Quixote at 400
CLAUDIO MAGRIS: Once, at school, when I was fourteen, a brilliant and controversial teacher of German questioned me on the relation between Faust and the French Revolution. When I, showing off somewhat, began to answer with the words, “Well, I think . . . ” he stopped me at once. “What could you think, you wretch? Learn and repeat,” he exclaimed, and then delivered a shock lesson on the fatal German imbalance between its extraordinary cultural flowering and its political backwardness, the source of world tragedy. “And on all this, Magris will ponder and perhaps will be so generous as to present us with the fruits of his thought.”
We all realized immediately that this was a genuine paradoxical exhortation to really think, which does not mean to parade one’s own opinion, but rather to draw close to the subject, putting brackets around the humors of one’s own small self. The greater the subject, the more insignificant the personal reactions become. We may have our own personal opinions of an average writer, but in front of Don Quixote, we are all interchangeable. Conscripts of fate line up in front of love and death, the enchantment and the impossibility of living. I share Dostoevsky’s hyperbole according to which Don Quixote would be enough to justify the ways of man to God. It is a book that contains everything: the sublime and the base, the sacred and the scandalous, trust in man and religion, faith and chaos. Such all-inclusiveness would seem to authorize everyone to take the form of the book that pleases him most, the idealism of the knight or the lion’s dung. That is not possible, however, seeing as those opposites are inseparable, like the two sides of the same coin. The cheese squashed under the helmet, which soils and mocks the knight of the sorrowful countenance is also Christ’s sweat of blood. Don Quixote, knight errant, who believes that he is of the old order, is par excellence the hero of the modern.
He sallies forth not so much to conquer the world as to search for and verify its meaning. This meaning does not exist and his obstinate search brings upon the knight disasters, beatings, unseemly humiliations, yet does not affect his profound need. Cervantes’s masterpiece demonstrates the indissoluble unity of utopia and disenchantment. Utopia gives meaning to life because it insists against all proofs to the contrary that life has a meaning. Don Quixote persists in believing against all the evidence that the barber’s bowl is the helmet of Mambrino and that Aldonza Lorenzo is the enchanting Dulcinea. He is wrong, and Sancho Panza sees that the helmet is but a bowl. Sancho understands that the world is neither complete nor true if there is no seeking for that shining beauty, the need for which reflects its own light upon rusty bowls and confers on reality the splendor of meaning.
When the knight recovers his wits, Sancho feels lost and maimed without those bewitching adventures and he becomes the true Don Quixote. But Don Quixote without Sancho Panza would be both empty and dangerous. Empty because he would lack the concreteness of existence. Dangerous as utopia is when it violates reality, confusing it with its own dream and brutally imposing that dream upon others, as is usually the case with political totalitarian utopias. When Sancho, hearing his master extol the prodigies and marvels seen in the Cape of Montecino, tells him that probably it’s all eyewash, Don Quixote agrees. It is this capacity to believe and not to believe, to unite inextricably enthusiasm and disillusionment that enables us to live. Cervantes’s masterpiece is the basis of modern narrative—its symbiosis of novel and novelistic theory, each merging into the other. It shows how attempts to redeem the world fail ridiculously, but also how the need to change and improve the world reasserts itself after each defeat.
Knocked about and yet indomitable, Don Quixote has faith not in life, which does not know what it is doing, but rather in books, which do not seem to recount life, but give it meaning, its banners. For these banners, he fights and is regularly and comically beaten since almost always good loses and evil triumphs. But not even when he is unseated does he doubt those banners. When the bachelor of arts Sampson Carrasco fails him, he declares that his weakness does not compromise the truth of what he believes in. It is this awareness that enables us to live despite continual defeats. Sancho, no less great than his master, reminds us that men, namely us, are, as he says, “as God has made them, as God has made us, and sometimes, even a bit worse.” Simply by knowing this, when some individual or indeed the world at large threatening informs us, “you do not know who I am,” we have the right to reply with the humble firmness of Don Quixote, “I know who I am.”