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ArribaAbajo Alexander Welsh. Reflections on the Hero as Quixote

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981. 223 pp. + Index and Notes.

Anthony J. Cascardi

University of California, Berkeley

Since the publication of Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel in 1957, English language criticism has been trying to reclaim for itself knowledge that was regarded as fact among Continental writers of the first decades of this century -the Lukacs of Die Theorie des Romans and the Ortega of Meditaciones del «Quijote»- the knowledge that the modern novel did not have its beginnings with Defoe, Richardson, or Fielding in England, but started with Cervantes in seventeenth-century Spain. Watt himself was moved to modify the views of The Rise of the Novel in a later essay published in the pages of the journal Novel. Harry Levin's masterly study of French realism, The Gates of Horn (1963) was of seminal importance in recognizing that the mutual infections and interanimations of reality and romance in the Quijote map out the basic patterns of feeling and movements of the spirit characteristic of the genre as a whole. Marthe Robert advanced a daring, if arbitrary rapprochement of Cervantes and Kafka in L'Ancien et le nouveau (1963). René Girard's Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (1961) sees the Quijote, somewhat perversely, as initiating the structures of unfulfilled desire and mediation which obtain in the novels of Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Stendhal, and Proust. Taking aim not at Ian Watt but at F. R. Leavis' narrowly conceived «great tradition» -George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad- Robert Alter's Partial Magic (1975) places the Quijote at the head of a wide class of fiction shamelessly conscious of its own artificial roots. More recently still there are important treatments of the Spanish picaresque (the Lazarillo and the Buscón) in Arnold Weinstein's Fictions of the Self. 1500-1800 (Princeton, 1981) and, with reference to the Quijote, in Walter L. Reed's An Exemplary History of the Novel: The Quixotic Versus the Picaresque (Chicago, 1981).

Collectively, this body of criticism has shown that the Quijote is the first modern novel because there is something quixotic about the novel itself. Alexander Welsh's Reflections on the Hero As Quixote fits within this tradition. The book addresses the nature of the hero throughout the history of the novel, suggesting that one of the basic principles of novelistic poiesis lies implicit in the actions of Cervantes' knight. Admirably spartan in its scholarly apparatus (the footnotes are mercifully brief) and, for the most part, free of the insidious rhetoric of critical commentary and assent which characterizes similarly wide-ranging, general studies in the novel, the book makes an important contribution to the study of two main facts of the hero as «quixote»: the quest for justice and the nature of practical jokes. Welsh is generous in his range of reference and in the overall span of topics broached.   —186→   Observations on Cervantes' text are interspersed with discussions of Dickens and Kafka, Stendhal and Scott, Fielding, Sterne, Flaubert, and Balzac. The pages on Dostoyevsky are particularly bright, although I missed any treatment of justice in the final section of The Brothers Karamozov; a fine discussion of The Idiot makes up in part.

Yet somehow the two great themes of this book, justice and joke, are left unwelded. The Kierkegaardian inference that injustice is a cosmic practical joke is not alone enough to fuse them. And, to be sure, some of the most original insights of the book cannot be tailored to fit these terms. I am not for instance convinced that calling Dostoyevsky's aborted execution a practical joke adds anything to our understanding of the executions referred to in The Idiot. But Professor Welsh is a fine enough critic to have conceived chapter headings and subjects which allow him room for considerable expanse. What he has to say on the adolescence of the quixotic hero, his discussions of Abrahamic faith, of history and realism and the suspension of the ethical, are insightful. The juxtaposition of Schiller's Marquis von Posa and Don Quijote sheds clear new light on the Don Carlos play and on the Verdi opera both.

In any book as bright as this, one expects to find splinters of insight, odd perceptions, quirks of interpretation and critical vision privy to the author alone. In Reflections on the Hero as Quixote these cases are rare. Few warrant mention. The sweeping terms invoked near the end of the chapter «Realism versus History» («Hugo's rhetoric of progress and Scott's pragmatic myth of history, Kant's logic and Hegel's dialectic...», p. 148) could well be the coordinates of a massive study of Enlightenment and Romantic cultures. To say that Don Quijote's braggart claim to know who he is («'Yo sé quién soy... y sé que puedo ser no sólo los que he dicho, sino todos los doce pares de Francia, y aun todos los nueve de la Fama...'» I, 5) gives the key to quixotic identity as multiple and therefore unstable, misses the point. Don Quijote affirms that he is who he is in terms of his ability to be all these identities and more («pues a todas las hazañas que ellos juntos y cada uno de por sí hicieron se aventajarán las mías») because he necessarily exceeds all the definitions the world may give to him. To know one's identity in a quixotic way is to know what Nietzsche did when he called Also Sprach Zarathustra a book «for everyone and for no one», which is to say, for the no one that anyone may be.

There has not, to my knowledge, been as adequate a treatment of practical jokes in the novel as this one, and probably none which takes the matter so seriously. Welsh sees the practical jokes providing the characters with knowledge about their relationship to the external world. It shows them confronted with it, justly or unjustly, and thus gives clues about the way in which reality itself is evinced. But it seems mistaken to say that these jokes spark a loss of faith in the world, that when a chair is pulled from under us we suddenly come to doubt that the world exists at all. In fact, just the opposite seems true: when these characters take their falls, when they butt up against the world, they have no choice but to yield to the knowledge that   —187→   the world is there and is real, and to recognize as unassailable the fact that they are outside it.

In his understanding of justice, Welsh generally follows John Rawls and political philosophers whose views are reconcilable to those advanced in A Theory of Justice. There are references to David Hume, to H. L. A. Hart, and to Robert Nozick. The prospect of assimilating the Quijote and the quixotic tradition to the Rawlsian model itself seems enticing. When Don Quijote speaks to the goatherds about the mythical Golden Age it sounds as if he were talking about what Rawls or Hume would call the «original position» of society, the essentially fictional and never-to-be-known basis for distributive justice in the world. But it is ultimately the Rawlsian idea of justice which betrays Welsh's purpose in writing about quixotic justice. A Theory of Justice has a fundamentally Kantian base, one explicitly recognized by Rawls. Seen from a queer angle, it is possible that Kant and Don Quijote may look alike, that the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals or The Metaphysical Elements of Justice could be reconciled with the Quijote. Kant took on for himself a morality of exceedingly austere command, vowing to act only in such ways that his actions could be taken as «maxims», that is to say, as the groundwork for universal moral precepts. But whereas the Kantian, and Rawlsian, projects plot the outlines of justice within the limits provided by reason alone, Don Quijote knows that the crucial matter is to abrogate reason, to go mad without cause, «desatinar sin ocasión». Thus it is true to say of quixotic justice what H. L. A. Hart says, that it is not equivalent to the good as such, or to any single end; but it is just as true to say that Don Quijote's principles absolutely outstrip the bounds of reason, transcend them in the literal sense.

Reflections on the Hero as Quijote reminds us in a most provocative way that Cervantes' knight is a reincarnation of the heroic age, a return to the moment before the split of transcendental from relative in value and in thought. It is this split which Kant would like to ignore; and it is because of this split that writers like Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, and Diderot attempt, and fail, to justify morality. Cervantes is painfully aware that the world we inherit is one that comes «after justice», or «after virtue», to use Alasdair MacIntyre's recent title. Through his hero Cervantes recalls the Aristotelian concepts of justice as a practice, of moral knowledge immune from the constraints of epistemology, and of the place of the heroic virtues in the social world. To read the Quijote as illuminated by John Rawls or by Hume is admittedly quixotic; among the unsettling suggestions of Welsh's book is that, already in the seventeenth century, Cervantes was feeling forward to the failed Enlightenment project, that the Quijote anticipates the crisis of rational action in the Western world.