Cervantes’ Stand Monday, Aug 20 2007 

I finished the first part of Don Quixote a few weeks ago. This is the second time I have attempted what literary critics call, “the first modern novel.” The first time was a little over a year ago and I did not get past the first forty pages. This time I was adamant that I was going to finish and I am glad that I stuck to my resolution. This is, as I have noted below, one of the greatest comedies I have ever read. For example:

The innkeeper told everyone in the inn about the lunacy of his guest, about his standing vigil over his armor and his expectation that he would be dubbed a knight. They marveled at so strange a form of madness and went to watch him from a distance, and saw that with a serene expression he sometimes paced back and forth; at other times, leaning on his lance, he turned his eyes to his armor and did not turn them away again for a very long time. Night had fallen, but the moon was so bright it would compete with the orb whose light it reflected, and therefore everything the new knight did was seen clearly by everyone. Just then it occurred to one of the muledrivers in the inn to water his pack of mules, and for this it was necessary to move Don Quixote’s armor, which was on the trough; our knight, seeing him approach, said in a booming voice:

O thou, whosoever thou art, rash knight, who cometh to touch the armor of the most valiant knight who e’er girded on a sword! Lookest thou to what thou dost and toucheth it not, if thou wanteth not to leave thy life in payment for thy audacity.

The muleteer cared nothing for these words-and it would have been better for him if he had, because it meant caring for his health and well-being; instead, he picked up the armor by the straps and threw it a good distance away. And seeing this, Don Quixote lifted his eyes to heaven and, turning his thoughts – or so it seemed to him to his lady Dulcinea, he said:

Help me, Senora, in this the first affront aimed at this thy servant’s bosom; in this my first challenge letteth not thy grace and protection fail me.

And saying these and other similar phrases, and dropping his shield, he raised his lance in both hands and gave the muledriver so heavy a blow on the head that he knocked him to the ground, and the man was so badly battered that if the first blow had been followed by a second, he would have had no need for a physician to care for his wounds. Having done this, Don Quixote picked up his armor and began to pace again with the same tranquility as before. A short while later, unaware of what had happened – for the first muledriver was still in a daze – a second approached, also intending to water his mules, and when he began to remove the armor to allow access to the trough, without saying a word or asking for anyone’s favor, Don Quixote again dropped his shield and again raised his lance, and did not shatter it but instead broke the head of the second muledriver into more than three pieces because he cracked his skull in at least four places. When they heard the noise, all the people in the inn hurried over, among them the innkeeper. When he saw this, Don Quixote took up his shield, placed his hand on his sword and said:

O beauteous lady, strength and vigor of my submissive heart! This is the moment when though needs must turn the eyes of they grandeur toward this thy captive knight, who awaitheth so great an adventure.

And with this he acquired, it seemed to him, so much courage that if all the muledrivers in the world had charged him, he would not have taken one step backward. (pg.32-33)

I am going to argue (at least through Part One) that the madness of Don Quixote serves as metaphor towards the converts to Christianity. The “madness” of Don Quixote is brought on by the intense reading of books of chivalry. Don Quixote responds to these books so intensely that he is converted. He travels on “adventures” of madness in order to save the downtrodden only to promote more problems than he solves. It should be noted that along the way he entraps Sancho Panza with tales of glory and his own governorship.

Towards the end of Part One, after Don Quixote is captured by his concerned priest and barber and all of the various subplots reach their conclusions, our valiant knight is debating with the canon who is introduced towards Part One’s conclusion:

Is it possible, Senor, that the grievous and idle reading of books of chivalry could have so affected your grace that it has unbalanced your judgment and made you believe that you are enchanted, along with other things of this nature, which are as far from being true as truth is from lies? How is it possible that any human mind could be persuaded that there has exited in the world that infinity of Amadises, and that throng of so many famous knights, so many emperors of Trebizond, so many Felixmartes of Hyrcania, so many palfreys and wandering damsels, so many serpents and dragons and giants, so many unparalleled adventures and different kinds of enchantments, so many battles and fierce encounters, so much splendid attire, so many enamored princesses and squires who are counts and dwarves who are charming, so many love letters, so much wooing, so many valiant women, and, finally, so many nonsensical matters as are contained in books of chivalry? For myself, I can say that when I read them, as long as I do not set my mind to thinking that they are all frivolous lies, I do derive some pleasure from them, but when I realize what they actually are, I throw even the best of them against the wall, I would even toss them in the fire if one were near, and think they richly deserved the punishment, for being deceptive and false and far beyond the limits of common sense, like the founders of new sects and new ways of life, and for giving the ignorant rabble a reason to believe and consider as true all the absurdities they contain. [emphasis mine] (pg. 423)

Don Quixote’s response:

Don Quixote listened very attentively to the canon’s words, and when he saw that he had concluded, he looked at him for a long time and said:

It seems to me, Senor, that the intention of your grace’s discourse has been to persuade me that there have been no knights errant in the world, and that all the books of chivalry are false, untrue, harmful, and of no value to the nation, and that I have done wrong to read them, and worse to believe them, and worse yet to imitate them by setting myself the task of following the extremely difficult profession of knight errantry which they teach, and you deny that there ever were Amadises in the world, whether of Gaul or of Greece, or any of the other knights that fill the writings.

That is precisely what I meant; what you have said is absolutely correct, said the canon.

To which Don Quixote responded:

Your grace also said that these books have done me a good deal of harm, for they turned my wits and put me in a cage, and it would be better for me to alter and change my reading and devote myself to books that are truer and more pleasant and more instructive.

That is true, said the canon. [emphasis mine] (pg 424-425)

I have had conversations with Christian zealots and must say that they have gone similarly to Don Quixote’s conversation with the cannon.

Most hardcore zealot converts are quick to fall back on thousands of examples from the Bible to serve as their refutation to anything said that may contradict their metaphysical belief structure. Don Quixote’s madness is something that the Western world has been struggling against the Christian ethic for two thousand years. To be sure there are “good things” that have evolved from the Christian ethic, but that does not excuse the harm.

Don Quixote’s adventures have him so twisted that he feels that he is the righter of wrongs and triumphant over inanimate objects while for the most part his squire sees the real insanity – to a point. Sancho also wants to believe in the end result, a kingdom for him to rule that his knight will give him so long as he remains faithful in Don Quixote’s abilities as a knight. Sound familiar?

In the end Don Quixote’s madness gets him into more trouble than it is worth, and Sancho also gets his fair share of beatings as a result of keeping faith. So what is Cervantes attempting to explain?

Are we to take away that his Don Quixote is a critique on faith? Is Cervantes attempting to sneak something past the power of the Catholic Church? I believe he is and I believe that what we are shown is the madness of zealous belief that harms the believer with a madness that insulates him from any outside criticism.

I tried that once in college, but I only lasted a couple hours Thursday, Jun 7 2007 

From Chapter 8 of the Edith Grossman translation:

Don Quixote did not wish to eat breakfast because, as has been stated, he meant to live on sweet memories.

Yup: I laughed out loud.

the dreadful and inconceivable adventure of the wind-mills Tuesday, May 29 2007 

The first adventure Don Quixote meets with after enlisting Sancho Panza is with the wind-mills on the plain. The knight recognises them as outrageous giants. The squire politely tries to explain that what is before them are innocent wind-mills, not giants.

“It seems very plain, said the knight, that you are but a novice in adventures….”

Adventures require imagination. Sancho would seem to lack such qualities, though he can easily imagine himself as the governor of an island. So is Don Quixote gripped by madness here? He is certainly possessed, but besides discounting Sancho’s opinion that his intended opponents were wind-mills, he also would not

use the intelligence of his own eyes, tho’ he was very near them….

What other adventures are there to be had if one does not use one’s imagination? Don Quixote attacks, and the first miscreant breaks his lance and overthrows him. Sancho tries to say “I told you so.” But for Don Quixote there is always a logical explanation:

“the affairs of war, are more than anything, subject to change. How much more so, as I believe, nay, am certain, that the sage Freston, who stole my closet and books, has converted those giants into mills, in order to rob me of the honour of their overthrow;”

and always a reason to be positive:

“but, in the end, all his treacherous arts will but little avail against the vigour of my sword.”

The chapter ends oddly, in self-reference, in the middle of another adventure. It is continued in the next chapter of the second book. Does anyone know how this was originally published, all together or in installments? Installments would explain the cliffhanger ending of Book One. Otherwise, why break one adventure into two chapters? Why not end one chapter with the adventure of the wind-mills, and begin a new chapter with the next adventure complete?

we who are called the twelve peers of France Sunday, May 27 2007 

Chapter Seven furthers the plans of the curate and barber to “cure” Don Quixote:

Another remedy which the curate and barber prescribed for the distemper of their friend, was to alter and block up the closet where his books had been kept; that, upon his getting up, he should not find them, and the cause being taken away, the effect might cease….

After his first sally, Don Quixote was in great need of rest. He remains in bed for two days, and of course the first thing he does when he gets up is go to visit his books. He can not find the room, and asks his house-keeper, who was instructed by the curate and barber to reply:

“There are neither books nor closet in this house; for the devil himself has run away with both.” “It was not the devil, cried the neice, but, an inchanter that conveyed himself hither in a cloud, one night after your worship’s departure, and alighting from a dragon on which he was mounted, entered the closet, where I know not what he did, but having staid a very little while, he came flying thro’ the roof, leaving the whole house full of smoke.”

Perhaps some dear reader will be able to explain to me how they intend to cure Don Quixote of his delusions by feeding them? The plan backfires, as Don Quixote responds in the manner that he will conduct himself through the rest of the novel:

“The case then is plain, said the knight, that same sage inchanter is one of my greatest enemies, who bears me a grudge… and for this reason, he endeavours to give me every mortification in his power….”

Nothing will stand in his way, and no defeat or setback will be viewed as such.

As further part of their attempt to bring Don Quixote to reason, the curate and barber converse with him for several days, as a result of which

he observed that the world was in want of nothing so much as of knights-errant, and that in him this honourable order was revived.

In every way, both spiritual and secular, the world is wanting. Who, then, is mad: those who are content, or those who would remedy the situation? Is it madness to want to help others, to do good, even to win glory for the woman one loves? After Don Quixote enlists Sancho Panza as his squire, the chapter ends with his advice to the poor simpleton peasant that wonderfully captures the knight’s bright outlook and high expectations:

“…let not thy soul be so far debased, as to content itself with any thing less than a vice-royalty.”

He is saying one should follow one’s dreams, never compromise one’s principles, and never be satisfied with second-best. Isn’t this the same advice the self-help experts dole out, the same advice, in a hopeful moment when the future appears infinite with possibilities, we give our children today?

in the library of our sagacious hero Friday, May 25 2007 

In A New Theory of Vision (1704), author George Berkeley posits that the brain interprets things by associating the signals received by the sense organs with things the brain already knows. Don Quixote, his mind so saturated with reading, sees a simple inn and interprets it as a castle, sees a windmill and interprets it as a giant, sees a common wench and interprets her as a princess.

Chapter Six we read as reason to believe that Don Quixote has not gone mad. Surely he is mad about tales of chivalry, as one might be Mad About Books. We do not believe he has lost his wits.

“Here, master licentiate, pray take and sprinkle the closet, lest some one of the many enchanters contained in these books, should exercise his art upon us, as a punishment for our burning, and banishing them from the face of the earth.”

Cervantes is making fun of people like the curate and the barber and Don Quixote’s niece, who all believe that books may disorder our brains. Yet even in their disposal of the vile romances, the curate and barber find numerous titles they decide must be spared immolation, and even a few titles which they, too, own. They have read some of these same books, and yet consider themselves as absolutely sane. Don Quixote, they aver, is not.

Romances of chivalry are not the only books judged guilty of so much mischief. At the appearance of numerous volumes of poetry,

“Pray, sir, said the niece, be so good as to order these to be burnt with the rest; for my uncle will no sooner be cured of his knight-errantry, than, by reading these, he will turn shepherd, and wander about the groves and meadows piping and singing. Nay, what is worse, perhaps turn poet, which, they say, is an infectious and incurable distemper.”

God forbid, not a poet! We laugh at their folly, and yet at the beginning of the book, when we are told that the same thing has happened to Don Quixote, we accept it.

If we accept personal responsibility, we deny that a man never would have comitted murder if he had not read about the crime in William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Jack Sheppard. We all choose our actions. Perhaps Don Quixote is the inner child in all of us, acting out the things he has read. Perhaps he seeks these adventures out of pure interest, or to make of himself someone important enough to write about. He chooses his folly and takes it seriously. And still, who can say that he does not yet have his wits about him, and the others missing theirs? Lest we be made fun of as well, we must not accept that his books have infected him with madness.

these agreeable vapours of his unaccountable folly Wednesday, May 23 2007 

We just finished reading the Praise of Folly by Erasmus. We chose the book because the author was quoted from it in Carlos Fuentes’ introduction to our edition of Don Quixote:

The reality of things depends solely on opinion. Everything in life is so diverse, so opposed, so obscure, that we cannot be assured of any truth.

The first sentence of the quote is what intrigued us, because we have spent a good deal of time exploring the dichotomies between reality and fantasy, or truth and fiction. And it turns out that much of what Erasmus has to say about Folly speaks directly to Don Quixote.

To start with, everyone accepts the truth of the well-known saying “Where fact is lacking, fiction is best”, and so children are properly taught from the start the line “To play the fool in season is the height of wisdom”. You can see now for yourselves what a great blessing Folly is….

We have read the first four chapters of the classic Tobias Smollett translation. We must ask ourselves, Is Don Quixote truly mad?

So eager and intangled was our Hidalgo in this kind of history, that he would often read from morning to night, and from night to morning again, without interruption; till at last, the moisture of his brain being quite exhausted with indefatigable watching and study, he fairly lost his wits: all that he had read of quarrels, enchantments, battles, challenges, wounds, tortures, amorous complaints, and other improbable conceits, took full possession of his fancy; and he believed all those romantic exploits so implicitly, that in his opinion, the holy scripture was not more true.

Granting the assumption that the holy scripture is true, we see Don Quixote interpreting his world precisely as Erasmus described. Early on there is a perfect example of how this works: Don Quixote approaches an inn, which he fancies a castle, expecting his arrival to be announced by a trumpet. Just then a local swine-herd

chanced to blow his horn, in order to collect his scattered subjects: immediately the knight’s expectation was fulfilled, and concluding that now the dwarf had given the signal of his approach, he rode towards the inn with infinite satisfaction.

Wonderful! Pure folly, which Erasmus tells us is the key to happiness. How much brighter would be the life of Aldonza Lorenco if she imagined herself, as does Don Quixote, the princess Dulcinea del Toboso? Who is mad, those who fail to find beauty at every turn, or the man who adorns himself and his concerns with music, romance, and expression? Folly is Don Quixote’s salvation. Indeed, when we imagine things to be what we want them to be, we can live with nothing less than infinite satisfaction.

Reading and Writing in Don Quixote Sunday, May 13 2007 

As I’m reading Don Quixote, I’m reminded of a certain type of eighteenth-century novel, particularly those of Henry Fielding, which I realize is backwards, of course — Henry Fielding’s novels should remind me of Don Quixote, not the other way around — but I came to Henry Fielding first. As backwards as my response is, I’m pleased, because one of the reasons I wanted to read Don Quixote was to understand more about the history of the novel, although, no surprise, I’m ending up with more questions than answers. But I’m seeing the same light-hearted tone in Don Quixote that I learned to love in Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews; the same picaresque, episodic style; the same violence; the same stories within stories; the same type of humorous, vulnerable but also paradoxically invulnerable type of character — the type who gets bruised and battered over and over and over and always ends up being just fine.

If Henry Fielding was hugely influenced by Cervantes, I’m left with questions about Cervantes’s influences. Obviously, he was inspired by those chivalric romances the novel is always mentioning — inspired to make fun of them, that is — but I wonder what other models and sources lie behind this novel. What conventions that Cervantes draws upon come from those chivalric works, what come from other types of books, and what things weren’t conventions at all, but were things Cervantes made up? Perhaps I’ll have to do some reading about this …

I’m also interested in the way both Fielding and Cervantes have a lot to say about writing and reading, and how much they draw attention to their books as artifacts. They are not trying to get you lost in the story and to make you forget you are reading a book; rather, they draw your attention to that fact again and again. Obviously, Cervantes is writing about reading when he makes Don Quixote so very obsessed with romances and determined to become a knight just like the ones he’s read about. Cervantes has so much to say about the pleasures and the dangers of reading in this sense.

But he also draws attention to books and authors in other ways, for example, in the library scene, where the priest, barber, and housekeeper go through Don Quixote’s collection of books to throw out those dangerous tales of chivalry — comically, the priest winds up wanting to keep most of them, finding something of value in them after all. And then between Parts One and Two of the novel’s first part, the narrator interrupts the story to tell us a bit about the text itself. Cervantes has presented himself, not as somebody who has made up a story, but as the one who found Don Quixote’s true history written up by others, and as the one who is putting various texts together into a coherent story. And at the end of Part One, he tells us that he has reached the end of his sources and must look around for others:

But the difficulty in all this is that at this very point and juncture, the author of the history leaves the battle pending, apologizing because he found nothing else written about the feats of Don Quixote other than what he has already recounted. It is certainly true that the second author [that is, Cervantes] of this work did not want to believe that so curious a history would be subjected to the laws of oblivion, or that the great minds of La Mancha possessed so little interest that they did not have in their archives or writing tables a few pages that dealt with this famous knight; and so, with this thought in mind, he did not despair of finding the conclusion to this gentle history, which, with heaven’s help, he discovered in the manner that will be revealed in part two.

This passage accomplishes a lot of things: it ends Part One with a cliffhanger — Don Quixote has been battling “the gallant Basque” and we’ll want to rush on to Part Two to find out how it goes — but it also allows Cervantes to talk up his subject. Surely so great a story as that of Don Quixote wouldn’t remain untold? Surely the story that Cervantes has so enjoyed, other people will have enjoyed in the past and will again in the future? How could we, Cervantes’s readers, not love what he is offering to us?

The author becomes a reader too, something we see even more clearly near the beginning of Part Two:

… at that extremely uncertain point, the delectable history stopped and was interrupted, without the author giving us any information as to where the missing parts could be found.

This caused me a good deal of grief, because the pleasure of having read so small an amount was turning into displeasure at the thought of the difficult road that lay ahead in finding the large amount that, in my opinion, was missing from so charming a tale.

Cervantes is acting out what he wants his reader to experience — enjoyment in the story, grief when the story ends.  A bit later, once Cervantes has found another manuscrupt, the continuation of the story, we get this wonderful passage:

I say, then, that for these and many other reasons, the gallant Don Quixote is deserving of continual and memorable praise, as am I, on account of the toil and effort I have put into finding the conclusion of this amiable history, though I know very well that if heaven, circumstances, and fortune do not assist me, the world will be deprived of the almost two hours of entertainment and pleasure the attentive reader may derive from it.

I love this passage. The author steps in and tells us not only that his main character is wonderful, but that he, the author, is wonderful too, having put so, so much work into producing his book. If he hadn’t done it, and if he didn’t have heaven’s help, the reader might lose out on two hours of pleasure. He’s mocking himself and his enterprise a bit, of course, but there’s also a seriousness to it — two hours of entertainment and pleasure may not be such a little thing after all.

Part One of the First Part Tuesday, May 8 2007 

The title of this post is suitably absurd for an absurd tale of a humble nobleman who is driven mad by books of chivalry and decides to become a knight errant. But is it an absurd tale? Eight chapters into it and I’m certain that this amusing story has a thoroughly serious undercurrent below the surface (and marvellous) slapstick and satire. Don Quixote’s indefatigable imitation of fictional knights has set of all my René Girard alarms ringing: If this isn’t an exposé of mimetic desire, I don’t know what is!

René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire states that our desires are not our own but are imitated in an effort to acquire the sense of identity we perceive in the model(s) for our desire. Don Quixote imitates the actions of those whom he perceives as valiant and virtuous in hopes of feeling the way he supposes they must feel, that is, like a valiant and virtuous man. The fact that these men are fictitious is irrelevant because if everyone is imitating other people’s desires, there is no authentic identity to imitate in anyone anyway. We might as well imitate characters in a book or (for us) actors on the screen.

Mimetic desire is spoken of as a contagion, spreading from person to person, which is evident in chapter 6, when Don Quixote’s library is subjected to an inquisition by his associates. They subtly influence and parrot each other (“His niece said the same” “‘That’s what I say too'”) in blaming the books for Don Quixote’s madness, even though it is evident that the barber and priest, at least, have read them all, without apparent harm.

That chapter also beautifully illustrates the arbitrary nature of scapegoating. When mimetic desire leads to competition for the thing desired, it can cause either the chaotic violence of all-against-all, or it can coalesce into the scapegoating violence of all-against-one. The byproduct of scapegoating violence is a profound sense of solidarity, and humans quickly learn to resort to scapegoating whenever some crisis threatens the social order. In this case, it is Don Quixote’s books, which no sensible person would think are the cause of his madness, that are chosen as convenient culprits and subjected to an imitation Inquisition. Here is also another case of mad mimesis, as the priest mimics his superiors in trying and sentencing books to immolation, imprisonment, or even purging with herbs, as if they were human beings. Again, it doesn’t matter that the books are not people because scapegoating is not about the victim but about the social cohesion brought about by the victim’s “death,” whether ritual or actual.

I think we must be careful not to sit back and laugh at these characters. We are by no means exempt from mimetic desire and scapegoating violence, and this book, like all great art, is a mirror showing us ourselves, not a telescope showing us some far away place that doesn’t concern us. Don Quixote is us, and we are mad insofar as we live our lives by imitating imitators.

What impresses me about this book so far is that it works on so many levels. Yes there is a deep level of anthropological insight, but also scathing satire on various subjects (about which much could be said), and a wonderfully written humorous story to move things along. I’ve been told that this is what makes a work truly great. If you want a ripping yarn, its there, if you want philosophizing on the human condition, it’s there too, along with a few juicy jabs at king, country, and fellow writers too. It’s early days yet but I think it’s safe to say that Don Quixote is a crowd-pleaser.

For more on mimetic desire see Wikipedia (brief), Search.com (long), or the first chapter [pdf, very long, bring a dictionary] of Chris Fleming’s René Girard: Violence and Mimesis.

Prologue to DQ Sunday, May 6 2007 

I read the prologue to Don Quixote with great delight; there’s something very appealing about its lighthearted tone that bodes well for my enjoyment of the rest of the book (and having read the first couple chapters now, I can say I’m enjoying it greatly). Sylvia has already written an interesting post on the Prologue; I thought I’d add to her post a few thoughts on some of my favorite passages.

I love the way Cervantes claims that he’s not asking for the generosity of readers as they read and judge his book, and yet he’s asking for their generosity at one and the same time. He says:

I do not wish to go along with the common custom and implore you, almost with tears in my eyes, as others do, dearest reader, to forgive or ignore the faults you may find in this my child, for you are neither his kin nor his friend, and you have a soul in your body and a will as free as anyone’s, and you are in your own house, where you are lord, as the sovereign is master of his revenues, and you know the old saying: under cover of my cloak I can kill the king. Which exempts and excuses you from all respect and obligation, and you can say anything you desire about this history without fear that you will be reviled for the bad things or rewarded for the good that you might say about it.

How can you read this passage and have any desire whatsoever to criticize this poor author? How could you heartlessly attack this novel after the author so kindly refrained from asking you not to attack it? I like the way this figures the author/reader relationship — no, the author can’t do anything whatsoever to keep readers from criticizing his book, except to appeal to their sense of kindness, to call the book his child, to imply that they couldn’t possibly be so mean as to say a harsh word. All the author has, besides the strength of the book itself, is the chance to flatter the reader into liking it.

After this uncertain opening, the author’s self-doubt deepens; first we get a description of writer’s block — he absolutely could not write the Prologue, try as he might:

For I can tell you that although [the book itself] cost me some effort to compose, none seemed greater than creating the preface you are now reading. I picked up my pen many times to write it, and many times I put it down again because I did not know what to write.

Fortunately for him, a friend comes along while the author continues to bemoan his weakness and uncertainty. He’s worried about how the public will receive the book, about how long it’s been since he’s published anything, how he has no sonnets by famous people to open his book with, how he’s lacking all the serious, scholarly paraphernalia other books have, the citations from Aristotle and Plato and the marginal notes and indexes. In despair, he says:

In short, my friend … I have decided that Don Quixote should remain buried in the archives of La Mancha until heaven provides someone who can adorn him with all the things he lacks; for I find myself incapable of correcting the situation because of my incompetence and my lack of learning, and because I am by nature too lazy and slothful to go looking for authors to say what I know how to say without them.

He comes across here as someone worried only about the quality of the book, as someone self-effacing enough to put the book away until an author more qualified comes along to publish it. He is not in this for personal gain.  If he is lazy and slothful, it’s because he’s honest and doesn’t want to ask others to say what he can say himself. What is not to like about this poor, beleaguered author?

His friend answers with a hilarious speech about how the author can overcome all these problems:

By God, brother, now I am disabused of an illusion I have lived with for all the time I have known you, for I always considered you perceptive and prudent in everything you do. But now I see that you are as far from having those qualities as heaven is from earth.

What a friend. He goes on to say that the author can solve these problems quite simply: he can write his own sonnets and falsely attribute them to famous people; he can insert Latin phrases that he already knows by heart into relevant passages to make them seem more scholarly with a minimum of effort; he can create instant annotations by naming characters after famous people and then write notes to explain the allusions; he can make up a list of references to add to the back of book and he doesn’t have to worry if he doesn’t actually use those references — no one will notice or care.

But then after this joking, the friend gets more serious and says that the book doesn’t need all this scholarly apparatus because it’s doing something completely different. His goal is to mock books of chivalry, and that’s something classical authors knew nothing about. The author is heading off into a completely new direction and he needs to rules and guidelines. What he needs to do instead is:

to make use of mimesis in the writing, and the more precise that is, the better the writing will be … instead you should strive, in plain speech, with words that are straightforward, honest, and well-placed, to make your sentences and phrases sonorous and entertaining, and have them portray, as much as you can and as far as it is possible, your intention, making your ideas clear without complicating and obscuring them.

What he should worry about is the writing itself, not the book’s packaging, the apparatus that surrounds the story itself.  It’s the story and the writing only that matter:

Another thing to strive for: reading your history should move the melancholy to laughter, increase the joy of the cheerful, not irritate the simple, fill the clever with admiration for its invention, not give the serious reason to scorn it, and allow the prudent to praise it. In short, keep your eye on the goal of demolishing the ill-founded apparatus of these chivalric books, despised by many and praised by so many more, and if you accomplish this, you will have accomplished no small thing.

He will have accomplished no small thing indeed. This strikes me as a wonderful description of what the novel, or at least one form of it, can do — it’s about mimesis, or capturing life as accurately as possible, and doing so in beautiful and clear language. And it’s a form that everyone can enjoy, from the melancholy to the cheerful, from the simple to the clever.

Getting Started: Prologue Friday, May 4 2007 

I thought I’d get the ball rolling by posting my thoughts on the Prologue to the first book of Don Quixote. I must say I was very impressed by how much business Cervantes took care of in these casual few pages. Using the conceit of advice from a “friend,” he is able to state his purpose (“an invective against books of chivalry”), expose the fraudulent means by which authors give the appearance of weight to their works (sonnets, allusions, quotations, annotations), and he introduces us to the main characters, Don Quixote (who is described as if entirely real) and Sancho Panza (who is described as if entirely fictional). The latter point interests me because I gathered from Bloom’s introduction that it is Quixote who is out of touch with reality and Panza who is the more grounded one. I also wonder if the Latin quotations which are supposedly given off-hand will be relevant later on? Considering how much work the rest of the Prologue does, we might do well to keep an eye on them.

I especially love how Cervantes addresses his audience: “Idle reader.” Perhaps he was poking fun at the hidalgos, the lower nobility who abhorred gainful employment as beneath them, no matter how poor they were. Because of that non-work ethic, Spain lacked a productive industrial economy, its agriculture was backward, and monarchs had to declare bankruptcy repeatedly. If it weren’t for the influx of New World gold and silver, Spain might have been a primitive backwater instead of the dominant force in Europe. Some in Spain, called the arbitristas (“projectors”) were aware of this and tried to advise reforms, but the monarchs were more interested in fighting wars.

As I said, I was very impressed by the Prologue. At the risk of sounding Bloom-ish, I think we are in for a work of genius here.