Saturday, April 2, 2011

Cervantes on Writing

For more thoughts on good writing, let’s turn to Miguel de Cervantes.

I spend a fair amount of time in class trying to bridge the humor gap between the 17th and 21st centuries to help my students appreciate that Don Quixote is a very funny book. The humor lies not only in the farcical situations, but in the language itself. Cervantes knew good writing. Novice readers, especially undergraduates, might not appreciate it, but Cervantes was a remarkable prose stylist. He had a way with irony that few have matched since, and apparently took great pleasure in puns, because every page teems with word games and double entendres impossible to translate. His prose is fun to read, once you know how, and signifies at multiple levels simultaneously.

While not a treasury of writing tips, Don Quixote can be considered a commentary on writing. It is, after all, a parody, or satire directed against the excesses of a particular literary genre. Part of Cervantes’s critique concerns issues of realism in fiction, but what concerns us here specifically is the issue of style. I suggest that we can consider the following to be a commentary on prose style:

... and he thought none was as fine as those composed by the worthy Feliciano de Silva, because the clarity of his prose and complexity of his language seemed to him more valuable than pearls, in particular when he read the declarations and missives of love, where he would often find written: "The reason for the unreason to which my reason turns so weakens my reason that with reason I complain of thy beauty." And also when he read: "... the heavens on high divinely heighten thy divinity with the stars and make thee deserving of the deserts thy greatness deserves."

With these words and phrases the poor gentleman lost his mind, and he spent sleepless nights trying to understand them and extract their meaning, which Aristotle himself, if he came back to life for only that purpose would not have been able to decipher or understand.

Don Quixote, Edith Grossman translation, page 20.

[y de todos, ningunos le parecían tan bien como los que compuso el famoso Feliciano de Silva; porque la claridad de su prosa y aquellas entricadas razones suyas le parecían de perlas, y más cuando llegaba a leer aquellos requiebros y cartas de desafíos, donde en muchas partes hallaba escrito: «La razón de la sinrazón que a mi razón se hace, de tal manera mi razón enflaquece, que con razón me quejo de la vuestra fermosura». Y también cuando leía: «... los altos cielos que de vuestra divinidad divinamente con las estrellas os fortifican, y os hacen merecedora del merecimiento que merece la vuestra grandeza».

Con estas razones perdía el pobre caballero el juicio, y desvelábase por entenderlas y desentrañarles el sentido, que no se lo sacara ni las entendiera el mesmo Aristóteles, si resucitara para sólo ello.
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes

It might be worthwhile to ask, what is it about this writing that drove Don Quixote insane?

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