31 July 2005

Quixote's Quest for Unity

[cross-posted from 400 Windmills]

In This I Believe: An A to Z of a Life, Carlos Fuentes unequivocally designates "Q" for "Quixote":
In the figure of Don Quixote, Michel Foucalt sees a symbol of the modern divorce between the word and the object. An emissary of the past, Don Quixote desperately searches for the place where the two may meet, as in the medieval order of things. The Quixotic pilgrimage is a search for similarities, and Foucault observes how Don Quixote rapidly recruits the weakest analogies: for him, everything is a latent sign that must be awakened to speak and to demonstrate the identity of words and objects: stocky peasant women are princesses, windmills are giants, inns are castles because such are the identities that words ascribe to objects in the books of Don Quixote.

But seeing as how flocks of sheep are really flocks of sheep and not armies, Don Quixote, orphan of the universe where words and objects no longer correspond, travels alone, the incarnation of the eternal dilemma of the modern novel that he inaugurates with his tale: How to achieve unity without sacrificing diversity? How to maintain the analogy damaged by impertinent humanistic curiosity as well as the difference threatened by the hunger for restored unity? How to fill the deep abyss between words and things through the divorce between analogy and difference?

Don Quixote contains both the question and the answer: the divorce between objects and words that previously corresponded cannot be fixed by a new setting or "placement" but rather by displacement. Set in his place by the static world of the knight errant, Don Quixote wants to destroy the paradox of an immobile adventure, prisoner to the old books in his library in the immutable village of La Mancha, and displace himself--that is, enter into movement. And that, in the age of antiquity, was how men distinguished themselves from gods: they displaced themselves. They moved. Don Quixote believes that he is traveling so that he may reestablish the unity of man and the faith that is his certainty, though in reality he travels only to find himself in a new physical space where everything has become a problem, beginning with the novel that Don Quixote inhabits.
I find it fascinating that amid this quest to actualize myth--which he believes to be the factual past--Don Quixote becomes his own self-fulfilling prophecy. The exploits (or mishaps) of Part I find their way into novels that precede him wherever he goes in Part II. His mad acts have prompted the writing of books (Part I and the fake Part II) where his ideals of chivalry figure prominently, and he is recognized by those he meets as a knight errant (albeit one of questionable sanity). Yet Don Quixote is happiest not in being recognized or (seemingly) proven right, but in finding himself on the brink of a new adventure. He is never content to simply win victories or be an honored guest in a luxurious room in a castle with a maiden madly in love with him. In other words, the typical chivalric "outcome" is not enough. The "truth" of his courtly ideals is more important than the "fact" of their realization. For as Fuentes later states, "When Quixote's dreams become reality, Quixote can no longer imagine" as he proves that "all lasting reality is based firmly on the imagination."

Perhaps the "unity" (or harmony) he seeks is to be found precisely in his "displacement"--in being on the verge of actualization rather than attaining the actualization itself. In this sense, Cervantes' work transcends the mere notion of the tragic "lost illusion" and offers hope to those of us struggling with our multilayered dislocation in the modern world and all its uncertainty.

Subverting violence

Scott McLemee's latest column is a brief introduction to the work of René Girard:
For the most part, we are blind to the mediated nature of desire. But the great writers, according to Girard, are more lucid about this. They reveal the inner logic of desire, including its tendency to spread — and, in spreading, to generate conflict. When several hands reach for the same object, some of them are bound to end up making fists. So begins a cycle of terror and retaliation; for violence, too, is mimetic.

By the 1970s, Girard had turned all of this into a grand theory of human culture. He described a process in which the contagion-like spread of mimetic desire and violence leads to the threat of utter social disintegration. At which point, something important happens: the scapegoat emerges. All of the free-floating violence is discharged in an act of murder against an innocent person or group which is treated (amidst the delirium of impending collapse) as the source of the conflict.

A kind of order takes shape around this moment of sacrificial violence. Myths and rituals are part of the commemoration of the act by which mimetic desire and its terrible consequences were subdued. But they aren’t subdued forever. The potential for a return of this contagion is built into the very core of what makes us human.
As McLemee correctly observes, "It isn’t necessary to share Girard’s creed to find his work of interest" (I find it helpful to consider him a "literary theorist"). What I found fascinating about The Scapegoat is his examination of the Gospels as literary text in light of other mythologies. His theories work on a textual level, without the necessity of shared common assumptions regarding the Christian faith.

Here is a portion of the interview to which the article refers:
In mythology, a furious mob mobilizes against scapegoats held responsible for some huge crisis. The sacrifice of the guilty victim through collective violence ends the crisis and founds a new order ordained by the divine. Violence and scapegoating are always present in the mythological definition of the divine itself.

It is true that the structure of the Gospels is similar to that of mythology in which a crisis is resolved through a single victim who unites everybody against him, thus reconciling the community. As the Greeks thought, the shock of death of the victim brings about a catharsis that reconciles. It extinguishes the appetite for violence. For the Greeks, the tragic death of the hero enabled ordinary people to go back to their peaceful lives.

However, in this case, the victim is innocent and the victimizers are guilty. Collective violence against the scapegoat as a sacred, founding act is revealed as a lie. Christ redeems the victimizers through enduring his suffering, imploring God to "forgive them for they know not what they do." He refuses to plead to God to avenge his victimhood with reciprocal violence. Rather, he turns the other cheek.

The victory of the Cross is a victory of love against the scapegoating cycle of violence. It punctures the idea that hatred is a sacred duty.

Because it was bound to come up

I've stumbled upon three excellent discussions of Half-Blood Prince at Michael Bérubé Online, Easily Distracted, and In Medias Res. (Don't read them until you've read the book--spoilers galore!)

Wow. If only George Lucas had had one-tenth of Rowling's storytelling capabilities while writing Episodes I-III!

Incidentally, today is JKR's birthday, as well as Harry's (as evidenced by the calendar and glass of champagne on her desk). Many happy returns!

30 July 2005

Living spaces

The house of Ellen Nussey--Charlotte Brontë's closest friend--has gone on the market for £365,000.
"Brookroyd House plays a significant part in the history of Britain's most famous literary family.

"We look forward to meeting potential buyers with interest."
Andy (over at Maud's place) has a great write-up of this unintentionally funny article.

I "appreciate its strong literary connections"! Anyone willing to loan me half a million dollars?


In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt--a wind to freeze;
Sad patience--joyous energies;
Humility--yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity--reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob's mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel--Art.

~ Herman Melville

26 July 2005

"The wildest things, in the most natural way"

The Virginia Quarterly Review has a newly-translated 1977 interview with Gabriel García Márquez. I'd love to post the entire thing right here, it's so good--but here are a couple glimpses:
As far as literature was concerned, the Caribbean coast didn’t exist. When literature gets separated from life and seals itself off in closed circles, then a gap appears and it’s filled by the provincials . . . They save literature when it’s become rhetoric.

At age twenty I already had a literary background that was enough for me to write everything I’ve written . . . I don’t know how I discovered the novel. I thought that what interested me was poetry . . . I don’t know . . . I can’t remember when it was I realized that the novel was what I needed to express myself . . . You guys can’t imagine what it meant for a scholarship kid from the Coast enrolled at the Liceo de Zipaquirá to have access to books .. Probably Kafka’s The Metamorphosis” was a revelation . . . It was in 1947 . . . I was nineteen . . . I was doing my first year of law school . . . I remember the opening sentences, it reads exactly thus: “As Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” . . . Holy shit! When I read that I said to myself, “This isn’t right! . . . Nobody had told me this could be done! . . . Because it really can be done! . . . So then I can! . . . Holy shit! . . . That’s how my grandmother told stories . . . The wildest things, in the most natural way.”

And next day I set out, just like that, next day at eight o’clock in the morning, to try to find out what the hell had been done in the novel from the beginnings of humanity up to myself. So I latched onto the novel in rigorous order, let’s say from the Bible up to what was being written at that time. Beginning then, for six years, I didn’t do literature by myself, I stopped studying and dropped out of everything. I started writing a series of stories that were completely intellectual. They were my first stories, published in El Espectador. The chief problem I had when I began writing those stories was that of other writers: what to write about.

But after the April 9 riots in Bogotá, when I had nothing left except the clothes on my back, I left for the Coast and started work there, at a newspaper. And then the subjects started to invade me. I started encountering an entire reality I’d left behind, on the Coast, which I couldn’t interpret because of a lack of literary grounding. That was the first invasion, to such an extent that I’d write as if in a fever.

I’ve a great deal of affection for Leaf Storm. Even lots of compassion for that guy who wrote it. I can see him perfectly. A 22- or 23-year-old kid who feels he’s not going to write anything else in life, feels it’s his only chance, and he tries to throw in everything he remembers, everything he’s learned about literary technique and sophistication from every author he’s seen. At that time I was catching up, I was into the English and North American novelists. And when the critics start finding my influences in Faulkner and Hemingway, what they find—it’s not that they’re not right, but in some other way—is that when I’m confronted with that whole reality on the Coast, and I start connecting with my experiences literarily . . . the best way to tell it, I realize, isn’t Kafka’s . . . I realize the method is precisely that of the American novelists. What I find in Faulkner is that he’s interpreting and expressing a reality that looks a lot like Aracataca’s, like the banana zone’s. What they give me is the instrument . . .

When I re-examine Leaf Storm, I find exactly the readings that went into that work . . . I mean just like that! . . . It’s when I leave behind all those intellectual stories, when I realize that it was in my hands, in everyday life, in the brothels, the towns, the music . . . Precisely, I rediscover the vallenato songs. That’s when I met Escalona, you know. We started working together, we took one hell of a trip through La Guajira, where there were experiences I can now rediscover with the utmost naturalness. There’s a journey by Eréndira that is the journey I took through La Guajira with Escalona . . . There’s not a single line in any of my books that I can’t tell you which experience from reality it corresponds to. Always, there’s a reference to a concrete reality. Not a single book! And someday, with more time, we could verify that, we could start playing this game, to wit: this corresponds to such-and-such, that to another, and I can remember the day and all, exactly . . .
I remember perfectly when I was in Mexico, writing, describing Remedios the Beauty’s ascent to heaven. It was one of those paragraphs. I was aware, first, that without poetry she couldn’t rise. I’d say: she’s got to rise to poetry—and yet, with poetry and all she wouldn’t rise either. I was getting desperate because it was a reality within the book. I couldn’t dispense with it because it was a reality within the guidelines I’d imposed on myself. Because arbitrariness has rigid laws. And once I impose them on myself I can’t break them. I can’t say the rook moves this way and then, when it suits me, make it move another way. If I established how the rook and the knight move, I was screwed! . . . Because whatever I may do they’ve got to continue that way. Otherwise, it all turns into a holy mess. Within the reality of the book, Remedios the Beauty rose to heaven, but she wouldn’t rise even with poetry. I remember being desperate one day, ‘cause I was all caught up and stuck in it. I went out to the patio, where there was a big and beautiful black woman who did the housework, who was trying to hang the sheets with one of those clothes pins . . . And there was wind . . . And so if she hung the sheet this side, the wind blew it off that side . . . And she was completely crazy with those sheets . . . until she couldn’t take it any more and Aaaaahhhh! Aaaahhhh! . . . She cried out desperately! . . . Wrapped up in the sheets! . . . And up she went . . . And that’s how it was with everything.
(Via Tingle Alley)


O wind, rend open the heat,
cut apart the heat,
rend it to tatters.

Fruit cannot drop
through this thick air--
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears
and rounds the grapes.

Cut the heat--
plough through it,
turning it on either side
of your path.

~ H.D.

(This is what I'm always silently begging for in this seaside town...)

I feel like I've just tumbled out of a locked room. After regaining web access late last week, it went out again on Sunday and I've been unable to reconnect until today. There's been this strange sense of suffocation, especially since I don't have a phone. But on the upside, I have now reached p. 713 of Don Quixote (where the current adventure involves bearded women) and have high hopes of ending my long neglect of 400 Windmills by this weekend.

I also plan on posting a few informal words on some of the reading I did on break. Keep your fingers crossed!

13 July 2005

At Last the Secret Is Out

At last the secret is out, as it always must come in the end,
The delicious story is ripe to tell to the intimate friend;
Over the tea-cups and in the square the tongue has its desire;
Still waters run deep, my dear, there's never smoke without fire.

Behind the corpse in the reservoir, behind the ghost on the links,
Behind the lady who dances and the man who madly drinks,
Under the fatigue, the attack of migraine and the sigh
There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.

For the clear voice suddenly singing, high up in the convent wall,
The scent of the elder bushes, the sporting prints in the hall,
The croquet matches in summer, the handshake, the cough, the kiss,
There is always a wicked secret, a private reason for this.

~ W.H. Auden

12 July 2005


Just a quick note to test fixes to my ravaged little blog...

It is summer. Travels have gone well (so far so good) and I'm treasuring the time spent with Cervantes, Eco, Atkinson, Fernando Verissimo, Pérez-Reverte, Gaiman, Fforde, and Chopin. Also, I'm about to get to know a bit of Nick Tosches.

I wish I could take all these fireflies back with me. The night air is teeming with them...

Hope to speak again soon,

La vagabunda del verano