Author's note: while at Rutgers earning my Ph.D. in the mid-1980s, I took a seminar with Dr. Poirier on Frost and Stevens. What he impressed upon us was the importance of close reading, the notion of literature as a performance, and the need to write literary criticism in ordinary language, not in the arcane jargon that was infecting academia at that time. I like to think the essay below, taken from a work in progress on the history of the novel—this is the opening of volume 2; volume 1 will be published in April 2010 as The Novel: An Alternative History, Beginnings to 1600 (Continuum)—exhibits these qualities that Dr. Poirier insisted on.
By the year 1601, the novel was an old, old genre. A well-read writer like Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), for example, was familiar with at least a few of the ancient Greek novels—he would model his last novel, Persiles and Sigismunda, on the greatest of them, Heliodorus's Ethiopian Story—and knew of the low-brow Milesian tales and racy Roman novels like Petronius's Satyricon and Apuleius' Golden Ass. He read Italian and was familiar with Boccaccio's frame-tale novel Decameron and the hundreds of novellas cranked out by later Italian writers. He had read novels produced by other nationalities on the Iberian Peninsula such as the Moors and Catalans, and he spent enough time among Muslims to hear some of their adventure novels and frame-tale narratives. (He made a Muslim the "author" of his most famous novel.) He had read a huge number of novels churned out by his countrymen: pastorals, picaresques, and of course the wildly popular novels of chivalry, based on earlier Arthurian models. He admired a few of these, such as the Catalan Tirant lo Blanc, and was jealous of the financial success of Mateo Alemán's Guzman of Alfarche, a long picaresque novel that appeared in 1599.
Cervantes' own writing career hadn't amounted to much. His first novel, Galatea (1585), was an attempt to cash in on the fad for pastoral novels; his is one of the most complex examples of the genre, a nonlinear narrative containing many embedded stories, reams of poetry, and forays into other genres such as the adventure tale and court intrigue, along with more violence than in most pastorals. Galatea was popular in its time, but a promised sequel never appeared, the fad faded, and nowadays it is read only by specialists. The very heterogeneity of its material suggests Cervantes found the pastoral genre too confining, or at least unsuited to his real talents. He had better luck with novellas, which he began writing in the 1590s, though they wouldn't be published until the next century. But these lean works would have to compete in the marketplace with fat novels of chivalry, which were fading but still popular at the end of the sixteenth century thanks to endless sequels recycling a few brand-name knights like Amadis and Palmerin. In 1601, the beginning of a new century, Cervantes felt it was high time to revive his failing career and to redirect faltering Spanish fiction, and perhaps even redefine Spanish culture in general. Plus he needed the money.
Don Quixote is such a richly suggestive text that it has understandably inspired countless, often contradictory interpretations, ranging from esoteric readings "demonstrating," for example, that it is a cabalistic Jewish text or an allegory of Spanish politics, to sappy notions that Don Quixote is just an idealist who believes in himself and follows his heart. But esoteric readings are usually private obsessions imposed on a text, not logically deduced from it, and to regard the knight as an unflappable optimist is a road that leads straight to a claims-adjuster braying "The Impossible Dream" in an amateur dinner-theater production of Man of La Mancha. No character in literature has been more misunderstood than Don Quixote, usually because readers latch on to one aspect of his character and ignore Cervantes' multiple ironies, stripping the benighted knight of his sixteenth-century context and dressing him in their own ideals and aspirations. Thus he was merely a comic character until the Romantics turned him into a tragic hero, orthodox Christians proclaimed him an unorthdox Christ figure (and Sancho too!), and the dinner-theater crowd applauded him as a lovable eccentric with a good heart. In a novel that is primarily about the dangers of self-delusion, it's best to begin with the basics to avoid deluding ourselves about the nature of this wily text.
First, Don Quixote is not one long novel but two separate works. 1El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha was published in January 1605, and though it enjoyed considerable success, Cervantes turned to other writing projects for the next decade. He persued the novella form and in 1613 published a dozen of them under the title Exemplary Stories (Novelas ejemplares); in 1614 he published a long narrative poem called The Voyage to Parnassus (El Viaje del Parnaso), and the following year brought out a big volume of his plays and theatrical interludes. Only after a spurious sequel to DQ1 appeared in 1614 did Cervantes complete his own, which was published late in 1615, about six months before he died.
Whatever else it may be, DQ1 is unquestionably about the art of fiction, both writing it and (mis)reading it. It contains more discussions of books, literary theory, and advice on writing than any novel I know. It is not merely an attack on novels of chivalry, but an attack on bad writing, in any genre, as is apparent from two key chapters that nearly bookend the novel: the sixth chapter, and the sixth chapter from the end (1.47). Chapter 6 contains the famous "inquisition" of the novels that drove a country squire named Alonso Quijana loco—crazy enough to rename himself Don Quixote of La Mancha and to spend two days in July 1589 terrorizing the neighborhood.2 (He knocks one innocent muleteer unconscious, splits the skull of a second, causes a boy to be beaten almost to death, then attempts to murder a merchant before earning a well-deserved beat-down himself.) After a neighbor drags the raving madman home, Quijana's niece and housekeeper blame his beloved novels of chivalry for driving him insane and convince the town barber and priest to burn them all. But they consign to the flames only the bad ones, the ones written in "perverse and complicated language," the ones that are foolishly unrealistic and/or "silly and arrogant." The ignorant women want to burn them all, but the discriminating men set aside those that are unique (rather than derivative), those whose adventures "are excellent and very artful," written in language that "is courtly and clear," and especially those that are realistic. It's worth repeating that Cervantes had nothing against novels of chivalry, only bad ones, and bad literature in general, as chapter 6 indicates when the barber and priest move on to examine Quijana's collection of pastoral novels and poetry anthologies. (His books of epic poetry wind up in the bonfire by accident.)
This distinction is amplified near the end in chapter 47, when a cathedral canon from Toledo—whom Nabokov pegs as "Cervantes himself in disguise"3—joins the group transporting the lunatic home in a cage after a month's mayhem. After the canon learns the source of Quijana's insanity, he agrees that most novels of chivalry are foolish, unoriginal, unrealistic, and make no claim to art:
"I have seen no book of chivalry that creates a complete tale, a body with all its members intact, so that the middle corresponds to the beginning, and the end to the beginning and the middle; instead, they are composed with so many members that the intention seems to be to shape a chimera or monster rather than to create a well-proportioned figure. Furthermore, the style is fatiguing, the action incredible, the love lascivious, the courtesies clumsy, the battles long, the language foolish, the journeys nonsensical, and, finally, since they are totally lacking in intelligent artifice, they deserve to be banished, like unproductive people, from Christian nations."
His objections are more esthetic than ethical, and he goes on to say that, in the hands of a great writer more concerned with art and "intelligent artifice" than shock and awe, even novels of chivalry can be high art: first, because their traditional subject matter is an "opportunity for display" for "a good mind, providing a broad and spacious field where one's pen could write unhindered" and unfurl everything a writer knows:
"The writer can show his conversance with astrology, his excellence as a cosmographer, his knowledge of music, his intelligence in matters of state, and perhaps he will have the opportunity to demonstrate his talents as a necromancer, if he should wish to. He can display the guile of Ulysses, the piety of Æneas, the valor of Achilles, the misfortunes of Hector, the treachery of Sinon, the friendship of Euryalus, the liberality of Alexander, the valor of Caesar, the clemency and truthfulness of Trajan, the fidelity of Zopyrus, the prudence of Cato, in short, all of those characteristics that make a noble man perfect, sometimes placing them all in one individual, sometimes dividing them among several.
"And if this is done in a pleasing style and with ingenious invention, and is drawn as close as possible to the truth, it no doubt will weave a cloth composed of many different and beautiful threads, and when it is finished, it will display such perfection and beauty that it will achieve the greatest goal of writing, which, as I have said, is to teach and delight at the same time. Because the free writing style of these books allows the author to show his skills as an epic, lyric, tragic, and comic writer, with all the characteristics contained in the sweet and pleasing sciences and rhetoric; for the epic can be written in prose as well as verse."
This rousing defense of the novel—elevating it to the status of the classical epic, and the novelist to the stature of an epic hero—is worth quoting at length to reinforce the point DQ1 is not "an invective against books of chivalry," as Cervantes' friend says in the prologue and which has been repeated ever since; it's an invective against books that lack "a pleasing style and . . . ingenious invention"; the canon goes on to apply the same standards to the plays of his day, condemning them for their artlessness, not because they belong to one genre or another. By this point in the novel, of course, the canon is preaching to the choir, for any reader who has reached chapter 47 has ample evidence that even an old dog like the chivalric novel can be taught new tricks by a trainer as talented as Cervantes.
Along with the two bookend discussions of chivalric fiction (and a plug for them as popular entertainment in 1.32), DQ1 includes a cynical guide to slapping together a conventional novel (offered by Cervantes' glib friend in the prologue), discussions of the art of literary translation, the importance of mimesis in writing, the relatively new picaresque novel (1.22), the damning compromises commercial writers make (1.53), and numerous instances of the paradox that fiction is a lie that tells the truth. In addition, there are many metafictional moments when Cervantes refers to himself (or his other writings) in the third person and comments on the fictionality of his fiction, which is one reason why he is the don of postmodernists like Jorge Luis Borges, John Barth, Robert Coover, and Julián Ríos. All of this makes DQ1 a veritable primer on creative writing.
Teaching by example, Cervantes includes several models of what he considers fine writing within DQ1, which creates one of the many cognitive dissonances in this brilliant but problematic novel. Five times Cervantes interrupts the "ingenious invention" of Don Quixote's misadventures to insert a tale that has little more than "a pleasing style" to recommend it. There is the modern pastoral of Marcela and her suitors (1.12-14), Cardenio's tale (scattered throughout chapters 23-36), the freestanding Novel of the Man Who Was Recklessly Curious (32-34), the autobiographical captive's tale (39-41), and the cautionary tale of Leandra (51).4 A few of them are followed by self-congratulatory remarks—one auditor tells the former captive "the manner in which you have recounted this remarkable tale has been equal to the unusual and marvelous events themselves" (1.42)—but these interpolated tales are the most traditional and tedious sections of the novel. They are the first to go in any abridged edition of Don Quixote, and I'm guessing even those who love the novel enough to read it frequently—Faulkner claimed to read it once a year, Barth once a decade—probably skip these sections. They are well-made tales by the standards Cervantes' surrogates lay out above, but the plots and sentiments are familiar from dozens of Renaissance novellas, and the heroines especially (with the exception of Marcela) are walking clichés, each praised as a peerless PGOAT until the next one comes along.5 This reaches a ludicrous point in chapter 42 when there is a four-girl pile-up at the same inn, somewhat to the narrator's embarrassment. (Lately arrived Clara de Viedma "was so elegant, beautiful, and charming that everyone marveled at the sight of her, and if they had not already seen Dorotea and Luscinda and Zoraida at the inn, they would have thought that beauty comparable to hers would be difficult to find".)
Don Quixote is irritated by Pedro's clumsy narration of Marcela's tale (1.12) and Sancho's even clumsier attempt at storytelling (1.20)—clear models of how not to tell a story—but in a novel that seeks to rescue the distressed maiden of Spanish fiction from the evil giants of bad writing, it is puzzling why Cervantes would offer up such conventional tales as models of good literature. Although the interpolated tales do have some thematic relationship to the rest of the novel, there is the suspicion these are unpublished novellas Cervantes had written earlier and decided to salvage by sticking them in here (as is the case with many of the poems in the novel). Or it could be, as Borges suggests, "The Quixote is less an anecdote for those fictions than it is a secret, nostalgic farewell."6 The same kind of esthetic schizophrenia can be found in his Exemplary Stories, which are intended to be exemplary models of writing as well as moral tales: several of them are indeed innovative and even esthetically subversive, but most modern editors drop at least four of the novellas for the reasons Lesley Lipson politely gives: "Since they reflect the more traditional format of love and adventure, they are stylistically less adventurous than the rest. This also makes them less representative of Cervantes as an innovator."7 Making matters worse, DQ1 is filled with minor errors and inconsistencies regarding names, chronology, events like the loss of Sancho's donkey, and misplaced chapter headings—all of which Cervantes apparently pleads guilty to in DQ2 (2.3), blaming some errors on typesetters. Even the last line of the novel is a botched quotation. Such sloppy craftsmanship further compromises the novel's alleged pedagogic value, and makes us question what he is really trying to teach us about writing.
While a full quarter of DQ1ostensibly preaches an orthodox approach to fiction and provides several models of such, the rest of it consists of highly unorthodox fiction and scenes of such stupendous, iconic power—Don Quixote tilting at windmills!—that they seem to belong to the timeless realm of myth. This formal contradiction, along with the tonal dissonance between the tragic interpolated stories and the comic main story, warns us the novel may be at cross-purposes with itself, even suggesting orthodox forms and beliefs are inferior to heterodox ones.
Second, we have to accept that Don Quixote is literally insane; he is not an idealist, an individualist marching to the beat of his own drum, a Walter Mittyesque daydreamer, a nostalgic conservative longing for the good old days, but loco, a victim of locura (madness). These are the Spanish words Cervantes repeats insistently, and while Alonso Quijana's condition might more accurately be diagnosed as monomania, any interpretation of his speeches, acts, or beliefs must start from the realization he is a madman, and a dangerous one at that. He suffers from hallucinations and violent explosions of rage, which cause him to attack innocent people without warning, several times nearly killing them (including two attempts on Sancho's life). Like the clinically insane, he can't distinguish between fantasy and reality, the result of overdosing on novels of chivalry and convincing himself they are accurate historical chronicles, rather than escapist fiction. We should remember that in Cervantes's day madmen were often objects of cruel fun, and in those scenes where other characters play along with (and even encourage) Don Quixote's madness, we should picture some heartless kids today taunting a retarded boy. I laugh as loudly as anyone at some of Don Quixote's antics, but I'm not proud of it.
The key indicator of his madness, of course, is his assumption that books of fiction are literally true. (In Spanish, historia can mean both "history" and "story," a fuzziness Cervantes exploits.) But not only are the chivalry novels he reads wildly unrealistic, they contradict the historical record: knights in the Middle Ages were merely elite soldiers, and "chivalry" was just a poetic ideal--"indeed, an ideal that may have been only infrequently attained, and perhaps never in actual warfare," as one authority informs us.8 Put bluntly, Don Quixote's late-life career change is based on a compound lie: the heroes who inspire him never existed, their values are poetic inventions, and the texts that enshrine these heroes and ideals are falsehoods. Though deluded in almost everything he sees, he self-righteously insists that he alone sees clearly and that everyone else walks in darkness. DQ1 is not about the power of the imagination to transform mundane reality, as some suggest, but about deluding yourself, getting your facts wrong, and then endangering others with your delusions. (Think of Don Quixote as a Christian Scientist parent who allows his sick child to die rather than seek medical assistance, confident in the power of prayer and the will of his god. Or think of him as a born-again Christian president willing to drag his country into a ruinous, unnecessary war in pursuit of a delusional political agenda.) As Guy Davenport notes, the adjective quixotic—a hopelessly idealistic notion or project—"should mean something like hallucinated, self-hypnotized, or play in collision with reality."9 How then can any reader admire the actions of a lunatic so deeply lost in error and delusion, so alienated from the reality-based world? Perhaps because all readers live in cultures that tolerate, even admire such deludenoids.
Most people aren't literally driven crazy by books and then inspired to act them out in the real world, with one obvious exception: religious nuts. Like Don Quixote, they immerse themselves in fanciful texts that they regard as factually true (the Bible, the Quran, the Book of Mormon, what have you), then sally forth into the world and try to impose the dictates of those fictions on others, resorting to violence when necessary in the belief they are doing their god's work.10 Don Quixote is of course a devout Catholic and regards knight-errantry as a spiritual calling: "we are ministers of God on earth, the arms by which His justice is put into effect on earth" (1.13). But instead of being labeled crazy, such people are esteemed as moral guardians, pillars of the community, spiritual leaders, and in extreme cases martyrs in a righteous cause, even though the books they base their beliefs on are as unhistorical and contrived as The Exploits of Esplandián, Felixmarte of Hyrcania, The Knight Platir, and other foolish fictions in Don Quixote's library.
As usual, we can count on Sancho Panza to point out the obvious: "What demons in your heart incite you to attack our Catholic faith?" he asks his master in DQ1's final chapter, by which point a pattern should be clear. In dozens of instances Cervantes slyly associates chivalric novels with the Bible, beginning in the prologue when his friend advises him "if you name some giant in your book, make him the giant Goliath, and just by doing that, which is almost no trouble at all, you have a nice long annotation, because you can then write: The giant Goliath, or Goliat, was a Philistine whom the shepherd David slew with a stone in the valley of Terebint, as recounted in the Book of Kings." In the book-burning chapter (1.6), the priest uses religious imagery to judge Don Quixote's chivalry novels, as though he were Irenaeus of Lyon separating orthodox gospels from heretical apocrypha. The canon likewise compares the authors of such novels to "the founders of new sects and new ways of life, . . . giving the ignorant rabble a reason to believe and consider as true all the absurdities they contain" (1.49); he goes on tell Don Quixote that if he still wishes "to read books about great chivalric deeds, read Judges in Holy Scripture, and there you will find magnificent truths and deeds both remarkable and real" (my italics).11 How sneaky of Cervantes to express these views wearing the camouflage of the priest and canon; verily, "as the saying goes, 'The devil can hide behind the cross'" (1.6, repeated in 2.47). Throughout the novel, Don Quixote defends the discrepancies and contradictions in novels of chivalry with all the ingenuousness of a fundamentalist defending the inerrancy of the Bible. While it would be too reductive (but not wrong) to say Cervantes equates knight errantry with religious belief, he does seem to insinuate a syllogism that goes: Chivalric novels are false; the Bible resembles those novels; therefore, the Bible is false. But Cervantes gleefully complicates matters by insisting repeatedly that Don Quixote is true, which he and everyone who reads it knows is untrue.
In the land of the Spanish Inquisition, Cervantes couldn't come straight out and call the Bible untrue, and probably wouldn't have gone that far even if he could. Like many people then and now, he probably felt its "spiritual truths" were independent of the Bible's historical veracity; that is, the Bible is "true" if treated like a novel, offering ethical lessons and insights in fiction form. And in fact that's what Cervantes means when he claims his novel, unlike unrealistic novels of chivalry, is "true": it's true to life and to human nature, though not literally true. But if you insist on the Bible's veracity, you are as mad as Don Quixote, and potentially as dangerous. It's difficult not to develop affection for the old coot, but we must not forget his rap sheet: numerous vicious assaults on innocent citizens, several attempted murders, animal cruelty (he kills more than seven sheep, not to mention the hardships he imposes upon long-suffering Rocinante), aiding and abetting the escape of a chain-gang of criminals, extensive property damage, and much emotional distress for his niece and housekeeper. He considers himself above the law, hallucinates like a tripping hippie, and is the worst kind of meddling, holier-than-thou do-gooder. Don Quixote's counterparts today range from self-appointed moral watchdogs who boycott theaters, television companies, and museums showing unorthodox art, to concerned but naive parents who try to remove Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the Harry Potter novels from school library shelves, to those who take such faith-based initiatives as assassinating abortion doctors and committing acts of terrorism. Anyone who reads DQ1 carefully must regard Don Quixote as a madman, not a madcap, much less a model. I keep harping on this point because Cervantes does; even in the concluding chapter of DQ1, Don Quixote tries to stab a goatherd, attacks a procession of penitents carrying a statue of the Catholic goddess Mary (under the assumption it is a gang of villains abducting a noble lady), and is once more designated by Cervantes an hombre loco. The author wants us to admire Don Quixote, not Don Quixote.
The Knight of the Sorrowful Face is such an extraordinary character that he seems capable of symbolizing a variety of things, but I would insist, contra much current critical theory, that only those grounded in the text are valid.12 For example, one can say he represents the man of faith in the process of being rendered ridiculous in the late 16th-century by the man of science, who relies on testing and empirical evidence to understand the world, not on venerable texts of dubious origin. This conflict is dramatized in a minor incident at the beginning of the novel: realizing he will need a sallet helmet for his adventures, Quijana makes a pasteboard visor to add to an old headpiece to make a complete helmet. He tests it with his sword and easily smashes it to pieces. So "he made another one, placing strips of iron on the inside so that he was satisfied with its strength; and not wanting to put it to the test again, he designated and accepted it as an extremely fine sallet" (1.1). "Not wanting to make any further experiments" (as Raffel translates the key phrase), he retreats from the new world of science to the old world of faith, choosing to believe (rather than know) something because it allows him to retain control over his world. This is the moment Alonso Quijana becomes Don Quixote of La Mancha. Once he puts the homemade helmet on, he is trapped in it and can't get it off, "and so he spent all night wearing the helmet and was the most comical and curious figure anyone could imagine" (1.3), a brilliant metaphor for a solipsist trapped in his own private fantasy world, or for a true believer within the armor of his faith. Needless to say, the visor shatters the first time it is put to the test.
How many of DQ1's earliest readers noticed these subversive subtleties is difficult to say; most seem to have regarded the novel merely as an entertaining farce—which it certainly is—along the lines of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In the sequel, Cervantes decided to give the crowd more of what they wanted, but he also pumped up the paradoxes, heterodoxies, and metafictional wizardry—something to make the cognoscenti think.
Segunda parte del ingenioso caballero don Quijote de la Mancha appeared at the end of 1615 and begins a month after the concluding events of the first part. During that impossibly brief time, we are to believe DQ1 was typeset, printed, and distributed throughout Spain. Even Don Quixote, who will believe anything, "could not persuade himself that such a history existed, for the blood of the enemies he had slain was not yet dry on the blade of his sword and his chivalric exploits were already in print" (2.3). Not only that, DQ2 is set in the summer of 1614, meaning the events of DQ1 took place nine years after it was published, and which makes a mockery of the narrator's earlier contention the story came from an old Arabic manuscript (1.9). This is further evidence either of Cervantes' carelessness or his carefree attitude toward the conventions of novel-writing.
DQ2 finds Cervantes still in his self-appointed role as grand inquisitor of bad Spanish art (it's disingenuous to insist on a strict distinction between Cervantes and his narrator): ridiculous novels of chivalry are still under fire, but he also discusses plays (2.12), poetry (2.16, 70), commercial writing (2.22), translations (2.62), and painting (2.71), as well as the ancillary fields of criticism and publishing. The art of the novel remains Cervantes' principal concern, and the two novels that receive the most commentary are DQ1—Cervantes takes this opportunity to explain discrepancies and defend his artistic choices—and the unauthorized sequel the anonymous Alonso de Avellaneda published in 1614. Cervantes was outraged when the latter's Segunda parte del ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha appeared, but he recognized it as a godsend that would allow him to complicate his metafiction further. Don Quixote begins running in to people who have read the false Quixote, which causes him to rail against it as yet another example of bad fiction and to act as though someone were out there imitating him as badly (unbeknownst to him) as he imitates the heroes of chivalric fiction. It's worth noting that he never comes across a copy of DQ1, but he does read some of the false Quixote in Barcelona near the end of the novel (2.72)—"the first scene in literature in which a literary character visits a bookstore," Mancing remarks (586). By this point, Don Quixote has become a Möbius strip of fiction imitating fiction imitating life imitating fiction imitating. . . .
Although one can find metafictional gestures in earlier novels, instances of a writer self-consciously commenting on his work within the work, Cervantes' decision to have his characters comment on a novel in which they appear is a stunning innovation. Of course, he had deployed some metafictional devices in DQ1: the novel begins with poems from characters in chivalric literature addressed to characters in Cervantes' novel (a section left out of most English translations), followed by a metafictional prologue about the writing of prologues. The novel proper features a sardonic first-person narrator who claims to be telling a story adapted from earlier "authors of this absolutely true history" (1.1), until he runs out of text mid-incident at the end of chapter 8. In chapter 9 the narrator searches for more of the novel until he discovers an Arabic version of Don Quixote's story by a Muslim historian named Cide Hamete Benengeli, which he acquires for a song and then pays to have translated into Castilian. This is much more elaborate and playful than the older convention of discovering and publishing an old manuscript, and as a result we have Cervantes pretending to be an editor commenting (after chapter 9) on a translation—in which the translator occasionally departs from the original—from an Arabic recension of a Spanish story available in several versions, introduced by literary characters who "existed" long ago, all concerning a fictional character who is convinced other fictional characters are real. And if that were not enough to make the head spin, Cervantes ups the ante in DQ2 when he brings the published DQ1 into the game. This brilliant ploy generates a mindbending expansion of the main theme of the first part, namely, the uses and misuses of fiction. Silly novels of chivalry inspired Don Quixote to act them out in the real world, and in part 2, DQ1 inspires several characters to act it out; for Don Quixote, part 1 is a tragedy, but for them, it's a farce.
Sansón Carrasco, a mischievous student, is the first to tell the knight and his squire about the novel they're in, and then dresses up as the Knight of the Mirrors to cut short Don Quixote's third sally in search of adventures; unexpectedly defeated, he recuperates and returns at the end as the Knight of the White Moon and defeats him, forcing Don Quixote to abandon knighthood for a year. Between the time of those two jousts, a number of readers of DQ1 and even the false Quixote encounter the knight and play along with his madnessó"People know Don Quixote like a book," quips critic Walter L. Reed13ónone more so than the fun-loving duke and duchess whose elaborately staged deceptions occupy much of DQ2. Even Sancho deceives him about his lady-love Dulcinea (and is deceived in turn when made governor of an island). If part 1 is about the dangers of deceiving oneself, part 2 is about the dangers of being deceived by others, especially by those in positions of authority. "Cide Hamete goes on to say that in his opinion the deceivers are as mad as the deceived, and that the duke and duchess came very close to seeing like fools since they went to such lengths to deceive two fools," says the narrator (or the translator) near the end of the novel (2.70), long after he exposed the duke and duchess as corrupt people (2.47) not averse to using weapons of mass deception to further their own designs.
Don Quixote is easily deceived because his condition is unchanged from DQ1; he is still loco, still armed and dangerous. (He almost kills both the "Knight of the Mirrors" and a puppeteer; tries to kill several cats; threatens to kill a man on hearsay evidence; attempts to whip Sancho; and again causes miscellaneous property damage.) Chapter 9 opens with the warning "the madness of Don Quixote here reached the limit and boundaries of the greatest madnesses that can be imagined, and even passed two crossbow shots beyond them." Making matters worse is his willingness to be deceived; first, he allows Sancho to convince him that an ugly, smelly peasant girl is his beloved Dulcinea, maliciously transformed by enchanters (2.10). He is heartbroken he can't see the beautiful princess Sancho describes, and wants so desperately to believe in her perfection that he ignores the evidence before his eyes (and the garlic smell in his nose). His yearning for her, which displaces his abstract desire for fame in DQ1, is so strong that he blames himself for her transformation and devotes himself to her disenchantment for the rest of the novel. Then it gets sadder: after his strange, beautiful dream in the Cave of Montesinos, and after Sancho lies about what he saw while pretending to ride the magic horse Clavileño through the skies, Don Quixote whispers to his squire: "Sancho, just as you want people to believe what you have seen in the sky, I want you to believe what I saw in the Cave of Montesinos. And that is all I have to say" (2.41). That is one of the most extraordinary moments in the entire novel, and I don't know whether to laugh or to cry. When I hear religious people today call for ecumenical tolerance and respect for the religions of others, I hear the pathetic pact made by these two fools: I'll believe in your fantasy if you'll believe in mine.
Enabled by all the pranksters around him, Don Quixote still believes in the veracity of chivalric literature, and Cervantes continues to expose the not-so-deceptive similarities between the imaginary realms of chivalry and Catholicism. Don Quixote defends his belief in giants by citing Goliath in "Holy Scripture, which cannot deviate an iota from the truth" (2.1), insists "chivalry is a religion, and there are sainted knights in Glory" (2.8), mistakes a church for "the palace of Dulcinea," his Virgin Mary (2.9), and consistently uses religious terminology to explain his acts of chivalry. When Don Quixote comes across "approximately a dozen men dressed as farmers"—note that the narrator doesn't call them farmers, but "men dressed as farmers," wary of appearances in a way Don Quixote is not—who are transporting wooden images intended for an altarpiece, he regards them as fellow knights:
"This was one of the best knights errant the divine militia ever had: his name was Don St. George, and he was also a protector of damsels. Let us see this one. . . . This knight ["it seemed to be St. Martin" (my italics)] was another Christian seeker of adventures, and I believe he was more generous than brave, . . . This one certainly is a knight, a member of the squadrons of Christ; his name is St. James the Moorkiller, one of the most valiant saints and knights the world has ever had, and that heaven has now. . . . This [St. Paul] was the greatest enemy of the Church of God Our Lord had at the time, and the greatest defender it will ever have; a knight errant in life, and a steadfast saint in death, . . . [T]he difference, however, between me and them [Don Quixote says of the wooden idols] is that they were saints and fought in the divine manner, and I am a sinner and fight in the human manner. They conquered heaven by force of arms, for 'the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence' [Matt. 11:12], and so far I do not know what I am conquering by the force of my labors. . . ." (2.58)
Although he doesn't know it, valiant Don Quixote is conquering irrationality, superstition, and uncritical belief in the inerrancy of texts, whether chivalric or biblical. Though the censors let this passage stand (they insisted on changes in other arguably blasphemous ones), it's hard to imagine a harsher condemnation of Catholicism. It highlights the religion's tendency to resort to violence to enforce its doctrines, and equates some of its most famous saints with the imaginary heroes of third-rate novels, suggesting only a madman would hold them in esteem and believe in their legends. (The farmers "did not understand half of what he said.") This isn't routine anti-clericism; as fabulist Robert Coover explains, Cervantes "uses familiar mythic or historical forms to combat the content of those forms and to conduct the reader (lector amantísimo!) to the real, away from mystification to clarification, away from magic to maturity, away from mystery to revelation."14
As DQ2 progresses, Don Quixote experiences fewer hallucinations and enjoys more moments of lucidity, conveniently so when Cervantes wants him to express one of his own opinions on a subject. He strikes one character as "a sane man gone mad and a madman edging toward sanity" (2.17), though he still has trouble distinguishing between fiction and reality, as in the hilarious scene where he gets so caught up in a puppet show that he attacks its villains (2.26). A medieval man, he still believes in the Ptolemaic view of the universe and prefers prayer to perception. When confronted with the resemblance between "Countess Trifaldi" and the steward who impersonated her, Don Quixote advises Sancho "it would imply a very serious contradiction, and this is not the time to make such inquiries, for that would lead us into intricate labyrinths. Believe me, my friend, it is necessary to pray to Our Lord very sincerely to save both of us from evil wizards and wicked enchanters" (2.44). Sancho, a modern man blessed with the spirit of scientific inquiry, responds, "All right: I'll be quiet, but I'll stay on the alert from now on to see if I can find anything else that will prove or disprove what I suspect."15 Nor does the knight embrace deductive reasoning: coming across a boat, he announces with what can only be called religious conviction, "You must know, Sancho, that this boat clearly and beyond any doubt is calling and inviting me to get in it and sail to assist a knight . . ." whereas Sancho relies on empirical evidence and reasoning: "it seems to me it belongs to some fishermen, because the best shad in the world swim this river" (2.29)—which turns out to be true. But Don Quixote insists, and nearly gets them both drowned. (The narrator makes it clear which side he's on—the religious or the scientific—by observing "the boat glided gently along in midstream, moved not by any secret intelligence or hidden enchanter, but by the current of the water itself. . . .")
Worn down by disappointment and melancholy, and perhaps educated by Sancho's rational approach to things (just as Sancho adopts some of his master's fanciful notions), the former Alonso Quixano (Quixana in DQ1) eventually regains his senses after returning home, announcing, "My judgment is restored, free and clear of the dark shadows of ignorance imposed on it by my grievous and constant reading of detestable books of chivalry" (2.74), echoing a line he had uttered on a dark night of the soul a few weeks earlier: "Post tenebras spero lucem" (2.68): "after the darkness, I hope for the light," the motto (derived from Job 17:12) of Cervantes' publisher and printed on the original title pages of both volumes of Don Quixote. Quixano has left behind the darkness of madness, superstition, irrationality, subjectivity, and duplicitous writing (both secular and sacred) for the light of reason, objectivity, and sanity, and dies a good death. The transition is quietly noted in the final chapter when the narrator describes Quixano's moment of death: he "gave up the ghost. I mean to say, he died"—rejecting Catholic superstition ("dio su espíritu") for scientific fact ("el muerto").
It's a tribute to Cervantes' artistic cunning that this sensible ending feels like a crushing defeat, for the harshest critic of the mad and dangerous Don Quixote must admit Alonso Quixano had the time of his life during that final summer vacation, living the dream. When Don Quixote confronts a fellow fifty-year-old in 2.16, he sees in Don Diego de Miranda what he might have become had he led a saner life: a conventional man, married with children, hospitable, and utterly boring. Instead, Quixano spent a lifetime filling his head with books—his erudition indicates he read wider than novels of chivalry—and the only romantic feelings we're told about resulted from a few glimpses over the last dozen years of a peasant girl named Aldonza Lorenza, "although she, apparently, never knew or noticed" (1.1). His devotion to his dreamgirl is moving, especially in DQ2 where it matures from a joke to a heartbreaking case of unrequited love. (And how brilliant of Cervantes to abstain from letting her appear in his pages, allowing us to wonder what he saw in the crude wench Sancho describes.) Never married, Quixano is a "virgin" to the real world, which is significant: most novels are about a young person's transition from innocence to experience; it's inherently comical for a fifty-year-old man to undergo this transition (cf. the 2005 film The 40-Year-Old Virgin), but it's also sad, which makes this loveless bookworm's end-of-life blowout all the more endearing.
For Cervantes, writing Don Quixote was a similar late-life adventure, an occasional vacation from what he considered serious work (which we'll get to next). That explains his flippant lack of concern for consistency and narrative logic, for the novel's contradictions, discrepancies, and broken chronology, Sancho's uncharacteristic elocution at times, and other esthetic faults. (Don Quixote explains them all away as the work of malevolent magicians.) It also explains the ludic nature of the text: it is filled with snatches of songs and other pop-cultural references of the day, childish wordplay such as: "Don Quixote settled down at the foot of an elm, and Sancho at the foot of a beech, for these trees, and others like them, always have feet but not hands" (2.28), bursts of purple prose, parodies, and chapter titles that grow increasingly silly. (2.66: "Which recounts what will be seen by whoever reads it, or heard by whoever listens to it being read"; 2.70: "Which follows chapter LXIX, and deals with matters necessary to the clarity of this history.") Having heard complaints from readers, Cervantes resisted inserting any previously written novellas into DQ2 as he had in DQ1, but he indulged his sweet tooth for old-fashion tales with brief interludes like the story of Basilio and Quiteria (2.19-22) and that of the cross-dressing woman who kills her lover under the mistaken assumption he has dumped her for another (2.60), another quixotic exemplum about acting violently under the delusion one is in the right. And throughout, Cervantes uses the novel's broad platform to express his opinions on a variety of topics, usually via his knight, whose feats of rhetoric grow more impressive than his feats of chivalry. Cervantes wasn't the first to regard the novel as a carnival, where you can get away with anything (bearded ladies! fearsome lions! a puppet show for the kiddies!) as long as you keep your readers entertained, but his example expanded the possibilities for the genre as it entered the modern age.
Exaggerated claims have been made for Don Quixote over the centuries. Some call it the first novel, which it certainly is not, or the greatest novel ever written, though its many errors and inconsistencies disqualify it from that honor. (Is it too much to ask that the greatest novel be as technically accomplished as the greatest painting, the greatest symphony, etc.?) It can be considered the first modern novel, however; not in a chronological sense—novels were pouring off the presses all around the world at the beginning of the seventeenth century, or wherever you want to place the beginning of the early modern era—but in the sense that it marks the transition from the medieval worldview (unscientific, faith-based, Ptolemaic, tradition-bound, authoritarian, certain, static) to the modern. Cervantes was one of the brave few willing to enter the "intricate labyrinths" Don Quixote refused to enter, the modern age of uncertainty, relativism, and the deceptiveness of appearances (the novel's nominal theme). It was published at a time when the master narrative that had sustained Christian Europe for over a millennium was unraveling like Don Quixote's cheap stockings (2.44, the saddest chapter in the novel), and started to sound as contrived and unreliable as a novel of chivalry. Braving the wrath of the reactionary Church, a few strove to replace the old faith-based world with a fact-based one developed from scientific inquiry, and Don Quixote gleefully shows the indignities and mockery appropriate to those who didn't get with the new program. It's a less comforting world, a humbling one where one has to accept the fact the earth is not the center of the universe but one of many planets, "no larger than a mustard seed, and the men walking on it not much bigger than hazel nuts," as the Copernican Sancho Panza puts it (2.41, lying through his teeth, but no matter). Cervantes evinces a lingering nostalgia for that comfortable old world, but he was wise and disillusioned enough to know it was time for it to be tossed into the flames, laughed out of existence, desacralized, demythologized, disenchanted, desengaño—the Spanish word means "disillusioned" but also "disabused" of wrongful notions, freed from misconceptions.
Not everyone agreed, of course—even today there are billions of people who still exhibit essentially a medieval worldview—and for many Don Quixote was and remains merely a comic novel about an Abbott-and-Costello act working the country-inn circuit of old Andalusia. Other medieval-minded people have regarded Don Quixote as a Christ figure; he is one all right, but not in a positive way. He's a parody of Christ, a mockery of him; his delusions imply that Christ was a similar madman, crazed by Old Testament prophecies into regarding himself as the messiah just as Quixana was duped by novels of chivalry into regarding himself as a glorious knight errant. Only by ignoring all the ironic deflations in Cervantes' text—as religious people ignore the inconvenient errors, prejudices, and barbarisms of their sacred texts—can one associate the loon of Spain with the Light of the World.16
More interesting than readers' responses are those of the novelists who followed Cervantes. First, they took from him a tone and attitude (which Cervantes inherited from Petronius, Boccaccio, and Rabelais) more suitable for the skeptical modern age, which would later be praised by Nietzsche: "Objections, digressions, gay mistrust, the delight in mockery are signs of health: everything unconditional belongs in pathology."17 We'll hear that tone again in Scarron, Swift, Fielding, Sterne, Stendahl, Melville, Flaubert, Twain, Wilde, Joyce, and most modernists and postmodernists. Second, they learned that a comic novel can deal with serious philosophical issues, that farce is not necessarily incompatible with profundity. And third, they saw the role of the novelist change from near-anonymous chronicler to center-stage performer, and the novel become an "opportunity for display" for "a good mind, providing a broad and spacious field where one's pen could write unhindered," as Cervantes' canon says, "allow[ing] the author to show his skills. . . ." (1.47). Significantly, the closing scene of DQ2 is given not to Don Quixote but to his putative author, Cide Hamete Berenjena (Benengeli in DQ1), who hangs up his pen on a rack as though it were a knight's lance. The author is the true hero of this double-decker novel, the "ingenious gentleman" of the title page. Not all novelists would don the barber's basin and sally forth into the expanded field of fiction Cervantes opened up, but the modern novel is unthinkable without this revolutionary masterpiece.
|1||I'll use DQ1 and DQ2 henceforth to distinguish between the two, and reserve Don Quixote only for the combined work. All quotations are from Edith Grossman's smooth translation (unless otherwise noted), and refer to volume/chapter.|
|2||This is derived from datable events in the captive's tale (1.39-41), though Cervantes paid little attention to chronology and makes an irreconcilable mess of it. See the article "Chronology in Cervantes' Works" in Mancing's Cervantes Encyclopedia (145-46), a worthy squire for any scholarly knight.|
|3||Lectures on Don Quixote, 55.|
|4||This sixteen-year-old beauty falls for and runs away with a flashy ex-soldier who robs her and abandons her in a cave. He is characterized by an obstreperous fashion sense, "decked out in a thousand colors and wearing a thousand glass trinkets and thin metal chains." For an illuminating sociological treatise on this phenomenon, see Jay Louis's Hot Chicks with Douchebags (NY: Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2008).|
|5||"Prettiest Girl of All Time," an acronym from Wallace's Infinite Jest.|
|6||"Partial Magic in the Quixote," in Labyrinths, 194.|
|7||Page xxx in her edition of Exemplary Stories.|
|8||Norris J. Lacey, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia (NY: Garland, 1996), 87.|
|9||"Foreword" to Nabokov's Lectures on Don Quixote, xiv.|
|10||In his exemplary story Rinconete and Cortadillo—which is mentioned in 1.47—Cervantes describes a Seville crime syndicate modeled on a religious fraternity; its members are practicing Catholics, and its newest member, Rinconete, is "astounded at how certain and confident they were that they would go to heaven as long as they did not neglect their devotions, while their lives were dedicated to robbery, murder, and crimes against God" (p. 105 in Lipson's edition). Lurking behind this story and probably behind Don Quixote as well is Erasmus's Manual of a Christian Knight (Enchiridion militis christiani , translated into Spanish in 1526), which urges Catholics to practice their religion's ethics and not to limit themselves to its rites and observances. The scholarly consensus is that Cervantes' religious views were influenced by those of the Dutch humanist.|
|11||While "the book of Judges presents an extraordinarily rich collection of thrilling war stories and tales of individual heroism in the battles between the Israelites and their neighbors . . . [it] has very little to do with what really happened in the hill country of Canaan in the Early Iron Age"--Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, 99, 122—their italics.|
|12||This should go without saying, but some get so carried away with the idea of Don Quixote that they neglect the text that contains him. (He's a literary character, not a Rorschach test.) Davenport says he knew a professor who taught the novel without ever having read it (xiv).|
|13||An Exemplary History of the Novel, 84.|
|14||Pricksongs & Descants, 79. This is from the prologue to his "Seven Exemplary Fictions."|
|15||But rationality isn't everything, and Sancho is hardly an admirable character. He abandons his family without informing them to accompany Don Quixote, he is greedy, a liar (especially regarding Dulcinea), an eager supporter of the African slave trade (1.29), "a mortal enemy of the Jews" (2.8), illiterate, and a vulgar materialist: "You're worth what you have, and what you have is what you're worth" (2.20). As governor of his "island," he speaks like a fervent reactionary: "I intend to favor those who labor, maintain the privileges of the gentry, reward the virtuous, and, above all, respect religion and the honor of the clergy" (2.69). Cervantes knew he would have been banished from Sancho's plutocracy.|
|16||Of almost no value—except as a cautionary example of how religion can erode a fine mind—are the essays of the Spanish Catholic philosopher Miguel de Unamuno gathered under the title Our Lord Don Quixote (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967). For example, he passes over the key book-burning chapter (1.6) because "It is a matter of books and not of life" (52), blind to the fact Don Quixote is all about the influence of books on life and the crucial importance, therefore, of choosing wisely among them.|
|17||Beyond Good and Evil, section 154, in Kaufmann's Basic Writings, 280. What did Nietzsche think of Cervantes' novel? "Today we read Don Quixote with a bitter taste in our mouths, almost with a feeling of torment, and would thus seem very strange and reprehensible to its author and his contemporaries: they read it with the clearest conscience in the world as the most cheerful of books, they laughed themselves almost to death over it"—On the Genealogy of Morals (2.6), Basic Writings 502-3.|
Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. Ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. NY: New Directions, 1964.
Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. Don Quijote de la Mancha. Ed. Martín de Riquer. Barcelona: Planeta, 1995.
. Don Quixote. Trans. Edith Grossman. NY: Ecco, 2003.
. Exemplary Stories. Trans. Lesley Lipson. NY: Oxord UP, 1998.
Coover, Robert. Pricksongs & Descants: Fictions. NY: Dutton, 1969.
Finkelstein, Israel, and Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Mancing, Howard. The Cervantes Encyclopedia. 2 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on Don Quixote. Ed. Fredson Bowers. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Bruccoli Clark, 1983.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. NY: Modern Library, 2000.
Reed, Walter L. An Exemplary History of the Novel: The Quixotic versus the Picaresque. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1981.
After graduating from Rutgers, Steven Moore joined the staff of Dalkey Archive Press/The Review of Contemporary Fiction, where he served as Managing Editor until 1996. He is the author of several books and essays on modern literature, particularly on William Gaddis—the subject of his dissertation, which Richard Poirier directed.