Comparative Literature



Hart, Thomas R

THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO CERVANTES. Edited by Anthony J. Cascardi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xvii, 242 p.

A comparison of The Cambridge Companion to Cervantes with the Suma cervantina edited by J.B. Avalle-Arce and E.C. Riley (London: Tamesis, 1973) reveals some of the changes in Cervantes studies in the last quarter of a century. Right of the fourteen contributors to the earlier collection were Spanish or Spanish American, although several were then teaching in the United States; all were men. Seven of the nine contributors to the new Companion are American, two British; five arc women. The most important difference between the two collections of essays is that the Suma is intended for readers who already know a good deal about Spanish literature in general and about Cervantes in particular, while the Companion does not “presuppos[e] any prior knowledge of Cervantes’ writings or the ability to read them in Spanish” (p. 3). No doubt for this reason, it docs not include a chapter on Cervantes’s language nor one on his poetry. Surprisingly, given its intended audience, there is no discussion of translations of Doon Quixote or of Cervantes’s other works. Unlike the Suma, the Companion does not devote a separate chapter to Cervantes’s life, although it docs include a brief chronology largely devoted to the events of his life, some additional biographical information in Anthony Cascardi’s Introduction, and an essay by Barry Ife on “The Historical and Social Context” of Cervantes’s writings.

The Companion is heavily weighted toward Don Quixote. Anthony Cascardi asserts, following Bakhtin, that “the ‘invention’ of the novel resulted from the re-fashioning of literary genres already in place, and Don Quixote stands in relation to the origins of the novel not as the invention of something radically new, but as the uncovering of new possibilities for the combination of elements that preexisted it” (p. 59). Some of the “new possibilities” are discussed by Alexander Welsh, who argues that the influence of Don Quixote on later novels is “remarkable for being twofold: even as Cervantes’ method offered a flexible model for realism in the novel, his runaway hero, the self-created Don Quixote, became the model of rare heroism in the face of mundane reality. . . Only very exceptional novels, original in their own right, draw upon both lessons from Cervantes” (p. 80). These exceptional novels include works as different as Joseph Andrews, Tristram Shandy, The Idiot, and War and Peace.

Frederick A. de Armas considers some of the “elements that preceded” Don Quixote in his chapter on “Cervantes and the Italian Renaissance,” where he discusses Cervantes’s relationship to the work of Italian writers and artists as well as his personal experience of Italy when its brilliant Renaissance culture was being transformed by the Counter-Reformation. he observes that “Cervantes’ imitation” of Orlando furioso “foregrounds radical differences. The serene self-confidence of Ariosto’s characters contrast[s] with Cervantes’ blustery and unstable knight who draws his confidence from books … It is [Don Quixote’s] tenacity in the face of constant defeat and ridicule that slowly provides him with heroic stature and forever divorces him from Ariosto’s romance” (p. 43).

Although some of Cervantes’s works other than Don Quixote-the comic interludes, Rinconete and Cortadillo, The Colloquy of the Dogs-can still be read with pleasure, others, including the prose romances Galatea-and-The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda and perhaps half of the Novelas ejemplares, are now generally considered almost unreadable. Melveena McKendrick, in “Writings for the Stage,” gives an enthusiastic account of Cervantes’s comedy La entretenida and presents a balanced account of the virtues and the obstacles to appreciation of his heroic tragedy The Siege of Numantia. Mary Malcolm Gaylord’s chapter on “Cervantes’ Other Fiction” finds in these neglected works “new keys to aspects of Cervantes’ novelistic practice-experimental approach to genre, attraction to parody, meticulous attention to speaking and narrating voices, enduring fascination with the idea of epic-that may have appeared … to belong only to” Don Quixote (p. 125).

Cascardi’s statement that he and his collaborators “strive to situate [Cervantes’s] work historically, to place it within the wider context of early modern (Renaissance) literature” (p. 2) is true primarily of the earlier chapters of the Companion, while the last two chapters deal with recent critical reactions to his writings. Adrienne L. Martin provides a bridge between the two groups in her chapter on “Humor and Violence in Cervantes.” Although she recognizes that Cervantes’s contemporaries laughed at Don Quixote and that Vladimir Nabokov exaggerates when he calls it “a veritable encyclopedia of cruelty,” her own view of the novel places her firmly in the romantic tradition: “Cervantes realized that simple comedy was no longer enough in an age of institutionalized madness, where knights errant and their idealized values were obsolete, and fools (such as the type of idle aristocrats personified by the Duke and Duchess) had taken their place” (p. 167).

In his Introduction, Cascardi suggests that “if Cervantes’ works invite complex critical perspectives-psychoanalytical, genre-based, gender-inflected, myth-critical, philosophical, political, and more-this is because the works themselves have important things to say about the core issues that these different approaches raise . . . Cervantes anticipates, challenges, and in some cases outstrips the insights that contemporary literary criticism brings to” his texts (p. 2). There is a real danger here of anachronism. This danger does not trouble Anne J. Cruz, who discusses a number of psychoanalytical and feminist studies of Cervantes’s works, mostly by American scholars, among them Carroll Johnson’s Madness and Lust, in which he insists that Don Quixote’s madness is not caused by reading romances of chivalry but by sexual desire for his niece. Cruz remarks that Johnson’s interpretation “cannot be disputed solely by an appeal to the novel’s factual statements” (p. 191). More traditional scholars may not share her confidence that “psychoanalytical critiques enrich our comprehension of Cervantes’ fiction by giving voice to what is left unsaid in the texts” (p. 196).

In the final chapter, Diana de Armas Wilson examines the American images found in Cervantes’s works and his repeated efforts to emigrate to the New World. She contends that Don Quixote satirizes “the institution of chivalry . . . not only as represented in . . . the books of chivalry. . . but also as present in the real-world discourses connected with the conquest and colonization of the Hispanic Indies” (p. 213).

The Cambridge Companion offers its readers a great deal of information about Cervantes and introduces them to a wide range of critical responses to his works. Several chapters are rich in fresh insights and in incisive restatements of accepted views. However, some statements should be qualified. Cascardi’s assertion that Cervantes’s family was “almost certainly of converso origin” (p. 4) needs to be weighed against the reservations expressed by other scholars. A more important issue is Cervantes’s “perspectivism,” proposed by Americo Castro in 1925 and developed by Leo Spitzer in an essay published in 1948 and reprinted in his Representative Essays (Stanford, 1988). Cascardi refers to “the ‘perspectivism’ that has so often been identified as the hallmark of Cervantes’ . . . writing in Don Quixote” (p. 2) and “the perspectivism for which he is justly famous” (p. 7) but fails to note that a number of scholars have denied that it exists. Cruz’s assertion that “Leo Spitzer’s perspectivist approach . . . proscribes any ‘right’ view, underscoring Cervantes’s relativism” (p. 188) attributes to Spitzer himself an attitude that he ascribes to Cervantes and equates perspcctivism with relativism despite Spitzer’s explicit declaration that “qua moralist, Cervantes is not at all ‘perspectivistic'” (Representative Essays, p. 271). I examine Spitzer’s treatment of don Quixote in an article, “Cervantes perspectivista,” in Nueva Revista de Filologia Hispanica, 40 (1992), 293-303.


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