June 2, 2007


The democracy of Don Quixote: Novelists have always turned their hands to essays, and the essay-writing novelist remains a literary force to be reckoned with. The two forms share an inherent pluralism and scepticism that makes them natural allies of democracy (Jonathan Rée, June 2007, Prospect)

In or around 1605, European literature changed. No one realised it at the time, but when Don Quixote set off to save the world, a new kind of writing was born. The old forms of storytelling—the epic, the romance, the oral tale—would from now on be pitted against a boisterous young rival. Before long it would be universally acknowledged that a reader hoping to enjoy a good story must be in search of a novel.

The novelty of the novel is of course connected with the rise of printing, and the growth of a literate public with time and money to spare. Beyond that, the sheer scale of the form allows storylines to be extended and multiplied as never before, crossing and re-crossing each other with ample scope for coincidence, surprise and contingency, and hence for the depiction of characters with whom, as William Hazlitt put it, the reader can "identify." But the most momentous way in which novels distinguish themselves from other kinds of storytelling is that they give a central role to a supernumerary character—the narrator—whose task is to transmit the story to us. All kinds of stories invite us to imagine the characters they portray, and involve ourselves in their fortunes and their follies; but to engage with novels we need to go one step further and imagine the people telling the story, or even identify with them.

The art of reading a novel involves a dash of experiment, conjecture, even risk. It requires readers to try out different narrative perspectives, styles, even personalities, and so to explore the inherent variousness of experience, and to recognise the vein of arbitrariness that runs through any possible version of events. Novels, in short, are implicitly pluralistic.

The most interestingly democratic aspect of Don Quijote is how completely the novelist lost control of his text to his readers, so that an effort to lampoon chivalry and idealism ended up as its most eloquent and eternal defense:
Ah, sir, may God forgive you for the damage you've done to the whole rest of the world, in trying to cure the wittiest lunatic ever seen! Don't you see, my dear sir, that whatever utility there might be in curing him, it could never match the pleasure he gives with his madness? But I suspect that, despite all your cleverness, sir, you cannot possibly cure a man so far gone in madness, and, if charity did not restrain me, I would say that Don Quijote ought never to be rendered sane, because if he were he would lose, not only his witticisms, but those of Sancho Panza, his squire, any one of which has the power to turn melancholy into happiness.

Thus did Cervantes novelistically, as Hume did philosophically, pronounce the undesirability and futility of Rationalism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 2, 2007 12:00 AM
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