Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Our Friend Manso: the education novel

All quotes are from the 1987 Columbia University Press edition, translation by Robert Russell.

So how does an author approach writing a novel “dealing with the great subject matter of Education”? One of the reasons the author chose Máximo Manso’s “simple and pleasant story” to buy involves Manso’s role as a professor who studies and practices philosophy. Through Manso the author is able to highlight some of his beliefs on how a life should be lived as well as the state of things in Spain. Because of some of Manso’s blind spots, too, the author can also let the reader draw his own conclusions on how valid these beliefs are.

After meeting Doña Javiera in front of their building after a fire alarm goes off, Manso agrees to educate her son Manuel. He takes Manuel, not a very serious student at first, and molds him into a knowledgeable young man with impressive oratory skills. Manso was a bookworm growing up so he continually stresses the importance of learning from books. Manuel even learns to like Don Quixote. Later, to Manso’s chagrin, Manuel becomes a fan of Machiavelli’s work. Given his belief on the state of Spanish politics (below) and Manuel’s promising political future, this must be Manso’s hint that he doesn’t see things changing any time soon.

Some of Manso’s comments on poverty in Spain and the changing landscape of social classes sound like comments Galdós’ characters have sounded in other novels. When looking how poverty shapes people, Manso looks at a particular individual’s positive development and wonders if it helped shape her: “And it makes me wonder: was it bane or blessing for Irene to have been born amid want, to have learned life in that somber school of misfortune which brutalizes some people and strengthens and refines others, according to the character of each one?” (page 31)

Manso (and through him Galdós) looks at the improving social situation, although he believes a true leveling hasn’t been achieved. That’s why his student, Manuel Peña, was often called “the butcher boy” reflecting his parent’s occupation:
It is abundantly obvious that social democracy has put down deep roots in this country, and no one is asked who he is or where he comes from before being admitted anywhere, being lauded and applauded, just so long as he has money or talent. We are all acquainted with a number of persons of the humblest origins who have attained the highest rank, and even married into the historic nobility. Money and wits, or even their stand-ins, speculation and skullduggery, have broken down all the barrier here, bringing about a mixture of all the classes to a much greater degree and with more telling effects than in the “European” countries, where democracy, having no place in daily intercourse, is provided for in the laws. From this perspective, and leaving aside the great political differences, Spain is becoming, strange though it seems, more and more like the United States of America. Like that nation, we are becoming a skeptical and utilitarian country where everything is dominated by the spirit of the melting pot, and of social leveling. History has less and less applicability every day here in Spain; it has passed entirely into the hands of archeologists, collectors, and curious, erudite, dried-up monomaniacs. Improvised fortune and rank are now the general rule; and tradition, perhaps having become hateful because of the forcefulness of its adherents, has lost all prestige. Freedom of thought is flying high and the ruling forces of our era, wealth and talent, are expanding their immense empire.

But the transformation, advanced as it already is, has not yet reached the point of eliminating a certain circumspection, a certain reluctance regarding the admission of low-born persons into the inner circle, so to say, of our society. If one’s low origins are far from view, even though separated from the present moment by only a decade or so, that’s fine, just fine. Our democracy has a short memory, but it’s not blind; thus one’s vulgar origins are still there and easy to see, it’s hard for money alone to conceal them. (page 36)
Though the country is not blind, amazing things can happen in an atmosphere of change. Manso’s brother, José Marie, has returned from Cuba having made his fortune and desires power. After cheerfully spreading his money around town, it looks like he will get his wish, leading to questions about the sanity of it all:
There is no doubt about it: everything seems to call for, or even presage, a change or transformation that will be the greatest in history. Everything points to it: these transitional monarchies, hanging by a legalistic hair; this system of responsibilities and powers, resting on a loose rope held by rhetorical maneurverings; this society which tears the old aristocracy to bits and creates a new one out of men who’ve spent their youth behind a shopcounter; these Latin nations which fill their lungs with the air of equality, carrying that principle not only to their laws but to the formation of the most formidable armies the world has ever seen; these times we see and live in, both as victims of the aftertaste of tyranny and also as the masters of something new, as we become part of a sovereignty which slowly informs our existence. My brother, who had washed dishes and rolled cigarettes and whipped blacks, sold hats and shoes, been sutler to the army and trafficked in manure, was about to enter the select front ranks of national leaders, the image of established political power, and, as it were, the guarantee of its solidity and permanence. We must say, as someone already has, that “either the Universe is becoming unhinged, or the Son of God is perishing.” (page 77)
In such an unstable atmosphere, Manso repeatedly demands a reliance on reason and provides a constant call for moderation and balance as well as shunning as much of the chaotic world as possible:
Folk of this world, I implore you to submit your lives to a regimen of suitable work and satisfying regularity. Find a comfortable cocoon, like the skillful larva. Arrange all your duties, all your pleasures, your times of leisure and of work in a careful balance and measure, only then to have someone from the outside come and upset the whole thing, forcing you into the mainstream, upsetting, chaotic, hurried… (page 41, ellipsis in original)
Manso recognizes that it isn’t possible to stay outside the mainstream, especially as he finds himself sucked into the disorder and confusion of his brother’s family and his own passion. A constant theme running through the novel is that outside forces influence our lives. “It’s a fundamental truth: we are shaped by the world, not vice-versa” (page 71) is just one iteration of this principle. He still believes that reason helps an individual win over everything else. With reason, even when temporarily yielding to unworthy men, a man can focus on “the eternal and the profound.” Manso’s reliance on reason proves to be ironic since his power of logic and philosophy fails to help him as he becomes marginalized in his own story. More on this in the post on Manso’s education, although I’ll provide a quote that occurs during his epiphany that summarizes one weakness behind his approach to life: “Who knows,” I asked myself, “whether a completely cold and careful critique might lead you to affirm that what you thought of as a series of resounding, fine-grained perfections, if they came to life, would be the most imperfect state of affairs in the world?” (page 226, emphasis mine given the irony of Manso’s state)

Manso has some harsh words for Spain’s political class and artistic atmosphere, similar to what I’ve seen in other novels by Galdós. There is a wonderful description of the poet Francisco de Paula de la Costa Y Sáinz del Bardal. Consistent with his pretentious name, he proves to be a blowhard with little talent although he is popular in some circles. Manso accompanies his brother’s children and their governess to the theater, providing plenty of opportunity to comment on the state of the arts in Spain. Two of my favorite asides:
  • As an artist, I meditated on what times these are that we live in, when it’s possible to make a musical comedy out of the New Testament. (page 68)
  • At that moment the audience was calling for the author, who was not St. Luke. (page 69)

Because his brother joins the political fray, Manso also has plenty of opportunity to comment on the politicians of the day. Joining the salon at his brother’s house is Don Ramón Maria Pez, a ministerial deputy who employs florid but empty language. Federico Cimarra, another politician attending the salon that encapsulates the best and worst of Spanish politics:
He was a majority-party deputy too, one of those who never speak but can do enough dirty work for seventy men, and affecting total independence, are eager for a piece of any shady deal. These men, rather than a class, form a cancerous growth which spreads unseen through the whole body politic, from the tiniest village up to the two houses of Parliament. A man of the most wicked political and family background, but still welcome everywhere and known by all, Cimarra was sought after because he would accommodate anybody and was considered astute. … Madrid is full of people of this kind; they are her flower and her dross, for they both delight us and corrupt us at the same time. Let us take care not to seek out the company of these men except for a brief time of recreation. Let us rather study them from a distance, for these plague-ridden men have notorious powers of contagion, and it’s not hard for an overly attentive spectator to become infected by their gangrenous cynicism when least expected. (page 58)
There are many more commentaries on Madrid and Spain that Manso can’t resist evaluating. Education is the “great subject matter” of the novel and Manso thinks he has plenty to teach and correct. There is much more along these lines, but I want to focus on the education of women in the next post and follow it with the education of Manso.

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