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DON QUIXOTE
Reading
Part I, Chapters I-XIII
QUALITY
Five years ago (May 2002), the Nobel
Prize Institute organized a poll asking
100 of the world’s greatest living
authors, from more than 50 countries, to
name the ten "best and most central
works in world literature.” Flaubert,
Dostoevsky, and Kafka, all on our
syllabus, received many votes, as did
Homer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and so on.
Don Quixote not only came in first, as the
choice of most authors for the greatest
literary work ever written, but it
actually received 50% more votes than
the second-place book, Marcel Proust’s
Remembrance of Things Past, got.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Cervantes was a contemporary of
Shakespeare. They both died in 1616,
only 10 days apart, though Cervantes
was about 20 years older. He wrote Don
Quixote between 1605 and 1615, while
Shakespeare was writing King Lear,
Macbeth, and The Tempest.
You are English majors and minors;
you have surely encountered some
Shakespeare. Aside from the
national contexts of England and
Spain, do these two writers seem as
if they come from the same historical
context? How so, and/or how not
so?
For one thing, Shakespeare was
writing in an old genre, while
Cervantes was writing in a new
one.
CHARACTER
Very few characters in modern literary
history have achieved or approached
the status of myth. Aside from Don
Quixote, I would suggest only Faust,
Don Juan, and Robinson Crusoe. On the
one hand, the themes these characters’
stories treat are central to the modern
Western experience. On the other, the
stories are open enough, flexible
enough, to accommodate the concerns
of very different kinds of writers and
audiences in different times and places,
and most of them have been treated
repeatedly by multiple writers.
Examples include Miguel de
Unamuno’s book The Life of Don Quixote
and Sancho; Graham Greene’s novel
Monsignor Quixote, in which the
namesake is a descendant of the knight;
Tennessee Williams’ play Camino Real,
in which Don Quixote and Sancho
appear as characters; Salman Rushdie’s
novel The Moor’s Last Sigh, which
includes characters and much more
from Cervantes; and Kathy Acker’s
cyber-punk novel Don Quixote, in which
the Don is a contemporary woman. We
will look more closely at three other
examples at the end of our Don Quixote
unit.
Dostoevsky, whose work we will soon
read, wrote a novel, The Idiot, about a
deliberately quixotic character. While
working on it, he wrote “that of all the
beautiful individuals in Christian
literature, one stands out as the most
perfect, Don Quixote.”
Since the mid-17th century, Don Quixote
has also inspired a great many
illustrators including Doré, Daumier,
Picasso, and Dalí. I have put some
illustrations by these four on the course
Web site.
In addition, many composers including
Purcell, Telemann, Mendelssohn,
Donizetti, Offenbach, Massenet, Richard
Strauss, and Ravel have written music
inspired by the novel.
There have also been other sorts of
adaptations, including at least two
major ballets, about twenty film
versions (including abortive attempts by
Orson Welles and Terry Gilliam), and
the Broadway musical Man of La
Mancha.
What is it about this particular book
that has been so appealing to artists
in other media?
PROSE
“‘Prose’: the word signifies not only a
nonversified language; it also signifies
the concrete, everyday, corporeal nature
of life: the ‘prosaic.’ So to say that the
novel is the art of prose is not to state
the obvious; the word defines the deep
sense of that art. Homer never
wondered whether, after their many
hand-to-hand struggles, Achilles or Ajax
still had all their teeth. But for Don
Quixote and Sancho teeth are a
perpetual concern—hurting teeth,
missing teeth.
Don Quixote tells Sancho that Homer
and Virgil were describing characters
not ‘as they were but rather as they
must be, to stand as examples of virtue
to future generations.’ Now, Don
Quixote himself is far from an example
to follow. Characters in novels do not
need to be admired for their virtue.
They need to be understood, and that is
a completely different matter. Epic
heroes conquer or, if they are
themselves conquered, they retain their
grandeur to the last breath. Don
Quixote is conquered. And with no
grandeur whatever. For it is clear
immediately: human life as such is the
defeat. All we can to end the space of
that ineluctable defeat called life is to try
to understand. That—that is the raison
d’être of the art of the novel.” —
Kundera
FICTION
Lionel Trilling, one of the most
influential of all literary critics, wrote
that “all prose fiction is a variation on
the theme of Don Quixote, which he
identified as “the problem of
appearance and reality.”
Marthe Robert, a prominent French
critic and theorist, wrote that “Don
Quixote is certainly the first ‘modern’
novel, if modernity is understood as the
self-searching, self-questioning literary
movement which uses as subject matter
its own doubt and belief in the value of
its message.”
Cervantes “prefers to call his book an
‘historia,’ by which, as we shall see, he
means, not a story, but a history. We
know, of course, that he is fooling us:
Don Quixote may be a romance, or a
novel, or a story, but it is certainly not a
history. We have to deal, then, with a
story masquerading as history, with a
work claiming to be historically true
within its external framework of fiction.
The study of Don Quixote, it seems to
me, must begin with this paradox.
The problem of the spurious historicity
of the work is usually stated in terms of
the Aristotelian principles of the
universality of poetry and the
particularity of history. ‘The difference
between the historian and the poet,’
says Aristotle, ‘is not the difference
between writing in verse or prose. The
difference is that the one tells what has
happened, and the other the kind of
things that would happen. It follows
therefore that poetry is more
philosophical and of higher value than
history; for poetry unifies more,
whereas history agglomerates.’
To a greater or lesser degree all history
merely pretends to be history. And now,
in the later Renaissance, we have a new
factor: some works of fiction, such as
Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe, also
pretend to be history.
Don Quixote does not disentangle the
story from the history, but points its
telescope at the ill-defined frontier itself
[as novels have been doing ever since].
It presents the evidence for the
uncertainty of truth and says to the
reader: ‘You be the judge.’
Part Two, XXIV: “The man who
translated this great history from the
original composed by its first author,
Cide Hamete Benengeli, says that
when he reached the chapter
concerning the adventure of the
Cave of Montesinos, he found in the
margin,written in Hamete’s own
hand, these precise words:
‘I cannot believe, nor can I persuade
myself, that everything written in
the preceding chapter actually
happened in its entirety to the
valiant Don Quixote: the reason is
that all the adventures up to this
point have been possible and
plausible, but with regard to this one
in the cave, I can find no way to
consider it true, since it goes so far
beyond the limits of reason. But it is
not possible for me to think that Don
Quixote, the truest and most noble
knight of his day, would lie, for he
would not tell a lie he even if he
were shot with arrows. Moreover, he
recounted and told it in all its
circumstances and details, and in so
short a time he could not fabricate so
enormous a quantity of nonsense; if
this adventure seems apocryphal,
the fault is not mine, and so, without
affirming either its falsity or its truth,
I write it down. You, reader, since
you are discerning person, must
judge it according to your own
lights, for I must not and cannot do
more; yet it is considered true that at
the time of Don Quixote’s passing
and death, he is said to have
retracted, saying he had invented it
because he thought it was consonant
and compatible with the adventures
he had read in his histories.’”
Cervantes was a satirist. If the overt
target of his satire is the romances of
chivalry, it can hardly be the principal
one. His chief butt was man’s gullibility
— gullibility about alleged historical
facts. But, as we have seen, he chose to
satirize human credulity in a dangerous
way: by encouraging, by seeking to
some extent, to cultivate, in his reader,
the very defect he was ridiculing. Why
did he tread such dangerous ground?
He did so, I believe, because he was
imitating the human dilemma, casting it
into artistic form. Man does not in his
heart believe truth to be categorical; he
resists the dualistic tendencies of the
ecclesiastical orthodoxy. He does not
choose between good and evil, as the
moralists say, but between greater and
lesser goods and between greater and
lesser evils. Similarly he does not choose
between truth and falsehood, but
between higher and lower truths and
between white and black lies. This is
how Cervantes and viewed man’s
situation. Everything in the human
condition is for him a matter of nuance.
This is how he differs fundamentally
from the dogmatic writers who
preceded him. Don Quixote is, among
other things, a tremendous protest
against the moralistic assurance of
Counter-Reformation Spain.
Don Quixote is a fusion of chivalric,
sentimental, pastoral, picaresque fiction,
of short stories and poems.
Hybridization is the artistic means
chosen to present serum on this sense of
the complexity of truth. Don Quixote, a
compendium of previous literary
genres, implies the further elimination
of deal ill-defined frontiers, just as it
blurs the boundary between history and
story.” — Bruce Wardropper
LITERATURE
What drives Señor Quijano mad?
There is a history of literature about
the dangers and defects of other
literature.
For example, the most famous
sinners in Dante’s Inferno, Paolo
and Francesca, are condemned to
Hell for their adulterous lust after
they read a lascivious love story
which seduced them into their
own sin.
This really comes into its own,
however, with the rise of the
novel, a genre well suited to
generic critique.
We’ll see it later in Madame
Bovary and, to some extent, in
Dark Back of Time.
In the English-language novel
you can see it from Henry
Fielding’s Shamela and
Laurence Sterne’s Tristram
Shandy in the eighteenth
century through James Joyce’s
Ulysses and Flann O’Brien’s At
Swim-Two-Birds in the
twentieth.
“From the moment when, through the
invention of printing, reading became a
privilege granted to the masses, a
privilege which was not in general
existence in the Middle Ages; from the
moment when cultural values came to
be disseminated, not through the ear,
the musical, religious and communal
sense, but through the eye, the rational,
analytic, and individualistic sense, there
was warned the peril of wrong
application of literature in life by
individuals reading alone, severed from
society — the more so since mankind is
no longer, as was the case in the Middle
Ages, in quest of the eternal verities
beyond discussion, but is resolved to
progress, in its own strength, by
application of reason and analysis, and
the dead weight of tradition looms
heavily over our individual outlook on
life — which implies the ever-necessary
sifting of values of an outworn tradition.
After Cervantes, many writers, Molière,
Rousseau, Goethe, Nietzsche, and the
Flaubert of Madame Bovary and Bouvard
and Pécuchet, will exercise the right to
sift traditional literature and two
pronounce a verdict on that part of
literature, which they believe has, in the
process of time, become detrimental to
the community. The problem posited by
Cervantes can never die in a civilization
which is predicated on progress, and on
‘book-learning,’ and which
consequently is constantly threatened
by the continued reading of obsolete
books — or, also, by the failure to read
certain books. It was the deed of a
genius to visualize, as Cervantes did,
the danger inherent in what is one of
basic tools of our civilization: reading.
In fact, he must have sensed this danger
in his own case: he tells us, for example,
that he used to pick up on the street any
printed scrap of paper: obviously not
with the worship which St. Francis had
for anything written because it could
contain one of the holy truths, but
because of his desire to steep himself in
a fictitious world (like his own
Quijote).”—Leo Spitzer
METAFICTION
As we open Cervantes’ book, the very
first thing we encounter is a strange
prologue about not writing a prologue,
which is unfortunately omitted in your
edition. There had surely been nothing
remotely like this in the four-thousandyear history of world literature.
Cervantes writes about all the things
that writers generally put in their
prologues, and then says:
“Of all this there will be nothing in
my book, for I have nothing to quote
in the margin or to note at the end,
and still less do I know what authors
I follow in it, to place them at the
beginning, as all do, under the letters
A, B, C, beginning with Aristotle and
ending with Xenophon, or Zoilus, or
Zeuxis, though one was a slanderer
and the other a painter. Also my
book must do without sonnets at the
beginning, at least sonnets whose
authors are dukes, marquises,
counts, bishops, ladies, or famous
poets. Though if I were to ask two or
three obliging friends, I know they
would give me them, and such as the
productions of those that have the
highest reputation in our Spain
could not equal.
In short, my friend, I am determined
that Señor Don Quixote shall remain
buried in the archives of his own La
Mancha until Heaven provide some
one to garnish him with all those
things he stands in need of; because I
find myself, through my shallowness
and want of learning, unequal to
supplying them, and because I am
by nature shy and careless about
hunting for authors to say what I
myself can say without them.
Your first difficulty about the
sonnets, epigrams, or complimentary
verses which you want for the
beginning, and which ought to be by
persons of importance and rank, can
be removed if you yourself take a
little trouble to make them; you can
afterwards baptise them, and put
any name you like to them, fathering
them on Prester John of the Indies or
the Emperor of Trebizond, who, to
my knowledge, were said to have
been famous poets: and even if they
were not, and any pedants or
bachelors should attack you and
question the fact, never care two
maravedis for that, for even if they
prove a lie against you they cannot
cut off the hand you wrote it with.”
While such a prologue was
unprecedented in 1605, this
example, while not exactly
opening the floodgates, certainly
paved the way. In 1759, for
example, the British novelist
Laurence Sterne placed the
preface of his novel Tristram
Shandy in Chapter XIII of
Volume II, more than a hundred
pages into the book. He says that
all of his characters are occupied
and don’t need his attention, so,
“’tis the first time I have had a
moment to spare—and I’ll make
use of it, and write my preface.”
Hundreds of pages later, in
Volume IV, he throws in the
book’s dedication. Furthermore,
he doesn’t dedicate it to anyone
in particular, but rather offers,
within the text of the novel, the
pre-written dedication to anyone
willing to pay fifty guineas for it.
On p. 247, in part two of the novel,
Samson Carrasco tells Don Quixote that
part one of his adventures is in print
and popular all over Spain. Don Quixote
asks if there will be a second part. The
man replies: ‘Some say that second parts
are never any good, and others say that
enough has been written about Don
Quixote. So it is doubtful whether there
will be a second part.’ “Yet we are
reading this second part, even as we
hear it being speculated on. This
conversation is perhaps the most
extraordinary in world literature: two
characters are talking about the book
that created them and is now a bestseller in the world they ‘live’ in.
[Later, near the end of Part II (Ch. 62),
Don Quixote visits a printer’s shop and
finds that they are printing copies of The
Second Part of the Ingenious Gentleman
Don Quixote of La Mancha.
"I have already heard of this book,"
said Don Quixote, "and by my
conscience, the truth is I thought it
had already been burned and turned
to ashes for its insolence; but its day
of reckoning will come, as it does to
every pig, for feigned histories are
good and enjoyable the closer they
are to the truth or the appearance of
truth, and as for true ones, the truer
they are, the better." And having
said this, and showing some signs of
displeasure, he left the printing
house.]
Quixote, as we know from the
beginning, has been the kind of reader
who blindly refuses to distinguish
between actuality and fiction, reality
and illusion: in fact, he is such a bad
reader that he never tries to separate
fiction making from experiential reality.
Now that there is a chronicle circulating
about his adventures, he is quick to
point out, every discrepancy between
what he thinks this happen and what
other readers tell him the author
‘reported.’ This is a distinction he never
made in his mad reading of chivalric
novels. Ironically, he hasn’t read this
book about himself; we are now reading
the sequel, which in turn is about
Quixote not reading. Part two of Don
Quixote is thus a book about a fictioncrazed man who doesn’t bother to read
a book about his own life. He believed
everything in the books of chivalry, but
he now believes — on the basis of
hearsay — that everything in his own
life story is false. Don Quixote is a selfreflexive work: the acts of reading the
responses of readers and the
implications of reading — both within
the narrative and outside — are the real
substance of the book. The character of
Don Quixote is created from books and
recreated in books. Cervantes himself is
both author and reader. As Quixote
changes the world around him, so
Cervantes makes us alter our
perspectives on fiction and on the
differences between what we
conventionally and simplistically call
‘imaginary’ and ‘real.’ Don Quixote tells
Sancho that ‘what seems to you to be a
barber’s basin appears to me to be
Mambrino’s helmet, and to another as
something else.’ The multiple points of
view Don Quixote himself uses to
explain or justify his relations to
perceived and conceived reality are the
same strategies readers must develop in
their relation to the book. The act of
reading is a sallying forth that — like
Quixote’s adventures in the fiction —
makes readers constantly aware of the
fiction.” — Ulrich Wicks
Ulrich Wicks suggests the apt analogy
of another Spanish work from about
forty years later: the painting Las
meninas by Velázquez. Show it. “We see
the artist himself, looking at his canvas,
the back of which is facing us in the left
side of the picture; the King and Queen
are situated behind us, outside the
picture, but reflected in a small mirror
that faces us. Velazquez is
simultaneously inside and outside his
own frame, painting it and painting
himself painting.”
As with that prologue, we can see
echoes of Don Quixote’s
conversation about his own book
through subsequent literary history.
Describe At Swim-Two-Birds
Describe Textermination
ACCESSIBILITY
Despite all of its innovations, subtleties,
and complexities, Don Quixote is a
remarkably accessible book. On p. 247,
Samson Carrasco tells the Don that the
published Book I “does not need a
commentary to explain it, for it is so
clear that there is nought in it to puzzle
anyone. Children turn its leaves, young
people read it, grown-ups understand it,
and old folks commend it."
Don Quixote is, in fact, one of a small
number of great adult classics which
appeal to young children. It is probably
the first in the modern world, and it was
followed in the 18th century by
Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe and
William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of
Experience. A closely related class of
books includes ones which were
ostensibly written for children but
which have much to offer the adult
reader; examples of these range from
Lewis Carroll's Alice books to Salman
Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories.
What characteristics of these books, and
especially of Don Quixote, allow them to
speak so powerfully to such diverse
audiences?
A famous critical article from nearly 40
years ago was called “Don Quixote as a
Funny Book.” It demonstrated
substantial resistance among many
readers and scholars to accepting that a
great classic could be very funny. Many
children find it funny, I do, and I hope
that some of you did.
DESCENDANTS
Before leaving Don Quixote, it’s worth
our while to look at three extraordinary
literary descendants of this novel.
Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote
Probably the greatest three modern
literary responses were all short
pieces written by the Argentine
writer Jorge Luis Borges. One was
nominally a story, one nominally a
parable, and one nominally an essay,
though the distinctions among these
forms in Borges' work are never
clear-cut. In just a few pages each,
these three highly provocative pieces
contain and imply some of the most
important Cervantes commentary of
our age.
Let's start with his "Parable of
Cervantes and the Quixote.”
What is a parable?
A story used to illustrate a
lesson.
Here is Borges’ parable:
Weary of his land of Spain, an old
soldier of the King's armies
sought solace in the vast
geographies of Ariosto, in that
valley of the moon in which one
finds the time that is squandered
by dreams, and in the golden idol
of Muhammad stolen by
Montalbán.
In gentle self-mockery, this old
soldier conceived a credulous
man -- his mind unsettled by the
reading of all those wonders -who took it into his head to ride
out in search of adventures and
enchantments in prosaic places
with names such as El Toboso
and Montiel.
Defeated by reality, by Spain,
Don Quixote died in 1614 in the
town of his birth. He was
survived only a short time by
Miguel de Cervantes.
For both the dreamer and the
dreamed, that entire adventure
had been the clash of two worlds;
the unreal world of romances and
the common everyday world of
the seventeenth century.
They never suspected that the
years would at last smooth away
the discord, never suspected that
in the eyes of the future, La
Mancha and Montiel and the lean
figure of the Knight of Mournful
Countenance would be no less
poetic than the adventures of
Sindbad or the vast geographies
of Ariosto.
For in the beginning of literature
there is myth, as there is also in
the end of it.
What’s the parable’s lesson?
Its final line.
The reader’s irretrievable
context.
Heraclitus: “We can’t
step into the same
stream twice.”
“Partial Magic in the Quixote.”
“Pierre Menard”: Ask how it is
appropriate for this novel.
Summarize the developments of the
novel in England:
Crusoe (1719)
Pamela (1740)
Joseph Andrews (1742), which says on
its title page that it is “written in
Imitation of the Manner of
Cervantes, Author of Don Quixote.”
Shandy (1759-69), which includes
numerous Quixote allusions.
Candide was published in 1759, the same
year as the first books of Tristram
Shandy.