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Happy Birthday Don Quixote!
Thoughts on the Famous Free-lance Rider

“But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”

Matthew 4:4

Are Cervantes’ The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote (Vol. 1. 1605; Vol. II. 1615) and the figure of Don Quixote de la Mancha worthless or worthwhile? And why!

The businessman’s view of our life, world and mankind might answer that they are indeed worthwhile, as entertainment, as potentially marketable merchandise, in addition to movie rights and mere book sales figures. I wonder: have Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza been manufactured as “play action figures” (‘the complete set containing windmills that transform into evil giants’)? Or – interesting to those whose sense of life goes somewhat beyond their own, and whose knowledge of history does not end (and begin) in the fog of their own childhood, or a few vague rumored family and national years before their birth – it might indeed be interesting to learn if children’s toys in the history of Spain or other countries were named Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, Rosinante and Dapple. I wonder, is it so that only adults can take Don Quixote’s foolishness, his madness, seriously – children not being able to appreciate the tale as other than a “real game”: for for them it is normal to turn everyday objects into something other, a pan into a helmet, windmills into evil giants,…the common mundane world of experience into a world of heroism and adventures. Could one see children “playing Don Quixote”?:

“Okay, okay…,” the older child reluctantly concedes, “This time I’ll be Sancho…and you’ll be crazy Quixote. The garage’ll be the inn you imagine is the castle you’re guarding, and I’ll pretend ‘you’re crazy ‘cause it’s not!’”

Doesn’t quite work.

Many Russians I know certainly take the book and figure of Don Quixote more seriously to mind and sincerely to heart, than most Americans I know. In the first place they have often read it, and then most often with pleasure, rather than as a requirement. When I asked an only moderately-educated Russian recently had she read Don Quixote, she replied: “Who hasn’t?” A practical question: Why waste time reading so many pages about an imaginary old man who is crazy and imagines he is a knight? Is the USA in the early 2000s (The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote was in print, and indeed the first English translation of the second part appeared the same year the Plymouth Colony was settled, in 1620), practically, now not one of the most un-romantic nations, civilizations (e.g. Yankee know-how) and mentalities in our world (and in this setting an example of a life-, culture- and mind-style which other peoples in the world now use as their model and standard)?

Don Quixote goes mad from his reading of books of chivalry. Illustration by Gustave Dore (1863)
Don Quixote goes mad from his reading of books of chivalry. Illustration by Gustave Doré (1863)

Americans tend I believe to treat Don Quixote something like an unnecessarily long if somewhat funny story – a distraction, an entertainment (a 2-or-so-hour movie version that is, less so the many hundred page reading!) – and perhaps in this they are right, in that the author may well have merely meant it to amuse. Russians treat Cervantes’ book and the character of Don Quixote de la Mancha more as enriching to the soul and even enlightening of the human condition. I suspect this is related, one, to their histories-old acceptance and appreciation of and reverence for “holy fools” – Don Quixote being a kind of Renaissance Spanish variation of this; and, at least in recent times, to living for decades in the sometimes horrible (in-)human conditions, absurdities and “madness” of the CCCP. As to Sancho (panza is Spanish for belly), the more mundane of the famous pair: the recent increasing pandemic of overweight and obese people in the USA seems to indicate a kinship with more than poor Sancho’s mundane and monetary concerns and ideals – he was always ready to eat and drink. (The Knight of the Mournful Countenance and his chubby squire would have a very difficult time in the USA with the hungering and starving part of “knight-errantry” – as there are so many “fast food outlets” now even in the smallest towns of American civilization. Indeed, what would come to mind, if one were to imagine Cervantes’ story set in “21st century USA”?)

Dostoyevsky – apparently in some portions of his diary – wrote: A more profound and powerful work than this is not to be met with...The final and greatest utterance of the human mind. I wonder at what year of his life Dostoyevsky wrote this. Such a reading seems to my mind to reveal a kind of true extravagant desperation, in its view and sense of life, world and mankind, one which probably shows as much – or more – the deeper psychology of its Russian author as of the human condition. But, if one accepts, however reluctantly, a kind of hopeless desperation as to the human condition, and as to the ultimate potential of the human being: then an “out-of-touch-with-reality” comically-striving mad-fool, offering his life to ideals and noble causes (before recognizing and repenting his “madness” at his illness unto death) offers a kind of hopeless hope as the meaning of mankind.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Illustration by Gustave Dore (1863)
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
Illustration by Gustave Doré (1863)

In the decade I have lived in Moscow (since 1994), intelligent Russians’ affectionate and insightful references to the figure of Don Quixote necessitated again a fresh reading. And recently – reflecting on half-a-century’s personal life, experiences, dreams, achievements, disappointments, etc – I recalled how Quixote, when he realized after a week of fever that he had lived the life of a fool, of a madman, died within just a few pages. In fact, feeling that I needed the greater context to Cervantes’ portrayal of the psychology of Quixote’s knightly defeat, depression and death (when he realized he had been “mad”), and wishing to better understand why he then died so quickly, I decided to re-read the “preface” to this: some 780 pages in my “Wordsworth Classics” edition!

Not being able to quite finish it in Moscow before a short trip to rest in Turkey and then a trip to take my summer break and get my new Russian visa in Scotland, I tore off the final some 200 pages from my heavy two-inch-thick paperback, and took that part with me. But I ended up finishing it in Moscow after the summer anyway; though, happily, just in time for Quixote’s birthday program on the BBC!

The BBC World Service broadcast a discussion in September (2005) to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the publication of Cervantes’ Vol. I, during which Doris Lessing admitted that in her younger life she had been unable to complete a reading of Don Quixote. Surely this fact is not rare; and clearly not limited to American high school students, such as I was, who never quite get to it on their “summer reading list” – though that is probably as close as many of them come to ever actually reading it. Certainly – or so I see it, now – it is not for children; perhaps not even for many adults younger than a certain age and experience (and despair?) does it “make any sense” to “spend time reading it”. Cyrano de Bergerac could cite the chapters of various events of Don Quixote – most fictional or real relationships with the tale are much less articulated. But this all assumes that it is not just a book of humor and satire – as for good example the introduction to the 1885 John Ormsby English translation makes clear. Ormsby:

“[Cervantes] said emphatically in the preface to the First Part and in the last sentence of the Second, that he had no other object in view than to discredit these books [of chivalry], and this, to advanced criticism, made it clear that his object must have been something else. One theory was that the book was a kind of allegory, setting forth the eternal struggle between the ideal and the real, between the spirit of poetry and the spirit of prose;…”

It is easy enough to imagine that a humorous, satirical book written and immediately very popular in parts of Spain in the 1600s, would have a very different “reading” in other times and nations and cultures, aside from the problems of translating Cervantes writing and humor – and what Cervantes himself meant!

Goethe, as recorded by Eckermann [Jan. 10, 1825], said his Faust (“mad stuff”) presented the state and feelings of a man which relatively few could appreciate: Faust is so strange an individual, that only few can sympathize with his internal condition. What kind of life experiences and journey need a person to have had to enjoy, rather to even need, reading Don Quixote; to identify with the mad idealist?! (Perhaps this is a “clinical question”!?) Do most people who read Don Quixote these days do so for pleasure (as was the case when it was published in Spain)? Or because they are intending to learn something from it? I certainly read to get at its “deeper meaning” and sense. But if Cervantes intended it to be just a comic satire, then why such seriousness?

I have been searching on the internet to try to learn what Cervantes himself intended as to “the meaning”, if any other than a good story, of his eventually world famous work. If he only “intended”, wrote Don Quixote, as a comic satire on “knight errantry”, then perhaps even quite serious people have been rather foolish who have taken the work more seriously than satirically during the past 400 years: as some kind of treatise on the spiritual status of the human being in the world; some clue and solution to the human psyche and condition. Some individuals in subsequent centuries and other countries have apparently even been consoled in their lives by their reading of Quixote’s solitary life, journey, and even “madness”, so that his mad story was a kind of salving psychic therapy for them! Yet, if Cervantes – and apparently there is no other surviving materials to prove otherwise – merely intended a good comic satire?…

Comic satire? Or the story of a sympathetic soul and a somewhat “cracked” idealist, who came to want, imagine and believe his to be a noble and courageous life, amidst the real mundane world and life with its common characteristics? (Be the aspiration illusory, and its applications unrealistic in the real world, perhaps this is what Dostoyevsky lauded: the human need for more than the earthly, for greatness, nobility…be that even mad.)

Death of Don Quixote. Illustration by Gustave Dore (1863)
Death of Don Quixote.
Illustration by Gustave Doré (1863)

I knew a man in California, Peter Kalacic (who was from Croatia, and seemed to me to have brought some passion with him from there when he immigrated in the 60s), who did many odd and, to my mind, interesting things quite unself-consciously in Santa Cruz [California] in the 1980s and 90s, to stimulate people to think and question things. He was one of those persons whose oddity could bring comic relief and fresh life to others more stifled and self-controlled. He was a rather passionate follower of the philosopher and seer Rudolf Steiner, and I recall once how I came upon him sitting in a public courtyard of the then most popular café in Santa Cruz, holding a small tree (or branch) turned upwards, and from which he had dangled by strings books by Steiner, which people could take and read (for free). He spoke of it as a “tree of knowledge”. Clever, not crazy. While many were likely a bit afraid to go near him – “too weird” – he was a warm, friendly, helpful, intelligent man; and this act, amongst many others, delighted me and a few others, by its novelty and brightness. He came to commit suicide a few years ago; I have been unable to learn much as to why. The life of this town was diminished when Peter hung himself. And there is something akin in this to the important part of the story, in Vol. II, chapter LXV, where Don Antonio Moreno speaks to “the Knight of the White Moon”, the Batchelor Carrasco, who in his second attempt to return Don Quixote to his home (i.e. Alonso Quixano to healthy “understanding”) had unseated the knight, thus sending him home, and eventually to his death. Don Antonio says to Carrasco (recalling as I do this writing “Judas’s kiss”): Oh Sir, what you have to answer for in robbing the world of the most diverting folly that ever was exposed among mankind? Consider, sir, that his cure can never benefit the public half so much as his distemper. It was similarly so with “Peter the Painter”, a loss to more than his family. (Also: that café was destroyed by earthquake in 1989; and his mother had, belatedly, all his books removed from the house!)

I had wondered when I began this third (in my life) reading of The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote whether Cervantes showed him to have died because he had lost the imagined “higher meaning” and purpose in his life. As long as he imagined himself a knight-errant, Don Quixote de la Mancha, he lived, endured, and willingly suffered for his higher goals. (There is something of such “sky” that each person seems to need.) So, why did he die?

Chapter LXXIV: “How Don Quixote fell sick, made his last will, and died” – the final six pages I had been reading for! As all human things, especially the lives of men are transitory… Whether his sickness was the effect of his melancholy reflections, or whether it was so pre-ordained by Heaven, most certainly it is, he was seized with a violent fever, that confined him to his bed six days. … They [his friends] conjectured that his sickness proceeded from the regret of his defeat… The batchelor [Carrasco] begged him to pluck up a good heart, and rise, that they may begin their pastoral life... The physician was of the opinion, that mere melancholy and vexation had brought him to his approaching end.

Soon after, Don Quixote again understood himself as the man Alonso Quixano the Good, and, recognizing, acknowledging and renouncing the follies of his life when he was a “madman”, he died.

For if he like a madman liv’d,
At least he like a wise one dy’d.
(Don Quixote’s Epitaph)

So, is this work, this “classic”, a satirical comedy of and for 17th century Spain; or a lesson to humanity? Reading for entertainment, or for enlightenment? Worthwhile or worthless?

Cervantes’ The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote, with its Don Quixote de la Mancha (and Sancho Panza, Rosinante, Dapple, et al.)… people are still, as in the many chapters of the story, discussing, sympathizing, and marveling at his “madness” on its, and his, 400th birthday. Happy Birthday to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and to Don Quixote.


First published in the magazine English, #24, 2005.