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Anthony J. Cascardi. Cervantes, Literature, and the Discourse of Politics.

Anthony J. Cascardi. Cervantes, Literature, and the Discourse of Politics. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2012. Pp. 351.

In this fascinating recent book, Anthony J. Cascardi argues that the novelist and playwright Miguel de Cervantes was a political thinker and that his great literary experiment, Don Quijote, is deeply concerned with political discourse. Cascardi demonstrates that literature functions for Cervantes as a platform for imagining and pursuing the very political ideals that the pragmatic exigencies of realpolitik and the regulation of expression in early modern Spain seem to prohibit. Yet Cervantes does not restrict politics either to an abstract debate about principles or to a science of effective rule. Instead, as Cascardi argues, Cervantes turns to literature precisely in order to resist such a foreclosure. While previous scholarship has focused on the relationship between formal, aesthetic questions and the nature of truth in Cervantes's works, Cascardi innovatively shows that the stakes of these intersecting literary and philosophical concerns are profoundly political. Cervantes's exploration of the mimetic possibilities of fiction and his use of oblique language together expose what political theorists have been unwilling or unable to say directly: Literature is necessary for articulating what politics is and might be.

"Literature," then, is the name Cascardi gives to Cervantes's dual interrogation of political theory and political practice. The book's second chapter, which focuses on the canon's remarks about chivalric romance, establishes the foundation for this line of inquiry by underscoring the political uses of literary theory. Highlighting the inconsistency between the canon's love of fantasy and his desire to preserve literature as a guarantor of state order, Cervantes displays both the "conditions of political constraint" (28) associated with neo-Aristotelian literary conventions and a recognition, paradoxically present even in Plato's Republic, that fiction is central to the imagination of political ideals. The book's third chapter further develops this claim, arguing that Don Quijote's speech about the golden age allows Cervantes to conceive of politics outside the specific historical context of early modern Spain. And as the fourth chapter argues, Cervantes borrows the framework for representing this tension between theory and practice from the humanist rhetorical tradition of controversia, which involved arguing both sides of a given question. Cascardi sees Thomas Hobbes's later insistence on the need for political consensus as a reaction against the "dangers of contradiction" (97) inherent in this humanist tradition and exemplified by Don Quijote's own discourse on arms and letters.

While the book's early chapters explore Cervantes's concern with the relationship between literature and politics, the central fourth and fifth chapters offer a strikingly new conception of what political theory and practice actually entail. Cascardi interprets both Don Quijote's visions in the Cave of Montesinos and the Clavileno episode as reformulations of the ancient notion of theoria, which involved undertaking a challenging voyage, witnessing an exotic or divine spectacle, and returning to offer a public report to one's community. Cascardi's point here is that Cervantes seems interested in the "non-empirical nature of certain sources of insight" (128) that, nonetheless, might serve pragmatic political ends. Governor Sancho and his political adviser, Don Quijote himself, try to put those recently acquired insights to use when Sancho takes over as ruler of his long-coveted island. But it turns out that Barataria, as the duke and duchess aptly call the local village that they present to Sancho as his new realm, is nothing but layer on layer of invention. In examining the fictions at the core of the political discourses and class identities represented in this scene, the book's sixth chapter underscores Cervantes's refusal to shift, as we might expect, from a political theory born of travel to the actual practice of governance at home. According to Cascardi, Cervantes instead raises the problem of ideology.

Though Don Quijote repeatedly laments the disintegration of medieval chivalric ideals and the social hierarchy they buttressed, Cervantes makes clear that the early modern absolutist and mercantile order emerging in its place rests on parallel fantasies of community. The disavowal of these "fictitious conditions" (164) of social and political reality is what Cascardi means by "ideology." Drawing on the story of the Morisco Ricote and his daughter, Ana Felix, the book's seventh chapter studies the implications of this claim, arguing that the early seventeenth-century politics of the Mediterranean belie the episode's neat romantic resolution, even as romance itself unveils the limitations of a nascent national imaginary. Cervantes thus occupies a critical stance vis-a-vis both the political events of his own day and his varied sources, which include political strategists like Machiavelli, civic humanists like Justus Lipsius and Alonso de Castrillo, and classical political theorists such as Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. Studying the underlying tension among these different approaches to politics, the book's eighth chapter turns to a series of exempla, including, among others, the stories of Marcela and Grisostomo, Cardenio and Luscinda, and the "Curioso Impertinente," in order to examine Cervantes's stance on the public and private settings for political and literary performance. What sort of virtue, Cascardi asks, is possible in early modern civil society? This is a difficult question, for despite the Quijote's diverse forms of "copious discourse" (248), early modern Spanish society was highly regulated. As Cascardi insists in the book's concluding chapter, it is for this reason that Cervantes explored political questions through the apparently nonpolitical discursive forms present in the novel.

In addressing these and many other episodes, turns of phrase, and images, not only from Don Quijote but also from the Novelas ejemplares and Trabajos de Persiles y Segismunda, Cascardi pursues two central aims. The first, described above, is to explore the diverse ways that Cervantes considered the polis. The legal, linguistic, philosophical, and, of course, political and literary sources that Cascardi marshals as evidence to this end are persuasive, indeed--so much so that some readers might be forgiven for wondering what in Don Quijote does not fundamentally concern political discourse. Because Cascardi contends that literature is the place where competing frames for political discourse are negotiated, he implicitly charges experts in literary history and interpretation with reimagining and relocating the very boundaries of the political. Along with scholars of early modern European literature and history, cultural theorists and political thinkers in a variety of fields will need to grapple with this important but potentially controversial methodological point. The book's second principal aim, which extends and reformulates Cascardi's previous work on the question of modernity, is to imagine how political discourse "might have been otherwise, and yet still fully modern" (1) had Cervantes's approach and commitments exerted greater influence on modern intellectual and political history. This suggestive formulation indicates that Cascardi, like Cervantes, is "fully aware of the fact that to think about the ideal state would have to involve thinking and writing in counter-factual terms" (7). Though Cascardi is ultimately more concerned with reconstructing Cervantes's assessment of the relationship between literature and politics than with presenting his own version of an historical fiction, he nevertheless opens a new space for other readers to imagine such narratives. In so doing, Cervantes, Literature, and the Discourse of Politics brilliantly renders Don Quijote intelligible as a reflection on political discourse while also asking what should be considered political in the first place. (SETH KIMMEL, Columbia University)
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Author:Kimmel, Seth
Publication:The Romanic Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2012
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