Blog Post

The So-Called Historical Approach to Don Quixote

My last post, aligning Don Quixote with Descartes and the birth of modern philosophy, elicited some terrific responses, for which I am very grateful. One response, though, claimed that I had to misinterpret both Cervantes and Descartes in order to make my point, and that this proved I was under the sway of postmodernism, much like the Comp Lit department at Stanford, where I received my PhD. In making this claim, the author relies on the most conventional and traditional interpretation of Don Quixote, one to which—obviously, I suppose—The Man Who Invented Fiction is entirey opposed. Notably, the author's logic suffers from exactly the same dizzying circularity that I point out below in P. E. Russell's claims. As I had already dedicated some paragraphs to debunking that interpretation in my manuscript, I will use this blog post to quote them.

When Spaniards say, "It’s all the Germans' fault," they could be referring to the European debt crisis. When British Hispanists say the same, they are most likely talking about the so-called Romantic interpretation of Miguel de Cervantes' masterpiece Don Quixote. In his influential book The Romantic Approach to Don Quixote, the late Cambridge don Anthony Close assailed critics who read Cervantes' work in a philosophical light for imposing "modern stereotypes and preoccupations" on a novel that, in his view, was written exclusively as a parody of the tales of chivalry predominant in the sixteenth century. Close's Oxford ally P. E. Russell did him one better, asserting that Cervantes should not be considered to have "contributed anything of originality to the history of ideas." The logic Russell used to support this claim was almost dizzying in its circularity, as it required him to stipulate—as a standard for establishing that someone has had a truly original idea—the presence of a contemporary who had expressed more or less the same idea.

The agents-provocateurs of this most British pique were, as I indicated before, Germans. To be more specific, they were the thinkers and poets associated with or influential to the German Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century, most notably Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Although divided by substantial philosophical and poetic differences, what these thinkers shared in common (apart from the name Friedrich), was having identified Cervantes and, in particular his Don Quixote, as a foundational text of the modern world and a source and inspiration for their own work as well.

Schiller, a poet of the Storm and Stress movement, purchased a copy of (yes) Friedrich Justin Bertuch's 1775 translation of Don Quixote in 1794, and in his On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, published the following year, already singled Cervantes out as the epitome of the sentimental poet. As Werner Altmann describes it, Ludwig Tieck, one of the founders of the Romantic movement and author of the celebrated 1803 translation of Don Quixote into German, related in a letter to Goethe how he and Schiller had discussed Don Quixote and other works of Spanish literature during the summer of 1799 as he was at work on his translation, praising them as spiritually rich material [geistreichen Stoff] for Schiller's own romantic and fantastic tendencies [bei seiner eigenen Neigung zum Phantastischen und Romantischen]. (Tieck, it should be noted was also one of the few poets at the time not to be named Friedrich, an oversight quickly corrected when his brother, the sculptor Friedrich Tieck, came along three years after his birth.) Schlegel, the Romantics' primary theorist, called Don Quixote "the Greatest Romantic Novel" and saw in it a model for his notion of irony. For the archetypical Romantic philosopher Schelling, the novel was "a mythical saga symbolizing the inevitable struggle between the ideal and the real, a conflict typical of our world, which has lost the identity between the two." Hegel for his part situated Romanticism in the past as, in fact, the last age propitious to artistic production at all. For him Cervantes was remarkable for having written the last Romantic work, and as such occupied a transitional moment between the Romantic period and Hegel's own present.

Were Close, Russell, and their ilk right? Did Schlegel and Romanticism Inc. create a Cervantes of their own liking by tailoring an interpretation of Don Quixote cut from their own cloth? There can be no doubt that strict attention to Cervantes' own protestations could support this critique. In the justifiably famous prologue to Don Quixote, he writes that his work is "an invective against the books of chivalry," and that his only purpose was that "the melancholy be moved to laughter, and the merry made merrier still." A deeper look, however, suggests that a great deal more is at stake than such simple disavowals allow. Even the first claim above must be taken with a great deal of salt, given that it is uttered by a fictional friend who is urging Cervantes to get over the angst he purports to feel over the dearth in his front matter of sonnets, endorsements, footnotes, and quotations from famous historical figures. Since the only purpose of the book is to lampoon the tales of chivalry, the friend tells him, he has no need for quotes from Aristotle, Saint Basil, or Cicero, none of whom had anything to say about them. 

While it is likely that focusing on the meaning of such lines can only draw the critic into a death spiral of speculating as to authorial intent, Cervantes' creation was deserving of the Germans' adulation in a way that is entirely independent of what his intent may or may not have been. Thus when Close writes at the end of The Romantic Approach, "We are essentially concerned in literary criticism with what literature means. We presuppose that what is meant is what was intended, because we are congenitally unable to do otherwise," I can only reply that such congenital limitations may be little more than self-important blinders to the truth. Far from having contributed nothing of importance to the history of ideas, it is my contention that Cervantes encoded in a new genre of writing the most basic structures of self and world that animate modern thought. What the German Romantics recognized in his genius was not, then, the intentional theorization of a set of ideas that they then borrowed; it was far more fundamental then that. What the Germans sensed was a sea change in culture and ideas registered in a new literary form that went on to help create their own, and our own, world. 

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).