Quixote and the modern world

In writing Don Quixote, Cervantes could only succeed in the measure that  he described the modern world, since the story only hits its mark by showing to extent that Quixote is out of place in the modern world. But Cervantes wrote a classic, and so gave the classic description of the modern world.

One instance of this description (chosen almost at random) is from chapter 32, in which a group of people in an inn discuss Quixote’s calamity and the value of the stories that drove him mad.  At the center of the dispute are a priest, who wants to burn the books of knight errantry, and an innkeeper, who says he would sooner “burn his own children” than lose the stories. It’s striking that the priest does not want to burn the books because they are immoral or even because they led to a case of madness, but simply because they speak of events that never happened. This sort of argument is familiar to us – the value of a book is being gauged entirely by how it stands up in the face of historical critique. In innkeeper’s response is also familiar – he doesn’t challenge the priest’s criterion for what is valuable, or suggest that there might be another criterion to judge literature by, he simply appeals to his own enjoyment and recreation in the stories. At the end of the debate, we are left to conclude that the only truth value or intellectual value a thing can have is that which is able to survive a critique or test; and the only value outside of this is what appeals to the sentiments.

In light of this, the next chapter serves as a particularly powerful counterbalance. At the end of their debate, both the priest and the people of the inn decide they will read a story – and they choose the “Curious tale” of Ambrosio. Ambrosio marries a woman but desires to have a perfect knowledge of her fidelity, and so tries to talk his friend into trying to seduce her. Predictably, the whole affair turns out badly. But it’s striking to note that Ambrosio is simply appealing to the modern criterion of knowledge. You don’t know anything about the world until you test. Ambrosio can’t just sit around and wait for some circumstance to prove that his wife loves him – this would be laziness or even presumption. He must submit her claims to critique and test just like any other hypothesis. Love must be taken as just another hypothesis, that is, a kind of ignorance that needs to look to make experiments.

Ambrosio is a fool, of course, but his stupidity is illuminating. The distinctively modern idea that truth is only what survives critique or test has some weaknesses in the face of interpersonal relationships. This is perhaps because such things are unrepeatable, unable to be universalized, inseparable from peculiar circumstances, and based on freedom. Once we see the folly of Ambrosio, it becomes very difficult to contain the damage the principle can do to our modern idea of truth: if the interpersonal is an exception, much of morality will be too; and if this is the case then politics falls soon afterward; along with our general notions of truth, goodness, etc.

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1 Comment

  1. Ilíon said,

    June 18, 2011 at 4:28 am

    Once we see the folly of Ambrosio, it becomes very difficult to contain the damage the principle can do to our modern idea of truth: if the interpersonal is an exception, much of morality will be too; and if this is the case then politics falls soon afterward; along with our general notions of truth, goodness, etc.

    Well, you know, morality *is* interpersonal and relational — one’s proper moral obligations and expectations depend upon and follow from the nature of the relationship one has with the other person(s).

    And, politics is, after all, a moral discipline: “How then shall we live … together?


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