The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (New York Review Books Classics) (2 page)

BOOK: The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (New York Review Books Classics)
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The notion of “literary classic” has a solemn ring about it. But
Don Quixote
, which is
par excellence
, was written for a flatly practical purpose: to amuse the largest possible number of readers, in order to make a lot of money for the author (who needed it badly). Besides, Cervantes himself hardly fits the lofty image most people have in mind when they think of inspired writers who create immortal masterpieces: originally a soldier of fortune, he was wounded in action and remained a cripple; captured by pirates, he was sold as a slave in North Africa; when, after long years of captivity, he was finally able to return to Spain, it was only to fall into dire poverty; he was sent to jail several times; his life was a harrowing struggle for survival. He repeatedly attempted—always without success—to earn money with his pen: theatrical plays, pastoral novels. Most of these works have disappeared and the little that remains is not particularly impressive.

It was only at the very end of his career—he was already fifty-eight—with
Don Quixote
in 1605 that he finally hit the jackpot: the book was at once a runaway best-seller. And Cervantes died just one year after the publication of the second and final part of his book (1615). Since
Don Quixote
was rightly hailed as one of the greatest works of fiction of any age, in any language, it is interesting to note that it was also—quite literally—a pot-boiler concocted by a hopeless old hack, at the very end of his tether.

Furthermore, when we consider what set off Cervantes’s imagination, our puzzlement increases: he had intended his entire book as a
machine de guerre
directed against a very peculiar target—the literature of chivalry and knight errantry, a genre which had been in fashion for a while. This literary crusade now appears utterly irrelevant, but for Cervantes it was an important cause that mobilised the best of his intellectual energy; in fact, the relentless pursuit of this rather idle quarrel provided the very backbone of his entire narrative. As we all know, the overall structure of
Don Quixote
is very simple: the basic premise of the story is set in the first few pages of Chapter One, and the thousand pages that follow simply represent its applications to diverse situations—hundreds of variations on one theme.

Is it necessary to recall this premise here? Don Quixote, who is a kind, wise and learned country gentleman with little money and much leisure (always a dangerous combination for an imaginative person), develops an extraordinary addiction to the literature of chivalry. In Cervantes’s own words:

This gentleman in the times when he had nothing to do—as was the case for most of the year—gave himself to the reading of books of knight errantry; which he loved and enjoyed so much that he almost entirely forgot his hunting, and even the care of his estate. So odd and foolish, indeed, did he grow on this subject that he sold many acres of corn-land to buy these books of chivalry to read . . . [In the end], he so buried himself in his books that he spent the nights reading from twilight till daybreak and the days from dawn till dark; and so from little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his wits.

As a consequence, he then decided to turn himself into a knight errant—and out he went into the vast world, in the hope of illustrating his name for all time with noble and valiant deeds. But the problem, of course, was that knights errant belonged to another age, long vanished. In the ruthless modern world, his obstinate quest for honour and glory was a grotesque anachronism. The conflict between his lofty vision and a trivial reality could only lead to an endless series of preposterous mishaps; most of the time, he ended up as the victim of cruel and elaborate practical jokes. In the very end, however, he finally
wakes up from his dream, and realises that, all along, what he had chased with such absurd heroism was a ludicrous illusion. This discovery is his ultimate defeat. And he literally dies from a broken heart.

The death of Don Quixote in the last chapter is the climax of the entire book. I would challenge any reader, however tough and insensitive, to read these pages without shedding a tear. And yet, even at that crucial juncture, Cervantes is still pursuing his old obsession, and once again he finds the need to score a few more cheap points at the expense of some obscure books of chivalry. The intrusion of this futile polemic at that very moment is utterly anti-climactic—but then Cervantes has a perverse habit of ruining his own best effects, a practice that has infuriated many readers and critics (I shall return to this a little later). What I wish to underline here is simply this: it is bizarre to observe how a literary masterpiece which was to exert such universal appeal—transcending all barriers of language, culture and time—could, from the start, have been entirely predicated upon such a narrow, tedious and pointless literary quarrel. In order to appreciate fully the oddity of this situation, one should try to transpose it into modern terms: it is as if, for instance, Patrick White (let us say) were to have devoted his greatest creative effort to the single-minded debunking of some trash fiction published in
Women’s Weekly
New Idea

But this, in turn, raises an interesting question. A little while ago, out of the blue, I inadvertently caught some critical flak for venturing to suggest in a nationally broadcast lecture (among a few other heresies) the notion (quite banal in fact) that creative literature, inasmuch as it is artistically valid, can carry no message. This view is not new, by the way, and should be self-evident. Hemingway, whom I quoted, had expressed it best to a journalist who was questioning him on “the messages” of his novels. He very sensibly replied: “There are no messages in my novels. When I want to send a message, I go to the post office.”

Some critics reacted indignantly to my statement: “What? No messages in the masterpieces of world literature? And what about Dante’s
Divine Comedy
? What about Milton’s
Paradise Lost
?” Even more to the point, they could have added: “And what about Cervantes’s
Don Quixote

Of course, many poets and novelists
that they have messages
to communicate, and most of the time they passionately believe in the momentous significance of their messages. But quite frequently these messages are far less important than their authors originally assumed. Sometimes they prove to be actually mistaken, or downright silly or even obnoxious. And often, after a while, they become simply irrelevant, whereas the works themselves, if they have genuine literary merit, acquire a life of their own, revealing their true, long-lasting meaning to later generations; but of this deeper meaning, the author himself was hardly aware. Most of Dante’s most fervent readers today care very little for medieval theology; and virtually none of
Don Quixote
’s modern admirers have ever read—let alone heard the names of—most of the books of chivalry that Cervantes attacked with such fierce passion.

In fact, it is in this gap between the author’s conscious intention (which may be merely incidental) and the deeper meaning of his work that the critic can find the only legitimate ground on which to exert his craft. Chesterton put it well, in one of the introductions he wrote to Dickens’s novels:

The function of criticism, if it has a legitimate function at all, can only be one function—that of dealing with the subconscious part of the author’s mind which only the critic can express, and not with the conscious part of the author’s mind, which the author himself can express. Either criticism is no good at all (a very defensible position) or else criticism means saying about an author the very things that would have made him jump out of his boots.

The closer a book comes to being a genuine work of art, a true creation with a life of its own, the less likely it is that the author had full control over and a clear understanding of what he wrote. D.H. Lawrence, who was an exceptionally perceptive critic, summed this up in a statement I have already quoted many times but which one should never tire of invoking: “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.”

This urge “to save the tale from the artist who created it” has proved particularly strong with the critics of
Don Quixote
. In fact,
some of these critics have developed a most peculiar attitude: it is as if the more they come to love Don Quixote, the more they come to resent Cervantes. At first this paradox may seem far-fetched, but there is a logic to it.

Last century, when theatrical troupes went on tour in the country, performing romantic melodramas for unsophisticated village audiences, it often happened that the actor who had impersonated the villain of the play had to be protected after the show, since the local toughs would be waiting for him in order to beat him up, in punishment for all the evil deeds he had just committed so convincingly on stage. Similarly, it is because Don Quixote has become so intensely alive and real for them that some readers cannot forgive Cervantes for subjecting their hero to such a foul and savage treatment.

Or again, you can find another instance of this same phenomenon illustrated in a popular contemporary thriller. In Stephen King’s
(I have not read the book; I only saw the film, which is horribly funny), a best-selling author is being held captive by a female fan; distressed and angered by the fictional death of her favourite heroine, this psychopathic reader tortures the hapless author and forces him to rewrite the ending of his novel.

Now, the four modern critics of Cervantes whose views I wish briefly to survey here rank among the best literary minds of our time, and therefore—needless to say—they should have very little in common with the psychotic freak in King’s story, or with the country bumpkins who used to beat up stage villains at the back door of the theatre. And yet, as we shall see, both the sophistication of the former and the crude naïveté of the latter bear witness to the operative virtue of the same magic:
the reality of fiction

The first of the critics I shall consider is Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov gave six lectures on
Don Quixote
when he was a visiting lecturer at Harvard during the early 1950s.[
] When preparing his course, at first he relied upon the memory he had retained of the novel, which he had enjoyed in his youth. Soon, however, he felt the need to go back to the text—but this time, he was appalled by the crudeness and the savagery of Cervantes’s narrative. In the words of Brian Boyd, his biographer: “He detested the belly-laughs Cervantes wanted his readers to
derive from his hero’s discomfiture, and he repeatedly compared the vicious ‘fun’ of the book with Christ’s humiliation and crucifixion, with the Spanish Inquisition, with modern bullfighting.”

So much did he enjoy thundering against
Don Quixote
in front of a large student audience that he eventually upset a number of colleagues on the faculty, and he was solemnly warned: “Harvard thinks otherwise.” When, some years later, he applied for a chair at Harvard, his candidacy was rejected, which was a bitter blow for him. Other factors were probably more significant but the
Don Quixote
lectures may well have had some part in this fiasco.

Nabokov always found particular enjoyment in challenging received opinions. On the subject of
Don Quixote
, his taste for the unconventional helped him to formulate at least one original and important observation: contrary to what most readers believe, the narrative of
Don Quixote
is not made up of one monotonous series of disasters. After a careful check, episode by episode, Nabokov was able to demonstrate that the issue of each adventure was actually quite unpredictable, and he even compiled the score of Don Quixote’s victories and defeats as games in a tennis match, which remained full of suspense till the very end: “6–3, 3–6, 6–4, 5–7. But the fifth set will never be played. Death cancels the match.”

His distaste for Cervantes’s sadistic treatment of Don Quixote reached such a point that he eventually excluded the book from his regular lectures on foreign literature at Cornell: he could not bear to dwell on the subject any longer. But the corollary of his virulent hostility towards the writer was a loving admiration for his creature, which he expressed in a moving tribute:

[Don Quixote] has ridden for three hundred and fifty years through the jungles and tundras of human thought—and he has gained in vitality and stature. We do not laugh at him any longer. His blazon is pity, his banner is beauty. He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish, and gallant.

The second critic I wish to evoke here is Henry de Montherlant.[
] Montherlant, one of the most remarkable French writers of our century
(a novelist, playwright and essayist), was deeply imbued with Spanish culture. He spent much time in Spain (he even learned and practised bullfighting); his fluent knowledge of Spanish enabled him to read
Don Quixote
in the original text.

He re-read the book four times during his life, and he too experienced an increasing irritation at Cervantes’s coarse treatment of a sublime character. Besides, he felt that the book was much too long and that it contained too many tasteless and cruel jokes. But this objection could be turned against itself—is this not precisely a perfect definition of life itself? Come to think of it: a story that drags on much too long and is full of tasteless and cruel jokes . . . Note that the worst accusations that can be directed against Cervantes always point in the end to the unique and disquieting power of his book to conjure reality.

Finally, what irked Montherlant most—what he could not forgive Cervantes for—was that, through the entire book, not
does the author express
word of compassion for his hero, or
word of blame for the vulgar bullies who relentlessly mock and persecute him. This reaction—very similar to that of Nabokov—once again reflects a paradox, now familiar to us. What infuriates the critics of Cervantes is precisely the main strength of his art: the secret of its lifelikeness. Flaubert (who, by the way, worshipped
Don Quixote
) said that a great writer should stand in his novel like God in his creation. He created everything and yet is nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be heard. He is everywhere and yet invisible, silent, seemingly absent and indifferent. We curse him for his silence and his indifference, which we take as evidence of his cruelty.

BOOK: The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (New York Review Books Classics)
6.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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