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.

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