Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Now you are aware of Me!: An inter-post on books as objects

A book illustration depicting the death of Don Quixote. I can't find where it appeared originally; my source for the image is here.

At the end of my last post, I promised some pictures of books whose physical design seems to me to contribute to the text's possible meanings. This isn't that post, but it does seek to provide an example of what I mean, as employed within the context of a conventionally-designed book. Well--at least, this is what I've told some students (though it wasn't from behind a lectern, so perhaps it doesn't count as Truth).

The rest is below the fold.

It was while writing that first post that I was reminded of my teaching excerpts from Don Quixote found in the Norton world literature anthology we used at my previous place of employ. Without going into detail here, let me just say that, my students be damned, Don Quixote is a hoot to teach for those interested in just about all the narratological paces through which a novel can be put, the postmodern ones included. That it also happens to ask us to think on very difficult questions and, besides, is a very good read, are bonus points.

The translation that follows wasn't the one in our text, but no matter; these are snippets from the conclusion of Don Quixote (tr. John Ormsby, 1885), which recounts Quixote's renunciation of knight-errantry, his will, and his death:

[T]urning to Sancho, he said, "Forgive me, my friend, that I led thee to seem as mad as myself, making thee fall into the same error I myself fell into, that there were and still are knights-errant in the world."

"Ah!" said Sancho weeping, "don't die, master, but take my advice and live many years; for the foolishest thing a man can do in this life is to let himself die without rhyme or reason, without anybody killing him, or any hands but melancholy's making an end of him. Come, don't be lazy, but get up from your bed and let us take to the fields in shepherd's trim as we agreed. Perhaps behind some bush we shall find the lady Dulcinea disenchanted, as fine as fine can be. If it be that you are dying of vexation at having been vanquished, lay the blame on me, and say you were overthrown because I had girthed Rocinante badly; besides you must have seen in your books of chivalry that it is a common thing for knights to upset one another, and for him who is conquered to-day to be conqueror tomorrow."

"Very true," said Samson, "and good Sancho Panza's view of these cases is quite right."

"Sirs, not so fast," said Don Quixote, "'in last year's nests there are no birds this year.' I was mad, now I am in my senses; I was Don Quixote of La Mancha, I am now, as I said, Alonso Quixano the Good; and may my repentance and sincerity restore me to the esteem you used to have for me; and now let Master Notary proceed.

* * *

And said most sage Cide Hamete [the chronicler said to be the source for the story of Don Quixote; Cervantes poses as its translator] to his pen, "Rest here, hung up by this brass wire, upon this shelf, O my pen, whether of skilful make or clumsy cut I know not; here shalt thou remain long ages hence, unless presumptuous or malignant story-tellers take thee down to profane thee. But ere they touch thee warn them, and, as best thou canst, say to them:

Hold off! ye weaklings; hold your hands!
Adventure it let none,
For this emprise, my lord the king,
Was meant for me alone.

For me alone was Don Quixote born, and I for him; it was his to act, mine to write; we two together make but one, notwithstanding and in spite of that pretended Tordesillesque writer who has ventured or would venture with his great, coarse, ill-trimmed ostrich quill to write the achievements of my valiant knight;- no burden for his shoulders, nor subject for his frozen wit: whom, if perchance thou shouldst come to know him, thou shalt warn to leave at rest where they lie the weary mouldering bones of Don Quixote, and not to attempt to carry him off, in opposition to all the privileges of death, to Old Castile, making him rise from the grave where in reality and truth he lies stretched at full length, powerless to make any third
expedition or new sally; for the two that he has already made, so much to the enjoyment and approval of everybody to whom they have become known, in this as well as in foreign countries, are quite sufficient for the purpose of turning into ridicule the whole of those made by the whole set of the knights-errant; and so doing shalt thou discharge thy Christian calling, giving good counsel to one that bears ill-will to thee. And I shall remain satisfied, and proud to have been the first who has ever enjoyed the fruit of his writings as fully as he could desire; for my desire has been no other than to deliver over to the detestation of mankind the false and foolish tales of the books of chivalry, which, thanks to that of my true Don Quixote, are even now tottering, and doubtless doomed to fall for ever. Farewell."

Don Quixote is a man of books in the most literal of senses, I would tell my students: it was due to his reading tales of knight-errantry in the first place that he comes to believe that he, too, is the latest in that noble lineage; we, for our part, would never have heard of him if not for all that. (The opening chapters make clear that La Mancha is something like the Tattooine of Spain.) So, imagine yourself as a reader, reaching these passages only a page or two from its end and reading Sancho's pleas that Quixote not die but go on more adventures--that is, go on living, and then Cid Hamete's declaration at the very end that Quixote has indeed died and that another writer's "resurrecting" him would be tantamount to violating a grave . . . and then imagine closing the cover of the book on all this. As I would tell my students: Sure. It's the cover of a book--what else are we supposed to do but close it? But imagine that cover as something like the lid closing Quixote's coffin, or perhaps the soil covering that coffin, filling in his grave. The reader's physical act of closing the book makes him a participant in Don Quixote's burial--the burial of a man who, for the reader, comes into existence because he (Quixote and/or the reader--take your pick) opens a book, and now dies because of his renunciation of the very books he had opened--in effect, he himself closes those books, and figuratively closes his own coffin lid. And so also do we close that lid, too, though (Cervantes hopes, I think) with something like Sancho's sadness.

1 comment:

Jazz Site said...

The pictures do feel as if they are speaking to you. I remember looking at artwork that depicted the text like this. Great post. I am familiar with Don Quixote