Monday, April 18, 2016
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“DON QUIXOTE” by Miguel de Cervantes (first part published in 1605; second part published in 1615; at least twelve full-length English language translations have been published since 1620)
This month marks the 400th anniversary of both Shakespeare’s death and Miguel de Cervantes’ death. For quite a long time, I have contemplated writing something about Don Quixote on this blog. Cervantes’ novel looms large in my mind as one of the Great Canonical Novels that I actually like very much. And even if I cannot read it in the original Spanish, I have twice enjoyed making my way through its 900-odd pages in both the 18th century translation by Charles Jarvis, and the 1950 translation by J.M.Cohen (the one that held sway for years in the Penguin Classics). There are at least ten other full-length translations of the novel into English, three of them made in the 21st century alone. As I have remarked before on this blog (see the post on War and Peace), any new translation of a great novel will trumpet its own worth and probably have a translator’s introduction explaining how other translations have missed noteworthy things in the original author’s style. I am sure that there are many nuances of Cervantes’ great work which I, as a non-speaker of Spanish, have missed. Even so, I think that reading both the Jarvis and the Cohen translations has given me some knowledge of the novel.
You already know that this is a picaresque (or at least episodic) novel in which the hero, his mind turned by reading too many romances of knightly chivalry, imagines he is a knight riding out to right wrongs, even if it is incongruous to do such things in the Spain of the Golden Age. You know about his charging the windmills (which occurs only about 20 pages in, before the novel has really got going). You know about the very worldly peasant companion he picks up as his squire, fat little Sancho Panza, who sees things with shrewd peasant common sense and yet is fully convinced that his master will lead him to his “island” where he will be ruler. Perhaps you know of Sancho’s wife Teresa and of Sancho’s donkey Dapple, just as you know of Don Quixote’s bony stallion Rocinante. Perhaps you know of the way Sancho Panza endlessly spouts proverbs. You almost certainly know of Dulcinea, the simple peasant girl whom Don Quixote takes to be the lady to whom he dedicates his chivalric deeds. And there is at least an outside chance that you know about the barber’s basin, which Don Quixote turns into the Helmet of Mambrino; and of the barber and the priest who purge Don Quixote’s library in an attempt to cure his delusions. You might even have heard of Samson Carrasco, the university-educated chap who spends much time trying to reason, and then to frighten, Don Quixote out of his perceived madness. And, at the limits of possibility, you might know that the story of the knight and the squire is interspersed with a number of self-contained stories, detached from the main narrative and capable of being presented as “novels” on their own – not to mention all the parodies of writings about shepherds and shepherdesses in sylvan settings.
But all this you might know without having once read the novel.
You see, like Hamlet and Faust and Don Juan, Don Quixote is now an archetype. He is the dreamy and unrealistic idealist with the generous heart, who really wants to do good in the world even if he often messes things up in a farcical way. We’ve even created an adjective out of him in the English language – “quixotic”, meaning inclined to a dreamy, unrealistic but always well-intentioned view of the world, and perhaps engaging in noble but fruitless causes. (The existence of the adjective “quixotic” also fires up those pointless debates among English-speakers about whether you should pronounce the hero’s name Spanish-style DON KEY-HO-TAY or English-style DON QUICK-SOAT. I myself favour the English style.)
And because Don Quixote is an archetype, and is apparently known by people who have never actually read the novel in which he appears, there are all sorts of misconceptions about him abroad. I remember once hearing a woman, who had clearly not taken the merest glance at a word Cervantes wrote, boldly proclaiming “I never got the point of this silly little man wandering around imagining things.”
Then there are those who think the whole spirit of the novel is captured in the mediocre Broadway musical Man of La Mancha, that one-hit wonder with its song about dreaming the impossible dream.
Double oh dear.
So I am reluctant to expound at length on this novel, except to state the obvious.
Don Quixote is a fitting place in which to find the profoundest philosophy. The pairing of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is indeed an essay in epistemology – the soul set with the body; reason set with the appetites (or senses); Rationalism set with Empiricism – and in the end the two melding into one as Don Quixote has to adopt some of the worldliness of Sancho Panza and Sancho Panza has to adopt some of the idealism of Don Quixote. If the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance is Plato and Rene Descartes, then his fat little squire is John Locke and David Hume. And the novel itself is Emmanuel Kant, finding a middle way between polarised epistemologies.
Don Quixote is the protest of the imagination against the finality of death – at least this was the view of the early-20th-century Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno (look up the piece on Unamuno’s TheTragic Sense of Life on this blog.)
Don Quixote is also, as Herbert Grierson argued, a novel attuned to the Christian concept of charity, which is why it was more often imitated in the days when writers still admired practical charity and altruism, and before the post-romantic notion of the alienated artist (at odds with his/her fellow human beings) kicked in. Even if he often goes crazily wrong, Don Quixote is at least trying to do good for others.
Don Quixote is certainly a comic masterpiece. Indeed much of it is pure slapstick and farce and the “mistakes of the night at the inn” variety of comedy. But I have never read its best episodes without seeing how Cervantes is also playing with bigger and more resonant ideas. Is it the triumph of the imagination over material reality when the lion released from its cage does not attack Don Quixote? Is it the revenge of material reality over imagination when Don Quixote is knocked down by a herd of bulls? Are we deep into the realms of subjectivism and rationalism when Don Quixote is lowered into a cave, clearly falls asleep, and yet emerges telling of the wonderful things he has seen? How clearly does Cervantes comment on the suspension of disbelief in theatre when Don Quixote slashes with his sword at the puppet show? How satirical is he being about war and warriors when Don Quixote mistakes two flocks of sheep for two armies? One could almost read such examples as parables.
I do admit that I find the two parts of the novel not to be a perfect match. Part One, published in 1605, is the more purely comic part – the part which often simply invites us to laugh at the crazy things done by a deluded old man. Part Two, published ten years later in 1615, is the part which waxes more philosophical and certainly has some of the sequences I enjoy most as Cervantes reconsiders his knight and squire and has them more often melding into each other in the ways they see reality. It also has Sancho at last getting his “island” and ruling it; and it has the best conflicts in the whole opus when Samson Carrasco confronts Don Quixote with a more challenging view of what reality is.
I have noticed that many critics take the second part to be more considered and more smoothly written.
And yet Part Two has a certain self-referentialism which I find arch. Often knight and squire are greeted by people who recognise them because they have read about them in the first book; and in the long episode where the duke and duchess entertain Don Quixote, they are playing games that they think will amuse him because they have read of such games in Part One. (Embedded in this, there is the historical fact that Cervantes was, in the text and narrative of Part Two itself, asserting his authorship after certain plagiarists had produced their rip-off versions of Part One.)
One thing is very clear, however. The whole work is the work of a mellow and mature man who has seen much of life, and whose attitude throughout is forgiving and benign. Cervantes was 57 when the first part of Don Quixote was published and 67 when the second part was published. He was no rebellious kid.
As a whole, Don Quixote is the most benign and least malicious Great Book ever written. This is probably my main reason for liking it so much.