La Celestina + Agamben

Re: Fernando de Rojas’ La Celestina & Agamben’s The Sacrament of Language.

“To breed an animal with the right to make promises—is not this the paradoxical task that nature has set itself in the case of man? Is it not the real problem regarding man?”[1]— thus spoke Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morals. Say we indulge for a moment Nietzsche’s suggestion. His paradox is obvious: what mere mortal could guarantee a promise? For that, we’d need God. But then, as Nietzsche also famously said, God is dead. Man has reached an impasse, and it seems he’s been sitting there for a while. As early as 1499 we see the same paradox explored in Fernando de Rojas’ Celestina; Rojas even offers us a way out. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

No one knows what to call Celestina, let alone how to read it. Our best hope at a map comes from the author himself. Rojas hints at a hidden message in various supplementary notes to the work. In a prologue he writes, the great sage, Heraclitus, says everything is created in the manner of a conflict or battle: Omnia secundum litem fiunt, a saying I believe to be worth remembering forever.”[2] It seems we are to read Celestina as a story of creation. This suggestion may seem strange in light of the tragicomedy’s rather tragic ending. What, if anything, is created in Celestina? To answer that question, we must first identify our combatants. To that end, I suggest we look to Giorgio Agamben for a possible interpretive framework. Much as Nietzsche seeks a genealogy of morals, in his Sacrament of Language Agamben offers us “an archaeology of the oath.”[3] This archaeology proves particularly enlightening when considered alongside Celestina.

Today people take oaths in courts of law and at the altar, on New Year’s Day and upon graduating medical school. We value oaths in our modern age primarily for their usefulness in enforcing standards of behavior. But it wasn’t always so, according to Agamben: oaths predate the institutions of law and religion. In fact, the oath enabled the birth of law and religion as we know them.

Agamben does not conceive of the oath in society’s utilitarian terms. To Agamben, the oath has power only outside the realm of means and ends. The oath proposes a correspondence between word and reality, but the oath does not testify as to the proposed correspondence’s truth or untruth. In the case of a correspondence between word and action, the fulfilled oath becomes a blessing; in the case of a non-correspondence, the oath becomes a curse. Benediction and malediction are thus two sides of the same coin. In its dual composition, the oath calls into question the correspondence between word and reality while withholding definitive judgment. Like a coin tossed in the air, it allows for either possibility.

Agamben claims that “the human being is that living being that, in order to speak, must say “I,” must “take the word,” assume it and make it his own.”[4] Man is different from animal in that he “is not limited to acquiring language as one capacity among other that he is given but has made of it his specific potentiality; he has, that is to say, put his very nature at stake in language… He is the living being whose language places his life in question.[5] This risking of the self is what allows man to aspire to take oaths. The oath has power only insofar as the speaker offers himself up as a sort of collateral by speaking his own name, by saying “I.” The oath cannot be sworn if the speaker does not thus risk himself in affirming his own name. In this process, God is invoked. To speak God’s name “means to understand it as that experience of language in which it is impossible to separate name and being, words and things.”[6] If this understanding dissolves, if the power of the name is called into question, the oath unravels.

Now, Celestinas postscripts direct us to look to the beginning of the tale for its kernel, for the determinant of its ending. So there we will begin to trace the oath. The story starts off with possible heresy from Calisto: “‘Melibea, I look at you and see why God is great… The holy saints’ bliss when enjoying the vision of the divine is surely less than mine when I gaze at you.’”[7] Calisto goes on to explicitly name Melibea God. When she spurns him, he places his own humanity at stake: If the fire of purgatory is anything like this, I’d prefer my spirit to follow those of brute animals than choose that path on my way to glory with the saints.”[8] In short, human life isn’t worth the trouble if it is to be separate from God. The gauntlet has been thrown down. He has staked his very humanity, his power of speech, upon Melibea’s decision. He is resolved to possess his “God” in the flesh, even if he must become an animal to do so. Pármeno perceives the danger inherent in this quest: “‘The devil’s given him the mercury trembles, Sempronio. He can’t keep still. He’ll end up lending [Celestina] his tongue so she can talk faster.’”[9] For now, though, all is well. Everyone has what is rightfully his: Calisto his golden chain, Melibea her cord, Celestina her thread. No exchange has yet taken place.

In Echevarría’s reading of Celestina, Celestina herself plays both protagonist and primary antagonist because of her adherence to a false doctrine. He claims that “Celestina’s belief in the powers of the Devil is like Calisto’s mad adherence to the rules of courtly love: it is a false doctrine and system of behavior that purports to channel, organize, and give meaning to action.”[10] I would counter this statement and argue that Celestina’s belief or disbelief in the Devil is immaterial. Her mode of speech alone determines her power. In her art, she employs chiefly the performative, which Agamben calls “a linguistic enunciation that does not describe a state of affairs but immediately produces a fact, actualizes its meaning.”[11] The denotative character of language is suspended by the dictum’s (x) enclosure in such particles as “I swear x.” The truth of x is neither affirmed nor denied in the performative oath. The entire statement as a whole, in being spoken, becomes actualized. In her invocation of the Devil, Celestina accordingly makes rampant use of performative linguistic structures: “I believe x,” “I summon x,” “I invoke x.” She concludes her rites in acknowledgment of the possibility that the Devil might not fulfill her demands, saying if that if he doesn’t she will “pour [her] foulest words on [his] name.”[12] She balances the possibility of a blessing with the possibility of a curse, thus completing her performative oath.

In order to take an oath, Celestina needs the power of a proper name by which to swear. Her name is imbued with power because of her proud assumption of her own reputation, as Sempronio notes: “Anyway that’s her title and it’s what people call her. If she’s in a crowd of a hundred women and someone says ‘Filthy old whore,’ she turns her head not in shame but to nod gleefully…. Everything that makes a noise, wherever she is, calls her by her title.’”[13] In accepting her name, she affirms the connection between words and reality, thus giving her power as long as she continues to do so. Though she’s gotten old and scarred, and is no longer as beautiful or healthy as she once was, she has not yet forsaken her own name. Since Celestina embraces what Agamben calls “the experience of language that treats all language as a proper name,”[14] her words carry the weight of oaths. Celestina can thus be seen as logos, or the name of God. Her power is represented by thread: “‘I’ve a little thread in my pocket and other trinkets so I can gain entry into a house where I’m not known.’”[15] God is known by no man, but he can enter anywhere by the power of his name.

However, Celestina is not the only figure treated as God in Celestina. If Celestina is a tale of warring possible gods, I see three contenders: Celestina, Melibea, and Calisto. Celestina is an obvious choice because of her powers of influence and renown. Melibea is also an easy choice because Calisto explicitly calls her God, and because she chooses to seek union with her Lord in dying, as did Jesus. But what about Calisto as a candidate? He’s perhaps a less obvious choice because he’s quite simply a fool. But he has a burning desire to make the word flesh, to know God through knowing Melibea in the biblical sense. He wants to unify himself with God on Earth. Was this not the task Jesus set himself?

To achieve this union, Calisto is not willing to simply trust in the power of Celestina and her good name. He demands Sempronio accompany her: “‘Sempronio, I don’t think it’s very sound advice to say I need company and that she can go alone to seek the remedy for my sickness. You go with her and apply a little pressure.’”[16] Calisto thus attempts to control Celestina, to bind her to his will. Perhaps as a result of this pressure Celestina makes her first mistake: taking Melibea’s cord.

Echevarría claims that Melibea’s cord serves to divide the body, to restrict. This is a perfectly valid interpretation, but I would like to suggest the alternate possibility that the cord represents the umbilical cord. This is not so far-fetched a notion given that the work refers to stitching up torn hymens, and given that as a midwife Celestina would have cut her share of umbilical cords. Prior to surrendering the cord, Melibea remains deferent to her mother’s wishes. After Celestina uses her thread to gain entry into Melibea’s house and takes the cord, Melibea regrets disbelieving Celestina. Melibea’s tie to her mother has been cut. It seems as though Celestina’s won, until we remember Melibea’s promise to Celestina that “any reward you take from here will stop you offending God, and put an end to your plotting.’”[17] The umbilical cord in Melibea’s possession is nourishing; in Celestina’s possession, the cord can only bind. 

Celestina, having completed her first exchange, hurries off to make another. She presents the cord to Calisto, who immediately praises the cord as if it were Melibea herself. Celestina chides him, “‘Don’t use the same words to the person and her clothes.’”[18] Calisto errs in thinking he knows Melibea when he knows only her appearance. By the same principle, Celestina still has power over Calisto precisely so long as she retains the cloaking protection of her clothes. He has not yet pinned her down to a single meaning. For now, Celestina says, “‘I need a cloak and I think that’s enough.’”[19] She asks only for indivisible garments of clothing, which Pármeno and Sempronio can’t demand to share. But Celestina’s resolve falters when she claps eyes on the golden chain offered her by Calisto: “‘Instead of the cloak and smock I promised, and so you don’t feel you’ve lost out, take this little chain. Put it round your neck, and carry on talking and making me happy.’”[20] Calisto here echoes Melibea’s earlier command to Celestina: “‘For the love of God, take your cloak off, attend to my sickness and find me that cure.’”[21] The lovers have forced Celestina to expose herself, and Celestina is too transfixed by the chain to notice.

In accepting the chain, Celestina exchanges her tried and true mode of language, the performative, for a new one: the denotative. Whereas the performative fulfills itself in being spoken, the denotative cannot fulfill itself. It is employed like currency, minted expressly to serve as a placeholder, a substitute. Where performative language is a cloaking text-ile, denotative language is a golden coin. Gold, unlike Celestina’s thread, has little practical application. It’s just shiny; it’s not even a particularly durable metal.

The surrender of the chain proves detrimental not only to Celestina, but also to Calisto. With the chain Calisto surrenders the last power he had over his servants, who set off to find Celestina and demand their share of the take. It appears Pármeno and Sempronio are bound only by Calisto’s chain, not by Calisto himself. What has happened here? Agamben claims that when the “connection that unites words, things, and human actions is broken, this in fact promotes a spectacular and unprecedented proliferation of vain words on the one hand and, on the other, of legislative apparatuses that seek obstinately to legislate on every aspect of that life on which they no longer seem to have any hold.”[22] And as we examine the fallout immediately following the exchange of the chain, we see Agamben’s prediction holds true, at least in the world of Celestina.

The golden chain in its shackling power displaces Celestina’s oath in its performative power. She’s finally completed her alchemy and turned her words into gold, but in so doing she’s lost the philosopher’s stone. She reveals her words as powerless when she says, “‘You know well enough, Sempronio, that gestures and loving words aren’t legally binding.’”[23] In appealing to the law, she brings about Agamben’s predicted split into vain words and legislative apparatuses. Words are become powerless in their own, so they need the enforcing power of the law to prop them up. To compound matters, Celestina is uncloaked and therefore vulnerable: “‘Elicia, Elicia, get out of bed! Get me my cloak! I’m off to find the law.’”[24] Celestina refuses to put herself at stake as she once did, and so her words cannot have the power of oaths. All her other promises must then unravel, and she is powerless to halt the process. Sempronio levels her with this simple parry: “‘It’s not what you say that counts.’”[25] Then for once Celestina is the one pricked.

This new paradigm will have grave repercussions not only for Celestina, but for everyone. Sempronio and Pármeno meet their ends soon after bringing about that of Celestina: “‘One was completely unconscious with his brains hanging out and the other had two broken arms and a wrecked, blood spattered face, because they both jumped down from very high windows to escape the constable.’”[26] Compare this tableau to the following passage, which Agamben cites from Homer: “‘Whichever host of the twain shall be first to work harm in defiance of the oaths, may their brains thus be poured forth upon the ground even as this wine.’”[27] Later in the tragicomedy, Calisto will lose his brains from a fall as well.

Meanwhile, after the deaths of Celestina, Pármeno, and Sempronio, those still among the living have been galvanized by a new understanding of justice. The old eye-for-an-eye model gives way to one based in debt. Justice is become a commodity which can be bought with the pain and suffering of the accused. Commerce thus comes into its own in the institution of the law. Accordingly, in Celestina’s place a new woman rises to power: Aréusa, who serves an entirely different function. She blames Melibea for the rash of deaths and decides that “‘this blow is more easily avenged than cured.’”[28] She boasts, “‘Mine’s a different art to Celestina’s, though she liked to think I was simple-minded and I was happy for her to think that.’”[29] Where Celestina wheedled and cajoled people into submission, Aréusa calls in the troops. To take out Calisto, she enlists the help of Centurio, demanding, “‘I want to know whether words mean action in your book.’”[30] Her art is one oriented towards effectiveness, as is the punishing violence of the law. It operates like a machine, and uses people only as tools, mere means to an end. In denying language’s inherent meaning before her death, Celestina has created the need for this new mechanism to attempt to bind language to action. And though her success is as much by accident as by design, Areúsa’s machinations bring about Calisto’s downfall.

As for Melibea, she knows what she needs. Earthly union is no longer possible, and so she decides, “‘My heart must be excised if I am to be cured.’”[31] Now that brains have left the bodies, hearts must follow. To survive under this new order man must lose his mind and his heart. He is no longer a unified being. Man’s consolation? He can blame it on God, wipe his own hands of all culpability: “‘I’m not [guilty]: my own sorrow and death purge any guilt their grief might apportion me. … That being so, it’s true I shouldn’t try to absolve myself by recourse to those who did even more wrong. But it’s out of my hands. My Lord, you are witness to what I say and see how little power I have, how captive my freedom is, how my feelings are so driven by love for the dead man that none is left for my living parents.’”[32] Melibea denies the existence of free will, thus deciding her own innocence despite killing herself.

In the absence of free will, Melibea feels herself called to die: “‘I was the reason the Earth could enjoy before time the most supple, spirited youth that ever walked the world. … His death calls out for mine, calls out to me, and wants it now, without delay. Tells me to fall like him and imitate him in everything. No one will say of me: “out of sight, out of mind.”’”[33] She will imitate Calisto as if he were Cristo. She is a self-fashioned martyr, making her death unique in Celestina. Martyrdom has become the sole way to reconcile word and action, to make everything into nothing. This is the cure Melibea takes in the end: Christianity. Christianity’s great mistake is to put a price on God’s love: death. Where the name gives existence, the price eradicates it. In Christianity, we find that the only valid way to witness a truth becomes to die, or to become a “martyr” in the sense of “witness.” Jesus cannot witness the truth of his words through his life on earth—he has to die. And so his martyrs follow suit, as willing sacrifices who, rather than bringing absolution for their community, abandon their parents in their old age.

Once Melibea’s thrown herself off a tower, Pleberio is left to issue a send-up of her beliefs. Strangely, he seems to direct all of his ire at love, at Cupid, at Jesus. It’s fair to assume that his words are also directed at Calisto, because of various remarks throughout the work about Calisto shooting his bolt. Finally, we must keep Christianity’s double-edged message regarding love in mind. Christianity claims that God is love, but it also claims that we know Jesus’ love for us only in his laying down his life. Pleberio holds forth: “If you were love, you would love your servants. … Others called you God, misled by their erudition. Does God kill those he bred? You kill those who follow you. … They portray you as blind, poor, and young. They put a bow into your hand that you shoot into the dark. … If I hadn’t loved, my last years wouldn’t be sad and desolate.’”[34] 

Jesus instructs us to love God with our heart, soul, and mind. Our being is thus split into three, just as the once-whole God is split into a Trinity, just as Pármeno and Sempronio wanted to split the chain, and just as Calisto’s head is literally split. Tristán, faced with his master’s dead body, instructs Sosia to “‘pick up those brains from off the cobbles. Put them back in our luckless master’s head. … His head broke into three.’”[35] Christianity attempts to bring God closer to man by splitting the inaccessible Father from the Son, who walked on Earth, and from the Holy Spirit, who inhabits man. But all Christianity manages to do is to thus desecrate God and reduce man to an animal. In the beginning of the tragicomedy, Calisto thinks he’s found God on Earth; by its end Pleberio bemoans a valley of tears. Man kills himself in trying to become unified with the object of his desire, and along the way he wipes out poor logos.

Maybe it’s not Jesus who should be shepherding us; it’s language as the oath, as proper noun, as a corralling power to the flock. Language is powerful in the performative sense so long as it preserves possibility. When language is used to denote a certain truth or falsehood corresponding to reality, it is shorn of power, and the fragile bonds that tied society together are fragmented, and we’re liable to run off a cliff. The oath is broken into law, religion, magic. Liberated from each other and therefore unchecked by each other, each of these components is allowed to run amok. Language shorn of its ties to life becomes a powerful weapon. Thus we see law become a machine, religion mere fiction, magic technology. Legal codes are different from novels, which are different from cookbooks. Separated into institutions, the oath can no longer accomplish what it once did as one.

According to Celestina’s postscripts, the author, “fearful of detractors and venomous tongues, always quicker to reproach than blame themselves, he decided to conceal his name, so don’t blame me if I don’t add mine to this unworthy continuation.”[36] The original author of the first act, whether he be Rojas or not, does not make the same mistake as Celestina. He has hidden himself rather than sought out gold and fame. His stroke of genius is not claiming the kernel, keeping himself cloaked in text, refusing to make the word flesh.

If magic can only produce illusion, does that make the magic any less real? The answer Celestina suggests is that when we decide something must be either truth or illusion, we preclude the possibility of magic. We open Schrödinger’s box. And so we mustn’t imitate curious Psyche or Pandora, but rather the Quiché of the Popol Vuh, who leave unopened their bundle of flames.


Agamben, Giorgio. The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of Oath. Trans. Adam Kotsko. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.

Echevarría, Roberto González. Celestina’s Brood. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 2000.

Rojas, Fernando de. Celestina. Trans. Peter Bush. New York: Penguin Group, 2009.


[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 2000),  492.

[2] Rojas, Fernando de, Celestina, trans. Peter Bush (New York: Penguin Group, 2009), 212.

[3] Agamben, Giorgio, The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of Oath, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 2.

[4] Ibid., 71.

[5] Ibid., 68.

[6] Ibid., 52.

[7] Rojas, Fernando de, Celestina, trans. Peter Bush (New York: Penguin Group, 2009), 1.

[8] Ibid., 4.

[9] Ibid., 64.

[10] Echevarría, Roberto González, Celestina’s Brood, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 14.

[11] Agamben, Giorgio, The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of Oath, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 54.

[12] Rojas, Fernando de, Celestina, trans. Peter Bush (New York: Penguin Group, 2009), 43.

[13] Ibid., 14.

[14] Agamben, Giorgio, The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of Oath, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 53.

[15] Rojas, Fernando de, Celestina, trans. Peter Bush (New York: Penguin Group, 2009), 40.

[16] Ibid., 31.

[17] Ibid., 53.

[18] Ibid., 73.

[19] Ibid., 70.

[20] Ibid., 124.

[21] Ibid., 114.

[22] Agamben, Giorgio, The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of Oath, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 71.

[23] Rojas, Fernando de, Celestina, trans. Peter Bush (New York: Penguin Group, 2009), 140.

[24] Ibid., 143.

[25] Ibid., 142.

[26] Ibid., 148.

[27] Agamben, Giorgio, The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of Oath, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 31.

[28] Rojas, Fernando de, Celestina, trans. Peter Bush (New York: Penguin Group, 2009), 163.

[29] Ibid., 174.

[30] Ibid., 177.

[31] Ibid., 188.

[32] Ibid., 189.

[33] Ibid., 190.

[34] Ibid., 197.

[35] Ibid., 185.

[36] Ibid., 202.


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