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Everything Left to Chance: Contingency Against Ethics in

Javier Marías's Los enamoramientos

William Viestenz

MLN, Volume 128, Number 2, March 2013 (Hispanic Issue), pp. 384-405 (Article)

Published by Johns Hopkins University Press


For additional information about this article

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Everything Left to Chance:
Contingency Against Ethics in
Javier Marías’s Los enamoramientos

William Viestenz

The philosopher Richard Rorty characterizes post-Enlightenment

liberal society as a culture that sees “one’s language, one’s conscience,
one’s morality, and one’s highest hopes as contingent products, as
literalizations of what once were accidentally produced metaphors”
(61). Rorty’s theory undercuts the soundness of universal philosophi-
cal propositions, such as Kant’s categorical imperative, because no
transcendental truth is immune from the contingent, tortuous devel-
opment of history. Under Rorty’s interpretation of liberal society, that
which humankind considers valid—moral goods, the psychological
reality of consciousness, society’s founding myths, and so on—conforms
arbitrarily to the circumstances of the present moment. In this vein,
philosophical and historical truth only exist as such temporarily, until
a future ‘present’ arrives and erects its own systems of belief. For Rorty,
the future’s alternative truths begin as unpredictably-produced meta-
phors that transform into literal terms. But because history advances
haphazardly, contingency always obscures the evolving shape of soci-
ety’s unassailable beliefs, ethical codes, and literalized metaphors.1

Rorty reasserts a claim made in the previous century by Friedrich Nietzsche, who
posits that humankind suffers from the illusion that truth exists outside of constructed
discourse; that universal prototypes emerge from the mind’s tendency to strip away dif-
ferentiating qualities from objects found in nature: “What then is truth? A mobile army
of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms, in short, a sum of human relations
which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, decorated and which,
after lengthy use, seem firm, canonical and binding to a people” (“On Truth” 257).

MLN 128 (2013): 384–405 © 2013 by The Johns Hopkins University Press
M  L N 385

In the following pages, I argue that Javier Marías’s Los enamoramientos

(2011) replicates Rorty’s dialectical relationship between contingency
and truth, especially regarding morality and ethics.2 Each of the work’s
four parts endows the plot’s central event—an apparently senseless
and random murder—with a distinct ideational content. Each level of
truth attached to the murder unfolds due to a contingent, fortuitous
twist, which is only validated retrospectively by narration. I define
contingency as a temporal progression that advances without necessity
or logic, and which pinpoints chance, rather than fate, as the motor
of history. In the novel, chance alone glues together the plot’s central
love story, a notion that Marías repeats in an interview with El País in
which he likens the process of enamoramiento to playing the lottery:
“Hay gente que piensa que estábamos destinados a encontrarnos. Y
una de las reflexiones que aparecen en el libro es que todo eso no es
más que el producto de una especie de sorteo o de rifa” (“La ausencia
y el azar”). As I will explore, el azar determines both the development
of psycho-affective bonds in the novel and also the contents of truth
statements for Marías on a more general basis.3
On an ideological level, contingency also informs Los enamoramiento’s
conception of morality and law. Rorty, in the above citation, asserts
that liberal society’s uniqueness lies in its knowledge of the contingent
development of its history, with each epoch passing into the next
without predictable logic. In Los enamoramientos, this sort of knowl-
edge carries with it ethical consequences; the protagonists’ awareness
of the adventitious, indiscriminate nature of everyday life allows for
moral escapism and a nullification of the guilt normally associated
with breaking ethical tenets. Marías’s characters, in other words, are
in full possession of Rorty’s liberal consciousness. In contrast with
the picture of ethics put forth by classical philosophical thought and
novels rooted in earlier historical moments, Los enamoramientos the-
matizes the role that persuasion, autosuggestion, and the complicity
brought about by amorous charisma play in the articulation of good
and evil. My analysis will focus principally on Los enamoramientos, but
I will refer in passing to other topical texts from Marías’s repertoire.

Later in the essay, I will clarify the historical development of the signifiers ‘ethics’
and ‘morality’. For the time being, Williams explains that the two terms each relate to
words in Latin and Greek “meaning disposition or custom” (6).
Los enamoramientos was awarded the 2012 Premio Nacional de Literatura by the Ministro
de Cultura, Educación y Deporte. On a number of occassions, Marías stated emphatically
that he would never accept the award because his father, Julián, and several respected
novelists such as Juan Benet were never given the same honor. True to his word, Marías
hastily turned down the award and its 20,000 euro purse soon after it was announced.
386 William Viestenz

The novel’s narrator, María Dolz—Marías’s first female interlocu-

tor—frequents a café where her visits coincide daily with that of a
couple, Miguel Desvern and Luisa Alday. In a seemingly random
act of aggression, a transient knifes Desvern to death in a parking
structure, mistaking him to be a pimp in charge of his two runaway
daughters. Later, after a prolonged absence, Alday unexpectedly
returns to the café, and Dolz works up the courage to approach the
widow and express her sympathies. The encounter results in a visit to
the Desvern household. While there, Dolz meets Javier Díaz-Varela,
Desvern’s closest friend and a habitual visitor of the widow. After the
visit, Dolz again encounters Díaz-Varela, “en un lugar improbable para
encontrarse a nadie, muy cerca de donde había muerto Desvern, en
el edificio rojizo del Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales” (131).
The two begin an affair, and it bears repeating that the plot’s entire
progression relies on such contingent encounters and the split-second
decisions made once separate worlds collide—such as Dolz’s surprised
reaction to Alday’s invitation to her home. As Dolz notes, the entire
trajectory that leads to her affair with Díaz-Varela stems from an illogi-
cal stroke of misfortune on Miguel Desvern’s part: “Aunque si él no
hubiera muerto, no podríamos estar juntos en ningún lado. Ni siqui-
era nos conoceríamos” (138). In other words, the lovers are neither
star-crossed nor brought together by fate; contingency alone creates
the condition of possibility for their amorous complicity.
As I alluded, the original niceties of Desvern’s murder—that an
unstable father targets the man in an act of misinformed vengeance—
change as the novel progresses chronologically. Each of the novel’s
four parts could be thought of as a distinct temporal unit that con-
tains its own veritable narration of the event. As the circumstances of
the murder evolve so too does the complexity of how to apportion
moral responsibility. In the first section, the transient’s hands alone
are stained with the blood of the crime, yet the man’s infirm psycho-
logical state, which led to the mistaken identity, diminishes his guilt.
In the second part of the work, Dolz, while sleeping in Díaz-Varela’s
bed, overhears a conversation between her lover and an unexpected
visitor in an adjoining room. The conversation reveals that Díaz-Varela
and his accomplice orchestrated Desvern’s death. For a tidy sum, the
accomplice planted the knife in the vicinity of the transient and fed
him the misinformation pinpointing Desvern as his daughters’ handler.
Like Ranz in Corazón tan blanco (1994), Díaz-Varela kills for the love
of a woman: Alday. A random, contingent stroke—the chance visit of
the accomplice to Díaz-Varela’s flat while Dolz is there—widens the
M  L N 387

novel’s scope of moral duty. How does one delegate blame in a chain
of events that implicates various actors at varying distances from the
crime? By the same token, to whom does Dolz owe a moral obliga-
tion—her lover, the widow, or the deceased?4
In the third part, a different temporal unity emerges as Díaz-Varela
informs Dolz that the ‘murder’ was arranged at Desvern’s insistence.
Recently diagnosed with a terminal and disfiguring cancer of the eye,
Desvern, according to Díaz-Varela’s story, demanded that his friend
orchestrate his death. This narrative wrinkle obfuscates a philosophy
of moral duty still further—is the obligation to conform to the desires
of one’s kin and close acquaintances stronger than the prohibition to
kill, if the circumstances are sufficiently extreme? In response to an
insinuation that his involvement in the murder stains his hands with
blood, Díaz-Varela retorts, with the sang-froid of a clear conscience,
that “yo no me las he manchado [ . . . ] he llevado todo el cuidado.
Tú no sabes lo que es manchárselas de veras. No sabes lo que delegar
aleja de los hechos” (318). The novel’s plot convolutes a great deal the
seemingly clear-cut moral mandate that one ought not end another’s
life—in Rorty’s terms, Desvern’s death becomes an experimental
metaphor that both Dolz and the reader could decide to literalize
into a different conception of ethical truth. The novel’s picture of
ethics thus becomes increasingly aleatory, with contingent encounters
and accidental circumstances unsettling the straightforwardness of
causality and moral judgment. The unfolding of the plot also forces
the reader to reconsider the breadth of linguistic meaning, such as the
distinction between the intentionality of ‘murder’ and the potentially
involuntary nature of ‘homicide’.
Using Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as a point of departure, a young
Marías constructs a theory of situational truth in El monarca del tiempo
(1978). Marías first extracts from his reading of the tragedy a series of
aperçus linked to two fundamental narrative conventions: “no hay más
que una verdad” at a single moment in a story, and at the conclusion
of a work “resplandece siempre la verdad” (“Fragmento” 438). Marías
argues that Julius Caesar puts forth two truths regarding the legality
of Caesar’s murder: one articulated by Marcus Brutus and another

In Marías’s novel Corazón tan blanco (1992) a similar drama is played out between
contingent encounter and the ethical obligation to the dead. The work’s protagonist,
Juan, runs across a family friend and the acquaintance lets it slip that his father’s second
wife—the narrator’s aunt—committed suicide soon after her wedding. He also reveals
unwittingly that Juan’s father had, in fact, been married to still another woman that
suspiciously died young.
388 William Viestenz

by Marcus Antonius in separate speeches directed toward the Roman

populace. The two ethical perspectives of Caesar’s death thus follow
the aforementioned narrative conventions by existing as two separate
temporal unities—Brutus’s discourse precedes Antonius’s. Addition-
ally, the timing of the speeches decides the questionable legitimacy of
Caesar’s murder: “lo último cronológicamente es el discurso de Marco
Antonio [ . . . ] y es su verdad, en tanto que última, la que prevalece”
(445–46). Shakespeare’s play demonstrates the charismatic nature of
determining moral truth, which cannot be objectively picked up and
exhibited in the same way that discovering a lost city on the ocean’s
bottom would prove the existence of Atlantis. Indeed, in Julius Caesar
the prohibition to assassinate is less a transcendental truth than the
result of one man’s persuasion and the subsequent credence that
Rome’s body politic accords Antonius’s impassioned words.
Marías next observes that a culture’s history, like a body of fiction,
comprises a series of ‘temporal unities’ that each possesses its own
self-evident truths. For this reason, “habremos de convenir en que
resulta muy aventurado (si no decididamente insensato, al menos en
un escenario) hacer afirmaciones que pretendan pasar por verdaderas
con total independencia de tiempo y espacio” (454). The acquiescence
of one temporal unity to another, such as the Baroque’s yielding to the
Enlightenment, challenges precepts that previously appeared sacred
and beyond reproach. For the purposes of the present discussion,
the changing temporal units of Los enamoramientos problematizes the
statement ‘murder is morally impermissible independent of time and
space’. The novel concludes, however, without offering a convinc-
ing resolution in the same fashion as Marcus Antonius’s speech in
Julius Caesar’s third act. This grants unto morality’s transcendental
truth a significant degree of uncertainty—the reader never receives
a persuasive harangue on the virtuousness or iniquity of Díaz-Varela’s
actions, in part because Dolz—a homodiegetic narrator—never learns
whether or not Desvern was truly ill. The question of whether or
not certain circumstances present an ethical obligation that trumps
murder therefore remains open at the novel’s vertiginous conclusion.
Even if Desvern had demanded an untimely death, and Díaz-Varela
acted upon his friend’s insistence, Marías’s novel refuses to speculate
on how one ought to choose between competing moral obligations.
Unlike in Julius Caesar, in the plot of Los enamoramientos, everyday
life’s papyrus of recorded history contains no stable conclusion and,
consequently, no prevailing, unalienable truths that benefit from
finality—‘lo último’—and the impossibility of future ‘presents’.
M  L N 389

Contingency at once determines the conclusion of a historical

moment and the recodification of ethical doctrine. Marías’s essay
¿Cuándo se acaba un momento presente y empieza otro? [ . . . ] será de
duración variable según cada individuo y cada circunstancia, habida cuenta
de que se trata del establecimiento de una división que por su naturaleza
siempre será azarosa, ficticia, arbitraria y subjetiva. (“Fragmento” 462–463)

Unlike the interconnected flow of Henri Bergson’s durée,5 Marías’s

momento presente is a finite spool of time detached from the past that
extends outward at variable lengths, and concludes in an unpredict-
able fashion. Taking this thought a step further, one could assert that
chance also predicates the circumstances pursuant to certain moral
perspectives. Los enamoramientos makes the leap that is only implicit
in El monarca del tiempo’s analysis of Julius Caesar, and Dolz’s imagined
conversation between Díaz-Varela and Miguel Desvern regarding the
latter’s cancer diagnosis is exemplary in this respect. Díaz-Varela, in
response to Desvern’s permission to take up with his widowed wife,
retorts: “nunca logramos estar seguros de qué va a sernos vital ni de
a quién vamos a dar importancia. Nuestras convicciones son pasaje-
ras y endebles, hasta las que consideramos más fuertes” (122).6 In
the future, when the present moment’s spool of time concludes, so
will the strongest of moral convictions and ethical obligations. The
contingency of history, however, veils in darkness the exact content
of humankind’s prospective moral truths and the moment when
they cease to be absolute. The proposition that chance undercuts
the possibility of transcendental truth reappears in the novel Negra
espalda del tiempo (1998), as Grohmann has asserted: “no se le puede
conceder importancia ninguna a nada de lo que sucede y no sucede
en el mundo, porque todo es producto de esas ‘combinaciones sin
jerarquía’” (91). Building on Grohmann’s analysis, I will assert that a

For Bergson, pure duration is “the form which the succession of our conscious states
assumes when our ego lets itself live, when it refrains from separating its present state
from its former states” (100).
Faber and Navajas have argued that Marías’s fiction constitutes a ‘post-postmodern’
intent to overcome the relativity of meaning and belief by “hacer construciones cohesivas
del sujeto” (Navajas 83). Faber puts forth that the Marían narrator, “asustado ante la
diferencia infinita [ . . . ] va en busca de lo idéntico y esencial. Se refugia en la postura
didáctica y pedante del que pontifica verdades inamovibles” (199). Los enamoramientos,
in this respect, steps backward, returning to a firmly postmodern stance where ethical
truth only remains cohesive within its proper temporal moment. In the novel, Dolz
maintains a didactic posture; however, the only universality that she identifies is the
human subject’s tendency to subsume moral rectitude to circumstantial utilitarianism.
390 William Viestenz

subject’s consciousness of contingency demands a reappraisal of ethi-

cal judgment and an awareness of its dependence on the worldview
of the present historical moment.
Scholarship has only briefly touched on the notion that contingency
situates Marías’s work within a liberal mindset that problematizes ethi-
cal ‘truth’. García, in an analysis of the judicial argot found throughout
the Tu rostro mañana triptych, comments on a tragic situation in which
a stable ethical foundation ultimately trumps chance. During World
War II the wife of Peter Wheeler, Valerie, plants information in Nazi
Germany that unwittingly leads to the death of her friend. During
the ongoing war effort, Valerie’s participation appears just; after the
conflict, once peacetime temporality returns, “se ha visto que el filo
de las palaras provocó la tragedia de otros y, de rebote, generó en ella
el sentimiento de haber cometido una injusticia injustificable” (266).
Valerie’s words, once unleashed, set in motion a series of events with
grave ethical consequences. As García argues, the woman refuses to
create a narrative context differentiating times of war and peace due
to “una exigencia moral” (265), which provokes a guilt that leads to
her suicide, similar to Teresa in Corazón tan blanco. Valerie, as I will
soon show, functions as an ideal counterpart to Dolz and Díaz-Varela,
both of whom resort to contingency in order to deconstruct traditional
morality systems altogether and detach guilt from their actions.
In another critique of Tu rostro mañana (2002), Herzberger also
hones in on the plot’s entanglement of ethics and contingency. Val-
erie’s experience demonstrates that words take on a life of their own
after leaving the subject’s mouth, meaning that in certain situations
silence is more ethical than narrative. For Herzberger, this is part of
the novel’s code of ethics, which warns against “the unintentional
disclosure of secrets through careless talk [ . . . ] but includes as
well the purposeful effort to cause harm to others, with subsequent
unintended consequences for those whose lives are incorporated into
their own” (206). In Los enamoramientos, the moral reprehensibility of
purposeful harm loses all meaning once one accepts that any given
action, regardless of whether it is careless, leads to outcomes whose
distance from the subject often precludes knowledge of immorality.
The novel, as I will put forth, also challenges the autonomous nature
of the individual subject, placing in doubt that one can even presume
to possess full agency and trust that the refusal to speak can have
ethical advantages.
Throughout the intellectual history of ethics, writers have consis-
tently argued that human nature allows access to an ethical foundation
M  L N 391

within the self that is, in opposition to Marías’s conception of truth,

independent of time and space. In Ancient Greek philosophy, areté,
or virtue, constitutes the crux of an ethical life. For Socrates, living
the good life meant deriving one’s inner virtues through self-reflective
knowledge —the dictum to know thyself was an ethical program. In
Plato’s “Meno,” the namesake of the dialogue interrogates Socrates
as to whence one acquires virtue. Virtue, according to Socrates, forms
part of the soul, which because it is immortal “can recollect the things
it knew before, both about virtue and other things” (“Meno” 880).
Whatever virtue comprises, whether justice, courage, or some other
concept, it is knowable through a metaphysical, a priori part of the
self, and requires no deliberation with a broader community.7
Aristotle, a few decades later, argued that the highest good to which
humankind can aspire is happiness—“activity in accordance with
virtue” (NE 194). A life well lived thus demands progressive motion
toward a supreme goal. The activity that proffers the optimal level
of happiness is contemplation, “the highest activity, intellect being
the highest element in us, and its objects are the highest objects of
knowledge” (194–95). As with Socrates, reflection is essential, but
unlike the writings of his teacher, Plato, Aristotle argues against the
possibility of acquiring virtue—of which there are two types—through
non-empirical recollection. Virtues of the intellect originate through
teaching; virtues of character are only graspable through habituation
(ethos). An ethical life is, literally, a life of habit, and requires that
humankind live in accordance with the parts of the soul that contain
reason “in itself” and “partake in reason in a way” (NE 19).8 Here
again, reason possesses an independence from time and space, but
requires timed contemplation in order to unfold.
After the advent of Christianity, Augustinian ethics maintains an
emphasis on the pursuit of happiness as the highest good, but virtue
becomes a gift from God rather than the merely recollected content
of an autonomous, rational soul (319). In the thirteenth century, St.
Thomas Aquinas resurrects the Aristotelian notion of ethics as a habit,
arguing for a life where the soul moves closer to perfect happiness
through dispositions that correspond to God’s order. The human

In the “Gorgias” dialogue, Socrates stresses again that judgment in the afterlife rests
on how well one has recollected the inner virtues within the soul. A “pious life,” in the
end, results from a life “devoted to truth” (868).
Aristotle notes that “virtues, however, we acquire by first exercising them. The same
is true with skills, since what we need to learn before doing, we learn by doing” (NE 23).
For an excellent comparison of Platonic and Aristotelian ethics, see Julián Marías 42–80.
392 William Viestenz

will is tasked with moving the soul toward “final and perfect happi-
ness”, which “can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine
Essence” (Aquinas 601). Aquinas thus co-opts Aristotle’s concept of
habituation and the progressive motion toward a supreme goal as
the basis of a life well lived. Ethics remains a system of dispositions
dictated by reason, with the qualifier that transcendental truth origi-
nates in God.
In the throes of the Enlightenment, Kant reduces the ethical system
of Antiquity and the Middle Ages to one fundamental question: “how
ought one live?” The subject learns what he or she must categorically
do by reaching within the self and recollecting the moral knowledge
elucidated by the precepts of practical reason. In a Platonic sense,
Kant’s moral principles are both universal and independent of all
subjectivity, yet are localized within an individual’s consciousness:
principles of morality function as the “formal supreme determining
ground of the will regardless of all subjective differences” (CPR 29).
Rather than thinking of morality as concordance with a supreme good,
Kant conceptualizes the precepts of practical reason as fully formed
within the self and, famously, obligatory (the categorical imperative).
As Kant continues, a “heteronomy of choice [ . . . ] not only does not
ground any obligation at all but instead is opposed to the principle
of obligation and to the morality of the will” (30).
One can glean a couple of commonalities in all of the aforemen-
tioned philosophies. First, ethical and moral knowledge never depend
on deliberation with a broader community—the self-sufficient indi-
vidual possesses an auto-didactic aptitude for reason. Practical reason,
a vision of the Divine Essence, a recollection of the Platonic Idea, and
gifts from God are either situated within the soul or acquired expe-
rientially by the sole individual. Secondly, moral precepts are never
arbitrary—living a life in accordance with virtue or moral obligation
presupposes that human actions cannot modify the immutable good.
All transcendental truth serves to provide an anchor against change,
granting to human affairs a stability that is absolutely invulnerable to
contingency. Virtuousness, as in Socrates’s thought, or the universal
knowledge of practical reason in Kant, functions as the objective givens
that contrast with the finitude, mutability, and weakness of the self.
Beyond the realm of philosophy and within the contingent practice
of everyday life, however, these philosophical premises crumble under
the weight of the exceptional situations wrought by reality—a phenom-
enon redolent of Marías’s novels and short stories. Everyday life, in
Marías’s texts, tends to present extreme situations unexpectedly, which
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often become the best scenarios for negotiating moral questions. In

the short story “Prismáticos rotos” (1992), for example, a bodyguard
informs a man that he encounters by chance at the horse track that
either he or his colleague plan to assassinate the man in their charge.
The guard feels no danger in communicating this tidbit, since “a nadie
le gusta meterse en berenjenales; si va usted con el cuento, para usted
los líos y las molestias” (55). At first glance, such a phrase appears
inane because it insinuates that inconvenience and fear would trump
the obligation to halt a murder. Nevertheless, the story’s narrator soon
ruminates that “de pronto me vi deseando que un hombre hubiera
muerto, que su jefe ya hubiera muerto [ . . . ] para que no tuviera él
que matarlo” (56). If the bodyguard’s colleague had already commit-
ted the act, the narrator, who feels no particular affection for a man
he just met, would not be in the least bit responsible for that man’s
demise since there would be no obligation to prevent a future crime.
To cite one further example, in the novel Mañana en la batalla
piensa en mí (1994) the contingency of death leads to moral decisions
that require choosing between several competing, mutually exclusive
obligations. The novel’s protagonist, Víctor Francés, accepts a dinner
invitation to the home of a woman, Marta Téllez, whose husband is
out of town. After putting Téllez’s young child to bed, the woman dies
suddenly while she and the narrator are together in the bedroom. In
the chaos that ensues Marta’s sudden expiration, a phone call arrives
from another man with whom Téllez conducted an extra-marital
affair. Francés finds himself in an unresolvable conundrum in which
he must choose what is best for a number of individuals: himself, the
sleeping child who no longer has a caretaker present, Marta’s family
and friends, and finally, the destruction that knowledge of her adul-
tery would wreak on her in absentia spouse. Francés simply decides to
leave after setting out food for the child and removing the answering
machine’s tape, protecting the husband from his spouse’s infidelity:
“ya no podía pensar en lo que sería mejor o más conveniente para mí
o para ella o para Deán [the spouse] o el niño, estaba agotado, dejé
todo como estaba” (76). The circumstances created by a random series
of events not only present conflicting duties, but also materialize at
such a breakneck speed that one cannot, in medias res, partake in the
speculative contemplation that Aristotle believed to be the privileged
domain for determining life’s best courses of action.
Nowhere in Marías’s oeuvre, however, does the contingency of plot
conform so well to the psychological drama that takes place within the
394 William Viestenz

minds of its fictional characters as in Los enamoramientos.9 Dolz and Díaz-

Varela represent archetypal iterations of Rorty’s liberal citizen through
their hyper-awareness of the potent role that chance plays in reality’s
unfolding. They both stress repeatedly that their acquaintance’s demise
was not the result of their own direct involvement, but merely the
conclusion of a contingent sequence. Díaz-Varela, for example, insists
that if life is entirely ruled by chance, then the concept of ‘destiny’
loses all meaning and every death—even suicides—should be thought
of as random events: “nadie objeta la fecha de su nacimiento, luego
tampoco habría de objetar la de su muerte, igualmente debida a un
azar. Hasta las violentas, hasta los suicidios, son debidos a un azar”
(339–40). By this logic, no crime—or action, for that matter—could
truly be premeditated because the circumstances under which a sub-
ject decides to kill have an indefinite origin and implicate a number
of actors. This is precisely how Díaz-Varela depicts Miguel Desvern’s
death to Dolz: “Claro que era una tragedia, como para cualquiera.
Pero él siempre fue muy consciente de que si estamos aquí es por
una inverosímil conjunción de azares, y que del término de eso no se
puede protestar” (339). By Díaz-Varela’s logic, one cannot protest the
conjunction of accidents that hurtles a subject toward a decision with
serious moral import. The propulsion of history forces Díaz-Varela to
flick a domino that ends in his friend’s death, but the conjunction of
events that set the conditions of possibility for the quandary exceeds
his sole control. Against Socrates, Díaz-Varela insinuates that one can-
not choose to pursue the good life; life, rather, inadvertently thrusts
an individual into impossible moral dilemmas.
A frequently cited phrase taken from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “she
should have died hereafter,” leads Dolz down a similarly slippery slope
concerning the timing of death.10 At the point that one considers

The protagonist of Tu rostro mañana, Jacobo Deza, also the narrator of Todas las almas
(1989) and a self-described “intérprete de vidas,” exploits the contingency of history
to his benefit (32). He possesses the ability to describe the shape of ‘tomorrow’s faces’
based on “sus inclinaciones y caracteres y sus capacidades de aguante; de su maleabili-
dad y su sumisión” (32). In a culture where the future’s uncertainty fuels high anxiety,
Deza fulfills a key function, especially to British spy operatives.
Macbeth’s phrase comes during a well-known soliloquy spoken just after learning
of the Queen’s death. The harangue’s first few lines: “She should have died hereafter;
/ There would have been a time for such a word.— / to-morrow, and to-morrow, and
to-morrow, / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, / To the last syllable of recorded
time” (882). Purporting that someone ‘ought’ to die another day ascribes to fate the
power to fix events. Insisting on an ‘appropriate’ time and place for expiration proves
to be an inconsequential endeavor because each human life, until the end of recorded
history, will inevitably creep forward at a petty pace toward death.
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moral truth illusory due to chance, temporal truth quickly follows

suit. This implies that in the absence of destiny or fortune, nothing
predetermines when an action must occur. Taken to an extreme, Dolz
concludes that nothing obliges one’s death to occur at any point in the
future, disproving Macbeth’s supposition and making ‘life expectancy’
an oxymoronic notion:
Qué quiere decir ‘a partir de ahora’ o ‘de ahora en adelante’, si el ahora
es por naturaleza cambiante, qué significa ‘en otro tiempo’ si no hay más
que un tiempo y es continuo y no se parte y se va pisando los talones
eternamente, impaciente y sin objetivo. (216)

In essence, Dolz cannot justify a mandate against murder by arguing

that the other person’s life ought to expire at a later date, because
history lacks a set script. In this instance, a work of fiction, Macbeth,
rather than providing convincing arguments in favor of resolving a
complicated moral quandary, only discomfits Dolz further. Reality,
when massed opposite the neat finitude of fiction—and philosophical
treatises, I might add—returns to consciousness the exceptions and
disjunctions that humankind set aside in order to create abstractions
and universal concepts. Here, one is reminded of Borges’s Funes:
“Pensar es olvidar diferencias, es generalizar, abstraer” (490).
A logical conclusion to Díaz-Varela’s adherence to a ‘conjunción
de azares’ is a disbelief in the autonomy of any one decision. With-
out the freedom to deliberate the virtues of a course of action, an
individual cannot bear complete moral responsibility for outcomes,
meaning that contingency, taken to a theoretical extreme, precludes
the very notion of personal decisionistic autonomy. Kant believed
that moral obligation—the innate tool one could appeal to regarding
moral questions—implied the freedom of the individual. A subject’s
recognition of the obligation to do something is simultaneously an
acknowledgment of the freedom to then conform to or ignore the
mandates of practical reason.11 Against Kant, Marías’s novel posits that
the collusion of chance precludes an individual’s ability to act freely,
which subverts classical theories of ethics that presuppose a non-
compromised subject. On a much more satirical note, Marías strikes
a similar chord in a 2010 El País Semanal column that criticizes civil

Kant demonstrates a moral obligation’s implication of freedom by differentiating
between actions from duty and actions in accordance with duty. A decision only pos-
sesses moral import if the agent derives no simultaneous advantage from following a
mandate. In this respect, a suicidal man’s preservation of his life is a moral decision
from duty, whereas those who relish in living persevere according to duty (FMM 14).
396 William Viestenz

lawsuits for frequently attempting to divert clear-cut responsibility for

undesirable outcomes onto innocent intermediaries. He risibly con-
cludes that “no me cabe duda de que llegaremos a esto: me trajeron
al mundo, ¿qué culpa tengo yo de lo que hago? Que carguen con ella
mis padres” (“A quién” 241).
Díaz-Varela’s notion of responsibility also establishes a moral rela-
tivism whereby blame is lessened the greater the distance between
an actor and an event. Because Desvern’s murder results from a
long, accidental chain of gratuitous encounters, moral responsibility
only becomes visible just prior to the homicide once the wronged
father picks up and uses the knife. This, in effect, demonstrates the
inadequacy of law, which is often only concerned with the falling of
an event’s final dominoes. In the second part, Dolz excuses her own
responsibility to the dead post-mortem by reasoning that she never
picked up and handled the butterfly knife used in the homicide.
“Qué responsabilidad tengo yo en la conjunción de las casualidades
[ . . . ] Lo único de lo que uno es culpable es de coger una arma y
utilizarla con sus propias manos” (221). Díaz-Varela, concurring with
Dolz, expunges his own blame due to a third-degree separation from
the homicide. When so much is left up to “la acción de otros, tanto
al azar, tanta distancia,” one is capable of saying: “¿Qué tengo que
ver yo con esto, con lo que ha hecho un trastornado en la calle, a
una hora y en una zona seguras?” (326). Upon first overhearing the
discussion between Díaz-Varela and his fixer in an adjoining room,
Dolz herself ponders similar questions: “Hasta qué punto habían
tenido certeza, hasta qué punto eran responsables [ . . . ] era seguro
que él [Díaz-Varela] no se había manchado las manos de sangre, con
la de su mejor amigo, aquel hombre que tan bien me caía a distancia”
(210). Dolz absolves her lover of blame through his own distance
from the event, and further separates herself from involvement by
perceiving the victim to be a mere acquaintance in passing. Dolz
and Díaz-Varela’s moral relativism actually contradicts their previous
theorization of contingency and the autonomy of individual judgment.
If every decision results from a string of adventitious concurrences,
an intermediary role ought to carry the same lack of responsibility as
that which directly precedes an end action. In fact, one could reverse
the proposition and argue that distance from the event offers a bet-
ter perspective, and therefore, a better vantage point from which to
apply rational thought to a phenomenon. But when moral truth lacks
a foundation independent of time and space, such contradictions and
M  L N 397

paradoxes cease to bear meaning because truth is always under the

aegis of subjective interpretation.
From the perspective of Kantian morality, Marías’s novel suggests
that the entire dichotomy separating means and ends is fallacious
since one can never truly know what will result from a given action.
Díaz-Varela may have set the stage for the mentally unstable father
to victimize Desvern, but the situation could have played out in any
number of ways. A fellow vagabond, for example, could have robbed
the knife and committed a different crime in another locale. The
maligned father might have chosen to murder somebody else—which
nearly occurs when he attacks a chauffeur believing the man to be
Desvern. The historical development of ethics and morality earnestly
instills the belief that the subject can freely deduce rightness by
appealing to a transcendental, non-egoistic power that returns either
an appropriate action or obligatory mandate that best fits a given situ-
ation. In Marías’s world, such a transcendental guarantor of truth is
absent, and the world itself is far more complicated than the simplistic,
black-and-white world of abstract philosophy. The phenomenology of
contingency sketched in Los enamoramientos thus deems an important
temporal unity of moral philosophy, rooted in the Enlightenment, to
be extinct.
A pending question that I will answer in the final third of the essay
is how the current momento presente, which Rorty argues produces citi-
zens aware of the contingency of their existence, justifies questions of
ethical ‘truth’. The answer, put very simplistically, is to shift questions
of ethics from the autonomous self to a broader sphere of public
deliberation. Los enamoramientos, as I will now show, does not directly
propose this shift but very successfully outlines the limits of morality
within the closed, private realm of the self’s everyday relationships.
The various encounters between Díaz-Varela and Dolz demonstrate
that the influence of others guides the development of a moral
outlook to a high degree. Contrary to the claims of classical moral
philosophy, ethical deliberation tends to not involve a private appeal
to inner reason. First of all, any deliberation of good and evil within
the mind of a single individual inevitably gives way to a power of
sophistic autosuggestion that will appeal to circumstance and not to
universal moral obligation. Díaz-Varela, at the very least, acknowledges
this tendency: “¿Por qué crees que los políticos mandan tropas a las
guerras que declaran, si es que se molestan aún en declararlas? [ . . . ]
en todos los casos hay una autosugestión enorme, que proporciona la
398 William Viestenz

mediación y la distancia de lo que ocurre, y el privilegio de no presen-

ciarlo” (319). In this circumstance, a geographical displacement from
a theater of war assists in creating a false consciousness of innocence,
despite that a politician, for example, indirectly causes a multitude
of deaths through war declarations. The politician, moreover, can
use a distinct moral claim—whatever it is that makes a war ‘just’—to
trump a universal mandate against killing innocents. Autosuggestion
thus plays a key role in adapting moral truth to circumstance, because
the self will tend to bend that which is ethically right according to
convenience and pragmatic utility. Indeed, viewing contingency as
history’s motor factors heavily in the characters’ autosuggestive ethical
deliberation in Los enamoramientos.
Beyond the autonomous confines of the self, the persuasion and
charisma of others also factor into one’s ethical worldview. Dolz’s
insistence on ‘las acciones de otros’ points to this complication: the
myth of an autonomous self that auto-didactically grasps right or
wrong through practical reason independent of outside influence.
Autosuggestion and cognitive dissonance certainly occur within the
consciousness of a single individual, but the reasoning that goes into
such interior deliberations often originates from the exterior. In Dolz’s
case, Díaz-Varela is her principle outside source, and his commentary
regarding moral responsibility and blame tends to reappear within
the protagonist’s own dialogue throughout the novel. At the story’s
conclusion, for example, Dolz happens upon Díaz-Varela and Luisa
Alday—now a married couple—in a restaurant. In lieu of making
a previous wrong right, and revealing to Luisa the truth of her ex-
husband’s demise, Dolz maintains the charade and repeats to herself
several observations previously made by Díaz-Varela, including: “los
crímenes de la vida civil están dosificados y esparcidos, uno aquí, otro
allá; al darse en forma de goteo parece que clamen menos al cielo”
(398). This statement is a verbatim repetition of a line of dialogue
spoken by Díaz-Varela to Dolz in the second part of the novel (174).
At the story’s end, Dolz genuinely disbelieves Díaz-Varela’s subterfuge,
yet excuses his actions because his potentially immoral decision to kill
was a one-time affair promulgated by passion for Alday. Singular events
“claman menos al cielo” in comparison with serial killings and large-
scale destruction, which implies that moral responsibility hinges on
magnitude and predictable repetition. Randomness, in other words,
cancels out a portion of guilt.
M  L N 399

In terms of Dolz’s obligation to the precepts of justice and the rec-

tification of Desvern’s unsettled death, words from both Díaz-Varela
and Honoré de Balzac’s novella, Colonel Chabert, enter into her con-
sciousness while approaching the table. She notes that if Díaz-Varela
and the protagonist of Balzac’s story, the attorney Derville, were right
about anything it was that “el número de crímenes impunes supera
con creces el de los castigados; del de los ignorados y ocultos ya no
hablemos” (398). Here, Balzac’s story about a military man’s quest
to redeem his stature after being presumed fallen in battle coincides
with Dolz’s reality. As Derville notes at the novella’s conclusion, “I have
seen crimes that justice is powerless to rectify. In the end, none of
the horrors that novelists believe they’ve invented can compare to the
truth” (100). Modernity’s justice systems, and its codification of laws
that reflect moral truths, cannot possibly account for the contingent
circumstances that reality inevitably presents. An important distinction
is that Balzac’s story never wavers on questions of what is ethical or
otherwise; Derville never doubts that Colonel Chabert’s poverty, loss of
identity, and diminishment of stature are a grave injustice. Essentially,
the novella’s tone of moral certainty situates the work in a momento
presente that contrasts sharply with that of Los enamoramientos. By ref-
erencing Balzac within his own literary opus, Marías adroitly signals
the distinct socio-ethical consciousness of the twenty-first century.
The concept of love figures prominently in the impossibility of
self-sufficient moral contemplation in Marías’s novel. Dolz becomes
increasingly skeptical of Díaz-Varela’s narrative, which coincides with
falling out of affection with her lover and contrasts with her blind
defense of his actions in the work’s second part. As I cited earlier, Dolz,
while learning of the murder’s intricate set-up, uses an awareness of
the contingent nature of reality in order to excuse Díaz-Varela’s inter-
mediary role in the murder. Even after their relationship cools, Dolz
nevertheless replicates her former flame’s discourse, as though it were
now a part of her own subconscious, in the novel’s final scene. Earlier
in the novel, Marías’s narrator conceptualizes amorous enchantment
as a seduction that affects both emotional and intellectual perspectives:
Cuando alguien está enamorado, o más precisamente cuando lo está
una mujer y además es al principio y el enamoramiento todavía posee el
atractivo de la revelación, por lo general somos capaces de interesarnos
por cualquier asunto [ . . . ] No solamente de fingirlo para agradarle
[ . . . ] sino de prestar verdadera atención y dejarnos contagiar de veras
por lo que quiera que él sienta y transmita. (178)
400 William Viestenz

Dolz’s gendered perspective of a woman’s increased susceptibility to

her partner’s influence is provocative, and is fodder for another essay
entirely.12 In an abstract sense, however, which I will apply to both
sexes, Dolz’s comment underlines the incapacity of erotic complicity
to escape its subjective perspectivism. Marías echoes this sentiment
in the El País interview. Love weakens its participants by demanding
unconditional support: “uno se siente a veces desarmado, empieza a
dejar pasar cosas, a ser víctima de la incondicionalidad” (“La ausencia y
el azar”). Unconditional dedication is not itself undesirable; perceiving
a loved one as the limit point of one’s moral judgment indeed tends to
be problematic. Martha Nussbaum makes a similar point, stating that
“love is in its essence a relationship with a particular person, and that
the particular features of the other person are intrinsic to its being
the love that it is” (334). Love, in essence, cannot be greater than the
sum of the Other’s parts and is consequently not a pathway toward
absolute truth. Resolving questions of universal import, therefore,
demands exceeding the limits of both the Self and one’s immediate
personal relationships.
A loved one’s charisma seduces and enchants the Other, which
diminishes appeals to reason when making judgments. This calls
to mind Max Weber’s distinction between charismatic and objec-
tive authority, a topical comparison if one considers the stronger
of two lovers to be a fetishistic figure. A charismatic hero, such as a
revolutionary or religious prophet, “knows of no abstract legal codes
and statutes [ . . . ] Its ‘objective’ law emanates from the highly per-
sonal experience of heavenly grace and from the god-like strength
of the hero” (24). In Los enamoramientos, abstract codes and statutes
of morality wither under the ‘highly personal’ influence wielded by
Dolz’s charismatic hero. The work treads in the intimate realm of the
domestic sphere, a space easily conquered by a charismatic person’s
worldviews and beliefs. Indeed the place where Dolz most senses
Díaz-Varela’s imposition of moral perspective is the narrow, restricted
space of the latter’s apartment—far removed from the influence of
broader, more pluralistic debates on ethics and morality. A moment
that occurs after the acquaintance’s visit to the apartment reflects
physically Díaz-Varela’s ‘contagious’ influence over Dolz’s thoughts
and feelings. Having placed his hand over Dolz’s shoulder, the nar-

For an excellent survey of the relationship between masculine authority, violence,
and the fragmentation of the female body in Marías’s fiction, see Cuñado (“Una
historia familiar”).
M  L N 401

rator notes that “la noté como un peso, como si me cayera encima
un enorme trozo de carne” (234).
As a product of the twenty-first century, however, the novel’s lifeworld
exists within a social construct where the ‘enorme trozo de carne’ of
a single individual cannot single-handedly set the community’s stan-
dard for moral comportment. To qualify this statement, I will briefly
outline the major points of two key thinkers. First, Richard Rorty,
having unleashed a theory of contingency that declares null and
void philosophical foundations, considers the possibility of a socially
binding moral code within liberal society. Rather than viewing moral-
ity as an extension of the divinized portion of the soul, Rorty argues
that “liberal society is one whose ideals can be fulfilled by persua-
sion rather than force, by reform rather than revolution, by the free
and open encounters of present linguistic and other practices with
suggestions for new practices” (60). A society, in full awareness that
its ‘present moment’ arrived via contingency, maintains its notion
of morality by balancing the good of the whole with each citizen’s
right to a private existence. The ethical ‘good’ thus becomes ‘that
which we, as a collective, condone’ rather than ‘that which is true,
independent of time and space’. Metaphorical shifts to codified ways
of speaking and thinking only become literalized at the point that
the majority of society accepts the change. Additionally, if a society
wishes to carry over a truth from one historical moment to the next,
the effort must be collective, voluntary, and willful, since truth is not a
naturally occurring species. Marías, in El monarca del tiempo, echoes this
point: “la verdad en cuestión habría más bien de estarse reafirmando
incansable e indefinidamente en cada momento presente en que se
la quisiera afirmar” (457).
Similar to Rorty, the philosopher Bernard Williams argues for the
abolishment of Kantian moral obligation in favor of viewing ethics as
the product of a community’s moral deliberation. It is illusory to think
of a consideration of moral obligation as an autonomous, self-sufficient
affair; “since ethical considerations are in question, the agent’s conclu-
sions will not usually be solitary or unsupported, because they are part
of an ethical life that is to an important degree shared with others”
(191). In this respect, one cannot choose to live outside of the moral-
ity system by ignoring the validity of a society’s ethical foundations.
At the point that one derives benefits from the social, and bears the
distinction of citizenship, he or she is committed to the binding ethical
articulations of the broader community. Dolz misses this point, which
perhaps explains her inability to escape her own inner equivocations.
402 William Viestenz

While deliberating, after overhearing Díaz-Varela’s revelation, if she

should talk with Alday, the protagonist identifies herself as belonging
to a class of people that feels no obligation to reveal perpetrators of
crimes: “quienes sentimos esa aversión preferimos a veces ser injustos
y que algo quede sin castigo antes que vernos como delatores, no
lo podemos soportar—al fin y al cabo la justicia no es cosa nuestra”
(258). This attitude, need it be said, belies the good of the broader
community and perhaps even the good of those who do not buy into
the notion of justice, since the unpunished miscreants might just as
easily victimize them one day. A culture’s moral code, in a sense, is
an obligatory rider of the social contract.
The temporality of a society with knowledge of its contingent exis-
tence, in other words, represents a distinct momento presente that decon-
structs the long-held truths of other antiquated morality systems. Los
enamoramientos helps the reader to arrive at this transition by showing
how an awareness of contingency precludes a self-sufficient appeal to
a priori moral foundations. Additionally, the novel, by outlining the
individual’s susceptibility to autosuggestion and the Other’s charismatic
influence, constructs an argument in favor of more contemporaneous
theories of ethics that privilege an overlapping of social consensus
when deciding on ethical questions. Dolz’s turning to Balzac and
Shakespeare, in a sense, does constitute an appeal to broader ethical
deliberation. The issue, however, is that these two texts are rooted in
historical moments where Classical theories of morality still held sway
and consequently prove unhelpful.
Marías, in El monarca del tiempo, juxtaposes literature’s finality with
the ever-evolving ‘present’ of historical reality. In Los enamoramientos,
Marías extrapolates from reality contingency’s destabilization of
truth, but he fails to locate the novel within its own definite momento
presente—twenty-first century Spain. And in the end, what makes Los
enamoramientos an unquestionably fictional work is its lack of any
articulated moral truth whatsoever, i.e., the book’s failure to explic-
itly endorse a moral philosophy contemporaneous with its cultural
setting. The ethical questions that Dolz ponders—contingency’s
relationship to moral responsibility, one’s obligation to the dead,
and so forth—are all highly pertinent debates within contemporary
Iberian culture. The novel unfolds, after all, within the environs of
twenty-first century Spain, and the culture thus constitutes the work’s
‘broader public sphere’. And in this social and juridical space, a work
based on reality like Alejandro Amenábar’s Mar adentro (2004) treats
explicitly the moral responsibility of playing an intermediary role in
M  L N 403

another person’s death, as well as the controversy over euthanasia.

This imbroglio reverberates in the Spanish public sphere’s articulation
of ethics, as evidenced by the 2011 Ley de muerte digna. In terms of
one’s duty toward redeeming history’s injustices and restless ghosts,
the historical memory movement is impossible to overlook. A plethora
of works have treated this subject, which similarly led to a political
articulation of ethical truth in 2007’s Ley de memoria histórica. Dolz, in
other words, might have profitably referred to the ongoing articulation
of normative ethical truths within her own contemporaneous com-
munity, which in a sense makes contingency’s subversion of morality
only possible within the other-worldly vacuum of fiction.13
While Los enamoramientos ultimately justifies appeals to the norma-
tive moral principles of liberal society, the novel nevertheless ren-
ders dubious the very possibility of a stable, objective ethical system.
Contingency, by the logic of Marías’s work, will always call back to
consciousness the exceptions to moral codes and legal frameworks,
which will inevitably alter putatively inalienable truths. Fiction is espe-
cially adept at this recall because its milieu is the chaotic particularity
of everyday life, rather than the universal and predictable realm of
speculative thought. A culture’s penal code certainly attempts to dis-
tinguish between intention and act, between innocent intermediary
and guilty accessory to a crime, and between murder and homicide.
However, the fracture of the subject—which Los enamoramientos outlines
by showing how contingency and charismatic authority diminishes an
individual’s decisionistic autonomy—places in doubt the possibility of
independent ethical judgments. To conclude on a cynical note, this
transforms the liberal public sphere’s ‘overlapping of consensus’ into
a juridical superstructure imposed onto the political subject.
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities


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