Monday, January 30, 2017

Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes

Our book club began on a whim with a call to read A Tale of Two Cities. After meeting to discuss that book, we decided to keep it up. The book we chose to read next was Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes. This book is considered the first modern novel. Clocking in at over 900 pages, slogging through it became a tall order. Since it was originally written in Spanish, some of it does not translate well. The translator of my edition, J. M. Cohen, freely admits that although he did his best, the humor does not always come through.

One drawback to this book is that we are missing the context. Apparently Cervantes is reacting to the saturation of his society with really bad books. These other novels tell the fantastical tales of knights and their adventures. The protagonists are over-the-top charicatures and magical contrivances abound. It is into this environment that Cervantes introduces his hero, Don Quixote.

Cervantes writes his tale with an interesting self-awareness. He proclaims himself, not the author of the story, but simply more of an editor of a story he discovered. Using this device gives the adventure the patina of non-fiction. Cervantes is unsure of the hero's real name, but knows he is now called Don Quixote de la Mancha. The old man has become obsessed with the tales of knights errant and fancies himself a member of their community. To the distress of his housekeeper and neice, and his friends the priest and the barber, he sets off to defend the weak and helpless, all for the glory of his lady Dulcinea, whom he has never met, accompanied by a simple-minded villager, Sancho Panza, to whom he promises a governership. 

In his madness, he sees ordinary things transformed into castles and giants. Although Sancho is not similarly endowed with this ability, Quixote feels confident that his interpretation reflects reality. Together, they have many adventures battling "evil" and helping the helpless. None of these exploits actually end well, but in Don Quixote's mind, he is the bravest and most successful knight of the realm. By using this device, seeing both Don Quixote's mind and the reality, Cervantes is making it clear that it is all nonsense and worse. People are actually getting hurt, mostly Sancho, property is being damaged, and the outcomes leave much to be desired. 

Throughout the book, Don Quixote is urged to return home, return to sanity, and burn his abominable books. For a short time after a particularly bruising run-in with a band of merchants whom he mistakes for knights intent on battling him, he does just this. But the madness eventually overcomes him and he and the faithful Sancho return to the road. 

Once again, we find Don Quixote battling shepherds, sheep, innkeepers, and anyone else he chances to meet. Time and again he is disasterously defeated, but each time, he soldiers on, believing himself to be on a sacred mission. With the promise of a governership always before him, Sancho remains a part of the misconceived operation. After being tossed in a blanket in a particulary terrifying spectacle, Sancho makes a statement that seems to reveal why he stays, "... such misfortunes are difficult to prevent, and if they come there's nothing for it but to hunch your shoulders, hold your breath, close your eyes, and let yourself go where fate and the blanket send you." (p. 163)

This seems to be Don Quixote's guiding principle as well. "To go where fate and the blanket send you." Book 1 is full of story after story of misadventure, each full of cringe-inducing tales. It ends with Sancho Panza appealing to Quixote's friends, the priest and the barber, to trick the addled man into returning home. They eventually, through a complicated and contrived plot, kidnap him and return the bruised and defeated old man to his bed. 

The author ends the book with alledged references to his knight errant in ancient manuscripts. The way the author inserts himself into the story is fun trick to distance himself from his own story, offering a simple morality tale he "discovered" and delivers for our consideration.

Apparently Cervantes promised a second book after the success of the first. Yet during his eleven year hiatus, someone else took it upon himself to continue the story. Book 2 opens a month after the first ended with a recognition of the counterfeit book and Cervante's desire to set the record straight. Once again, such a self-aware book is a delight. He repeatedly refers to errors in the previous book as printer errors. In this he shows a bit of Don Quixote in himself - it is never his fault when things go sideways. In the intervening month, while Don Quixote recovered in bed, the first book has made him and his adventures famous. 

The second book takes advantage of this renown. Now Don Quixote is recognized when he, to the disappointment of those around him, returns to the road. A new character is introduced in the person of a scholar, what they call a bachelor. He is fascinated by Don Quixote's exploits, but sees the need to help the crazy, old man. A plan is hatched in which the bachelor will disguise himself as a famous knight. He will challenge Don Quixote in battle and with his inevitable defeat, Don Quixote will promise to return home and give up all efforts at chivalry. Unfortunately the plan goes awry when our hero defeats the "Knight of the Mirrors."

Don Quixote believes it is time to finally meet his Dulcinea. Sancho is supposed to have visited her earlier, so he is to lead his master to the object of love. But Sancho lied and has no idea who she is. When he points to a random, ugly peasant girl as the damsel, Don Quixote is convinced she's been bewitched by nefarious forces. For the rest of the book, he is obsessed with disenchanting her and returning her into the glorious visage of which he believes her to be. 

Returning to the road, Don Quixote chances upon some wealthy fans of his feats of derring, a local Duke and Duchess. They indulge his fantasies for their own entertainment. They create increasingly complex scenarios in which Don Quixote can prove his mettle. Unfortunately they know he's insane, and they toy with him as their personal entertainment. This leads to some cruelty as they devise painful and complicated ways for Don Quixote to relieve Dulcinea of her enchantment. 

To sweeten the incentive to proceed through their gauntlet, the Duke gives Sancho the long hoped-for governorship. But his lackeys work hard to make it a miserable commission for the simple-minded companion. Nonetheless, Panza's uncomplicated folk wisdom serves him well, and he does a surprisingly good job in his duties. Yet the toll it takes on him brings him no happiness, and he eventually renounces his position.

Following that debacle, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza leave the home of the Duke and Duchess for the road once again. Similar adventures as before befall them, ending with a duel with the famous "Knight of the White Moon." The bachelor has recovered from his previous defeat and has set up the same challenge. A defeat means Don Quixote must return home and renounce knight errantry. This time, Don Quixote is soundly conquered, and complies with his promise. 

Depressed, Don Quixote returns home, but not without a few more adventures along the way. He begins to dream of a simple shepherd's life. His friends indulge this hopeless delusion. 

Finally in the last chapter, Don Quixote recognizes the error of his ways. In a rare moment of clarity, he renounces the books and stories that led to his delusions. In preparing his will, he requires that his neice marry a man wholly unfamiliar with the detrimental tales. On the last page, he quietly succumbs to a life marred by misadventure and sadness knowing he wasted much of his time on earth. He dies in his bed.

Cervantes story is somewhere between a fable and a chronicle. On the one hand it is a fantastical tale, stretched beyond all credulity. On the other hand, he presents Don Quixote's story as a morality play, to exhort us not to fall into the same trap. So while he tries to a present a slightly fictionalized account of what COULD happen to one immersed in the silly novels of his day, it seems highly unlikely. 

I believe at the core, Don Quixote is searching for meaning. Like all mortals, we want to know we were placed on this earth for a purpose. Don Quixote's error is in assuming his purpose to be that of a knight errant. What is standing in his way is reality. He is not a knight errant. No one is. The stories of the day are make-believe. He never overcomes this obstacle because unfortunately, reality is a b-word. 

While I sympathize somewhat with Don Quixote, the reader is supposed to relate to the niece and friends of Don Quixote who love him and want him to return to sanity. It's unclear why they hold him so dear. He clearly doesn't care about their opinions. Because his actions lead to the abuse of his faithful squire, Sanchez Panza, it's hard to muster up the requisite sympathy for our knight. 

I believe Cervantes is making the argument that a life devoted to silliness is a life wasted. I think this is true. However, because Quixote doesn't learn his lesson until the very last pages of a 900-page book, I don't believe the message is adequately communicated. Instead the common takeaway is that of silly stories of a crazy man "tilting at windmills." Cervantes' novel becomes what he opposes — the silly, fantastical tale of a knight errant and his lady love. 

However, I think it is true that we all need purpose in life. I think it's also true that some waste their lives on meaninglessness. Sometimes the source is obvious, whether it's pleasure-seaking or fame. But sometimes it's less obvious. We can waste our lives on things that seem to have value but often are just at ephemeral and meaningless, and ultimately, worthless. I think of those who seek to do good and in reality hurt their own cause. Women who march in disjointed "women's marches" declaiming non-existent oppression waste valuable time and resources. Saving the planet gives many that sense of meaning they crave, but it's a fool's errand. Many of these kinds of focuses provide, not meaning and true purpose, but a false idol.

I believe our ultimate purpose is to glorify God in whatever position He has placed us. In my case, I am a wife and mother. My job is to work at those tasks to the best of my abilities. Supporting my husband and raising my children glorifies God as I follow His Word in carrying out my duties. I have no need for an alternate purpose, no need to save the planet or fight for ephemeral "justice." I put my trust in Him and ask my family to do the same. 

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