From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 6.1 (1986): 39-49.
Copyright © 1986, The Cervantes Society of America

Genre Definition and Multiplicity in Don Quixote


  “no he podido yo contravenir a la orden de Naturaleza; que en ella cada cosa engendra su semejante.”1

The following remarks on the subject of genre definition and multiplicity in Don Quixote are meant as a contribution to our understanding of the somewhat larger question of the nature of mimesis in the seventeenth century. The argument which these pages are intended to support is that there was at the time of Cervantes and Descartes a transformation in the concept of mimesis from that of imitation to that of representation. In this context, I hope to place Cervantes with respect to the practice of mimesis-as-representation, and to its theory (hence also to the philosophy of Descartes), in a way which owes something to the interpretation put forward by Michel Foucault at the opening of Les Mots et les choses, yet which nonetheless differs from his in significant ways. Foucault situates Cervantes at the edge of the old Renaissance order of things; Don Quixote, he says, is the champion of similitude, or in his words, “the hero of the Same.”2 The transition

     1 Don Quijote de la Mancha, I, “Prólogo.” I follow the edition in the Obras completas, II (Madrid: Aguilar, 1970), p. 1211a.
     2 In English as The Order of Things (New York: Random House, 1970), p. 46.



to the new order of representation is marked, he says, by a “radical discontinuity”; between Cervantes and Descartes would on this account stand an archaeological abyss. Closer reflection on Don Quixote, however, suggests that this relationship might be formulated in a different way. The consideration of genre, its related theoretical context, and the allied problem of point of view which I propose here, would suggest that Don Quixote takes us to the limit of mimesis-as-imitation and in so doing projects the need for a philosophy of representation, which Descartes would finally supply. The implication of this interpretation for a reading of Descartes, which is only intimated here, is nonetheless of parallel importance: if the Quixote projects the need for a theory of representation, then the primary bearer of that theory, the Cartesian subject, is fashioned by the process which takes quixotic imitation to its limit.3
     One may begin from Cervantes' own invocation of the “order of Nature” in the Prologue to Part I, which I have cited as the epigraph to this study, and move from there to consider the ways in which his own text contravenes that order. Nature engenders only likeness; the “natural” is the principle by which the world is a self-generating succession of sameness. If this is so, then the Quixote would on almost any account have to be considered the most unnatural of kinds. On even a cursory inspection, it appears to break Nature's law of similitude by mixing a vast diversity of kinds. Literarily, it includes the majority of generic possibilities available in Cervantes' day: pastoral, chivalresque, novela morisca, autoportraiture, the comedia (or at least Master Pedro's puppet show and the itinerant “Cortes de la Muerte”); lyric, narrative, and burlesque verse; an italianate novella, the picaresque, Ciceronian-styled dialogue, Erasmian adages, political prose, letters, epigrams, as well as adventures modeled on Classical epic and Byzantine romance. Since some of these candidate genera are distinguished on the basis of form, some by theme or subject matter, and others by some particular combination of aspects of these, any conception of genre capable of assimilating them all would have to work on a principle of heterogeneity, which in turn would prompt one to ask whether the novel was a form capable of generic distinction at all. The multiplicity of genres we find in the Quixote is a challenge to the idea of genre as such —that there is an order of

     3 For a reading compatible with the one proposed here, see Jean-Luc Nancy, “Mundus est fabula,” MLN 93 (1978), 635-53.

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kindness to things— and is thus a threat to the order of nature, which might be thought of as the essential kinship of things; and while it does not defeat the idea of genre it does in fact transform it in significant ways. That transformation is shaped by the fact that, whatever else one may say about Don Quixote, it is itself of a single kind, a vast panoply of natural and literary “kindness” drawn together into a single genre.
     Thus the Quixote might be thought of as the limit-case of what Rosalie Colie described as the Renaissance passion for “inclusionism.”4 Thinking of its diversity rather than its singularity, one might legitimately compare it to the encyclopedia, the miscellany, or to the museum-like collection of strange and rare marvels popular elsewhere in Europe at the time, the Wunderkammer.5 And indeed the Quixote's striking “inclusionism” is precisely that aspect which we would not ordinarily expect a theory of genre to be able to admit. The guiding assumption of genre theory, from the Classical past to the post-structuralist present, has consistently been that generic combinations and mixtures are inadmissible, so that when a mixture of kinds does occur, such as happens in the Quixote, one is obliged to find a new generic label for that kind, thus preserving the principle of genre through what has been referred to as “genre's law,” i.e. that kinds are naturally simple —as Cervantes says, Nature only engenders likeness— and must not be mixed.6
     This classical and potentially totalitarian requirement remained a guiding assumption at the theoretical level throughout the Renaissance, despite the increasing prevalence of mixed kinds. Indeed, Renaissance writers came to specialize in hybrid genres and generic mixtures, even if the practice flew in the face of the classical norms —witness the emblem book, which drew together the icon and the adage; the florilegium, which combined different species of verse; witness also the essay-book, such as Montaigne's (where each essay is itself an assemblage of diverse citations and sententiae), and the anatomy, such as Burton's on the popular subject of melancholy. If

     4 The Resources of Kind: Genre-Theory in the Renaissance, ed. Barbara K. Lewalski (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), p. 31.
     5 On the Wunderkammer and the Renaissance passion for collections, see Steven Mullaney, “Strange Things, Gross Terms, Curious Customs: The Rehearsal of Cultures in the Late Renaissance,” Representations 3 (1983), 40-67.
     6 See Jacques Derrida, “La Loi du genre,” Glyph 7 (1980), 176-201; English trans. “The Law of Genre,” ibid., 202-29.


the Quixote represents the limit of the Renaissance capacity for mixed forms, that is in part because the mixing of kinds which occurs in it is not literary alone: the order of natural kindness is also transgressed in the realm of material objects (e.g., the baciyelmo) and the sexes (e.g. the bearded waiting-women of Part II).7 Thus rather than say that the mixture of genres was plainly inadmissible in the Renaissance, it would be more accurate to say that such combinations were feared unnatural, for the potentially monstrous or ridiculous offspring which might result. This is the worry engendered by the opening lines of Horace's epistle to the Pisos: “If a painter chose to join a human head to the neck of a horse, and to spread feathers of many colors over limbs picked up here and there, so that what begins as a lovely woman ends in a black and ugly fish, could you . . . refrain from laughing?”8 Thus when generic combinations are defended as single genres, such as in Lope de Vega's “Arte nuevo de hacer comedias,” the unity of the mixed kind, which might be considered alien to the natural order of things, could only be defended under the rubric of the “new.” The same is implicitly true of the Quixote, which institutionalized the novel, which is to say, the genre of the new.
     By virtue of its generic mixtures, the Quixote founds a genre which challenges the order of nature; according to Mikhail Bakhtin, this generic phenomenon is one with the novel's larger multiplicity, its polyphonic mixture of stylistic voices and registers, and its consistently anticanonical status.9 The Quixote thus inaugurates a genre which continually contravenes the principles of literary mimesis according to which Nature is an order of self-engendering likeness the essential idea of which the artist reproduces in his work. In this way, it projects the need for a concept of genre which Renaissance

     7 0n the latter, see Arthur Efron, “Bearded Waiting Women, Lovely Lethal Female Piratemen: Sexual Boundary Shifts in Don Quixote, Part II,” Cervantes 2 (1982), 155-64. See also the reply of Cesáreo Bandera, “Healthy Bodies in Not-So-Healthy Minds,” ibid., 165-70, and Efron's rejoinder, “On Some Central Issues in Quixote Criticism: Society and the Sexual Body,” 171-80. The problem which Bakhtin would focus in terms of the absolute novelty of the novel and its anticanonical status (see note 9 below) seems implicit in these discussions.
     8 Horace, “Ars Poetica.” My translation slightly modifies that of H. R. Fairclough in the Loeb Classical Library Edition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970), p. 451.
     9 See the essays collected in The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981).

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notions of mimesis-as-imitation were unable to supply; indeed, it exhausts the classical notions from which the very concept of genre was derived —the Aristotelian notion of the genus or “category” and the Platonic notion of the eídos or “idea.” If the eídos as “idea” is also a name for “species” or “form,”10 then the phenomenal things of nature might be thought of as imitations  —sometimes images, eídolon— of their respective ideas. (In a less orthodox interpretation, this mode of mimesis might be thought of as a form of animation, so that Ginés de Pasamonte, being of the species “picaro,” might be said to be animated by the picaresque genre or idea.) But since ideas are necessarily simple, it would be difficult to say that the Quixote, in its multiplicity, is the imitation of anything, least of all the “imitation of an idea.” Certainly Cervantes' novel contains many passages which may be regarded as “imitations,” even as imitations of nature if by this is meant the more or less faithful description of the natural world; but the book as a whole, the novel in its singular multiplicity, cannot be the imitation of nature if only because it is inconceivable for there to be so heterogeneous a single idea available for imitation at all. If it is true that one consequence of the mixing of genres in the Quixote was not the creation of a miscellany or encyclopedia but rather the formation of a newly synthetic genre, then the Quixote marks the limit-point of the Platonic-idealist notion according to which works of art and the world are held to be imitations of ideas.
     If the Quixote can be thought of as the most extreme moment in the Renaissance reevaluation of the heritage of Platonic idealism, it does not however stand alone in this project. In reinterpreting Plato, and in reevaluating Aristotle as well, Renaissance thinkers came gradually to doubt the assumption that nature could be understood in terms of categories or ideas independent of it. The broad result of this was a new empiricism, or more accurately a new descriptivism, which shows up in places as diverse as the essays of Francis Bacon, the natural philosophy of Telesio (De rerum natura juxta propria principia), the Spanish picaresque, and in genre painting in both Holland and Spain.11 As Ernst Cassirer remarked in this regard, the principles of

     10 See F. E. Peters, Greek Philosophical Terms (New York: New York University Press, 1967), s. v. eídos (pp. 46-51).
     11 For a discussion of description germane to some of the problems addressed here, see Svetlana Alpers, “Describe or Narrate? A Problem in Realistic Representation,” New Literary History 8 (1976-77), 15-41; “Seeing as Knowing: A Dutch Connection,” Humanities in Society 1 (1978); and The Art of [p. 44] Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983). With regard to the Spanish picaresque, see Carlos Blanco Aguinaga, “Cervantes y la picaresca: Notas sobre dos tipos de realismo,” Nueva revista de filología hispánica 11 (1957), 313-42.


nature were no longer thought to lie in the Platonic or Aristotelian notions of “form” and “matter,” “actuality” and “potentiality,” and so forth; rather, nature was to be investigated, as Telesio said, “according to its own principles,” and those principles were to be sought in its “constant, concrete, and universally uniform phenomena.”12 The task which remained, and which neither Bacon nor Telesio would accomplish, was to provide a totalizing perspective for this empiricism, and so also to provide a theoretical order capable of accounting for nature as “constant,” “concrete” and, not least, “universally uniform” (i. e. lawful), while still admitting the diversity of kinds proper to it. If an essayist like Bacon turns our attention toward the surface of a world which in its essential diversity resembles that of the Quixote, then one would have to look to Descartes for a theory of nature capable also of accounting for the synthetic totality of kinds.
     The vision of nature as a single realm which embraces a diversity of kinds is possible where nature is seen not as an object of (or for) imitation, but rather as an object of (or for) representation. By “representation” I mean in part the technique whereby an object is fixed and set before us, and we set back from it in order mentally to posit it, so that through the frame or lens of vision we may view that object as a whole, a structured arrangement of parts. Accordingly, I would not describe the Quixote in terms of the “imitation of nature,” notwithstanding the diversity of kinds which it includes, and notwithstanding also the fact that it is itself unable to provide a theory for its own generic multiplicity. The limitation by which the novel is unable to provide a theory of its own generic status may be understood in several ways, all of which are central to the broader relationship of mimesis-as-imitation and mimesis-as-representation: it may be seen as an aspect of the generic novelty of the novel (as Bakhtin would have it), or as a corollary of the fact that the place from which any proper theory is articulated must be external to the world which it projects. This is the source of the mutual and perhaps necessary exclusions that operate between theory and the novel, or

     12 The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, trans. Mario Domandi (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963), p. 146.

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between representation and imitation —beginning with Cervantes himself, who as E. C. Riley reminded us had no theory of the novel13 (but only a novel – the first), and continuing to the antagonistic approaches of Unamuno (who chose quixotic imitation, principally in the manner of the novel) and Ortega y Gasset (whose choice was for representation, with its ancillary notions of “perspective,” “point of view,” and “concept,” which the Quixote demands but does not itself supply).
     If the novel is the representation of a world, then genre is like a mind-set and may be thought of as a mental frame; accordingly, the generic multiplicity of the novel, like the multiple voices and competing perspectives assembled in it, is unified by a governing point of view. Ortega y Gasset and Leo Spitzer, in their respective writings on perspectivism, tell us that this happens, but do not exactly say how; Spitzer is, moreover, potentially misleading when he presents the resolution of perspectivism as an act of God, operating through his surrogate, the artist (“we have been led from a plethora of names, words, languages, from polynomasia, polyetymologia and polyglottism, to the perspectivism of the artist Cervantes who knows that the transparence of language is a fact for God alone . . . .  [T]he hero is Cervantes, the artist himself, who combines a critical and illusionistic art according to his free will”14).
     In order to understand the process by which the Quixote projects a point of view lying at the limit of the competing perspectives which it contains (much as the Cartesian subject stands at the limit of a world), I want to consider Colie's extension of the principles of genre criticism to the domain of lived experience. Colie was, if not the first, then certainly among the best of critics of the Renaissance to make this extension, but in light of the perspectival and generic multiplicity of the Quixote some of the limitations of her approach may be exposed. If genre is regarded as a regulative ideal, underwritten by a set of natural or normative congruences for the matching of topic and treatment, subject and form, then one may suppose that the same would hold true for the appropriateness of literary genres to the representation of perceptions and experiences; the link between the two would be provided by the notion of culture as the transmission of

     13 See Cervantes's Theory of the Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962).
     14 “Linguistic Perspectivism in the Don Quijote,” in Linguistics and Literary History (1948; rpt. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), pp. 68, 69.


such norms (cf. Cicero's much quoted remark from the De optimo genere oratorum, “in the kinds, each to his own tone and voice, which the educated recognize”15). But, as Colie says of the Quixote, the prior expectations which are brought with the literary organization of experience are in constant competition with experience itself. Some episodes of the novel arrange themselves according to expected generic patterns, but many break with the established principles of decorum or ridicule the adherence to any generically guided mode of action. We find goatherds who live the life that pastoralists must; Ginés de Pasamonte is indeed the picaro he first defines himself as. Yet in the case of someone like Grisóstomo, who plays out the role which literature would have assigned him, a genre is like a fate. And the generic expectations which the principal character of the book brings to bear on the world are severely threatened by his experience in it, even if they are not immediately shattered by it. When Don Quixote prepares to do battle with what he sees as enemy armies or giants, he is, according to the principles of the chivalresque genre, deserving of whatever beatings he may get. Nonetheless he remains faithful to the principles of the genre in which he is cast. His genre is what Colie calls his “fix” on the world, or something we might call his perspective or point of view, provided, that is, we grant a point of view sufficient power to rule a form of life.
     The limitation of Colie's extension of the principles of genre to the level of experience (which is deftly done through the idea of point of view) is that it does not sufficiently account for the diversity of perspectives synthesized in the novel, even if it does help account for the predictability of human experience in the world. In this area as in so many others, the Quixote stands at the limit of Renaissance experience and projects the need for a new conceptual order of things. When it comes time to tell whether an object is the fabled Helmet of Mambrino or an ordinary barber's basin, the characters' reactions are indeed determined by their respective “points of view,” which is also to say according to the principles of genre. But at some point it becomes necessary to identify the nature of the baciyelmo —an object which in its radical unnaturalness is a supremely novelistic kind— and neither the notion of mimesis-as-imitation (what idea does

     15 My translation slightly modifies that of H. M. Hubbell in the Loeb Classical Library edition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960), p. 355.

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the baciyelmo “imitate”?16) nor the notion of genre as literary expectation (who could have expected such a thing?) proves sufficient to the case. If the Quixote is an assemblage of genres —a fact which those who have written on point of view in the novel would attribute to its “manyvoicedness” (Bakhtin) or to Cervantes' “perspectivism” (Ortega y Gasset, Leo Spitzer), then to what genre does it itself belong? The answer to this question, I am suggesting, is closely bound up with the formation of a single point of view capable of controlling a multiplicity of perspectives.
     The function to which I am referring is supplied by what would later be called the “subject.” It is the position which Descartes constructs in the Meditations as exterior to the world, as beyond all possibility of sensory error and also as beyond all conceptual doubt. It is the self which reflects itself in its own silence and its own invisibility (“I shall now close my eyes, I shall call away all my senses, I shall efface even from my thoughts all the images of corporeal things . . . . I shall try little by little to reach a better knowledge of and a more familiar relationship with myself” p. 175). As with the point of view which the Quixote projects, the establishment of the transcendental subject with claims to philosophical certainty occurs alongside the exhaustion of imitations, but also as a transformation of them.17 This transformation takes place in part because, in order to make those claims truly transcendental, the “I” of the Meditations must place itself above the possible deceits of imitations and must stand guard

     16 Some of the complexities of the problem are taken up by Descartes in the Third Meditation, but in a context in which “idea” has the sense of “picture or image” represented in foro interno: “Now as to what concerns ideas, if we consider them only in themselves and do not relate them to anything beyond themselves, they cannot properly speaking be false; for whether I imagine a goat or a chimera, it is no less true that I imagine the one than the other . . . . If ideas are only taken as certain modes of thought, I recognize amongst them no difference or inequality, and all appear to proceed from me in the same manner; but when we consider them as images, one representing one thing and the other another, it is clear that they are very different one from the other” (The Philosophical Works of Descartes, I, trans. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross, [1911; rpt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975], pp. 159, 161-62).
     17 See Jean-Luc Nancy, “Mundus est fabula”; John D. Lyons, “Subjectivity and Imitation in the Discours de la Méthode,” Neophilologus 66 (1982), 508-524; and, on the ethical-rhetorical relations of reader, narrator, and text, John J. Allen, “The Narrators, the Reader, and Don Quijote,” MLN 91 (1976), 201-12.


against the possibility that the reader might attempt to “imitate” it. Apart from the technical sense in which the term was later appropriated by Kant, to describe the Cartesian subject, or the reader of the Quixote, as “transcendental,” is also to describe it as inimitable, or as Foucault says, “invisible.” Yet by virtue of the fact that the transcendental subject is thus also vacant, its position, in all its emptiness, becomes available for any reader who comes to assume its place.
     The reader who organizes the multiple perspectives of the Quixote is thus like the viewer of Velázquez' Las Meninas, invisible to the perspectives of the world which he projects. The figures in Velázquez' painting, like the characters in the Quixote, are thus made present to us, while we are not at the same time present to them; or to phrase it in another way, the function of representation is radically concealed from the world which it controls. If Foucault's reading of Las Meninas is correct, then the subject of the painting is itself representation. Yet what is interesting about Las Meninas is the fact that the integral act of representation, its unified temporal development, cannot itself be represented; the discrete functions of representation have been captured on the canvas (in the spectators, the models, and the artist-maker), but not the singular act of representation itself. This is what Foucault means by the “invisibility” of the activity of representation and also by the invisibility of the subject-spectator, and it is what I mean by saying that the Quixote projects the need for a theory which it cannot itself supply (Foucault: “In this picture, as in all the representations of which it is, as it were, the manifest essence, the profound invisibility of what one sees is inseparable from the invisibility of the person seeing —despite all mirrors, reflections, imitations, and portraits,” The Order of Things, p. 16).
     What Foucault describes in Velázquez as the problem of the subject is brilliantly focused by the fact that the spectator of the painting fails to find his image reflected in the central mirror. This fact suggests that there must be some categorical difference between the spectator-subject and the representations which the subject makes to itself. This is the very difference which Don Quixote would deny when he claims absolute identification with the heroes whose actions he imitates. Don Quixote is committed to the sovereign practice of mimesis-as-imitation, where precisely what is required of the reader is a different mode of mimetic activity, one which would allow him to resist the perils of mimesis in its imitative mode. Thus if there is a break in the order of things as one passes from Cervantes

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to Descartes, it is a fissure which is already projected by Cervantes' text: the Quixote demands an idea of representation, if only as a strategy for the containment of imitations.
     In concluding that the generic multiplicity of the Quixote is organized into a single, new genre, because the novel is not the imitation of nature but rather the representation of a world, we need only guard against moving from this fact of representation to the supposition of a single, God's-eye point of view for the novel, as Spitzer was prone to do. A diversity of kinds, seen together as a world, only looks as if it is seen from a God's-eye point of view. We come to realize this once we realize that this perspective is, in its unimpeachable certainty and infinite repeatability, assumable by any reader, which in turn suggests that it is not a property of any being (God, the reader, the author) or thing (the world), but is literally a technique. There is no totalizing perspective available for the novel independent of or prior to a reading of the book, even if any reading of the novel is premised on our familiarity with certain literary —I want to say “generic”— points of view. And what may be said of point of view in the Quixote may, with an appropriate transposition of terms, be said of genre itself. In Cervantes' novel, the many different things of the world, and indeed experience itself, are inseparable from the generic classifications and orderings which the mind provides. In this way, genre may be seen to function as a guiding principle of intelligibility, allowing us to deal with the diversity of experience in the world, in among other ways by containing that experience into something we call a “world.”


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