Assistant Professor of English Aaron Hanlon recently published A World of Disorderly Notions: Quixote and the Logic of Exceptionalism with the University of Virginia Press. The work of nearly a decade, this book explores the exceptionalism embodied by the character Don Quixote, along with the many fictional characters inspired by him. Hanlon then connects this fictional exceptionalism to the political exceptionalism which has been used to justify imperialism.
A World of Disorderly Notions begins with a question. Why was Don Quixote so popular, and so imitated? For more than two hundred years after the book’s translation from Spanish into English in 1612, the character of Don Quixote was copied over and over in English speaking countries. There were many variations on the character—the female Quixote, the spiritual Quixote, the infernal Quixote. Why was everyone so interested in this character?
Hanlon believed that the answer to this question was the attitude of exceptionalism embodied by the character of Don Quixote. Alonso Quixano is a deluded nobleman, who has read too many chivalric romances and has come to believe that he is a knight errant. He remakes the world around himself according to outdated stories, and makes himself a character in it, renaming himself Don Quixote. However, he doesn’t do this just to entertain himself—he does it because he truly believes that the world is unjust, that there are many wrongs which need to be righted, and that he is the best person to fix them. He thinks that his mission is important, and he is special, and therefore he shouldn’t have to follow the same rules as everyone else. He considers himself to be better than the world, and to have the right to change it. Hanlon argues that the same exceptionalist justification is used in state and empire building. A country which firmly believes that it is more advanced and just than another country would see itself as having the right to control the second country.
Professor Hanlon believes that an exceptionalist mentality can work for good and for bad—but the bad outweighs the good. The logic of the mentality is such that the exceptionalist is no longer responsive to actual material conditions. It thrives on mythmaking, stories of personal specialness, and looks down upon the rest of the world. Once the exceptionalist is fully engaged in this belief system, he no longer responds to the feedback the world is giving them, and can no longer self-correct.
The novel Don Quixote, as well as many (but not all) of the novels inspired by it, ends with a moment of conversion, where the Quixote character realizes that he is not exceptional after all, and that he has been a fool. If a version ends with this conversion, it is a critique of exceptionalism, rather than an endorsement of it. However, if the story doesn’t end with a conversion, then the author may be saying that there is something redeeming in the character’s exceptionalism. Perhaps the Quixote character is right, and everyone else is wrong. Sometimes society is just as problematic and mad as the Quixotic figure.
If you’re interested in learning more about the complex and fascinating world of Don Quixote and exceptionalism, you can purchase a copy of Professor Hanlon’s book here. We highly recommend it!
Professor Hanlon expresses his gratitude to the Center for the Arts and Humanities for the course development grants he received, which has allowed him to teach the books he uses as sources in A World of Disorderly Notions. The feedback from his students helped him to formulate many of the ideas which he later used in his book. Professor Hanlon also lauds the Center for offering him the intellectual space, and relationships with colleagues of different disciplines, to consider the interdisciplinary problems he addresses in his book, combining literary studies with history, philosophy, and political theory. Well, we are happy to help in any way we can!
Written by Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator