SPAN 300: Cervantes' Don Quixote
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Cervantes' Don Quixote
SPAN 300 - Lecture 2 - Don Quixote, Part I: Front Matter and Chapters I-X
Chapter 1. Don Quixote and Its Effect on Readers [00:00:00]
Professor Roberto González Echevarría: I want to begin by taking up some general questions concerning the Quixote matters, such as the difference between romance and novel, because I know from the last lecture that you must have been confused, and it’s good to know it. Other matters, which are, what is a chivalric romance? Because you hear a lot about it, I’m sure, and very few people know what a chivalric romance was — and who were the Spanish precursors of Cervantes, because I want to, as much as possible, although in English, to give you a Cervantes in his own sauce, as it were, that is, within the Spanish tradition, as well as a European, but within the Spanish tradition. I do that to counter versions of the Quixote taught here at Yale in the English Department and Directed Studies and so forth, valuable courses, but in which Cervantes is seen only in the context of western literature. So this is why I want to give you Cervantes, as much as possible, in his own salsa, as it were, in his own sauce.
Now, I will begin by continuing on the issue of what and why the Quixote has continued to be read, why it has had such common currency. I just learned yesterday that the detainees in Guantanamo, Cuba asked for the Quixote, first of all, of all of the books that they want to read.
Now, I have offered the most common of answers about why the Quixote is so current, the least specialized. The one that I assume general readers will understand about wanting to be other and so forth, that I spoke about in the last class. But Don Quixote is notoriously about literature, covering the entire range of ‘about.’ First and foremost it’s about the effect that literature has on its readers. Don Quixote goes mad ‘cause he reads too much literature. Literature, fiction, allows us to rehearse in private our most secret desires affecting our lives as if these desires have come true. It’s like dreams. Dreams have the same effect. This is its allure, the allure of literature, and also it’s danger. We can live lives other than ours full of adventures untrammeled by society’s constraints and by our own limitations. Does doing that purge us of those desires or does it induce more desires and induce the desire to close the gap between desire and reality? But the Quixote is also, in addition, about the creation of literature, the relationship each text has with previous texts as well as about questions of literary genre.
The Quixote appears at the end of the Renaissance when improvements of the printing press had created a mass readership, so to speak, mass readership, nothing compared to what we have today, a mass readership for the first time in history, and when the discovery, analysis and imitation of classical treatises on poetics had brought to the fore questions about content and form as well as of ethics, public and private. As you know, the Renaissance humanists were interested in the Classics, in reading the Classics in the original, in editing the Classics to make them available.
What is secular literature good for? What is good literature? How do new ideas about reading and writing effect the interpretation of scripture? Is secular literature in the vernacular a danger to faith, religious faith? The Quixote is full of writers and readers — you will meet them as you read the book — of books, stories, poems and of people young and old effected by literature. You will meet some very early, Marcela and Grisóstomo.
Now, in this vein about Don Quixote and the issue of literature is the originality of the Don Quixote story. The fact that it does not belong to any known tradition or cycle be it from the pastoral or chivalric cycles, not to mention popular narratives or even mythology, that is, Don Quixote is not based on a classical myth or a traditional story handed down orally, the Quixote is a new story. Indeed, Cervantes boasts that it is new. It is no small accomplishment to set out to write a narrative without precedence, to make an individual invention a fundamental factor of a literary work. The Divine Comedy tells an original story yet, it is based on received popular and cultural traditions, the sense to hell, a sense to heaven, and it calls and incorporates many stories from biblical and classical traditions. The Decameron by Boccaccio — some of which you may have read it — retells tales drawn from many popular and cultural sources, too. The same goes for, of course, for the pastoral and the chivalric romances about which I will be speaking soon. But the story of a man who goes mad because he reads too much has only one known source and it is so trifling as to be dismissed, although, the fact that it exists is of some importance. The very act of invention on Cervantes’ part is an important modern component of the work. Invention is the hallmark of modern literature.
Now, how could such a revolutionary work appear in Spain? I’m sorry to make this assumption but your conception of Spain cannot be but the result of the Black Legend. What is the Black Legend? The Black Legend is the bad press that Spain’s enemies disseminated beginning in the sixteenth century about the mistreatment of the Indians and about Spain’s backwardness and brutality, and so forth, your images of the inquisition, religious intolerance, a certain primitiveness and backwardness… This is all embedded in the English language you cannot escape it. It is full of what we call factoids, things that are almost true but not quite we call factoids derisively, of course. Yet, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Spain produced Cervantes, Velázquez, the character of Don Juan, the picaresque, all figures authors or kinds of writing that are at the core of the modern western tradition. How could that be so? The Quixote aided by Elliot’s Imperial Spain which you are, I hope dutifully reading, will help dispel these perceptions as well as my comments in the course.
Chapter 2. Distinguishing between Novel and Romance [00:09:10]
Now, let me clarify as much as possible the confusion about terms such as ‘novel’ and ‘romance,’ a confusion that is augmented by the fact that they don’t quite coincide with their cognates in Spanish. Cognates are words in two different languages that sound the same but then sometimes are not the same in meaning. ‘Romance’ is a term derived from the name Rome, of course, meaning that originally these were works written in the languages derived from Latin, that is French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and so forth — those are the important ones. Let us begin with the Webster’s definition for ‘romance.’ It says: “Originally, a long narrative in verse or prose written in one of the romantic dialects.”
It says in Webster’s — Remember what I said about language and dialect? A language is a dialect with an army, meaning that a people who speak a certain dialect become powerful enough and impose it on the rest of the population. So, “… originally written in one of the romance dialects about the adventures of knights and other chivalric heroes, to a fictitious tale dealing not so much with every day life as with extraordinary adventures or mysterious events.”
That’s the Webster’s definition of romance. A popular dictionary of literary terms gives the following for romance, “Romance a fictional story in verse or prose that relates improbable adventures of idealized characters in some remote or enchanted setting, or more generally a tendency in fiction opposed to that of realism.”
Now, etymologies are fun, but they don’t always clarify what a word means in the present, and, in fact, sometimes the etymologies work against such a clarification. How many know or how useful is it to know that candid, the word ‘candid,’ for example, derives from the Latin word ‘candidus’ for white? It doesn’t help you in the present to know that at all. It helps you be pedantic if you tell somebody, or if you bring it up in that party that I always mention here, at which a Yalie can be pedantic by saying, “Candid derives from candidus in Latin which means white,” or, “That is a very Kafkaesque story that you’ve told me.” In any case, in this case, knowing that the term ‘romance’ derives from Rome and that it indicates that these stories were written in the romance languages, does provide a historical insight. Romances emerged after the breakup of the Roman Empire during the Middle Ages as the various national languages acquired individual identities. So we have now a historical period that the etymology romance gives us.
So in English, ‘romance’ means a story with a linear plot and unchanging characters. One episode follows another, and the heroes and heroines remain the same. This is the reason romances of chivalry are called ‘romances.’ The romance form is preferred by popular fiction and by works with an ideological and doctrinaire purpose. They are easy to follow and their moral is clear. Many cartoons, for instance, have the form of a romance — cartoons, comic books. Novels, on the other hand, are works in which there is a clash between the characters, the protagonists and the settings in which they move — remember the quotation from Lukach in my earlier lecture — and in which the characters evolve as a result of the actions in which they are involved. Characters in the romances don’t change, they’re always heroic and so forth. Characters in the novels do change, evolve, because of the action. Now, the Quixote is the first such case of this clash between the protagonist and his setting, though an argument can be made in favor of the picaresque, and a work that I’ll be mentioning today again — I mentioned in it in the class — La Celestina already has that clash between protagonist and setting, and there is change and characters evolve. But the Quixote is the first case.
Now, I think and I hope now we have — I hope — a clear terminological between novel and romance, and you will understand when I speak about them. Now, matters get confused when we know that in English picaresque stories are often called romances — this is particularly among English department types — while in Spanish we call them ‘novelas,’ novels. I will always refer to picaresque tales as novels, because they are, according to the definitions that I’ve given above. Now, if you know Spanish, you may be further confused by the fact that ‘romance’ in Spanish is a ballad, a narrative originally popular poem, like the English ballads. So you must keep this distinction clear in mind. If you happen to read something in Spanish and you read ‘romance,’ it is not a romance in the in the sense that I’ve been explaining, it is a poem.
Chapter 3. Chivalric Romance and Courtly Romance [00:15:49]
Now, what was it that Don Quixote so avidly wanted to become? Let me clarify, too, what the chivalric romances were, because this is something that is taken for granted, everybody knows chivalric… No. Let us clarify, I like to clarify things and to start from the ground up. What is it that Don Quixote wanted to become? What’s this whole business of the romances of chivalry? First, as I did with the term ‘romance’ let me clarify the background of the word ‘chivalric.’ Chivalric comes from the French word ‘cheval’ or horse, and it reflects the fact that the knight’s form of transportation was the horse. What does French have to do with English? Well, William the Conqueror, the Battle of Hastings, the invasion of England by the French, and all of that which you learned in elementary school or high school, and the fact that French is one of these sources of modern English. But the horse was more than just a form of transportation. It was an instrument of warfare, a prized possession with each having a sonorous name if at all possible. The horse was part of the knight’s identity; hence, the whole business about naming his horse at the beginning of the Quixote — now you understand that. Part of the culture of horses was a kind of courtesy, so we have in English also ‘chivalrous,’ for instance. Horses have always spawned a whole culture of their own and have left a large imprint on languages because they were the principle mode of transportation until part of the twentieth century, you can imagine. So technically, etymologically ‘chivalric romance’ is a horse romance or, more appropriately, romances about horsemen. In Spanish the etymology is clearer as the romances of chivalry are simply called ‘novelas de caballerías’ and ‘caballo’ is the word for horse in Spanish.
Now, chivalric romances or in Spanish ‘novelas de caballerías’ were the popular literature of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, whose dissemination was greatly aided by the development of print. I’m talking about the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The printing press as you no doubt know was developed in the fifteenth century making available to many readers books including the Bible, which only a very few had access before. We have a copy of the Guttenberg Bible in our own Beinecke Library, if you want to go and look at it. Now, this development of the printing press had a decisive impact on literature because it increased dissemination, on the Quixote and the novel, in general, owe their existence to this invention. As we can see by the impact the romances of chivalry had on our hero and the large number of them that he had in his library, if you got to the chapter on the scrutiny of the library. The romances of chivalry were the first best sellers — They are entertaining and I encourage you to read one or two if you have time.
Now, the chivalric romances originated in France and were derived from the roman courtois or courtly romance — roman courtois — In French, ‘roman’ eventually became the name for ‘novel’ but roman courtois or courtly romance was a narrative in verse which was the favorite of feudal lords no longer engaged in military exploits who looked back with nostalgia to a heroic age the same as Don Quixote will. The roman courtois took its themes from classical legends, such as the Trojan Wars, or the exploits of Alexander the Great, even oriental tales, but it preferred themes derived from Briton legends, legends from Brittany, such as that of Tristan and Isolde, the knights in pursuit of the Holy Grail, like Percifal and Merlin and Lancelot, or Arthurian tales about Arthur, the real or imaginary king of Britain, and the Knights of the Round Table — You have heard about all of this. All of these adventures take place in a fantastic atmosphere shrouded in a very kind of lyricist and poetry. When these roman courtois — remember, in verse and so forth — were turned into prose narratives the chivalric romances appeared.
Each of these books had as a hero a knight-errant that incarnated heroism, amorous fidelity and was the defender of justice and of the oppressed. The night was involved in the most extraordinary adventures against fantastic and frightening wrongdoers; his passionate love for an idealized lady dominated his thoughts. Love was a fundamental component of these narratives. The knight would offer to his lady the glory of his feats. This love for a lady is the same as courtly love, which as you may know, inspired the medieval lyric. And was a fashion involving all sorts of rituals in the courts of elegant ladies. It’s too long a story to be told, but think that the romances of chivalry are shot through as it were the idea of courtly love. These were not just military heroes, but they were also great lovers.
Chapter 4. Cervantes within the Genealogy of the Spanish Tradition [00:22:38]
In Spain, there were two notable antecedents to the romances of chivalry in the fourteenth century, La Gran conquista de ultramar, El caballero Zifar, but these should not concern you. During the fourteenth century, all of the European books of chivalry were disseminated in Spain in adaptations and translations, particularly those of the Breton cycle. The most significant chivalric romance in terms of circulation and influence as well as impact on the Quixote was Amadís de Gaula — about which you will hear and read a lot throughout this semester, because he is Don Quixote’s chief moral — which it was written around 1492 — that miraculous year when so many things happened — but was published in 1508 in Saragossa.
It is known that there were stories about Amadís circulating as far back as the early fourteenth century, and Montalvo, who was its author, states in the prologue that he took the story written by several authors, divided it into four books and recast it adding a few touches and fifth book about Esplandián, Amadís’s son. These chivalric romances could and did have many sequels, much like today’s soap operas on television, and responded to the same kind of demand from the public. This couldn’t end here, we want more Amadís adventures, we want Amadís’s son’s adventures, and so forth. In fact, all popular fiction from Sherlock Holmes to James Bond is sequential in this fashion, which is the reason why soap operas are derisively called Spanish culebrones, from ‘culebra,’ snake, because it’s a snake that goes on, and on, and on… And so this is the way that the romances of chivalry, as you saw, if you read the chapter on the scrutiny of the library.
The Amadís is a very free adaptation of novels from the Breton cycle; but is a complex network of the most varied and marvelous adventures. It tells the story of his birth virtually in the river, because he’s thrown in a river as baby to hide his mother’s sin because they were not married, his parents, who were a king and a queen, and he’s rescued and trained as a knight in combat, then he falls in love with Oriana, Oriana becomes his beloved, so Amadís and Oriana is one of the great couples of literary history. He is put through all kinds of trials and he’s enchanted and disenchanted, and he is a most loyal and faithful of lovers against all temptations from various ladies. In fact, he is forced to go through the arch of faithful lovers which could only be crossed by lovers who had been absolutely faithful — How many people can go through it? — and so forth.
This is what is in Don Quixote’s imagination and desires, this figure of this invincible hero who is noble and a great lover, and this book was so important in the sixteenth century that it acquired a didactic value. I mean, it was used as a novel for deportment and for courtesy, even more so, it surpassed the model for courtly behavior which was written by a great Italian writer called Baltasare Castiglione. Castiglione is one of several important Renaissance figures that you’re going to be hearing about here. His last name is written like this, and his book is called the Courtesan and it was published in 1528. It was a very important book. But the Amadís was much more fun to read, and therefore it surpassed Castiglione’s book as a source of models for deportment for people in the courts.
So it is for all of these reasons that the Amadís achieved great success, among the greatest in Spanish literature and many expressed their admiration for it including great political and intellectual figures. It was for the reader’s of the time the only possibility for evasion, the only food for their fantasy. The romances of chivalry were in the sixteenth century what movies and television shows are for us today. But the romances and Amadís, in particular, had their detractors — spoilsports are everywhere all of the time — who saw in such books a threat to public morals. They became a topic of debate, and this is behind the role Amadís plays in the Quixote and the reason why Cervantes says that he is writing his book against them, to make fun of them in such a way that people would not read them any more. He’s entering, supposedly, the debate about the value or lack thereof of the romances of chivalry.
So now, I hope, you have a clearer idea of what it was that Don Quixote wanted to become. So it’s not vague what he wants. It’s clear and concrete. I suppose at modern day Don Quixote would like to be James Bond because we have to assume a modern Alonso Quixano to be middle aged and to have grown up with James Bond as the image of heroism. I read that Senator Kennedy in the last hours of his life or days would watch Bond movies for entertainment. Obviously, for a man of his age, James Bond was the acme of heroism and debonair, good looking, all the women fall for him and that sort of thing. So, I guess maybe your parents or your grandparents, not you, if you wanted to become a Quixote, they would want to be a James Bond.
Now, Amadís was the most obvious and avowed by Cervantes precursor of the Quixote in Spanish, but what were Cervantes’s predecessors among more serious Spanish literary work? Which were the Spanish works that Cervantes had read, absorbed and incorporated into his own literary project? I have mentioned some of these, I want to mention them again because I want to lay the ground work in the most thorough way possible so that you know.
The first was La Celestina, which I mentioned in the last class. It has several titles, but I think I’ll settle for La Celestina, which is from 1499, written by Fernando de Rojas. It is of indeterminate genre, the closest description would be a dramatic dialogue. La Celestina is the most significant precursor to Cervantes. It is a tragic story of two young lovers, Calixto and Melibea, who consummate their love under the guidance of a go-between, the protagonist Celestina. Celestina is an old whore, madam of a whore house and a witch. But in spite of these unsavory characteristics she is the heroine of the work. This is the most original aspect of this work, that the protagonist is an old whore, go between witch and so forth. Still, she is the heroine in the sense that she is willful and goes against fate, and that.
Now, there is a clear clash between neo-Platonic notions of love typical of the Renaissance and the courtly division and the sordid and cynical view of humankind and of love in particular. Celestina controls the whole city because she controls people’s erotic adventures. There are two worlds that of Celestina, the servants and whores, and that of the lovers Calisto and Melibea and Melibea’s parents which are the gentry. So there is also a class clash here. Calixto is a Quixote in the making because he wants to play act the role of the courtly lover. He is killed when he falls off a wall, the wall of Melibea’s where he has been making love to her. Melibea commits suicide and Celestina is murdered by the servants because she has swindled them, too. Celestina is a pitiless book with what can all ready be called a realistic quality, and I’ll talk about realism in a minute.
The second important work is — the other one that I mentioned, but I want to now mention more clearly — La vida del Lazarillo de Tormes. Lazarillo de Tormes, this is the first picaresque novel. No known author. It is the life told to a judge, as in a deposition, by a petty criminal to justify his current status. He, at the end, from the perspective that he writes, is married to the archpriest’s mistress. So he is a front, he is a cuckolded husband who is compliant with society’s hypocrisies. Lazarillo tells his life from birth to the present when he writes. This is life as seen from the perspective of a low class individual, a criminal who learned his tricks from his first master who was, ironically, a blind man.
Guzmán de Alfarache, I won’t give you the whole title, but this is good enough because this is how it is known is the second most important picaresque novel that I want to mention. Lazarillo is 1554, 1599 for Guzmán de Alfarache. It’s a four-part prolix tale of a criminal told in the first person, also following the formula of Lazarillo, but the difference is that here the life is told after a religious conversion to the good. So the story of Guzmán’s life is laced with sermons about where he went wrong and ways to improve his morals, but this retrospective moralizing is always tempered by the appeal of the stories about sin — sin is more interesting, always — Guzmán became the model picaresque in Cervantes’ time and there are clear allusions to it in the Quixote. This is so you can see the genealogy within the Spanish tradition.
Now, what these works show is the emergence and development of realism as we know it, and which would be continued in the work of Cervantes, particularly the Quixote. And lead all the way through to the seventeenth and eighteenth century and nineteenth century novels. I mean, this is the beginning of realism. Its emergence, in my view, has a great deal to do with the Catholic Kings about whom you’re reading in Elliot, the formation of a new modern state with a large bureaucracy and a very large also, penal, not only penal code, but penal institutions to punish these criminals. A Spanish criminologist called Rafael Salillas, in the nineteenth century, links the picaresque with the birth of the social sciences. He thinks that in the picaresque and in this kind of novel we have the beginnings of the study of society as criminology, sociology and so forth would study it in later centuries, but this is the origin.
Here, in this work, there is a search for truth about human nature in the social commerce of people of the lowest possible levels, where civilization, as it were, has barely reached. There is an emphasis on the material and the sordid in these works against neo-Platonic conceptions of human kind that are more typical of the Renaissance. The sordid, the ugly, the dirty becomes esthetically valuable and appealing in these realistic works, in the behavior of the characters, their actions, and also their attitudes. The point is that this sort of probe into the social is an attempt to uncover a truth about the human no longer available in the ancient classical literature or its imitators in the Renaissance. It goes against that kind of version of the human. This is too complicated, but I will get to it as the semester evolves. It is a rejection parallel to that of Descartes as he formulates the philosophy of the self when he sort of erases received tradition. But I will leave that. I’ll put that in the backburner and we will get to it eventually.
In realism, common objects — you will see common objects in the Quixote — appear frequently. This begins with Celestina, but it’s the world mostly of the picaresque through which Don Quixote passes. The character’s accessories are what endowed the description of this world with an aura of reality, what it is, what they have — Sancho’s wine skin, for instance, and so forth. Let us look for such common objects. As you read the Quixote you will see there is a focus on them.
This is a parallel to a development in painting which began with the work of Leo Battista Alberti, known as Alberti. I’ll just do this in passing, but I will allude to it more during the semester. He wrote a treatise called De Pictura. In very simplistic terms, what Alberti nearly invented was the sense of perspective. That is, that objects appear in different sizes depending on where they are in reference to a point de fuite, punto de fuga, vanishing point in English — It will come to me — So you understand objects, according to Alberti, are to appear in painting not flat as they appear in medieval painting but in relation to how they appear to the observer, and how they are arranged according to perspective. Hence objects appear now in all of their fullness, in all of their roundness, in all of their weight and measure. This is a form of realism that begins in painting. De Pictura is from 1435, fifteenth century. Alberti had an enormous influence on the history of painting, but on philosophy, too. I mean, this was a way of conceiving the perception of objects, also subject to time because perspective in space involves also a sense of time. If something is back here and something is here, this is closer, I can get to it faster than I can get to that, if you understand what I mean. Now, if you have seen Velázquez paintings, I’m sure some of you have, you will remember how those objects that are just common every day objects, suddenly have a fullness. Now, this is what will appear in these novels, in the Quixote, and this is part of the development of realism.
Now, you will see that this is a cliché about Spanish literature of the Golden Age, sixteenth and seventeenth century, what will prevail is a clash between this realistic conception or vision of the world and the idealistic conception that comes through the neo-Platonic tradition and that is, let us say, embodied in Don Quixote. Don Quixote is an idealist perspective and Sancho is the realistic perspective. Sancho is close to the material, to the world, material that he wants to eat if he can possibly can, while Don Quixote doesn’t eat. He doesn’t need to eat, he lives in the world of ideas. But, of course, they influence each other. As you will see, this is one of the great things about this novel that these character’s influence each other. So we could say that that is overall the overarching clash in these works of Spanish literature. But keep in mind above all what I said about realism, because realism will be one of the triumphs of Cervantes’s work.
Chapter 5. The Prologue and Its Intentions [00:42:27]
Now, let us finally turn to the Quixote. I assume and I hope that you have read at least the first few chapters, and that by the next lecture you will have read the first 10 chapters, as well as the assigned readings in the Casebook which will give you a background on Cervantes’s life that I’m not giving you here, as well as other materials and, of course, the first chapter in Elliot.
Now, the prologue. The prologue, this 1605 prologue is one of the most important and famous texts in Spanish literature and prologues are very important always for Cervantes. Why? Because of his concern about the relationship between creator and his creation, and his concern about the nature of the self, his own self, which is a very Renaissance preoccupation. Cervantes prologues are very much like Montaigne’s Essays — Now, I’ve mentioned Castiglione. Now, I mention Montaigne. These are great Renaissance figures that in the context of which Cervantes wrote and you have to remember Castiglione, Montaigne — and it is here that Cervantes introduces one of his favorite tropes one that runs through the whole of the Quixote: irony. This is a very ironic prologue which is conveyed through a very seductive kind of self deprecation in Cervantes. ‘Desocupado lector’ it begins, “Idle reader, “Jarvis mistranslates this as ‘gentle reader’ in your translation, but it is “Desocupado lector,” idle reader. Cervantes assumes a reader who comes to his book for entertainment, not instruction, and who reads for pleasure, not for work.
This is a novelty, and a kind of challenge in a period when the function of literature was very much an issue discussed by secular and religious moralists. But we soon see that what Cervantes means by entertainment does not preclude consideration of very thorny ethical issues that involve reading and literature in general, these issues emerge immediately in the prologue. It is typical of Cervantes — and you can expect to see it in the rest of the work — to deal lightly and humorously with weighty issues. This is one of his constants. He’s able to deal with very grave issues in a very light and humorous way. That is his perspective. It’s part of his ironic perspective.
Now, the prologue, although it comes first, is a kind of epilogue. It was written obviously after he finished the book. You cannot take for granted the sequential order of things as you read them, they are sequential in a conventional way. It doesn’t mean the prologue that Cervantes sat down, wrote the prologue, and then wrote the novel. He wrote the novel, and then wrote the prologue to ponder about what he had just finished. Now, there is in the prologue a tone, a prevailing theme of doubt which is, again, an echo of Montaigne. Now, perhaps this explains the self deprecating statements about his own creation and inventive powers, that they’re weak and that what else could he produce and so forth, at the very first paragraph where he belittles himself. It is very much like Montaigne because Montaigne’s stance is very modern. Montaigne writes with the resignation of knowing that he will never outdo the Classics.
By the way, there is a very instructive piece on Montaigne in the latest New Yorker! I mean Montaigne is still very relevant and speaks to the modern mind. He writes with the resignation of knowing that he will never outdo the Classics, that he will never really know the truth, even about himself and that received knowledge is of dubious value. For instance, in his famous essay called “On Cannibals” he asks what business the Europeans have in imposing their religious doctrines on natives of the New World who had been getting along just fine with their own beliefs. And he says that it is worse to roast people alive, as Europeans do to torture them, than to roast them once they’re dead and eat them — And, of course, he’s right about that. He’s a relativist in a post-Copernican world in which — I’m still talking about Montaigne — in which we know that the earth is not the center of the universe, and hence human kind is not at the center either in the way that it was believed to be before.
In his prologue, Cervantes sounds very much like Montaigne who, if he was not a source was clearly a kindred spirit. They were both Hamlet like in their display of doubt. Of course, Shakespeare had read Montaigne. Now, who is this friend who suddenly appears in the prologue? Of course, it’s a made up friend, it’s an imaginary friend that Cervantes events and to turn the prologue into a story in which he’s going to discuss how to write a prologue while writing the prologue, and that is the whole joke behind this. It’s a big joke. Cervantes was fond both of telling stories rather than expounding on doctrine and of dialogue. He loved dialogue. Of having a topic discussed from various points of view, this will be throughout the whole of the Quixote, and we have it all ready in the prologue. He has a dialogue with this imaginary friend. He’s having a dialogue with himself and has created this, as we do occasionally, creating an imaginary friend or someone with whom we speak which is just another version of ourselves. Different points of view. Cervantes likes things that are being discussed from different points of view, as you will see.
Now, the main topic of the prologue is the genesis and intention of the book, a common topic for prologues only that here it is told as the issue of how to prologue is discussed. Now, there is an apparent contradiction here at the beginning. Cervantes says this book could be other like myself, because I’m his father. Then he says, no I’m the stepfather by which he means that he’s merely the transcriber of this book by Cide Hamete Benengeli, this fictitious Moorish author about whom you will hear a lot in the book. This is the first of many disclaimers of authorship in the Quixote. What Cervantes is probing here is the genesis of literature, the genealogy of invention which can no longer be taken for granted as following the rules of Renaissance poetics.
In what way does a book belong to its author? This is why Cervantes mocks the usual front matter of other books, in which authors boast of their erudition and ask others to attest to the quality of their productions. The whole business that he’s talking about all of these sonnets that he could have asked other people to write for him, and so forth — By the way, those sonnets exist in the book and are left out of the translation. The front matter in a book is everything from the title all the way to the beginning of the book; prologue, preface, acknowledgement. This is called the front matter, ‘los preliminares’ in Spanish, if you want to learn that in Spanish. These sonnets about the book, in praise of the book, are like today’s blurbs. You pick up a book and you find that there are blurbs. “Roberto González Echevarría says… blah, blah,” and there is a praise, and what has happened is that the person blurbing the book has been one of the readers of the press to accept another book, and then they ask you to excerpt something from your report and put it on the back. Other times, they just send you the book and say, “Please, would you write a blurb for this book?” I know many people who do it without reading the book, “Oh, one of the greatest…”and they just write. So it’s the same here. This is what Cervantes is mocking, but what he does is, instead of going outside for legitimation, he has literary characters write the sonnets in praise of his book. It’s as if I wrote a book and I had a blurb from James Bond to continue with our fictional characters. What he’s doing is showing that literature is self legitimating. He is not going outside of fiction and outside of literature for legitimation, but he’s using these literary characters to be those who praise the book. It’s another game, another joke that he is playing on the reader.
So what does the friend tell him to do? The friend tells him to make up his own sonnets and also to make up a false bibliography, as it were, and put on the margins all of the sources that he never consulted — as if you created a false bibliography for a paper that you’ve written. This is a joke. It’s a very amusing joke, but it’s also very serious. What the friend is telling Cervantes is: forget about tradition, forget about Aristotle; Aristotle never wrote about romances of chivalry. You’re doing something new, you can just make it all up. This is what the prologue is a kind of manifesto for the kind of book that the Quixote is, the kind of original new book that it is, that it can break with tradition. The friend says: make it all up! I hope you don’t take this seriously yourselves in your own bibliographies when you write your papers, but this is the advice that the friend gives — He says: oh, I thought that you were wise! No! What you have to do is this.
Now, there are digs there at Lope de Vega — remember I mentioned him in an earlier class, Lope, who was a very successful playwright. He was rich, famous, and vain, and Cervantes is taking a dig at him because apparently Lope got himself some thesaurus, compendium of quotations, of familiar quotations, and used them in his works to make it seem like he was very erudite and learned, and Lope also added the ‘de,’ Lope de Vega, to his last name to make it seem as if he were an aristocrat. You know the ‘de’ in French, Spanish or German ‘von,’ indicates aristocracy — So he’s taking a dig at Lope de Vega. Lope was just so successful and Lope had also said a few disparaging things about him… But all of that is sort of contingent. The important thing in the prologue is that he’s saying, away with tradition, I’m beginning here anew, I can make it up. That is the whole point of the…
Now, I am going to end by simply alluding to the beginning of the book. The birth of Don Quixote is an act of self invention by a man of fifty. At the age, fifty was a very advanced age. Age expectancy didn’t go beyond late thirties, early forties, at the time, so this is also commensurate with Cervantes’s own age. He’s in his late fifties when he publishes his book, he says it in the prologue. It’s an act of self invention by a man of fifty. He feels free to create to himself beyond family. We don’t learn anything about Don Quixote’s family, only about his niece, but, do we learn anything about his parents? No; about his birth? No; about his needs? No. Cervantes has created a hero who is beyond Freud’s family romance.
In Freud’s theories the family romance is mommy, daddy, and the child; the boy is love in with mommy, and all of that. That is the family romance, and you go through life with the resentment of daddy, or your secret love for mommy, and all of that. That’s the family romance. This is a mock version of Freud — But Cervantes’s character is born beyond Freud. When you’re fifty, who cares about your parents and all of that? You are who you are. And not only is he who he is, but he wills himself to be something else at the age of fifty. It is important that Don Quixote be that old. Can you think of another literary hero who is that old? Celestina, but she had as co-protagonists the two young lovers. But no, protagonists were either men in their full strength, like Ulysses, Aeneas, the pilgrim in the Divine Comedy, I think, is thirty-three. Not an old man. Why? Because his self invention is an act of will based on nothing. He’s beyond all of the pressures of family and of need, and this is why he can invent himself. Don Quixote’s true family and genealogy is the books that he read.
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