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"Don Quixote" and the Poetics of the Novel.

MARTINEZ-BONATI, FELIX. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992). xxii + 289 pp. $35.00.

A translation of an unpublished manuscript offers a commentary on a text purporting to be a translation of an unpublished manuscript. Cervantes would have been pleased.

While the Spanish manuscript at issue has not been published in its entirety, substantial segments of it have appeared previously in the journal Dispositio and elsewhere. Having read portions of chapters 1, 3, and 4 in their original form, I have a new appreciation for the art of the translator. It is no small matter to render abstruse Spanish into lucid, elegant English. On the other hand, there is little anyone could do with "the symbolic permanence of an ambiguously exemplary movement" (p. 94).

Although the Germanic style has been largely tamed by a talented translator, evidence of Martfnez-Bonati's immersion in that language and culture shows through in the idealism of his approach and the favorable allusions to philosophers and literary critics of similar persuasion. A Spanish philosopher-critic mentioned with approbation is Jose Ortega y Gasset, likewise a Germanophile. These generally favorable references contrast with the generally unfavorable remarks on common-sense, "funny-book," and materialist approaches.

Our author's transcendental idealism finds support even in Aristotle for assuming that the Quixote must possess unity--which has always been there, latent, ready to reveal itself to an ideal reader. His quest is to identify and describe the form expressing that unity. This form is organic in nature, in that all the constituent parts combine to create a coherent whole when favored by the ideal reading. For example, "temporal paradoxes must be considered not as mistakes but as part of the design of the work" (p. 83) and "the ambiguities of great works are `intentional'; they constitute a design, not the product of indeterminism" (p. 233). Possibly so, but these are manifestly articles of faith; they are not objectively verifiable and they will not pass muster as critical criteria. Moreover, indeterminism and paradox, separately or together, could constitute a perfectly viable "design."

In many respects, this approach is reminiscent of Joaquin Casalduero's belief that a study of the formal properties of the text leads to a proper understanding of the meaning or content. It also recalls the New Critics' well-wrought urns. Unlike some New Critics, Martinez-Bonati (M-B hereafter) would see the intentional fallacy as a fallacy, however, casting his lot with E. D. Hirsch and P. D. Juhl. Yet, even though he writes of Cervantes' "effort to give his work a superior unity" (p. 106), he does not consistently assume congruence between authorial intention and the intentionality inferred by a competent reader. He seems to posit what we might call an "ideal intention." Casalduero, for his part, spoke of order deriving from apparent disorder (discordia concors). That "order" has affinities with M-B's concept of "design."

M-B quite properly eschews interpretations based primarily on the main character, whether "hard" (common-sense), "soft" (idealist), or naive psychoanalytical. His sympathics are with the idealist view of the protagonist, however, as becomes clear in several places (e.g., ". . . our madman has become likable to us, and even admirable, before his recovery of normal health. Chivalry has shown him (and has shown us) values and goals that cannot be attained in that manner, but are not false" [p. 1091). His attempt to surmount "the disjunction between the 'hard' and `soft' interpretations" (p. 110) is very much at the expense of the common-sense and "funny book" schools of thought--which is to say, the "hard" interpretation/

M-B proposes an "unencumbered description" (p. xx) of the text, but, as his title intimates, we will be gently--and gladly--led well beyond description, into interpretation, and ultimately into an arena where M-B is truly in his element: poetics. The title may mislead, however. The author contends that the Quixote is not a novel, so he does not take it for a paradigm on which to base a poetics of that form; rather, he measures the 1605 and 1615 volumes against his own compelling criteria for the realistic and self-conscious varieties, with the inescapable conclusion that the Quixote is, in fact, neither. While it should have been obvious all along that the work is not a realistic novel, M-B's contribution here is to distinguish among thematization of titerature, metanarrative, and metafictionality. These distinctions are clear, insightful, and largely compelling.

To be told what the work is not--a novel--naturally arouses a desire in the reader to know what it is. Here M-B propose that it is "rigorously sui generis" (p. 115). The word "rigorously" again suggests a design, and behind that design a conscious intention. The possibility that it is a countergenre to romance--or an inverted romance, at least in the main plot--merits more consideration than it receives. Since the text displays a multitude of markers pointing to the venerable tradition of Menippus (e.g., irony, paradox, violence, parody, ridicule of pedantry, generic mixing, etc.), the prospect of its being a satura. or anatomy, might also have been entertained more seriously. Obviously, the work is not exclusively of a single kind, so we might think in terms of a "dominant" genre.

We have known, since Frye's Anatomy at least, that the work is a blend of novel, romance, and satire. What M-B does is to refine these distinctions, demonstrating how all of the extant modes and genres are juxtaposed, teased out, and subverted, producing thereby an "architecture of contrasting aesthetic universes" (p. 62). The amalgam is idealized as being one of a kind. What we are offered, then, is "a poetics of the singular configuration" (p. 277 n. 3). Now surely there is more than one singular configuration within the universe of literature.

Does it follow that every singular configuration requires its own poetics? Instead of the English "kind" or the French "genre," M-B prefers the more idealist "region of the imagination" when referring to the several narrative kinds interlaced throughout the Quixote. He also favors coinages like "romancesque." "poetological," and "pluriregionality." But these are venial sins; any self-respecting theoretician is obliged to advance an idiosyncratic lexicon. One can also forgive the excessive enthusiasm of "the unity of this work is unparalleled" (p. 113).

The important point is that the discussion of the so-called regions of the imagination is indeed brilliant. One "region" is, of course, the interpolated Italiante novella about the husband who obliged his best friend to seduce his wife, and here M-B presents the best justification to date for considering that tragic tale to be an integral part of the larger text. This is no mean achievement! Beyond that, he succeeds in showing with precision and subtlety how the spheres of the imagination intersect, interpenetrate, reveal their incompatibilities, transgress one another, and how, in the process, Cervantes far exceeds any narrative experiment of his day. The analysis of the transitions from one region to another is particularly well done. This is the heart of the study. The lengthy and persuasive commentary on the regions of the imagination, more than any other aspect treated, is what makes this a significant contribution.

Although there are keen perceptions throughout regarding the usurpation of narrative voice, comments on the diegetic domain are generally less successful than those centered on mimesis. For instance, on a single page we find anomalies like "the narrator Cervantes," "the intrinsic narrator," "the communion of narrator and reader" (no narratees here!) and, in the interest of transcendental unity, the dubious premise that "stylistically and aesthetically there is just one basic narrator in the Quixote" (p. 101). The paradox of M-B's holistic procedure is that, in attempting to idealize Cervantes' narrative technique by elevating it to stratospheric levels of unsurpassed unity, he in fact diminishes it by purging it of complexity--and interest.

We are advised not to "exaggerate the narrative paradoxes" (p. 102). One should not exaggerate, but we might try to do them justice. E. C. Riley has also urged that we not scrutinize this dimension too closely. Frankly, it amazes me that serious critics would want to minimize careful distinctions among narrative voices and levels. In general, M-B speaks well of "those who look attentively and persistently" (p. 230)--but not too attentively or persistently in this one area it seems. Again, this is to dismiss major problems and issues, as was mentioned above concerning genre.

To sum up, the study is uneven, alternating as it does between brilliant discourse and facile dismissal. Fortunately, there is a vast preponderance of the former, which makes this required reading for anyone who has a serious interest in the Quixote. M-B's effort to transcend "hard" and "soft" readings is mirrored on the theoretical level in his attempt to transcend intentionalist/phenomenological cross purposes. While refusing to situate meaning exclusively in the author, the text, or the reader, he nonetheless ends up privileging reading-his readingwhich supposedly coincides with both authorial and textual intention. We may arch our eyebrows or smile indulgently at the curious claim that this "is the original reading, that of an educated contemporary of Cervantes ... it is the best reading, forever prescribed by the text and its pertinent circumstances" (p. 23 1). The fact is, however, that only two or three others presently working in this field could have pulled together such a cogent commentary. The copious critical endnotes alone justify the price of the volume. But caveat emptor: if you are passionately involved with the Quixote, you will not put this exhaustive and exhausting study down until you--and it--are exhausted.
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Author:Parr, James A.
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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