From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America
12.1 (1992): 124-25.
Copyright © 1992, The Cervantes Society of America
This is an introduction to Don Quixote
and its literary influence for undergraduate and nonspecialist readers, but
it can also be read with profit by teachers and professionals. By professionals
because Johnson doesn't pull all his punches: he argues a vigorous, up-to-date
case for the historical and literary sophistication of Don Quixote,
especially as post-Erasmian satire. By teachers because it is always a pleasure
to observe a master teacher at work anatomizing a powerful text for a student
Johnson's versatility is impressive. His discussion ranges from details of general and literary history to the sometimes lofty, sometimes intricate speculations of contemporary theory. The psychoanalytical Don Quixote is still a force in Johnson's understanding, of course, but here it affords seriousness and balance to his sense of the power of historical situation and to his appreciation of the book's formal and technical experiments. Not the least of his accomplishments is the easy, colloquial way he usually manages this material. From his discussion, a student reader will probably gain insight both into Don Quixote and into what professional readers are all about in their study of it. The scholar or critic looking for sustained argument, however, might be frustrated by the deliberate accommodation and eclecticism of such an introduction.
The book is somewhat unevenly split into two parts. The first covers general and introductory matters in three crisp chapters. The second part comprises a reading that takes us through the highpoints of the story, then develops selected critical issues of metafiction, reader response, and psychoanalysis in greater detail.
Chapter One discusses the importance to Don Quixote of Historical Context with fine brevity and penetration. Johnson highlights the trenchancy of the book's satire from the standpoint of Erasmian values, referring, for example, to Dulcinea's disenchanting as a parody of Purgatory (15) or to the Toledo merchants' compliance with Quixote's demands as typical of converso
pragmatism (12). After a chapter that briefly reviews The Importance
of the Work, Johnson devotes a chapter to a quick summary of the
Critical Reception that is wisely alive to the weird symmetries
and ironies of the critical tradition, some of which Johnson
suggests are already inscribed within the Cervantine text.
Johnson's sketches of Part One and Part Two in Chapters 4 and 5 stress the novelty and profundity of the text, and so they afford an introduction that at many points is also quite sophisticated in its take on familiar episodes. With sure touch and enviable grace, he moves easily through a lifetime's experience with the work and its scholarship, illuminating passages and cruxes, suggesting possible lines of interpretation, or introducing fitting intertextual references.
The final three chapters cover some of the same ground with sharper critical focus. In discussing a book about books, Johnson works the intertextual Quixote more closely, and he shows how the text repeatedly convenes in its own terms a seminar on problems of literary theory and practice (85). Johnson briefly suggests how Cervantes seems to have anticipated some of the central themes of contemporary feminist criticism (84), but he spends much more time illustrating how the Quixote quests for modern fiction by anticipating many concepts and formulations of contemporary narrative theory.
Chapter 7 develops Cervantes's similar anticipation of the problematics of reader response. This includes the familiar business about perspectivism but also reading as a motif within the story and, in a larger sense, reading as figurative or actual rewriting of the Quixote. Moving from fictional readers (Duke and Duchess) to real readers (Unamuno, Graham Greene, and others), Johnson prepares for his Chapter 8, in which he summarizes some of the arguments of his own Madness and Lust (U of California P, 1985), justifying his views, with predictable false modesty, as merely one certainly not the only possible account of Don Quixote's power over generations of readers.
In its swings between the banal and the sublime, Chapter 8 is not particularly well written, perhaps because it tries to condense and cover an involved argument about the fate of the knight's repressed sexuality. This chapter is, however, a wonder for the complexity of its tones (which I cannot convey) as it relives a controversial thesis. Whether you sympathize with such a thesis or not, it is hard not to respect its brave, stubborn author. And as one who is skeptical of the thesis, I nevertheless find the psychoanalyzed Quixote, especially when offered in so disarming a fashion, to be a challenging complement and conclusion to the many other riches featured in this fine, short critical introduction to Don Quixote.
The book is written so as to require or allow very few notes. There is a short, annotated bibliography.
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