TERESA OF ÁVILA: Quixote’s Madness by Colin Dickey

TERESA OF ÁVILA: Quixote’s Madness by Colin Dickey

From Afterlives of the Saints

Lost in the limitless labyrinth of books is Teresa.  Born in March 1515 in Avila, she was born for reading and as a young girl read incessantly: “I do not believe I was ever happy if I had not a new book,” she writes in the opening of her autobiography.  She learned this love from her mother, who was fond of chivalric romances and always made time for her children to read.  Teresa’s father disapproved, thought it a waste of time, a corrupting of his children’s minds.  Teresa and her siblings had to keep the reading a secret — she began to call it “an addiction,” her “little fault.”  She read in the quiet of dark spaces, much like the young Marcel Proust, who centuries later described seeking out the “dim coolness” of his room to evade his family and read in secret.

In the lives of the saints, she found an early love of martyrdom, and when she was seven, she and her brother ran away from home to be martyred at the hands of the Moors, only to be returned home by her uncle.  Perhaps her father was right: Reading was dangerous, at least for someone like Teresa, under the thrall of her emotions; a love of books went hand in hand with a love of death.

At the time, Teresa found no fault with her reading: “It did not seem wicked to me,” she wrote many years later in her autobiography, “to waste many hours of the day and the night on this vain occupation, even though I had to keep it secret from my father.”  Even as an adult writing of those times, she saw in retrospect the vices of reading, how it “began to chill my desires and lead me astray in other respects as well.”

What to make of a book that begins with the perils of reading?  Should we put it down, go no further?  To keep reading, it seems, is to implicate ourselves — it is our little fault that drives us on, our vain occupation, our addiction.  We may read, but to read Teresa’s autobiography is already to be an interloper, to trespass into a world you’ve been warned against.  She doesn’t want us here, even as she beckons us to come in.  Teresa’s is a strange book, a book with no place for a reader.

Her mother died when Teresa was twelve, and Teresa fell even further under the sway of her romances.  When she was fifteen, her father placed her in convent.  There she found her calling, despite being plagued in her early years by serious health problems.  Under the direction of a Franciscan, Peter of Alcantara, she set out in 1560 to found a Carmelite convent in Avila.  Her convent brought back the old order, reinstating flagellation and discalcation (the forbidding of the wearing of shoes), and from 1567 to 1576, Teresa set up convents of discalced Carmelites throughout Spain.

Around the same time, she was asked by her confessor, Pedro Ibáñez, to record the events of her conversion, a record that became her autobiography.  In the centuries since, it has become the most widely read book in Spanish after Don Quixote, which first appeared only thirty-five years after Teresa wrote her autobiography.  Like Cervantes’s masterpiece, Teresa’s autobiography is about the dangers of reading.  Cervantes’s Quixote is poisoned by the same chivalric romances that Teresa read as a child.  He sells his estate to buy more and more books until they finally drive him mad and he begins a quest not unlike that attempted by Teresa when she was seven.

Teresa’s story caught like wildfire.  It may have been about the dangers of reading, written for a private audience, but that hasn’t stopped the thousands who have flocked to it.  After all, we want to eavesdrop.  We want to read what is forbidden in the dim coolness of private rooms.  We want to be affected by the wickedness of the book, to share in Teresa’s little addiction, to succumb to Quixote’s madness.


Teresa’s life is proof that she finally triumphed over this vice, reformed her ways, and followed Christ.  But traces of her love of reading remain all over her autobiography.  In a book that opens with a scene of reading, she recalls with bitterness how her confessor removed all the books in Spanish from the convent — “I felt it deeply because some of them gave me recreation and I could not go on reading them, since now I only had them in Latin.”  Later she calls Christ Himself “a veritable book in which I have read the truth.”  Hers may be a story about God, but it is told as an allegory of the reader and the writer.

Her writing is often chaotic; she asks permission before speaking, she loses herself on tangents before returning to a half-remembered topic, and she’s at times repetitive.  “I seem to have wandered from my subject,” she says more than a few times.  At times she supplicates herself abjectly before her confessor; at other times she reprimands him for a dim understanding of Christ.  Through all this, she seems to acknowledge that the book will have no editor and that she will never look back on what she’s written.  And she’s not bothered by this.  Like that of a nineteenth-century spirit medium, Teresa’s is an automatic writing.

We have long since lost the ability to see the art in this; in the twenty-first century, we are too used to the idea that the work of art must have a holistic and unified effect, that it must be perfect.  Even contemporary writers who might emulate such chaos — Nabokov in Pale Fire, for example — do so deliberately, with extreme calculation.  The better corollary to Teresa would be writers like Gerard de Nerval and Antonin Artaud.  Like Artaud’s works, Teresa’s autobiography comes alive in its madness, though madness is not the right word for many of these writers.  Ecstatic is better — writing that doesn’t tell a story or impress an idea so much as it records the simple alchemy of putting pen to paper.

Ultimately Teresa’s autobiography is a book about the act of writing itself.  “I see so much perdition in this world,” she writes, “that even if my writing has no other effect than to weary this hand that wields the pen, it brings me some comfort.”  Teresa’s autobiography is a strange mixture in which she writes of the dangers of reading and the pleasures of writing.  Like Gregory’s or Radegund’s, Teresa’s work comes alive when it breaks against itself, when its sutures rupture and break, when something unintended shows through.

This kind of writing is always vulnerable, and readers and commentators always want to reduce it to something it’s not.  The danger is in making her sane, in reading the work as a holistic piece of art.  The error would be to read it as complete, a masterpiece; doing so, as many have, is to read her ecstasy in the most banal of ways.

Many of us outside of Spain know her through Bernini’s famous sculpture — her head thrown back, mouth agape, eyes closed, as a cherub hovers above her with an arrow.  Bernini’s sculpture depicts perhaps the most famous moment in Teresa’s autobiography, a description of an ecstatic vision that comes late in the book:

In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire.  This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails.  When he pulled it out, I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God.  The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans.  The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God.  This is not a physical pain, but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it — even a considerable share.

Whatever was happening in Teresa’s mind and in her body as this experience was taking place, most modern commentators have seen only one possible explanation.  Marie Bonaparte — a practicing psychoanalyst and a friend of Freud who was at the time measuring the distance between the clitoris and vagina in 250 women — spoke for many readers when she declared, unequivocally, that Teresa’s revelation was nothing more than a “violent venereal orgasm.”

Bonaparte was something of a literalist, to be sure, but she makes plain the problem, the danger in reading Teresa.  To read her and see only sex, as we have been conditioned to do, is the same error as reading her and ignoring sexuality altogether.

One understands why Teresa tells us how she “earnestly begged the Lord to grant me no more favors if they must have outward and visible signs.”  To see a saint in rapture is to misunderstand, and to read her ecstasy is to misread.  Perhaps there was some divine accession to her request when she died in October 1582, just as Catholic countries were switching from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, a realignment that necessitated the loss of October 5-14.  Thus, she left this earth sometime between the night of October 4 and the morning of October 15, in those strange, invisible days of history.

Bernini’s genius is in the massive cloak that covers Teresa so that only her face and hands are visible.  Everything else lies below the surface, lost in those endless folds.  In there somewhere is the ecstasy of writing, the relationship of reader and writer.  You may guess at its contours, but you will never know its shape.  It is under the folds of such a cloak that the perfect book, and the perfect library, lie.  Hidden, shapeless, but somehow moving, somehow alive.

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