Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Necessity of Adapting to Present Circumstances

This was a short paper for a class on, roughly, the origins of the novel. The idea was that we'd write a "close reading" of some exemplary passages from each of the books we read for the class--an excellent exercise, though draining on the brain.

It didn't go so well with Don Quixote, though I partly blame Don Quixote. I got two passes at him (it's a huge book, if you haven't seen it), and each time I got too caught up in the philosophical implications of reading him alongside Foucault, Ortega, and Lukacs (the last paragraph here, in particular, becomes incomprehensible in reaching for the big picture, so much so that I cannot even make a second pass at making better sense of it without enlarging the scope and spending more time than I have--it remains an extended figure pointing, though I won't tell you which finger). Don Quixote truly is a fascinating and hilarious read, and certainly stands as the "birth of the novel" for good reason (with all apologies to Rabelais).

I've also included a Postscript on Literary Madness, which sums up the main philosophical moral in the paper and makes some other general reflections of madness.

References are to:
Samuel Putnam's translation of Don Quixote (1949).
The 1971 translation of Foucault's The Order of Things.
Evelyn Rugg and Diego Marin's translation of Jose Ortega y Gasset's Meditations on Quixote (1966).


Almost half way through Part I of Don Quixote, the titular character mounts a brilliant defense of his impending (faked) madness. After explaining to Sancho Panza that he shall go out of his head “without any occasion” (Cervantes 232) for his lady Dulcinea del Toboso, Sancho just about loses it: “Listening to you, I come to think that all you have told me about deeds of chivalry and winning kingdoms and empires and bestowing islands and other favors and dignities is but wind and lies…” (233). Don Quixote retorts: “How is it possible for you to have accompanied me all this time without coming to perceive that all the things that have to do with knights-errant appear to be mad, foolish, and chimerical, everything being done by contraries? Not that they are so in reality…” (233). This extraordinary moment in the narrative, oddly no more nor less extraordinary than the last or the next, is paradigmatic in that it contains, like every other moment in the narrative, the essence of Don Quixote, though perhaps more flamboyantly present at this particular moment.

The peculiar madness that took Don Quixote at the beginning of the tale is well-described by Foucault: “Don Quixote reads the world in order to prove his books. And the only proofs he gives himself are the glittering reflections of resemblances” (Foucault 47). Don Quixote perceives the world through the eyes of his books of chivalry, which is to say that the world he moves through is that reality, “every moment his imagination was filled with battles, enchantments, nonsensical adventures,” “every act he performed, had to do with such things as these” (Cervantes 152). Because every moment and every act Don Quixote performs are through his madness, there is a certain reiterability of every moment of the tale—as every moment for Don Quixote must resemble the books of chivalry, or not been seen at all, every moment and act are similar in just the same way to each other. This reiterability of the essence of chivalry is encapsulated by a repeated figure in the text—after Don Quixote finishes chiding Sancho for not seeing that all knights appear mad (though in reality are not), the narrator cuts Don Quixote off and begins a new paragraph, “Conversing in this manner, they reached the foot…” (234, italics mine), as if what Don Quixote was actually saying didn’t matter, for the form of it, the basic essence of what he would say, we already should know (just as Sancho should).

The basic strategy that Don Quixote’s madness implements over and over to secure its hold occurs after his first encounter with others during his first sally. After revealing his identity through verse to the wenches (or, as Don Quixote perceives them, "ladies"), he concedes he had no intention of doing so, but “the necessity of adapting to present circumstances that old ballad of Lancelot” (36) led him to do so. This is another repeated theme, of adapting to the circumstances around him, and what Don Quixote is adapting is the form of his books to the content of reality. Or perhaps, it is rather the other way around, as Don Quixote says once, “in knighthood there are ways of adjusting everything” (161), notably phrased as not adjusting himself to everything, but adjusting everything to himself. At one point, Sancho gives a fine speech about a rash oath Don Quixote has adapted from that “old madman of a Marquis of Mantua,” saying, “supposing that for many days to come we meet no man wearing a helmet, then what are we to do?” (89) But Sancho, who even perceives Don Quixote’s model as mad, has not yet learned that this is like asking whether Don Quixote will be able to fit another story to “present circumstances.” And though memory sweeps away the oath for about 70 pages (which Sancho gets blamed for), when he is reminded of it, it takes just about 20 for a man with a basin on his head to appear, which Don Quixote sees as “a helmet of gold, for he readily fitted all the things that he saw to his own mad, ill-errant thoughts of chivalry” (185).

Ortega helps us understand both Don Quixote’s madness and the oft-made claim that Don Quixote marked the beginning of the novel (and/or the Modern) when he says that, for the Greeks, “the real is the essential” (Ortega 124). Before Descartes was able to place the whole of reality within his res cogitans (a movement completed by Kant’s transcendental ego), and thus making perception of the appearances our only reality, there was the spectacle of Greek idealism, found in Plato’s elevation of Idea and Eidos to the level of the really real, leaving the appearances of our perceptions mere shadows of their essence, the Forms. So as noted earlier, Don Quixote adjusts everything else to himself because the essence of chivalry is the center of gravity, is his reality, not the shifting appearances of various circumstances. What we might call Don Quixote’s Epitome Speech (Cervantes 189-91) tells us best this essence—for three pages, Don Quixote goes into great detail the general form of every knight’s tale, in future perfect tense, even tossing in an occasional “king or prince or whoever” to show that the story is not set in stone (about 8 or 9 of them in three pages). Cervantes is so good at writing this speech that Putnam pilfers a note from an earlier translator, John Ormsby, saying, “Cervantes gives here an admirable epitome, and without any extravagant caricature, of a typical romance of chivalry” (560n.9). The extraordinary detail, of course, is satirical, but on the other hand, as Ormsby says, it is accurate to the real books of chivalry. Don Quixote takes this general form to be his reality and Don Quixote’s ability to adapt his present circumstances to this form is exhibited by his brief struggle with the fact that he’s not of royal lineage, as all great knights are in the tales, followed by his neat solution (which notably has to do with books): “it may further be that the learned scribe who writes my history will so clear up my relationships and ancestry” (192).

This helps us unlock Don Quixote’s essence by noting with Ortega that Don Quixote’s madness is a satirical instantiation of the Greek mode of reality-as-essence. It is in fact satirical by virtue of it being out-moded. As Ortega points out, we have to read Don Quixote in the light of it being “a polemic against books of chivalry” (Ortega 135), and what it is is a parody of a reality now past, or rather, in a different way, a reality that never existed. The books of chivalry certainly existed, but following Ortega, we should read the chivalric books as in the epic tradition, such that “the epic past is not our past. Our past is thinkable as having been the present once, but the epic past eludes identification with any possible present” (118). This explains why Don Quixote keeps calling his books of chivalry “annals” and “histories,” for instance, “of England that treat of the famous exploits of King Arthur” (Cervantes 106), because Cervantes is parodying these so-called treatments of the past by having Don Quixote believe they are the actual past. And when someone, like the traveler in Chapter 13, pressures Don Quixote about the reality of his reality, the oft-repeated figure of retort is denial (“That…is impossible,” 109) and then recurrence to the books: “I am quite sure that no one ever read a story [that contradicts my reality]…” (109).

Don Quixote’s repeated recurrence to the books of chivalry also helps us unlock how his madness functions, how (our normal) reality is replaced with the books of chivalry (his reality). Take this passage from Don Quixote’s first night with Sancho, which helps establish the pattern of his madness: “He did not sleep all night long for thinking of his lady Dulcinea; for this was in accordance with what he had read in his books, of men of arms in the forest or desert places who kept a wakeful vigil, sustained by the memory of their ladies fair” (74, emphasis mine). The memory Don Quixote is sustained by is not the memory of Dulcinea, for there is no Dulcinea, only an Aldonza Lorenzo that Don Quixote's madness alters to become Dulcinea del Toboso. The memory that sustains Don Quixote is the memory of the books, his memory of the chivalric order, itself a double figure for the order of knights he belongs to and the order he shapes his reality with. Don Quixote’s madness works as a metonymic device, whereby the appearances of our world (Aldonza) are altered (to Dulcinea) so that they resemble, following Foucault, the essence of chivalry, which is Don Quixote’s reality. His entire reality is a series of figures for the hidden (from the person who hasn’t read the books—like Sancho) books of chivalry, or really, his memories of the books of chivalry (punched up nicely by Chapter 4, when the books are burned).

When we return to Chapter 25, where Don Quixote decides to play “the part of a desperate and raving madman” (232), we find all of these themes and figures. To close the events of the previous chapter, Sancho asks Don Quixote why he got so offended when Cardenio disparaged a chivalric queen’s honor—he does so because they are his reality, and so he knows Queen Magimasa better than his own mother (229). When Don Quixote lists off those he will imitate for his bout of faked madness, they are epic personages, Ulysses, Aeneas, Amadis—the latter invoked as “the sole and only one, the very first” (231), which reflects Ortega’s theory of the epic in that the essence (here Amadis) stands outside of history, and is “itself the origin and the norm, the cause and the model of phenomena” (Ortega 121). Don Quixote even realizes this Ortegan wisdom—“And these personages, be it noted, are not depicted or revealed to us as they were but as they ought to have been, that they remain as an example of those qualities for future generations” (Cervantes 231, emphasis mine). Don Quixote decides to imitate Amadis’ madness because it is “easier for me to imitate him in this than by cleaving giants, [etc., etc.,]…” and because “this place where we are is better adapted to such a purpose as the one I have in mind, I feel that I should not let slip the opportunity that now so conveniently offers me its forelock” (231-2, emphasis mine). Don Quixote’s imitation, mind you, will not be “point for point,” but “what I shall give, rather, is a rough sketch, containing what appear to me to be the essentials” (232, emphasis mine).

The series of chapters in the Sierra Morena, in fact, fit in nicely with Ortega’s theory of the epic, tragedy, and comedy. There is a constant flip-flop in Don Quixote as we move from concern for the tragic personages of Don Quixote and (especially) Sancho getting the tar beat out of them to laughing at them, too. These moments of tragedy are also precisely the moments of comedy because these are the moments in which Don Quixote receives his comeuppance for his pretension at being heroic and bossing people around. As Ortega says, “reality” in the novel is a “generic function,” which I take to mean that whatever it is we conceive of as reality functions as the skewer that punctures “man’s pretension to the ideal” (Ortega 144). This flip-flop occurs in two ways: 1) between realism creating comedy and the pretension then producing tragic results (as all epics do) and 2) realistic poetry can only occur with an epic foil—realism can only occur when it has an ideal to skewer. If something realistic loses its foil, the epic myth, it doesn’t lose its –istic and become real, but rather becomes an epic myth itself—an endlessly reiterable essence. Just so with Cardenio’s tragic story—Cardenio has none of Don Quixote’s pretentiousness at heroism, and bereft of that, his story becomes a tragic myth, despite the fact that within Don Quixote Cardenio is real (unlike Don Quixote, who is really Quejana) and whose story has markings of the real (like the fact that as we read it, the unknown detail of what Luscinda’s bodice note said escapes us, like many of reality’s details). For all of that, Cardenio is still not real in the requisite sense of existing outside of the parameters of Cervantes’ novel. Like an epic tragedy, we know the end before we hear it (mad Cardenio in tattered clothes is proof enough). Without Don Quixote’s epic pretentiousness, the foil that creates the comedy, the fictionally bounded character of Cardenio gives us a real tragedy of epic proportions—which can simply become grist for Don Quixote’s mill, as happened earlier to the story of Grisόstomo, echoed by Don Quixote in the Sierra Morena as the “occasion” for his madness (which has the double figure now of both being his excuse for his fake madness and the epic, i.e. chivalric romances, being the cause of his actual madness): “for you have heard that shepherd Ambrosio saying, ‘He who is absent, suffers and fears all evils’” (Cervantes 232). This alluding to: “for whom jealous imaginings, fears, and suspicions became a seeming reality” (119, emphasis mine).


Postscript on Literary Madness

Our understanding of our world and reality, so we say after the post-structuralists and post-positivists have finished their work, is--at least in large part--linguistic. If this is the case, our linguistic representations of reality, by which I mean our descriptions of what's going on around us, are in large part responsible for how we conceive of reality. That being the case, the way we put things in words creates to a certain extent the way we perceive things. And this is just a distended route to throwing out the old slogan, "it's rhetoric all the way down."

At least since Foucault's Madness and Civilization (which in the French is a much larger book) intellectuals have become much more aware of how, in particular, the ideas of insanity and madness, or any category of "mental aberration," are rooted in social constructions, which are partly linguistic. What literature, in general, gives us are differing models of reality-construction--the author orders the reality of his characters by means that the reader perceives implicitly and the critic disentangles explicitly. Seeing literature as such, and seeing reality in general as linguistically conceived, allows us to see the models delivered by literature on a theoretical par with the models delivered by the various sciences and other social institutions. Freud gives us one model of how to conceive of madness; the law gives us another; and Cervantes another. To put it together with my earlier slogan, perception of madness is greatly enhanced by the enlargement of our repertoire of models of mental aberration and, in particular, the critical understanding of how the models work.

In the above, I suggested an understanding of how Cervantes creates his model:
The memory Don Quixote is sustained by is not the memory of Dulcinea, for there is no Dulcinea, only an Aldonza Lorenzo that Don Quixote's madness alters to become Dulcinea del Toboso. The memory that sustains Don Quixote is the memory of the books, his memory of the chivalric order, itself a double figure for the order of knights he belongs to and the order he shapes his reality with. Don Quixote’s madness works as a metonymic device, whereby the appearances of our world (Aldonza) are altered (to Dulcinea) so that they resemble, following Foucault, the essence of chivalry, which is Don Quixote’s reality. His entire reality is a series of figures for the hidden (from the person who hasn’t read the books—like Sancho) books of chivalry, or really, his memories of the books of chivalry (punched up nicely by Chapter 4, when the books are burned).
What I mean by "metonymic device" is that there are two worlds, one the "real world" (what I called "(our normal) reality") and the other the world of chivalry, and that Don Quixote's reality is created by his (largely unconscious) putting up of the chivalric world next to (the metonymy) the normal world and then altering the normal world to resemble the chivalric one.

We might call this one version of a rhetoric of madness. Every conception of madness will have certain methods of creating this effect, in creating the category. I imagine this metonymic device might underlie many other versions (for instance, my treatment of Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven at the end of "Narrative and Making Sense"). Some others include the Lacanian breakdown of a signification chain (which I briefly describe in "Theoretical and Empirical Schizophrenia," which also makes up part of the first half of "Narrative and Making Sense") and Robert Pirsig's spatialized model of madness as "being outside the mythos."

Defining a rhetoric of madness, and the kinds of conceptual moves it makes, should have a special place in philosophical discussion about the "nature of reality" because the nature of this category--call it "madness," "insanity," "mental abnormality"--is designed specifically for those who diverge from what everyone else calls "reality." Rather than using "Nothingness" or "Infinity" as our rhetorical opposites for philosophical reflection about the world in which we finite somethings move, more energy should be concentrated on the way we conceive of those who in practice behave as if they are living in a different world. Foucault made a brilliant beginning on this kind of reflection, and Ian Hacking has followed well, but Pirsig isn't far off when he says that his philosophy opens up a whole new area of discourse, a philosophy of insanity, because philosophers are still too concerned with philosophical puzzles like the relationship between the universal and particular or the contingent and necessary. These puzzles focus attention on Humanity's Opposite as Kant's "starry heavens above," which loses focus on humanity entirely. The puzzles we should concentrate on more are those we have between each other.

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