From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America
2.1 (1982): 89-95.
Copyright © 1982, The Cervantes Society of America
||LOWRY NELSON, JR.|
URING THE LAST fifteen years or so there has been an unusually fine harvest of books on Cervantes written in English. I think in particular of those by E. C. Riley, R. L. Predmore, and A. K. Forcione, as dealing with Cervantes in a larger and deeper context of history and of theory than before.1 I would also include Anthony Close's recent book which with care and grace delineates the Romantic Approach in Spain as it evolved from its direct origins in the German Romantic movement. Dr. Close recognizes those origins and deals with them knowledgeably within the limits of his scheme. My own reflections here stem from a fresh reading of the German Romantics who concerned themselves so programmatically and so deeply with Cervantes' works a reading undertaken before the appearance of Dr. Close's book. My remarks put a somewhat different construction on the Germans' achievement. They are meant to be supplemental and in no way corrective.
1 E. C.
Riley, Cervantes's Theory of the Novel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962);
Richard L. Predmore, The World of Don Quixote (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1967) and Cervantes (New York: Dodd, Mead &
Company, 1973); Alban K. Forcione, Cervantes, Aristotle, and the
Persiles, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970).
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If the early German Romantics the Schlegels,
Tieck, Schelling, Solger, and Jean Paul Richter laid a basis for
interpreting Don Quixote as a supersolemn repository of profundity,
they themselves held an essentially more balanced view. In effect they can
be said to have rescued the continuously embattled and defensive genre of
the modern novel from its debased status in the Neoclassical canon and to
have made virtues of its supposed vices of being mixed, episodic, and cluttered.
They also linked it to the past in their radical revisioning of literary
history; they viewed it as a supreme modern achievement worthy of
the ancient past, and they projected its immense potentialities into the
future. I contend that the early German Romantics naturally viewed Don
Quixote as comic but did not stop there. We have a ready parallel in
Shakespeare criticism especially in the new understanding that wit
and seriousness or comedy and tragedy are not incompatible and that simplistic
pseudo-Aristotelian notions of dramatic unity and decorum are not universal
requirements. In both cases Cervantes and Shakespeare the
superficiality and even crudity of Neoclassical treatment are to be found
in the translations of Don Quixote by Shelton, Bertuch, and Soltau,
and in the mangled acting versions of Shakespeare. The Romantics who had
the genius to revolt against such falsifying misinterpretation of great art
deserve our admiration and only slight blame for their occasional
The very title-pages of the two parts of Cervantes' novel, so unusually spare for the time, are suggestive. There is, of course, the change from hidalgo in 1605 to caballero in 1615. But the descriptive adjective remains the same: ingenioso. In his Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española (1611) Sebastián de Covarrubias tells us that in general ingenio is una fuerça natural de entendimiento which investigates all manner of things and that ingenioso [es] el que tiene sutil y delgado ingenio. More to the point is the Classical and continuous substratum of the contrasting pair of concepts igenium and iudicium wit and judgment, Witz and Urteil, esprit and jugement. That Cervantes drew many of his literary views and ideals from the Classical-Neoclassical tradition he inherited has been well demonstrated by two illuminating works: E. C. Riley's Cervantes's Theory of the Novel and Alban K. Forcione's Cervantes, Aristotle, and the Persiles. That Cervantes created a very great work quite outside the Classical canon is clear to us all. Instead of composing an urbane, filed, and polished work in one of the canonical genres he set wit and judgment not at
odds but rather in great and productive tension in his structural esthetic,
in his encompassing of all levels of style, and in his character of Don Quixote,
the ingenioso, with his sutil y delgado ingenio.
That tension is of course what appealed to the early German Romantics who
raised a revolt against the safe and stultifying judgment of
their Neoclassical elders that brought about a revolution in theory and taste
of which we are beneficiaries. The central concepts were imagination
(Phantasie), wit (Witz which still retained the broad meaning
of ingenium), irony (Ironie, a term that requires careful
definition in context) and myth (or Mythologie).
Since this is one of the most crucial and intricate matters in the whole history of literary criticism I must here simplify and concentrate, concerning myself with the most original and elusive and influential theorist, Friedrich Schlegel.2 It was he who first recognized that Don Quixote was a work of the highest art and it was he whose concepts of wit, irony, imagination, and myth however volatile are means of understanding and appreciating that art. To describe the category to which Cervantes' fiction belongs, the words Roman and das Romantische were exploited for their medieval overtones and for the lineage (anti-Neoclassical) from Homer to the chivalric tale to Ariosto and other hybrid and capacious modes in which the contraries of life are brought into harmonious tension through the agency of art. Cervantes' imaginative wit [fantastischer Witz] is a newly evaluated ingenium which is set off from Neoclassical esprit and which constitutes an indirect mythology characterized by an artfully ordered confusion or intricacy, an absorbing symmetry of contradictions or
a general account of the setting and individual critics see: René
Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950 (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1955), vol. 2 (The Romantic Age), chapters
1-3. In English the fullest account of Friedrich Schlegel is: Hans Eichner,
Friedrick Schlegel (New York: Twayne, 1970). The crucial works of
Friedrich Schlegel are available in an English translation by Ernst Behler
and Roman Struc: Dialogue on Poetry and Literary Aphorisms (University
Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1968). The standard edition
of the original texts referred to is Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel
Ausgabe, ed. Ernst Behler with the collaboration of Jean-Jacques Anstett
and Hans Eichner (Munich: Schönigh, 1958 - ), vol. 2. Those texts are
Gespräch über die Poesie (1799-1800) and the three sets
of fragments: Kritische Fragmente, (1797),
Athenäums-Fragmente (1798), and Ideen (1800). Cervantes'
fortune in Germany is chronicled in the still indispensable work of J.-J.
A. Bertrand, Cervantès et le Romantisme allemand (Paris: Alcan,
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opposites, and a wonderful alternation of enthusiasm and irony.
There is something primeval and inimitable wherein nature and ingenuous
profundity create a shimmering appearance of the transposed and the mad,
the simple and the foolish. Poetry begins where ratiocination is suspended
and we plunge into the confusion of imagination and the prime
chaos of human nature whose finest symbol is the colorful
throng of ancient gods. 3
Out of the fulness of life and the imagination the modern writer can fashion a work of realism and fantasy that contains an abundant yet coherent imaginative world or mythology like that of Homer in which the concrete universal is not allegorically divisible but unified as a symbol. The crudities of travesty and burlesque are transcended as in the art of an Italian buffo who can create a whole range of illusion or emotional involvement in his transcendental buffoonery. As often, Schlegel overstates to a purpose. He is clearly opposing solemn or trivial Neoclassical decorum in favor of a complex and mixed mode of wit and seriousness not to be excluded from the highest reaches of art. He is also going beyond mere rhetorical irony as when (in Kritische Fragmente, no. 108) he elevates Socratic irony not only as play of wit and cunning ignorance, but chiefly as evoking and containing a simultaneous feeling for inextricable opposites. Irony is a transcendent and mature world view, far broader than the merely comic or the merely serious. It is by no means fixed or neat. Elsewhere (in Athenäums-Fragmente, no. 116) Schlegel states that romantic poetry is a progressive universal poetry. It is progressive in that it is always becoming and suggestive, productive and free; like life and nature it is never fixed and definitive and it allows no law to rule the poet's artistic will. It is universal in that it can mix or fuse poetry and prose, the imaginative and the critical, reflective and spontaneous modes, the lofty and the lowly. All together, irony can be taken to describe awareness and self-reflexiveness in art and artist, the inclusive play of disparates and seeming contradictions, the supreme freedom and control of the artist's inventiveness and his own inventions. Romantic irony (to use a current phrase) is not reducible simply to the breaking of the illusion; it is rather a grand view of the complexity and freedom of artistic creation and of the relation between life and art.
in this paragraph are my own translations from the Gespräch über
It would of course be wrongheaded to blame Friedrich Schlegel and the other
early German Romantics for the excesses of their successors: for singleminded
solemnity, for symbol-hunting, for ontological meditations on the real and
the ideal, for archetypal or mythic disembodiments. Both the Schlegel brothers,
Friedrich and August Wilhelm, had a firm grasp on the technicality and
concreteness of art. Friedrich's dithyrambic discourse, his cockiness and
his shifts in terminology, must be understood, and he deserves to be evaluated
as an essentially coherent and responsible critic and theoretician.
Nor will it do to take refuge in historicism or the author's intention as correctives to a generalized Romantic interpretation. Our appreciation of Don Quixote would be disastrously diminished if we had to view the novel as farce or burlesque or through the crudities of near-contemporary translations, imitations, and adaptations. Likewise our appreciation of the great chivalric romance would be perverted (as Cervantes' was not) by his own burlesque of the libros de caballerías in Don Quixote. We need not be caught in the morass of a positivistic Rezeptionsästhetik or the limitations of the unrigorously used terms burlesque, farce, and parody.
In ordinary language we often use parody as an all-purpose word to mean burlesque, travesty, take-off, farce; and usually we think of it as describing something enjoyable and risible, but somewhat trivial and perhaps disrespectful and malicious. Yet I would strongly urge that parody be used as a neutral, non-derogatory term of literary criticism, divested of any presumptive triviality, disrespect, or malice. Great art can be parodistic and honorably so. One may think of Picasso's and Francis Bacon's parodies of Velázquez, of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, Prokofiev's Classical Symphony, of Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus, and of James Joyce's Ulysses. In a partial sense of the word, Don Quixote is a parody of the libro de caballerías, of its long-lost never-never world, of its very peculiar code and ethos, its cast of characters, and its stock situations. Cervantes' avowed purpose was to ridicule the libros de caballerías out of existence. We all must, of course, have avowed purposes for what we do and writers of fiction in their own real lives have motives or purposes for writing which we may or may not know. But in great works of fiction the finished work transcends the preliminary or practical or polemical purpose and becomes something either greater or different or both.
Martín de Riquer refines the notion of Cervantes' avowed purpose
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by authoritatively distinguishing among four genres: la novela
caballeresca; the Italian Renaissance epic; the historical accounts of
real 16th-century knights-errant; and finally the libros de
caballerías these last being the sole butt of Cervantes'
ostensible moral mission.4 True, Riquer shows
that the libros were under censorious attacks right through the 16th
century and indicates that Cervantes was following suit. But does this not
also indicate that the censure was as continuous and as much of a cliché
as the libros de caballerías themselves? Cervantes repeats
many of the moralists' strictures and reaffirms his alliance with them in
driving the notorious fictions out of circulation Apart from historical,
autobiographical, and moral considerations, surely we may insist that destroying
the libros de caballerías is the necessary fictional drive:
on it depends the sublime balance between insanity and sanity, between
locura and cordura, in Don Quixote. The question is
not whether Cervantes personally saw himself as a champion in league with
the moralists (such as Vives, Arias Montano, and Luis de Granada) in stamping
out immoral reading. The question is, how did he have the genius to beat
a dead horse into life.
Cervantes' avowed purpose was a lucky stroke: it got him started, it gave him a basis or ground for communicating with a large public, and finally it allowed his genius to create a new myth or mythos out of an old one. What, then, does parody do? In brief, it takes certain characteristic traits of a structured work or complex genre and puts them in a different setting with different function and emphasis; it both distorts the structured original and comments on it (it needs an original for its own being); it imitates, but it also transposes to a different key or mood. The result may be funny, ingenious, playful, profound or all of these, as it is in Don Quixote. It may use burlesque (the broad joke), travesty (the crude and scurrilous take-off), or farce (the stuffed bladder of comic business), or all three, as in Don Quixote yet without being simply reducible to any one of them. There are of course many instances of these elements in Don Quixote. I might mention one that, so far as I know, has gone unmentioned: Sancho's governorship of the island (ínsula is the high-toned Latinate word used instead of normal Spanish isla), which is a parody, in practice, of the many treatises in the Renaissance on ruling and governing. At least one of them would have been familiar to Cervantes: the Reloj de
de Riquer, Cervantes y la caballeresca, in Suma Cervantina,
ed. J. B. Avalle-Arce and E. C. Riley (London: Tamesis Books, 1973),
príncipes o Libro áureo del emperador Marco Aurelio
(1529) of Antonio de Guevara, which, by the way, pretends to be translated
from an old Florentine manuscript and contains intercalated stories. Short
of further examples, I want here simply to emphasize that parody can be the
source of great art, that it can be used neutrally and honorably as a descriptive
literary term, and that it lies at the very root of the modern novel.
The hectic fever of the Romantic approach in its solemn and portentous and extraliterary phases has, let us hope, run its course. It certainly challenged, in its healthier state, the simple notion of Don Quixote as burlesque or travesty or historical curiosity that had preceded it. Surely a balance of some sort can be provisionally drawn. But I hear the scratching of newer pens and the twanging of others' plectrums. Perhaps the novel is about its own composition; perhaps it constitutes a self-referential verbal universe, a system of signs in a thousand binary ways pointing at each other; perhaps it can all be laid bare in one grand scheme of discours, énonciation, lexies, and actants, all driven by metonymy to a grim aporia.
Don Quixote will survive of course as a funny book of high seriousness, a profound book of myriad shimmering surfaces, a harmonious chaos, a superabundant text of perfectedness, a conservative revolutionary work, and so forth. But it is there as a complex esthetic structure that will survive our battering the object of our enjoyment and our endless contemplation.
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