Don Quixote in England. the Aesthetics of Laughter

By Close, Anthony | Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Don Quixote in England. the Aesthetics of Laughter


Close, Anthony, Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America


Paulson's book is about the influence of Don Quijote on the evolution of the aesthetics of laughter and satire in eighteenth-century England. Cervantes' novel was immensely popular in that period, being a key reference-point for its foremost writers; and, because of the rise of empiricism and the decentralizing of political power, they used it in a way that was unmatched in contemporary France and Spain. It put in question--Paulson argues--the conventional equation of comedy with satire and laughter with ridicule, as expounded by Hobbes in his Leviathan. For the royalist and Anglican Jonathan Swift, Don Quijote's madness symbolizes the Moderns' quest to change the world: using the norm of common experience, it exposes the folly of the unfettered enthusiasm of Dissenters and radical nonconformist sects. The Whig Joseph Addison, on the other hand, in the Spectator (1711-12), takes Quixotic madness as a model for revaluing the imagination that Swift treats as transgressive, and transforms Swiftian satiric ridicule into pure comedy, based on an aesthetics of pleasurable response or sympathetic laughter, an area which he designated as the Novel, New, or Uncommon. In this Addison follows the Earl of Shaftesbury, who, in his "Letter Concerning Enthusiasm and Sensus Communis: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour," upholds civilized, good-humored raillery, which he sees as a test of gravity, and while criticizing Enthusiasm in its fanatical religious form, defends it, in poetry, as an instrument of the Sublime. The engraver and cartoonist William Hogarth, a prominent figure in Paulson's story, adopts a position akin to Addison's. His transformation of religious symbols into aesthetic equivalents involves secularizing and humanizing them, assimilating them to a Sanchopanzine ideal of blemished but living beauty, which is experienced as Novelty and grounded in a response of laughter.

Many other writers and themes figure in Paulson's account: Henry Fielding's debunking and transformation of Richardson's Pamela, the Quixotism of the hero of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Sterne's conception of the hobby-horse in Tristram Shandy, and the conversion of Marcela (Don Quijote I, 14) into the heroine of Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote (1742). Cervantes' masterpiece is a paradigm in all these cases, which bring four contentious problems into play: the madness of the imagination, the cruelty of laughter and ridicule, the question whether there are objective norms of beauty, and the extension of madness to religious belief.

Paulson's book takes its cue from two seminal texts. The first is Milan Kundera's essay "The Day Panurge No Longer Makes People Laugh," in which the Czech novelist defines humor as bound up with the birth of the novel and as an imaginary terrain where moral judgement is suspended.

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