The Humble Story of Don Quixote. Reflections on the Birth of the Modern Novel.
According to Cesareo Bandera's new book, two circumstances intersected in the pen of Cervantes to give birth to the first modern novel in seventeenth-century Spain: a new historical mentality, together with a talented novelist with the Christian will to rescue his character. Don Quixote was a fool because he believed he was a hero. But, instead of making the madman the center of victimization and expulsion, as heroic literature would have done, Cervantes rescues the fool from his self-inflicted madness, by means of Christian compassion, creating, in Bandera's words, "the story of a prolonged and compassionate rescue" (9).
Bandera's explanation for how the modern novel came to be is framed by his kaleidoscopic erudition that supports a precisely crafted argumentation extending beyond strict textual interpretation. In the process of eloquently evolving his thesis, Bandera challenges basal cultural readings of Mikhail Bakhtin and Michel Foucault, offers classical and modern conceptions of madness with debate of views from psychologists and sociologists, engages in the discussion of the ideas of two of the greatest Spanish cervantistas (Miguel de Unamuno and Amado Alonso), and elaborates insightful analysis of picaresque novels, pastoral novels, and of two of Unamuno's fictions (Abel Sanchez and Niebla.) Each topic is developed in such a complete fashion that it could be read as an independent essay, while, at the same time, Bandera never allows his reasoning to get disconnected from the main analysis. The result is a protean, and yet focused, argumentation.
This abundance of intellectual argumentation supports the two basal ideas of the book. One, the notion for historical desacralization, works mostly as a frame to the analysis of the novel. The other, the concept of mediated desire, is applied to the concrete textual interpretation. The two concepts are not new to Bandera's thought, although the exhaustive application to the reading of the Quixote is (see Mimesis conflictiva y violencia en Cervantes y Calderon, Editorial Gredos, 1975; and The Sacred Game: The Role of the Sacred in the Genesis of Modern Literary Fiction, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.)
Bandera states that Christianity at the opening of the modern times brings about a change in the perception of the relationship between God, humans, and the world. This new mentality entails a desacralization of the world that "reflects not God's unconcern, but God's innocence ..." (4). As part of this historical process, the pagan victim loses his sacred power, bringing about the exhaustion of the epic novel. The process produces a renewed interest in the antihero, evident in Spain with the vogue of the picaresque novel. In turn, it allows for the unprecedented literary development of a novel like the Quixote, articulated around the figure of the fool: "It could be said that Cervantes's Don Quixote is the first modern novel because it is the first full-length desacralized narrative of a conventional antiheroic figure" (39).
The second commanding idea in Bandera's study explains the character's madness, his distorted view of reality, and the role of the interpolated stories in part I by introducing the concept of mediated desire. According to Bandera's argument, Don Quixote's madness is caused by the desire of a model ("radiant Amadis") that is impossible to reach, and a model with which Don Quixote has to compete if he wants to become the "best" knight. This desire produces the distorted reality of Don Quixote's world, since for him,
everything is real not in itself, but in reference to Amadis, whose reality, in turn, is not subject to empirical confirmation, for it is he, Amadis, who gives meaning to reality, who makes reality real, and not the other way around. In other words, in Don Quixote's mind at this point, for all intents and purposes, Amadis is God ... The problem is, of course, that God-like Amadis is not God. God transcends reality but does not ignore it or make it irrelevant. (155)
As Bandera notes, the sentiment that ties Don Quixote to Amadis, so similar to that of envy, is also the origin of conflict in most of the interpolated stories in Part I (the exception being the story of the Captive.) Grisostomo, Cardenio, Don Fernando, Anselmo, even Dorotea, engage in this pathological behavior, which escalates as part I progresses the characters' "complicity in its own demise" (240).
The desire for the obstacle not only provokes a loss of contact with reality but also a loss of inner freedom once the characters' desires "become mimetically entangled with, and mediated by, one another's desire" (255). Where is this distorted, literaturized view of reality coming from? Bandera points to the pastoral novel, where, as he demonstrates with a detailed analysis of the most prominent representatives of the genre, this behavior is pervasive.
The two central ideas (desacralization of the victim and the concept of mediated desire) are connected to explain why the modern novel was born to Cervantes's pen. The alienating behavior takes the characters on a dangerous path of destruction. In the case of the Quixote, the destruction is averted by the talent and the will of the author, who saves Don Quixote (as well as the characters in Palomeque's inn) from his lahyrintic madness by bringing him back to sanity at the end of the part II. Cervantes, according to Bandera, moves in a completely new, Christian direction by saving his characters from themselves and confronting them with the "real" reality. In this rescuing action, Bandera finds the true modernity of the novel:
The modern novel was not born automatically, as part of the superstructure that emerged out of the new modes of material production. It required the will and the capacity of individual novelists to rescue the old antihero from his traditional fate, to answer the call of the desacralizing logos. Cervantes had both the capacity and the will to do it. (73)
It is in this final argumentation that a very strong, beautifully constructed line of thought loses its strength. The problem is that Bandera assigns a disproportionate importance to the interpretation Of the final scene of the novel, in which, Don Quixote, before dying, regrets his past adventures and becomes "sane."
Bandera's interpretation of the end of the novel is based more on a faithful intuition than on the meticulous logic that guides the rest of the book. There are a few problems with Bandera's certainty. First, there are many moments in the novel in which Don Quixote's insanity is not unambiguously clear. To base the argument on a reading of the novel that assumes a simple progression of the main character from "mad" to "sane" requires ignoring one of the wonderful ambiguities of the novel. Secondly, Bandera's analysis is based on a very detailed reading of part I, with almost no reference to the second part of the novel. Bandera does not take into account the complex implications associated with the publication of the "false" Quixote, which prompted and greatly influenced the writing of the second part of Cervantes's novel. Avellaneda's novel had a clear impact on the decision by Cervantes to close the plot for good, that is, with the death of Don Quixote. Part II is obsessed with proving the false Quixote unworthy, and the death of the hero in the end responds in part to the urge from Cervantes to avoid another apocryphal continuation. And third, Don Quixote "repents" once it is very clear to him that he will not be able to leave his bed. Only a few scenes before the one that ends his life, when Don Quixote and Sancho return to their town, our hero is fantasizing about becoming a shepherd and creating his own Arcadia, that is, getting ready for new adventures. Is it truly repentance or is it that Don Quixote, finding himself at the end of his life, unable to move, finds no reason to keep building his fictional life?
This said, none of these objections imply that there is no "saving" in the novel. Cervantes's "saving" of his character clearly exists in the novel, if by salvation we mean Cervantes's sustained compassion for his character throughout the book, part II included. Bandera recognizes the existence of such compassion. What is not clear, what is not proved by Bandera's book, is his claim that the final scene of "repentance" represents the pivotal moment for Don Quixote's salvation.
The weakness of this final argument taints the connection between the idea of compassionate salvation and the birth of a genre per se, which is the closing idea of the book. If we accept the final act of salvation in the end of the novel, the "humble" plot depicting Don Quixote's adventures mirrors and entails the also humble story of the origin of the modern novel:
Cervantine repentance is a way of bringing God into the picture as a mediator between him and his literary creation, as an antidote, perhaps, or as a warning, against the temptation of playing God with his creature, which would actually be an indication of weakness and dependence on fiction. Cervantine repentance liberates Don Quixote from the hands of an all absorbing, overbearing author as much as it liberates Cervantes from dependence on his fiction. (292)
The book is divided into an introduction and twelve chapters. Those readers who prefer to read in Spanish can find the Spanish version published by the University of Navarra: "Monday desnuda". La humilde historia de Don Quijote. Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2005.
Saint Xavier University
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|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2007|
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