Ian Watt was one of the most distinguished modern scholar/critics and teachers of fiction. A renowned perfectionist, he published only two books before his death but virtually finished two others, of which this text is one. His first study, The Rise of the Novel (1957), analyzes the writings of three seminal authors: Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding; colleagues consider it definitive. Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (1979) examines Conrad’s influence on such contemporaneous writers as Henry James and undertakes a meticulous exegesis of the Polish-born Englishman’s work. The second volume, Conrad in the Twentieth Century, was still being edited when Watt died.
At the time of Watt’s death, Myths of Modern Individualism: Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Robinson Crusoe was nearly completed, after having been conceived in the late 1940’s. Watt’s widow and editor put the final touches to the book, which amounts to an impressive investigation and elucidation in the fields of comparative literature and mythography. Watt’s method is remarkably synthetic, combining formal textual analysis with intellectual history and socioeconomic background. His style is compressed yet clear, precise and painstaking. As revealed in this work, Watt’s mind and learning are formidable.
He chooses his quartet of myths as those most influential and lasting in modern European consciousness. No one would object to his selection, but some cultural historians might wish Watt had also included myths involving Hamlet or Joan of Arc. In his introduction, Watt addresses Hamlet’s omission: While Hamlet is surely one of the greatest characters in literature, his fame is “academic rather than popular.” Watt also excludes biblical or classical characters, such as Job, Samson, Oedipus, and Medea. He is fascinated by the fact that three of his four figures first appeared at the time of the Renaissance’s yielding to the Counter-Reformation, which lasted approximately from 1560 to 1650 and constituted a counter-movement, led by the Roman Catholic church, to the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Thus Faustus was first depicted in the 1587 Faustbuch, Don Juan in the drama El Burlador de Sevilla (written 1612-1616, published 1630), and Don Quixote in Cervantes’ superlative novel which he began writing in 1597, with part 1 published in 1605, part 2 in 1615. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe did not appear until 1719, with Watt seeing him as a spokesman of the new economic, religious, and social attitudes that succeeded the Counter-Reformation.
Watt is not interested in compiling detailed studies of these myths; that labor has been accomplished by previous scholars. A German historian, for example, found more than 13,000 versions of the Faust story published by 1976. Rather, Watt seeks to analyze three levels of significance: the work’s explicit meanings, its subtext of implied meanings, and the meanings attributed to the myth one or more centuries later when it attained universal status.
Of the four myths, Faust is the only one to be derived from a historical person, a wandering German “magician” known as Dr. Faust (1480-1540), who was capable of performing a first- class act of necromancy. While humanists disbelieved his claims to magical power, Lutherans accepted them but attributed them to the devil. Thus the historical Faust was transformed into a mythic personage who made an infernal pact with evil, usually personified by Mephistopheles.
Christopher Marlowe established the lasting dimensions of this myth by his play, The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (1592). His protagonist is an alienated intellectual, seeks universal knowledge, and is willing to damn himself forever to attain it. Marlowe directly presents Faustus’ death as he is carried into the gaping jaws of hell. In effect, Faustus is punished for excessive individualism, for wanting to transcend mortal limits. Watt sees Marlowe’s Faust as a scapegoat figure upon whom the forces of the Counter- Reformation projected their fear of the anarchic tendencies of the Renaissance and Reformation. Fundamentally, the Faust myth is a new form of an ancient mythological pattern that makes man’s knowledge a threat to divine powers—consider the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise.
Don Quixote was intended by Cervantes to be a figure of burlesque, mocking chivalric romances and the late medieval code of courtly love. The latter converted the feudal service that a knight owed his lord to the knight’s lyrical adoration of and fidelity to his lady love; knight errantry became the extreme example of these ideal values. As in a romance, Cervantes has his protagonist set out to do good in a world he believes to be neatly divided into virtues and vices. Soon, however, the question of what is good or bad, real or unreal becomes exceedingly problematic, and Cervantes increasingly shows the world to be contradictory, enigmatic, and resistant to simple, schematic solutions. Don Quixote’s perceptions, for most of the novel, are so obsessively delusional that no reality will shatter them. At last, a final defeat forces him to return home, awaken to empiric prudence, and die.
The first version of Don Juan was in a drama written by a Spanish monk who used the professional name of Tirso de Molina (1581?-1648). The full English translation of his work is, The Trickster of Seville and His Guest of Stone. Surprisingly, Tirso’s antihero is...