El Ingenioso Hidalgo (4)
I meant to close out these thoughts on Don Quijote, but I think the cat episode largely did this for me: you have a surprising and touching scene from Quijote followed by some grade-school antics, the knight’s reversion from a developed character into a comic automaton, and two possible reactions: a seventeenth-century reader chuckling at the slapstick, and a modern reader who feels unease and sadness at the shift. We can ask which reaction Cervantes intended; he was probably thinking of the former. So is the latter response a problem?
The simplistic model of authorial intention goes like this: Cervantes has an “intention” in his mind, which he then renders into written language, which we in turn use to reconstruct that “intention” in our minds. Put another way, the words on the page are the medium through which the private language of Miguel’s mind is translated into the private language of our minds. But you don’t need the Wittgensteinian big guns to understand the problem here; everyone from Wimsatt and Beardsley on knows that you’re treating the linguistic artifact in the public world rather than the mysterious electrochemical lattice of the proto-poem in the author’s skull. You’ve got some words. What are you going to do with them?
If we allow that the passage with the cats might be either sad or funny, and if we disclaim Cervantes’s presumed opinion as a guide to its emotional charge, that leaves us with indeterminacy. Everyone loves indeterminacy; everyone loves the text getting away from its author. We sense that this indeterminacy is somehow tied up with the irreducibility of aesthetic artifacts, the way that they seem to be more than the sum of their sentences; we also sense that this allows us to work as we like with the text. If someone wants to construct an Althusserian reading of Don Quijote where the knight is Capital and the cats are Symbolic Hegemony or something, I can’t refute it by appealing to the higher court of authorial intention. If someone wants to pull the book’s pages loose from their binding and glue them to a UHF antenna in order to construct an umbrella, I can’t refute that either. People do what they need with books, and some people need weird things.
That said, I like novels less because of the way you can make them mirror some account of society and more because of the way I think most people stand toward them, which is a mixture of how we stand toward people and how we stand toward our lives. We assign them moral qualities and personality traits, like the former; we find in them episodes of amusement and happiness and pain, like the latter. Neither comes with critical endnotes. Similar situations will seem hilarious to some and heartbreaking to others. A person or a life is not a sentence, and neither is a novel, even if it’s built of sentences; all you can do is get sentences out of them. Which sentences they are depend in part on you, and in part on the bookbut note that this isn’t a Fishian account of utter indeterminacy, because I don’t think it applies to all written language. It applies to certain choice examples that represent people or lives as they are, by which I mean that they seem to shimmer with something of the unparaphrasibility that we find in the people we know and the lives we lead; it applies to those literary works thatif I can say itare the good ones.
In my experience, novelists generally don’t know what is happening to their novels as they write, and sometimes they never figure it out. Cervantes planned to drop a sack of cats on Don Quijote; I don’t think he planned on the repercussions of giving Don Quijote a soul beforehand. I don’t think he could ever recognize the entirety of what he had done, because he didn’t have a novelistic tradition of several centuries (inaugurated, in large part, by Don Quijote) to inform and alter his reading. But within the episodic, sometimes slapdash, and wildly inconsistent narrative structure he had built, he also placed the figure of a human being; and he sculpted the lines of his form well enough that centuries later we find, in the midst of scenes intended to provoke laughter, a hollow of negative space precisely shaped to fit our pity.