Lighting up Spanish history's 'black hole'

Lighting up Spanish history's 'black hole' McGill University

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McGill Reporter
December 7, 2000 - Volume 33 Number 07
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > December 7, 2000 > Lighting up Spanish history's 'black hole'

Lighting up Spanish history's "black hole"

Photo Professor Jesús Pérez-Magallon
PHOTO: Owen Egan

| One of two winners of a new research award in the Faculty of Arts, Hispanic studies professor Jesús Pérez-Magallon is known for his research into a "black hole."

The physics department needn't fear any competition however, for Pérez-Magallón specializes in an overlooked but key area of Spanish history.

The study of Spanish culture tends to focus on the Golden Age of the 16th to late 17th centuries, and the Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries. Pérez-Magallón studies the short period of time between these eras.

"The Golden Age is a period of the most brilliant intellectual, cultural and literary production in Spain. It goes mostly from the mid-15th century to ... about 1680," says Pérez-Magallón. It was during this period that some of Spain's most famous literature was produced, such as Cervantes' Don Quixote and Calderone's Life is a Dream.

The newest Faculty of Arts award is designed to publicly acknowledge its professors' research, which too often remains segregated in the department in which it is done.

Anthropology professor Philip Salzman, who as chair of the research committee suggested the idea of these awards, felt that often, excellent researchers remain unrecognized outside of their own departments.

"It's a happy occasion to be able to come together and be able to recognize and celebrate these achievements," he says, pointing out that while teaching is both relatively high profile and rewarded in the faculty, research is less visible. Salzman feels that it is important that researchers across the Faculty of Arts and beyond be able to appreciate and become more familiar with the research done by others.

Candidates for this award were nominated by the chairs of their respective departments or by their colleagues. There were no strict guidelines to determine who would win. The eventual winners, Professor Jesús Pérez-Magallón and Professor Michael Brecher (a renowned conflict expert profiled in the last issue), come from the Departments of Hispanic Studies and Political Science respectively.

"As it turns out, of the two award winners, one (Brecher) was a senior scholar, and one ... was a younger professor," says Salzman. "It worked out that way, it wasn't the plan, but it was a happy result."

The winners were presented with a certificate, suitable for framing, and a "modest" cheque at a recent faculty meeting in November.

Both Salzman and Professor Michael Maxwell, who chaired the awards jury, insist that it was no easy choice to determine the eventual winners.

"An indication of the difficulty of our situation was that we gave two awards," says Maxwell. "I'd encourage everyone that was nominated this year to try again."

"It used to be said, that after Calderone's death, there was no culture," explains Pérez-Magallón. "Eventually there was a great 'black hole' from 1680 to about 1725. That was the usual view of this period."

However, Pérez-Magallón had other theories. Invited via a "surprise" phone call at his home in Spain to become a visiting professor at McGill in 1991, Pérez-Magallón has made it his mission to "put McGill on the map, internationally" in his area of Hispanic studies. He rapidly rose to become a full professor, and has edited and co-edited several books as well as 34 journal articles.

One of the first books he wrote was on Gregorio Mayans, a significant Golden Age intellectual figure in Spain. It was here, and with his subsequent research on the Enlightenment in Spain, that Pérez-Magallón realized that something important was being overlooked.

"I suggest that from 1675 to 1725 there is a whole new cultural construction in Spain," he says. Far from being a black hole, this period was a time of great change in Spain.

The rationalism associated with Descartes appeared in Spain at this time. According to Pérez-Magallón there was also an interest in developing new literary forms. In addition to this was rising conflict between scientific thought and religion, and new developments in music, architecture and painting. In short, everything that defined the Enlightenment in Spain arose from the ferment of these times.

According to some, the Spanish Enlightenment was triggered by Ignatio Luzan, a poet and dramatist who imported his ideas from Italy. However, Pérez-Magallón insists that it was more a result of the conflicts and new energies already being experienced in Spain.

"It's a romantic approach that individual people make history," he says. "If we don't understand this period, we don't understand the Enlightenment."

Pérez-Magallón's work has been very well received in his field — his publications have been called "obligatory reading" — but the scholar wasn't satisfied by simply publishing his own contributions.

In keeping with his goal to increase McGill's prominence in the field of the Spanish Enlightenment, he arranged a conference on this historical period in 1996, held at McGill.

"These were all big names," he says with evident pride. "We are all inclined to consider this period with a new look."

Michael Maxwell, a professor emeritus with the history department, chaired the jury that eventually gave the award to Professor Pérez-Magallón. He says that both his research interests and publications made him stand out.

"The number of [his] publications is extraordinary," says Maxwell, pointing out that if you include the current book awaiting publication, Pérez-Magallón has published about a book a year.

"The reviewers' comments of his work were extremely laudatory," says Maxwell.

"Not only is he writing about the 17th and 18th centuries, but he's also writing about modern Spanish literature. The breadth of his interests was really quite remarkable."

Though Pérez-Magallón is gratified that he was recognized with this award, he hastens to point out that it is also a credit to the work done in the language departments at McGill.

"I find it significant because it acknowledges the work we're doing in this department, and beyond that, all of the language departments," he says.

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