Friday, December 13, 2013

The Plot Thins, but that's OK

Capítulo VII. De la segunda salida de nuestro buen caballero don Quijote de la Mancha

Chapter Seven. About the second departure of our good Knight, 
don Quijote of the Stain


When it comes to action with Cervantes, the plot thins. This post suggests why.

We can summarize the action in Chapter seven in a sentence. DQ wakes up, looks in vain for his books and is mislead by his housekeeper and his niece about their disappearance; DQ then goes back to sleep, awakens, remains at home for a couple weeks, during which time, with promises of booty and prestige, he recruits Sancho Panza to accompany him; together, they make preparations for an adventure and slip away from the hacienda, without saying goodbye to anyone. 

Meanwhile, all of DQ's books have been burned, with the cruel, thieving conduct blamed on an invading devil.

The truncated space given to actions, I think, means that Cervantes is inviting the reader to reflect on human behavior. He lays a light touch on plot development, placing a subtle (that is, not explicit) emphasis on why people act as they do

Cervantes appears to believe that the why's of conduct are more complicated, more interesting than conduct, in itself. (I could be wrong, but so what? None other than Harold Bloom has this to say about DQ: "No critic's account of Cervantes's masterpiece agrees with, or even resembles, any other critic's impressions.")

Cervantes is about the motives which lie behind conduct. Conduct itself is, in Quijote, a prop, almost boring. How interesting is it, really, to watch a housekeeper collect up a pile of books and torch them?

The act of burning a book is simple, quick, final. Precious, irreplaceable combinations of words, bound in a defenseless package, are easily removed off the face of the earth. But the reasons for this conduct are far from simple. 

A motive is both intractable in revealing itself and subject to repetition. The rationale for an unkind act lends itself to horrible repetition. 

One hundred books burned requires one hundred wilful decisions.

Cervantes invites the reader to make what can be made of the resonances of the conduct, without much authorial hand-holding.

The poignancy of DQ's waking, looking in vain for his books, being lied to about their destruction . . . what are we to make of this? 

Here is what I make of it:

In few words, Cervantes has framed the torment of one with a mental illness, who is manipulated and abused by those closest to him. Confused and helpless to protect himself, the delusional DQ is condemned to the ministrations of false friends and superstitious caregivers. 

These who proclaim they are motivated only by the best interests of their victim, are in fact, merely looking for pretexts to indulge in self-congratulation. In Cervantes' telling, the repeated bad act repeatedly condemns gross prejudices and cherished, misapplied folk wisdom and religious platitude.

Chapter 7 is sprinkled with folk sayings, such as this one. (Did Cervantes invent these are overhear?)  

Muchos van por lana y vuelven trasquilados

'Many go for wool and return shorn'

A couple more dichos which are patently false in the context in which Cervantes places them:

lo que hoy se pierde, se gane mañana 

'what is lost today is won tomorrow'

- said by the prelate, who has just seen to the total destruction of DQ's library.

quizá quitando la causa cesaría el efecto

'removing the cause may end the effect, perhaps'

- applied to the walling off of the room, where DQ's books had been kept

Cervantes does drop in the occasional aphorism that is applicable, penning this one in homage to the lost books, victim of a literary inquisition:

pagan a las veces justos por pecadores 

'sometimes the just are punished instead of the sinners'

In the interests of confirming to themselves their pretended benevolence toward DQ, those in DQ's most intimate circle manipulate and abuse the helpless man, take his property, lie to him; they compound his delusions by adding to them.  

Cervantes handles book burning with wit. There is no harsh denunciation, only the deftly described humorous circumstance, the light touch of comedy.

Cervantes is trying to persuade and he knows this truth: 
if you entertain you are more likely to engage and enlarge your audience.  
In comedy lies the most potent persuasion, which is self-persuasion.  

Humor does not clobber the reader with a rhetorical club.

Cervantes' most important heirs in English are in that parade of subtle jokesters leading to Mark Twain and beyond.

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