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  • When an Arab Laughs in Toledo: Cervantes’s Interpellation of Early Modern Spanish Orientalism
  • E. C. Graf (bio)

My purpose has been to place in the plaza of our republic a game table which everyone can approach to entertain themselves without fear of being harmed by the rods; by which I mean without harm to spirit or body, because honest and agreeable exercises are always more likely to do good than harm.

—Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Prologue to Novelas ejemplares [my translation]

We are engaged in a technical enterprise at the species scale.

—Jacques Lacan, “L’agressivité en psychanalyse” [my translation]

While I was all intent on watching him, he looked at me, and with his hands he spread his chest and said: “See how I split myself!”!

—Dante Alighieri, Inferno 28.28–30

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Figure 1.

Sandro Botticelli, The Virgin and Child (c. 1490). Courtesy of the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University; ©1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College.

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Figure 2.

Salvador Dalí, Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate One Second Before Awakening (1941). Courtesy of Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; ©1999 Artists' Rights Society (ARS), New York.

For much of this century, Hispanists have labored in an effort to elevate Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha (1605, 1615) to the coveted status of the “first modern novel.” Today this kind of criticism may strike our postmodern sensibilities as a rather traditional enterprise, the kind more interested in establishing an elite hierarchy of literary tastes than in saying anything new about an author or text. For many, the study of literature is still an aesthetic beauty pageant in which “great books” like Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1767) or Marie de la Vergne de La Fayette’s La princesse de Clèves (1678) are paraded across the stage in a contest to seduce the Western intelligentsia. 1 The postmodern student of literature may not have much concern for this age-old territorial contest, but she might be interested to learn that the fallout from Hispanism’s quest for the “first modern novel” has involved so much attention to, indeed complication of, Don Quixote, that the book now resembles more a postmodern text than an early modern one. At the turn of the century, we have been left with what Jorge Luis Borges would recognize as an “aleph”: an infinite ideological labyrinth that reflects and/or cannibalizes all forms, thereby escaping all attempts [End Page 68] to describe it. 2 Whatever we currently mean by “Cervantes” (an author, a collection of texts, an ideological construction, and so forth) carries with it an impressive range of critical responses. Cervantes has been labeled converso (Castro, Canavaggio), Christian humanist (Castro, Bataillon, Forcione, Herrero, Vilanova), disillusioned secularist (Lukács, Cascardi), precapitalist (Johnson), anti-essentialist (Wilson), anti-Eusebian (Presberg), Menippean (Bakhtin), feminist (El Saffar, Rabin, Cruz), sadist (Nabokov), ethnocentric imperialist (Mariscal), medieval (Gorfkle), homophobic (Martín), non-organicist Aristotelian (Read), and either discursively or actually homosexual (Combet, Rossi, Smith, Arrabal). This list is nowhere near complete, but the reader will grasp the robust effects of the plurality of perspectives on Cervantes.

Each of these interpretations is valid to varying degrees within various contexts, but at present I am interested in reading Cervantes as the author of a multicultural manifesto on behalf of the Moriscos of Southern Spain. 3 Within the contexts of French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser and Palestinian postcolonial literary critic Edward Said, materialist, postcolonial, and multicultural critiques of various forms of power and their ideologies can be seen as the fundamental propositions of Cervantes’s Don Quixote. 4 Cervantes’s ultimate orientation may perhaps be inescapably Eurocentric, but his responses to the European experience of the rise and expansion of an ethnocentric militaristic nation state are relatively centrifugal when compared to the attitudes of many of his contemporaries.

In surveying some of the antihegemonic details of Cervantes’s novel, I am also interested in dispelling the popular myth of Don Quixote. Especially in the English-speaking world, and particularly in the United States, Don Quixote remains captive to a...