The texts of José Cadalso exemplify the ambiguity in style, mood, and tension experienced in the second half of 18th-century Spain. Under the pseudonym “Dalmiro,” Cadalso dedicated many verses to his Filis—was he the first Romantic writer in Spain? Was he one of the first politically charged writers of his time? Was he one of the first to demonstrate psychological development in his characters? All of these questions have concerned Cadalso’s critics throughout the years. This troubled figure of the Spanish Enlightenment is an example of rational aesthetics combined with romantic desperation.
During his relatively short life, he wrote drama, poetry, short fiction, and essays. As with many of his contemporaries, the strict lines of genre division do not apply to his texts.
Thus, his Cartas marruecas (wr. 1789, pub. 1793; Moroccan letters), a work of fiction by his admission, can be classified as an essay, and Los eruditos a la violeta (1772; The pseudo-intellectuals), an essay satirizing the intellectual climate of the country, can also be classified as fiction.
In his texts Cadalso is able to create tension through differing points of view—what today we would call different voices—through internal dialogue as well as dialogue with contemporary 18th-century characters. In Cartas marruecas, a work that follows the 18th-century utopian tradition, three voices mirror ideological positions in society. Nuño Nuñez, a true Christian beloved by his contemporaries, lives incarcerated within himself.
His tone is humorous and accepting of a society that cannot be changed. Gazel, the optimistic young African diplomat, becomes more pessimistic as the text develops. Ben- Beley, an old wise man, provides a philosophical view of the circumstances. The three complement one another in the portrayal of a bitter satire that questions the ideological foundation of Bourbon Spain. Using three different voices, Cadalso presents the reader of this text, as well as of his other essays, with the dilemma faced by the virtuous man—“el hombre de bien”—who is confronted with social evils. This triangular debate highlights one of the most controversial 18th-century polemics: that juxtaposing stoicism and Christianity.
In the tradition of Seneca and Cicero, as well as the Spanish classics, Cadalso reflects on several themes in his essays, debating issues such as virtue, moderation, human misery, and truth. Throughout the Cartas, Cadalso aspires to an impartiality in keeping with the scientific spirit of the Enlightenment. In line with other 18th-century essayists, his texts reveal a concern for Spain’s industrial progress, economic stability, educational system, social and political reform, and human welfare.
If in Cartas marruecas Cadalso presents the reader with philosophical debates in his satire, in Eruditos a la violeta his satire is more caustic toward the frivolity of appearances as opposed to well educated “cultured” people. The stoic, ascetic criticism found in Cartas is replaced by a lighthearted, humorous parody of social conditions and daily customs. More in the tradition of Padre Isla’s Fray Gerundio (1787), Cadalso presents a method for educating Spain’s idle elite so that they will succeed within the superficiality of manners imposed by society.
When considering the context in which Cadalso lived and wrote, his essays become more cohesive. In all of his texts, whether philosophical, humorous, satirical, or political, Cadalso questions the ability of mortals to survive in a world governed by rational laws.
The rules of the Enlightenment that permeated Spanish society in his time also presented a great opportunity for hypocrisy in a society concerned with appearances. Critics have pointed to the fragmentation exhibited by 18th-century essayists in facing, debating, and theorizing about issues of “heart” and “mind.” In Spain, Cadalso’s essays best exemplify this fragmentation and basic skepticism toward rationality while at the same time creating a world that rejects sentimentality.
Current Cadalso criticism has focused on the epistemology of madness (Paul Ilie, 1986), which can be seen in the fragmentation of discourse more than in thematic development. This more recent reading of the 18th-century essayist may provide more insights into the discursive fragmentation that mirrors philosophical and thematic issues in Bourbon Spain. The complexity of Cadalso’s essays, in terms of both rhetoric and theme, indicates a talented observer of society. His constant struggle between optimism and pessimism, reason and emotion, reform and restoration serves to highlight his genius.
Through his essays, the 20th-century reader may glimpse the complexity of Spain’s French century and the psychological implications of reform and enlightenment.
Cadalso’s essays present us with one of the best examples of the beginning of modernity: the idea of moving toward a more positive future—the idea of progress.
CARMEN CHAVES TESSER
José Juan Antonio Ignacio Francisco de Borja de Cadalso. Born 8 October 1741 in Cádiz.
Studied at Jesuit schools in Cádiz, Paris, 1750–54, and the Royal Seminary for Nobles, Madrid, 1758–60. Traveled in Europe, 1755–58 and 1760–62. Military career: enlisted for the Portuguese campaign, 1762; made knight of Santiago, 1766. Banished from Madrid under suspicion of writing Calendario manual, which was critical of Madrid customs, 1768, and lived in Aragón, 1768–70. Liaison with the actress María Ignacia Ibáñez (died, 1771). Attended tertulias (literary gatherings) at San Sebastián Inn, Madrid, 1772. Lived in Salamanca, 1773–74. Made colonel shortly before his death. Killed at the siege of Gibraltar, 26 February 1782.
Essays and Related Prose
Los eruditos a la violeta, 1772; edited by Nigel Glendinning, 1967, and José Luis Aguirre, 1967
Suplemento al Los eruditos a la violeta, 1772
El buen militar a la violeta, 1790
Cartas marruecas, 1793; edited by Juan Tamayo y Rubio, 1935 (revised 1953), Lucien Dupuis and Nigel Glendinning, 1966, José Sánchez Reboredo, 1978, Aurora Cruzado Díaz, 1984, Manuel Camarero, 1984, Francisco Alonso, 1985, Salvador Sole Camps and José Palomar Ros, 1986, Mariano Baquero Goyanes, 1988, José Miguel Caso
González, 1989, Rogelio Reyes Cano, 1989, and Joaquín Arce, 1993
Other writings: the fiction Noches lúgubres (1792), plays, poetry, and autobiography.
Collected works edition: Obras, 3 vols., 1818.
Barnette, Linda-Jane, “Male-Female Relationships in Cadalso’s Prose: Distancing Techniques,” in Selected Proceedings of the Thirty-Eighth Annual Mountain Interstate Foreign Language Conference, edited by Sixto E.Torres and Carl S.King, Clemson, South Carolina: Clemson University Press, 1991
Coloquio internacional sobre José Cadalso, Abano Terme, Italy: Piovan, 1985
Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos issue on Cadalso, 389 (1982)
Edwards, June K., Tres imágenes de José Cadalso: El crítico, el moralista, el creador, Seville: University of Seville, 1976
Glendinning, Nigel, Vida y obra de Cadalso, Madrid: Gredos, 1962
Goldman, Peter B., “What’s in a Word? ‘Class’ and Its Evolution in the Eighteenth Century,” Romance Quarterly 39, no. 1 (February 1992):7–16
Ilie, Paul, “Cadalso and the Epistemology of Madness,” Dieciocho 9, nos. 1–2 (1986):174–87
Moreno Hernandez, Carlos, “Cadalso y Larra: El fracaso del hombre de bien,” Cuadernos de Investigación Filológica 12–13 (May-December 1987):45–68
Sebold, Russell P., Colonel Don José Cadalso, New York: Twayne, 1971
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