An unread American attempts to tackle great literature
Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Cervantes: Don Quixote
There is an older gentleman in the village of La Mancha, who enjoyed reading tales of chivalry. He became so enamored with these stories that he saw himself as a knight errant, a man who rights wrongs and stands for truth and justice. His name was Quixada (or maybe Quesada or Quixana), but he called himself Don Quixote of La Mancha.
Requiring a lady to hold dear and dedicate his noble deeds toward, he chose a local country girl, Aldonza Lorenzo, and gave her the name Dulcinea del Toboso. Every knight also needs a squire, so he convinced a local villager Sancho Panza to be his companion. Sancho is reluctant, but Don Quixote promises him an island that he can govern in return for his services, and this tangible reward is enough to convince Sacho to follow Don Quixote. The contrast between these characters is one of the defining characteristics of this novel. We have the heroic idealist and visionary compared with the practical man who values worldly needs. They both need each other and we can imagine a role for both of them in our society (or in ourselves).
Don Quixote is a fun, exciting and a little thought provoking. Filled with allegories, satire, slapstick and wit, it is easy to see why it is still popular. This is despite its length (over 1000 pages), the number of characters (over 400) and the fact that there are side stories, stories-within-stories and the number of characters playing multiple parts as they either help Don Quixote, try and dissuade him, or play along with his fantasies.
Don Quixote sees windmills as attacking giants, a barber's bowl as a sacred helmet and a herd of sheep as an army on the march. How can Sancho or anyone else follow, believe or tolerate him? There are at least two ways. First, Don Quixote convinces some people, such as Sancho, that "enchanters" are trying to deceive them, "...there is always a swarm of enchanters in attendance upon us that change and alter everything with us, and turn things as they please, and according as they are disposed to aid or destroy us". The second is that people want to accommodate Don Quixote because they believe he is either harmless, that they find him enjoyable or that they think his wild fantasies of nobility, truth and justice are a welcome respite from the insincerity of real world.
When Don Quixote isn't possessed by the spirit of chivalry he can appear quite wise. He gives sage advice and once tells Sancho that life is a play, with people playing the parts of kings, pontiffs, ladies and villains. When it is over everyone is equal in the grave, just like actors who strip off their costumes at the end of a play (sounds like Shakespeare).
Sancho Panza doles out aphorisms, sayings, psalms and saws to grating regularity - and inappropriately - or at least Don Quixote thinks so. Well, many are inappropriate, but they are quite entertaining. It is probably Cervantes way of mocking people who spout such platitudes and call it wisdom.
At the end of the book, Don Quixote dies in his bed, but shortly before he passes he renounces chivalry and comes to recognize his own delusions. However, you get the feeling that everyone is sad seeing Don Quixote coming to his rational senses. There was something magical and powerful about "Don Quixote" the knight errant. The vision, the courage and the idealist. He stands for justice and truth above all - and people love and respect that. All that is lost now - only the rational man is left.
Concerning Civil Government; Locke
Sense and Sensibility; Austen
Don Quixote; Cervantes
Anna Karenina; Tolstoy
On the Road; Kerouac
Great Expectations; Dickens
Classics Finished in 2011
The Plague; Camus
The Stranger; Camus
The Social Contract; Rosseau
The Spirit of Laws; Montesquieu
Henry IV parts 1 & 2; Shakespeare
Madame Bovary; Flaubert
The Prince; Machiavelli
Summa Theologica; Aquinas
The Fountainhead; Rand
Classics Finished in 2010
The Annals; Tacitus
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; Pirsig
New Testament; Gospel of Matthew, Acts of the Apostles