“One cannot read a book: one can only reread it” — Vladimir Nabokov

In response to a post I wrote a while back that sang the praises of Don Quixote, a friend of mine commented the following:

I hadn’t read Apuleius’s The Golden Ass so wasn’t in a position to judge his reply, but the question of authorial priority reminded me of a parable by Borges called “Kafka and his Precursors.” Borges begins: “I once premeditated making a study of Kafka’s precursors. At first I had considered him to be as singular as the phoenix of rhetorical praise; after frequenting his pages a bit, I came to think I could recognize his voice, or his practices, in texts from diverse literatures and periods.” Borges then locates moments of the “Kafkaesque” in a panoply of pre-Kafka authors — Aristotle, Han Yu, Kierkegaard, Browning — before concluding, “the fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”

The point is basic but powerful: We cannot help but read the past with knowledge of the outcomes. Just as Aristotle says one can’t judge a man’s life happy until he’s dead, so does Borges seem to suggest that later literary developments will forever color the way we look into previous writings, even if there’s no actual genealogical linkage (i.e. Kafka surely never read Han Yu, who Wikipedia tells me was a precursor of Neo-Confucianism). Of course, nothing with Borges is merely basic. Since he begins by saying he “premeditated” making a study of Kafka’s precursors, it suggests he planned in advanced to find anticipations of Kafka in the past. Did his will to find them contribute to his finding them in unlikely places? He seems to be aware of the fact that our way of reading history — whether we see it as a series of ruptures or as continuous — is in large part determined by our own motivations or implicit training as opposed to what’s really there.

All this is to say that when I finally got around to reading The Golden Ass, I couldn’t help but do so with the specter of Don Quixote looming over my interpretation; I was both on the lookout for obvious connections as well as hoping for evidence I could use to defend the latter’s originality against my friend’s classically picked bone. As it turned out, it was easier than expected to see the Quixote in The Golden Ass, for there was a footnote in my edition explaining that a scene was taken from the Golden Ass by Cervantes and put straight into the Quixote (Lucius, the narrator of GA, is tricked into slaying three men — only they later turn out to have actually been wineskins; in the inn at the beginning of DQ, our beloved knight slashes open three wineskins having convinced himself they’re giants).

A further quick search on JSTOR showed me that Cervantes was well familiar with GA (which achieved popularity in the Spanish world after being translated in 1525) and he references it explicitly in a story from his Exemplary Novels (a character laments to another who’d been turned into a dog, “I wish it was as easy as it was for the golden ass of Apuleius, who had only to eat a rose for his restoration; but yours depends upon the actions of others, and not upon your own efforts.”)

Moving beyond the realm of directly provable influence, there are a number of easily noticeable affinities between the works. As Michael mentioned, both play with unreliable narrators, weave together many genres, shift between narrative and in-set stories, and employ a high degree of realism (in fact, descriptions of violence and sex in GA are even more graphic than in DQ). Furthermore, the plot and much of the humor of each is based on a single simple premise that gets played on endlessly (in GA, a man is turned into an ass; in DQ, a man turns himself into a knight-errand). Heck, even the covers of the two editions I have look pretty darn similar.

But despite these similarities, I want to argue there’s something distinct about the Quixote, that it surpasses the achievements of GA in certain crucial ways, such that it is truly worthy of the moniker “first modern novel.” Of course, there’s plenty of reasons to be skeptical of this sort of exercise. Nothing takes the life out of literature more than genre studies, and you’ve probably already suffered through more than your fair share of undergrad English classes where someone says “But what is ‘first’?,” “But what is ‘modern,’ etc… In general, today’s intellectual climate is distrusting of so-called “Whig histories,” in which the past is explained as a progression toward a predetermined end — in this case, the achievement “first modern novel.” You might also be wondering what’s the big deal if it ends up being the case that the argument is right — it’s not like we can bring Cervantes back from the grave to award him a medal for his achievement. Is there anything really at stake here? Why can’t we simply say “this is a good book” just as “this is a good book,” and move on?

Well for one, we have the suspicion that only if there’s something at stake will one force oneself to acquire a better understanding of the mechanisms of the books than previously held. Manufacturing tension in order to reach a deeper understanding seems sufficient reason enough. But more substantively, to understand our own time we need to understand what possibilities are possible. Is there something truly different about the time in which we live? If so, we may then require new ways of living in it. If we find nothing, then maybe we don’t.

So here we go: What, I’ll assert, makes the Quixote the first modern novel is that it’s the first to put as its central theme the question “what is a modern novel” — that is, the way in which a book qua book serves as a new kind of conduit between reality and fiction. The Quixote is the first novel to be self-conscious of its own role in mediating between the literary and non-literary realms.

I’m not really sure what that means yet, but I think having GA will be a useful contrast in order to see Quixote’s advanced level of self-understanding of its role as a book. The prefaces of both explain that the works were written to provide enjoyment. Lucius, the narrator and titular ass of GA, says his work is intended to “titillate your ears,” and convey “wonder” and “pleasure,” while the voice of DQ’s preface says its history was written to “move the melancholy to laughter, increase the joy of the cheerful” and “fill the clever with admiration for its invention.” But there’s an added lay of intent on the part of the Quixote: we are told it was chiefly written to “undermine the authority and wide acceptance that books of chivalry have in the world.” In other words, the main impact it seeks to have is not over the human realm but over the literary realm.

DQ is also far more self-aware of its novelty in the sense of it being “new.” It claims to have no ancestry, to contain things “which Aristotle never thought of, and St. Basil never mentioned, and Cicero never saw.” Cervantes says he can’t name with authors he followed and that the Quixote is a book without a father. By contrast, GA names itself as part of an existing genre: a Milesian tale. And though it says later in the preface that the Milesian tale may turn into a Grecian tale, it considers that shift a case of metamorphosis, not novelty. Different, but not altogether new.

On that note, consider the causes of the transformation protagonists of each undergo. Lucius’s metamorphosis from human to ass occurs owing to his curiosity about learning magic. Curiosity is a natural emotion. What prompts Alonso Quixano to don the title Quixote was his ambition to be a writer and then a character in a book of chivalric tales. Books, artificial things, are the cause of his wanting to become a book.

To do so, Quixote must earn glory by setting off on his adventures, the geographic and thematic endpoint of which is a printing press in Barcelona where he encounters the very story of his adventures being printed. Along the way, characters quote books, hide books, burn books, appraise books, and so forth (the word “book” appears over 300 times), and when characters aren’t drawing our attention to literary matters, the narrator is doing so by reminding us of how he is trying to conjure up a fictional world. The narrative voice weaves in and out of pointing to the conventions of fiction. For example, some chapters bear titles firmly embedded within the tale (i.e. LXXII: “Concerning how Don Quixote and Sancho arrived in their village.”), while others veer toward meta-descriptions (i.e. Chapter LXVI: “Which recounts what will be seen by whoever reads it, or heard by whoever listens to it being read.”). We’re also constantly reminded of the uncertain status of the text (it was supposedly based on a found manuscript written in Arabic by one Cid Hamet Ben Engeli), the economic factors that go into its writing (that an author has to write what he knows will sell), the socio-political environment (the possibility that censors may have removed any subversive passages), and even the material resources that the book is made of (paper made from trees and ink). All these things are factors that normally are in the background of one’s reading experience — not unless you get a paper cut do you usually think about the material of a book (the “thingness of the thing,” as one who’s come down with an unfortunate case of the Heideggers might say). And yet whenever you might think Cervantes is drifting too far into the art-about-and-only-about-formal-qualities-of-art territory, he conjures in contrapuntal fashion magnificently fanciful riffs on what reading is like. For example, when Don Quixote is blindfolded and strapped to a wooden horse by the Duke and Duchess, who make sound effects to convince him he’s really traveled to a far-off place on a far-off adventure, isn’t that sort of like how we, our fingers stuck clutching the wooden pages of the text, are somehow tricked into imaging ourselves in 17th-century Spain?

What’s more, the characters in DQ have an awareness of not just books in general but of their own book in particular. One of the most hilarious features of Part II of the work is that it takes place after Part I was published and so Don Quixote and Sancho meet many people who know them already because they’ve read about them in Part I. (As I mentioned, their journey concludes when they visit their own book being printed in Barcelona).

To answer the question “what is a novel” is also to delineate what isn’t, and this is something else the Quixote explores continuously. Don Quixote’s immersion in literary culture is paired with the illiterate Sancho’s reliance on folk sayings passed down orally. And the world of the book is always contrasted with the world of “real life.” As mentioned, it’s this boundary between the two that’s the constant source of tension in the Quixote. In Don Quixote’s life, this comes out in the differing answers he gives to what his motivation is. At some times, he says his goal is glory (that is, to be remembered in a book), and at others it is to rid the world of evil. The goals don’t always align, and ultimately he achieves one but not the other. This tension really comes to a head at the ending when [SPOILTER ALERT DON’T KEEP READING UNLESS YOU DON’T MIND HAVING THE ENDING RUINED] Don Quixote has a religious awakening and renounces knight errantry and everything else he’s worked toward the previous 800 pages, before promptly dying. Does this represent a victory for him or a defeat? Cervantes doesn’t tip his hand; instead, he does something even more cruel — gives the last word on Quixote’s life to Samson Carrasco, the impetuous youth who was responsible for ending Quixote’s adventures by defeating him in combat. How can we enjoy those 800 pages if we’re told at the end they were meaningless?

If it’s occurred to you as it has to me that somewhere along the way of comparing GA and DQ I ended up just talking about DQ, that’s probably because that’s what happened. I was going for a run with Michael a little while ago recounting to him my arguments about the books and he told me I can’t understand GA because I only read it once. I of course was impetuous since I’d already spent a whole reading the book so I could respond to his comment and now he told me I had to read it again!

But knowing the ending changes everything you think about the rest of the Golden Ass, he said. Upon reflection, the ending did seem a bit odd. After ten books of humorous adventures, many of which happen when Lucius is transformed into an ass, he suddenly, in Book 11, gets transformed back into human form and, out of nowhere, is initiated into the cult of Isis (no, not ISIS). Indeed, it’s actually the same problem as in the Quixote — nothing that comes before would have lead you to expect how the book would end (though of course isn’t that the thing about religious conversations you don’t exactly see them coming?). Maybe there were things I was missing in my read through of it, and maybe the fact that I was just prattling on about DQ was a sign of my own superficial reading of GA?

At this point in writing, I was starting to doubt myself, but didn’t want to go back in read more. Floundering as I was trying to wrap up my case, I suddenly got an email from Michael with a link to a now-out-of-print book on GA he’d read for class back in college. Flipping quickly through the preface, I was suddenly arrested by the following graph:

My first aim is that readers whose focus of interest is modern fiction and its theory will find that self-consciousness in narrative (a mode that often seems distinctively modern), so far from beginning with Cervantes, is an ancient achievement. The Escher-like interplay of fiction and reality, the joking awareness of what a subtle and foolish game it is for any “I” to write anything — these are the specialties of The Golden Ass. Borges and Nabokov have nothing on Apuleius.

Geez, so much for all my arguments! It seemed the book was written to answer the exact thing I was trying to argue (and he calls out two of my other dear untouchables, Borges and Nabokov!) I did a quick control find search for “Cervantes” in the work and nothing else came up, which meant I’d have to spend a whole evening going through this book too to get the point. Maybe I should have just stuck with the simple enjoyment and not asked questions…

The book turned out to be one of the best pieces of scholarship I’ve read, each page full of insights not just on GA but on the process of reading in general. I outlined its argument and how I might respond to it (I do believe I have something to salvage!), but, aware the amount of people interested in it is low and my tiredness is high right now, I’ve decided I don’t feel like cramming it into the end of this post. If you care enough, let’s talk about it in person/over the web!

How’s that for an unsatisfying ending?