Or – A Renaissance Parable about the Dangers of Agents Provocateurs
There is an embedded novella in chapters 33-35 of Don Quixote, “El Curioso Impertinente” or “The Man who was Recklessly Curious”. The novella itself is curious, and its function in the narrative puzzles scholars. It is somewhat reminiscent of a set of Russian dolls, being structurally, according to the narrative framework, a manuscript discovered by several of Don Quixote’s friends in a disreputable country inn, in a box left behind by a traveler, together with two printed books of chivalric fiction and a much embroidered account of a historic Spanish military figure. Both chapters purport to be a translation from the Arabic of a Moorish historian. An additional odd detail is that the supposedly illiterate innkeeper prizes the books highly, saying “I’d rather let a child of mine be burned than either one of the others (i.e the two works of chivalric fiction),” and emphasizes that the printed works cannot be heretical because they have passed the censor. At that point in the narrative the manuscript had not, although it subsequently passed the scrutiny of the Inquisition before appearing in 1606.
In my previous post I mentioned Don Quixote as a book in which one of the narrative devices, pseudo-authorship, could be viewed as a method of making the contents appear more trivial and unworthy of official scrutiny than they in fact were. This episode strikes me as a likely example.
The story takes place in Italy and harks back to many stories in Boccaccio’s Decameron, although it follows none of them closely. The exotic locale and time frame (there are hints that this is a 14th rather than 16th century tale) could also disguise a more contemporary message. Anselmo, newly and apparently happily married to Camilla, induces his reluctant friend Lotario to attempt to seduce Camilla to test her fidelity. The story follows a convoluted path of increasingly insistent attempts until Camilla is at last unfaithful, she and Lotario fall in love, and disaster strikes. As a tragedy about a love triangle, this is full of stock characters and implausible scenarios. It would make a pretty good opera.
As a parable of the dangers of posing as someone one is not in order to uncover a plot or criminal activity, which may be either nonexistent or not sufficiently grave to be worthy of scrutiny, this makes sense to me. This was a definite concern in Spain in 1606, when agents of the Inquisition professed heretical views in order to gain people’s confidence, and used interrogation techniques that produced admissions of heresy which had not occurred seriously to the person being interrogated before. The result of entrapment is a net increase in the amount of the undesirable activity, and ruining the lives of people who might never on their own have caused enough trouble to merit punishment.
I suppose I am sensitive to the threat posed by agents provocateurs and police entrapment because of my own experiences and those of friends at the height of the “War on Drugs” in the seventies. I personally witnessed a man who turned out to be a police agent (a “narc”) pestering various individuals who were casual users of drugs, mostly marijuana, to sell him drugs. In one case, which was later thrown out of court, a police agent put a Help Wanted ad in the newspaper and asked prospective job applicants to furnish him with drugs. Society has lost the war on drugs, but meanwhile, there are many people who served time in prison, and lost all hope of a decent career, because they were induced to sell a drug illegally which is now advertised openly with flashy billboards.
The “War on Terror” seems to have spawned a new epidemic of entrapment, fueled by the Internet. Some proportion of websites purporting to advocate terrorism are actually maintained by security agencies, and what starts out as idle curiosity and fantasy can mushroom into a concrete plan of action, given an overzealous security agent and a naïve, possibly mentally unbalanced would-be terrorist. This incident in Portland, Oregon a few years ago has aspects of both.
I also recall “ The Man Who Was Too Curious” parable when I listen to friends who are suffering from a cascade of health problems which began when they were aggressively treated for conditions that only came to light when they were subjected to increasingly sensitive tests. Cancer, for example, seems to have become the new heresy. Are you sure you don’t have it? Let’s probe further, until we find something, and then unleash a torrent of expensive and debilitating treatments which have not, on a population level at least, been shown to reduce the overall death rate from that particular cancer. Unlike a mindset which justifies extreme measures to stamp out heresy on the grounds that it puts people at risk of going to Hell, a hypothesis concerning which there is, and can be, no scientific evidence, the effectiveness of using extreme measures to combat health threats can be evaluated objectively. The rates of new diagnoses of aggressive breast cancers which are difficult to treat, and the death rate on a population level, have been unchanged for decades. Likewise, the overall suicide rate has fluctuated very little since the 1960’s, despite putting a sixth of the American adult population on antidepressants. Nonetheless, if you go to a health care provider you are likely to be quizzed relentlessly for evidence of depression and handed a prescription that comes with a page of fine print detailing possible adverse side effects.
Bad things do happen, whether they be heresy, or cancer, or terrorist attacks, and some of them can be mitigated by early detection. Many of them can also be exacerbated by excessive scrutiny and counterproductive countermeasures. I fear that we as a society have allowed fear to propel us into a mindset more like that of Spain at the turn of the seventeenth century than we are willing to admit.
Photo is from nbc16.com