Σς's Reviews > Don Quixote

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
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's review
Aug 07, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: epic-tradition, novel, favorites
Read from August 07 to 15, 2010 , read count: 1

Below is an abridged version. Here is my full review: my blog

Woo! Nine days! I did it! Exhausted.

My reviewing anything this great is like Ellen DeGeneres judging singing. Oh wait…
Anyway, it’s sort of a joke that I’m to pass judgment on what is considered by many (Harold Bloom and the Nobel Institute, for example) to be the greatest novel ever written. But let’s just ignore this and pretend my opinion matters.
There is no question that it is a masterpiece, but why? It succeeds at every level of literary achievement to which it aspires, and it aspires to almost all of them—timeless and universal comedy both subtle and slapstick, a panoramic view of Spain (every social class and region, like Chaucer did with England), a unified and harmonious effect on the reader (everything in these 1100 pages fits together remarkably well), patient and confident storytelling by Cervantes, and philosophical reflections on everything. Everything is in here. I kept finding Cervantes’ successors—you can find the fountain of inspiration for Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Mark Twain, Saul Bellow, Salman Rushdie, and on and on…Cervantes’ first novel contains all the novels that follow it. No writer has been able to contain Cervantes.
Now, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best novel. Being the first is impressive, and being influential is, too; but I still lean slightly toward the Brothers Karamazov as the ultimate novel. You can’t out-Cervantes Cervantes, but surely the student can become the master. More on that later.
But what is it about? Everything, yes, but most acutely it is about deception, the need for illusion, edifying self-delusions (Plato’s noble lie), interpretation, coping with your mortality, and, interestingly for us, reading. What induces Don Quixote’s madness? Reading. And we never really stop thinking about reading before the book ends. Cervantes throws at us all sorts of views on literature, some of them coming from intelligent people, others from lunatics. But they all sound plausible—which one is Cervantes? Well, what kind of a writer would write something like this?
The canon of Toledo gives us some very sound ideas about what a novel should be:
"The enjoyment the mind feels must come from the beauty and harmony which it
perceives or contemplates in the things that the eye or the imagination
brings before it; and nothing that has any ugliness or disproportion
about it can give any pleasure…fiction is all the better the more
it looks like truth, and gives the more pleasure the more probability and
possibility there is about it. Plots in fiction should be wedded to the
understanding of the reader, and be constructed in such a way that,
reconciling impossibilities, smoothing over difficulties, keeping the
mind on the alert, they may surprise, interest, divert, and entertain, so
that wonder and delight joined may keep pace one with the other; all
which he will fail to effect who shuns verisimilitude and truth to
nature, wherein lies the perfection of writing. I have never yet seen any
book of chivalry that puts together a connected plot complete in all its
numbers, so that the middle agrees with the beginning, and the end with
the beginning and middle; on the contrary, they construct them with such
a multitude of members that it seems as though they meant to produce a
chimera or monster rather than a well-proportioned figure. And besides
all this they are harsh in their style, incredible in their achievements,
licentious in their amours, uncouth in their courtly speeches, prolix in
their battles, silly in their arguments, absurd in their travels, and, in
short, wanting in everything like intelligent art; for which reason they
deserve to be banished from the Christian commonwealth as a worthless
Does Cervantes live up to his own standard? Of course he does! It amazes me that someone could be so funny for so long. Brevity is the soul of wit, Polonius tells us. Cervantes, the prince of wit (as he is known in the Spanish-speaking world), has written a mammoth book half the size of the Bible and…(!) it works!
Cervantes, even more impressively, is able to write in any style (again like Chaucer), and that includes techniques that are considered modernist or postmodern. Cervantes uses metafiction, unreliable narrators (Cide Hamete is a Moor, after all!), breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader, mention of the author (the captive captain says he remembers a fellow captive whom everyone liked name “something Saavedra”), and unreliable sources—after all, this is just a translation of Cide Hamete, and, as Don Quixote says in the book printing shop, “it seems to me that
translation from one language into another, if it be not from the queens
of languages, the Greek and the Latin, is like looking at Flemish
tapestries on the wrong side; for though the figures are visible, they
are full of threads that make them indistinct, and they do not show with
the smoothness and brightness of the right side; and translation from
easy languages argues neither ingenuity nor command of words, any more
than transcribing or copying out one document from another.” So how much of this do we believe, especially considering that a major theme here is that books about knights are full of lies?

Don Quixote is, of course, deluded. But, what if delusion makes you a better person?

“since I have been a knight-errant I have become valiant, polite, generous, well-bred, magnanimous, courteous, dauntless, gentle, patient, and have learned to bear hardships, imprisonments, and enchantments; and though it be such a short time since I have seen myself shut up in a cage like a madman, I hope by the might of my arm, if heaven aid me and fortune thwart me not, to see myself king of some kingdom where I may be able to show the gratitude and generosity that dwell in my heart”

In fact, he is totally sane but for one error, and Cervantes uses him as a mouthpiece for every other kind of opinion than chivalry.

A theme that nobody seems to talk about that seemed salient to me was that men misunderstand women. Since Don Quixote’s problem is one of misinterpretation of everything (inns as castles, a dirty farm girl as a princess, prostitutes as virgins), it is harmonious with this that Cervantes ties in story after story of men misinterpreting women and suffering the consequences thereof—Chrysostom, Cardenio, Anselmo, the goatherd…and so on. How many generalizations, often conflicting, are made about women by men in this book!
“Won't you tell me what is the matter, my
beauty? But what else can it be except that you are a she, and cannot
keep quiet?”

"That is the natural way of women," said Don Quixote, "to scorn the one
that loves them, and love the one that hates them: go on, Sancho."

"Brother, take it easy, and be not in such a hurry to drive this goat back to the fold; for, being a female, as you say, she will follow her natural instinct in spite of all you can do to prevent it.”

“Leandra's youth furnished an excuse for her fault, at least with those to
whom it was of no consequence whether she was good or bad; but those who
knew her shrewdness and intelligence did not attribute her misdemeanour
to ignorance but to wantonness and the natural disposition of women,
which is for the most part flighty and ill-regulated.”

“I follow another, easier, and to my mind wiser
course, and that is to rail at the frivolity of women, at their
inconstancy, their double dealing, their broken promises, their unkept
pledges, and in short the want of reflection they show in fixing their
affections and inclinations. This, sirs, was the reason of words and
expressions I made use of to this goat when I came up just now; for as
she is a female I have a contempt for her, though she is the best in all
my fold. “

And yet Cervantes is by no means misogynistic, though I’m sure there are hordes of feminist critics who would find offense, and on that grounds (not on the ground of whether he is good or bad at writing), pitch him out the canon. But consider that after Chrysostom’s friend delivers a long diatribe about Marcela, calling her all sorts of names, she shows up and delivers a speech that shows she is virtuous, intelligent, and not at all to blame for Chrysostom’s foolishness. Men, here, continually fail to understand women, and Cervantes stands in the background watching it all happen, alternately laughing and gasping at the consequences.
In fact, how many idealized women there are! Marcela, Leandra, Dorothea, the fair Moor, Zoraida, and on and on…The only women not described as awe-inspiring in beauty and virtue are the prostitutes at the inn and Dulcinea, Don Quixote’s dream girl. Her description cracked me up too:
"She can fling a crowbar as well as the lustiest lad in all the town. She is a brave lass, and a right and stout one, and fit to be helpmate to any knight-errant that is or is to be, who may make her his lady: the whoreson wench, what sting she has and what a voice! I can tell you one day she posted herself on the top of the belfry of the village to
call some labourers of theirs that were in a ploughed field of her
father's, and though they were better than half a league off they heard
her as well as if they were at the foot of the tower; and the best of her
is that she is not a bit prudish, for she has plenty of affability, and
jokes with everybody, and has a grin and a jest for everything…sun and
the air spoil women's looks greatly. But I must own the truth to your
worship, Senor Don Quixote; until now I have been under a great mistake,
for I believed truly and honestly that the lady Dulcinea must be some
princess your worship was in love with, or some person great enough to
deserve the rich presents you have sent her…”

How many idealized love stories, some of which that are positively Shakespearean, are in here! Is this just more satire, more humor? Or is Cervantes showing us the authentic next to the phony? I’d argue for the latter, that Cervantes is not a cynic, because of the timing of the stories. Whenever Don Quixote fakes something—like the hilarious scene when he pines in the wilderness for Dulcinea—it is followed by someone not faking it—when he’s pining he meets Cardenio, who really has lost his mind.

I’d like to quote that scene because it’s one of the funniest paragraphs I’ve ever read:

“in order to be able to swear without a weight on my conscience that I had seen you do mad things, it would be well for me to see if it were only one; though in your worship's remaining here I have seen a very great one."

"Did I not tell thee so?" said Don Quixote. "Wait, Sancho, and I will do
them in the saying of a credo," and pulling off his breeches in all haste
he stripped himself to his skin and his shirt, and then, without more
ado, he cut a couple of gambados in the air, and a couple of somersaults,
heels over head, making such a display that, not to see it a second time,
Sancho wheeled Rocinante round, and felt easy, and satisfied in his mind
that he could swear he had left his master mad; and so we will leave him
to follow his road until his return, which was a quick one.”
This silliness, this slapstick, is followed by the very real soap opera-like drama of Cardenio, whose story does not seem at all to be ironic or funny.

Why are there so many dead moms in here? There are a lot of father-daughter duos. Perhaps that was more common in those days before the advances in medicine, but I found myself struck by it—Leandra, the Judge, Zoraida, and so on…I do know that Cervantes had two daughters. But I don’t know what to make of this.

Or, for another example to back up my thesis, we meet the “captive captain” right after Don Quixote has given a lecture on the glory of arms and war. Don Quixote has idealized, cartoonish views of what war is really like, and, as Cervantes knew from experience, war is miserable. The captive captain gives us a truly heroic tale just after Don Quixote’s silliness. There is nothing comic about it.

I should also like to add that the deepest love in the book is Platonic—that between Don Quixote and Sancho, the closest friendship in all of literature. They are, as Aristotle said of friends, one soul in two bodies. Despite all their bickering and silliness, the most moving love in the book is in chapter 52, “for all Sancho did was to fling himself on his master's body, raising over him the most doleful and laughable lamentation that ever was heard, for he believed he was dead.” Sancho is completely unlovable—fat, stupid, gullible, cowardly, and he speaks only in cliché proverbs. But who doesn’t love Sancho?

What is Don Quixote’s motivation? “We are not permitted to know,” Bloom tells us. Quixote seems at times to know that he really is not a knight, and to just continue pretending anyway. He is more alarmed than anyone when he is given a hero’s welcome by the duke. He is a knight-errant (knight erring?), and he frequently claims to want to go to war with the injustice of the world, to protect the weak, the widowed, the virgin, the sick, etc. from the strong. This, if anything, is a quest that never ends! And some, indeed, wish his adventure never ended. Sancho certainly wanted more. Yet as Alonso Quijano the Good, sane, lies dying, are we happy for him, or not? Do we want more adventures, or do we want what is good for his sanity? Like Hamlet, Don Quixote is a Noah-figure, one good man who does not want to compromise with evil—and yet they both do! Hamlet kills his college buddies and Don Quixote hangs out with highwaymen. What gives? Is reality too harsh? The burden too great that you must compromise with evil?

As Bloom puts it, after the illusion is over, there is nothing to do but die. He is at war with Freud’s reality principle—thou must die, which, at least to the young and those which have a lot going for them, is the ultimate injustice: nothing can be built which will last. So now what do we do?

I can’t say authoritatively, but I think Cervantes, or, Quijano, reaches the same conclusion as Hamlet: submission to Divine Providence. Quijano seems to acknowledge (as does Hamlet), Nietzsche’s maxim of “God or chaos.” Either things are intended or not. Either things are meant or not. God or chaos. Those are your choices.

Compare Hamlet’s 1601 speech:
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will...
we defy augury: there's a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is't to leave betimes?.

To Don Quixote’s, after he must give up knight-errantry:

“there is no such thing as Fortune in the world, nor does anything which takes
place there, be it good or bad, come about by chance, but by the special
preordination of heaven; and hence the common saying that 'each of us is
the maker of his own Fortune.' I have been that of mine; but not with the
proper amount of prudence, and my self-confidence has therefore made me
pay dearly; for I ought to have reflected that Rocinante's feeble
strength could not resist the mighty bulk of the Knight of the White
Moon's horse. In a word, I ventured it, I did my best, I was overthrown,
but though I lost my honour I did not lose nor can I lose the virtue of
keeping my word. When I was a knight-errant, daring and valiant, I
supported my achievements by hand and deed, and now that I am a humble
squire I will support my words by keeping the promise I have given.
Forward then, Sancho my friend, let us go to keep the year of the
novitiate in our own country, and in that seclusion we shall pick up
fresh strength to return to the by me never-forgotten calling of arms."

You can either accept your lot as the Will of God; or you can call it chaos. The apotheosis of Hamlet and Don Quixote, the pivotal turning points which allow for them to overcome what plagues them (fear of death, fear of reality) is submission to the will of God.
Like Hamlet, Don Quixote asks you who is really crazy and who is faking (Don Quixote? The Seville madman? Cardenio?) , when is such-and-such insane and when is he not. And neither text gives us easy answers. They are insoluble texts, and that is why they will never get old.


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Reading Progress

08/09/2010 page 300
28.0% "Amaaaaaaazing."
08/10/2010 page 430
40.0% "Whew. Movin' right along."
08/11/2010 page 550
51.0% "OK, guys. I'm really starting to get tired."
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