Novus ex machina: Quixote, Technology & Stuff

This third and definitely final post on Cervantes shall attempt to indisputably settle once and for all the fact that Don Quixote is and was the first, best, and only modern novel (or something like that). Last time around, provoked by the comments of recovering classics major Michael Tolan, we considered the similarities between Don Quixote and the Roman novel The Golden Ass by Apuleius. What distinguished DQ from its ancient novel predecessors, I tried to argue, was the fact that it was the first work of fiction to achieve self-consciousness. This is a pretty standard explanation of its importance, and indeed it was trotted out a few days later by Salman Rushdie in a column on the coinciding death days of Shakespeare and Cervantes: “They are both self-conscious writers, modern in a way that most of the modern masters would recognise, the one creating plays that are highly aware of their theatricality, of being staged; the other creating fiction that is acutely conscious of its fictive nature….” But then Michael sent me a study of the Golden Ass by the splendidly named scholar John J. Winkler, whose main purpose was to show (convincingly, I think) that The Golden Ass — long before Shakespeare’s plays or Cervantes’ tale — was permeated with an awareness of its own “fictive nature.” So I’m forced to return again to DQ to try to articulate more precisely what exactly its achievement was.

First, though, let’s examine Mr. Winkler’s argument, which provides a helpful framework for understanding the nature of narrative in general (and also affords us more delightful opportunities to say “Mr. Winkler”). The title of his book is “Auctor and Actor” — “auctor” is the Latin word for “author” — and what makes GA so complex, he says, is that in the tale the “auctor” and the “actor” are the same person. Lucius, the narrator of the story of the golden ass, is himself the ass to whom all the action happens. However, necessarily there’s a split in his identity: between the narrator describing the action in the present and the actor who experienced the action in the past. The tension between these two parts of the same person is made more dramatic when one reaches the final section, Book 11, because there Lucius undergoes a huge transformation: not just the expected one from ass back into human, but an unexpected one from lusty person to devotee of the goddess ISIS. What’s so peculiar is that the entire work is obviously written during the time after his transformation, yet the ISIS devotee gives little foreshadowing in Books 1–10 of the person he will become. Winkler helpfully contrasts this approach to religious autobiography with that of St. Augustine. In St. Augustine’s Confessions, every point of the novel is told with the voice of one who’s already experienced the religious transformation. So when St. Augustine is describing scenes from earlier in his life in which he was succumbing to sin, his narration is colored by critical judgments his later self possesses. The Book 11, ISIS-devoted Lucius, however, withholds his judgment when describing his previous lustiness; indeed, he writes those scenes pleasurefully, without a hint that his later self would find them problematic. He draws our attention to the fact that his later self is the one writing the narration (for example when he writes “After several days in that place, I recall, there was a wicked maneuver, a wanton misdeed; but that you too may read it, I am setting it forth in my book”), but he chooses not to give us a taste of his later values. Just as his ass personality hardly contaminates his priestly scenes, his priestly personality doesn’t dominate his retelling of his ass episodes. So which is the real Lucius? The book doesn’t privilege either part. As Winkler writes “Apuleius neither affirms nor denies any of the perspectives; he merely signifies that they are there.”

Yet though the text doesn’t tip its hand as to who the “real Lucius” is, once you are aware of both of these perspectives, your way of reading the book can’t help but be drastically change. You experience a loss of innocence, no longer able to read the first ten books without knowing that Lucius will eventually emerge a much different person. All of a sudden, you see irony hiding everywhere, and it turns out that Lucius the ass is not as naïve as you initially think. Perhaps the loudest of the ass’s suggestive comments meta-comments occurs when Lucius exclaims, “When I asked [an acquaintance] about the outcome of this very journey, the answer he gave was a lengthy one and in sooth amazing and rather complex; for he predicted a flowering of my glory, and that my history would be great, my tale would be incredible, and I would be a book!” This last line reminds us that there are 4 different goals toward which the book is progressing: the anticipated end of Lucius being released from ass form, the unanticipated end of him becoming a priest, and the anticipated-but-tacit ends as Lucius being the object and narrator of a book. Thus, we see the book is aware of the interdependence between its constituent parts; the character Lucius generates the action that the author Lucius needs to write the story, and the author Lucius writes the story in which acts the actor Lucius. And so we’ve can see how the novel achieves the M.C. Escher effect supposedly so distinctive to modern fiction. (Although in this case one of these hands is an ass’s hoof). The reader is left with a question for each “hand”: Why does a lusty magic-lover become a priest, and why does the priest write such a lusty tale? The work provokes, but cannot answer, either, and that’s the point.

Understanding the structure of The Golden Ass is quite helpful for understanding Don Quixote because at its heart is a very similar dilemma. However, noting where DQ elaborates on this structure will help us see what makes it so novel. Just as Lucius metamorphoses into an ass before returning to human form, so does Alonso Quxiano become the knight Don Quixote before returning to be Alonso Quixano. And so too is there a surprise ending to the book — Quixano also has a religious awakening and renounces all his previous adventures as foolish. So we’re left to ask which character was more mad — Quixano for renouncing his life’s work and becoming a priest, or Quixote for trying to be a knight in the first place? And we’re left to ask the author, if the adventures were foolish, why do we have to read about them for 800 pages and only get the uplifting Christian message at the very end? Now, notice that unlike in GA, these questions are addressed to two different entities. The first is about the psychology of Quixano/Quixote, and the second is to the author, Cervantes. Because the work is told in 3rd person as opposed to 1st, there is no congruence between the “auctor” and the “author.”

This simple fact has far-ranging, consequences. For one, it means that the main character doesn’t have a “character shield.” In GA, like in almost every novel narrated in the first person, you know the “I” has to survive at least long enough to tell you the story he or she is telling, so every time there’s a potentially fatal or life-altering scenario, you know they will actually make it out unscathed. A running joke in GA is that the ass is constantly telling you he thinks he’s about to die, but you know this is a joke as opposed to a really tense moment because you know he has to live long enough to tell the tale. In the Quixote, however, there is no such safety net, making the violence more real. You realize that an author has the power and authority over the characters of his fictional world as would a capricious god over his world of mortals. This means that the author can create a character but not redeem him, bring him into the world only as an object of torment. This seems to be what Cervantes does with Don Quxiote. He makes him go through innumerable physical abuse in Part 1: his ear’s cut off, he’s beaten, his bones are broken, he’s vomited on, peed on, pelted with rocks, and so forth. In Part II, he suffers endless psychic abuse: put on trial, separated from his friends and beloved, his honor is destroyed, his credibility is questioned, and so forth. Finally, Cervantes puts him to death and has it declared that his whole life was a folly. All for the purpose, Cervantes says, showing the world the folly of books of chivalry so they’ll never be written again.

In GA, we had different questions for Lucius-the-actor and Lucius-the-narrator, but both subjects of our queries are really two parts of the same entity, which is controlled by Apuleius. In DQ, by contrast, our questions are, on the one hand for Alonso Quixano/Don Quixote (were you more made to become a knight or to stop being one?), and on the other for Cervantes (how could you bring someone into the world and torture them just to prove your point about niche genre of literature?!), and the key difference is that each of these addressees doesn’t know the answer to the other’s questions. That is, Cervantes has created a character whose mind is unknown to him, and a character who can’t explain why his author is torturing him so. What’s distinctive about the Quixote, then, is not that it’s self-conscious literature but that the fictional world is self-contained. The world of fiction is cut off from the world of reality, and the characters, author, and reader are made aware of this distance. Cervantes can torture Don Quixote all he wants, but he cannot know what’s inside Don Quixote’s head. This is the meaning of the famously controversial Cave of Montesinos episode: that Don Quixote’s mind is ultimately inaccessible both to Cervantes and to us. He’s created a character who exceeds his capacity to control. He and we can torment him all we want, but he remains free.

What does this have to do with the novel’s “modernity”? This separation between author and character was not possible before the modern era. It was only with the invention of the printing press that one could conceive of a character who could transcend his origins as Don Quixote does, sallying forth from his creator’s mind in order to take on a life of his own. Don Quixote, remember, is not Freudable — Cervantes deliberately tells us nothing of his parents, upbringing, or coming-of-age. And through reading novels of chivalry DQ replaces his own ancestry with a fictionalized one. Likewise, Cervantes begins his introduction by claiming he’s not the father of Don Quixote but merely the step father, and begins the itself book by famously refusing to divulge Quixote’s origins (“Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember…”.) Before the invention of the printing press, it wasn’t possible for a literary character to escape their origins. Their story was bound to the culture they were born in. The text was textured by the language and culture of the author, the manuscripts it was written on, the community in which the story had meaning, and so forth. But the printing press made it possible, for the first time, for an author to write for an audience he couldn’t conceive of, with whom the only things they had in common were the freedom to read and write. Only under such conditions is it possible — and indeed necessary — for a character to become self-sufficient, to be able to fend for him or her or itself. They are cut off from past because the printing press removes signs of aging and the particularities of the materials of a place. In manuscript culture, the condition of the manuscript is a clear sign of the age of the work, but with printing these traces are wiped away. And in a more substantive way, characters post printing press will necessarily be cut off from literary tradition because they could for the first time be read by others who didn’t have the same canon as the one writing the work. Reading thus becomes not a means of acculturation but liberation, as it was for Alonso Quixano — a way of transporting oneself into a new culture: the realm of international fiction. This transformation is not like a Platonic journey into the forms that reinforces more vividly “the way things really are,” but rather one which, like the Cave of Montesinos, need not have any objective correlate in the “real world.” It was only modern technology — in particular the printing press — which made possible such a radical self-redefinition of humanity, and thus gave birth to modern fiction.