A rational Quixote

Cervantes is celebrated as the first and greatest of novelists. Less appreciated is Don Quixote's own role as the founding father of the Enlightenment. His delusion is the key to reason
May 20, 2005

In all the battles for the Enlightenment, one combatant's name is rarely mentioned. Don Quixote de la Mancha, icon of everything in humanity that is calamitously idealistic, is renowned for qualities other than rationalist courage: for kindness and foolishness; for unintended comedy and a refusal to be disenchanted; for clairvoyant lunacy and obstinate romanticism in a rotten, factual world. He rides out with Sancho Panza from his village in la Mancha to discover that the world is not as he has read about it in books of chivalry and, impervious to ridicule or failure, for 124 chapters seeks to live up to the pastoral ideal of the knight errant, that fiction of the good man. Only in the 126th and final chapter does he acknowledge the "absurdities and deceptions" of the books that inspired him and then, in an ending of unbearable sadness, finally renounces his world of fantasy, returns to his senses, and dies.

For 400 years—the first edition of the Quixote was distributed in Madrid in 1605—his story has supplied the archetype of the bookish dreamer and the outermost comic landmark of our idealism. Yet Don Quixote's achievement is surely greater than that. Without him, and without Cervantes's own constant shifting between tradition and modernity, we might have remained for longer in a world of superstition and dogma. "Enlightenment is man's leaving his self-caused immaturity," Kant wrote in 1784, 180 years after the first publication of the Quixote. "The motto of Enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own intelligence." On the knight's 400th anniversary we can see that this was the courage that Don Quixote has bequeathed us. His own misguided intelligence, bound to an immaturity that leads to folly, takes him on an epic of discovery in which he finally leads the reader out of his or her own immaturity. Frequently evoked as picaresque, the Quixote is more accurately seen as a Bildungsroman. It takes its Bildung in two directions, the one in which Don Quixote is shown his own folly, and the other in which the reader is invited to understand the difference between appearance and reality.

How much did Cervantes intend such a reading of his book? There is no reason to disbelieve his claim that his main object was to ridicule the romances of chivalry which, in their late 16th-century incarnation, had become increasingly absurd. Cervantes wrote, like most writers, for money, and his intention at the outset was to write a prose tale in which these absurdities could be satirised. As he continued, his story expanded into a brilliant panoramic fresco of Spanish society declining into economic chaos and class resentment under the decadent rule of Philip II and III. But Cervantes could not have understood that he was also composing something else, a determining text, the first story to be aware at every moment of its own fictitiousness, the book which would send a continent of writers off in search of a new identity—the original modern novel.When the first part, the 1605 publication, became successful Cervantes saw the logic of producing a sequel, but we have a rival "second volume" by Fernández de Avellaneda, published in 1614 in an attempt to cash in on Quixote's popularity, to thank for Cervantes finally finishing the second part (Cervantes was always a leisurely writer). We may also owe the deep well of pathos that is Quixote's death scene to Avellaneda's attempted hijacking. The death of his hero may have been Cervantes's way of ensuring that no one could ever again interfere with his character.

But the novel's contemporary popularity was due to its wealth of incident and its strokes of comic timing. Full appreciation of its political insight, its grasp of its own times and its humanity came much later. It is Jorge Luis Borges who, 300-odd years after publication of the Quixote, writes in his story "Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote" about how we are able, in the light of what has happened to the world since Cervantes's novel appeared, to find it much richer in allusion and significance now than it was then.

We cannot attribute to Cervantes a sense of his own future greatness or influence. He was experienced in matters of state: he had seen Spain fall from greatness through misgovernment, bankruptcy and military arrogance, a fall so sudden that Spaniards wondered if their country's original grandeur had been "no more than un engaño [illusion]?" This land of depopulation and unrest was Don Quixote's country; foolish and unsuccessful wanderer he may have been, but Cervantes intentionally set him up in stark opposition to Philip II, who rarely rose from his desk in the Escorial.

The author was, however, aware of his novel's early success. We are told that by June 1605, only a few months after publication, "the citizens of Valladolid [where he was living] already regarded Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as proverbial types." He would also have known that his novel was first translated into English in 1612 and into French in 1614. (There may be a strand of the English character that uniquely identifies with a strand of the Quixote's romanticism, not so much its idealism and emotion as its eccentricity. The English feel a special sympathy for folly committed in the name of loyalty to an utterly outmoded code of conduct.) But Cervantes could not know that in 2002, in a poll organised by the Norwegian Nobel Institute, 100 writers worldwide would vote Don Quixote the "best and most central work" in literature, eclipsing the plays of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky's novels and Homer's epics.

So the Quixote is, like all masterpieces, accidental. But how, as readers, are we to discern its greatness from the perspective of our own post-Enlightenment times? Do its concerns still speak to us? We need to start by reading it, but do we actually read it? Well, not individually, as the head of a modern publishing conglomerate recently said to an author he met by chance. We do not read the Quixote because of its length and, even in most recent English versions, difficult prose. But we also do not read it because we do not need to. In critical terms, one problem, perhaps unique to Cervantes's work, is that we have no perspective on the novel, because the Quixote itself created our perspective. Harold Bloom writes, in his introduction to Edith Grossman's excellent 2003 translation, that "it so contains us that, as with Shakespeare, we cannot get out of it."

The day Quixote and Sancho rode out from their unnamed village, a fictional blueprint came to life. Don Quixote is our prototypical text, the first story to emerge out of a self-awareness of its own fictional form, to take as its theme the gap between appearance and reality; to be, in our terms, modern. It is to the modern novel what Sigmund Freud is to psychoanalysis. Freud, in fact, was an admirer of Cervantes: in the summer of 1883 he confessed to his fiancée Martha Bernays that he was more interested in Don Quixote than in brain anatomy. He found Quixote's dialogues with Sancho Panza significant for the lesson they offered of the need both to discriminate between reality and fantasy and to understand their interplay. He expressed an oddly romantic sympathy for Quixote's idealism: "Once we were all noble knights passing through the world caught in a dream, misinterpreting the simplest things, magnifying commonplaces into something noble and rare, and thereby cutting a sad figure… we men always read with respect about what we once were and in part still remain."

In the 21st century, with our potent self-consciousness, we not only know too much but know that we do, and to read Don Quixote is to be heartened that in the embrace of their illusions people are capable of decent, funny, unpredictable acts. The Enlightenment was essential for our freedoms, but more than rationalism is needed in the world. Carlos Fuentes has written that at the end of the novel, Don Quixote suffers from "the nostalgia of realism"—not the realism Cervantes has invented but the realism of old, of impossible adventures with knights errant, magicians and frightful giants. "Before, everything that was written was true," writes Fuentes, "even if it were a phantasy. There were no cracks between what was said and what was done in the epic. 'For Aristotle and the middle ages,' explains Ortega y Gasset, 'all things were possible that do not contain an inner contradiction. For Aristotle, the centaur is a possibility; not for us, since biology will not tolerate it.'" Fuentes illuminates well Don Quixote's suffering—that he must choose between the drama of make-believe and the mean necessities of reality—but the novel additionally lights the way of readers yet unborn through the knight's dual lesson of the choice he must make and the choice the reader must make about his fictional necessity (or not).

Believe in me! My feats are true, the windmills are giants, the herds of sheep are armies, the inns are castles and there is in the world no lady more beautiful than the empress of la Mancha, the unrivalled Dulcinea del Toboso! Believe in me.

Reality, as Fuentes writes, "may laugh or weep on hearing such words." But reality also feels itself outmanoeuvred, outgunned by their appeal. After hearing them, we as readers can forever understand that there is more than one objective reality.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra personally felt the disenchantment of reality. His novel is driven by the rebuffs and misfortunes he was dealt: to choose refuge in noble dreams would have been an obvious choice for a man whose aspirations repeatedly failed to bear fruit. Little is known of Cervantes's first 24 years. In 1571, enlisted with his brother Rodrigo as a soldier, he sailed on the Marquesa from Messina as a member of Don Miguel de Moncada's regiment to repel the Ottoman advance in the fleet of Don John of Austria. At the battle of Lepanto, in the gulf of Corinth, the Marquesa was in the thick of the eventually victorious fight. Cervantes received three gunshot wounds, one of which maimed his left hand, "for the greater glory of the right" as he said afterwards. After Lepanto his military service was spent in Naples and Palermo. In 1575, returning to Spain, he and Rodrigo were captured by Barbary corsairs. Cervantes was enslaved to a Greek renegade at Algiers. Repeated escape attempts failed: twice betrayed, he then saw his brother liberated when funds sent by his parents were inadequate to ransom them both. Resold to the viceroy of Algiers and betrayed again by a Dominican monk, he was finally released after five years of slavery when two Trinitarian friars successfully ransomed him.

On his return he wrote plays and the pastoral novel Galatea, a serious bid for fame that failed; it was inconclusive and derivative, and pushed him back into paid employment. At Seville in 1587 he found employment provisioning the Armada and was excommunicated for excessive zeal in collecting wheat. He then applied for a complete getaway, to a post in the Indies. "Let him look for something nearer home," his petition was drily annotated.

He found work as a tax collector and was imprisoned at least four, possibly six times for everything from irregularities in his accounts to allegedly making a pass at the sister/niece/mistress of a (probably tax-evading) landowner, Don Rodrigo de Pacheco. It may be that Don Quixote began as a desire to get his own back by satirising Don Rodrigo as a mad knight who "slept so little and read so much that his brain dried up and he lost his reason."

A continuing run of professional bad luck during the 1590s produced increasing disillusionment, chiefly with Spain's imperial outlook and incompetent absolutist monarchy. His poetry and prose began to show signs of intensifying parody and of the mock-heroic attitude that would become his strongest comic device.

Cervantes's whereabouts in the early 1600s are unclear, but if he was in the prison cell in Argamasilla de Alba where Don Rodrigo had slung him, he was using his time well, writing the novel that would reverse his fortunes and determine the form of fiction for the next four centuries. He suspected neither of these things, and curiously, though he read some of the manuscript, neither did Lope de Vega, Spain's greatest playwright, who had written to a friend that "no poet is as bad as Cervantes, nor so foolish as to praise Don Quixote."

And what of everything else that Cervantes could not suspect? Bloom compares Cervantes with Shakespeare but makes a key distinction between their methods: "Cervantes remains the best of all novelists, just as Shakespeare remains the best of all dramatists. There are parts of yourself that you will never know fully until you know Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. But there's a fundamental difference between Cervantes and Shakespeare: Sancho and the Don develop newer and richer egos by talking to each other. Falstaff and Hamlet perform the same process through lonely soliloquies." On the one hand, we first realise through Don Quixote that the novel exists as a new kind of meaning, a sign, as Carlos Fuentes writes "of a modern divorce between words and things." On the other hand, in Quixote's search for a new union between reality and the words to articulate it, we also realise that it is dangerous to attempt this enterprise alone. The novel has become a social form for a very good reason: the identity that emerges from each of us is composed not only of our egos but our links with other egos. How can the novel tell us who we are, or ask us if we recognise anything human in it, without reflecting on those links? A modern or postmodern Quixote might consider it his duty to liberate, as well as the widows, maidens and orphans, the millions of urban dwellers who live alone.

For such reasons has Cervantes's novel held its ground since 1605. In the 17th century, at a time when more ruthlessly than today the market decided, the wide pirating of the Quixote was an infallible mark of its popularity. In the 18th, as the English novel established itself, British novelists paid Cervantes constant tribute: witness Defoe's inspirations in Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe; Fielding's 1742 preface to Joseph Andrews, "written in Imitation of the Manner of Cervantes, Author of Don Quixote" (he also wrote Don Quixote in England, for the theatre); Sterne's blithe obviousness, among countless borrowings, in using Quixote and Sancho Panza as models for uncle Toby and corporal Trim in Tristram Shandy; and Smollett's translation of 1755 that ran to 13 editions. The English love of folly and, in Smollet's words, Cervantes's "strength, humour and propriety," not to mention the obvious commercial success of his model, ensured the Quixote's endurance.

A century later, Dickens's and Thackeray's conversion of Quixote's horizontal and eschatological wanderings into fiction that journeyed vertically, socially and materially, was mirrored by Balzac and Stendhal. In Germany, Don Quixote may have been the last book Kleist ever read—found with his barest possessions after his suicide—while in France it was the first that the six-year-old Flaubert read, in an abridged version with 34 large illustrations. (The tragi-comic theme of the romantic hero at odds with reality explains almost all of Flaubert's work, from Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education to Bouvard and Pécuchet.) The Spanish novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina once said to me that although modern Spanish novelists do not make much of Cervantes—the anxiety of influence is too great—they cannot avoid his fictional blueprint. In the 20th century, neither Kafka nor Nabokov, Borges, Bellow or Kundera could have clothed their worlds in fiction without the pattern furnished by their Spanish ancestor. One might go even further: Don Quixote's influence has been super-literary—without it the French revolution, with its notion that individuals can be right, society wrong, might never have happened, and Martin Luther King Jr might never have delivered a speech that contained the words "I have a dream."

Anglophone readers have never had a better chance to confront that greatness directly. Edith Grossman's new translation (apart from brief confusions of "thee" and "thou") is so good that it ought to compel us to start reading the Quixote again. Her text restores Cervantes's readability, the vitality of his dialogue and characterisation and the darkening quality of his vision. The thought patterns of his madness, which earlier translations obscured by rendering the original too literally or too loosely, are here rendered as logical, and thus funnier and sadder. One of my favourite episodes is the "enchanted boat" adventure in the second part, in which the two travellers steal a small rowing boat, Quixote believing that it has been sent by an enchanter as a kind of celestial cab to transport them to some knight or maiden requiring assistance. Knight and squire dispute their way downstream, one hurling curses at his servant's cowardice, the other cursing his master's madness, and as they are swept into the dangerous millrace their exchange climaxes in a superbly indifferent discourse by Quixote on how enchantment works. "'Be quiet, Sancho,' said Don Quixote, 'for although they seem to be watermills, they are not; I have already told you that enchantments change and alter all things from their natural state. I do not mean to say that they are really altered from one state to another, but that they seem to be, as experience has shown in the transformation of Dulcinea, sole refuge of my hopes.'" The comic timing of which Cervantes was capable, and his understanding of Quixote's pathos, have rarely been so in evidence for English readers. In the last third of the novel, Cervantes's increasingly unkind mischiefs towards his hero bespeak not just impatience but also a yearning to eliminate him, yet the admiration and compassion he has already instilled in us is proof against everything the author can do to undermine them.

There is a view in literary-critical circles that Don Quixote's signal accomplishment was the victorious elevation of the novel over the romance. The deluded knight's attack on Master Pedro's puppet theatre for example, is, according to Bloom, "a parable of the triumph of Cervantes over the picaresque and of the triumph of the novel over the romance."

Yet this seems a limited reading of the novel. It is as unfair to say that the Quixote is merely a "critical parody" of the romance as it is to say that its eponymous hero is merely mad. The forms of Cervantes's moral thought are pointed to in his humour: the author is simultaneously satirising Quixote's belief in chivalry and commemorating it through the comic forms of his forgiveness. There is no better example of the comedy of compassion. And Cervantes did not abandon the form of the romance; it is present in his Exemplary Novels, which he was writing between the two parts of Don Quixote, and in his posthumously published epic, Persiles and Sigismunda. Romance is in all his work. In the Quixote it is the engine both of Quixote's folly and of our deepening sympathy—a reader's way of recognising a hero's predicament as latently his or her own. Through the innumerable possible readings of the Quixote, we can perhaps identify a core of distinct principles: that there is no reality without folly, and no underlying perception of reality without romance, of one kind or another, to draw out human curiosity.

To read Cervantes's Quixote as the first and greatest modern novel, and then, self-satisfied, to read back into it that we have nailed the folly of romance, is to miss half of Cervantes's intention. Having delineated Enlightenment rationality by the comic delineation of its opposite, Cervantes overflows the dimensions of both. If we admire Don Quixote today, it is surely because we continue to agree with him that his madness, not his reason, enables him to transcend the world of things and believe in a world of value. Enlightenment virtues we may all share. Our madness is our faith, and belongs to us alone.