Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

Rachel Schmidt. Forms of Modernity: Don Quixote and Modern Theories of the Novel

Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

Rachel Schmidt. Forms of Modernity: Don Quixote and Modern Theories of the Novel

Article excerpt

Rachel Schmidt. Forms of Modernity: DON QUIXOTE and Modern Theories of the Novel. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2011. 403 pp. ISBN: 978-1-4426-4251-5.

This book is not so much an analysis of Don Quijote as it is a study of key figures behind what Anthony Close would call our "Romantic" and "postmodern" (as opposed to historicizing) reading sensibilities: Friedrich Schlegel, Georg Lukacs, Hermann Cohen, Miguel de Unamuno, Jose Ortega y Gasset, and Mikhail Bakhtin. Rachel Schmidt capably presents their thought in the contexts of philosophical tradition (with Kant as the major reference-point), social and historical climate, and the political activities of the thinkers themselves. While each figure is treated in a discrete and substantial chapter, Schmidt does a fine job tracing and teasing out various continuities, ruptures, veiled appropriations, and unacknowledged borrowings amongst them. The result is an illuminating rethinking of familiar theories (e.g., Unamuno, Ortega, and Bakhtin), and perhaps the resuscitation of an unjustly overlooked figure (Cohen). Given the inescapable influence of these thinkers and the fundamental dilemmas of modern existence they confront, Schmidt helps us understand why we read Cervantes's masterpiece the way we do.

"Modernity" is a capacious and imprecise term, and Schmidt's use of it spans many centuries and developments: the advent of systems of modern justice and militia; monetary exchange; the rise in reliance upon technology; rationality, ideology (or "political domination" [27]), secularization, and the accompanying dilemmas of class consciousness; freedom and alienation; awareness of the limits of reason; and the emergence of historical consciousness (see chapter one). Maybe it is easier to characterize modernity by what it is not: a stable, feudal order secured by the static assurances of the Great Chain of Being. Schmidt reviews the evolution of "modern" institutions and sensibilities in Cervantes's Spain (which reminds us why the preferred period designation currently seems to be "early modern"), and refers to aspects of Don Quijote that might reflect the new era: the technology of mills, class tensions in the confrontation between the Santa Hermandad and Don Fernando (and even between Don Quijote and Sancho), centralized justice in the galeotes episode, and the novel's relative absence of religious content. Schmidt then gives a somewhat brisk overview of Hegel, Kant, and Romantic irony in order to anticipate some of her study's informing ideas, including the autonomy of the aesthetic realm, imaginative literature as a mode of inquiry and cognition, and the role of art in the development of judgment and the ethical faculty. What follows, in six chapters on the figures listed above, is an examination of how the accommodating and amorphous novel--often characterized in opposition to the epic--offers the alienated modern individual a space that is at once useless (in the positive sense of unburdened by practical, purposive, ideological imperatives) and crucially pertinent to the cultivation of fully human subjects.

Drawing on Schlegel's Fragments, notebooks, dialogues, and his novel, Lucinde, Schmidt argues forcefully that his writings constitute "the undisputed progenitor of all later theories of the novel" (72). The range of Schlegel's thought on the novel is indeed impressive, and much of it retains currency. His formal concerns include the novel as a mixed genre, the importance of the Platonic dialogue and parody in the ironic inclusion of heterogeneous materials, and the figure of the arabesque as a way to balance fantasy and order within the autotelic artwork. Thematically and conceptually, Schlegel examines the importance of temporal movement and becoming (as opposed to epic stasis), productive forms of folly, or Narrheit (as an antidote to the sterile rationality of the Enlightenment), as well as the inventive, ordering capacity of humor and Witz (a sort of Teutonic ingenio). …

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