Friday, March 23, 2007
Separated At Birth? Heroic Individuality.
A strange date. It may be that not only did two of the greatest writers die on the same day, they may have been in the same year. Both were obsessed with the transoformation of their most popular characters through storytelling, and in particular listening. Hamlet talks. Hamlet talks and while he talks as he hears his own ideas he transforms. Cervante and Shakespeare were both masters at understanding that self reflection offers transformative opportunities. Or we could say, that talking allows us to find out what we think and feel.
From Harold Bloom's The Westen Canon'Probably only Hamlet spurs as many variant interpretations as Don Quixote does. No one among us can purge Hamlet of his Romantic interpreters, and Don Quixote has inspired just as numerous and persistent a Romantic school of criticism, as well as books and essays opposing such a supposed idealization of Cervante's protagonist. Romantics (myself included) see Quixote as a hero, not fool; decline to read the book primarily as satire; and find in the work a metaphysical or visionary attitide regarding the Don's quest that make the Cervantint influence upon Moby Dick seem wholly natural. From the German philosopher-critic Schelling in 1802 down to the Broadway musical Man From La Mancha in 1966, there has been a continuous exaltation of the supposedly impossible dream-quest. The novelists have been the major proponents of this apotheosis of Don Quixote: exuberant admirers have included Feilding, Smollett, and Sterne in England; goethe and Thomas Mann in Germany; Stendhal and Flaubert in France; Melville and Mark Twain in the United States; and virtually all modern Hispanic American writers. Dostoevsky, who might seem the least Cervantine of writers, insisted that Prince Mishkin in The Idiot was modeled on Don Quixote. Since Cervante's remarkable experiment is credited by many as having invented the novel, as opposed to the picareque narrative, the devotion of so many later novelists is understandable enough; but the enormous passions evoked by the book, in Stendhal and Flaubert in particular, are extrodinary tributes to its achievement.
I myself naturally gravitate to Unamuno when I read Don Quixote, because for me the heart of the book is its revelation and celebration of heroic individuality, both in the Don and Sancho. Unamuno rather perversely preferred the Don to Cervantes, but there I refuse to follow, because no writer has established a more intimate relation with his protagonist than Cervantes did. We wish we could know what Shakespeare thought of Hamlet; we know almost too much about how Don Quiote affected Cervantes, even if our knowledge is often indirect. Cervantes invented endless ways of disrupting his own narrative to compel the reader to tell the story in place of the wary author. The wily and wicked enchanters who supposedly work without ceasing to frustrate the magnificently indomitable Don Quiote are also employed to make us into unusually active readers. The Don supposes the sorcerers to exist, and Cervantes pragmatically realizes them as crucial components of his language. Everything is transformed through enchantment, is the Quiotic lament, and the wicked sorcerer is Cervantes himself. His characters have read all the stories about one another, and much of the novel's second part concerns itself with their reactions to having read the first. The reader is educated into considerably more sophisitcation of response, even when Don Quixote stubbornly refuses to learn, though that refusal has more to do with his own "madness" than with the fictive status of the chivalric romances that have crazed him. The Don and Cervantes together evolve toward a new kind of literary dialectic, one that alternates in proclaiming both the potency and the vanity of the narrative in its relation to real events.Even as the Don in part one, gradually comes to understand the limitations of fiction,so Cervantes grows in his pride of authorship and in the particular joy of having invented the Don and Sancho.
The loving, frequently irascible relationship between Quixote and Sancho is the greatness of the book, more even than the gusto of its representations of natural and social realities. What unites the Don and his squire is both their mutual participation in what has been called "the order of the play" and their equally mutual if rather grumpy affection for each other. I cannot think of a fully comparable friendship anywhere else in Western literature, certainly not one that relies so exquisitely on hilarious conversation.'
This post is a shout out to :
A Blog About Nowt
Voyages of the HMS Swiftsure
...who are reading the novel Don Quixote. Maybe we could choose a couple of movie versions for an alternative discussion? Any takers out there for joining us?