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MLN 117.5 (2002) 1040-1068

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Cervantes, Romantic Irony and the Making of Reality

William Egginton

Irony is a deceptively simple trope. That a sentence means other than what it appears to mean is all that is required to qualify it as ironic, at least according to classical definitions. But a querulous history and a virtual infinity of divergent viewpoints belie the ostensible sincerity of irony's feint. The real point of departure in irony's trajectory is a relatively modern one, one bequeathed by romanticism when its poets and predicators chose this trope to be the standard of a new understanding of the human and its relation to the world. At this moment, a second genus emerged to house the swarming species of ironic progeny: if the first had always been rhetorical, the new home would be properly philosophical.

To say that a concept has become philosophical can itself mean various things. So let us be specific: irony became philosophical when it ceased merely to refer to how one used language and began to describe a mode of being, an historical organization of consciousness. This is what happened with romanticism, when Friedrich von Schlegel first identified this trope as being somehow the essence of the new art, an art that was not merely artifice but that reflected a fundamental—and fundamentally new—way of being. In his lectures on aesthetics, Hegel will also admit that this is what has happened, but will bemoan the deed and criticize the doer on the grounds that he—Schlegel—is not really a philosopher, that his creation is a stillbirth, a literally half-baked idea about which people have prattled on far too long. In what follows I contest this charge, and argue that, whether because of merely hasty reading or because of personal animosity, [End Page 1040] Hegel offers only a partial reading of the Schlegelian notion of irony. After presenting what I hope is a more complete version of Schegel's concept, I go on to argue that irony as a philosophical problem is theorized on the basis of a series of narrative principles deriving in large part from one book: Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quijote. 1 Cervantes, my argument goes, wrote the ground on which romanticism theorized itself. Finally, armed with a refined and historically specified notion of irony, I return to Hegel, to demonstrate that this irony, despite his protests and criticisms notwithstanding, is an indispensable element of his own system of thought.

My beginning and ending with Hegel notwithstanding, the central argument of this paper has to do with Don Quijote and its relation to romanticism and romantic irony, which means that what I argue here will impinge unavoidably on one of the most persistent debates in Cervantes scholarship: between those who treat Cervantes's work as providing a foundation for asking questions of a "philosophical" nature, and those who criticize this approach as unhistorical. 2 The most influential critique of the philosophical or "romantic" reading is that of Anthony Close, who argues that the attempt to "accommodate" the novel to "modern stereotypes and preoccupations" involves a willful ahistoricism on the part of the critic. 3 This position is also held by P. E. Russell, who moreover denies that Cervantes can be accurately read as having contributed "anything original to the general history of ideas." 4 My position is in fundamental agreement with the argument of Joan Ramon Resina, that there is nothing unhistorical about a philosophical understanding of Don Quijote (Resina 220). But whereas his argument is based on a detailed demonstration that the philosophical or romantic perspective can and in fact does incorporate the humorous elements of Cervantes's writing—one criticism of the romantic approach being that it fails to take humor into account (Russell 97; Close 2)—mine is that some of the very "modern stereotypes and preoccupations" that Close attributes to romantic and post-romantic readings in fact owe their existence to Cervantes's writing.

For the critics of the romantic approach, an original contribution to the history of ideas could only be an idea...


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