O celebrated Author! O fortunate Don Quixote! O famous Dulcinea! O comical Sancho Panza! Together and separately may you live an infinite number of years, bringing pleasure and widespread diversion to the living.
—Cervantes, Don Quixote, II, 40

Don Quixote is the mother of all novels. Or as Lionel Trilling put it, “All prose fiction is a variation on the theme of Don Quixote.” That theme is the clash between what we think, or imagine, or wish is so, and what is so. The clash is a matter of differing perspectives: personal, intellectual, class, cultural, historical. The consciousness of perspective—that I see things this way and you see things that way—is a form of self-consciousness. It develops in the riper stages of a civilization, if it ever develops. Don Quixote is one marker of that development in ours. Perspective consciousness is an advance in humanization, a deeper awareness of who we are and how we differ in our understandings. Don Quixote sees a lot of wicked giants, Sancho Panza sees windmills. A mild man otherwise, but pugnacious when an “adventure” presents itself, the knight charges. Horse and rider are swept up by a whirling van and tumbled to the ground, ignominiously, ridiculously. Sancho is proven right. But the Don is immovable in his chivalric madness: Frestón the enchanter turned the giants into mills so as to rob him of the glory of defeating them. To the ridiculousness of his delusion and its consequences is added the ridiculousness of his persistence in it, which endures for some 900 inventive pages.

The Spanish masterpiece is the mother of the novel too in its scope. Cervantes’s purpose as he states it more than once was to mock “the false and nonsensical” books of chivalry that drew on the Carolingian and Arthurian legends. The simple read these books as history, and Don Quixote in the simplicity of his madness does the same. After a peasant carries home the battered hidalgo ignobly on a mule from his first, brief sally, the village priest and barber conduct an Inquisitional auto-da-fé of the corrupting romances in Quixote’s library, sparing however the sensible ones in which “knights eat, and sleep, and die in their beds and make a will before they die.” That is how Don Quixote dies at last, sensibly, having lived one absurd adventure after another.

The Spanish masterpiece is the mother of the novel.

Yet the preposterous romances had one good thing about them—they provided “a broad and spacious field” in which an author’s pen is able to write unhindered about every kind of happening, person, and subject: shipwrecks and battles, valiant captains and brave knights, insolent barbarians and beautiful ladies, necromancy, music, statecraft, and much more. This is the Canon Priest speaking who, coming on the Don being brought home in a cage at the end of his second sally, is told about Quixote’s book-induced delusion of his being born to revive knight errancy. The Canon deplores the false romances that have turned poor Alonso Quixano’s head, except for the one virtue he allows them above. The worthy kind of stories “restrain exaggeration and moderate impossibility”; they adhere to “verisimilitude and mimesis,” and though written in prose possess all those “possibilities of sweetness and pleasingness” which poetry and rhetoric afford. Their “free style” enables the writer to show his skill in a variety of literary modes including the epic—“for the epic can be written in prose as well as in verse.” We can hear Cervantes’s voice behind the Canon’s words, preaching as he practices in Don Quixote, but also as he doesn’t practice.

He practices as he preaches by writing an epic in prose. This was to establish the novel’s (negative) foundation principle. For the prose epic’s “free style” grants the writer freedom from the rules of Classical-Renaissance poetics. Such freedom opened up to Cervantes the whole dusty Manchegan world of villages and roads, inns and palacios, with its vivid Spanish life at all levels—opened up in time to novelists the whole world everywhere. Literary discussion of this kind is always breaking out in Don Quixote, which among other things is a book about books.

But Cervantes doesn’t practice as he has the Canon preach. Far from eliminating fantasticality and impossible wonders from Don Quixote, he brings them in full blown under cover of the Don’s dementia. Extravagant romantic matter is part and parcel of the realism of Don Quixote. And the novel as it has developed has always involved (as often remarked) a tense relation between imagination and reality. Ortega y Gasset put it this way:

[A]lthough the realistic novel was born in opposition to the so-called novel of fantasy, it carries adventure [i.e. the imaginative reality that reaches beyond “inert” reality into the vibrant unreal] enclosed within its body.

Borges for his part said: “The Quixote is less an antidote for [the chivalric] fictions than it is a secret, nostalgic farewell.”

“The Quixote is less an antidote for [the chivalric] fictions than it is a secret, nostalgic farewell,” said Borges.

Often honored as the first (and best) novel, Don Quixote started the genre on its realistic course. But what kind of realist novel is it, exactly? Exactness in the identification of literary objects is often difficult. Yet surely Don Quixote is a comedy first of all, on the surface, and more particularly a parody. That’s what Cervantes himself says, more than once. The Don in his attempts to emulate the legendary champions Amadís of Gaul, Roland, and others, regularly ends up unhorsed, bruised, and battered. Someone nicely said, summing up the reading of the book for the first three hundred years, that “in the seventeenth century it was received with a laugh, in the eighteenth with a smile, in the nineteenth with a tear.” Early in the nineteenth century, Don Quixote began to be read as a complex classical work calling for a due complexity of interpretation. Let me distinguish two “schools” in the understanding of it which have long been recognized in one way or another. Though critics today generally belong to both, the distinction is a useful simplification.

On the one hand there are the Comedists. Don Quixote was an immediate hit when its first part was published in 1605, because of its mockery of the widely read romances. Before the nineteenth century, every reader was a Comedist avant la lettre. No one dreamed it was anything but a burlesque of the knight errantry books, so there was nothing to interpret. When the Don thinks an inn is a castle, that’s a ridiculous figment of his madness, nothing more. Erich Auerbach, the most formidable of the Comedists, writing brilliantly as always in Mimesis, says flatly that “the whole book is a comedy in which well founded reality holds madness up to ridicule . . . .  We always remain in the realm of gaiety.” This is the story that was read in the novel’s own time, then later by Fielding and Sterne, and translated accordingly.

On the other hand are the Profundists. For them the novel’s humor is sad, its comedy tragic. His squire Sancho dubs his master the Knight of the Sorrowful Face because “your Grace has the sorriest looking face” he, Sancho, has seen in a long time, “it must be because of battle fatigue or the teeth your Grace lost when you charged that ‘army’ (of sheep) and the shepherds stoned you.” Sancho sees what is plainly to be seen. Don Quixote likes the title Sancho bestows on him, ostensibly because knights errant in the romances all bear resounding titles, but unostensibly for Profundists looking below the surface because his sadness originates in a depth of meaning. For them the knight’s melancholy has a hidden philosophical, religious, learned sense. He is a transcendental, tragic, universal figure. If indeed he is mad and foolish, he is wiser in his folly than the sane.

The first Profundists were the Romantics. For the psychologizing Coleridge, Don Quixote is the symbolical product of Cervantes’s unconscious mind. The Don is a Hamlet-type in whom there is an excess of inwardness and imagination not balanced by a practical judgment learned amid the busy affairs of men. (Coleridge as usual is talking about himself.) There is something to be said for this early invoking of the unconscious. S. T. C. was humorless but good at profundities.

“Of all tales ’tis the saddest—and more sad/ Because it makes us smile.” —Lord Byron

To Lord Byron, dropping a tear in Don Juan, the Manchegan hero is a figure of pathos. “Of all tales ’tis the saddest—and more sad/ Because it makes us smile;/ his hero’s right/ . . . to curb the bad/ His only object . . .  / . . . ’tis his virtue makes him mad!” There is something to be said for this too. The long, gaunt, gray figure of the hidalgo in the rusty armor of his great-grandfathers, on his rusty steed Rocinante, breathes sadness along with mad knightly ardor—but not because he has been driven mad by his virtue. His kindness, generosity, knowledge, and good sense are displayed when he is right side up, only then. His sagacity exists entirely apart from his madness. We don’t, as Auerbach writes, “hear wisdom speaking through madness in his case as we do with Shakespeare’s fools or with Charlie Chaplin.” Byron is reading something into the text. Yet “such transforming and transcendent interpretations are often fertile.” Don Quixote “shows a new face to every age.” Still, Cervantes’s book is all “merry play.”

Thus the Comedist. Whom to choose, among so many, for the Profundist? I choose that remarkable Spaniard Miguel de Unamuno, that maestro di color qui sanno, whose overbearing, refractory voice makes you feel small and dithering, whose insubservience is such an inspiration, who said, “My aim is to make all men live a life of restless longing.” As if in reply to Auerbach, though writing before him, Unamuno said (in The Tragic Sense of Life):

What do I care what Cervantes did or did not mean to put into that book, or what he actually did put into it? The living part of it for me is whatever I discover in it—whether Cervantes put it there or not—and it is whatever I myself put into or under or over it, and whatever we all of us put into it.

—which is perfect Quixotism.

Unamuno was going to write an essay proving it is Don Quixote who is real and Cervantes invented. All translations of the novel were good, in fact they were better than the original Spanish, because the universal spiritual idea of the knight was the important thing, not Cervantes’s fine writing, which he didn’t think so fine. Anyhow Cervantes was dead and the Manchegan caballero andante alive, alive for ever. Don Quixote is a tragic hero because he is ridiculous. Heroism is being ridiculous and not being afraid of being ridiculous. Jesus is the divine ridiculous hero and the Don the human ridiculous hero. To be ridiculous is to defy the overbearing is-ness of the world, always to seek, like a fool, what one wishes the world to be, the unreal ideal. “[O]ver all civilization hovers the shadow of Ecclesiastes, with the admonition, ‘How dieth the wise man?—as a fool’” (2:16).

The Romantic Profundists pushed things too far. More and more they read the novel as “esoteric literature.” The phrase is Martin de Riquer’s, the Cervantes scholar, who said, a little like Auerbach, that we need “to read Don Quioxte ingenuously” (to which I would add “again”): to see it according to Cervantes’s declared intention of heaping ridicule on the foolish books of chivalry. After you recognize that, you can elaborate interpretations to your heart’s content. In recent times critics have done exactly that. Don Quixote’s resuming its comic character has been no barrier to the multiplying of interpretations. Into the novel’s depths today peer philosophers, literary theorists, historians of Spanish culture, Western culture, Freudians, anti-Freudians, post-Freudians, socio-political English professors, sex-and-gender scholars. Some of this work sheds light: for example, that Don Quixote is a powerful criticism of the imperialist utopianism of sixteenth-century Spain. Another strains to find an assertion of an antifeudal, proto-bourgeois social and sexual “mentality.” Some are sucked out of the thumb, as the German phrase has it. What I haven’t come across often in my limited reading are animated expressions of the pleasure afforded by a work whose purpose, among however many others it may have, is to give pleasure.

The English translations of Don Quixote reflect the Comedist-Profundist division. Those made in the early eighteenth century (I ignore the seventeenth), among which I know Motteux best, commanded the lively, vigorous English of that time. Motteux dealt freely, too freely, with the Spanish, leaving out a lot, putting in a lot, and making lots of mistakes. But his translation is very funny. In the course of a century and a half of retranslation, mistakes were corrected, footnotes added, the slapstick was toned down and the liveliness of the early translations was improved right out of the novel. Don Quixote became dreary. But now in the last decade, remarkably, two fine translations have been published, Burton Raffel’s (1995) and Edith Grossman’s (2003).

Like today’s Cervantists, the two translators mix as it were both Comedist and Profundist understandings in their versions. Raffel’s more colloquial translation falls on the side of the former and Grossman’s more formal one of the latter. In her Translator’s Note, Grossman praises Cervantes’s writing for “flowing like honey.” Her English too is suave and flowing and has an admirable dignity. When the knight declaims in high style, her style rises to emulate it. (But her use of the second person singular when the Don holds forth madly in antiquated romance language jars more than it height-ens the contrast effect.) Not infrequently Grossman declines into pedantic diction and overformality. Sancho’s peering into the Don’s mouth after his stoning by the shepherds and exclaiming over the many teeth he’s lost cause the knight to cry, “Woe is me! . . . Dentation is to be valued much more than diamonds.” Why does she write “discalced” friars rather than “barefoot” friars? Or call food “comestibles”? But these things said, it remains true that Grossman’s Don Quixote is written in an apt, clear, fine English.

Raffel’s English is less polished, at times even awkward, and less apt in many of its renderings. But his colloquial style survives phrases like “smart ass” which exceeds even his liberal stylistic context. His Quixote-Sancho conversations have the called-for vivacity; it’s a pleasure to read a lively Quixote again. I must confess, however, to still liking old Motteux best, with all his liberties and mistakes and indignities. Here is an example why. Sancho is telling the Don he’d like to be paid for his squiring work.

“When I serv’d my Master Carrasco, quoth Sancho, Father to the Batchelor, your Worship’s Acquaintance, I had two Ducats a Month, besides my Victuals: I don’t know what You’ll give me; tho’ I’m sure there’s more Trouble in being Squire to a Knight-Errant, than in being Servant to a Farmer; for truly we that go to Plough and Cart in a Farmer’s Service, though we moil and sweat so-a-days as not to have a dry Thread on our Backs, let the worst come to worst, are sure of a Bellyful at Night out of the Pot, and to snore in Bed.”

Why is Don Quixote funny? One reason is, because it is the story of Alonso Quixano’s obsession. Obsessions are funny (not always!). Mr. Dick, also lunatic, can’t keep King Charles’s head out of the memorial he can’t finish for that reason. Dickens is a master of the comedy of obsession. Even hideous obsessions have about them an aspect of the ridiculous, as witness the sometimes farcical treatment of Nazism in movies and on the stage. An obsession is an automatism; it operates mechanically. The humor lies in the loss of self-mastery or freedom. We understand that human beings are free; their being deprived of their freedom by the constraint of an obsession turns them into objects—which is funny. Don Quixote sees a troop of men carrying along with them a muffled female figure and must gallop (or rather canter, which is the most Rocinante is up to) to the attack to free a noble lady being held captive by villains. He is knocked on his backside and beaten by indignant penitents marching in procession bearing a robed image of the Virgin Mary.

Why is Don Quixote funny? One reason is, because it is the story of Alonso Quixano’s obsession.

Cervantes as a narrator likes to equivocate, making complex play with the relation between literature and life. He equivocates about the authorship of Don Quixote, pretending somebody else wrote it. It isn’t an uncommon tactic with storytellers, but with Cervantes it has a purpose contrary to the usual one. The author of Don Quixote of La Mancha is given as an Arab historian, Cide Hamete Benengeli. On the one hand, Arabs by nature lie. Therefore you have to conclude that his history can’t be trusted. On the other hand, an Arab historian would not be inclined to exaggerate the deeds of a Christian knight. So things even out. This information is divulged only after you have read eight chapters, because the manuscript breaks off at that point, in the middle of an adventure. Luckily a “second author” finds a notebook containing the story’s continuation in a Toledo market. Written in Cide Hamete’s Arabic, it requires this second author to hire a Morisco to translate it. Thus the manuscript passes from the Arabic of Cide Hamete, into the translator’s Castilian, into the hands of a third party called a second author without explanation; nor is it said who wrote the first eight chapters, except we know that the title page reads “by Miguel de Cervantes.” It adds up to three hands in the narrative pot. A pretended original author is usually meant to enhance the truth effect of a fiction. But Cervantes’ three authorial hands, a bizarre collaboration, call attention to Don Quixote’s fictionality (as do other of Cervantes’ narrative devices). Does such artifice undermine the reader’s voluntary suspension of disbelief? No. All fiction is artifice, we always know that. But in certain kinds of fiction it’s very much a part of our pleasure to forget it. Most realists take pains not to violate the pretense, whereas Cervantes shoves it in our face, impishly. It adds to the comedy, and since comedy is the largest part of the realism of Don Quixote, paradoxically adds to the realism.

Cervantes equivocates about another central matter too: the Don’s madness. Among the ancient armor the hidalgo fetches from a forgotten corner is a helmet lacking a part, which a week’s work repairs and which a testing blow of his sword immediately destroys. He repairs the helmet a second time, but prudently refrains from testing it a second time—he is not so mad as to submit his imagination to another trial. How mad is he, then? It’s hard to say. Now armed and ready to sally out, one thing remains, to possess himself of the lady love every knight errant must have for worshipping chastely in his thoughts. He remembers a peasant girl in the next village he once had, from afar, a weakness for, Alonza Toboso (strong enough to knock a horse down, we find out later) and simply by declaring her his incomparable Lady Dulcinea of Toboso makes her so.

Wishing to be a knight errant, Don Quixote wishes himself into being one, but it needs madness to wish oneself so far. It is a beautiful as well as a ridiculous madness. Its purposes are those of a golden-age knight errancy: to defend maidens, protect widows, and come to the aid of orphans and all those in need—which reality always defeats, comically but (we so readily feel) cruelly.

Why isn’t Alonso Quixano content with his quiet lot as a country gentlemen, looking after his estate and doing what he loves best, hunting? With no more evidence than a few lines at the beginning and one or two later, critics have psychologized, sociologized, and ontologized the question. Why does King Lear, no senile monarch, divide up his kingdom foolishly? So we may have the play King Lear. Alonso Quixana goes mad so we may have the novel Don Quixote. When the sad-faced knight resolves in the Sierra Morena to imitate the crazy actions of the love-lorn Amadís in order for Sancho to be able to report his love distraction to Dulcinea, the squire asks his master why he should do such things? For no reason, the Don replies; the great thing is “to lose one’s reason for no reason.”

In Part One, Don Quixote is a poet who transfigures the persons and things of an inert reality—himself first of all, then mills, whores, sheep, inns, convicts, a barber’s basin, a kitchen maid, a young woman in distress, a wine skin, etc., etc.—into the creatures and objects of a vivid world of marvels. Many of the Don’s adventures are straight farce: as when Maritornes, the greasy Joan of a shabby inn, fumbling to find her muleteer lover among those sleeping in the inn loft, stumbles into the knight’s arms. For him she is a “beautiful and exalted lady” whose burlap shift is silk, horse-mane tresses golden strands, sour smell a fragrance, and whose advances the knight, pledged to Dulcinea, must reject with gallant apologeticalness. A great Marx Brothers hullaballoo then ensues in the loft. The farce is full of fine invention, yet it’s not an unfamiliar kind of comedy. That is not true of the Don’s tilting at the windmills. It is a mystery to me why that simple scene has remained inexpressibly comic over the course of four hundred years, the book’s most famous episode, known to those who never read the novel, the basis of a proverbial phrase. Perhaps Doré’s inspired illustration influences my own delight. I know it does. But that’s not the answer. I think the answer, which is no answer, is that Cervantes reached down into some ineffable depth of comedy to portray with mock-epic yet also epic grandeur horse and rider caught up by the turning sail and flung through the air with spraddled limbs to the ground far below.

This is a turn-around: now it’s the Don who sees what vulgarly is, and his servant what gloriously isn’t.

Part Two, published ten years later (1615), picks up where Part One had left off, but the plot is given a turn away from its past direction. In one of the novel’s great scenes, Sancho pretends (so as not to be caught out in an earlier lie) that three coarse peasant girls on donkeys are the beauteous Dulcinea whom the Don has sent him to find, and her shining damsels, all riding on snow white palfreys. But they’re peasant girls, the bewildered knight says. Where are your eyes, exclaims Sancho, look again, for God’s sake! Both Sancho and the Don kneel to address, in turn, the farm girls, Sancho in the chivalric language he has learned from his master, Don Quixote in still loftier epico-rhetorical eloquence. For answer they are told to get the hell out of the way. More shocks for the Don follow in the scene. He is dreadfully shaken by this encounter with crude reality, for a moment, but he keeps his madness intact by immediately blaming the unlovely apparition on enchantment. This is a turn-around: now it’s the Don who sees what vulgarly is, and his servant what gloriously isn’t.

We learn in Part Two that Part One has been published with magical speed and omniscience, and with huge success. All Spain now knows about Quixote and Sancho; they have become celebrities. The brazen introduction into Part Two, as a part of its story, of an actual fact produces a teasing confusion of fiction and life, of magic and mimesis—a complex comedy indeed, since literature (all art) is magic, and mimesis (realism) is only one of magic’s forms.

Sancho exploited Don Quixote’s madness to save himself from exposure. But the unfeeling Duke and Duchess, whom we soon encounter, exploit it cruelly. A good part of Part Two is taken up with the sadistic practical jokes the noble couple play on the knight and squire. These make uncomfortable reading. I suppose we are meant to laugh, but the brutal sixteenth-century joking is so extreme. The Don’s defeats and humiliations accumulate and the atmosphere of the novel darkens. Defeated in a joust and compelled to forswear knight errantry, Quixote returns home. The ordeal of his battle with the world-as-it-is has exhausted him. Put to bed dying, he acknowledges the folly of his madness (or expressed another way: his vain heroic efforts to animate the inert reality) and again is Alonso Quixano known as the Good.

The world-as-it-is contains, as well as the Duke and the Duchess, as well as uninspired grayness, flatness, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, “personalities more alive than ourselves,” as Harold Bloom writes in his introduction to the Grossman translation. Such deep, round, flesh-and-blood characterization can be compared to Shakespeare’s. Not until the nineteenth century did French and Italian, and, at the turn of the century, German prose narration achieve anything like it. Such depth of characterization is not achieved in the modern way—or modern novelistic way—by an exploration of the inner life, but by speech and action, especially by speech. Don Quixote is partly a dialogue novel. The continual conversations the knight and squire carry on with one another is the novel’s sublimest comedy.

Early in the novel the Don, enjoying the hospitality of goatherds, invites Sancho to share his plate and cup—for knight errancy, “like love, makes all things equal.” Sancho declines, preferring to eat alone and in his peasant fashion. The knight, however, insists. Though it is master and servant speaking and the social distinction isn’t abrogated in the least, the master speaks with no condescension and the servant with no hostility. This geniality—humanity—is the great, the famous quality of the Spanish masterpiece. The two talk and talk as they trot along on horse and donkey. Their conversation has the easy, intimate animation of a good marriage. The love, the friendship, that grows between them is one of equals. Of course it isn’t perfect. That is only possible in nature, between the Don’s Rocinante and Sancho’s donkey, who stand for hours together with the horse’s head hanging over the ass’s neck. The squire’s endless proverbs irritate the knight, the knight’s corrections of his malapropisms the squire. The Don leaves Sancho in the lurch at one point; Sancho is rude and rudely ironical with the Don at times.

They love one another and also expect some advantage from another, Sancho a governorship or count’s title, the knight the squire’s giving himself three thousand whiplashes (according to magical commandment) so as to liberate Dulcinea from her enchantment. But whatever their expectations, they love one another. Sancho says about the Don that “he’s innocent as a baby,” incapable of doing harm, only capable of good, “and because he’s simple I love him with all my heart.” The Don for his part calls Sancho “the friend of my soul rather than my squire.”

Sancho, kneeling beside the Don’s deathbed, weeping, pleads, “Don’t die, your Grace, take my advice, do, and live many more years, because the greatest madness a man can fall into in this life is to let himself die just like that, for no reason.” But the Don makes his will, generously rewarding Sancho, and dies.

The house was in an uproar, but even so the niece ate, the housekeeper drank, and Sancho Panza was content, for inheriting something wipes away or tempers in the heir the memory of the grief that is reasonably felt for the deceased.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 2, on page 28
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