Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes

In The Art of the Novel Milan Kundera makes observations that echo Charles Baudelaire's enraged comments concerning the values of literature in nineteenth century Europe. An embittered Baudelaire writes: "France is passing through a period of vulgarity. Paris: A center radiating stupidity in every direction. Despite Moliere and Beranger, no one would ever have supposed that France would take to the road of progress as such a rate. Matters of art: terrae incognitae." According to Kundera the specialization wrought by science has managed to reduce man into a mere automaton; a thoughtless pawn manipulated by the masters of industry who have forgotten the deeper meaning of life.

For the last three hundred years the novel has been the vehicle used to probe humanity's experience in this complex modern world. The novel has filled the role formerly held by religion and classical literature: its aim is to "discover the various dimensions of existence" that are inaccessible to science (or any other literary form). Therefore as science displaced the philosophic and religious systems of the medieval world, and the important investigations of being (the 'dimension of depth') were being threatened by scientific rationalism, the novel emerged to check the abuses of a "one-sided nature of the European sciences."

Kundera considers Cervantes to be the father of the novel. Cervantes' character, Don Quixote, sets out on a knightly adventure in the hopes of delivering the world from evil and winning the love of his beautiful dream lady, Dulcinea. His courtly notions of battle and love, however, prove to be delusions. The reality of the world has changed (or was misrepresented by the writers that inspired Quixotes' quest); subsequently his living experience bears little resemblance to the imaginative experience anticipated after a lifetime of reading medieval tales of romance. But despite Don Quixote's misperceptions of the world and his ridiculous failures, he can also be seen as a hero. Quixote holds on to an imaginative vision of reality that is romantic, exciting, and invigorating even when dry empirical facts seem to refute this vision.

Cervantes does not dogmatically tell the reader whether Don Quixote is an idiot or a hero; he could be both; he could be neither; he could be something altogether different than anyone has assumed. For human beings, and human experiences, defy narrow classifications. The novel, Kundera tells us, allows the reader to consider how ideas conform, or conflict, with experience. But the novel does not judge this experience as science or religion judges - with a single, unflagging, limited interpretation. Instead the novel opens up the world of man and discovers new human truths, situations and possibilities.

Kundera believes that the novel is being rejected by modern culture. Science once again has the power to oust humans out of the "world of life." Kundera laments, "man has now become a mere thing to the forces (of technology, of politics, of history)." Deprived of the desire and the ability to comprehend deep, complex truths of being, humans opt to accept the simple stereotypes perpetuated by the media. Subsequently pop-culture and scientific domination threatens the human realm of being with idiotic (and dogmatic) assessments of the complex human world. Thus the legacy of Cervantes is depreciated and "the world of life" is forgotten.

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