As the year ends and I prepare to take a long vacation in Los Angeles, a veritable cornucopia of factors contributed to the incomplete state of “Framing, pt. 2,” the continuation of my last column. So, expect that on the 30th of the month and for now I give you the transcript of a lecture I recently gave (following Bryce Dwyer, another B@S columnist) this past Wednesday at The (New) Corpse Space here in Chicago. One of my favorite spaces in Chicago, it is also home to my friend and fellow Bad At Sports contributor, Caroline Picard. Have some swell holidays, and without further ado…
I want to tell you about my favorite preface, the preface to El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de La Mancha, published with the first edition of its first book in 1605. It begins with Miguel de Cervantes, recently liberated from a five-year stint as a prisoner and slave in Algeria, paralyzed by his own inability to supply his book with a preface. By the time he’s established this premise, the first page of the preface is over, so, in spite of his histrionics, he’s actually doing pretty well. Soon, he’s visited by a friend who he describes as being “a pleasant gentleman, and of very good understanding. This friend, who, upon seeing our author in a state so pensive, inquires as to the cause of his musing. Cervantes responds by briefly describing the state of literature and book-hood at the beginning of the 17th century and expresses his own feelings of inadequacy as a participant therein. He claims to be “so much at a stand” about this preface, that he may simply make, and I quote, “none at all, nor publish the achievements of that noble knight.” His lament continues:
“I have nothing to quote in the margin, nor to make notes on at the end; nor do I know what authors I have followed in it, to put them at the beginning, as all others do, by the letters A,B,C, beginning with Aristotle and ending with Xenophon, Zoilus, or Zeuxis…My book will also want sonnets at the beginning, at least such sonnets whose authors are dukes, marquesses, earls, bishops, ladies, or celebrated poets.”
“In short, it is resolved that Senor Don Quixote remain buried in the records of La Mancha, until heaven sends someone to supply him with such ornaments as he wants; for I find myself incapable of helping him, through my own insufficiency and want of learning; and because I am naturally too idle and lazy to say what I can say without them.”
By this point, he’s two pages into a preface which is only five-and-a-half pages long, so you can sort of see where this is going. The anonymous friend laughs, slaps his forehead, and offers to, as Cervantes describes, “fill up the vacuity made by my fear and reduce the chaos of my confusion to clearness.”
If he can, in fact, “say what he wants to say without them,” the inclusion of these textual ornaments certainly needn’t be any source of incapacitating stress. “Concerning the sonnets, epigrams, and eulogies,” his friend says, the author ought to just write them himself and attribute them to figures so obscure, that “pedants” and “bachelors,” should they “backbite” him for it, will have no way to prove or disprove authorship. For the margins of the book, he suggests that really any Latin quote will do, given the language’s inherent and time honored gravitas, and that as a result, he says, “people will take you for a great grammarian, which is a matter of no small honour and advantage these days.”
“Then,” he continues, “to show yourself a great humanist, and skilled in cosmography,” and most importantly to get in some foot and end-notes, Cervantes ought to just surrender any act of naming within the book to work already done for him, scattered infinitely throughout history and literature. That is to say, if he is to have a giant, name it Goliath and add a footnote reading: “The giant Golias, or Goliat, was a Philistine, whom the shepherd David slew with a great blow of a stone from a sling, in the valley of Terebinthus, as it is related in the book of Kings, in the chapter wherein you shall find it.” Furthermore, if Cervantes intends to have a river, name it Tagus, a cruel woman, Medea, and if, his friend says, “enchanters and witches are your subject, Homer has a Calypso, and Virgil a Circe.” So invested is this friend, in fact, that he claims “there is no more to be done but naming these names, or hinting these stories in your book, and let me alone to settle the annotations and quotations; for I will warrant to fill the margins for you, and enrich the end of your book with half a dozen leaves into the bargain.” What a bargain, indeed!
Finally, with regard to Cervantes’s index or bibliography or, as his friend describes, “the catalogue of authors set down in other books, that is wanting in yours,” he needs only to find a book that has all of them – authors that is – and copy the list into the back of his own. “But though it served for nothing else,” he says, “that long catalogue of authors will, however, at the first blush, give some authority to the book. And who will go about to disprove, whether you followed them or no, seeing they can get nothing by it?”
Cervantes’ friend concludes that not only is the type of novel Cervantes has written of the sort that “Aristotle never dreamed of, Saint Basil never mentioned, nor Cicero ever heard of,” but additionally has nothing to do with astronomy, geometry, rhetorical arguments of logic, preaching, or any other discursive flourishes often found within the works of his contemporaries. Cervantes is of course totally blown away, thanks his friend profusely, and, all of a sudden the preface is over and the novel begins. Very convenient.
So, what or why is a preface and who is it for, what does it do? There are, I think, far too many answers, even within the preface I just described. One of the main things I think a preface, afterword, or index does, especially within Don Quixote is delineate. Within Cervantes’s novel, usually cited as the penultimate pícaro or picaresque, these formal ornaments become a pragmatic convenience, defining the edges of a wandering that might otherwise go on forever. Cervantes expresses as much in a description of Quixote as “quieting his mind [and] following no other road than what his horse pleased to take, believing that therein consisted the life and spirit of adventures.” Our own interface with this wandering is in part enabled by these exterior pragmatics, allowing us a point of entry, corralling the flâneur within the phase-space so that we may join him.
What Cervantes seems to be arguing for, however, is that a preface, and other formal ornaments of literature, constitute a sort of structural etiquette, certainly more so in his day than ours, though I can’t remember the last time I read an academic text without at very least an introduction. These structures of etiquette, these signifiers Cervantes has deemed empty and taken it upon himself to repopulate with his own hilarious jokes, are by no means always superfluous or always empty or even always merely etiquette, as proven by both the revelatory quality of his own preface and the wonderful parodic sonnets which close the book. In many ways, Cervantes’ preface is an argument against the empty signifier or the notion that any thing can be purely formal, purely structural, or purely ornamental. By dismissing their popular or polite uses, Cervantes identifies these trappings as containing potential. Although he mocks them, he is nonetheless still using them to serve his own purposes. By inserting his own polemic into the text, he latches his own agency to the wild persistence of meaning, a creature whose craftiness and hysterical insistence guarantees occupation wherever an entryway is left unguarded.
Structures of etiquette like these are usually only guarded by word and ritual, and our own power as forces of variability is, in even its most quantum instance, enough to break or at least restructure the contract. Take for example, Vladimir Propp, the Russian literary critic, who, in his 1928 book Morphology of The Folktale defined narrative as a structure of containment for the occupation of variable. The way in which he plugs variation into the 31 functions that make-up his narrative model may seem, at first glance, reductive or even oppressive, but the ways in which the narrative as a total-object is affected actually by the different combination, expansion, and contraction of these variables attests to the plasticity of the formal signifier and its potential as a medium in itself.
For Cervantes, who saw the unguarded structural etiquette of literary ornament as overflowing with Classicism for Classicism’s sake – a fitting partner for its decorative airs of erudition – the references which acted as the variables filling these formal structures were invoked by him with almost complete disregard, sarcastically co-opted to prove his own points and to play with the notions of the grave inheritance that they and their containers implicate. And yet, the use of these references is not, by any means, totally disrespectful. It’s much harder to make a joke about a subject you’re unfamiliar with, and through the voice of his friend in the preface, Cervantes establishes his own critical erudition while simultaneously poking fun at the authorial desire to flaunt that sort of knowledge. I guess in that way, it’s kind of like a Friar’s Club Roast and, actually, is even more like “Bohemian Rahpsody,” Queen’s multi-platinum 1975 single from A Night At The Opera, and, the UK’s third best selling single of all time. (After Elton John’s 1997 version of “Candle in The Wind” and that Band Aid song, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”)
“Bohemian Rhapsody” occupies a fairly straightforward symphonic structure. It adheres to the recognizable and vaguely narrative progression of classical sonata principles in favor of the traditional verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus-coda principle, which defines much of popular music and that Queen themselves were no strangers to. In the manner of the Friar’s Club and Cervantes, Freddie Mercury, an unabashed disciple of classical affect, appropriates the severity and bombast of structural symphonism for its use as a container, occupying and organically restructuring its hallowed and reverberant halls with the pummel of a group I think are the 1970’s most underrated metal band. (As a brief aside, I’d like to point out that it’s no coincidence Brian May, Professor of astrophysics at Liverpool John Moores University and also Queen’s guitarist, has had as one of his longest and best friends, Tony Iommi, guitarist for Black Sabbath.)
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” which, as most people on earth these days know, begins with a lilting acoustic piano and a harmony of infinitely multitracked voices lamenting the mysteries of life’s reality in a tense B-flat. Soon we’re whisked away by John Deacon’s bass, shuffled along by Roger Taylor’s drums and Mercury relays to us, his mama, the story of his putting a gun to the head of a man, his subsequent pulling of the trigger, therein killing said man. Next, we’re carried by May’s absolutely impeccable guitar solo and find ourselves, all of a sudden dropped in the sparse middle of the symphony, and perhaps what is its most ubiquitous movement; the operatic, or, Galileo Scaramouche part. It is here where we see most clearly the sort of structural playfulness and its relationship to classicism as Cervantes establishes through his own literary ornaments.
When Mercury asks 17th century Italian clown Scaramouche if he can do the fandango, we can consider this question rhetorical. Similarly, the invocations of Galileo, and Figaro, the barber of Seville, would seem to have little ability to actually participate in the world of killing a man with a gun or the world of shredding guitar solos. Nevertheless, our captive narrator summons them with shouts of “Bismillah,” an Arabic prayer invocation, no doubt picked up during Mercury’s days as a Zanzabari youth living in India and going by the name Farokh Bulsara. The band, treating the song and its structure like one of Propp’s open narrative models, play with a classical structure in resonance with a classical variable-subject by using names that sound right and make sense according to their structural context, detaching those references from their original conditions, and engendering an even more dramatic variability by way of their operatic cohabitation. In short, and once again, the repopulation of the classical signifier left empty. And, like Cervantes, it feels both critical and celebratory.
For the most part, these structural fixtures live at the edges of a text, defining our ability to perceive these edges and interface with them, adjusting and decorating their home-text’s larger meanings. Whether pragmatic or subversive, there is, implicit in their inclusion and variation, a potential for flux affecting the total object of the text, a game of pick-up sticks viewed in reverse, each stick put down affecting the fundamental structure of the whole. It is in this sense that any engagement with these structures is best done intentionally and with no small amount of celebration, because formal beauty is worth celebrating. I should hope that no one became a writer, artist, or mustachio’d rock and roll singer to adhere to obligations and to acquiesce to the polite etiquette of others, regardless of any inspiration this etiquette might have supplied. As Propp accidentally illuminated, even the most rigorous formal structures are only structures of tenuous meaning and their most monolithic shadows cast are still only shadows. And, though this meaning has the potential to grow huge and unwieldy, giving the illusion of rigidity or inaccessibility, we can be like Cervantes, Queen, or Paul Muad’Dib from Frank Herbert’s Dune, latching our grappling hook into the pockmarked shell of meaning’s lumbering sandworm and directing it towards a point of our own choosing. As Freddie Mercury says, or rather sings quite succinctly in the polite formal bookend to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” (and maybe we can even imagine it’s in reference to his own intrastructural agency)…
If I can to ask you to sing along with me:
Nothing really matters, anyone can see…
Nothing really matters…
Nothing really matters…