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Diana de Armas Wilson "UNREASON'S REASON": CERVANTES AT THE FRONTIERS OF DIFFERENCE "There is nothing either precise or calibrated about either praise or censure." —Cervantes, Prologue to Novelas ejemplares The novel—or at least Cervantes's novel—begins with a challenge to the authority of, among other textual formations, those "maxims from Aristotle and Plato and the whole herd [caterva] of philosophers."1 This comically rude challenge, issued by a "friend" of Cervantes in the Prologue to Part I of Don Quixote, may itself lend authority (if one may be permitted that anxious phrase) to a widely accepted claim for novelistic origins: "the novel begins out of an erosion of belief in the authority of the written word and it begins with Cervantes."2 The claim is founded on the erosion, in Don Quixote, ofbeliefin the "written word" of the books of chivalry—those books, as Cervantes's Prologue puts it, "of which Aristotle never dreamed." But other, more philosophic, authorities are being interrogated throughout Cervantes's writings. What about those avowed "Platonic loves" that motivate Don Quixote's pure but rigid holding actions? What about the "written word" of Aristode himself, the two-term system for organizing discourse available to Cervantes ? What about those "maxims from Aristotle" concerning woman's secondariness—her lingering status, within the male/female dualism represented in countless Renaissance exempla or sententiae, as a botched male? Philosophy and Literature, © 1992, 16: 49-67 50Philosophy and Literature Cervantes's age was familiar with the Metaphysics (1.5.6.986a), where Aristotle attributes his ten pairs of contraries to the Pythagoreans, as well as the Categories (10.11b 15ff), where he handily divides the pairs into correlatives, contraries, privatives to positives, and affirmatives to negatives. The adequacy of making theoretical distinctions between these speculatively subtle, if mechanically arid, categories is pointedly questioned by Cervantes. As the epigraph to this essay suggests,3 Cervantes is hostile to overly schematic oppositions, toJanus-faced dualisms that signal either irreducible opposition or mutual exclusivity. But he is also resistant to facile resolutions ofdifference. His texts are singularly aware, in other words, of the frontiers of difference. Indeed, the very "awareness ofthe ill-defined frontier between history and story, between truth and lie, between reality and fiction" is, for Bruce Wardropper, precisely what "constitutes Cervantes's Don Quixote."'1 I would add to this catalogue the ill-defined structural frontier within Don Quixote itself, whose Part II, separated from Part I by a decade, is peopled by characters who have read Part I and are ready to discuss it at a metadiscursive level. Cervantes's practice of blurring or crossing the borders between dualisms—a practice that urges us to consider "unreason's reason" (to borrow Don Quixote's own favorite line of reasoning [1. 1])—defies a stance, of course, within any specific philosophical position. Truths about crossing the frontiers of difference are not definable philosophically . The frontiers themselves, however, can be depicted, or at least more closely watched. This essay will explore some frontiers in Cervantes 's two main texts: the bipartite Don Quixote (1605; 1615) and the posthumous Persiles (1617). Wishing to tease out a few exemplary dualisms, we find that they are everywhere. Duality, as Todorov argues for many of Baudelaire's prose poems, is perhaps the most ubiquitous structural principle ofCervantes's prose narratives, constructed as they are around striking symmetries and encounters between opposites.5 But bipolar clusters are ritually invoked on rhetorical and thematic levels as well. For Cervantes, duality is a principle that triggers an awareness of the flimsiness of its frontiers, the permeability of its borders. Inviting us into a terrain of blurred boundaries, his writing does not deny difference but blurs the lines of difference in revolutionary ways. If these blurring practices seem chaotic , inelegant, and unscientific to a post-Cartesian positivist rationality, that is precisely what represents, for me, the challenge of Cervantine interpretation. Through his blurring of the categories, Cervantes attempts a powerful critique of various self-congratulatory cultural or- Diana de Armas Wilson51 thodoxies. His practice resembles that ofcertain contemporary theorists who—by incorporating deconstructive practices even as they abandon deconstructive ends—are engaged in reconstructing a new...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 49-67
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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