Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

One idea about Don Quijote being the first novel

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I often write and think about the part of our human identity is the flesh-and-blood animal and its various systems, and part is the stored accumulation of patterns based on human-created culture: the part of the human that works with memes and, to some extent, is one. For example, finding a cultural difference to be an enormous barrier to love and marriage, for example: every part of that is culture-dependent and a cultural construct. Indeed, the plots of many stories must change in translating it from one culture to another.

And in mulling over Don Quijote, as one does, it struck me that Cervantes was the first author to write specifically about these culturally based personae as separable from the flesh and blood self. For example, the novel is replete with examples of discussion of the level of the roles—Don Quijote insanely pretending to be insane: the very pretense proves the insanity, since he is mimicking a hero’s behavior from a published fiction: one of the romances of chivalry that drove him mad. (Don Quijote is a book about books.)

Not that Cervantes knew memes explicitly, but he clearly understood the separate natures of the physical object on the one hand and its cultural meaning on the other. Thus Don Juan sees a common brass barber’s basin as the Helmet of Mambrino—and in so doing, Don Quijote peels off the cultural meme of the Helmet of Mambrino, which has a cultural meaning distinct from the physical object—as does the Hope Diamond. The Hope Diamond is not just a large diamond, it is also the cultural layer: the backstory (which is part of our culture and obviously consists of memes, since it is repeated). And, of course the Helmet of Mabrino, like the unicorn, exists only at the cultural level, which means there’s no problem in attaching it to that particular physical object. It’s not like they’re going to run into a real Helmet of Mambrino: it’s from a work of fiction. There is no real one—until Don Quijote made one.

This play with the cultural levels and means—and even, in the Second Part, encountering people who had read the first part and thus knew about him and his madness: celebrity stuff, definitely a cultural construct.

I think writing about the cultural vs. physical layers of human reality quite clearly and consciously was a first. Human reality is a reality that includes (say) unicorns—as cultural constructs. Unicorns obviously exist in the culture at large: I write the word, you picture the animal and know that it has a cultural existence (encountered cultural creations such as stories, songs, statuettes, videos, etc.) but no physical existence. Though unicorns are common in culture, they’re non-existent in the physical world. What’s strange is that there are similar cultural creations that are attached to a physical object, either generally (all cows, for example) or specifically (the Hope Diamond, for example), and that the human part of us is one such creation, one that is constantly modified—but then I suppose that’s true for all cultural creations.

And I think Cervantes saw that and wrote about it in Don Quijote.

UPDATE: The physical world can affect the cultural world, of course: sacred groves and other ritually significant spots: Lourdes, to use a modern example. And obviously the cultural world can affect the physical world: one immediately thinks of Stonehenge and St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Notre Dame, but any building serves equally well to demonstrate the physical effect of a cultural cause. Indeed, it’s not only the external world that’s changed, but our bodies as well: the string player’s calluses, the hippocampus of taxi drivers: as the drivers learn more routes, their brain changes (because its structures are shaped by patterns: thus we learn skills). Of course, the driver is remembering something of the physical world (routes). I wonder whether one living strictly in the cultural world would be physically changed.  Certainly Don Quijote lived in the fictional novels of chivalry, and he went mad. I assume one must maintain a closer connection to the physical world rather than relying too heavily on the cultural world.

UPDATE: The ideas about meme and culture are discussed in greater detail in The Selfish Meme: A Critical Reassessment, by Kate Distin (Cambridge University Press). It seem to me that our human identity as a participant in human culture is simply an ever-changing collection of memes. We pick them up with modifications (from transmission errors and social noise) and we are, in terms of human culture, the patterns of those memes we’ve acquired. Our selves, like any forest, is in a constant state of change, things dying away, new things coming forth, and shaped by interactions with others, either in person or mediated by languages, things, environments we create, and so on.

Written by Leisureguy

26 May 2014 at 7:24 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life

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