Article Details

In: KulturPoetik 2009, Issue 1


Joel Black


Clash of the Titans
Ricardo J. Quinones, Dualisms. The Agons of the Modern World. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. xvi + 451 S.



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It’s been almost twenty years now since Ricardo Quinones traced the motif of fraternal antagonism in Western literature in his book The Changes of Cain. Although that work gave prominence to the Cain figure as a demonic, adversarial agent over his ethical and socialized rival, it also revealed the agonistic struggle between two, more or less equal fictional or mythic individuals – or even, beginning in the romantic era, between two sides of the same self – as a powerful dynamic force generating a rich and seemingly endless series of literary and cinematic narratives. Now in Dualisms, Quinones vastly extends these insights, moving from the realm of literature to intellectual history and biography, and showing how an agonistic dynamic has shaped the course of literature and philosophy from the Renaissance to the mid-twentieth century. Turning from his earlier analysis of fictional antagonists, Quinones now focuses on actual historical rivals who are authors in their own right – Erasmus and Luther, Voltaire and Rousseau, Turgenev and Dostoevsky, and Camus and Sartre. Quinones’ penetrating analysis of these four case-histories of religious, literary, political, and philosophical »cross-rivalry« spanning five centuries transcends the personalities of the adversaries involved to reveal seismic shifts in the reigning epistemes of the day. By viewing intellectual history through a literary lens, Quinones not only brings dramatic life to that history, but he transforms the discipline of literary studies: more than a mere literary motif, the agonistic struggles between worthy rivals are shown to be the engine of intellectual history itself.

To be sure, Quinones is not the first to recognize dualisms as a cultural phenomenon, and he acknowledges his precursors’ contributions, starting with Plutarch’s »comparison of things Greek and Roman« (p. 187). Plutarch’s »character dualities« are »not true dualisms«, however, but comparisons of individuals from different times and cultures. It isn’t until the eighteenth-century that scholars like Antonio Valsecchi conceive the idea of »a dualism in one’s own time« between the era’s »most illustrious thinkers« – namely, Voltaire and Rousseau (p. 190). But literary dualisms only receive a solid philosophical basis, Quinones notes, when Friedrich Schiller, reflecting on his own uneasy relationship with Goethe, generalizes his distinction between naive and sentimental poetry into a dichotomy of realist and idealist personality types. Schiller liberates the two souls struggling inside the breast of Goethe’s Faust, projecting that conflict onto the stage of history where it assumes the form of a dramatic clash between two gifted, but temperamentally irreconcilable, individuals. It is Coleridge, however, who not only »dramatizes, personalizes, and historicizes the dualisms« sketched out by Schiller, but who first discerns a metahistorical connection between the Voltaire-Rousseau and Erasmus-Luther pairings.

Nearly a century later, Coleridge’s insight is echoed by Ernst Cassirer, and now, after nearly another century, Quinones gives the concept of dualism its fullest expression through the addition of the Turgenev-Dostoevsky and Camus-Sartre pairings. In the process, he develops the concept itself into a compelling account of cultural change and intellectual exchange through the identification of two lines of descent – that of Erasmus-Voltaire-Turgenev-Camus, and that of Luther-Rousseau-Dostoevsky-Sartre – which are presented as an »enduring contest« between »two intellectual nations« (p. 200). One nation is that of worldly humanism and consists of »writers of consciousness« who represent the pinnacle of learning of their age. Their love of knowledge and respect for civilization keep them from going that extra step, and from embracing the most burning moral or intellectual issue of the day and advocating a decisive program of social or political action. The other nation, in contrast, consists of revolutionary writers of conscience who expose the stark choices confronting their generation, and who articulate the need for immediate action based on those choices. In the process of exorcizing their own personal demons, these »daemonic« rebels dare to go where their eudaemonist rivals fear to tread, and usher in a world that their counterparts can’t fully countenance. The spiritual and intellectual regeneration that Luther, Rousseau, Dostoevsky, and Sartre sought to bring about »clearly set them at odds with the advanced stages of European consciousness« (p. 291). (Although none of the four dualisms discussed in this study involve British writers, it’s noteworthy that, as a northern bastion of European skepticism and civilization, England should be a litmus test for determining a writer’s status within a dualism: »writers of consciousness have been almost uniformly anglophile, while the daemonic writer is in varying degrees anglophobe« [p. 111]).

Quinones’s account of a recurring series of momentous encounters between moderate reformers and radical iconoclasts breathes new life into the old dichotomy of the classic and the romantic – the ideals inherited from the Renaissance of order, stability, and completeness, and the ideals inherited from the Reformation of human freedom and individual liberty. The acrimonious dispute between Erasmus and Luther over free will is ultimately superseded by the spirit of Christian liberty which they inaugurated, each in his own way, through their respective contributions of widely-available, scholarly editions of scripture and mass-produced, vernacular translations of the Bible which individual readers could study and interpret on their own. While the abrupt leap of more than two-hundred years from the Erasmus-Luther dualism in the »age of faith« to the dualism of Voltaire and Rousseau in the »age of Thought« (p. 180) may disorient readers accustomed to the slow pace of historical change, it enables Quinones to highlight »the direct connection between the defence of Christian liberty, derived from the sixteenth century, and the defence of civil liberty in the eighteenth century« (p. 105) – a defense that became the great common cause for both Voltaire and Rousseau, despite their many differences.

Quinones is explicit about Dostoevsky’s romanticism: the Russian author may have liberated himself from, and ultimately subverted, Rousseau’s »Romantic idealism«, but only out of a »superabundance of Romantic sentiment« (p. 224). Dostoevsky’s mixed feelings about Rousseau can be seen in the depiction of Stepan Verkhoevensky’s character in Demons; at least this aging, and buffoonish liberal reformer comes across as a far more sympathetic character than the self-satisfied but clueless literary lion Karmazinov, an obvious stand-in for Turgenev. Indeed, Quinones’ astute readings of his eight authors’ bodies of work in light of the dualist dramas that inform them, and that they themselves depict, stand out as some of the most illuminating sections of this magisterial study.

By the twentieth century, a reversal occurs in the dualist paradigm in which, as Quinones describes, »revolt changes camps«. In the Sartre-Camus rivalry, it is the younger member of the pair (Camus) who now turns out to be the moderating reformer in the tradition of Voltaire, while his older rival is the revolutionary heir to Dostoevsky and Luther. Yet Quinones also observes that with Sartre and Camus, the clear-cut alignments that characterize dualistic oppositions begin to waver and »hybridity prevails«: Camus resembles Rousseau nearly as much as he does Voltaire, while Sartre was »Voltairean« as much as he was (in Althusser’s words) »our Rousseau« (p. 393).

If dualisms abide, as Quinones confidently affirms in his epilogue, and formative cultural rivalries are today as abundant as ever, we may soon expect the casting call to begin for the two lead roles in whatever dualism comes to define the new century. It may be the case, however, that the mutations that Quinones detects in the Sartre-Camus dualism are evidence that the clear-cut opposition between writers of consciousness and daemonic authors has begun to unravel. Perhaps the dualist paradigm that has prevailed in the modern world no longer applies in the postmodern age, when the dramas of public intellectuals no longer occupy center stage and no longer define the temper of the time. After all, the shift that Quinones has already begun to trace from sharply delineated dualisms to more diffuse hybridities is as much a postcolonial as a postmodern phenomenon. When the older, privileged insider Sartre, in the process of »disowning his past«, finds himself in the role of daemonic iconoclast, and when the younger, Algerian-born Camus seeks to »reconstitute his past« (p. 395), and in the process emerges as the representative writer of consciousness in his time, this may not only be a matter of rebellion changing camps, but a sign of the end of the dualisms that have defined the modern age in a European – as opposed to a global – context. Where once we stood in awe of clash-of-the-titans male rivalries, perhaps we’ll soon be plotting the sinuous movements of pluralist networks of aliens, upstarts, and yes, women, as they play ever greater roles in redefining the monolithic social and intellectual orders that have had their day. We eagerly await Professor Quinones’ commentary on this next stage in his epic history.

Prof. Dr. Joel Black, University of Georgia, Department of Comparative Literature, Athens, GA 30602 USA; E-Mail: