Scholarship

Fiction

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Madness

The Actual

Euphemism

History


Don Quixote
and the Artificial Nature of Fiction


"For all of that, they might well have said nothing about them; for there is no need of recording those events that do not alter the veracity of the chronicle, when they tend only to lessen the reader's respect for the hero.  You may be sure that Aeneas was not as pious as Vergil would have us believe, nor Ulysses as wise as Homer depicts him."

-- Don Quixote

Basic Quandary: Fiction bears some relationship to reality.  What happens when fiction explores this relationship? It ends up commenting on itself.

1. Fiction is often called on to imitate reality; indeed part of its power lies in its use of physical and social existence to build plot, characterization, setting, etc.

2. Yet fiction is essentially a projected world, which may or may not be internally consistent.

3. We can compare the projected world of fiction to the actual world of reality, testing the former's "success" or pondering how it illustrates or differs with the actual.

4. Yet we also recognize that every fictional construction is in some sense, intentionally or not, a projected worldview, a work that evinces the way its author and culture understand reality.  So we find that we are comparing the worldview of a text with our worldview, both rival claims about the actual, both judgments about how the world is understood.

5. Cervantes' work is in part about critiquing the success of the medieval romance's projection of "unreal" worlds. The work investigates how others misuse works of fiction by fictionally showing us an extreme example.

6. So Don Quixote itself shares in the artificial nature of fiction.  It is not reality even as it purports to show and teach us something about it. It is a fictional construction that may as easily distort as underscore the actual world.  It risks practicing what it condemns.

7. And the novel even becomes self-referential when Part I enters Part II in order for Don Quixote and Sancho Panza to react to it.  Thus, fiction, portrayed as reality, reacts to reality, even while the audience full well knows it's not reality, rather an approximation.

8. Cervantes does this because he expects his audience to sort out the actual from the fictional, the exaggerated from the typical, and the trustworthy from the insubstantial.  But does the audience cooperate?  For example, Don Antonio does not want Quixote sane because he and Sancho are too entertaining.  In this sense, Don Antonio becomes a voice for an audience that would rather laugh at the insanity than see it cured.

9. In addition, Cervantes' work calls into question other ways of assessing validity:  How "mad" is Don Quixote, for instance?  Where does his "faith" in the romance go wrong?  At what point does he no longer understand what actually exists? For example, should we trust Quixote's view of poetry?   And are there graduations within his constructions?   For instance, is Dulcinea even more fantastic than say the windmills as giants or the sheep as warring armies?

10.  Equally, how effective is scholarship?  Cervantes mocks the uncertainties of historical reconstruction as well as medieval storytelling.   For example, he must "reconstruct" the work by Cid Hamete Benengeli, which itself differs in minor ways from the fictional work that Cervantes offers.  Likewise, "experts" can not decide if the gentleman of La Mancha was named "Quijada" or "Quesada".

11. But, of course, Cervantes himself is doing something no different than Benengeli or those who debate the validity of "Quijada".  He is positing for his readers what the actual and the fictional are.

12. Even the crimes of the galley slaves are both actual crimes as well as euphemisms.   And Quixote's actions toward them are a kind of test of competing definitions of an act.  A test which Quixote seems to fail.  Likewise, the motivations of the slaves are complicated.  Gines de Pasamonte's story of his own life, which is treated as the actual story of a criminal, is modeled after the popular rogue or picaresque novel.  He seems to construct his life in order to fictionalize it.

13. Fictional deception within the world of the story becomes a kind of cure for Quixote's false reality.  Carrasco must enter the realm of Quixote's imagination as the Knight of the Mirrors, of the Wood, and of the White Moon in order to challenge it.

14. Thus, the practice of Cervantes' novel overlaps with the story's actions in interesting ways, for each may have something to say about the mimetic challenge for any projection of worlds:

  • Does Quixote's madness fictionally construct his world?  Can fiction opt to alter an audience's perception of the actual?
  • Are the names the galley slaves give their crimes a sort of fiction?  By what measures do we assess the criminal nature of an act?  Can fiction seek to deceive through its language?
  • Does scholarship itself sometimes amount to working with legends? Is it undermined if facts can not be clearly ascertained?
  • And why must Carrasco fictionalize himself in order to teach reality?   Is Cervantes himself playing by the rules of fiction in order to critique it?

15. A Christian assessment of reality would perhaps argue that God has designed us as humans to understand reality as long as our cognitive environment is not polluted with deception, misinformation, etc.  While no one person can understand all of reality, together in community we can reach an adequate appraisal of what is there and how to evaluate it.  And one can argue that Cervantes agrees: Even as he explores the metacritical nature of fiction, he also continues to believe that the average reader can appraise the veracity of a fictional world, be it Don Quixote's "mad" visions or Cervantes' own novel.  The humor's success then is based on the reader's ability to see the discrepancy.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding