From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America
15.2 (1995): 101-03.
Copyright © 1995, The Cervantes Society of America
Almost everyone with the exception of Vladimir Nabokov would agree that Don Quixote is a funny book, although since the age of Romanticism there has been little consensus regarding the aesthetic value or moral significance of Cervantes's humor. American Cervantistas in particular have traditionally kept the comic at arm's length, as if it were incidental or detrimental to the novel's stature as a profound work of art. The critical scene has experienced a sea
change in the last decade, however, stimulated by studies on Cervantes's
folkloric sources, poststructural theories of parody and the dissemination
of Bakhtin's writings. Laura Gorfkle joins the increasing number of critics
who are asking us to take seriously the comic configurations
of the Quixote. In Discovering the Comic in Don Quixote, she
demonstrates with admirable breadth and specificity how Cervantes's novel
can be both a funny and a profoundly subversive book.
Gorfkle's vision of the comic relies primarily, though not exclusively, on Bakhtin's theories of carnival and heteroglossia. It could be argued, of course, that Bakhtin's notion of the polyphonic novel, in which divergent voices are set free from authorial control, is not remarkable different from other more familiar descriptions of Cervantes's ability to create autonomous characters or his humanistic tolerance. The Bakhtinian approach, however, tends to locate Cervantes's ideological and linguistic openendedness in the old rather than the new, in ancient or popular ritual disorder rather than in his psychological sophistication or philosophical perspectivism.
In the opening chapter, Gorfkle traces recurrent carnivalesque images and situations such as Don Quixote's substitution of domestic objects for heroic arms, the confusion of animal and human traits, the disarticulation of the grotesque body, and the cyclical turn of birth and decay. Though she inevitably covers some familiar ground here, her multiple examples succeed in showing how pervasive this carnivalesque idiom is. In the next chapter, drawing on Frazer and Cornford as well as Bakhtin, she analyzes the relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho in terms of the ancient comic figures, the alazon or boaster and the eiron or ironic deflator. Here, the emphasis is on master and servant as comic doubles rather than as individualized characters who undergo a moral and intellectual evolution. Rejecting the critical view that Sancho embodies the Erasmian ideal of natural reason, she proposes instead that his adherence to popular wisdom is as uncritical as Don Quixote's obedience to learned authority. Although Gorfkle's attention to Sancho's ritual origins instructively alerts us to his primitive aggressiveness, her corrective reading too readily dismisses the influence of a positive humanistic discourse in the creation of this protean figure.
In chapter 4, Gorfkle argues that the novel's copious word play is a manifestation of dialogical discourse, by which multiple meanings or voices emerge as the sign is fractured and destabilized. Particularly suggestive is the concept of false anticipation, the comic surprise that results when the listener's linguistic expectations are not met. Although her classification of sound and sense play effectively elucidates many facets of Cervantes's verbal humor, Gorfkle tends to minimize what was new about his comic style the euphemistic irony that so captivated eighteenth-century writers such as Henry Fielding, or the characters' capacity to play with and in another's linguistic world.
The following two chapters treat the comic dimensions of rhetoric in the novel. Although Anthony Close has previously demonstrated the humor in Don Quixote's fractured syllogisms, Gorfkle's deconstructive approach here asks us
to consider that the target of his specious logic is not simply the foolish
knight himself, but the validity of an unexamined connection between truth
and rhetoric. Furthermore, she shows that comic argumentation is a pervasive
technique in the Quixote. A number of characters the priest,
Don Diego de Miranda, Vivaldo and Sancho distort, manipulate and misuse
logical arguments. Sancho's habit of stringing related but ultimately
inconsistent proverbs together serves to undermine the truth claims of popular
as well as ancient structures of authority. Similarly, if Close had pointed
out Don Quixote's comic ineptitude in adapting his discourse to his audience,
Gorfkle argues that the reader / speaker relationship is inherently unstable,
since no speaker can control the vital desires of his or her listeners. Thus,
she concludes, the failure to which rhetorical argument is prone underscores
the limitations of rational method as a means to achieve knowledge
(168). Although not all readers will accept that the characters' rhetorical
incompetence constitutes an endorsement for such sweeping epistemological
claims, Gorfkle does reveal a much broader range of rhetorical play in the
novel than previously recognized.
In the epilogue Gorfkle addresses the crucial issue of whether the comic is ultimately conservative. She argues that unlike comic ritual, the contestatory power of the comic literary text extends beyond its destructive genesis and escapes ideological containment. The polyphonic novel educates not by moralizing but by inference, by setting up equations that cannot always be solved with one right answer (212). Although the comic deconstructs the stability of knowledge systems, it impels the reader toward productive heterogeneity rather than philosophical paralysis.
In sum, Gorfkle's study provides a thorough and provocative application of Bakhtin's theories to the Quixote, integrating these with the contributions of traditional stylistic and rhetorical studies. She thus succeeds in recovering the unfamiliar idiom of carnival's destructive humor, and in freeing the ethics of comedy from the question of identification with the hero. The challenge that remains for readers is to be receptive to what Nabokov called the novel's hideous cruelty, without losing sight of the humanistic pietas that occasionally surfaces amidst carnival's mockery.
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||Prepared with the help of Sue Dirrim||
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