The Madness Outside Gender The Madness Outsi:Travels with Don Quixote and Saint Foucault


Don Quixote's concern with the politics of its times is obvious. The novel is not only filled with commentary on contemporary issues such as the rise of multinational corporations, environmental pollution, and the nuclear arms race, in the section entitled "DON QUIXOTE IN AMERICA, THE LAND OF FREEDOM," Reagan, Nixon, and Kissinger are repeatedly invoked. In this respect Acker is not particularly radical, however. She is merely telling the majority of her audience what they already believe: that conservatism is immoral. Surely few, if any, supporters of the conservative regimes of Reagan or Thatcher would have been attracted to Acker's work in 1986, before it gained the semi-respectability it currently enjoys as part of the newly made canon of literary postmodernism(Note2). But Don Quixote also covers what was then, and remains now, far more controversial political territory, the politics of poststructuralist readings of the psychoanalytic. These controversial aspects of the text are strongly articulated in its treatment of intersections of masochistic sexuality and gender identifications. Here pervasive references to sainthood make up another level of political engagement in the novel.

Acker marks Cervantes's Don Quixote as the pretext, in both senses of the word, for her novel. But considering other versions of Quixote's story that directly precede hers helps illuminate how she situates her tale in relation to contemporary political debates. The prior production least possible to ignore is Man of La Mancha. Acker's subtitle of her novel, "which was a dream," and its framing as the narrator's dream, along with continual references to and meditations on dreams and dreaming, echo the musical's hit theme song, "The Impossible Dream." The song's idealism reflects 1960s liberal politics, resonating with Martin Luther King's famous, "I Have a Dream" speech, but also evokes images not of righteous resistance, but of the sort of 60s well-intentioned liberal vagueness that punks like Acker despised. As with the 1960s War on Poverty, addressing capitalism's contributions to the sufferings of the poor is carefully avoided in the song. By the 1980s it could as easily be understood as a theme song for the mindless optimism of Reagan's "Morning in America," or George Bush's "thousand points of light" campaign to achieve social reform through individual acts of charity. La Mancha's Don Quixote is transformed from a saint whose actions and beliefs are mad, that is do not accord with reasonable, practical behavior, into a cheerful force for attainable social good.

It is tempting to imagine Acker's novel also responds to another revival of the Don Quixote tale in somewhat the same vein. In 1973, the same year as the release of the original cast recording of Man of La Mancha, Oxford University Press reprinted Charlotte Lennox's 1752 parodic romance The Female Quixote, which would subsequently be carried into academic popularity by the sweeping feminist revision of the literary canon in the 1980s. The Female Quixote portrays a protagonist rendered ridiculous and self-endangering by her belief in the conventions of courtly romance. Like much feminist theory, from Mary Wolstonecraft to American feminism's so-called second wave, Lennox's novel dismisses both heterosexual erotic passion and courtship rituals in which men abase themselves before idealized women as threats to gender equality. The text can be read as a cautionary tale inspiring women to resist being put on a pedestal and turned into domestic saints, but it also tacitly endorses eighteenth-century regulation of gender and sexuality through arranged marriage and wifely submission. The Female Quixote like The Man of La Mancha emphasizes dreaming of felicitous resolutions rather than the impossibility of reconciling desire and reality. In both cases irrational love is opposed by "Ronald Reagan and certain feminists," in spirit if not in fact.

Possibly the most evident precursor to Acker's Don Quixote is Jorge Luis Borges's story "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote." One of the most striking overlaps between Borges's story and Acker's is Menard's inspiration to rewrite Don Quixote by the disgust he feels about a novel that anachronistically presents "Don Quixote on Wall Street" (48). To both Don Quixote seems quintessentially anti-capitalist. A rebel even as imitator, menard rejects mere mimicry of Cervantes and instead decides "to continue being Pierre Menard and to arrive at Don Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard" (49). His partial achievement of this goal delights the literary critic narrator because it allows for an entirely new mode of reading, in which any text can be recontextualized in defamiliarizing ways -- for why wait to see it actually rewritten by another author? The narrator ends his consideration of this revolutionary approach with the question, "Would not the attributing of The Imitation of Christ to Louis Ferdinand Céline or James Joyce be a sufficient renovation of its tenuous spiritual counsels?" (55).




Yes, we may wish to answer, and equally so the attribution of Don Quixote to Acker, especially since her Quixote, like Cervantes's, inhabits a world infused with religious irrationality, mysticism, and the mysterious behavior of saints. One way for Acker to explore this world would be from the perspective of contemporary norms, beginning from the premise that saintliness is a form of madness. That sort of exploration would entail agreement with some foundational ideas in psychoanalytic theory which Acker's text instead aggressively attacks in the style of her cultural heroes Foucault and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Interrogated (or analyzed) by "the family doctor," the dog attributes its suffering to being "locked" into a little room by the family. This is strongly reminiscent of Deleuze and Guattari's criticism of psychoanalysis for "shutting sexuality up in a bizarre sort of box painted with bourgeois motifs" (Anti-Oedipus, 49), as well as their extended commentary on the failure of Freudian and Lacanian theory to understand desire and subjectivity except in the context of the family drama, which reinforces the dual capitalist doctrines of individualism and lack. The dog suffers because her family has forced her to live "according to beliefs which're false," and so to deny what she knows experientially: "The physical and the mental aren't separate, for there's only the body" (153). This forbidden knowledge, based in physical experience, makes it impossible for the dog to distinguish between visionary dreams and what the sane regard as exterior reality. For the dog/Acker there can be no authoritative pronouncements from the outside world, no efficacious psychiatric intervention from exterior reality. As Lacan states, in a burst of anti-Foucauldianism, the analyst's recognition and transmission of "truth" is central to the return to Freudian practice (118). Not so for Acker to whom the body's truth opposes that of the doctor.


Gilles Deleuze



Anti-Oedipus, (49)