Demonizing the Hegemonic Culture of 18th Century Colombia
An Exegesis of Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel García Márquez
“Absence is God. God is the loneliness of man. There was no one but myself; I alone decided on Evil; and I alone invented Good.”
Jean Paul Sartre[i]
“Take care. Sometimes we attribute certain things we do not understand to the demon, not thinking they may be things of God that we do not understand.”
Gabriel García Márquez[ii]
The pursuit of a higher existence following death, one that lacks any form of pain or hardship, sets the tone for the actions carried out by those who adhere to the belief of God and heaven; and even more inspiring than the fruitful promises of Paradise lies the fear of its dreaded counterpart, the devil and hell. While the genesis of such beliefs may start with good intentions–– i.e. to prevent chaos and disorder–– the results are often manifested through fear or ignorance, producing a lack of empathy and hindering moral progression. Thus, what may start out as a means to deter evil, becomes a vehicle for demons to come out from the shadows. Of Love and Other Demons[iii], a novella by Gabriel García Márquez, places itself in the midst of social-transformation that evolves during the decline of the Spanish Inquisition and slavery in colonial Colombia. It is here where evil takes the form of sacred institutions and hides behind individuals comprising the dominant upper class. The effects of this pandemonium are most apparent through Sierva María de Todos los Ángeles[iv], the foundling virgin who is subject to the horrors created by those who present themselves as her saviors. What results from the blind faith inspired by the Inquisition and the persistent oppression of non-Western tradition by the dominant White culture is the gradual degradation of the purest soul in the novella, Sierva María.
To provide context for the points to be argued in the following passages, what directly follows is a brief summary of the novella. One fateful Sunday on a South American seaport of Cartagena, a twelve-year-old Sierva is bitten by a rabid dog. She shows no apparent signs of infection other than a barely visible abrasion. However, perpetuated by her animalistic behavior–– taught to her by Dominga de Adviento, the black slave woman charged with her care and the girl’s practice of the Yoruban beliefs shared with her by the other slaves of her father’s home–– she is believed to be possessed by the devil. When Dominga de Adviento dies, the child becomes the sudden responsibility of a hateful and absent mother, Bernarda Cabrera, and an apathetic father, the Marquis de Casalduero, who, previous to his revelation[v], despised the girl for reminding him of her mother. To avoid responsibility of their unloved heir, Sierva is abandoned to the Convent of Santa Clara where she meets Josefa Miranda, the bitter Abbess and Father Cayentano Delaura, the priest entrusted to carry out her exorcism. Yet, rather than removing the demons believed to be devastating her soul, Delaura falls hopelessly in love with the tragic creature and his actions incite a divide between his desires and his duties. What results from these events is the death, or arguably the murder, of Sierva María through the rituals of exorcism.
The most pressing question of the novella persists throughout the text: Is Sierva María really possessed? To answer this, we must first indicate the symptoms often associated with possession. According to scholar Michael Grosso:
The possessed person behaves in ways that are totally alien to his usual self. He (or more probably she) blasphemes and acts out violent loathing of the conventional sacred symbols; is, moreover, tormented by physical contact with them; demoniacs recoil in pain from holy water sprinkled on them […] The moral otherness of demoniacs looks like an invasion from without; to view it as “merely” a revelation of something repressed within is no less uncanny […] Another symptom of possession is said to be the preternatural strength displayed by demoniacs. (510)[vi]
In the novella, Sierva shows little to no aversion to sacred symbols and does not scream or yell obscenities when Delaura sprinkles holy water in her cell. Any signs of preternatural strength are presented only as rumors spread by others rather than actual events narrated by Márquez. Following her arrival in the convent the persistent destruction of the edifice and the odd behavior of the farm animals surrounding it supports the assumption that “nothing occurred that was not attributed to the pernicious influence of Sierva María. Several novices declared in the acta that she flew on transparent wings that emitted a strange humming” (Márquez 69). To further emphasize the ability for these scandals to manifest in the community, Márquez also writes, “The fiction that Cayetano Delaura was the Bishop’s son had replaced the older rumor that they had been lovers ever since Salmanca” (138). He utilizes qualifying diction such as “novices declared,” “they said,” “rumor,” and “the fiction” to show that these tales are the creation of humans rather than the devil. Meanwhile, the physical and psychological signs of Sierva’s possession are a result of the harsh treatment done unto her by her exorcisers or, as they claim to be, “healers.” Márquez writes: “Sierva María felt as if she were dying […] after two fruitless weeks she had a fiery ulcer on her ankle, her body was scalded by mustard plasters and blistering poultices and the skin on her stomach was raw” (51). Along with these physical ailments, Sierva experiences delusions, convulsions, and loses control of her bladder and bowel movements, but such symptoms are the effects of others’ treatment of her.
Animalistic behavior, moreover, is often associated with demons. This is the sole trait displayed most by Sierva. The young girl is prone to biting and to ferocious tendencies. When the priest first encounters Sierva she “look[s] at Delaura for the first time, weigh[s] and measure[s] him, and attack[s] with the well-aimed pounce of a hunted animal” (Márquez 85). She is described as being “a viper,” “a tiger,” and “snapping at the air like a dog” (Márquez 64+). Sierva’s behavior, however, is more so a result of her parents’ abandonment and her lack of formal education and social grooming. Her behavior is akin to that of an animal because she is raised with the “primitive” characteristics of slaves who were treated like beasts by the Whites. In regards to animalism, Julia Kristeva writes in “Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection,” that “the abject confronts us, on the one hand, with those fragile states where man strays on the territories of animal. Thus, by way of abjection, primitive societies have marked out a precise area of their culture in order to remove it from the threatening world of animals or animalism, which were imagined as representatives of sex and murder” (12-13). This attitude is prevalent in Cartagena as the upper class continues to treat slaves like property, Other Blacks, and characterize African rituals and beliefs as savage, animalistic. The Marquise only perpetuates these stigmas when he tries to undo the teachings the slaves teach Sierva. He “tried to teach her to be a real white […] to suppress her fondness for pickled iguana and armadillo stew,” (Márquez 47) exposing his belief in a wrong culture and a right one. Sierva is thus Othered and oppressed by the onslaught of the dominant Western culture.
Despite the perpetual demonization of the slaves, Marquez’s text argues that the real villains are the colonizers. In fact, it is the “savages” who take in Sierva and treat her with kindness. They teach the foundling their traditions and beliefs. Sierva would often be found in the servants’ courtyard “helping to skin rabbits, and her face was painted black, her feet were bare, and her head wrapped in the red turban used by slave women,” (Márquez 16) and when she relived herself she would “urinate behind the tree, squatting and holding a stick at the ready to defend herself against abusive animals and predatory men, just as Dominga de Adviento had taught her to do” (Márquez 64). She is the antithesis of her aristocratic family and adopts her own “lower-class” identity. Márquez writes, “‘The only thing white about that child is her color,’ her mother [Bernarda] would say. This was so true that the girl changed her name to an African name of her own invention: María Mandinga” (45). It is because she is so similar in behavior to the despised Blacks but white with ethereal, coppery hair– qualities favored by the West– that she often confounds those around her. She is what Kristeva would describe as being “repulsive and fascinating, abject” (158) and her juxtaposing behaviors and looks “disturbs identity, system, order” (4). She is the living product of two cultures integrated into one being; and society’s exclusion of her and of their non-Western counterparts, illustrate the failure of the Spaniards and Christians to adapt to cultural evolution. In simple terms, it is not the act of the devil, but the West’s persistence in hegemonizing South America that demonizes Sierva María, or more precisely, that demonizes the lower class and culture.
Ironically, the most prominent face of evil in the novella wears the mask of Josefa Miranda, the Abbess of the convent in Santa Clara. She is a woman fully governed under the pretense of “faith” and duty and lacks any indication or desire for truth and reason. When she leads Delaura to Sierva María’s cell and exclaims that the wall is covered in blood, Delaura admonishes her for being so rash in her declaration. He claims that “just because the water was red, that did not mean it had to be blood, and even if it were, that did not mean it had to be diabolical” (Márquez 82). This indicates the impulsive inclination those blinded by faith possess to believe the worst in matters that they do not fully understand. The insidious nature of religion is further emphasized when Abrenuncio, a well educated doctor claims, “‘There is not much difference between that and the witchcraft of blacks […] In fact, it is even worse because the blacks only sacrifice roosters to their gods, while the Holy Office is happy to break innocents on the rack or burn them alive in a public spectacle’” (Márquez 72). The nuns of the convent view the girl with curiosity and wonder rather than disdain. In fact, “the presence inside the convent walls of a girl possessed by demons had all the excitement of an extraordinary adventure” (Márquez 70). The nuns break into Sierva María’s cell and plead with her to speak to the devil and intercede on their behalf–– asking her to illicit impossible favors from the very entity they vow to despise. This further highlights that the pretense of religion and faith are merely the masks of corrupt sacred establishments. Delaura and Abrenuncio, both well-read scholars, and the Abbess, a cloistered nun dependent on the teachings of the Church, represent the divide between religion and science, but even deeper, the divide between women and men. The Abbess and “all women of her day were forbidden any kind of formal education, yet from the time she was very young she had learned scholastic argumentation in her family of distinguished theologians and great heretics” (Márquez 82). The Abbess is a product of the institution that raised her. Allegorically, this contrast reflects the period of the Spanish Inquisition, the coming of the Enlightenment, and the damaging effects of a patriarchal society.
Evil does not lie only in sacred institutions as the face of the teachings of a debauched society is also visible in Sierva María’s mother. No one is as repulsed by the girl nor wishes her demise more than Bernarda. She is incapable of loving her own daughter and is apathetic in all aspects of life irrelevant to her. When Sierva María is first bitten by the dog, the primary concern of her mother is that the reputation of their family would be tarnished. And again, when the Marquis explains to her that their daughter has been left at the convent, she cries; we are first moved to see the first indication of her love only to be disillusioned by her next words: “‘You mean that now our shame is public knowledge” (Márquez 108). Yet, like the Abbess, she is a product of her time and society. The degradation of her soul had been enacted far before Sierva María’s birth. She had been whored to the Marquise, through the will of her father, and ordered trap him into marriage through means of impregnation. The Marquis, himself, had desired Bernarda only for the physical pleasures of her body, rejecting her when she first came to him with child and only submitting to an official union when his life is threatened by her father. Thus, the societal view of her as the submissive gender reduces her to merely a body easily distributed and discarded by men. To add to the evolution of her sour character is the death of the only love of her life, Judas Iscariote, a black man who perishes in a fight against three other slaves. She laments, “‘I would have been capable of hacking them [runaway slaves] to pieces with a machete. And not only them but you and the girl and my skinflint of a father, and everyone else who turned my life to shit” (Márquez 141). While Bernarda victimizes Sierva María and abandons her to an ill fate, in the end of the novella, we see that she, too, is a victim of her place in life and is haunted by demons of her own.
Although Sierva shows signs of aggressiveness, aversion to society, and ferocity, she possesses no evil entities within. Rather, the real demons lie without. They hide behind the mask of the Abbess and the executors of the Spanish Inquisition. They lurk in the corridors of apathetic parents, slave-traders and colonizers. They prey on those who oppress others in order to maintain their high position in the hierarchy of corruption. More than anything else, they are creatures of humanity that create their own demise. Of Love and Other Demons is Marquez’s critique of society and religion and the corrupt individuals that the teachings of both have brought forth. While not wholly representing every devout Christian or all Spaniards of the 18th century, Márquez does opens the cracks of a system built atop decaying foundations. By adhering to the strict and limiting orders of hegemonized institutions that fail to integrate themselves into a diversifying world, his characters fail to transcend the boundaries of their oppressive society and such attitudes often lead to demonizing and destroying the most innocent of souls.
[i] Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Devil and the Good Lord,” in The Worlds of Existentialism: A Critical Reader, ed. Maurice Friedman (New York: Humanity Books, 1999), 248.
[ii] Gabriel García Márque Márquez, Of Love and Other Demons, (New York: Vintage International, 1995), 80.
[iii] Gabriel García Márquez, Of Love and Other Demons. New York: Vintage International, 1995.
[iv] According to Márquez, Sierva Maria is based on a corpse he had come across while transferring unclaimed crypts in the convent of the Clarissan nuns to a common grave. There, he came across the decayed body of Sierva María de Todos los Ángeles with a long flow of coppery hair that belied her deceased corpse. He claims that this reminded him of the story his grandmother told of a twelve-year-old Marquise with long, fiery hair that preformed miracles.
[v] When arguing with Bernarda about the state of their daughter’s health, the Marquise comes to the realization that he truly does love Sierva and from that point on works to rectify his mistreatment of her.
[vi] Michael Grosso. “Possession & Exorcism: Understanding the Human Psyche in Chaos\The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West,” Journal of Scientific Exploration 28, no. 3 (2014): 509-17.