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  • Paranoia and Modernity: Cervantes to Rousseau
  • Karl Menges
John Farrell , Paranoia and Modernity: Cervantes to Rousseau (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2006). Pp. ix + 341. $35.00.

Suspicion, paranoia, and an associated decline of human agency are the topics of this ambitious study that starts in the late Middle Ages and extends up to the eighteenth century, providing context to one of the most striking themes in postmodern culture. Postmodernism, as we all know, undermines the authority of enlightened thought on the stipulation that there is no longer a definitive point of reference, be it religious, philosophical, aesthetic, or otherwise. As conjecture displaces the self-certainty of the subject, existential anxiety produces theories of [End Page 515] conspiracy that tend to ground the world in some seemingly rational realm of devious plotting. It is paranoia that drives this psychology of suspicion, fueling in turn the search for structure as a grand narrative of deceit and deception unmasked. Of course, paranoid thought is a dominant theme already in classical modernism. But it truly comes into its own in contemporary literature as in the work of Pynchon, De Lillo, or Didion, to name just a few American voices. Lately, it has also been the focal point of cross-disciplinary research linking political analysis (cf. West and Sanders 2003) with a critique of popular culture (e.g., Marcus 1999, Melley 2000, or Coale 2005). What unites these approaches is the experience of a progressive "demagification" (Max Weber) of the social sphere and the accelerating loss of autonomy in an increasingly abstract and administered world.

It is in that context that Farrell approaches the vast stretch from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century in terms of an accelerating decline of self-determination. Conspiratorial notions overwhelm a balanced perception of reality as the belief in the formative abilities of the modern subject wanes. In this process Don Quixote takes center stage as the idealistic if misinformed hero who appears as the first great paranoid adventurer. His idealism is revolutionary in that he wants to turn back the clock and restore lost forms of chivalric demeanor, not realizing that his quest is as grandiose as it is paranoid. Grandiosity as the symptom of the paranoid mind complements the experiences of persecution and defeat, which Quixote articulates by lecturing to Sancho: "wherever virtue exists in an eminent degree, it is persecuted" (38).

From this thematic exposition the author moves to a morphology of madness and a collapse of agency with Luther as the next witness. The reformer challenges Catholicism, but not in the expected sense of holding the church to her lofty principles. He does not repudiate her corruption, which he witnesses firsthand on his journey to Rome in 1510/11. What he does reject is the church doctrine that human agency is responsible for leading man to salvation or damnation on the false notion that human action can affect the will of God. This Luther rejects categorically. Man has access to God's plan not through a corrupted church hierarchy, but through the understanding of Scripture, which means that faith is the only remedy in view of the sordid state of affairs. On that premise, Luther, according to Farrell, repudiates agency as a conceited exercise that is doomed to fail, as everything is fixed and predetermined, hence rendering all human intervention an illusion.

It is obviously not possible here to draw a complete picture of the author's layered historical argument regarding this alleged demise of agency. Suffice it to say that suspicion and the devaluation of human action guide a variety of tightly argued analyses, connecting French rationalism (Descartes, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, et al.) with British empiricism (Bacon, Locke, Pope, Hume, et al.), and culminating in Rousseau's rejection of civilization at large.

Paranoia and the "denial" (6), "renunciation" (90), or "alienation of agency" (118) are the operative words in this fascinating study. They are signifiers of an idealized notion of human action butting up against the ever-unsettling order of things. To the extent that this order resists change, the inevitable clash between the ideal and the real triggers efforts of mental stabilization that project the blame for failure onto a...


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pp. 515-517
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