Blog Post

The Fictional World

Over the past few years I have used this space mainly as a sounding board for ideas and arguments that I worked into my book In Defense of Religious Moderation. Looking back over those posts I can see the progression of the project, even down to the change of title, and relive some of the debates that informed it and criticisms that enriched it. In that spirit I'd like to inaugurate a new series of posts that will develop some of the theoretical backdrop to my newest project. Back in September I published a piece in The Stone called "'Quixote,' Colbert, and the Reality of Fiction." Since then I've dedicated much of my time to a developing a proposal for a book about Cervantes's life and the impact of his work with the title The Man Who Invented Fiction: Cervantes in the Modern World, which will be published by Bloomsbury in 2014. While there have been many biographies of Cervantes, and innumerable interpretations of his oeuvre, my aim with this book is to present the world-changing nature of Cervantes' innovation, and to explain how that particular man managed to bring it about.

The key to this argument is to see Cervantes as simultaneously a radical innovator and very much a product of his time and culture. Too often we have been caught on one side of this debate: either Cervantes was ahead of his times and changed literary culture forever, or all Cervantes did was write a funny book ridiculing a fad specific to his own day and any assumption that he had a real jump on intellectual history is the result of our own presentist projections. But while there can be no doubt that Cervantes was responding to his circumstances and trying, even desperately, to fit in and succeed in his various literary endeavors, it is equally true that his life and work absorbed a kind of perfect storm of influences at a pivotal moment in a pivotal culture in the development of the modern world. From this potent mix he distilled a new form of writing that would prove extraordinarily adept at expressing that world's foundational drives and contradictions.

I am giving the form of writing he developed the shorthand name fiction. My contention in making the contentious claim that Cervantes "invented" fiction is that fiction is reducible neither to stories-that-are-not-true nor to the long-form narrative polyglossia of the novel; that it designates not merely a form or style of writing but more profoundly a reorganization of the implied relationship between writing and reality. Now, clearly Cervantes did not set out to reorganize the implied relationship between writing and reality. What he did was try to use his redoubtable intellectual talents and rich life experiences to scrape out a living in a time of tumultuous political and social change. Fiction was the inadvertent result of this attempt.

There being many parts to this argument, and it being the goal of the book to explore them all, I'll limit myself here to sketching out various aspects of the whole in each of the posts I write over the next year or so. For now, let's stick with fiction and the fictional world. The book opens in 1616, the year of Cervantes death. The first chapter's title, "The Empire of Cards," alerts us to the political circumstances of the world he is leaving behind. At a time of great military challenges and economic crisis, Spain's government under Philip III and his favorite the Duke of Lerma has mounted an extraordinary campaign of appearances, with Philip's court increasing in size and pomp while enduring repeated bankruptcies and near-constant economic crises. Serving in this regard is a new culture industry using the mass media of the day, print and the stage, to disseminate models of national pride and religious piety.

Cervantes, likely introduced at an early age to humanist thought from Italy and the Netherlands, and having certainly encountered the latter during his time in Italy, is primed to regard pronouncements of ethnic superiority and often-hypocritical claims to religious purity with a certain suspicion. But returning to empty promises, debt, and legal woes, having been crippled in his country's wars and worn down by years of imprisonment in Algiers, was enough to make him a master of disillusion, as the title of another chapter puts it.

Having humanist sympathies while trying to earn a living writing plays and novels under an absolutist theocracy was probably a necessary but not yet a sufficient condition for the invention of fiction. Critical jabs at power from the cover of flowery conformism were neither new nor on their way out any time soon. Cervantes invented fiction when he started to use the tools of the Spanish state's culture industry against it. And he learned how to use these tools in another of his failed endeavors: his attempt to make it as a playwright.

Spain's empire of cards had propped itself up in part by manufacturing a theatrical reality. A people who were exploited in every way learned to accept their economic and political servitude in exchange for a payment in the illusory coin of blood purity and honor, values that were trumpeted in popular literature and in the wildly popular corrales or public theaters of the major urban centers. The throngs of commoners who turned out week after week for the comedias pumped out by the likes of Félix Lope de Vega y Carpio, the undisputed master of the early modern stage, learned to fuse together otherwise incompatible images of themselves as both impoverished townsfolk supporting an idle aristocracy with the sweat of their brows and honorable old Christians, superior to the very same nobility whose excesses they paid for. They learned to do this by mastering a theatrical distinction between how things appeared on the surface and the reality underlying those appearances. We might appear to be worthless, they could reason, but in reality we are the true Christians whose honor and piety makes this nation great. In this theatrical world, power was about the manipulation of appearances. Having repeatedly failed to make his way in this world, Cervantes turned his writing into an instrument for dismantling those appearances, for showing how the truths we cherish and build our lives on can be as false and ephemeral as a stage of marvels built to con a town of fools.

One abiding characteristic of a fictional world in the sense I am using it is that it sustains fundamental contradictions between how participants describe a common reality and how they might experience that reality from their own perspectives. My colleague and friend Eduardo González recently brought to my attention a good example of such a fictional world in the case of the current Euro-crisis. On May 29, 2012, The Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project released a report titled "European Unity on the Rocks." What jumps out from the survey is the remarkable discrepancy between a generally positive attitude toward the EU even four years into its ongoing economic crisis paired with an invariably negative view when citizens in each country are asked about the EU's impact on their own well-being. The discrepancies can be startling, with almost 60% of Italians maintaining a positive view of the EU while only 22% believe it has benefitted their economy. The survey produced some predictably amusing results as well, such as to the question of which country's citizens are the most hardworking. Seven out of the eight surveyed populations picked the Germans, while the Greeks chose… the Greeks. Likewise, when asked for the least hardworking, the majority chose the Greeks, except the Greeks, for whom the Italians topped the list.

When Cervantes penned the glorious adventures of a knight for whom barber's bowls are magical helmets and flocks of sheep dust-raising armies on the move, he was reacting to a world in which the discrepancies between publicly proclaimed truths and individually experienced lives had reached fever pitch. And as a lover of the theater he understood something about the staying power of such illusions: people hold on to illusions and continue playing their roles because they think they're getting something for it. Like Sancho gamely supporting the Don's conviction that the bowl is the Helmet of Mambrino, so that he may keep his ill-gotten packsaddle, Cervantes's fellow Spaniards swallowed stories of national and religious superiority out of short-sighted self-interest; and like Sancho and so many other of Cervantes's rubes, they paid for it in the end.

William Egginton is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches on Spanish and Latin American literature, literary theory, and the relation between literature and philosophy. He is the author of How the World Became a Stage (2003), Perversity and Ethics (2006), A Wrinkle in History (2007), The Philosopher's Desire (2007), The Theater of Truth (2010), and In Defense of Religious Moderation (2011). He is also co-editor with Mike Sandbothe of The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy (2004), translator of Lisa Block de Behar's Borges, the Passion of an Endless Quotation (2003, 2nd edition 2014), and co-editor with David E. Johnson of Thinking With Borges (2009). His most recent book is The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In the Modern World (2016).