Friday, March 25, 2005

Cervantes and Einstein

Cervantes and Einstein? Really! This comparison suggests what many have long suspected—-Dynes can connect just about anything to anything else. Why not compare Cervantes with Shakespeare, Einstein with Heisenberg? Yet where is the challenge there? Those tasks would be so, well, banal.

To be sure my perception of a link started with a coincidence—-2005 is being proclaimed as both a Cervantes year and an Einstein year. It marks the four-hundredth anniversary of the first publication of Don Quixote. In turn, the year 1905 was Einstein’s annus mirabilis, in which he published no less than five epoch-making papers in physics.

Is there a deeper affinity between Cervantes and Einstein? Let us start with this proposal: in the social world Cervantes anticipated some aspects of Einstein’s principles in the physical world. Arguably the central theme of Don Quijote is the problem of illusion and reality. When the Knight sees two clouds of dust in the distance he assumes that they are two fighting armies advancing on one another for a great battle. Approaching more closely, he finds to his discomfort that they are really just two herds of sheep. Not so, says the Don. If Sancho will follow them, he will find that the armies had been merely temporarily enchanted, and will resume their former shape.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, science had made a number of discoveries that seemed to challenge the certainties of the universe. X-rays, for example, had shown that the seemingly solid and impermeable surfaces of a table or a shoe were actually permeable by the mysterious rays. Einstein went further and showed that the seemingly straightforward laws of time and space were not so simple after all.

Unlike some of his Spanish contemporaries Cervantes did not flatly pronounce "la vida es sueño," life is a dream. Rather, we must accept a constant oscillation between reality and illusion, or perhaps better, between two (or more) illusions. The role of the observer, sometimes confident sometimes bewildered, is paramount. As the twentieth-century dramatist Luigi Pirandello noted, “Così è, se vi pare,” that’s the way it is, if you think so. Many have found this situation disconcerting. Yet it seems inseparable from the modern experience.

Perhaps the ultimate source of the Cervantes-Einstein affinity is this. In megahistorical terms Don Quijote is about the clashing of two tectonic plates. These plates reflect the shift from the medieval world view to that of modern times. However, since the medieval tales of chivalry that so influenced Cervantes’ hero had so little connection with reality, there is a second clash: between fantasy and lived experience.

Lost to most modern readers is the intertextual aspect: the interplay with the various romances of chivalry still widely read in the early seventeenth century, against which Cervantes places his narrative. These books are of course the “cocaine” of the hidalgo’s addiction. They are generally considered pernicious—but not all: note the drastic "literary Inquisition" scene of Chapter Six in Part One where the Don’s friends decide which works to commend to the flames.

I am not the first to detect a similarity with certain currents of the modern scientific world view. In an influential 1948 essay on the perspectivism of Don Quijote the brilliant Austrian philologist Leo Spitzer detected a kind of indeterminacy in Cervantes. Spitzer starts with a basic, seemingly trivial issue: the instability of personal names in the novel. For example, sources suggest that the name of the hero may have been Quijada, Quesada, or Quijana. (And even today some write Quixote instead of Quijote.) The philologist goes on to discuss puns, hybrid word formations, different levels of speech (including argot and dialect), and the refraction of events and actions through inconclusive dialogue.

Sometimes the indeterminacy is due to nothing more than the difficulty of coordinating such a long, unwieldy story. In Part One Sancho’s donkey is stolen, and then it reappears without explanation, than disappears again, before finally reappearing once more. Apparently, Cervantes noted a discrepancy and tried to fix it, but the printer got the instructions backwards and turned the donkey into a kind of Schrödinger’s cat. However, the matter is deeper than that, as one sees when the Don concedes that what he takes to be Mambrino’s helmet may be just a barber’s basin after all-—or something else entirely (I, 25)

A fundamental uncertainty concerns the function of the author. On the one hand, the writer Miguel de Cervantes is a kind of divine figure, visibly manipulating his characters and events. On the other, he claims that for the most part he is merely transcribing and augmenting an earlier Arabic text by the mysterious Cide Hemete Benengeli. With such machinery on display, the novel Don Quijote may be classified as a reflexive work—a literary creation that comments on its own existence. As such it conforms to the principle of :foregrounding the devices" identified by the Russian Formalist literary critics. This principle ricochets through modern creativity of all sorts. An example is the presentation of "raw" concrete in Le Corbusier’s late works, a procedure that calls upon the visitor to reflect on the process of construction.

Towards the end of Part Two, the faithful sidekick observes "I am Don Qijote’s squire who is to be found also in the story and who is called Sancho Panza—-unless they have changed me in the cradle—-I mean to say at the printer’s." Here is Spitzer’s comment: "In such passages, Cervantes willingly destroys the artistic illusion: he, the puppeteer, lets us see the strings of his puppet show: 'see, reader, this is not life, but a stage, a book: art; recognize the life-giving pwer of the artist as a thing, distinct from life!"

Of course the Russian formalists (noted just now) were contemporaries of Einstein. In this light the affinity between Cervantes and Einstein may concern the seventeenth-century writer only in part. It is o u r Cervantes who most closely resembles Einstein. Like all the classics, Cervantes demands to be constantly updated, and "Einsteinization" may be one way this process takes place. Spitzer wrote of "the general sprit of relativism which has been recognized by mosdt critics as characteristic of the novel." While relativism and relativity are not the same thing, we must reckon with such general similarities—where perception plays a large part-—in assessing the affinity.

Commemorations of the 1605 first publication of Don Quixote will occur mainly in the Spanish-speaking world. Yet there has been one product that is readily available, even in the United States. This is a new edition, handy but with detailed notes, sponsored by the Royal Academy of Spain. Even those whose Spanish is limited can profit from it. The new edition is widely available for $10-12. Truly devoted scholars will want to obtain the monumental 1998 edition on which this reading version is based. The short one is quite enough for most of us though.

Finally overcoming a logjam stemming from conflicting copyright claims, Princeton University Press is moving ahead with its publication of Einstein’s papers. An entertaining byproduct is The New Quotable Einstein (edited by Alice Colaprice), which contains some surprising opinions. For a succinct, accessible account of the achievements of Einstein’s annus mirabilis, see John S. Rigden, Einstein 1905 (Harvard University Press).

To be sure 2005 also marks the centennial of the birth of Jean-Paul Sartre. How about a triadic comparison? Well, t h a t would be beyond my powers.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Didn't Eistein acknowledge somewhere in his writings that reading Don Quijote had greatly influenced him?

7:42 AM  
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9:57 PM  

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