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Miguel Cervantes

Don Quixote

16 June 2007

         

What, you may ask, can possibly be written about the great novel, Don Quixote, that has not already been laid down in one discourse or another? What has not been tackled in succeeding texts or stretched out in excessive lectures? What has not been placed under a microscope to be examined and re-examined for the sake of mass understanding by those who propound higher-learning? I don’t know, my shoulders shrug in happy ignorance. It’s no good knowing what others think, unless, you first know for yourself.

A well translated book is worth one hundred that are not, allowing one to slide into the author’s meaning, effortless and unaware that a translation is being read. The age of this book—four hundred years is no walk in the park—corresponds to the number of translations. Searching the bountiful internet, I ultimately chose Edith Grossman for the excessive praise she has received and the striking red cover. My expectations were fulfilled, the words seemed Cervantes’ own.

There is sacrosanctity surrounding a book that has withstood the erosion of time. Four hundred years, my god! Four hundred years have passed and the era of chivalry is as dead as it was in Don Quixote’s time. Now we have different books to inspire different popular frenzies, different phases for similar masses. Perhaps reality T.V. shows would be an adequate comparison, perhaps you can imagine Rocinante trotting through the suburbs of L.A.? Four hundred years, that’s a hell of a long time.

To narrow down a one thousand page novel into a few paragraphs is not simple, so I’m not going to do it. How masochistic (and boring) to ask and answer the question, why did Don Quixote pick up his sword and his shield and set out on his first sally to become the heralded knight errant he has become? The answer is as evasive as the Knight of the Sorrowful Face himself. Circling back around one can only sees oneself, but no, not Don Quixote. What he saw in the mirror was a grandiose and chivalric scene, where he stood, the most valiant and the most brave, with a helmet on his head instead of a pot, a hearty steed instead of a scraggly Rocinante, a castle instead of an inn, giants instead of windmills, maidens instead of whores, princesses instead of maidens and on and on. What Don Quixote saw in the mirror amazes me, as it should.

I only devote myself to making the world understand its error in not restoring that happiest of times when the order of knight errantry was in flower, says Don Quixote. Is this a man overwrought by madness? Don Quixote had a vision and he pursued it with all the willpower he had been alloted. It could be said that the fantasy overtook him, but I believe that through his fantasy, he overtook reality.

What is reality anyway? Do we create our own reality, is it like destiny? Or do we stick between the black lines that we have been handed down from forefather to forefather, adjusted and rearranged through time by society and its environs? The books have been written. For example, you see a big round object being thrown from child to child in a park and you say to yourself, “That is a ball,” without any contention. Don Quixote might say, “Stop children! For you are torturing an abject soul! Release him at once!” Don Quixote has managed to usurp his reality by fitting it into the terms of chivalric novels: What then is not possible?

To go mad is to escape from the reason most adhere to without question; it is calling a ball anything but a ball; it is slipping across the black line where more is possible. Through maddened flights come moments of great lucidity for then one is able to see, with an altered perspective, into oneself or the world surrounding. Don Quixote was said to be a sane madman when he talked of anything but matters of knights and chivalry. He spoke with great intelligence so that those who had seen him, mere moments before, slashing wineskins he believed to be giants, were stunned. He spoke with composure and surety, so that no one could doubt his sanity for even a moment. In this way the book fluctuates, a buoy on the ocean of rationality, bobbing along on the flux of currents.

What would madness be without enchantments? The enchantments of Don Quixote are one of my favorite facets. What he calls enchantments—devices used in chivalric novels?—seem comparable to a hallucinatory state. These enchantments, sometimes cast by wizards such as Merlin or invoked by Don Quixote himself, allow him to see what he wants to see, to explain events that occur outside the laws of chivalry or to explain general inexplicabilities. The hallucinatory state when smoking a joint is a subtle enhancement, dare I say enchantment? Explanations aren’t required. When Don Quixote finds himself in questionable situations he finds no need for analyzation, he simply responds with, “It appears as though I am enchanted,” and all ensuing frets fall to the ground.

The weightiest enchantment in all the adventures of Don Quixote is that of the peerless Dulcinea of Toboso. Who can deny her beauty? Long golden tresses falling down her back and eyes of – but wait! She has been mysteriously transformed into an ugly peasant girl astride a lowly mare. What is a great knight to do when the magnitude of his visions fall short? This enchantment is more complicated, for sneaky Sancho Panza instigated what he initially believed would turn to his benefit. In knowing Don Quixote and his propensity to see what he wants to see, Sancho declared the peasant to be the wondrous Dulcinea, claiming she was visible in all her pure and modest splendor. Don Quixote disagrees, the woman riding towards them is as ugly and base as the dirt under his feet. How could she possibly be the lady, Dulcinea of Toboso?

Oh! how easy and light-hearted everyone would be if those big questions, those analyzed and reanalyzed doubts were simply matters of enchantment. Feel the stress shedding away. Us humans are so prone to self-pity, to feeling sorry for ourselves at the onset of a bad situation, to desiring an alteration of that which has already passed. Don Quixote knows. He knows all things are impermanent and are better off enchanted. He never doubts the truth of what he says, he never fears and charges, as fast as the craggily Rocinante can, into battle.

As long as he believes himself to be Don Quixote of La Mancha, the most valiant of all errant knights, he will recover from whatever ill befalls him. His is a madness of divine origin. It is exactly this madness which creates novels of this caliber, statues and fountains that gurgle with prolonged beauty one hundred years after one hundred years, art that leaves us in awe. It is such madness which dares one to take up an enchanted life, to go where the feet may lead.

I cannot compose this piece without more mention of Sancho Panza. He is the grounding force. He is so completely human. From his desire to govern an ínsula to his adoration of sleep, food and wine, he is the indulgent part of us all. He does not risk his fragile life for anything, he does not consent to nights without sleep or adventures without stopping for a bit of cheese and bread, sloshed down with some rueful wine. He takes his comfort when it is offered, his governorship when it is given. In short, they are perfect companions, as their lengthy conversations prove.

The body of Don Quixote is against the possibility of pain, or the laws which govern knights errant require bodily sacrifice and suffering. He challenges a lion to battle, charges lance first into a group of mounted and armed men, then to boasts of his abilities as if he could conquer without question. Don Quixote has no defensive skills, his figure is more comical then threatening, but his body remains oddly potent. He takes a royal beating and rises without complaint, while Sancho lies on the ground, moaning and groaning in pain. At times, Don Quixote does not have a body at all; he is only mind focused on the duties of a knight errant, a mind that never gives up and never entertains doubt. The madness is in the determination.

But Don Quixote can’t last. Once the mirror reflects a face whose features are too familiar, there are two choices. One: accept that who you thought yourself to be is dead. Or two: fight till the bitter end. Though, when the fight is over and there are no more reflections to be fought, one is still only left with oneself, staring back from the mirror. Don Quixote was forced to look in the mirror and what he saw was an old man approaching the winter of his life. He saw bags under his eyes and wrinkles spreading from every delta across his skin. He saw himself, Alonso Quixano the Good, not a valiant knight errant, but a man of human proportions.

Alonso, whose willful strength had bore the valiant knight could not exist without the knight. He could neither fight nor could he accept, so what else could this woe-begotten man do but to succumb to sanity and die. Is that what sanity is? Some bland homeostasis not even worth proceeding with? Alonso the Good’s single action has a message. Without his madness he is only a man and what good is a man without wild dreams or elaborate fantasies?

I had no idea what Don Quixote was going to be like. The authors who have been inspired and taught by this great work number far more then those I know. It is not only the story of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza that left me in awe—though some find the story silly and redundant in traversing to its point—but that imbedded in the text are rare gems Cervantes implanted for our delight. His method of story-telling, his playfulness and apt histories have much to teach to those who wish to write.

Here Don Quixote rests. I’m hesitant to end this piece for then my reading will really be over. Though I’m reassured this will not be the last time I close its pages. From the shelf, the glaring red cover will face me with its desire to be read again and again. When I pick it up my eyes will fall again on the first sentence: Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived. . .

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