Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Das Narrenschiff, Don Quixote and Foucault

Das Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools) was written by Sebastian Brant and published in 1494. Using Wikipedia: “Under the form of an allegory, a ship laden with fools and steered by fools goes to the fools’ paradise of Narragonia. Brant here lashes with unsparing vigour the weaknesses and vices of his time. Here he conceives Saint Grobian, whom he imagines to be the patron saint of vulgar and coarse people.

“The concept of foolishness was a frequently used trope in the pre-Reformation period to legitimate criticism, as also used by Erasmus in his In Praise of Folly and Martin Luther in his Address to the Christian Nobility. Court fools were allowed to say much what they wanted; by writing his work in the voice of the fool, Brant could legitimize his criticism of the church.”

Foucault writes, “The first canto of Brant’s poem is devoted to books and scholars; and in the engraving which illustrates this passage in the Latin edition of 1497, we see enthroned upon his bristling cathedra of books the Magister who wears behind his doctoral cap a fool’s cap sewn with bells. Erasmus, in his dance of fools, reserves a large place for scholars; after the Grammarians, the Poets, Rhetoricians and Writers, come the Jurists; after them, the ‘Philosophers respectable in beard and mantle’; finally the numberless troop of the Theologians. But if knowledge is so important in madness, it is not because the latter can control the secrets of knowledge; on the contrary, madness is the punishment of a disorderly and useless science. If madness is the truth of knowledge, it is because knowledge is absurd, and instead of addressing itself to the great book of experience, loses its way I the dust of books and in idle debate; learning becomes madness through the very excess of false learning.”

Foucault’s emphasis might be questioned at this point. Brant does indeed have a standard against which he judges 110 different kinds of fools, but is it “the great book of experience”? To quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia, “The election of Maximilian as emperor had filled him and many other patriots with high hope. To see in the emperor the supreme temporal ruler of Christian nations, and the Church as the supreme spiritual ruler on earth was his one great desire and henceforth coloured all his poems. Especially did he hope for the restoration of imperial power in Germany and the strengthening of the realm. But he was doomed to disappointment. In 1499 Basle was separated from the empire and became a member of the Swiss confederacy. Brant's position here now became untenable, and he decided to change his residence. . . . Not only follies in the usual sense of the word are satirized, but also crimes and vices, which are conceived of as follies in accordance with the medieval way of thinking. Hence among the fools appear such people as usurers, gamblers, and adulterers. A chapter is devoted to each kind of folly and there are one hundred and twelve chapters in which one hundred and ten kinds of fools pass muster. As a work of art the poem does not rank high, though its tone is serious and earnest, especially where the poet pleads for his ideals, as in chapter xcix, entitled "Von abgang des glouben" (on the decline of faith). Knowledge of self is praised as the height of wisdom.”

The 11th ed of the Encyclopedia Britannica says “Although, like most of the German humanists, essentially conservative in his religious views, Brant’s eyes were open to the abuses in the church, and the Narrenschiff was a most effective preparation for the Protestant Reformation.”

Foucault then turns to Don Quixote: The chimeras are transmitted from author to reader, but what was fantasy on one side becomes hallucination on the other; the writer’s stratagem is quite naively accepted as an image of reality. In appearance, this is nothing but the simple-minded critique of novels of fantasy, but just under the surface lies an enormous anxiety concerning the relationships, in a work of art, between the real and the imaginary, and perhaps also concerning the confused communication between fantastic invention and the fascinations of delirium. ‘We owe the invention of the arts to deranged imaginations; the Caprice of Painters, Poets, and Musicians is only a name moderated in civility to express their Madness.’ Madness, in which the values of another age, another art, another morality are called into question, but which also reflects – blurred and disturbed, strangely compromised by one another in a common chimera – all the forms, even the most remote, of the human imagination.”

For Don Quixote “Poor, he is rich; ugly, he admires himself; with chains still on his feet, he takes himself for God. . . Measureless madness, which has as many faces as the world has characters, ambitions, and necessary illusions. Even in its extremities, this is the least extreme of madnesses; it is, in the heart of every man, the imaginary relation he maintains with himself. It engenders the commonest of his faults. To denounce it is the first and last element of all moral criticism.”

“Denounce” may be what we ought to do when we soul-search, but it seems too strong a word for what Cervantes did. He loved Don Quixote and didn’t denounce him. The reader sees the hallucination but enjoys it. We can take the tilting at windmills as criticism as Foucault does, or we can take it as a noble calling. Let us go out and do what we believe is right even if the whole world calls it wrong. Surely if we believe we are tilting at enemies or errors we would not denounce ourselves. Don Quixote didn’t.

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