Don Quixote and Chaos Theory

I wrote this brief description of Spanish 4663: Don Quixote de la Mancha for my students at the end of the course (27 November 2007) as I wanted them to have a post-course road map and record of where we had been and of some of the intellectual sites and beauty spots we had visited en route. During the course we first invented, and then applied, Chaos Theory to our teaching. This was for me a delightful innovation, and some of the photos we took and memories we built are set out below. Note, however, that Chaos Theory is still under construction. What appears below is the first step in making the theory coherent.

We have been on a long journey together, a 1000 page journey. We have witnessed the lives of many new literary friends and it may well be that, like our characters, we now have some trouble distinguishing truth from fiction, illusion from reality, inns from castles (Fluffy from a normal dog), innocent men from galley slaves (Dumbledore from the Devil), wineskins from giants (a Norwegian Blue from Danish Blue), Plato’s Cave from the Cave of Montesinos (Platform 9 3/4s from the genuine Platform 10), and the world of reality from the world of the evil genius (Wycliffe College, for example, from Hogwarts School). However, hopefully, we are now able, in our own lives, to make these distinctions and to differentiate good from bad, life from death, the real world from the literary world, and genuine genius from the evil genius who sometimes tries to rule our lives.

Our journey has taken us – whether we remember them all, or not, -- through many literary, cultural, and social experiences and / or theories, among them phenomenology (the organization and study of textual facts), hermeneutics (the interpretation of such facts), the intentional fallacy, the pathetic fallacy, le roman à clef, the Italianate novel, the development of the short story in Spain, epic poetry ("también la épica puede escribirse en prosa", DQ, 1, 47), novels of chivalry, Courtly Love, The Religion of Love, various theories of dramatic unity, Classicism versus Romanticism, Renaissance and Baroque. We have also discussed many aspects of the text as object and the text as living creation, touching upon the structures of narrative, theatre, and poetry, while discussing, however briefly, the nature of cultismo and conceptismo and the function of language – correction, hyper-correction, archaisms, and neologisms, -- both in an oral and in a literary setting.

Other thoughts that have come to us in our journey have included the contrast between poetry and history, and between poetry and prose, the function and construction of metaphor, narrative voice(s), cultural, sociological, and literary history, religion (and especially the Protestantism and Catholicism of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation). We have dissected metaphor, metatheatre, and metareality; we have examined orality and literacy; we have opened our minds to real and fictitious heroes; we have studied meaning and double meaning, verbal and visual symbols, madness and sanity, dreams and illusions, in the context of Freud, Jung, and Adler; and this is only the tip of the iceberg, because we have accomplished more, so much more, for we have seen Cervantes’s text as a living creation in which ideas change as they are wrestled with, everything being as restless as the sea, nothing standing still, while thoughts are dimly grasped, then illuminated, then developed, worked and reworked, the tiny seed of creativity growing before our eyes swiftly into the tree of multiple knowledges.

We have done this in both a structured and an unstructured fashion. Structure and discipline have come from the necessity of reading 1000 pages in 12 weeks at a rate of two chapters a day, five days a week. This has been the backbone of the course: being ready to discuss as a result of reading accomplished and understood. Structure and discipline have also come from the necessity of writing regular position papers, with their analyses, commentaries and corrections, and with each position paper leading by slow steps – thinking, re-thinking, defining, structuring and sharpening arguments and examples, -- to the final academic paper, the result of fourteen weeks of reading, discussion, and research.

However, we have at no stage thrown a grid over the text and ticked little boxes marked “a Marxist interpretation of Don Quixote – now let’s talk about Marxism and then apply it to Cervantes” or “a feminist interpretation of Cervantes’s works – now let’s study feminism and then apply it to Don Quixote.” In fact, instead of using what I would describe as a top down theory, first understand the critical method and then examine the text, we have used a bottom up theory in which the text has taken precedence. As we have read the text, questions have arisen, at first set by me, as leader, then gradually put forward by you, the students, initially as followers, and then gradually and almost imperceptibly, by yourselves as leaders.

Towards the end of the course, when I played the role of the evil genius who deceives, I announced that I had been unable to complete my readings for that week. Everybody was understanding and nobody complained. First one of you, then two of you stepped forward, and before you all realized what was happening, half the class was leading the other half of the class and the discussion was as ripe and as fruitful as always. In fact, you were a joy to behold, and one or two of you even asked me, the silent teacher, if I had an opinion on one or two of the ideas that the text was generating for you. Oh the joys of metatheatre! But the point was made: in the course of the course, you had become independent learners who had full confidence in themselves and who were, whether you realized it or not, capable of being totally independent of me. I hope you remember that class and that experience and carry it forward into the rest of your lives.

I called the teaching theory that we were using Chaos Theory. It is probably more recognizable as the Theory of the Teachable Moment. In normal teaching, the teacher describes the theory and shows how it must be applied to the text (top down, usually). In Chaos Theory, or the Teachable Moment, the text generates both questions and theory (bottom up) and it is the job of the teacher to sharpen the questions and guide the students (I would rather think of you as seekers or searchers than as students!) in the direction they are already moving. The Teachable Moment, then, occurs (and re-occurs) for each one of you at different moments in time. It is important to recognize this because in the Teachable Moment Theory, your questions are answered (a) when you ask them and (b) when you are ready to ask them. In other words, both Chaos Theory and the Teachable Moment Theory are controlled by you as students and seekers, rather than by me as teacher.

To a certain extent, this seems parallel to the Socratic Method. However, in the traditional Socratic Method, there is usually a single or singular truth which the seeker receives as enlightenment or revelation from the chosen one who has already grasped that truth and is now ready to reveal it to the few who are now ready to receive that truth and who thus become "also-chosen". In Chaos Theory, on the other hand, there are, as we have seen, multiple truths, and multiple responses. In Chaos Theory there are no chosen ones, nor are there chosen-ones-in-waiting so to speak, and this too ties into Reception Theory and Reader Response Theory.

Quite simply, we do not all need to see the same thing in the same way. Nor do we have to decide whether it's a bacía or a yelmo when really, it's neither: it’s a baciyelmo! The neologism (the new word, baciyelmo, invented by Cervantes), refers to the duality of objects, not to their singularity, nor to the existence of a distant (Neo) Platonic ideal that we have only to glimpse, just to change our lives forever. For, as Don Quixote himself writes: “amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas / Plato is a good friend, but a better friend is the truth” (DQ, II, 51), an adage which seems to challenge the authority of Plato, who is not always right, for our universe is, after all, heliocentric and not terracentric. This adage is, incidentally, borrowed from those of Erasmus, whose work was banned in Spain by the censors of the Spanish Inquisition.

In addition, we have to remember that not all caves are the same, for it's dark in Montesinos' Cave (DQ, II, 22-23), and even darker in Sancho’s honda y escurísima sima (DQ, II, 55) in both of which time does funny things, the brain invents and imagines more than it remembers, and early dreams turn often into later nightmares. And no, our world is not a perfect one, nor is it a simple one, composed of blacks and whites; rather ours is a complex, complicated world, with multiple shades of scarcely distinguishable grey, and moreover, it's getting dark as we view it, and perhaps we have mislaid our glasses.

All of this, of course, attacks in principle the static world view, supported by the church, amongst others, at the time of Cervantes: one object, one name, one function, one ideal, and all of this brought to you through the mediation of the village priest, of the barber, of Sansón Carrasco, of Socrates, of Plato, of the teachers of singularity. These constant attacks on the singularity of meaning and, by extension, on the roots of authority, make Don Quixote a very dangerous book. Why is Don Quixote dangerous? He (the man) and it (the book) are dangerous because they challenge authority. That is why Don Quixote must be mad when he sets out on his adventures and must become sane, and hence repent his folly on his deathbed where he must bow to that authority; for in the world of the Spanish Inquisition, authority cannot be challenged, even by a madman, and the challenge go unpunished.

And now the course is over and you must leave the classroom and return to real life. But be very careful as you look around you: there are windmills and giants everywhere and some inns are indeed castles while other castles are simply inns in disguise. Appearances do indeed deceive: some things, like the Windmills, can have a dual function, for, as the characters observe in Cyrano de Bergerac: "Les moulins de vent avec leurs grands bras de toile, ou vous jèttent dans la boue ..." "... ou vous lancent aux étoiles."

As faithful followers of the noble knight it is now your task to pick up the torch that he has lit, to get -- like Graham Greene's Monsignor Quixote -- into your motorised Rocinantes, and to charge courageously into the dark, filled with hope and with whatever faith you wish, but meaningfully prepared for whatever challenges are waiting there for you. It only remains for me to say, in closure, that I hope you have enjoyed, as much as I have, the journey we have undertaken together. And now I must again thank you for sharing this journey with me and for allowing me to share this journey with you. I will end with some words, slightly changed, from Cervantes: "Puesto ya el pie en el estribo, con las ansias de la navidad a cuestas, estos renglones os escribo." Your well being -- the well being of each and every one of you -- will ever be in my thoughts.

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