Tuesday, December 4, 2012

the poor man is incapacitated from showing the virtue of generosity

I have finished the first half (the 1605 book) of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote. It's a swell novel, and no wonder it's the pride of Spanish literature. You might think it's a picaresque comic novel about a wealthy man who, in his later years, is overcome with delusions that he is a knight errant from the Spanish Middle Ages and sets out to have brave adventures. You'd only be partially right. Don Quixote is in fact a long consideration of the state of Spain on the verge of the Renaissance, examining the tension between a crumbling, ramshackle kingdom where titles are respected above real achievement and a Spain where the money is more and more in the hands of a middle class of merchants and landowners, the peasants just beginning to voice the opinion that perhaps the nobility are less bright and capable than might be thought. It's a book that loves Spain with all its heart but knows the nation's flaws, and possibly Cervantes, who was a professional soldier until his forties and fought in famous battles under the command of famous captains, was mourning a loss of idealism and pride no longer to be found in the Spaniard of his day. When Don Quixote is brought back to his home after the first unsuccessful adventure, the local priest asks him if he isn't aware that he's not really a knight errant, and if he doesn't really know that his brain has been temporarily overwhelmed by a bunch of harmful fiction. The hero's reply?

"I know who I am," replied Don Quixote, "and I know that I may be not only those I have named, but all the Twelve Peers of France and even all the Nine Worthies, since my achievements surpass all that they have done all together and each of them on his own account."

Four hundred or so pages later, after many adventures and humiliations, Quixote is discussing knight errantry and the literature thereof with a canon of the church. The canon has gone on at eloquent length, dismissing Quixote's beloved fables as harmful, empty fantasy. The hero's reply?

"It appears to me, gentle sir, that your worship's discourse is intended to persuade me that there never were any knights-errant in the world, and that all the books of chivalry are false, lying, mischievous and useless to the State, and that I have done wrong in reading them, and worse in believing them, and still worse in imitating them, when I undertook to follow the arduous calling of knight-errantry which they set forth; for you deny that there ever were Amadises of Gaul or of Greece, or any other of the knights of whom the books are full."

"It is all exactly as you state it," said the canon; to which Don Quixote returned, "You also went on to say that books of this kind had done me much harm, inasmuch as they had upset my senses, and shut me up in a cage, and that it would be better for me to reform and change my studies, and read other truer books which would afford more pleasure and instruction."

"Just so," said the canon.

Quixote is not to be convinced, for the literature of knight errantry has given him gifts nowhere else to be found in the Spain he inhabits. Says the hero:

"...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; for by my faith, senor, the poor man is incapacitated from showing the virtue of generosity to anyone, though he may possess it in the highest degree; and gratitude that consists of disposition only is a dead thing, just as faith without works is dead."

Cervantes, of course, shows us how out of place a knight is in 17th-century Spain. Don Quixote's illusions do not have any place in the modern world and he is bound for failure and further humiliation. His adventures are to no purpose: there are no giants to behead, no damsels to rescue, no fair Dulcinea whose heart he might win through his bravery and the might of his right arm. There is nothing for Don Quixote in all of Spain, in all of Europe, except to go back to his business and his property and to put aside his fantastic novels and his fantasies of derring-do. And yet, Cervantes tells us, it is only when our aging middle-class hero believes he is the Knight of the Sad Countenance that he is valiant, polite, generous, well-bred, magnanimous, etc., and the implication is that those Spaniards who surround him, not being knights errant, all lack those qualities. Cervantes' modern Spain lacks those qualities, and the reader of Don Quixote cannot help but sympathize with our poor deluded hero because, we fear, he is right: something has been lost, somehow he is better than those sane folk who surround him, laughing as the fearless knight shatters his ancient lance against windmills.


  1. It's always been a story I've been drawn to, yet I've never had the courage to read the original. I had my own idea of Don Quixote, just as Don Quixote had his own idea of knights, and was fearful of being shorn of my illusions. However, I greatly enjoyed the section you quoted.

  2. It's a great read, very actiony. You can see the influence of Don Quixote all over the literature of the last 400 years. And from what I've heard pretty much any English translation you pick up will be a decent read, though they're of varying success in giving the flavor of the original Spanish. Anyway, I read the first 400+ pages very quickly and I'm looking forward to the remaining 450 pages. The second half, I hear, is better than the first.

    Classics that intimidate me almost always turn out to be warm and fuzzy plain old good books.

  3. Don Quixote-the-character has escaped from Don Quixote-the-book, a rare feat.

    Part II is so good. So, so good. It will reinforce many of the points you made.

    One caution on the translations: old translations, like the so-called Smollett translation, bowdlerize the text, excising the scatological stuff especially. So whatever flavor they might have is a lot less earthy than more modern versions.

  4. Don Quixote sits in my kitchen, drinking my rioja. I'm starting on Book II this evening. The preface is hysterical.

    The translator of the edition I'm reading (Cohen) remarks that Cervantes' Spanish had far more epithets and oaths than our modern English has, much to the disadvantage of English. I keep getting surprised at how...earthy, shall we say...Don Quixote is.