Esther’s Space- journey through my life

February 25, 2008

The Quixotic Quest of the Writer

Filed under: ENG 597: Literature in the Information Age — estherspace @ 8:40 am

While many critics compare writing to a quixotic quest, both Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Richard Powers have explicitly drawn the connections between the the text and concepts of Don Quixote and the role or position of the novelist.

In the Introduction to her book, The Anxiety of Obsolescence, Fitpatrick writes:

The book and its main champion, the writer, are repeatedly represented as latter-day Quixotes, tilting at the windmills of mind-numbing, dehumanizing, overpoweringly visual forms of entertainment and communication. (“Introduction” can be accessed here)

And later, in Chapter 1, she makes a comparison between modern novelists and the quixotic ambition, specifically a Don Delillo novel, saying:

We follow Gray on his delirious reenactment of the Quixotic quest, stepping into the light of day in a world he has not lived in for thirty years, attempting to save a political prisoner, and the connections in our minds are almost laughably absurd: Thomas Pynchon riding to the rescue of Salman Rushdie. But ridiculous as this quest may sound, translated into the terms of our own literary figures, it appears to be the only way for Gray, and thus for the novelist as novelist, to reassert his own preeminence in the age of television. (from”The Postmodern Writer,” which can be accessed here)

Both statements allude to the enormous task novelists face in their attempts to fight against the windmills of revolutionary technology and new forms of media. And, Don Quixote is a universally loved literary character, with numerous other characters being modeled after him. What is not addressed, but must be brought into the discussion, is the fact that after his delirious chivalric quest, Don Quixote is returned home, melancholicly sane, to die unhappy.

Fitzpatrick is suggesting that, despite the almost certain failure, the only way that novelists can advocate for their culturally valuable position as novelists is by engaging in a written battle with those giants/windmills that are new media. In Galatea 2.2, Richard Powers (character and author) is involved in such an engagement.

In a world where educated individuals ask, “who is this Milton fellow to me, anyway?” (45), and “science looked a lot like literary criticism, from across the room” (38), there is still engagement with Don Quixote.  But, even Powers, a man well-versed in the particulars of an English literature education, is thrown by Don Quixote:

Diana pulled out her Portable Cervantes and read aloud the random sentence that fell under her bookmark.  An illustration of the futility that this abrasive man and I were about to embark on.  I can’t remember the sentence.  Out of context, I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. (Powers 48)

Through using comparisons such as the act of reading Don Quixote and Lentz’s nickname for Powers, Marcel, perhaps referring to Marcel Proust, Richard Powers the author begins to reveal his absolute terror at his loss of cultural value as a novelist.  When he compares the humanities department to the science Center, the differences become clear.

However, at the end of the novel, through a series of backflips and other gymnastic endeavors, Powers (the author and the character) seem to suggest that he is able to be successful even in a world that is hostile to the written word.  In the last few pages of the novel, Powers has created a machine that is, apparently, in love with him, therefore illustrating “the quality of cognition we’d shot for from the start” (326), and Powers discovers “Each metaphor already modeled the modeler who pasted it together.  It seemed I might have another fiction in my after all” (328).   Because of his ability to write, Lentz needs Powers to tell the story that he cannot tell, thereby validating Powers position as a writer, as well as his own as a scientist.

In a number of ways, the conclusion to this novel is a prime example of Fitzpatrick’s argument against the death of the novel and the need or reality of the novel and technology co-existing, though with some retained level of anxiety.   Where it all falls apart for me, however, is the interdisciplinary training that characters seem to need in order to be successful in this world.  Without a very healthy knowledge of what the other does, neither Lentz nor Powers would have the respect for the other’s disciplines in order to respect the individual carrying out his particular intellectual endeavors.  In contemporary novels, I see an increasing level of anxiety of obsolescence that forces writers to hold even more tightly to their humanities ties (such as Special Topics in Calamity Physics), rather than explore new avenues in incorporating fiction and technology.  Granted, the science fiction genre does take on such a task, but it is not generally what I would consider mainstream fiction.  Perhaps things will change in the future, and Galatea 2.2 is Richard Powers’s happy fiction of a interdisciplinary world where he, as novelist, is still essential.

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