From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America
17.1 (1997): 181-85.
Copyright © 1997, The Cervantes Society of America
Higuera, Henry. Eros and Empire: Politics and Christianity in
Don Quixote. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995. x+207pp.
Readers who seek reason behind Don Quixote's
madness will find Higuera's exploration of love, imperialism and Christianity
in Don Quixote intriguing. This revised doctoral dissertation (The
Empire of Love: The Problem of Christian Politics in Don
Quixote,University of Toronto, 1983) interprets Cervantes' novel
as a critique of sixteenth-century, Spanish political and theological ideology.
Higuera argues that the knight's pursuit of empire and glory, driven by
love for a higher being the divinely beautiful and all-powerful
Dulcinea, discloses the greatness and the insanity of Spanish imperialism
as well as the ideological contradictions inherent in Christian
caritas (1-2). By extension, Higuera finds in Don Quixote an
Erasmian-style questioning of the truthfulness of revealed texts, particularly
Early in his preface, Higuera acknowledges an inspirational debt to the late Allan Bloom (The Republic of Plato, Shakespeare's Politics [with H. Jaffa], The Closing of the American Mind). Higuera's term, Bloomian, seems apt in many ways to describe what some will see as strengths and others as weaknesses in Eros and Empire. Higuera targets an audience interested in political philosophy and theology as well as in Don Quixote, but he excludes literary critics as a readership both difficult and unnecessary to satisfy (ix). The bibliography includes many familiar benchmarks of Cervantine criticism before 1980, but it does not recognize the critical dialog after that time or the contributions of recent literary theory. The approach combines features of new-critical and historical analysis, with the aim of interpreting Cervantes' intended meaning relative to the intellectual currents in Spain and Europe in the sixteenth-century. Bloom's disciplined faith in the value of reason seems to inspire Higuera's meticulous reading of Cervantes' text against his background sources and also his efforts to extract subtle nuances and make the text point to a larger meaning. True to his mentor, Higuera works with the most canonical sources in Western thought: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Vives, Erasmus, Luther, Machiavelli.
Higuera further posits working assumptions essential for his interpretation. First, he casts Don Quixote against the background of an ideologically turbulent time marked by the Council of Trent, the neo-Thomistic revival, a flourishing of natural law theories on international relations, the development
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of a sophisticated philosophical understanding of Christian love,
Machiavellian ragione di stato, Lutheranism, and challenges to the
historical accuracy of hagiographies and even the Bible, led by scholars
such as Erasmus and Vives (4). Second, while he concedes that Cervantes may
not have been a political theorist with a complete doctrine of his own, Higuera
insists that he was necessarily steeped in the political ideas of his day
and that he used his novel to field criticism of conventional beliefs. He
therefore expands the novel's satire of the books of chivalry to include
the features of the Christian world view they represent.
Higuera divides his study into four sections. The first (Chapters 1 & 2) examines Don Quixote's love for Dulcinea as the motivation for his imperialism and as an analogy for the relation of the soul to God, based on parallels between the books of chivalry, the Bible, and Catholic tradition. Behind Don Quixote's love for Dulcinea (Chapter 1) Higuera finds the Classical and Renaissance convention of the love of beauty as love for a beautiful woman, the adoption of this concept by Dante, the Italian neo-Platonists, and the Spanish Mystics to represent the relation of the soul to God, and its use in chivalric literature as the inspiration for heroism. The books of chivalry assume that a knight's inclinations to violence, courage, revenge, war, and conquest of empire all naturally derive from devotion to a beautiful lady. Thus, Don Quixote believes that one can unite almost every intense desire or impulse that a man like him can have and can achieve one object that can satisfy them all, all at once if one has truly been in love (21). Chapter 2 explores this notion of Don Quixote's all-encompassing love as an allegory for the relation between the soul and God as conceived by Christian theologians.
The second section (Chapters 3-5), examines contradictions in Don Quixote's politics of empire and carries further the comparison between the mad knight's ideas, the books of chivalry, and the Bible. In the early episodes of the novel (e.g., the battle with the Bizcayan squire in I:8-9), Don Quixote exhibits impulses, particularly rage and vengefulness, supported by the books of chivalry but contradictory to Christian love. Higuera's investigation of vengeance and just war in Thomasian natural law and in sixteenth-century theologians such as Erasmus, Vives, las Casas, Sepúlveda, and Vitoria, shows that Don Quixote's vengefulness has no rational, theological justification. Don Quixote's speeches on Arms and Letters (I:37-38) and the Golden Age (I:11) (both addressed in Chapter 4) reveal that he values the justice and peace of the Golden Age much less than he does the military success and glory to be won in its restoration. His understanding of the Bible (via the Books of Chivalry) has rough antecedents among Christian theologians and a certain plausibility in its own right (71), but Augustine and the Catholic tradition on the one hand and Erasmus on the other both condemn this might-makes-right idea of political order (66-67). In chapter 5, Emperors and Robbers, the comparison of Don Quixote with Reinaldos de Montalbán (from the books of chivalry) and with Roque de Guinart (Don Quixote II:60) turns up characteristics which link Don Quixote with Machiavelli's ragione di stato. Cervantes' point, Higuera argues, is that the biblical portrayal of politics is incoherent. . . . it promises too much to men who feel called to be its heroes.
The result is incoherent aspirations: a project that combines characteristics
of humanist radical pacifism with universal imperialism and ragione di
In Chapters 6, 7 and 8, which he offers as the intellectual crux of his book (5), Higuera examines the disintegration of Don Quixote's conception of love and his imperial enterprise. Chapter 6 argues that the lowliness of Dulcinea's real-world counterpart, Aldonza Lorenzo, undermines and finally destroys the knight's confidence in love and heroism. After Don Quixote's penance in the Sierra Morena (I:25-26) and his vision in the Cave of Montesinos (II:22-23), the theme culminates with the Duke and Duchess' pageant (II:34-35), where Dulcinea changes from a superhuman being to a creature who evokes pity, self-mortification, and penitence. Thus, [t]he hoax presents Don Quixote and his heroic project as superfluous to Dulcinea. Heroism is not condemned, it is simply irrelevant to the most important issues of human life and fate (102-30). The theme of Dulcinea's duality compares to the theological debate concerning the meekness of Christ versus the greatness and power of God. Don Quixote's inability to coordinate his military activities with Dulcinea's lowly alter ego reflects the difficulties encountered in reconciling the more martial aspect of the Bible and of Christian cultures with Jesus who was born in a stable and eventually crucified (106). Higuera reads these episodes to suggest that man's end is self-abnegation and penance, that he is offensive to God and unworthy, and that all actions on earth fall short of pleasing Him. Under these circumstances, ragione di stato has as much justification as other political theories.
Under similar scrutiny, other aspects of Don Quixote's world view self-destruct, with further implications for Christianity. In Chapter 7, the inconsistencies in Don Quixote's concept of the ideal human society in his speech on the Golden Age reflect corresponding contradictions in the Bible. New Testament writers, Higuera contends, had an insufficient and confused understanding of human psychology and of the moral prerequisites and political dimension of healthy friendship and true concord (120). Cervantes is telling us that here, as with the theme of caritas, the ancient philosophers, particularly Aristotle, saw more clearly (120). Higuera concludes: . . . if one accepts the Bible as authoritative and then in an effort to reconcile Reason and Revelation, tries to reconcile it with what one thought of nature beforehand, one is led into forced interpretation of the texts on the one hand and inconsistent judgments of nature on the other (121).
In Chapter 8, Higuera uses Don Quixote's, Grisóstomo's and Marcela's ideas of love to deconstruct the New Testament understanding that love is the desire for union and reciprocity (137). Though Don Quixote and Grisóstomo differ on fundamental points, their attempt to unite earthly and ascendant loves stands them in opposition to Marcela, in whom Higuera discerns Cervantes' own voice. Marcela's speech contradicts not only Grisóstomo but also Christianity, since she denies that love must be reciprocal and that beauty must subject the will (132-33). Grisóstomo commits suicide because Marcela undoes his faith in the relation between the beauty of the celestial order and the beauty of erotic love. Since heroism, glory, and justice do not derive from love, the political and the erotic dimensions of Don Quixote's love for Dulcinea cannot be
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reconciled. Higuera concludes: Thus in general (and this is a point
that can be applied but not restricted to the Bible) it is impossible to
build a rationally coherent and realistic system of politics, with a consistent
and comprehensive psychology . . . on the principle of erotic love,
and this is so no matter how exalted and comprehensively good one tries to
make the object of that love (136).
Higuera's final section (Chapters 9, 10, & 11), takes on the narrative structure of the novel in an attempt to discover Cervantes' view of the relationship between poetry, history, and revealed truth. Chapter 9 considers Cervantes' satire of the books of chivalry in light of the theological debate over the historical truth of saints' lives and the Bible. Behind Cervantes' treatment of the theme of truth and fiction in Don Quixote, Higuera discerns the basic and irreconcilable difference between Aristotelian and Christian views: the former holds poetry as revelatory and thus higher than history, which is merely circumstantial; the latter views history as equally true, since it is exemplary as well as factual. In Chapter 10, Higuera's review of the narrative structure leads to the conclusion that Don Quixote is not only a parody of clumsy fictional devices but also a parody of devices for passing off myth and legend as history, a theme which necessarily questions the veracity of sacred writing (167).
Chapter 11 pits Cid Hamete Benengeli against the gullible second author. As a Muslim and an enemy of Christianity and Spain, Cide Hamete muddles history with fiction to confuse Christians and delight his Arab audience. To support this profile of Cide Hamete, from the ostensibly historical Captive's Tale Higuera extracts two surprising ironies, which he reads as hostile jokes against Christianity. First, in the novel, the Moorish girl Zoraida converts to Christianity and follows the Captive to Spain to marry him; in contrast, her historical counterpart actually married a notorious renegade king of Algiers. Second, according to Higuera's calculation of the fictional chronology, at the same moment when the Captive delivers his account of the Christian victory at Lepanto, the Spanish Armada is being sunk in the English Channel (August 1588). Higuera's Cide Hamete takes malicious pleasure in the fact that in the most historical episode in Don Quixote, history does not bear out either a miraculous conversion or the military triumph of Roman Catholicism (172-73). Thus, Cide Hamete's manuscript is a semihistorical antichivalric and anti-Christian lampoon which satirizes . . . weaknesses in Christian politics and dogma (174), and which the gullible, second author accepts as history. Higuera concludes that Don Quixote contains an Erasmian-style analysis of how sophisticated people come to accept fable as fact through a combination of conscious fraud and mental misunderstanding (181). If Erasmus hesitated to apply fully this analysis to Biblical texts, Higuera sees no such hesitation implied in Don Quixote: The existence of Cide Hamete Benengeli calls into question the historical status of the whole Bible (181).
Eros and Empire sets an ambitious objective. The theories of love and politics which Higuera selects for his backdrop are complex in themselves. To follow his gaze through the layers of Cervantine irony and the novel's narrative framing to the author's intended meaning requires imagination as well as reason.
Higuera has made an admirable effort to render his argument clear and accessible:
the text is free of errors and stylistically clean, and he provides frequent
summaries at the beginnings and endings of chapters. Higuera's thoughtful
attention to Cervantes' text pays off with some remarkable insights, particularly
with respect to the contradictions in Don Quixote's own thought and that
of other characters. The historical, ideological context he constructs for
the novel is instructive and his description of Cide Hamete's role in the
narrative structure is both insightful and provocative.
Higuera's quest for Cervantes' ideology, however, leads him to some questionable conclusions. Similar attempts have shown that Don Quixote played against almost any background seems unfailingly to generate meaning. One must ask if the inconsistencies in Christian thought which Higuera finds highlighted are Cervantes' intended targets for satire or merely present in Don Quixote's discourse as culturally inscribed ideas, and thus unintended victims of the novel's complex irony. Higuera's argument works better if readers accept his implicit assumption that there is Cervantine reason behind Don Quixote's madness. But they must also accept his choice of episodes from Don Quixote and of background texts. For example, references to other writings by Cervantes are limited to passing mention of La Galatea and La Numancia. Higuera's description of Cervantes' radical skepticism seems to contradict views expressed elsewhere in the author's writings for example Cervantes' apparent pride in his military feats at Lepanto (in the Prologue to Part II of Don Quixote); and his statement regarding the moral, exemplary purpose of his fiction (in the Prologue to the Novelas ejemplares). The assumption that Cervantes had detailed knowledge of contemporary theological and political debates may be reasonable, but did Cervantes make the same assumption about his readers? If his implied reader is as vulnerable to deception as are his characters, the erudite message Higuera finds would surely elude him. The themes of revealed truth versus reason, the preference for the rational wisdom of the ancient philosophers, and of reason's critique of Christianity, seem perhaps more Bloomian than Cervantine. In Eros and Empire, Higuera invites us on a unique adventure into the labyrinth of Cervantes' great novel. Readers can decide for themselves how much of what Higuera sees gazing into the text is Cervantes' intention and how much is a reflection of Higuera (or Bloom) himself.
|Robert M. Johnston|
|Northern Arizona University|
||Prepared with the help of Sue Dirrim||
|Fred Jehle firstname.lastname@example.org||Publications of the CSA||HCervantes|