Skip to main content

The new Literature

The series of novels, poems, aphorisms, proverbs, and exempla produced by Ramon Llull, mostly (but not exclusively) in Catalan, belong to the field of what, since the beginning of the nineteenth century, is usually called literature. This is why the Romance of Evast and Blaquerna, the Book of Wonders, the Desconhort and the Cant de Ramon appear in histories of Catalan literature, such as those of Jordi Rubió and Martí de Riquer. It should, however, be kept in mind that for Llull literature is not an object in itself, within a national context and a specific linguistic option: it cannot be compared with what Dante Alighieri did in founding Italian literature at the beginning of the fourteenth century.

For Llull literature is an expressive and persuasive wrapping for a package of universally valids didactic contents, capable of transmitting a single message of salvation. For him, languages of communication (Arabic and other infidel languages, in addition to Latin and the various Christian languages), along with literary forms, are turned into instruments for the diffusion of the Art, which, in itself is expressed in a language of its own with the help of alphabets, geometric figures i tables.

Llull’s novels, poems, aphorismes, proverbs, and exempla (with some exceptions, such as the Lament of the Virgin or the Book of the beasts) are so different in intention from other works of the Romance tradition of his time, that they could be termed a “new literature” or an “alternative literature”, in accordance with two terminological suggestions associated with the Art. In the first place, Llull’s own application of the adjective “new” to disciplines current in the thirteenth century once he had adapted them to his system: the Logica novaGeometria novaAstronomia novaRhetorica nova, which taken together constitute a new science. In the second place, we have Anthony Bonner’s suggestion that Llull wanted to present the Art as “alternative authority”, capable of regulating all the fields of science and knowledge which give us access to an understanding of reality.

The attempt to find a descriptive and immediately explicit name for the treatment to which Llull submits what we nowadays put under the heading of literature stems from two fundamental critical contributions: the reduction of Lullian literature to the status of a simple “expressió literària”, established by Jordi Rubió, and the felicitous descriptive proposition of Robert Pring-Mill, who defined the “recontaments”  and “proverbs” of the Exemplary Tree as a unique “transmutation of science into literature”, one which Ramon presents as mecanizable.

If Llull wrote two novels between 1283 and 1289 it was because in those years he lived in a milieu—Mallorca, Montpeller, and Paris—in which readers of novels struck him as an important segment of the population. Novels were thus for him the equivalent of a mass medium for the diffusion of ideas. Later on, after 1300, Ramon Llull used a vehicle for the spread of his Art even more adapted to the masses: preaching, in which he also introduced alterations, which would allow us to speak of his nova predicació.

As a young man, Llull had written troubadour poetry, but in subsequent years he expressed his disgust with these poets (whom he called “jongleurs”, without distinguishing between those who wrote the texts and the professional performers who divulged them). Thus in chapter 118  Book of Contemplation, he accuses the jongleurs of provoking violence and of encouraging evil customs. If in spite of this he wound up writing some memorable poems, it was because the “I” which speaks in the first person in lyric poetry allowed him to give life to a character called Ramon Llull, the procurator of the infidels, who, after his conversion to penitence and the discovery of the Art, gave up everything for the diffusion of the good tidings of his method of knowledge and persuasion.

Novell saber hai atrobat,
pot-ne hom conèixer veritat
e destruir la falsetat.
Sarraïns seran batejat,
tartres, jueus e mant errat,
per lo saber que Déus m’ha dat.

[I have found a new knowledge
by which one may know the truth
and destroy falsehood.
Sarracens will be baptized,
as will Tartars, Jews, and others in error,
through the knowledge God has given me.]
(Cant de Ramon).