Making Shit Up



by Justin E. H. Smith

Nabokov said its humor did not age well, and unlike Moby-Dick, which is occasionally dismissed as a school-boy’s adventure story but never as hokey or stale, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha seems to suffer under the weight of its most representative scenes. The association of the whole with these mere parts is either too vivid, or it is not vivid at all, as in the case of the subnovel of Anselmo and Lothario, which everyone today knows, without knowing where it is from. Most of these scenes are played out in Part I, by the end of which the presumed hero has survived several battles against hallucinated enemies, drawn his squire hesitantly but hopefully into all of them, and mingled with several different minor characters, many of whose own stories, and not just Lothario’s, amount to novels within the novel. He has been tricked into a cage by a sympathetic pair, a canon and a priest, and taken back to his home, to his housekeeper and his niece, in the hope that he might be cured of his madness.

Part I was published first in Madrid in 1605, and over the next ten years would be published in Brussels (1607), Milan (1610), and, in the first of many English translations, in London in 1612. Part II would be published ten years after Part One, also in Madrid, in 1615. Although Don Quixote is so often reduced to the battle with the windmills, which has been concluded within the first few chapters of Part One (leading us to suspect that its iconic character has at least something to do with the fact that many readers get no further), it is Part II, and what happens or is imagined to have happened between 1610 and 1615, that is the true clavis to understanding the novel in its entirety, and in all its philosophical, subversive, deceitful greatness.

So, at the beginning of Part II, Don Quixote is lying in bed, and the priest and the canon come to see how he is doing, to check whether he has recovered from his madness, or whether he continues to take himself for a knight errant. Sancho Panza is there as well, still believing, or willing to believe, that his master is a knight errant, and that great things await them once they set back out on the road. To the solicitous pair’s disappointment, the Don continues to maintain that what had looked like madness was in fact the result of supernatural enchantment, a common occurrence in the tales of knights errant, so that, in his case, giants only looked like windmills, a helmet only looked like a washbasin, and so on. But bedside conversation turns to a stranger form of enchantment still: someone, perhaps some quasi-divine being, has, it turns out, produced a written account of everything that happened while Don Quixote was out practicing his knight-errantry, and has published it, first in Madrid in 1605, and later in Valencia, Milan, Antwerp…

The men have arranged for a visit from a recently graduated student, the Bachelor Sansón Carrasco, who has himself read the novel, and may know something of how it came about. Thus in Chapter 3 of Part II (in Edith Grossman’s elegant new translation):

Don Quixote was extremely thoughtful as he awaited Bachelor Carrasco, from whom he hoped to hear the news about himself that had been put into a book, as sancho had said, though he could not persuade himself that such a history existed, for the blood of the enemies he had slain was not yet dry on the blade of his sword and his chivalric exploits were already in print. Even so, he imagined that some wise man, either a friend or an enemy, by the arts of enchantment had printed them: if a friend, in order to elevate them and raise them above the most famous deeds of any knight errant; if an enemy, to annihilate them and place them lower than the basest acts ever attributed to the basest squire, although –he said to himself– the acts of squires were never written down; if such a history did ext, because it was about a knight errant it would necessarily be grandiloquent, noble distinguished and true. This gave him some consolation, but it made him disconsolate to think that its author was a Moor, as suggested by the name Cide, and one could not expect truth from the Moors, because all of them are tricksters, liars, and swindlers [embelecadores, falsarios y quimeristas].

There is no explanation, yet, of why the Moor, in addition to being in his nature a deceiver, should have such a remarkable supernatural ability to know the stories of individual people in the real world, and to transpose them from there into the world of a novel. But Sansón, perhaps, gives us a small hit when he proceeds to make a few basic distinctions between forms of writing:

[I]t is one thing to write as a poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.

The student does not reveal his source, but he is plainly relating from memory what he has learned studying the philosophy of Aristotle at university. The Greek philosopher writes in Book I of the Poetics:

The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.

To which genre of writing is Don Quixote supposed to belong, now? The answer seems inseparable from the question of the work’s authorship, and of its actual subject. The possibility is briefly considered, more than once, that Sancho Panza is the real hero of the novel, a possibility that is of course mocked and dismissed by Don Quixote himself, who claims that it would violate the most basic rules governing the knights-errant literature to place the squire at the center of the tale, rather than to have him subordinate to his knight. But there is of course very little in the novel that does respect these rules, and in this respect the suggestion and the refutation go together as a sort of affirmation.

This affirmation would be echoed in at least one significant interoperation of the novel. In “The Truth about Sancho Panza,” a parable written in 1917 and published first in 1931, Franz Kafka hypothesizes that the squire is the true subject of the novel, and that the ‘knight’ is in turn a projection of his own lapse into the factitious world of fiction: “Without making any boast of it,” Kafka writes,

Sancho Panza succeeded in the course of years, by devouring a great number of romances of chivalry and adventure in the evening and night hours, in so diverting from him his demon, whom he later called Don Quixote, that his demon thereupon set out in perfect freedom on the maddest exploits, which, however, for the lack of a preordained object, which should have been Sancho Panza himself, harmed nobody. A free man, Sancho Panza philosophically followed Don Quixote on his crusades, perhaps out of a sense of responsibility, and had of them a great and edifying entertainment to the end of his days.

Kafka wishes to ‘disenchant’ Don Quixote by making its protagonist a simple-minded yet curable man, sucked in by fantasy but not misled by it. The world that Sancho Panza returns to, by the end of Kafka’s parable, is our world. This is thus not so far from Milan Kundera’s reading of Don Quixote: that it is the great milestone of the beginning of ‘modernity’. What could be more modern than disenchantment? If you see things shifting shapes, it is not that the world is enchanted, but that you are mad: the death of nature and the birth of the clinic at once.

Yet we might place the squire at the center of the action for reasons that Kafka does not seem to have detected. Who, after all, would violate the conventions to which Don Quixote himself is so faithful? A deceitful Moor, perhaps. And why? Because he is not interested in our world, but in spinning out spurious and false (or, to stick with neutral language, ‘non-actual’) ones. And why? Because he is a poet and not a historian. And why? Because, as Aristotle taught and as the Moors both learned and eventually passed on to the Christian universities of Iberia, it is this use of the narrative art that is closest to philosophy: to the investigation of the problems of metaphysics that the novel, properly conceived, invites us to consider. This is a fraught and morally treacherous investigation — it invites us to entertain the false as true (or, again, to put it in neutral terms, to consider the non-actual as actual).

For Don Quixote, who is perhaps the truly simple-minded character in the novel, knights-errant novels express the ‘truth’ in the sense of ‘moral truth’: they offer up a proper image of the way things should be. But for someone involved in the production of the Don’s tale, perhaps the Cide, offering up moral fables as truth is the greatest falsehood of all, and accordingly the proper response is to subvert the genre, via satire, and with an aim that is eminently philosophical: to destroy the pretense to truth of genre-conventional works by making the writing of fiction principally an exploration of the moral and metaphysical dimensions of recounting as true events that are strictly false.

A convenient table summarizing the two possible, and possibly overlapping, novels called Don Quixote would look something like this:

Written by Who is a About a Scope Genre Truth value
Cide Hamete Benengeli Moor Squire Possible worlds Fiction/poetry False
Miguel de Cervantes Christian Knight errant Actual world History True

What becomes clear in Part II is that Cervantes has attempted to merge himself with the fictional author, Cide Hamete Benengeli, in order to break with the genre of knights-errant literature, to subvert it, by producing a novel that is openly ‘Moorish’, which is to say openly deceitful, and also openly tricksterish in the comparative-mythological sense of a supernatural being that is able to deceive not just by regular speech, but by spinning out counterfeit worlds. The Cide has accomplished something even more remarkable than this, something more remarkable even than what your average evil deceiver (to invoke a personage from another European work of fiction that would appear a few decades later) might pull off. As the Don and the others begin to realize at the beginning of Part II, he has not just spun out a world out of words and presented it as truth; he has moreover taken their world, the world of the knight and the squire and entourage, which they had previously supposed to be simple fact, and, by writing it, has made it factitious.

Cervantes’s invention of the Cide, and his characters’ coming to self-consciousness as the inventions of Cide, is a particularly complex variation on the sort of meditation on truth and falsehood, and on poetry and history, that seems to have served as a metafictional accompaniment to many important prose works from the ancient to the early modern periods. Thus Lucian of Samosata in his remarkable second-century CE work of science fiction, the True History, begins with an extremely awkward confession of the author’s own recourse to lying, coupled with a hopeful insistence that dishonesty is not so much a cop-out, as it is a necessary element, of story-telling:

I could not condemn ordinary men for lying, when I saw it in request amongst them that would be counted philosophical persons: yet could not but wonder at them, that, writing so manifest lies, they should not think to be taken with the manner; and this made me also ambitious to leave some monument of myself behind me, that I might not be the only man exempted from this liberty of lying: and because I had no matter of verity to employ my pen in (for nothing hath befallen me worth the writing), I turned my style to publish untruths, but with an honester mind than others have done: for this one thing I confidently pronounce for a truth, that I lie: and this, I hope, may be an excuse for all the rest, when I confess what I am faulty in: for I write of matters which I neither saw nor suffered, nor heard by report from others, which are in no being, nor possible ever to have a beginning. Let no man therefore in any case give any credit to them.

It is not Lucian’s fault if he has to lie: nothing worth telling has ever in fact happened to him. Reality has not done its part to enable him to be a compelling history-teller, so he will have to be a story-teller instead. He goes on to tell of a trip to the moon, and of a great bell he found there that enabled him to listen in on conversations on earth, and of all sorts of other things that would eventually, more or less, come true.

Prose fiction is born of deceit: it amounts to an adoption of the outer form of history writing –that is, relation of the actual– in order to explore the possible-but-non-actual, which is supposed to be explored only in verse (at least if we agree with Aristotle, which Cervantes, via Sansón, invites us to do). The outward markers of the exploration of mere possibility, meter and rhyme and so on, are eliminated, and what results is the novel: a straight report of something that did not happen. That the novel is in its essence a dissimulation constituted a clear problem –a moral and philosophical problem: what are we doing and how can we presume to do it?– for prose fiction writers from Lucian at least through Cervantes, even if the problematic character of the endeavor is subsequently eclipsed with the elevation of the novel to a respectable bourgeois art form, and to a pillar of the display of national cultural greatness.

Flaubert just churned out worlds, and the world itself was in on the game; these worlds, the worlds of the 19th-century realist novel, soon became movies, and by now it is entirely taken for granted that we live alongside multiple parallel worlds. If these raise moral and political problems, problems for censors or ratings boards, these problems are now thought to lie only in the particular content of this or that entertainment, and the idea that the entire undertaking might be a great, morally untenable dissimulation seems to have been entirely occluded.

Or almost entirely. One genre that appears to preserve, and to be sustained by, the same problematic charge that makes Don Quixote a masterpiece is the genre that is sometimes called ‘parafiction’, the genre of pseudocumentary, of the fake encyclopedia entry, perfected by Borges and evoked in the literary work of Calvino, Bolaño, of Luigi Serafini with his separatist universe encyclopedized in the Codex Seraphinianum, of all the tongue-in-cheek footnotes and pseudo-critical apparatus of the various postmoderns, who seem, in their way, to in fact be returning to a premodern preoccupation with the moral and metaphysical problem of presenting as true what is in fact false, a concern that was only temporarily hidden by the canonization and nationalization of the novel as recently as the 19th century.

The Arthurian romances and knights-errant novels, as Don Quixote‘s canon (the character, that is) insists, instill an appreciation of the truth, and this is what saves their fabulous, non-actual plots from being found guilty of the sin of lying. They deviate from fact, into fantasy, for the sake of moral truth. But, the canon warns, abandon the normative dimensions of story-telling, and you have nothing left over but a lie. Satire is what happens when the normative dimensions are disowned and mocked, and the author stands open to the accusation of lying, of making shit up, and consequently feels compelled to face, exposed, the philosophical problem of truth and falsehood.

All great prose fiction is satire.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website.