Friday, August 06, 2010

One of the Most Important Chapters in the Entire History

I don't think this piece is as interesting as my first piece on the Don, "The Necessity of Adapting to Changing Circumstances," but it fills in a connection with another preoccupation of mine, Romanticism and the form of life it spawns. I use below a trope I like to use to describe that lebensform: a fish-blink life, the life of someone for whom each moment is their first. "Oh, a rhinestone!" [blink] "Oh, a rhinestone!" [blink] "Oh, a rhinestone!" This is an idea that Wyndham Lewis best explicated in Time and Western Man as what the embodiment would be if someone lived the apotheosis of the immediate found in the English Romantics and theorized by Bergson. I find it quite resonate not only with those who philosophize the Quest for Immediacy, but also the regular kinds of people who extol immediacy and the derived mysticisms from that idea. Combine this with Don Quixote's madness, and you have a thesis project.

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).
Anna Bostock's translation of Georg Lukács's The Theory of the Novel.


Taking well in hand the notice that use of superlative is rife throughout Don Quixote, I think we should yet take special note of Chapter 6, Part 2: “Of What Took Place Between Don Quixote and His Housekeeper, Which Is One of the Most Important Chapters in the Entire History.” This chapter functions as something like a portal in Part 2, which as Cid Hamete Benengeli, our Moorish author, says doesn’t really get started until Chapter 8 (Cervantes 651). What we get in this chapter are a series of repeated figures in Don Quixote, most of which we are quite familiar with by now, but some of which are brought to the fore in a special way.

The chapter opens with the niece and housekeeper noticing that Don Quixote, still caught by “his ill-errant conception of knighthood” (637), is bent on going out on more, as the housekeeper says, “adventures but which I call misfortunes” (ibid.). These revaluations of situations between Don Quixote’s view and on-lookers are, of course, a constant feature, but these two, in particular, call on Don Quixote to give us his view of knighthood, and thereby adventure. When asked why he can’t just stay at court like other knights, Don Quixote gives us a neat division between courtiers and knights-errant. Whereas courtiers, Don Quixote says, “may travel all over the earth merely by looking at a map,” we knights-errant “take the measure of the entire globe with our feet” (638). Don Quixote locks down the significance by saying, “We know our enemies not from pictures but as they really are” (ibid., italics mine), which is extraordinary given how Don Quixote’s reality—how things really are for him—is taken from books of chivalry.

The truly extraordinary event—and fairly new as far as self-evaluations of his own situation go—occurs when Don Quixote then promptly says that “We pay no attention to the childish rules that are supposed to govern knightly duels…” (ibid.). For one who is as intent on following the law and letter of the order and rules of chivalry, such stark scorn is startling. Even as Don Quixote might easily reply that he’s only ever upheld the rules for knights-errant, which is what he’s talking about in contradistinction to courtiers, the repeated figure is still that of the order of chivalry, which does go wider than just knights-errant (as the commonality between Don Fernando and Don Quixote displays). The nearest predecessor to this newer explication is even more startling: “Who is so ignorant as not to know that knights-errant are beyond all jurisdiction…?” (481), this to the Holy Brotherhood at the Inn in Part I.

I’ll come back to this figure, but for now I’d like to continue with Don Quixote’s discourse. What we get in chapter 6 is a window into Don Quixote’s sense of self, his sense of what chivalry and knight-errantry are all about, as a result of his (vain) attempt to persuade his niece and housekeeper that all is right in the world. We get the color of this window when the niece attempts to rebut Don Quixote with the obvious (to us) retort, “your Grace must remember that all this you are saying about knights-errant is a fable and a lie” (639). To this Don Quixote exclaims that this is a “blasphemy you have uttered” (ibid.), which is a curious, religious turn of phrase. You normally would only blaspheme against God and his sacred vassals, but—as Don Quixote later explains—“chivalry is a religion in itself” (657).

That the niece would “presume to criticize these knightly histories” (639) prompts Don Quixote to give another extraordinary discourse, this time on a distinction between knights within knight-errantry. Letting loose his anger, Don Quixote recurs to the great Amadis: “What would my lord Amadis say if he could hear such a thing?” (639) Hearing himself exclaim in such a manner as to figure Amadis for vengeance causes Don Quixote—within each distinct moment as he ever is—to hasten to add, “To be sure, he would pardon you…. But there are others who might have heard you, and in that case it would not have gone so well with you” (ibid.). This distinction between Amadis and “rascals” gives us a picture of knight-errantry much like the double figure of God—both smiter and forgiver.

I think we should take Don Quixote’s exclamation of Amadis as a surprising moment for Don Quixote himself, for which he then has to patch up and look reasoned with his further discourse on the two kinds of knights-errant. I think the niece hits the nail when, after this discourse, she says, “in a pinch you could get right up in the pulpit or go out and start preaching in the streets” (640, italics mine). The reason I think we should take Don Quixote as somewhat surprised at himself is that I think Lukács is describing Don Quixote when he says, “The complete absence of an inwardly experienced problematic transforms such a soul into pure activity” (Lukács 99, italics mine). Don Quixote has the unshakeable “inner certitude” (ibid.) from the centeredness he takes from his faith in the order of chivalry, and so simply enacts that order on the reality that confronts him. Now, Lukács says that such a soul is “incapable of any contemplation” (ibid.), to which the obvious rejoinder in the case of Don Quixote would be—does he not reason quite often and quite intelligently? He does, but Don Quixote does not think, he holds forth in speeches and lectures, all internal functions becoming immediately externalized. There is never an “inwardly experienced problematic,” for there never really is any problem—on the inside. All of Don Quixote’s problems arise from his externalizations.

All Don Quixote ever experiences are external problems, which we can otherwise call “adventures.” As Lukács says, “the life of a person with such a soul,” as Don Quixote has, “becomes an uninterrupted series of adventures” (ibid.). And as Ortega says, “each adventure is a new birth of the world, a unique process” (Ortega 132). Don Quixote moves through the world like a fish—every time the fish blinks, it confronts a new world in isolation from the old, and so mainly too with every new, demarcated adventure. That is what it is to be a being of pure action—like a fish-blink life, your whole set of habits are brought to bear fresh on each situation devoid of context, once the “adventure” signal is given. An exemplary example of this is Master Pedro’s puppet show. Don Quixote interrupts the show twice to critique the proceedings, clearly not caught up in the action of the show, but still not reflective on what’s happening. Don Quixote is rather commenting on it from his inner source of action: he interrupts the second time to say that the bells are inaccurate, full of inner certitude at the bells being “beyond a doubt a great piece of nonsense” (Cervantes 807). To this Master Pedro retorts, “Don’t be looking for trifles,” and Don Quixote—action met with action, in this case speech with speech—backs down (“You have spoken the truth”), not because he’s reflected on the issue, but like a sword being parried by another, he must accept the parry and move on—just like his own parry of himself when he surprisingly figured Amadis for vengeance. And from this context of being completely not caught up in the action of the puppet show, Don Quixote suddenly and inexplicably is, as Ortega puts it, “snatched up in the illusory vortex” (Ortega 133). Typically, we would think of a show like this as bringing people like Don Quixote under a spell, slowly putting them to sleep, but Don Quixote's reactions in this scene are like being wide awake one moment and sawing logs the next. The only plausible explanation is through the Ortegean sense of adventure—Don Quixote suddenly received the mysterious signal that a new adventure had started (“Upon seeing such a lot of Moors and hearing such a din,” Cervantes 808), one that required its own new problematic (the Moors are attacking!) and solutions (save “so famous a knight and so bold a lover as Don Gaiferos,” ibid.).

These adventures are the externalized manifestation of the hero’s reality principle. The hero seeks adventures to prove this reality principle, which is why, as Ortega adds, Don Quixote’s will is “obsessed with one single goal: adventure” (Ortega 136). The adventure is the externalization of the hero’s will, which is to be oneself, which is to bring us around in a circle, for the hero's self is his reality principle. Ortega says, “this will to be oneself is heroism” (149). This radical involution—adventure is the externalized will of the hero; the hero’s will is to be himself; he is his reality principle; Don Quixote’s reality is knight-errantry which is adventure—is at the heart of such surprisingly forthright statements of honesty as “We pay no attention to the childish rules” (Cervantes 638) and “knights-errant are beyond all jurisdiction” (481). The order of chivalry attains primacy for Don Quixote only because of a previous act of will, as he continually intimates at almost all points—e.g., in chapter 6, “Heaven wills, fate ordains, reason asks, and, above all, my own will desires” (642, italics mine). Ortega says at one point, “Far from the tragic originating in fate, then, it is essential for the hero to want his tragic destiny” (Ortega 154). The ultimate act of expression for a titanic will like Don Quixote’s was to will the restraints of the order of chivalry on himself, which at the same time are the restraints of constant adventure and enactment of one’s will, “beyond all jurisdiction.”

If one asks what the external point of all this willing of oneself and seeking of adventure to prove the reality of one’s will (or rather, the will of one’s reality) is, then it can only be the record of that titanic will—fame and immortality. Though we get more and more reflections on fame and eternal glory as we move through Part II, more and more involved with the books on Don Quixote as they come out (and Chapter 8 provides us with the first good treatment of fame), Chapter 6 does have those subtle inflections of essential thematic that are inherent in the reiterable essence of chivalry that is Don Quixote. After his taxonomy of knights and then knights-errant, Don Quixote gives us a theory of people: those on the upswing, on the downswing, always up, and always down. Of the latter, he says they had “neither a good start nor a subsequent history that was in any way out of the ordinary and who accordingly will have a nameless end…” (Cervantes 640, italics mine). They “increase the number of the living without any other claim to fame, since they have achieved no form of greatness that entitles them to praise” (641, italics mine). Don Quixote sees “greatness,” not as money or land, or honor or virtue, but as deeds that are recorded—becoming a “name.” The former list falls out from the attainment of the latter, as the promise of an island is continually held out to Sancho Panza. And that is Don Quixote’s tragedy. Don Quixote’s tragic fate, which he wills and desires, is to be Don Quixote—his will is to be the titanic will of Don Quixote, that laughable figure of titanic will. Don Quixote’s tragic fate is to be the immortal, literary figure of Don Quixote. Which is Ortega’s point about epic—the titanic will is out of place, and Don Quixote is that exemplification of an out of place will, and as such is both tragic and comic, buffoonish and sad.

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