Collin McKinney

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To what extent is the seeing/being seen dyad akin to a theatrical performance? Take the example of Saturnino Bermúdez’s cathedral tour in the opening chapter of Leopoldo Alas’s novel La Regenta. Don Saturno, the local historian and scholar, has been asked by Obdulia Fandiño to give a tour of Vetusta’s cathedral to two guests from out of town. He goes about providing lengthy exegeses of obscure and barely visible works of art and architecture with an air of affected solemnity. Saturno’s theatrical style is most evident when he takes the group to see the Panteón de los Reyes: “[H]ubo un silencio solemne. El sabio había tosido, iba a hablar” (Alas 1: 135). Obdulia, imperceptive to the dramatic tone her guide is attempting to create, asks one of her guests for a match in order to see the inscription on the sarcophagus being shown, whereupon Saturno promptly informs the man that there is no need: “No señor, no hace falta. Yo sé las inscripciones de memoria . . . y además, no se pueden leer” (1: 135). The other guest assumes that the words must be written in Latin, and for that reason cannot be read, but Saturno clarifies the issue by explaining the true cause of their illegibility: “están borradas” (1: 135). At this point he pretends to give an improvised explanation of the pantheon when in reality he recites from memory the first four chapters of one of his many books on Vetusta. Here the performative facet of the episode is perhaps overshadowed only by the curious fact that Saturno somehow sees/knows what the inscription says despite its being erased (not unlike his earlier explanation of a painting whose details were so concealed by a dense layer of patina that only a toe and skull were visible). The motive for this ruse may be seen as ontological. Saturno has carved out a niche for himself within Vetustan society as “el primer anticuario de Vetusta” (1: 133), an identification that stems from his unique knowledge of the city’s religious buildings. To deny knowledge of the cathedral’s treasures would be tantamount to denying his own identity. Projecting a discernable image onto a barely visible painting or meaning onto some erased words that only he can “see” is a way of affirming his identity, an indirect way of stating “I am that.”