Understanding is Making Up Stories about Chaos

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

We, as language-users, constantly name ourselves, others, settings, actions, and events in an order that makes sense to us. We may not always use Don Quixote’s romantic language nor share his chivalric plot line, but he is only doing what all of us do: trying to make sense of the noise and confusion of life through narrative language. (Actually, you may think that you do not participate in the world of the chivalric romance, but I know you as you are: a furtive romantic, a closet hero.)

His squire is also lost in narrative. Although Sancho is illiterate, narrative influences his perception and behavior. His narratives, however, are proverbs – pragmatic advice on how to live. At the end of the second volume, the knight begs his squire to stop repeating adages. Sancho replies: “I know not how I came to be so unlucky . . . that I cannot give a reason without a proverb, nor a proverb which does not seem to me to be a reason” (Cervantes 929). Sayings form the substance and structure of his thought. Without them, he does not know how he will be able to explain himself or prove a point.

In a telling adventure in the first volume, Don Quixote observes a cloud of dust coming over a hill and interprets it to be a “prodigious army of divers and innumerable nations, who are on the march this way” (Cervantes 127). Sancho, wary of Don Quixote’s interpretations (they have already fought the windmills), says cautiously that there must be two armies, for another cloud is coming over the opposite hill. Don Quixote turns to look, and, “seeing it was so,” rejoices. We know Don Quixote perceives things in certain ways because of his chivalric role and romantic language, but what about Sancho? How does the earthy squire, who relies on his senses and proverbs, understand the event?

As the dust clouds meet in the valley below in clamor and confusion and Don Quixote describes the armies and their historical animosity at length, Sancho begins to believe, perhaps even to see, the armies. Since the squire does not have another explanation for the dust and commotion, he accepts the one Don Quixote provides. He is fooled, as all of us are, by detail:

Now you must know, Sancho, that the army which marches towards us in front, is led and commanded by the great emperor Alifanfaron, lord of the great island of Trapobana: this other, which marches behind us, is that of his enemy, the king of the Garamantes, Pentapolin of the Naked Arm; for he always enters into battle with his right arm bare. (Cervantes 127)

The names are persuasive, but the bare arm is most convincing. I can almost see his mighty, scarred arm before me now. Detail, although it may seem insignificant, gives listeners and readers the illusion of reality. The more exact it is, the more easily we are convinced. In Chapter 18, for instance, those who toss Sancho in a blanket (for lack of payment) have very particular and therefore believable names like “Juan Palomeque the Lefty.” In Chapter 20, the author mentions Sancho’s bowel movement, a detail normally left out of stories, but one that adds a scent of realism. Novelists, journalists, scientists, historians, and narratologists all try to convince readers with detail.

After Don Quixote has explained the injustice the emperor perpetrated against Pentapolin, briefly – very briefly – Sancho considers fighting alongside Don Quixote: “By my beard . . . Pentapolin is in the right, and I am resolved to assist him to the utmost of my power” (Cervantes 128). For a moment, perhaps the only time in the novel, Sancho is also caught up in the elevated language of Quixote: “resolved to assist him to the utmost of my power.”

As Cory A. Reed, professor of Spanish, points out in “Chaotic Quijote: Complexity, Nonlinearity and Perspectivism” (1994), not even the empiricist Sancho can “make sense out of too much noise” (742). “Noise,” as Reed uses the word, means sensual input that we cannot interpret nor deliberately ignore.

Why do the knight and his squire look for meaning in clouds of dust? The question is like asking why scientists look for patterns in chaos. Reed argues that scientists “perceive order in chaos because they are trained to do so” (745). Scientists look for order in chaos because it is their job to find patterns in the universe. No wonder, then, that they describe the same patterns again and again. Reed extends his observation from scientists to all humans: “both human perception itself and the scientific method are exercises in understanding nature’s complexity by identifying meaningful patterns and structures” (Reed 745). The only way to understand anything, he is saying, whether as a scientist or a knight-errant, is to identify patterns and then describe them in an order that makes sense – in other words, to produce narrative.

Readers of Don Quixote must also make sense of the scene with the dust clouds. Cervantes leaves the description sufficiently vague so that readers are in the same situation as the characters, trying to understand what is happening: “Cervantes makes it necessary for all to attempt to organize information from noise, to discern order in the chaotic cloud of dust.” Since reading is finding meaning in long rows of symbols, Reed defines the reading process itself as “one of making order out of noise” (Reed 742), implying that reading is also the production of narrative, as readers must recreate the stories from signs. (So as not to leave you in suspense, I will let you know that the two clouds of dust turn out to be herds of sheep, crossing in confusion.)

The principal job of a writer, as a producer of narrative, is to make sense of the confusion of life for self and reader, to find meaning in the apparent chaos of experience. In “The Chaos of Metafiction” (1991), Peter Stoicheff, professor of English, says that a text “contains many strategies for metamorphosing the apparent chaos or randomness of phenomenal reality into an order comprehensible to its reader” (85). I would argue not only that a text “contains many strategies” to organize “the apparent chaos or randomness of phenomenal reality,” but that a text is itself that strategy.

Whether seeing it, hearing it, speaking it, reading it or writing it, narrative is the construction of meaning. Says cognitive scientist Frederick C. Bartlett in Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology (1995), we can “speak of every human cognitive reaction – perceiving, imagining, remembering, thinking, and reasoning – as an effort after meaning” (44).

Don Quixote sees chivalry in noise and dust because he has been trained by his books to do so. Our erring knight would be truly insane if his words and actions made no sense at all, if they followed no pattern. Without narrative, there is nothing but chaos.

Works Cited

Bartlett, Frederic C. Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Print.

Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quixote de la Mancha. Trans. Charles Jarvis. Ed. E. C. Riley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Print.

Reed, Cory A. “Chaotic Quijote: Complexity, Nonlinearity and Perspectivism.” Hispania 77.4 (1994): 738-749. Print.

Stoicheff, Peter. “The Chaos of Metafiction.” Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science. Ed. N. Katherine Hayles. Chicago and London: Chicago UP, 1991. 85-99. Print.

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