Cross-posted at Tilting at Windmills
I read the prologue to Don Quixote with great delight; there’s something very appealing about its lighthearted tone that bodes well for my enjoyment of the rest of the book (and having read the first couple chapters now, I can say I’m enjoying it greatly). Sylvia has already written an interesting post on the Prologue; I thought I’d add to her post a few thoughts on some of my favorite passages.
I love the way Cervantes claims that he’s not asking for the generosity of readers as they read and judge his book, and yet he’s asking for their generosity at one and the same time. He says:
I do not wish to go along with the common custom and implore you, almost with tears in my eyes, as others do, dearest reader, to forgive or ignore the faults you may find in this my child, for you are neither his kin nor his friend, and you have a soul in your body and a will as free as anyone’s, and you are in your own house, where you are lord, as the sovereign is master of his revenues, and you know the old saying: under cover of my cloak I can kill the king. Which exempts and excuses you from all respect and obligation, and you can say anything you desire about this history without fear that you will be reviled for the bad things or rewarded for the good that you might say about it.
How can you read this passage and have any desire whatsoever to criticize this poor author? How could you heartlessly attack this novel after the author so kindly refrained from asking you not to attack it? I like the way this figures the author/reader relationship — no, the author can’t do anything whatsoever to keep readers from criticizing his book, except to appeal to their sense of kindness, to call the book his child, to imply that they couldn’t possibly be so mean as to say a harsh word. All the author has, besides the strength of the book itself, is the chance to flatter the reader into liking it.
After this uncertain opening, the author’s self-doubt deepens; first we get a description of writer’s block — he absolutely could not write the Prologue, try as he might:
For I can tell you that although [the book itself] cost me some effort to compose, none seemed greater than creating the preface you are now reading. I picked up my pen many times to write it, and many times I put it down again because I did not know what to write.
Fortunately for him, a friend comes along while the author continues to bemoan his weakness and uncertainty. He’s worried about how the public will receive the book, about how long it’s been since he’s published anything, how he has no sonnets by famous people to open his book with, how he’s lacking all the serious, scholarly paraphernalia other books have, the citations from Aristotle and Plato and the marginal notes and indexes. In despair, he says:
In short, my friend … I have decided that Don Quixote should remain buried in the archives of La Mancha until heaven provides someone who can adorn him with all the things he lacks; for I find myself incapable of correcting the situation because of my incompetence and my lack of learning, and because I am by nature too lazy and slothful to go looking for authors to say what I know how to say without them.
He comes across here as someone worried only about the quality of the book, as someone self-effacing enough to put the book away until an author more qualified comes along to publish it. He is not in this for personal gain. If he is lazy and slothful, it’s because he’s honest and doesn’t want to ask others to say what he can say himself. What is not to like about this poor, beleaguered author?
His friend answers with a hilarious speech about how the author can overcome all these problems:
By God, brother, now I am disabused of an illusion I have lived with for all the time I have known you, for I always considered you perceptive and prudent in everything you do. But now I see that you are as far from having those qualities as heaven is from earth.
What a friend. He goes on to say that the author can solve these problems quite simply: he can write his own sonnets and falsely attribute them to famous people; he can insert Latin phrases that he already knows by heart into relevant passages to make them seem more scholarly with a minimum of effort; he can create instant annotations by naming characters after famous people and then write notes to explain the allusions; he can make up a list of references to add to the back of book and he doesn’t have to worry if he doesn’t actually use those references — no one will notice or care.
But then after this joking, the friend gets more serious and says that the book doesn’t need all this scholarly apparatus because it’s doing something completely different. His goal is to mock books of chivalry, and that’s something classical authors knew nothing about. The author is heading off into a completely new direction and he needs to rules and guidelines. What he needs to do instead is:
to make use of mimesis in the writing, and the more precise that is, the better the writing will be … instead you should strive, in plain speech, with words that are straightforward, honest, and well-placed, to make your sentences and phrases sonorous and entertaining, and have them portray, as much as you can and as far as it is possible, your intention, making your ideas clear without complicating and obscuring them.
What he should worry about is the writing itself, not the book’s packaging, the apparatus that surrounds the story itself. It’s the story and the writing only that matter:
Another thing to strive for: reading your history should move the melancholy to laughter, increase the joy of the cheerful, not irritate the simple, fill the clever with admiration for its invention, not give the serious reason to scorn it, and allow the prudent to praise it. In short, keep your eye on the goal of demolishing the ill-founded apparatus of these chivalric books, despised by many and praised by so many more, and if you accomplish this, you will have accomplished no small thing.
He will have accomplished no small thing indeed. This strikes me as a wonderful description of what the novel, or at least one form of it, can do — it’s about mimesis, or capturing life as accurately as possible, and doing so in beautiful and clear language. And it’s a form that everyone can enjoy, from the melancholy to the cheerful, from the simple to the clever.