Behind the Book with Michael Scham

Lector LudensMichael Scham is the author of 'Lector Ludens': The Representation of Games & Play in Cervantes. With Lector Ludens, Michael Scham uses Cervantes’s Don Quijote and Novelas ejemplares as the basis for a wide-ranging exploration of early modern Spanish views on recreations ranging from cards and dice to hunting, attending the theater, and reading fiction.

How did you become involved in your area of research?
I was an English major in college, but my junior year abroad, in Madrid, drew me into the vortex of early modern Spanish literature.

What inspired you to write this book?
First of all, my love for Cervantes. Then I was struck by the prevalence of play and recreation in his works. In addition to the presentation of the Novelas ejemplares through the metaphor of the mesa de trucos, or billiards table, Cervantine characters are frequently playing cards and dice and chess, hunting, participating in rustic competitions, reading manuscripts, telling stories and engaged in all manner of theatrical spectacles. As I pursued this material further, including humanist writings on ludic activity, it became increasingly clear that notions of the game and play present an appealing perspective on art. On the one hand, the artwork is a realm of play because it is separate from quotidian, purposive reality; it has its own special rules and conventions—is "autotelic," as Giamatti put it. On the other hand, the game and the artwork are fundamentally "semi-autonomous"; they always relates back to reality, however obliquely. An approach to literature from the perspective of games and play thus allows for a balance between hermetic excesses of formalism (or "art for art's sake") and the equally reductive practice of "relevance," or distilling the political or ideological content from a work of fiction.

Furthermore, I am fascinated by how the game, like the artwork, induces the "suspension of disbelief," a sometimes rapturous, sometimes destructive imaginative, emotional and even ethical identification on the part of the reader, spectator, player: from quixotic readers who confuse reality with fiction, video gamers living through virtual avatars, gamblers who believe they can influence chance, soccer hooligans ready to exercise violence on behalf of their side, to a basketball fan who celebrates the San Antonio Spurs as a standard bearer for some sort of multicultural utopia (or, perhaps, just wishes he were Manu Ginobili). Cervantes was fascinated with the allure of play, in all its potential for beauty and coherence, as well as folly, degradation and destructiveness.

What do you find most interesting about your area of research?
Early modern humanists, moralists, physicians and theologians were acutely aware of the very benefits and dangers debated by politicians, pedagogues, neuroscientists and sociologists today. The role of play in childhood development and socialization, the cognitive advantages of engaging the body during contemplation, the therapeutic value of physical exertion, the ways play can condition our return to "real life," the comparative virtues of games of chance and skill, competition and collaboration... What they discuss in terms of "humours" we explain with "endorphins" and other chemical processes, but the observations and prescriptions are often the same. I don't mean to assert a facile equivalence between our understanding of human experience and theirs. But this research strengthened my conviction that, while rigorous attention to historical context is of course important, the results need not always confirm the "otherness" of temporally distant cultures. I now feel more secure in asserting that Cervantes, Montaigne, Erasmus and others not only share many of our preoccupations, but contemplate them in similar ways. The potential derision that such an assertion might draw from defenders against the "Romantic approach" (a term propagated by the excellent hispanist Anthony Close) no longer fills me with trepidation—even as it continues to sound a note of caution, a healthy attenuation of interpretive overreach.

What are your current/future projects?
I am currently in Buenos Aires, researching tango lyrics and literature. Of particular interest are the songs that cite early modern Spanish poetry, and that contain various continuities and reverberations: the cultivation of the grotesque, the linguistic innovations and identity of marginal urban groups, meditations on the experience of time. Any improvements in my own tango dancing should be viewed as an organic, fully justifiable by-product of said research!

I am also continuing work on connections between law and literature, which is the topic of an interdisciplinary seminar I recurrently teach with a colleague from our College of Business. While the seminar ranges from Sophocles and Shakespeare to Melville and Camus, the primary contexts of my research in this area are trial scenes, and notions of guilt, natural and positive law in El cantar de mío Cid, picaresque narratives, and Cervantes.

What do you like to read for pleasure? What are you currently reading?
As usual, "pleasure reading" alternates between attending to my gaps in the canon, to works vaguely related to my research, and checking out contemporary writers recommended by friends and trusted reviewers. Recently this has involved Chekhov stories, the first volume of Knausgård's Min Kamp, some Baudelaire, stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Cortázar and Roberto Arlt, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Zweig's biography of Montaigne, and essays by Martin Amis. And there is currently a collection stories by Elmore Leonard on my night table, for which I shall make no excuses! (I suppose I just did)

What is your favourite book?
El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha.

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