Saturday, June 11, 2011

Quixote Sees Nothing

"I see nothing, declared Don "except three farm girls on three jackasses."

"Then God deliver me from the devil!" exclaimed Sancho. "Is it possible that those three hackneys, or whatever you call them, white as the driven snow, look like jackasses to your Grace?  By the living God, I would tear out this beard of mine if that were true!"

"But I tell you, friend Sancho, it is as true that those are jackasses, or she-asses, as it is that I am Don Quixote and you are Sancho Panza.  At least that is he way they look to me."
So begins Chapter 1o of Part 1 of Cervantes' Don Quixote.  So begins also Chapter 14 of Eric Auerbach's Mimesis, justly recognized as the greatest work of literary criticism of the 20th Century.  Auerbach's particular genius is to give us an exercise in "how we see," through the eyes of 20-odd literary creations form  Homer through Virginia Woolf.  It was written in Istanbul (Auerbach was a refugee from the Nazis) and first published in Switzerland and it is nothing if not cosmopolitan in scope: only one of the authors under scrutiny is German (Schiller) though we have along with the  Cervantes such luminaries as Dante, Shakespeare and Montaigne.

Quixote is almost too obvious a candidate for inclusion in such a conspectus; perhaps no single writer makes so radical a departure from the literary sensibilities that preceded him.   But two things I have just lately learned about Auerbach's Cervantes.   One, it was apparently added as an afterthought, three years after the original publication, for presentation in a Spanish edition.  And two, evidently it made the Spaniards mad: Auerbach treats Quixote as essentially a comedy--far too impertinent for the Spaniards for a foreigner dealing with their national hero.  

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