Reading, Madness, and Forgetting: A Wandering Thought on Don Quixote and Paul Celan


At the outset of a reflection on Don Quixote, Carlos Fuentes cites Michel Foucault’s claim that Don Quixote is a “symbol of the modern divorce between the word and object”(This I Believe: An A to Z of a Life, 203).   The subject of Quixote’s movement (pilgrimage) is the “search for similarities” and “Foucault observes how Don Quixote rapidly recruits the weakest analogies: for him, everything is a latent sign that must be awakened to speak and to demonstrate the identity of words and objects.” Despite the fact that there is a gap, there is still a task. Fuentes argues that the “orphan of the universe” must “achieve unity without sacrificing diversity” and “fill the abyss between words and things through the divorce between analogy and difference.” This, it seems, is an impossible task. But what captures Fuentes’ attention – and seems to offer the greatest modern resolution – is the thematic of movement and displacement (a theme that was of great interest to Franz Kafka as well). It is the main theme of Cervantes and the modern novel:

The modern novel, a perpetual invitation to leave oneself and see oneself and the world as unfinished problem, implies a kind of displacement similar to that of Don Quixote, although we may venture to say that no other novel – not even the most experimental – has been able to propose radical displacements as radical as those of Cervantes.

The “novel is the art of displacement.” It is a displacement of “genres” and “authorities.” But it is the recipients of the “verbal fact,” the readers, that grant the “novel an open destiny, forever unfinished.” The biggest displacement speaks to these readers. It is– which Walter Benjamin also points out in his essay “The Storyteller” – “from the normal residual tradition of oral, tavern oriented storytelling to the full Cervantine awareness that the novel is to be read by a reader and printed at a printing press.”

Don Quixote is a reader. He is “mad about books” and “transforms his reading into madness and, possessed by both, wishes to take things he reads about and turns them into reality.”   He sees “giants where there are windmills” and “armies where there are only sheep” because “the things he has read have told him to see them that way. His reading is his madness.” His authority is to be found in language, not reality. And, as readers, we share this madness. By simply reading, we displace and are displaced.

Although Cervantes, building on Foucault, sees this as a foray into modern uncertainty and equates it with a kind of wandering anxiety, it is also comical. Moreover, what Fuentes doesn’t note is the fact that readers only read modern novels because they desire displacement and movement.   We may be “orphans of the universe,” but we like to move.

However, what might be forgotten is the relationship between the word, the eye, movement, and authority. Although we may like to move, the reader needs to come to terms with the fact that one is led by the text. And where Don Quixote goes, we go as well. This displacement may not always be pleasant. What we need to do is reflect on the implications.

Paul Celan captures this sense of being led and displaced in a poem entitled “Below.” And he links it to a social exchange between the “slow eyes” (“langsamen Augen”) of the reader, the writer, and the poem (“Gast-Gesprach”). The poem tells us that, as a result of this (social) exchange of reading, we are “led home into oblivion” of “forgetfulness” (vergessen).


Led home into oblivion

the sociable talk of our slow eyes.


Led home, syllable after syllable, shared

out among the dayblind dice, for which

the playing hand reaches out, large,



And the too much of my speaking:

heaped up around the little

crystal dressed in the style of your silence.

This poem and its displacements evoke several questions. Is the poem written for all the eyes that see and all the mouths that speak? And whose hand throws the dice? Is it my reading? Or is it your writing?

To be sure, this poem may speaks to every social situation. Perhaps, when we listen or read, our “slow eyes” lead us “home into oblivion” or, better “forgetfulness” because we are displaced from our position.   Perhaps the “dayblind dice” are thrown whenever there is a reading or a conversation.

The forgetfulness (“vergessen”) we experience can be read in a comic sense as a kind of absent-mindedness.   But, on the other hand, it can be read in a tragic sense because it suggests that when we listen we are separate and are…not really communicating.   Perhaps Celan is suggesting that reading may be the problem.   This spurs a few questions: When we read or when we speak, how do we remember? If reading spurs us to be “led home to forgetfulness,” how do we leave home in order to remember?

Perhaps this is a problem shared with Don Quixote. If Quixote is constantly forgetting, by virtue of this or that displacement, what does he need and what does the reader need? Do we need to simply revel in this displacement of reality, this madness?

Kafka in his parable, “The Truth of Sancho Panza,” suggests that what Quixote forgot about was not reality; it was Sancho Panza.   In other words, the madness of reading may displace the friend. The irony is that this madness can only be confronted if we think about what happens when we read and why we would desire to read. Perhaps reading stages a battle with forgetfulness and the meaning of relation (or relationship)?  Regardless, displacement spurs forgetfulness and, at the same time, can prompt memory. It call also recall us, as Emmanuel Levinas might say, to the other.  (And, on this note, his reading of Don Quixote is similar to Kafka’s.)  The lesson: modern literature and poetry – whether by Cervantes, Kafka, or Celan – can touch on the experience of memory, displacement, and relation.

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