Don Quijote, postmodernism and postmodernity

Ben Kara (OW), former pupil of Westminster School (London)


In the fifth episode of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s The Trip to Spain, halfway through one of the several lunch sequences that comprise the episode, Don Quijote happens to come up in conversation and Coogan says the following in praise of its author: ‘Effectively, [Cervantes] was “postmodern” before there was any “modern” to be “post” about.’ Although the show suggests that Coogan’s words served primarily to impress the lady sat next to him at the table, they resonated with me nonetheless.

Don Quijote 1

Don Quijote, widely considered to be the first modern novel, has an unmistakable freshness to it that many have endeavoured to describe over the years. Indeed, some put it down to ‘partial magic’ (*cough* Borges *cough*). I myself, however, am more inclined to agree with Steve Coogan on this one – that Don Quijote’s dazzling originality lies in its postmodernist features. My intention is to take a closer look at how these manifest themselves, so that by the end we might have a clearer idea of what Cervantes’ postmodernism ultimately brings to his magnum opus.

Before diving in, it might be useful to remind ourselves of the stylistic conventions of postmodernist literature. In essence, it is characterised by the use of irony and pastiche, ‘double coding’ (otherwise put as the playful mixing of aesthetic registers) and metafiction.

So, now that’s out of the way, let us begin with irony and pastiche. A very particular ironic attitude is one of the most palpable features of postmodernist literature. Far from being pointed and satirical as in modernist literature, postmodernist irony is of an unmoored sort, where what exactly is being mocked is not always clear. Of course, what you all must be thinking is: errm, doesn’t Cervantes literally tell us at the beginning of Don Quijote that his intention is to show the chivalric romance for what it is – a daft genre? Well, what I say to you is this: Cervantes may have lied. Rather than setting out to directly satirise the tropes of chivalric romance, I am inclined to believe that it is in fact harder to tell what – or indeed whom – Cervantes is really mocking.

Don Quijote 2Consider the iconic episode of the galley slaves, for instance. On the one hand, you could read it as Cervantes openly laughing at the stupidity of the chivalric code and, by extension, Don Quijote himself. I mean, what sort of ridiculous code would sanction the liberation of such a rabble of drunkards, murderers and lechers; and, more to the point, what sort of imbecile would voluntarily subscribe to such a code? That is certainly one way of looking at it. The other way, of course, is like so: what sort of daft criminal would beat up their own lawyer? Why bite the hand of the only one who gives a damn about habeas corpus and the only one willing to put his neck on the line for his fellow man? Who’s the joke on now? I’d say it’s hard to tell.

Of course, the other argument against Don Quijote being straight satire is the sheer number of references made to the famous titles and characters of the chivalric romance genre: Amadís de Gaula, Orlando furioso and La chanson de Roland to name but three. As a matter of fact, I remember reading whole chapters wherein Don Quijote would minutely detail the many titles he adored and exactly why. Cervantes sure knew a lot about chivalric romance for someone who claimed to hate it so vehemently… Indeed, those pages have coloured my successive perusals of Don Quijote and I am now more inclined to see Cevantes’ evocations of chivalric romance less as mockery and more as homage; a sort of pastiche that Frederic Jameson, author of the seminal Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, would call ‘blank parody’.

Don Quijote 3But enough about irony and pastiche, let us now turn to ‘double coding’. In my view, the clearest (certainly the most visual) explanation of postmodernist double coding can be found in some of the architecture of the 80s and 90s. Take New York’s AT&T building, for instance.

Designed by architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee and completed in 1984, this skyscraper, with its combination of playful extravagance and classical evocations (where Bauhaus meets Baroque) is the epitome of the postmodern belief that art need not be uniform in register.

As anyone who has read even the smallest part of Don Quijote can attest, ‘double coding’ can be found everywhere, with ‘high’ Petrarchan sonnets often recited within earshot of the bawdy, night-time shenanigans taking place at the various inns that accommodate Don Quijote and his trusty squire along their journey. That said, in my view, the funniest and most iconic example of ‘double coding’ is the juxtaposition between the respective lexicons of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza. Throughout the novel, we, the readers, have the great privilege of listening to our two heroes process, discuss and often dispute whatever it is that they come across. Some of the novel’s most entertaining moments consist of the often absurd dissonance between Don Quijote’s lofty and chivalry-saturated speech on the one hand and Sancho’s earthy and proverb-heavy wisdom on the other. You could listen to those two talk for hours…

Don Quijote 4

Last but not least, we have metafiction. Perhaps the most notorious of postmodernist qualities, metafiction is a form of fiction that emphasises the artificiality and constructed nature of itself. To give a non-literary example, consider this famous sequence from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction where Mia Wallace breaks the fourth wall and quite literally draws a square onto the windscreen of Vince Vega’s red 1964 Chevy Malibu.

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In Don Quijote, the cheekiest example of metafiction takes place in the second part of the novel. It also happens to be one of the favourite moments of the Argentinian proto-postmodernist writer Jorge Luis Borges too, but I’ll get to that in due course. So here goes. Not long after having defeated a ferocious lion in single combat and duly changing his title from ‘Sir Knight of the Woeful Countenance’ to ‘Sir Knight of the Lions’, Don Quijote and Sancho come across a Duke and Duchess who generously receive the pair with much pomp and ceremony. Having been beaten up and robbed more times than they might care to remember, so splendorous a reception seems strange to our two heroes. Soon enough, the reason behind the Duke and Duchess’ generosity is revealed. Why, of course! They have read the first part of Don Quijote and are themselves a couple of superfans who have just met, if you like, their favourite reality TV stars. Needless to say, in keeping with the conduct of all other hosts hitherto encountered by the knight and his squire, the Duke and Duchess soon run out of generosity and instead begin to use Don Quijote and Sancho for their own savage amusement – but that’s another story.

To use some highfalutin terminology, the moment outlined above is an example of metalepsis – a technique used frequently by postmodernist writer Thomas Pynchon, author of such novels as The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow. In short, metalepsis occurs when boundaries between two or more ‘worlds’ are overrun or violated, what Pynchon calls ‘a kiss of cosmic pool balls’. In this case, the two ‘worlds’ in question are: a) the real world, in which Don Quijote can be read and enjoyed by real people like you and me, and b) the world of the novel, in which are contained the fictional Don Quijote, Sancho Panza, Dulcinea del Toboso, Ginés de Pasamonte/Ginesillo de Parapilla – you get the idea. By having people from world b) do something that ought only to be possible in world a)… Well, the implications are greater – or indeed graver – than you might first think.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Borges’ take on the matter:

“Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote…I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.” (Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges)

Food for thought, eh?

To finish up, although we’ve spoken a little about certain instances of postmodernist aesthetics in Don Quijote, there is still something to say on the topic of ideological overlap. To return to our friend Frederic Jameson, he defines postmodernism as the aesthetic reaction to the conditions of ‘postmodernity’. And what is ‘postmodernity’, you ask? According to Jameson, postmodernity is the age of the end of traditional ideologies, brought about by late-stage capitalism. Now, though I do not even begin to entertain the notion that Cervantes could somehow have been a 17th-century proto- & crypto-Marxist, but I think it is fair to say that he lived in and wrote through a time of great change in Spain’s history.

Indeed, one of the most fascinating examples of this change as reflected in the text is the episode treating Sancho’s governance of the island of Barataria in the second part of the novel. It is plausible that it might well have served as Cervantes’ attempt to satirise the colonial practice of gifting encomiendas to conquistadors as a reward for their loyalty and assistance. Although Sancho doesn’t do a completely awful job as governor, it’s certainly not without chaos and endless faff; and more to the point, it is a testament to the fact that the Spain of Cervantes could now see a low-born like Sancho (or indeed Francisco Pizarro …) turn into a de facto king.

Don Quijote 6In many ways, I believe Don Quijote’s iconic ‘Golden Age’ speech to be Cervantes’ most explicit reference to the change Spain was undergoing at the time. What else could Don Quijote’s lamenting the passing of a time when people ‘ignoraban las dos palabras tuyo y mío’ signify other than the death of traditional ideologies? Like the postmodernists, I don’t think Cervantes was particularly interested in searching for coherence in the face of change, but rather release through the acceptance of its inevitability. But even so, when we watch Don Quijote charge valiantly at the impersonal face of modernity and its slowly revolving blades, and we see him inevitably fall flat on his arse, though the fall is doubtlessly funny, it can be difficult to know whether to laugh or cry.