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Authenticities East and West
March 30 - April 1, 2001

The Poetics of Folly: East and West
Yun Shao (
Department of Romance Languages, Princeton University

In The Dream of Red Chamber and Don Quijote there are many references to folly, which significantly share some common features. The most striking correspondence is the definition of folly, or rather the problematizing of any definite conception. People and their ways of life are judged as insensible, idiotic, naive, or simply insane from diverse perspectives. The meaning of folly becomes ambiguous and unstable, being constantly displaced from one value system to another. The multiplicity of criteria leads to the disintegration of political, moral and epistemological hierarchy. The categorization of the powerful, the virtuous and the true fails to attain absolute certainty. In short, both texts play a game of paradox, simultaneously constructing and deconstructing the concept of folly.

Related to the first common feature is the association of the wise moron with artistic and literary creativity. The characters, whose madness nourishes an unusual sensibility and imagination, claim to enlightenment in a separate world. Likewise, the authors, who refer to themselves as short of wit and call their works nonsense, apparently refuse to be classified according to any measurement that the reader may bring to the reading. The texts stand assertive about their autonomy.

The analogies drawn above between the two texts will suggest the necessity of a comparison of irrationality in East and West. The obsession of the Renaissance culture with fools and folly marks the questioning of reason and human capacity of knowing. Meanwhile, the emergence of the philosophy of "Ch'ing" in late Imperial China advocates a rediscovery and exploration of the emotional qualities of human beings. Fools were often regarded as suffering from some excess of feelings. The configuration of religion, ethics, science (medicine, for example), and other social factors in the conception of folly in both cultures is crucial to the understanding of the similarities and differences in the formation of the so-called modern subject.

Returning to the two texts, my interest is mainly about the common features in their treatment of folly. It is the self-consciousness of the fictional morons and of the authors/fools that awakens my self-consciousness as reader and my realization that reading is essentially irrational. To compare folly in the Dream and the Quijote not only erases the cultural and historical boundary between texts, but also reduces binary oppositions established from various critical perspectives such as femininity vs. masculinity, unconscious vs. superego, and the self vs. the other. Very much aware of imposing my personal taste, which is a critical folly, I believe to discern hints in both texts that suggest a reading with the spirit of Erasmus' Moria, the goddess of folly. That is, a reading of the Dream and the Quijote as a comedy (despite many tearful moments) of fools.

Yun Shao is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Romance Languages, Princeton University. She has an MA in Spanish Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and was an MA candidate at the English Department of Beijing University where she received her BA. Her interests include Early Modern Hispanic narrative, romance, and drama; contemporary Spanish American fiction; comparative studies on popular culture in Hispanic (European) and Chinese history in relation to the concept of the modern. Her dissertation is entitled The Vision of Rome in Early Modern Spanish Literature Myths, Monuments, and Metropolitan Marvels.

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