Anyway, this is not about Don Quixote, it is about Harold Bloom’s introduction to the Grossman translation.
(Bloom plays the role in American culture today that Clifton Fadiman played when I was coming of age, and Louis Untermeyer played in my parents’ generation, that of liaison between the middle-brow domestic intellectual, such as myself, and high-toned academia.)
Here is how Bloom begins his introduction:
What is the true object of Don Quixote's quest? I find that unanswerable. What are Hamlet's authentic motives? We are not permitted to know. Since Cervantes's magnificent Knight's quest has cosmological scope and reverberation, no object seems beyond reach. Hamlet's frustration is that he is allowed only Elsinore and revenge tragedy. Shakespeare composed a poem unlimited, in which only the protagonist is beyond all limits.
I won’t quibble about what Hamlet’s frustration is or what the meaning of that last sentence is. Bloom’s equating of Don Quixote and Hamlet – which he maintains throughout his Introduction – from the get-go seemed to me nonsensical. Then, near the end of his essay, Bloom caught me up short: “Mark Van Doren, in a very useful study, Don Quixote’s Profession, is haunted by the analogues between the Knight and Hamlet, which to me seem inevitable.”
Really? I was surprised. I’ve always admired Mark Van Doren for combining sharp intelligence with straightforward Yankee clear thinking. I was so curious about what analogies between Quixote and Hamlet haunted Mark Van Doren that I jumped through a number of complicated on-line hoops to load Van Doren’s 99-page essay onto my computer screen.
As it turns out, Van Doren mentions Hamlet only three times in the entire piece, all within the first ten pages. (The search function that accompanied the on-line text was working just fine. I checked it by entering a number of search terms which I knew would bring up dozens of hits in Van Doren’s essay.) The only references to Hamlet in Van Doren’s study of Don Quixote are:
1) On a remark of Don Quixote’s, that he has a clear image in his mind of Amadis of Gaul, Van Doren comments, “We may have said the same thing about Hamlet, Falstaff, Achilles, Odysseus, Squire Western, and Pickwick.”
2) Pondering to what degree Don Quixote’s conscious assumption of the persona of a knight errant becomes innate, unconscious, Van Doren draws an analogy with Hamlet: “It is something like the question we ask about Hamlet: having decided to put on an ‘antic disposition’ in order to deceive or reassure others, did he end by becoming infected with the germ of madness thus nursed in his imagination?” (The italics are mine.)
3) On Don Quixote’s remark that plays are “looking-glasses that reflect a lively representation of human life,” Van Doren writes: “This can remind us of Hamlet, his contemporary, who spoke of a mirror held up to nature, who had a weakness for theatricals, who himself is the best actor in his play, and who may or may not have been mad.”
On the basis only of these three sentences, Bloom has the chutzpah to tell us that in Don Quixote’s Profession, Mark Van Doren is “haunted by the analogues between the Knight and Hamlet.”
Or might Harold Bloom be delusional?
Here is an analogy for you: Don Quixote and Harold Bloom.
From three innocuous references to Hamlet, Bloom conjures up a Mark Van Doren “haunted” by “analogues” between Quixote and Hamlet. Is this error in critical thinking very different from Don Quixote’s imagining that a barber using a basin to protect his head from the rain is a knight wearing a mythical golden helmet?
Don Quixote, sitting in his library, surrounded by hundreds of books of chivalric romances, imagines himself a knight errant. Harold Bloom, sitting in his library, surrounded by hundreds of books of deep literary criticism, probably including the last forty years of Partisan Review, imagines himself one of the band of adventurous critics of the mid-20th century, whose practice of close reading can be compared to the rigors of knight errancy, whose faith in psychiatry can be compared to the knights' errant religious faith, and whose devotion to the idea of a special meaningful weltschmerz unique to art can be compared to knights' errant devotion to the chivalric code.
In the fifteen pages of his Introduction, Bloom manages to drop the names of Auden, Auerbach, Balzac, Chaucer, Dante, Dickens, Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Fielding, Flaubert, Goethe, Glenn Gould, Homer, Henry James, Samuel Johnson, Ben Jonson, Joyce, Kafka, G. Wilson Knight, Kyd, La Rochefoucauld, Harry Levin, Thomas Mann, Marlowe, Melville, Merwin, Nabokov, Nietzsche, Ortega y Gasset, Pascal, Proust, Shakespeare, Stendhal, Sterne, Swift, Tolstoy, Twain, Unamuno, Mark Van Doren, and Virgil.
Just as Don Quixote, before each of his misguided adventures, justifies his delusion by calling to mind a particular story from the annals of chivalry, Bloom justifies his pronunciamentos by intoning the name of a critical or cultural icon. For example:
Ortega y Gasset remarks of Don Quixote: "Such a life is a perpetual suffering," which holds also for Hamlet's existence. Though Hamlet tends to accuse himself of cowardice, he is as courageous, metaphysically and in action, as Don Quixote: they compete as literary instances of moral valor.
Ortega’s remark has nothing to do with Hamlet. Ortega’s name is invoked simply to provide an aura of intellectual profundity to Bloom’s peculiar judgement that Hamlet is as “metaphysically” and actively courageous as Quixote. Does Bloom really think Hamlet is an example of moral valor? Bloom presents no evidence for this premise. If Hamlet had murdered Claudius straight away, that might be considered an act of moral valor. So might have been a decision on Hamlet’s part to quell his grief and anger and, for his mother’s sake, accept the situation as it is. I cannot imagine any way that five acts of anxious dithering can be considered morally valorous. If Hamlet exhibits any valor, as he stumbles through his nightmare of indecision, it is in the tenacity with which he upholds his Montaigne-like skepticism. (My dropping the name of Montaigne serves the same purpose as Bloom’s dropping the name of Ortega: to give weight to a dubious thesis.)
There is one name which Bloom does not drop in his Introduction to Don Quixote: King Arthur. Nor does he mention either of the best known (at least to Anglophones) of the early authors of Arthurian romances, Malory and Chrétien de Troyes. (Bloom mentions Merlin, once, because Don Quixote mentions him, but without context.)
Bloom’s essay is intended as an introduction to a new English translation of Don Quixote. Shouldn’t the book’s readers be told that Cervantes’ underlying premise is that his hero has been overly influenced by the legends of chivalry? Perhaps Bloom takes it for granted that most readers already know this. Then, with his literary expertise – his wide reading and his insights into the pertinent nuggets available through informed Googling – he could have enriched the reader’s experience of this long and somewhat difficult work. Instead, all Bloom does is show off.
The names of King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Gawain, Merlin, et. al. surely are more familiar to Bloom’s intended audience than Auerbach, La Rochefoucauld and Harry Levin. A precis of the legendary world of the Round Table, a survey of the less familiar fictions of Ariosto, Tasso and their imitators, and the effect of these romances on a susceptible imagination in the real world of 16th century Spain, would have given the everyday, middle-brow reader some insight into Don Quixote – more, certainly, than does a scattershot exposition on supposed similarities between Quixote and Hamlet, a discussion about whether Auden is right or wrong in calling Don Quixote “a portrait of the Christian saint,” and a peroration based on Kafka’s Kafkaesque insight that Sancho Panza is Don Quixote's true hero.