- Don Quijote and the Law of Literature
The part is one of these beings, the whole minus this part the other. But the whole minus a part is not the whole and as long as this relationship persists, there is no whole, only two unequal parts.—Rousseau, Social Contract, cited by Paul de Man in Allegories of Reading
But it is not just that, because it is also a performative. . . . There is first a performative, the act of positing . . ., which then moves to a system of tropes; a kind of anamorphosis of tropes takes place, in which all the tropological systems are engendered, as a result of this original act of positing. . . . It is circulation which is out of hand, . . . the sheer circulation or play of the signifier, and which is, as you know, the root of error, madness, stupidity and all other evil.—Paul de Man, “The Concept of Irony”
Amid a confusion of narrative inversions, misleading appearances, and unresolvable disputes, at least two things are consistent in Don Quijote de la Mancha: first, the knight’s singular fidelity to what I will refer to as a law of literature, which persists like a phantasm of continuity throughout the larger narrative; and, second, the many interruptions of this narrative by the stories, or episodes, recounted by the characters who cross don Quijote’s path (including the knight himself), in the form of speeches, testimonies, plays, jokes, poems, and so on. In at least one strict sense, these other stories have nothing to do with that path other than their interruptions of it and by it. Such a claim has its own strategic value and does not entirely contradict the reasonings of a long history of critics of the Quijote who have tended to argue from a variety of different standpoints for some kind of ideological cohesion that would bind the smaller episodes to the larger story that they interpolate. But at a certain ground zero of interpretation—albeit a paradoxical ground that prohibits a scholarly shelter to be built on it—no argument would be sufficient to establish such a coherence among the work’s separate narrative parts, since such an argument would live in the brief, oneiric intensity of the critic’s testimony and that testimony’s potential effects rather than in the composition of the work itself somewhere beyond its apprehension by reading. Nonetheless, out of the dismembered ensemble of the Quijote what does perhaps effect its own strange kind of life is the very play of ironic interruptions and frictions between the dismembered parts, the profusion of which seems to impose itself as the work’s own aggressive insistence on itself as something which makes sense possible by constantly provoking and unsettling sense. That is where we could begin to speak of don Quijote himself, not only as the phantasmatic agent of this unsettling but also as the mad promise of justice that could be said to motivate it.
The play of interruptions in don Quijote’s own story begins to outline the shifting contours and living contradictions of this novel as a “text” in the sense in which Derrida [End Page 44] and others have used the term: that which “names or relates in its way . . . [a] conflict without encounter between law and singularity” [“Before the Law” 187]. Although the story of this “encounter” has been often recounted, it bears another citation here, at least because it seems to be forgotten more often than it is told. Even when it is told, the story is often muted in homage to the name of Derrida by writers who tacitly assume that Derrida’s is the only possible version of this “conflict without encounter.” That version would be better described as merely one particular ethical shaping or forcing—a powerful one—of a story that has been told, and remains untold, in uncountable ways. Nonetheless, such a democratic assessment of Derrida does not quite justify a dismissal of his version as merely one among others, since, for one thing, it would be unable to account for the astonishing hold that different versions of Derridean “deconstruction” continue to have on the imagination of North American...