In the Name of the Book, In the Name of Cervantes, Amen

(From my book Narrative Madness, which can be acquired at narrativemadness.com or on Amazon.)

The Name of the Book

“What is it called?” and “Who wrote it?” are the first questions we as readers ask when deciding to read a book. Easy. The answers are printed on the fat novel to my right: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Just a title and a name. We can almost pass by without a thought. How much significance could there be in so few words?

Actually, the title is fraught with meaning. The name invokes an image: a gaunt knight on a skinny white horse charging windmills. Most readers are familiar with the idiom “tilting at windmills,” which means fighting an imaginary enemy or engaging in a hopeless battle. Many will also know the adjective “quixotic,” defined by The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “naively idealistic; unrealistic, impracticable.” So when I say I am engaged in the quixotic quest for reality, I admit I am tilting at windmills, battling an imaginary enemy: namely, reality.

The Western conception of reality was formulated by a man who did not believe reality was real. The world, argues Plato in his Republic (ca. 375 BCE.), is an imperfect reflection of the ideal realm. Due to this philosophical sleight of hand, no place is real. The hard world around us is just a shadow of the ideal, but the ideal is not real either because it does not feed, hurt, love or kill us. Thanks to this great philosopher, Western culture commonly defines reality by what it is not, and our feet have not touched ground for 2,400 years.

Influenced by Platonism, most Jews, Christians and Muslims believe that the world is an imperfect copy of God’s realm. French philosopher René Descartes felt existence was doubtful enough to inspire his most intensive philosophical project, eventually leading to his famous declaration, “I think; therefore, I am.” Ironically, he had to rely on language to establish his own existence.

Many consider language an artificial tool used to describe the “outside world,” a filter separating us from reality. Some linguists have flipped this around to say that people only have access to language, not to the external world. Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Post-structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida charged, “There is nothing outside of the text.”

Like language, art is often dismissed as an imperfect representation of the real world. Plato called art doubly false, because it is just a copy of the world, which is a copy of the ideal realm – a shadow of a shadow. Consequently, he bans poets from his utopian republic. No wonder, then, that we have been confused about reality and representation ever since.

If there is a villain in this book, let us call him Plato and cast him as the evil enchanter who spirits away our library full of romance.

We readers also know that Don Quixote is a classic, and many consider it the first modern novel, but how can the book be modern if it is more than four hundred years old, published in two parts in 1605 and 1615?

“Modern” has meant many things. Most likely, the term “modern” was first used in the sense of “new” around 1127. Abbot Suger called his reconstruction of Saint Denis Basilica in Paris an “opus modernum,” since its pointed arches and flying buttresses were not classical: neither Greek nor Roman. These days, “modern” can mean many things, but it definitely does not refer to the Gothic style. According to most definitions, the period called Modernity emerged during the Renaissance (Cervantes’ era) as Europeans replaced feudal economic systems with capitalism and turned back to classical modes of architecture, philosophy and art. In those days, “modern” meant “neoclassical.” Everything old was new again.

At the end of the eighteenth century, against a background of rapid industrialization, the art movement called Modernism arose, with France in the avant-garde. Marxism, psychoanalysis, quantum physics and relativity had brought on a series of crises: a crisis in class, a crisis in sexuality, a crisis in faith, a crisis in reason, and, most importantly for our purposes, a crisis in representation. The familiar foundations of the universe were uprooted. Modernism reached its peak around the two world wars, as the Western world lost faith in technological progress. Rather than creating a utopian society, advancement had led to mass destruction and genocide. Some say that even the Postmodern (which is basically Modernism with a sense of humor about the loss of absolutes) has come and gone, leaving us sometime after the after of now. Whichever definition you as a reader subscribe to, Don Quixote is still surprisingly modern, even postmodern, as we will see.

What the editors left out of the title also has meaning. The thick red book underneath my English translation is a Spanish edition: Don Quijote de la Mancha. Unless a reader is familiar with the geography of the Iberian Peninsula, it should not matter where the main character was born. Yet why La Mancha? Hardly the setting of romance, its arid expanses are better suited for a plain, realistic tale. We see, then, that the designation “de la Mancha” hints at the central conflict of the novel – between romance and realism – and should not be left out of the title.

Bend back the cover and flip past all that prefatory crap (go ahead; I won’t tell anybody), and you’ll find: El Ingenioso Hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha. Apparently, neither the Spanish nor English editors thought the title character was ingenious, so much as crazy. As for hidalgo, or country gentleman, who cares what his social position was before he became a knight? We are not interested in the staid landowner until he loses his mind. So the editors leave Don Quixote’s title out of the title.1

The Name of the Author

As significant as the name of the book is the name of the author: Miguel de Cervantes. Actually, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, as Spanish speakers get family names from both parents. Since readers of English do not know what to do with this extra surname, editors of English editions trim his name down to a recognizable pattern.2

The author’s name is also charged with meaning. As the writer of one of the great works of literature, his name carries tremendous cultural weight. Cervantes is so esteemed in Spanish-speaking countries that the language is sometimes called “la lengua de Cervantes.” The writer is sometimes compared favorably with his contemporary William Shakespeare. Cervantes and the English bard even died on the same day: April 23rd. It hardly matters that the date comes from two different calendars, the Julian and the Gregorian, which sets their deaths ten days apart; the story suggests that the quintessential writers of English and Spanish are mythically connected.

The heaviness of the writer’s name is as likely to drive some readers away as it is to attract others. What potential readers may not know is that Cervantes was a very funny guy and that his novel is not nearly as heavy (in the sense of serious and depressing) as other classic works, such as Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895), in which an adulterous couple is crushed by societal approbation, or Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), a semi-autobiographical novel about the main character’s descent into depression. The physical weight of Cervantes’ novel might discourage some readers; however, it is actually two books: a novel and its sequel. Readers can start with the first and then read the second if enchanted by the tale of the mad knight and his squire. 

How the Author Functions

The importance attached to an author’s name is his or her “author function,” so called by Michel Foucault, French philosopher, social theorist, and leatherman.3 In “What is an Author?” (1984), Foucault explains that an author’s name marks a work as special: “The fact that the discourse has an author’s name, that one can say “this was written by so-and-so” or “so-and-so is its author,” shows that this discourse is not ordinary everyday speech that merely comes and goes, not something that is immediately consumable. On the contrary, it is speech that must be received in a certain mode and that, in a given culture, must receive a certain status” (107). The name on the cover sets a literary work apart from a contract, a private letter, or a text message – all of which have writers, but do not have authors. Such non-literary works are consumed, but not examined with careful respect.

The significance of the writer’s name developed out of a cultural shift from the main character as hero to the author as hero, Foucault argues. (And if Foucault said it, it must be true.) Myths, passed down from generation to generation, were shared cultural properties, composed by the community over time. Who wrote The Epic of Gilgamesh? Who wrote The Arabian Nights? Who cares? The story was everything, and the author, everyone. (More about hero stories in the sixth chapter under the heading “The Myth of Myths.”) At some point, however, the author began to matter and “we began to recount the lives of authors rather than of heroes” (Foucault, “What is an Author?” 101). Much of the value of a text moved from the work to the writer’s name.

The search for the author in a piece of writing, Foucault claims, can be traced back to early Christian scholars, who would establish the value of a work by carefully sifting through the text for evidence of the writer’s saintliness. Modern literary criticism uses methods similar to Christian exegesis. The roots of literary criticism suggest that my secular study of a secular text by a secular humanist is essentially a religious task – a search for the saint in the work.

These days, still under the influence of the Romantics, we are more likely to call Cervantes a genius. The word “genius” shares a semantic root with “genie,” or “djinn,” a being of supernatural power. Since a saint is a personage who receives divine inspiration and a genie is someone who grants wishes, the words have similar implications. Both reinforce the mystical name of the author as the conduit of metaphysical revelation. In his paper, Foucault is working towards the demystification of the name of the author.

The concept of private ownership of texts solidified, according to Foucault, at the end of the 1600s and beginning of the 1700s, when authors became subject to litigation and punishment for what they had written. (Didn’t I tell you Foucault was into sadomasochism?) An opposing trend appeared soon after: scientific publications began to hide the author’s name. Obscuring the writer gives the impression that a text exists outside of authorship. If no one wrote a piece, it ironically seems more authoritative. Dictionaries, such as The Oxford English Dictionary, are especially guilty of this artifice, this “nobody speaker.” We, as writer and readers, will carefully examine the definitions we come across in this book to see if we can catch someone speaking behind the curtain.

Out to undermine capitalist notions of ownership, Foucault imagines a day when people will take a work for itself and share it communally as we once shared our legends, rather than idolizing the author. A rather quixotic wish. Not only is it hopelessly idealistic, it also creates a paradox. Cancel author function and the authority drains out of Foucault’s text. Without the weight of Foucault’s name, his critique of author function loses relevance. When his critique loses its authorial power, authorship pops back into existence. 

“What difference does it make who is speaking?” (“What is an Author?” 120), Foucault demands. Paul Williams, the “father of rock criticism,” agrees that authorship should not matter. Writing about rock star Bob Dylan, he said, “if we found out tomorrow that Bob Dylan was a 64-year-old woman who’d changed her sex, and a proven Communist agent, we might be surprised, but the words to ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ would not change in the slightest. It would still be the same song” (quoted in Marshall 43). Perhaps the words would not change, but the meaning would shift dramatically, argues Dylan scholar Lee Marshall in Bob Dylan: The Never Ending Star (2007). “Ultimately, it is the star that shapes the meaning of the song, not the words” (43). We interpret a song, Marshall says, through the singer’s name.

To illustrate the point, take a couple of lines from “Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965). When sung by Dylan, the line “Though I know that evening’s empire has returned into sand” sounds like a complaint about the passage of time and the inevitable loss of youth. When sung by a “proven Communist agent,” it becomes a triumphant assertion of dialectical materialism and the inevitable fall of imperialism. Look at another example: “My weariness amazes me.” A 24-year-old folk singer from a privileged white background just stepping into his stardom may have had reason to be tired, but the line sounds more believable when sung by a 64-year-old transsexual, who must have suffered ostracization and abuse. But who would have listened to an old tranny in the ‘60s? Her jingle jangles would not have been heard outside of Greenwich Village. The author matters.

Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges shows how an author’s name affects interpretation in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1944). The author Menard intends to rewrite Don Quixote, but he does not want merely to retell the story; he wants to reproduce the novel word for word. To do so, he considers this approach: “Learn Spanish, return to Catholicism, fight against the Moor or Turk, forget the history of Europe from 1602 to 1918 – be Miguel de Cervantes.” Ultimately he discards this approach as too easy! Becoming a seventeenth-century novelist in the twentieth was less challenging and interesting than “continuing to be Pierre Menard and coming to the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard” (Borges, “Pierre Menard” 91). In other words, Menard wants to reproduce the novel not as a new Cervantes, but as himself, a French postmodern novelist.

The words would remain the same, but the gist would change. Take a description of truth from Cervantes’ book: “truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor” (Borges, “Pierre Menard” 94). The narrator of Borges’ story, a literary critic, calls this “mere rhetorical praise of history,” familiar cliches about truth.

In Menard’s version, history creates truth. History is the mother of truth: “truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.” In this version, history does not simply record events; it creates them. The narrator writes, “Menard, a contemporary of William James, defines history not as delving into reality but as the very fount of reality. Historical truth, for Menard, is not ‘what happened’; it is what we believe happened” (Borges, “Pierre Menard” 94). Borges’ narrator so deftly proves that the change of authors is a change of meaning, that I had to compare the two versions word for word to assure myself that they were the same.

What the narrator of Borges’ story misses, however, is that Cervantes is not the speaker of the line; instead, the words were inked by one of the many narrators and fictional writers of Don Quixote. (We will learn more about them in the following sections.) This narrator may have been spilling out familiar cliches on history, but Cervantes was knowingly undermining accepted notions of history. Cervantes destabilizes “truth” by filtering “history” through the names of many writers, narrators, editors, and translators, each of them warping the meaning. Borges’ narrator failed to acknowledge this surprisingly postmodern literary device, but it was not lost on Borges, whose intent was to explore the technique in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” The narrator of Don Quixote is not Cervantes any more than the narrator of Borges’ story is Borges.

For that matter, not even Borges is Borges. In the short story “Borges and I” (1960), the narrator discusses Borges as a separate person, a fictional persona created by the media and academia: “news of Borges reaches me by mail, or I see his name on a list of academics or in some biographical dictionary” (324). The author Borges likes many of the same things as the man, such as hourglasses and maps, but he merely copies these tastes from the real person “in a vain sort of way that turns them into the accoutrements of an actor” (“Borges and I” 324). The writer Borges, in other words, is affecting the characteristics of the real person.

The man refuses, however, to be limited by the meaning of his name, so he reinvents himself whenever his author function becomes too confining (as did Bob Dylan), but the rebellion just gets incorporated into his new image. Thus, he calls his life a point-counterpoint between the author and himself, but “everything winds up being lost to me, and everything falls into oblivion, or into the hands of the other man.” The short piece ends in the midst of an identity crisis: “I am not sure which of us it is that’s writing this page” (Borges, “Borges and I” 324). Indeed, who does not know who is writing? The real Borges, the author Borges, or the narrator?

Although we cannot answer that question, we should know these three Borgeses are distinct. Roland Barthes, structuralist and poststructuralist (he couldn’t make up his mind), insists in “An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative” (1975) that “The one who speaks (in the narrative) is not the one who writes (in real life) and the one who writes is not the one who is” (“An Introduction” 261). 

Cervantes as a Don Quixote 

The New Critics, who held sway over literary criticism from the 1940s to the ‘60s, labelled the search for meaning in the name and history of the author “the biographical fallacy.” These American literary critics, influenced by Russian Formalists, wanted to turn attention away from the writer to the literary work itself. Although this redirection to the text is admirable, the New Critics could not explain why we as readers, students, teachers and literary critics should spend more time reading a novel by Cervantes than a shopping list by Manny B. Drake from Cumberland if the name and biography of the author do not matter. Meaning is found wherever meaning is found, and the significance of an author’s name cannot be erased.

We may prefer to find meaning in a text rather than in the name of the author, but that name inevitably carries meaning. My friend Michelle Okafo (who was helping to edit this book) wrote in the margin, “We force ourselves to do things like find more wisdom or profundity or even readability than is actually in a text because of who the author is and what their individual myth brings to the table.”

We can compromise with Foucault and the New Critics and say that we do not need to delve too deeply into Cervantes’ biography, but it would help to articulate his author function.

The story goes that Cervantes was himself a Don Quixote, an idealist who floundered against the hard rocks of reality. Possibly forced to flee Castile after wounding someone in a duel, Cervantes went to Italy and served as a rich priest’s valet. This disillusioning experience may partly explain why he became a realist and a humanist.

Cervantes then enlisted in the naval infantry. In the famous Battle of Lepanto (1571), Cervantes, though feverish, insisted on fighting on the deck of the ship and took three bullets, two to the chest and one to the left arm. In the poetical work Journey to Parnassus (1614), Cervantes wrote about the outcome: “Thy left hand shattered lost the active power / It once possessed, for glory of the right!” (“Parnassus” 25). Clearly, our author was proud of his participation in this historic battle, in which Philip II defeated the Ottoman fleet, shifting the focus of European history from Eastern to Western Europe. This episode demonstrates Cervantes’ dedication to the fight for right and glory.

Later, Cervantes was captured and held for ransom by Algerian corsairs. Being captured by pirates sounds exciting, but in reality he spent five years as an abused slave in Algeria. After four failed escape attempts, his parents paid the ransom and he returned to Castile. (Cervantes worked these events in fictionalized form into Don Quixote in the side story “The Captive’s Tale.”) After working as a minor government official and a tax collector, Cervantes spent three years in the Crown Jail of Seville for irregularities in accounting, showing a less idealistic side to the man. These are some of the hard facts of his life.

A few years afterwards, he published the first part of Don Quixote and became a renowned literary figure. His career can be seen, writes E. C. Graf, professor of Spanish and comparative literature, in “Escritor / Excretor: Cervantes’s ‘Humanism’ on Philip II’s Tomb” (1999), as an effort to compensate for the “anxiety of idealism,” “a moral overcoming of a previous blindness” (74). So, we read Cervantes’ history in terms of his novel, as we read his novel in terms of his history – it is impossible to separate them.

Cervantes even looks like his famous character, with a curled moustache and pointed beard. How can you tell them apart? Don Quixote usually travels with his paunchy squire Sancho Panza, but the author is alone.

Over time, the meaning of the author’s name has changed. When Cervantes published the first part of Don Quixote, he was a fairly unknown but respected writer. In the second volume, readers can hear his excitement at his unexpected success. Sampson Carrasco, a fictional reader of the first book, enters the novel as a character and gives some publication facts to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: “there are, this very day, above twelve thousand books published of that history.” The book has been printed in “Portugal, Barcelona, and Valencia . . . and there is a rumour that it is now printing at Antwerp; and I foresee that no nation will be without a translation of it” (Cervantes 485). (We will talk more about the reader Carrasco – and you – in the last chapter.) The character’s prediction turns out to be quite accurate. Don Quixote has now been translated into at least 48 languages and is regarded as one of the most translated texts, surpassing even the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays. Since then, Cervantes’ reputation has kept growing and expanding. Ongoing literary criticism, including this book, participates in the continuing reinforcement and alteration of Cervantes’ author function.

End Notes

1 That’s not exactly the real title, either. Cervantes wrote his character’s name “Quixote,” with an “x.” The “x,” pronounced like the English “sh,” was removed from the Spanish language during spelling reforms of the 16th century and replaced with the “j,” a raspy “h” sound. About a year ago, in an attempt to return to the original Spanish spelling, I began using “Quijote,” with a “j.” Now, after my arduous research, I will now go back to the original original form, “Quixote,” which I was originally using before I thought it was an English corruption. As for pronunciation, I doubt I will say “Donkey-Show-Tay,” except to show off. I will pronounce his name as I have for years: “Don Key-Ho-Tay.” You can call him anything you want, except “Don Quicks-Oat,” as his name was once said in English. Please don’t say it that way. The very sound of it makes me cringe.1 1/2

1 1/2 I have added a note to this endnote to say that I don’t really like endnotes. A skilled writer should be able to tame his material and make it parade around in an orderly fashion. But since I have so many things to say and organization is already a problem, you will just have to put up with endnotes (and notes to endnotes). You can always dismiss them as a postmodern convention.

More often I will set off my asides with commas, parentheses and dashes. All indicate that an author has not been able to proceed linearly.

2 Because I will be drawing on both English and Spanish versions of the book, a citation with one name (Cervantes 101) will refer to the English translation by Charles Jarvis and a citation with two names (Cervantes Saavedra 304) will be the modern Spanish version, followed by my own translation.

3 Although this latter role may not carry much weight with academia, to me it makes Foucault much more interesting, as it’s easier to pay attention to a philosopher with a whip. Since roles are important (as we are about to see), I will indicate key roles of the authors I quote, but this is the last time I will point out a role which most would consider inappropriate, as long as you bear in mind that the roles I include are very limited aspects of a person’s identity.

(Read more about the role of the author in in my book Narrrative Madness, available at narrativemadness.com and on Amazon and in my posts “Who Wrote Don Quixote?”“How to Sound Like a Writer of Great Reading, Learning and Eloquence: A Quixotic Preface”“Ronosaurus and I Present ‘Borges and I'”, and  “Chaucer: A Bad Poet and a Didactic Bore.”)

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Borges and I.” Collected Fictions. Tran. Andrew Hurley. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. 88-95. Print.
–. “Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote.” Collected Fictions. Tran. Andrew Hurley. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. 324. Print.
Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quixote de la Mancha. Trans. Charles Jarvis. Ed. E. C. Riley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Print.
Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. Print.

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