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Is Don Quixote Unreadable? 
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Post Re: Is Don Quixote Unreadable?
Robert Tulip wrote:
I read your comment about the Duke and Duchess being cruel to Don Quixote before I read Book 2, so I was surprised to find that my reading did not match yours, as I did not think they were cruel at all. I hope you won’t keep comparing my comments to creationism if I venture to explore how my opinion may differ from yours?

The issue here might be that Cervantes/the narrator doesn't present the Duke and Duchess as cruel. "Doesn't present" depends on words mostly not said about them and their actions towards Don & Sancho. This is consistent with the narrator's hands-off, totally non-judgmental stance throughout. Even the remark, made about the D & D, that one has to wonder just who really the insane ones are, is put into the mouth of Cide Hamete. Remarkable. To me, though, it's clear why BE saw the D and D as cruel. Weren't they just trying to amuse their idle, royal selves at the expense of these lovable bufoons? Why should they care if they cause distress to Don & Sancho as long as they get some laughs? But again, this a view from the outside, not one within the book. I think there are many such views, from the outside, that work their way into discussions of DQ.
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A conundrum in Don Quixote is why Cervantes had such a thing against chivalric literature. He says the whole point of the book is to get people to stop reading trash. It is like if a great author today took it as his mission to demonstrate that celebrity tattle rags like Who Weekly, or the trashy pulp fiction newspapers like News of the World, are not serious broadsheets or high literature. Something doesn’t add up with this surface story. It looks like a device. So, the question can be asked, is knight errantry standing in as proxy for some other real target, something that Cervantes cannot attack directly? Who else, like Don Quixote, believes a lot of fantasy? Who else, like Don Quixote, worships an imaginary woman as a holy icon? Who else, like Don Quixote, insists that old texts of dubious provenance be regarded as perfect authorities and completely true in all respects?

Robert, I will be happy, truly, to be shown the truth of this point about Cervantes' saying he wants everyone to quit reading knight errantry literature. I can't see this, and not just because there is no direct statement to that effect. For one, as I think you pointed out early on, Cervantes himself needed to be very up on this popular form in order to write about a man who took it all as reality. For another, the priest, a respected figure, shows that even he has read some of it and finds some of it worthy of keeping. Finally, no one in the book besides Don is shown to have been led down the wrong path by these books. If Cervantes was satirizing/attacking a prevalent social "meme" that caused bizarre notions such as are manifested in DQ, he would have shown us this happening in the book, but he doesn't. All of this is okay, by the way, this disinterested stance of Cervantes/the narrator. It doesn't reduce his achievement in the book at all that he has no moral designs on his subject. I rather think it enhances his achievement.


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Mon May 31, 2010 1:16 pm
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Post Re: Is Don Quixote Unreadable?
DWill wrote:
I didn't read the introduction, so I don't know whether Bloom says the book itself is as great as the two characters. What does anyone mean by 'great" anyway? They'd have to specify. The book is certainly more than those two and their relationship. If you ever read the book, I hope you might get an angle on this "get it" aspect that Robert is pounding. It seems rather high-handed to me. Not seeing, denying in fact that something is really there, as I have done, isn't the same as "not getting."


The passage I quoted is from Bloom's How To Read and Why. I think the "secular" comment will make more sense if I start from the beginning.

Bloom wrote:
Any discussion of how to read novels and why must include the Don Quixote of Cervantes, the first and best of all novels, which nevertheless is more than a novel. To my favorite critic of Cervantes, the Basque writer Miguel de Unamuno, the book was the true Spanish Bible, and "Our Lord Don Quixote" was the authentic Christ. If I may be wholly secular, Cervantes seems to me Shakespeare's only possible rival in the imaginative literature of the past four centuries. Don Quixote is the peer of Hamlet, and Sancho Panza is a match for Sir John Falstaff. Higher praise I do not know how to render. Exact contemporaries (they may have died upon the same day), Shakespeare had evidently read Don Quixote, but it is most unlikely that Cervantes had ever heard of Shakespeare.


Do a Google search of this quote and you will be able to read at least some of this chapter in Google Books. I will spare the link because it is unaccountably long.

Bloom is giddy with enthusiasm over Don Quixote and I think that says something about Don Quixote as a work of literature. It also says something about his own bias but I think that's okay. As one of the preeminent members of the literati class, Bloom's perspective is hopelessly skewed and I would expect him to be passionate about certain works of literature. I'll take Bloom's word on the merits of Don Quixote in the same vein as I would listen to a scientist explaining string theory (realizing, of course, that literature is not a science and also realizing that string theory is just a theory). I'm not very familiar with either of these subjects, so I will rely on the "experts" for now.

Granted, I'm quite sure I will never be on Bloom's wavelength. Remember the flap a few years back when he said the National Book Foundation made an "egregious" error in bestowing its annual award for "distinguished contribution" to Stephen King? For one thing, us regular folks don't throw around words like "egregious." Bloom is blessed (or cursed) with highbrow tastes and, as such, his comments are certainly subjective and of limited value. Your average person, myself included, will not feel the same about Don Quixote as he does. And I will admit right here in front of everyone that I like Stephen King. In fact, I am currently reading Duma Key and rather enjoying it too.

I didn't mean to put bleachededen on the defensive. I should have worded my comments more responsibly. I haven't read Don Quixote myself in part because at the time this discussion started I was still in the thick of Richard Tarnas' The Passion of the Western Mind. But also in part because I don't think I'm ready for it. I'll tackle it some day, but hopefully I'll be more familiar with Spanish history and especially with this particular time period so that I may better understand the cultural context from which this work sprung. Hopefully then I will be able to appreciate, to some degree at least, why this work remains relevant, why "quixotic" remains in our lexicon, and why this work is so revered by someone like Bloom (and Robert Tulip too). I want this.

One more thing and then I'll go away because I really have no business commenting on this thread. Typically when I read something by Homer or Chaucer or Dickens, I'm not reading for entertainment, although that's certainly part of it. I'm reading to connect with writers from the past and to expand my knowledge of different cultures. I think that's what true literature is all about. It is an amazing experience to connect with our past in this way in my opinion. It was something of a challengeto read the Iliad and The Odyssey a couple of years back, but it was also tremendously rewarding.


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Mon May 31, 2010 3:26 pm
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Post Re: Is Don Quixote Unreadable?
DWill wrote:
I will be happy, truly, to be shown the truth of this point about Cervantes' saying he wants everyone to quit reading knight errantry literature. I can't see this, and not just because there is no direct statement to that effect. For one, as I think you pointed out early on, Cervantes himself needed to be very up on this popular form in order to write about a man who took it all as reality. For another, the priest, a respected figure, shows that even he has read some of it and finds some of it worthy of keeping. Finally, no one in the book besides Don is shown to have been led down the wrong path by these books. If Cervantes was satirizing/attacking a prevalent social "meme" that caused bizarre notions such as are manifested in DQ, he would have shown us this happening in the book, but he doesn't. All of this is okay, by the way, this disinterested stance of Cervantes/the narrator. It doesn't reduce his achievement in the book at all that he has no moral designs on his subject. I rather think it enhances his achievement.


At the conclusion of Book 2, Cide Hamete says, as he hangs up his pen to conclude, "my only desire has been to have people reject and despise the false and nonsensical histories of the books of chivalry". (p940)

We can also see Cervantes' views coming out in the conversations of the barber, the canon and the priest/curate in chapter xlvii

Quote:
The barber did not care to answer Sancho lest by his plain speaking he should disclose what the curate and he himself were trying so hard to conceal; and under the same apprehension the curate had asked the canon to ride on a little in advance, so that he might tell him the mystery of this man in the cage, and other things that would amuse him. The canon agreed, and going on ahead with his servants, listened with attention to the account of the character, life, madness, and ways of Don Quixote, given him by the curate, who described to him briefly the beginning and origin of his craze, and told him the whole story of his adventures up to his being confined in the cage, together with the plan they had of taking him home to try if by any means they could discover a cure for his madness. The canon and his servants were surprised anew when they heard Don Quixote's strange story, and when it was finished he said, "To tell the truth, senor curate, I for my part consider what they call books of chivalry to be mischievous to the State; and though, led by idle and false taste, I have read the beginnings of almost all that have been printed, I never could manage to read any one of them from beginning to end; for it seems to me they are all more or less the same thing; and one has nothing more in it than another; this no more than that. And in my opinion this sort of writing and composition is of the same species as the fables they call the Milesian, nonsensical tales that aim solely at giving amusement and not instruction, exactly the opposite of the apologue fables which amuse and instruct at the same time. And though it may be the chief object of such books to amuse, I do not know how they can succeed, when they are so full of such monstrous nonsense. For the enjoyment the mind feels must come from the beauty and harmony which it perceives or contemplates in the things that the eye or the imagination brings before it; and nothing that has any ugliness or disproportion about it can give any pleasure. What beauty, then, or what proportion of the parts to the whole, or of the whole to the parts, can there be in a book or fable where a lad of sixteen cuts down a giant as tall as a tower and makes two halves of him as if he was an almond cake? And when they want to give us a picture of a battle, after having told us that there are a million of combatants on the side of the enemy, let the hero of the book be opposed to them, and we have perforce to believe, whether we like it or not, that the said knight wins the victory by the single might of his strong arm. And then, what shall we say of the facility with which a born queen or empress will give herself over into the arms of some unknown wandering knight? What mind, that is not wholly barbarous and uncultured, can find pleasure in reading of how a great tower full of knights sails away across the sea like a ship with a fair wind, and will be to-night in Lombardy and to-morrow morning in the land of Prester John of the Indies, or some other that Ptolemy never described nor Marco Polo saw? And if, in answer to this, I am told that the authors of books of the kind write them as fiction, and therefore are not bound to regard niceties of truth, I would reply that fiction is all the better the more it looks like truth, and gives the more pleasure the more probability and possibility there is about it. Plots in fiction should be wedded to the understanding of the reader, and be constructed in such a way that, reconciling impossibilities, smoothing over difficulties, keeping the mind on the alert, they may surprise, interest, divert, and entertain, so that wonder and delight joined may keep pace one with the other; all which he will fail to effect who shuns verisimilitude and truth to nature, wherein lies the perfection of writing. I have never yet seen any book of chivalry that puts together a connected plot complete in all its numbers, so that the middle agrees with the beginning, and the end with the beginning and middle; on the contrary, they construct them with such a multitude of members that it seems as though they meant to produce a chimera or monster rather than a well-proportioned figure. And besides all this they are harsh in their style, incredible in their achievements, licentious in their amours, uncouth in their courtly speeches, prolix in their battles, silly in their arguments, absurd in their travels, and, in short, wanting in everything like intelligent art; for which reason they deserve to be banished from the Christian commonwealth as a worthless breed."
The curate listened to him attentively and felt that he was a man of sound understanding, and that there was good reason in what he said; so he told him that, being of the same opinion himself, and bearing a grudge to books of chivalry, he had burned all Don Quixote's, which were many; and gave him an account of the scrutiny he had made of them, and of those he had condemned to the flames and those he had spared, with which the canon was not a little amused, adding that though he had said so much in condemnation of these books, still he found one good thing in them, and that was the opportunity they afforded to a gifted intellect for displaying itself; for they presented a wide and spacious field over which the pen might range freely, describing shipwrecks, tempests, combats, battles, portraying a valiant captain with all the qualifications requisite to make one, showing him sagacious in foreseeing the wiles of the enemy, eloquent in speech to encourage or restrain his soldiers, ripe in counsel, rapid in resolve, as bold in biding his time as in pressing the attack; now picturing some sad tragic incident, now some joyful and unexpected event; here a beauteous lady, virtuous, wise, and modest; there a Christian knight, brave and gentle; here a lawless, barbarous braggart; there a courteous prince, gallant and gracious; setting forth the devotion and loyalty of vassals, the greatness and generosity of nobles. "Or again," said he, "the author may show himself to be an astronomer, or a skilled cosmographer, or musician, or one versed in affairs of state, and sometimes he will have a chance of coming forward as a magician if he likes. He can set forth the craftiness of Ulysses, the piety of AEneas, the valour of Achilles, the misfortunes of Hector, the treachery of Sinon, the friendship of Euryalus, the generosity of Alexander, the boldness of Caesar, the clemency and truth of Trajan, the fidelity of Zopyrus, the wisdom of Cato, and in short all the faculties that serve to make an illustrious man perfect, now uniting them in one individual, again distributing them among many; and if this be done with charm of style and ingenious invention, aiming at the truth as much as possible, he will assuredly weave a web of bright and varied threads that, when finished, will display such perfection and beauty that it will attain the worthiest object any writing can seek, which, as I said before, is to give instruction and pleasure combined; for the unrestricted range of these books enables the author to show his powers, epic, lyric, tragic, or comic, and all the moods the sweet and winning arts of poesy and oratory are capable of; for the epic may be written in prose just as well as in verse."


The last emphasised point is Cervantes' own objective in Don Quixote, to give instruction and pleasure combined. DWill, you have emphasised the pleasure side while I have emphasised the instruction. Part of the instruction is that many things are presented as true that are actually false. Books of chivalry are the tip of this conceptual iceberg.



Mon May 31, 2010 6:31 pm
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Post Re: Is Don Quixote Unreadable?
Robert, thank you for providing those passages. Cide Hamete was again given the role of moral voice. As I talked about at times, the narrative structure of DQ is the most interesting thing about it to me. What does it mean that the narrator (maybe call him N1 to distinguish from N2 Cide Hamete) avoids this kind of commitment? If we associate N1 with Cervantes, why does he, Cervantes, not state this opinion? The dialogue between the Canon and the priest is rather a wash, isn't it. The conversation shows Cervantes' dramatic talents (of course, he was a playwright, too), and it confirms my image of Cervantes as the most liberal and genial of author/narrators, one who would not ever want to ride a hobby horse and is neither teacher nor preacher.


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