Poetry News

Cervantes, Colbert, Truthiness & Irony All Walk into a Room

By Harriet Staff


In a new piece for The Stone, "a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless" that exists on The New York Times' Opinionator page, literary theorist William Egginton reflects on "‘Quixote,’ Colbert and the Reality of Fiction." Essentially, Egginton is responding to a previous post from Alex Rosenberg, where it was at some point posited that science is our most trustworthy route to knowledge, particularly as opposed to literary theory, which is, according to Rosenberg, like fiction: "...literary theory can be 'fun,' but neither one qualifies as "knowledge.'"

To which Egginton responds: "Are we not giving the Bard and others short shrift when we treat their work merely as entertainment? Does their fictional art not offer insights into human nature as illuminating as many of those the physical sciences have produced?"

He then brings to the fore one Miguel de Cervantes, "who shaped our world as well, and did so in ways that may not be apparent even to those aware of his enormous literary influence." Egginton looks carefully at Cervantes and fiction itself, the truth of which, he relays, is discovered through our good ole suspension of disbelief (or "poetic faith"). But moreover:

Cervantes multiplies levels of authorship and readership from the first lines of his masterpiece [Don Quixote]. The front matter of his book is packed with poems of praise ridiculing the practice of packing books with poems of praise; the author’s place of authority is also quickly undermined, as the narrator claims the book to be the work of an Arab historian that he had translated by a market scribe.

In all cases Cervantes is playing with the previously established conventions of storytelling, and then incorporating that play into his work. The result is a world that mirrors our own, because it includes in its purview our representations of the world and how we judge them. His novel becomes a mise en abyme, with representations of representations of representations, creating characters whose blindness as to the perspectives of those around them becomes the central source of drama and laughter.

Egginton makes his way through readerly conceptions of reality and their relationship to characters' natural perceptions, Descartes' Meditations and how, in the late 1630s, the "rigorous distinction between how things appear to me and how they are independent of my perspective entered the philosophical lexicon," and eventually, politics, which is where Stephen Colbert comes in! Always "fun."

In an interview published in The New York Times Magazine in 2004, Ron Suskind quoted an aide to then-president George W. Bush who mocked him and other journalists for their allegiance to “the reality-based community.” The administration’s apparent nonchalance about truth, along with its skill at using the media to influence the public’s perception of world events, inspired the comedian Stephen Colbert to arm his right-wing alter-ego with lexical zingers like “truthiness” (“the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true”) and that non plus ultra for all political debate, “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” When Colbert pushed his act to its extreme, roasting Mr. Bush and the Washington press corps in their presence, he was borrowing from Cervantes’ repertoire to cross swords on a battlefield at least in part of Cervantes’ making. The battle was over reality, and whose version of it would hold sway; the weapon was the irony that only fiction supports.

The pretty brilliant connectives just keep on, with a specific emphasis on irony "expertly wielded." Read the whole thing here.


Originally Published: September 28th, 2011