Friday, November 21, 2014


I had a love/hate relationship with the Don Quijote class that I took as an undergraduate. Love because, well, what's not to love; and hate because as an undergraduate I was mostly put off by professors whose personalities were forces of nature. I could be as guilty of hero-worship as the next star-struck undergraduate being taught by the go-to authorities on their topics, by the laureates of the Pulitzer and the National Book Award and the Guggenheim and the MacArthur,  but my heros were often not the usual ones.

The one lecture in that class that has stuck with me for a decade was the first of the semester. I remember much of what I learned in the class (although my reading of Quijote has matured considerably since then) but that first lecture is a complete unit in my mind's eye and ear. It walked us through the title page of the first edition of Don Quijote; as a college senior, I was astonished at how much detail and information my professor could pull out of a single page that came before what I then imagined as "the book" even started.

One of the themes of the course was the idea of desengaño. The word is often translated into English as disillusionment but it doesn't carry the same kind of negative connotation; it's a word with more neutral and wider possibilities that represents not a loss of illusion but an increased awareness, a lifting of the curtain from before one's eyes. It's an idea that comes from a very classically-constructed field of Hispanic literature (that's a nice way of not coming right out and calling it a bit outdated), and Otis Green is the scholar most closely associated with developing a vision of that trope within the classically-constructed canon. (Citing Otis Green is another way of not explicitly calling the framework old-fashioned.)

Imagine the desengaño that I would feel ten years thence — unexpectedly and by necessity becoming something of a book historian — upon opening Roger Chartier's The Order of Books to find this spread, a discussion of the title page of the editio princeps with special attention to the relationship between the author and patron named on the title page and the author and patron identified from within the pages of the book: the ultimate source of that lecture.

My the persisting memory of my inner Yale College senior was, if briefly, devastated by this realization that the best bit of that class was cribbed from Chartier, that I had stood in awe of my professor for something that he had not done. Of course, from the other side of the table I know better. Or, "better," because we all cite the scholarship of others when we teach; and when we teach undergraduates we don't necessarily give them the full chain of transmission. Because it would be disruptive to the flow of a lecture for information that won't be meaningful to 99% of them? Because we never expect that one of those students will grow up in her professional life to accidentally open the book that was our source? Because for the most part most of us don't draw so heavily upon a single piece of scholarship as the backbone of a lecture?

Of course, the evidence before me forces me to wonder whether that was actually ever what happened.

The class seems to have changed since then. Thanks to the dubious miracle of the internet and open-online education, I can go back and read a full transcript of the first lecture of that class, a lecture that no longer makes any mention of the shape of the title page or the dedication to the duke or the name of the printer. Perhaps it is appropriate that it should be a lecture on Quijote called up shockingly suddenly from the hazy memory of an undergraduate not yet professionally trained in the study of literature, that should make me question my own judgment, perception, and memory, and wonder whether the lecture occurred as I remember it or whether I myself somehow previsaged my later reading of another scholar's work.

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