to his knees. The question arises whether we are here dealing with an instance of sympathetic magic. If this is so, then Torquemada would seem to be attempting to bring about an intensely wished for event, by imitating some of the principal physical positions associated with child-birth. He is evidently performing these actions in a mental state resembling that of a trance, when the subconscious can express itself more freely. The image of Torquemada as the officiating priest of some weird atavistic cult, would in this case represent a further extension of the pseudo-religious qualities we have already noted in the cult devoted to Valentín's spirit.

It would not be possible to insist categorically on the above interpretation of the «séance». Rather, this remains an interesting possibility revealing the concatenation of associations evolving from the original image of Torquemada. As always happens in Galdós novels, the delicate balance between reality and fantasy is sooner or later adjusted in favour of the former. As time passes and Torquemada becomes increasingly absorbed in the practical affairs of his new family, he can no longer indulge freely in these flights of fancy. The memory of Valentín gradually fades into the background, the pseudo-mystical communications   —45→   no longer take place and even the cabinet dedicated to the cult of the dead child is finally «despojado totalmente de las apariencias de altarucho» (V, 1056). The usurer's fanatical insistence on the inevitable quality of the «reincarnation» of Valentín becomes a fact, when his wife gives birth to a baby boy. The latter is also christened Valentín, but instead of the long-awaited return of the original mathematical genius, the second Valentín turns out to be a congenital imbecile, a grotesque animal-like caricature of his father's uncouth grossness. The tragic reality of the second Valentín finally drives the ideal image of his first son entirely from Torquemada's mind: «evocaba al primer Valentín y le salía el segundo» (V, 1152).

Apart from its dynamic evolution in the novels, the theme of the usurer's cult of Valentín is also related to a further aspect of the religious allusions, namely, to Torquemada's satanism. We find an instance of what Gustavo Correa has called the usurer's «orgullo luciferino»57 in Torquemada's determination that the child Fidela is expecting can be none other than Valentín reincarnated: «Si es el hijo mío que vuelve, por voluntad mía, y decreto del santo Altísimo, del Bajísimo o de quien sea» (V, 1046). As with other aspects of Torquemada's personality and his physical appearance, the satanic element possesses its comical side. This can be seen in the manner in which the grief-stricken usurer emerges from his tenement building. To the women inhabitants of the property, Torquemada appears to be «haciendo unos gestos tales que parecía el mismo demonio persignándose». (V, 918) There is also the example of the moral domination of the miserly usurer by his sister-in-law, Cruz, who is continually forcing Torquemada to spend money he would prefer to hoard. Galdós describes this jocosely, comparing the moneylender's situation to that of Satan writhing in helpless rage at the feet of St. Michael the Archangel, as depicted in the well-known statue (V, 1058). Torquemada's dislike of Cruz is referred to as «aversión diabólica». In the final volume of the series, his early-morning irascibility is aptly described as «rezándole al demonio Padrenuestros y Biblias» (V, 1113) and also as «dándose a los demonios». (V, 117)

By means of such allusions, in addition to their humorous or satirical intention, Galdós reinforces the theme of satanism and constantly reminds us of the principal concept of the novels: the conflict between money and religious values, or, in other words, between Matter and the Spirit.

Central to the main theme, and basic to Torquemada's function in relation to the latter, is the rôle played by money. Throughout the novels, financial considerations are inextricably bound up with religious problems. The usurer personifies the power of money, as Balzac's moneylender had, more than forty years earlier. The narrator of the French novel declares:

Ce petit vieillard sec avait grandi. Il s'était changé à mes yeux en une image fantastique où se personnifiait le pouvoir de l'or.58

The Spanish usurer's wealth provides him with a similar aura, but, as distinct from the effect created by Gobseck, the manner in which Torquemada personifies money acquires a religious significance. On the purely material level, Torquemada's rise to prominence is related to the general development of Spanish capitalism in the nineteenth century. We are informed that the usurer belongs to a specific historical period: «Una época que arranca de la desamortización» (V, 908). The concrete reference to the legislation of Álvarez Mendizábal's government of   —46→   1836-37 merges with the religious allusions that proliferate in the novels, when we are also told that the usurer has his roots in a clearly-defined social group who represent «los místicos y metafísicos de la usura». (V, 980) Consequently, when Galdós described Torquemada's generation as one which has made «una religión de las materialidades decorosas de la existencia» (ibid.), the religious theme is reinforced. Money and religion are continually juxtaposed in this manner, so that the usurer's money gives a note of semi-religious solemnity to the most common-place opinions expressed by Torquemada, and those listening to the latter «bajaban la cabeza ante el bárbaro, y le oían como a un padre de la iglesia... crematística» (V, 1022). The equation of money=religion reveals the ironic note in certain everyday Spanish phrases, as used by Galdós to describe the public adulation offered to Torquemada: «golpes de incensario» and «incensar al tacaño» (V, 1103).

One major character in the Torquemada novels, the blind brother of Fidela and Cruz, Rafael del Águila, is not impressed by the usurer's money. Rafael violently opposes his sister's marriage to the coarse moneylender, but family circumstances outweigh his opposition. The young men's awareness of his helplessness in the matter intensifies his bitter reactions. On one such reaction, when Rafael utters a sarcastic anticipation of an after-dinner speech that Torquemada, as the guest of honour, will give at a public banquet, we owe a further development of the religious images associated with Torquemada. Speaking as his brother-in-law to an imagined audience, Rafael declares: «os digo que me tengo bien merecido el culto de adulación que me tributáis a mí, reluciente becerro de oro» (V, 1093). In other words, from high priest of the cult of Mammon, Torquemada has been elevated in this sarcastic outburst to the position of the central object of devotion in the false religion which the usurer personifies. Shortly before he commits suicide, Rafael reiterates the image of the Biblical Golden Calf: «Yo, que fui el mayor enemigo del becerro, ahora le pido hospitalidad en su sacristía.» (V, 1094).

The struggle for dominance between the two opposing forces of Matter and Spirit reaches its climax in the final volume of the series. At one level, the encounter is symbolized by the attempts of the ex-missionary priest, Gamborena, who represents a relatively conventional attitude to the problems centering on Torquemada, to save the soul of the materialistic usurer. At a level of greater intensity, the struggle also takes place between the irreconcilable opposites within the latter's person. The juxtaposition of money and spiritual matters is continued by Torquemada, who interprets financial questions in terms of religious belief, and who also frequently reverses the process by viewing religion in terms of commerce. This habit of mind gives a highly personal note to the usurer's attitudes towards spiritual problems. On occasion, the personal tone reveals a point of view bordering on the ridiculous. For instance, Torquemada expresses his conviction that the child Fidela is carrying must be a reincarnation of Valentín. Should the child turn out to be anything other than the prodigy reborn, the father states he will demand his money back from God (V, 1076), as if Torquemada's irrational belief were a form of deposit made in the good will of the Deity. Torquemada quickly realises that «no hay expresión» (ibid.) for the idea in his mind, yet he is unwilling to issue a «blank cheque», so to speak, by surrendering his conscience through a total acceptance of the Church's spiritual teaching. He considers an   —47→   action of this nature to be a form of deposit against which he can demand certain guarantees (i.e., an assurance of eternal life), and he informs Gamborena that it would be unfortunate: «que yo diera mi capital y que luego resultara que no había tales puertas (i.e. leading into Heaven), ni tal gloria ni Cristo que los fundó...» (V, 1157).

The ideal synthesis of business and religious faith keeps eluding Torquemada. God refuses to be contained within the rational, acceptable limits of commercial practice. Finally, the usurer can no longer contain his exasperation and in a violent outburst he expresses his belief that God is not playing fair with financial interests:

O el Señor tira de la cuerda para todos o para ninguno. Ahí tiene usted a los militares, cuyo oficio es matar gente y nos hablan del Dios de las Batallas. Pues, ¿por qué, ¡por vida de los ñales! no hemos de tener también el Dios de las haciendas, el Dios de los presupuestos, de los negocios o del tanto más cuanto?

(V, 1188)                

This characteristic obsession with business and financial questions accompanies Torquemada to his death-bed. Shortly before he dies, the usurer enthusiastically conceives a scheme for converting the Public Debt. Although his dying expression is «conversión», experience of Torquemada's obdurate mentality causes Gamborena to remark grimly: «¡Conversión! ¿Es la de su alma o la de la Deuda?» (V, 11966).

As I have indicated above, Galdós is explicit in his references to the usurer's historical and social background. The author's main preoccupation, however, is with the moral aspects of the problems raised by Torquemada's attitudes, behaviour and metamorphosis. This concentration of attention is brought to light by the theme of pseudoreligion, various aspects of which I have attempted to analyse in this article. The reader's attention is directed progressively towards the vacuum awaiting the moneylender at the end of his social and financial evolution. This sense of dynamic progression is maintained by the continually evolving series of religious allusions, which seem to derive from one another in succession. For this reason, one is tempted to regard the allusions as a concatenation of associations, developing dynamically in step with the character's general evolution. Consequently, the religious images and references reveal a parallel development noted in the usurer's use of language and intellectual concepts,59 and in Torquemada's clothes.60 The existence of a number of descriptive elements possessing a parallel function and development, is indicative of the fundamental unity of concept underlying the characterization of Francisco Torquemada. It is partly through these allusions that Galdós succeeds in emancipating his usurer far beyond the limits of the latter's original French model, achieving in Torquemada one of his most interesting and most memorable literary creations.

University College. Cork, Eric

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