[Paleopsych] CHE: Don Quixote at 400: Still Conquering Hearts
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Wed Feb 2 22:01:36 UTC 2005
Don Quixote at 400: Still Conquering Hearts
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.1.7
By ILAN STAVANS
The Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance is turning 400. By some
accounts, the first part of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes's
masterpiece, was available in Valladolid by Christmas Eve 1604,
although Madrid didn't get copies until January 1605. Thus came to
life the "ingenious gentleman" who, ill equipped with antiquated armor
"stained with rust and covered with mildew," with an improvised
helmet, atop an ancient nag "with more cracks than his master's pate,"
went out into a decaying world where there were plenty of "evils to
undo, wrongs to right, injustices to correct, abuses to ameliorate,
and offenses to rectify."
Cervantes catches a glimpse of the down-and-out hidalgo at around 50,
the prime of one's life by today's standards but a synonym of
decrepitude during what was considered Spain's "Golden Age," an
appellation Cervantes complicates. The protagonist, we are told, is
weathered, his flesh scrawny, and his face gaunt. We know nothing of
his childhood and adolescence and only a modicum about his affairs,
including that too little sleep and too many chivalry novels have
addled his brain.
Almost 1,000 pages later, Don Quixote (or Alonso Quixada or Quexada,
some names Cervantes gives to the hidalgo) lies on his deathbed.
Finally, well into the second book, issued in 1615, Don Quixote dies
-- but only after an impostor, Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda,
impatient that Cervantes kept procrastinating, brought out an
unofficial second part that pushed the author to complete his work.
Cervantes may also have been sensing that his own demise, which came
in April 1616, was close.
About to die the exemplary death, Don Quixote is nevertheless consumed
by the grief of countless defeats and frustrated in his impossible
mission to see his beloved Dulcinea of Toboso. Is he wiser?
Disenchanted? Does he die of melancholia? The limits of age?
"Don Quixote's end," we are told, "came after he had received all the
sacraments and had execrated books of chivalry with many effective
words. The scribe happened to be present, and he said he had never
read in any book of chivalry of a knight errant dying in his bed in so
tranquil and Christian a manner as Don Quixote, who, surrounded by the
sympathy and tears of those present, gave up the ghost, I mean to say,
Don Quixote might be dead, but his ever-ambiguous ghost lives on. His
admirers -- and, in unequal measure, detractors -- are legion. Operas,
musicals, theatrical and film adaptations, as well as fictional
recreations keep piling up: Laurence Sterne was inspired by Don
Quixote's misadventures when writing Tristram Shandy; Gustave Flaubert
paid homage to him in Madame Bovary, as did Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The
Idiot. Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Gimpel the Fool" can be read as a
reimagining of the knight's simplicity. And so on.
Then there are the multilayered interpretations of Don Quixote's
pursuit. Anybody that is somebody has put forth an opinion, from
Miguel de Unamuno, José Ortega y Gasset, Salvador de Madariaga y Rojo,
and Américo Castro, to name a handful of Iberians first, to Samuel
Johnson, Denis Diderot, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Lionel Trilling, and
Vladimir Nabokov. Over the years, Don Quixote has been a template of
the times: The 18th century believed the knight to be a lunatic, lost
to reason; the Victorians approached him as a romantic dreamer,
trapped, just like artists and prophets, in his own fantasy; the
modernists applauded his quest for an inner language; the
postmodernists adore his dislocated identity. Psychiatrists have seen
him as a case study in schizophrenia. Communists have turned him into
a victim of market forces. Intellectual historians have portrayed him
as a portent of Spain's decline into intellectual obscurantism.
Some scholars call Don Quixote the first modern novel, a bildungsroman
that traces the arch of its protagonist's life and the inner
transformation to which it gives room. In the spirit of Erasmus of
Rotterdam's In Praise of Folly, parody reinforces the divide between
the life of the mind and the strictures of society. Others stress the
novel's irony, the multiple voices and blurring of fiction and reality
-- the latter an aspect that Gabriel García Márquez would pay
tribute to in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Don Quixote is one of the
first characters to comment on his own readers ("for me alone was Don
Quixote born," Cervantes writes in the second book, in response to the
publication of the sham version); he is caught at the turning point of
the Enlightenment, between the secular and the religious, reason and
belief. Detractors argue that Cervantes is a careless stylist and a
clumsy plot-builder, pointing out the fractured nature of the novel,
the endless repetitions.
No doubt all that would have come as a surprise to Cervantes himself,
a tax collector with a tarnished reputation, a soldier whose old
battleground glories and often pathetic dreams of literary success
kept him alive. He envied Lope de Vega, the dramaturge of 1,000
comedias, and was looked down upon by the snobbish literary figures of
his day. In short, Cervantes was an outcast. Indeed, in spite of all
the hoopla, he remains one in Spain, perhaps because Spaniards today
still don't know what to make of him. In Madrid the house of de Vega
has been turned into a museum; the one nearby where Cervantes wrote
has been sold time and again, commemorated by a miserable plaque.
One wonders: Would Don Quixote pass the test and be published in New
York today? I frankly doubt it. It would be deemed what editors call
"a trouble manuscript": too long, the story line problematic, the plot
stuffed with too many adventures that do too little to advance the
narrative and too many characters whose fate the reader gets attached
to but who suddenly disappear. And that awkward conceit of a character
finding a book about himself! The style! Those careless sentences that
twist and turn!
The first part of Cervantes's manuscript was sent (possibly under the
title of El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha) to the Counsel
of Castilla for permission to print it. It then went to the
Inquisitorial censors for approval. Around August 1604, Cervantes
tried in vain to enlist a celebrity to compose a poem eulogizing his
protagonist, as it was the custom of the time to include such praise
at the outset of a novel. He failed, his narrative considered too
lowbrow, and composed his own poems.
For all that, the first part of the novel was successful early on. The
initial printing of some 1,800 copies was quickly insufficient, and
new editions were issued (including one in English in 1612). By the
time the second part was released in 1615, Don Quixote was a best
seller. The parodic quality of the novel, the way it pokes fun at
erudition and paints love as the only redemption for the heart,
enchanted readers. As did Cervantes's digressions on his country's
delusions of grandeur.
In my personal library, I have some 80 different versions, including
ones produced for children, as well as translations into Yiddish,
Korean, Urdu, and part of the novel that I translated into Spanglish.
I guess my collection is proof of my passion. I can't think of a book
that better illustrates the tension between private and public life,
one that speaks louder to the power of the imagination in such an
ingenious, unsettling fashion. If ever I wanted to live my life like a
literary character, it would be as Cervantes's sublime creation.
As the forerunner of antiheroes and superheroes, Don Quixote, with his
flawed aspirations, may not subdue giants or imaginary enemies like
the Knight of the Wood, but he continues to conquer hearts, precisely
because he is so ridiculous, inhabiting a universe of his own
concoction. He is the ultimate symbol of freedom, a self-made man
championing his beliefs against all odds. His is also a story about
reaching beyond one's own confinements, a lesson on how to turn
poverty and the imagination into assets, and a romance that reaches
beyond class and faith.
Some authors are so influential that their names have been turned into
adjectives: Dantean, Proustian, Hemingway-esque. But how many literary
characters have undergone a similar fate? "Quixotic," "quixotism," and
"quixotry," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, are all
related to "Quixote," "an enthusiastic visionary person like Don
Quixote, inspired by lofty and chivalrous but false or unrealizable
To be an underdog, to be a fool content with one's delusions, is that
what modernity is about? Or is it the impulse to pursue those
delusions into action? Undoubtedly we will continue asking ourselves
those questions as the enthusiastic visionary starts his fifth
century, still as vibrant and mischievous, as resourceful and
controversial as ever.
Ilan Stavans is a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at
Amherst College. His next book, The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic
Literature, will be published this month. Dictionary Days: A Defining
Passion will be published by Graywolf Press in April.
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