Monday, March 27, 2006

Spanish Inquisition: Part Three

I am reading Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. In order to keep myself on task and so finish this 940 page tome, I have enlisted the support that your presence will provide to urge me to continue reading. I will post a record of my progress here at irregular intervals, as well as any comments and questions that are provoked by the text along the way.

III A Series of Improbable Coincidences and a Point of Irreconcilable Difference

You may have thought I’d abandoned Don Quixote and it’s true my progress has been slow, but I have been making my way through it amidst distractions from other novels, my PhD, and a newly discovered obsession with Sudoku. In the month since I last posted on this topic, I’ve inched through another twenty chapters which has brought me almost to the end of ‘The First Part’. In the story, the priest and the barber, with the help of Sancho and some other characters encountered in the mountains, have been successful in drawing Don Quixote back towards his home in La Mancha, by way of the inn where DQ and Sancho stayed earlier. Sancho is reluctant to enter the inn because on his last visit to the establishment he was unceremoniously tossed in a blanket by the innkeeper, his family and various guests, so he is justifiably wary of his reception. But the whole party is greeted warmly, after they promise to pay handsomely, and so settle in for the evening. The inn functions within DQ as a place of fortuitous meetings and happy reconciliations which we learn about through the discovery and recounting of various stories by a whole range of people that DQ meets. That it has taken twenty chapters for the main story to progress so little is evidence that it is a device through which to tell a plethora of other stories. If DQ wasn’t inhabiting a parallel reality, if he was perfectly sane, if he had just stayed at home amongst his trashy novels, there would be no Don Quixote.

In and of themselves, the tales related within the larger novel are of varying interest. Invariably they are about star-crossed lovers and the teller of each story is one half of the doomed couple which is central to their tale. In each story there are overbearing parental figures and duplicitous friends and siblings; in one instance, it is one of the lovers himself who is a philandering cad that causes his wife no end of unhappiness, nevertheless, she still loves him and wants his love in return. Again, I’ll admit to being somewhat impatient with these stories, they seemed to be of no more value than those that Cervantes was apparently criticising, those tales of chivalry where everything is miraculously resolved due to some kind of sorcery or inexplicably fortuitous turn of events. While DQ points to the workings of enchantment and demons to explain anything that thwarts his knight errantry, magic is no explanation for the implausible reconciliations that occur at the inn as all the pining lovers and long lost relatives unwittingly converge upon it and fall into one another’s arms.

I wonder if these unmotivated reconciliations are an example of the irony that I have thus far failed to recognise? And surely this passage must be tongue in cheek?:

He lead by the hand a young lady of about sixteen in travelling dress, so gay, striking, and beautiful that the sight of her impressed them all; and so vividly that, if they had not already seen Dorothea, Lucinda, and Zoraida at that inn, they would have doubted whether she had her match for beauty.
In these lines the reader is introduced to another star-crossed lover, Clara. It may be already clear from the list of the other women who have gathered at the inn, that this is the fourth outlandish description of rarely matched beauty that Cervantes writes. In view of all the literary opinion interspersed throughout this section of the book, I can only conclude that such hyperbole serves a purpose in Cervantes’s telling.

The contributors to 400 Windmills reflect on an earlier section of ‘The First Part’, the library scene, where the Priest assesses Don Quixote’s library of chivalrous tales. While the Priest is deciding which books to burn, it becomes apparent from his commentary on each book that he has in fact read all of those he encounters in the library. It’s a revelation that exposes the Priest as a hypocrite; he is condemning books which he has obviously read, if not necessarily enjoyed—although there is certainly some suggestion that he did take pleasure in some of the works.

In the scenes at the inn, there are two events that are worth discussing to tease out the questions of literature and literary criticism that are first raised at the book burning and which preoccupy ‘The First Part’. The first of these events is the discovery, at the inn, of a written story. A manuscript of The Tale of the Foolish Curiosity is chanced upon by the Priest who is attracted by the title and the fact that it is ‘written in such a good hand’. The Priest’s fellow travellers urge him to read it aloud in order to pass the time and he agrees to read it ‘if only out of curiosity’, allowing that ‘[p]erhaps there will be something pleasant in it’. Is there some meaning to be drawn about the relationship between the priest’s curiosity and that of The Tale? I’m not sure. The story is not one of knight errantry; it’s about Anselmo who decides to test the loyalty of his wife, Camilla, by urging his best friend, Lothario, to seduce her. Lothario points out to Anselmo what a ridiculous idea it is, but Anselmo insists, so Lothario acquiesces. I’m not sure if continuing to explain the story constitutes a spoiler if you haven’t read DQ; perhaps it is safe to say that it doesn’t end so neatly as all the reconciliations that are occurring at the inn. When the telling of The Tale is finished, the Priest declares that he likes it, insofar as the ‘manner of its telling’, but he thinks ‘there is something unconvincing [and impossible] about it’.

I wonder how seriously the Priest’s literary judgements should be taken? He doesn’t seem to admit to reading anything, except out of a kind of insincere curiosity, or to gather fodder for dismissive critiques. Are his opinions nothing more than posturing? Are they offered only as an opportunity to pontificate so that he can perform his status and thus assure himself of it? He has shown he is an avid reader of the tales of chivalry, which in the world of Don Quixote are beneath contempt. Does this undermining of the priest’s critical judgement through the narration suggest that The Tale of the Foolish Curiosity is proffered by Cervantes as an example of writing he condoned? Is the human folly, which is the topic of The Tale, a more worthy subject for exploration, according to Cervantes, than that of fantastic story-telling that characterised the tales of chivalry?

The second event in the most recent chapters I have read is the occasion of another diatribe against the books of chivalry, this time by a Canon in conversation with the Priest. The Canon also admits to reading the books of chivalry, or at least the beginnings of them. Further, he claims to have written a few, but then apparently abandoned the endeavour as unworthy of his station. Are we to suspect the views of the Canon as well as those of the Priest? Again, I’m not sure. The Canon goes on to criticise drama, using the same argument he applies to the books of chivalry. He condemns the producers of plays that serve merely to entertain audiences instead of providing instruction. Thus the Canon at once confirms the Priest’s arguments and so the reader’s suspicions of the Canon's views. But isn’t the Canon and the Priest’s opinion about books of chivalry in accordance with the construction of Don Quixote as a pathetic figure harmed by the absurdist tales? The question of whether the Canon and Priest are indeed as ridiculous as Don Quixote in some way seems to be negated when the Canon nominates a play by Cervantes himself, Numancia, as an example of one which is not absurd. Would Cervantes mock his own work? Now, what am I to conclude about the function of the exasperating coincidences of beautiful women and timely meetings at the inn in Cervantes’s work?

In many respects I think much of my difficulty with Don Quixote thus far is attributable to a lack of agreement with its central thesis. In effect, high culture is privileged over low culture. Chivalric texts are discussed in terms of the irresponsible authors who produce them and the ill-effects on susceptible readers. The Canon concludes his speech by proposing a kind of censorship:

all these evils, and many more of which I will not speak, would cease, if there were some intelligent and judicious person at court to examine all plays before they are performed... anywhere in Spain. Then no magistrate in any town would allow any play to be performed without this man’s approbation, under his hand and seal... Now if the same person or some other were entrusted with the task of examining newly written books of chivalry, no doubt some would be produced of the perfection your worship requires, thus enriching our tongue with the charming and precious treasure of eloquence, and causing the old books to be eclipsed in the bright presence of the new.
I am troubled by the extent to which the prejudices against popular culture and those who enjoy it still exist in the discourse of literary reviews, largely unaltered since the seventeenth century. Perhaps I will never fully appreciate this book as long as I have been ‘corrupted’ by the interrogations of Cultural Studies and its re-evaluation of culture.

Related Posts
Spanish Inquisition: Part Two
Spanish Inquistion: Part One
Tilting At Windmills

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