Toward a Counter-Poetics of Quixotism
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Toward a Counter-Poetics of Quixotism

One who studies the novel is likely to encounter the problem of quixotism. Anthony Cascardi has written, “there is something quixotic about the novel itself,” and, as J. A. G. Ardila has added, “Cervantean novels are some of the best novels ever written in English” (185; 14). These are among the newer formulations of the influential remarks of Ortega y Gasset (“every novel embeds the Quijote within itself like a secret watermark”) and Harry Levin (“Don Quixote is…the exemplary novel of all time”) (qtd. in Gilman xiv). Few critics would doubt the plausibility of these observations, nor the relevance of these claims to the study of the novel. Yet quixotism remains among the slipperiest and, by virtue of that, most troublesome concepts in literary studies. Like an amalgamation of Dickens’s Ghosts of Christmas, the specter of quixotism takes on multiple forms and makes numerous representations, beckoning us to make some productive sense of it in the end.

The problem is that “quixotism,” “quixotic,” and their related terms are used so indiscriminately that they have come to stand in as synonyms for virtually all aspects of Cervantes’s prodigious literary influence. Ardila recognizes this problem and attempts at the outset of The Cervantean Heritage: Reception and Influence of Cervantes in Britain to differentiate between “quixotic” (“a narrative which relates the adventures of a Quixote”), “Cervantean” (“when…form as been influenced…by Cervantes’ novelistic techniques as employed in Don Quixote”), “Cervantic” (“the employment of a quixotic character obsessed with the adventures and stereotypes they have read in romances”), and “Cervantine” (seemingly of or related to Cervantes in general) (11, 13, 16). We can observe, however, that even Ardila’s careful differentiations direct us back into the infinite loop of Cervantes-Don Quixote, the signifier “quixotic” pointing to something formally and stylistically of Cervantes, and the signifiers “Cervantean,” “Cervantic,” and “Cervantine” always referencing the influences of that dominant text in Cervantes’s oeuvre, Don Quixote (1605-15). In other words, so long as “quixotic” is predominantly used in literary studies as a [End Page 141] taxonomic term to relate some allusive or structural aspect of a text back to Don Quixote as a source-text, “quixotic” will be conflated with an unwieldy array of allusions, authorial devices, and structural components that can be found not merely in that protean group of texts that has come to be known as “quixotic fictions,” but in countless other novels for which Don Quixote is perhaps a member of the same species (novel), but a different genus.1

This essay proposes an exit from the disorienting Cervantes-Don Quixote loop by way of a counter-poetics of quixotism. If achieving something like a poetics of quixotism has been a cumulative project in the literatures-in-English wing of quixote studies—a project that has focused on tracing the influence of Don Quixote on subsequent literatures—a counter-poetics of quixotism aims instead to develop a fuller sense of the character and ideology of quixotism itself, and of quixotic behavior, for consideration of how these are reproduced in novels and prose fictions. I call this approach a counter-poetics because it counters the critical project of categorizing, defining, or theorizing a class of “quixotic” literatures according to formal attributes.2 Instead of asking whether this or that novel is “quixotic” (or bears characteristics that are “Cervantean,” “Cervantic,” or “Cervantine”), taking “quixotic” as a taxonomic term used to define a kind of narrative, I would like to ask what is a quixote, what is the character of quixotism, and why else are they important for the study of the novel?

Focusing on the distinct character of quixotism is important for the study of the novel largely because, as Vladimir Nabokov so eloquently argued,

Don Quixote has been called the greatest novel ever written. This, of course, is nonsense. As a matter of fact, it is not even one of the greatest novels of the world, but its hero, whose personality is a stroke of genius on the part of Cervantes, looms so wonderfully above the skyline of literature, a gaunt giant on a lean nag, that the book...