From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 7.2 (1987): 91-94.
Copyright © 1987, The Cervantes Society of America

The Bounds of Reason: Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Flaubert. Anthony Cascardi. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986, xviii + 284 pages.*

     In his haunting introduction to the Grove-Press edition of Henry James's The Golden Bowl (1952), Richard Blackmur describes the trilogy to which The Golden Bowl belongs as “poetic dramas of the inner life of the soul at the height of its struggle, for good and for evil, with the outer world . . . in which a very little soul may by its spiritual intensity balance a great deal of life. Something of this sort is what is meant when we refer to the novel as a way of looking at life, or, better, it is what we might mean if we said that the novel provided us with a theoretic form for life. The novel gives the imaginative parts of our minds a theoretic form for life which will modify or correct the forms which other parts of our minds —all the conceptual and administrative and routine parts— provide; and the novel does this precisely by providing forms in which we can see the soul in action.” Ages before Derrida, one is struck by the ghostliness of the Blackmur formulation, in which he wonderfully perseveres, coming at last to see Maggie's ultimate encounter with the Prince in purely Dantean terms: “It was a shade embracing a shade, but in the shades of poetry.” And yet, despite the seeming insubstantiality of this idea, it stands richly related to experience even in the absence of experience. More than a view of actuality, the novel expresses a relationship to the actual which the soul, as Blackmur says, “must deny, or renounce, or accept.” The Jamesian novel, then, does not reproduce raw experience but does address it: “Life” is not present. It is implied. It is a factor in an intellectual relationship, an oblique factor. The novel turns to its beloved experience much as the poet turns to his departed daughter in Wordsworth's “Surprised by Joy,” hoping to find in her a receptacle for his own overflowing plenitude and encountering instead an absence, a shade. But the relationship persists even when one partner in it is gone.
     Distinguishing in the Meditaciones del ‘Quijote’ between a direct mode of address in epic and tales of adventure and an oblique derivate of it in the realistic novel, Ortega memorably describes the representation of reality in works stemming from the Quijote as “espejismo,” a mirage ironically presenting drought as sheets of water and yet betraying its own trickery. Something of this same obliquity is to be found in Robert Nozick's treatment of epistemology in Philosophical Explanations, where knowledge is explored not

     * For A. J. Cascardi's response to this review see “The Bounds of Reason: Critical Response”, Cervantes 8.1 (1988): 109-14.



as direct possession of truth but as a connection between the knower and the known: “In knowledge, a belief is linked somehow to the fact believed; without this linkage there may be true belief but there will not be knowledge.” The pursuit of this linkage is what Nozick calls “tracking” and surely has important cognates in the phenomenon of “trace” in particle physics. But here we are once again in a ghostly world where things are not present but do mark their passage so that we can turn to them only when they are gone. Truth thus comes to be essentially and complexly relational: “Knowledge is a real relationship to the facts, subjunctively contoured” (my emphasis), as Nozick would have it.
     Anthony J. Cascardi's The Bounds of Reason undertakes to study a series of great novels, principally the Quijote, Dostoevsky's The Idiot, and Flaubert's Madame Bovary as epistemological exercises in which skepticism challenges the conviction that there is a reality external to or other than the knower and that such a reality can somehow be apprehended. Traditional philosophy obviously rests on the assumption that it is possible to know, so that skepticism, if it cannot be satisfactorily answered, constitutes a terrible threat to the enterprise. The philosopher has to address the skeptic. But in addressing her, the clever philosopher will seek rather to convince himself than her. So Nozick: “. . . how is knowledge possible? In answering this question, we do not seek to convince the skeptic, but rather to formulate hypotheses about knowledge and our connection to facts that show how knowledge can exist even given the skeptic's possibilities. These hypotheses must reconcile our belief that we know things with our belief that the skeptical possibilities are logical possibilities,” Yet what is clear from this exposition is that the skeptic is not going to prevail. The philosopher will believe despite her, after having gone around her, the oblique, the enveloping, the poetic response.
     Cascardi's skeptics are Don Quijote, Emma Bovary, and Myshkin who challenge actuality by responding to it with preconceived ideas: chivalric, aesthetic, and psychological. Their passions take place when ordinary experience fails to conform to their concepts of it. However, Cascardi's epistemology, like Descartes' cogito, puts all ontology out of bounds. The absolute must keep out. In a revealingly bracketed statement, Cascardi declares his major premise: “I am assuming here that the problems of skepticism and criteria as seen in the Quijote are instructive of general philosophical problems: we want to be able to identify the things of our world by reference to our world alone, and not to any other; we want to decide for ourselves what things are, not have to ask God, for instance, about them” (p. 6). That assumption is, I would submit, simply impossible. What is “our world?” Is it that infinitesimal microcosm where one can get reliable results by calculating in terms of Newtonian mechanics? I suspect that it is such a world, one apart from relativity and the quantum, where accelerating bodies do not increase in mass and where the position of electrically charged particles can be determined. Yet even if there is still no theory of correspondence, although one seems likely even in my lifetime, our Newtonian realm of experience is compenetrated by the universes of

7.2 (1987) Review 93

Einstein and Heisenberg and cannot be well understood without reference to them. If physics is a form of reason, it does have bounds. Newton obtains to a minus billionth of a centimeter, where Planck takes over. But the progression from relativity to the quantum is a continuum rather than a disjunction and to know our Newtonian world well, we must likewise know them. It is in this sense that physics so far is limitless, infinitely vast, infinitely small.
     Thus, if physics were the metaphor, we could see Cascardi's skeptics as, rather, misguided calculators using inappropriate formulae, Einsteinian relativity where Newtonian mechanics would yield a far more accurate result, yet theirs a misconceived universe in which one nonetheless finds strange Baudelairean correspondences. My real point here is that, even though Descartes, Nozick, and Cascardi set the ontological aside in their epistemology, in novelistic art the ontological cannot be ruled out. Like the skeptic, it has to be addressed, even if obliquely. Indeed, the novel, specifically the English Victorian novel, can be fruitfully studied as a kind of Sartrean address to the consequences of the Nietzschean death of God, and has been so studied by Hillis Miller, ontology as defect. My main unhappiness with Cascardi's book stems from his arbitrary omission of God or, better, the omission of his omission. Religion is an absolutely central concern of the Quijote, of Madame Bovary, and of The Idiot but it makes itself felt in these works as an absence rather than a presence.
     Moreover, there is in novelistic art a fundamental factor undreamt of in philosophy, or, if dreamt of, then loathed. In most philosophy, until Derrida, there inheres a longing for the lost original plenitude that makes separation from the source of being an intellectual sorrow that engenders philosophy itself. Until yesterday, then, nearly all philosophy was a philosophy of return, of closing the distance that keeps the soul from merging again with its source. Art, however, conceived of as imitation, requires a distance between numinous original and nominalistic copy. When Plato denounces poetry in the tenth book of The Republic, he attacks art for extending a distance that already obtains between Forms and nature. Nature is a copy of these which art in turn itself copies, lengthening the human distance from truth.
     Still worse, the novel addresses ontology in terms of an even greater extension of imitatio, an oblique lengthening of it that we call parody. I believe that Ortega, in the Meditaciones, persuasively shows how the so-called realistic novel, beginning at least in the Quijote, emerges as an indirect mode of irony, as parody, as distance that deconstructs the original for the benefit of the copy, reversing their relative strengths, resolving the quarrel between poetry and philosophy in favor of the novel. Cascardi's second important oversight, after his decision not to address at least the ghost of ontology, is his failure to reckon with the parodic. Completely untrained as a philosopher, I myself have no notion as to how to deal with that mode in philosophic terms. There is, I fear, an ingenuousness in most philosophic investigations that immunizes them against the artistic diseases of indirection such as wit, humor, and irony. Most philosophers would, I regret to say, understand works founded on irony as misrepresentations, and


Cascardi is no exception as he comes to judge Don Quijote, Emma, and Myshkin as errant epistemologists whose mistakes in method come at last to overwhelm them and their ill-conceived systems, systems which he understands as kinds of a skepticism that finally yields to the reality of sense data, the body.
     It would of course be superfluous in me to point out that there neither is nor can be any kind of body in the novel, where all souls are necessarily disincarnate. Don Quijote is to Dulcinea, Emma to Rodolphe, Myshkin to Nastasya as “shade to shade.” Their connection to the incarnate world is relational and theoretical rather than representational. In other words, I don't think that Cascardi has, in The Bounds of Reason, even begun “to reformulate some of the questions conventionally associated with the novelistic representation of reality” (p. xi). That daunting task will have to deal with the novel as a mode of misrepresentation. Cascardi, I believe, has failed to see his protagonists as ontological intoxicates —not skeptics— who rather parody absolute idea than question actuality. Don Quijote's chivalry is an ironic surrogate of the faith to which it submits in the work of imitatio but with which it competes and over which it triumphs in the Persiles. In Madame Bovary parody takes the well-known Flaubertian form of “la religion de l'art.” In the struggle between faith and form, intellection is crowded out as art and belief incredulously draw together. Art and religion come for Flaubert to be the only ways of knowing. Epistemology is for him the ultimate form of sottise, and in the progress to real knowledge (that magnificently ironic movement out of mind in Félicité in Un coeur simple, for example) reason vanishes: credo quia absurdum. With Dostoevsky, parody no longer operates through surrogates. On the model of Ivan's “Grand-Inquisitor” vision in The Brothers Karamazov religion comes to be its own parody, the misrepresentation of itself.
     Despite what I take to be some really serious flaws, The Bounds of Reason often is a rewarding book. Cascardi has some good things to say about each of his authors. His approach does not prevent him from engaging his texts. Reason is not a mere academic exercise. It is a genuine critical study, but not, I suspect, in the terms it proposes for itself. Cascardi does not yet fully understand his own sensibility, which is the most promising element in this work, in which even so, there are some annoying lapses, the vacillation between “different from” and “different than” to name one. Another error is truly dysfunctional. In the discussion of Camus' protagonist's engagement with death as an epistemological experience (pp. 100-105), Cascardi misspells the beautifully resonant Meursault as Mersault no fewer than twenty-four times. That's the kind of mistake that no comparatist can afford to make.

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