Quixote at 400
It is no coincidence that Don Quixote and Hamlet—the two literary characters who prefigure modern man, one from the Spanish language and the other from the English—are both crazy, or pretend to be. Both Cervantes and Shakespeare resort to this peculiar narrative recourse of making their respective protagonists mad, with the result that in the centuries following their works, the concept of the madman gradually came to be a hallmark of modernity, of otherness, of a subjective ironic vision of the world. It encompasses a freedom to err, to make a fool of oneself and of others, to doubt, to fail—which is to say, a freedom for human foibles to get their own way. But what is the symbolic connection between madness and modernity? Why should modern man end up recognizing himself in the words of a lunatic?
As Cervantes himself indicates again and again, the main cause for Don Quixote’s madness is his reading of books of chivalry. This obsession leads him to lose his identity and to consider himself no longer as simply a person, but as a character. On the one hand, there’s the everyday Alonso Quixano and on the other, the vision he has of himself as knight errant and righter of wrongs. To reinvent himself in the very likeness of what he has read, he gives himself the false name of Don Quixote, invents a suitable alias for his force, conjures a fair lady out of thin air, and contrives a monumental love for her.
From his birth, Don Quixote’s nature, as modern man’s will be, is branded by culture and media. It is not by chance that Don Quixote is born at the same time as that first means of mass communication known as the printing press, which in turn fostered the widely disseminated literary expression: chivalric romance. Don Quixote rants on and on as he invents himself, and readers find him strange, find him crazy. But at the same time, they recognize themselves in him, and that’s when the great transformation is revealed. For between Don Quixote and the world surrounding him, a powerful cultural mediator—language itself—has suddenly appeared with its immense power to shape reality and, not infrequently, supplant it. Don Quixote, the first modern man, goes from being a mere natural being to a cultural entity. With Hamlet, something similar happens: His madness is basically theatrical to the extent that he is acting as if he were mad. He sees the world as a scenario. In Hamlet, this new cultural reality assumes a power that finally imposes itself over the old other reality—the real one—which slowly unravels and is seen to be systematically suspect. Both Don Quixote and Hamlet confront us with a new type of human being who is no longer obsessed so much with reality as with the representation of reality through culture.
We are here today still traveling along the trail blazed by those two characters. It should be noted that maybe we’re not discussing so much the influence of Quixote on people, but on the culture that human beings have generated. We cannot be accused of madness on this account. What for Don Quixote was madness is today a standard component of modern man, who mistrusts this faint element we call reality and even doubts its existence. We feel more comfortable trusting the symbolism of the real and its representations. We’re no longer very interested in dealing with reality as raw matter, as we feel more on solid ground when we do battle with our own creations—the system of signs that constitute culture itself. In the seventeenth century, this peculiar form of epistemology erupted so unexpectedly that Cervantes had to call it madness. But lately, it has achieved a rare stature in the dominions of reason. Don Quixote believes himself to be a knight errant, yet he isn’t. Cervantes undertakes to reveal to us his true face through a play of double articulation, a reflected vision that turns out to be typically modern. Between the man and the vision he has of himself, there is a disparity that induces vertigo.
With unlimited possibilities thrown into play and a nearly unmanageable dose of ambiguity, ultimately there is irony. This new type of human being suspects that there is an undoing, a mismatch between the self and the universe, between the subject and that which surrounds him, and it is precisely from this misunderstanding that modern irony emerges, with its Hamlet-like mistrust of the possibility of action. To conceive of the new man, one has to proceed through doubt, methodical doubt, according to the first modern philosopher, Descartes, but also through mockery. Cervantes makes fun of his characters, makes a grotesque creature, a freak. A similar tool of modern mockery later converts the Gregor Samsas of contemporary literature into beetles. In this way, man overcomes his own ingenuousness when he turns upon it this new disassociated ironic look. By overcoming such ingenuousness, he leaves childhood behind. Whoever allows himself to doubt and laugh leaves behind flat, decipherable reality to penetrate a more troubling zone, populated by chiaroscuro figures, by twist and turn, by double entendre, by resounding ambiguities. Doubt and humor imply the end of heroism; irony tends to paralyze the ancient faith that made action possible. Thus, Hamlet as avenger is such a failure and Don Quixote as knight errant is such a caricature. In these two characters, modern man recognizes himself as having recast the path of his own destiny and taken two steps back for every step forward, as getting tangled in one’s own cape or pissing in your own soup. To put it in the words of Cervantes himself: “We recognize ourselves as having set off for the world through the wrong door.”
The decisive game has ceased to be played on the terrain of reality and is mediated rather in the terrain of culture. As a result, we come to view certain attitudes imbued with too much reality as ingenuous, pre-modern, and passé. Too occupied with the avatars of the real, we find heroism suspect, not to mention any excess of passion or conviction or giving one’s life for a cause or dying for love. Such attitudes are considered beyond the spectrum of what is reasonable. Serious writers have given free rein to a tendency to view social dramas, regional grammars, ordinary human grammars of flesh and blood— which is to say, the kind we see on the street, the kind that offend our sensibilities—as anachronism. We prefer to deal with it after it has been filtered, catalogued, and in some way tamed through obstruction. With the end of believing in any form of heroism, we have also exiled grandiloquence, pedantry, and melodrama.
But not everything has been profitable in this evolution of modernity. What we earlier termed methodical mockery turned out to be a devilish device that has ceased to obey us; once we have set it in motion, we run the risk of not being able to stop it. Irony opens decisive doors, but also carries within a burden of exhaustion, of disbelief, of paralysis, against which Rilke warned in his Letters to a Young Poet.
There is a fable from post-war Japan that tells the story of an octopus, left abandoned in an aquarium, forgotten by everyone, and unfed by anyone. Overcome by unbearable hunger, the creature begins to eat its own tentacles, day after day, devouring itself until it disappears completely. Then the aquarium appears to be empty, but the octopus continues to exist there, invisibly imprisoned by the same insatiable, perpetual hunger. For me, the idea of this octopus devouring itself, eternally hungry, invisible, yet fiercely there at the same time, is extremely disturbing. We may ask ourselves if our famished and voracious process of culturalizing everything doesn’t resemble in some sense this unfortunate octopus. I ask myself whether we have had trouble so far along the path trodden by Don Quixote, whether by pure dialectical inversion, we may have already inadvertently spun so out of control that we’ve reversed the terms; what was madness for him, for contemporary man turns out to be a privileged form of reason.
Nowadays, every windmill is some sort of giant invented by reason or, as Goya phrased it, “The sleep of reason produces monsters.” To believe in the real existence of windmills has turned out to be mere naïveté, or even worse, an unpardonable form of kitsch. We give free rein to our tendency to construct culture as if it were some kind of lasagna, layer upon layer upon layer. Cultural representations support previous cultural representations, and in turn generate subsequent cultural representations. And in the process, where is any link to reality to be found? Where has our old friend life itself gone? Like the octopus of legend, a culture that only feeds on itself runs the risk of disappearing up its own ass. The protagonist of Umberto Eco’s latest novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana—who has lost his intimate personal memory while keeping intact his encyclopedic cultural memory—laments while attempting to recall his grandson: “I knew all about Alexander the Great, but nothing about Alessandro, the tiny, the mine.” Perhaps he’s lost his soul, to sum up the problem in his own words.
It’s possible this may be the moment to reconsider, or at least to question, that which in the seventeenth century was such a discovery. That is why on this four hundredth anniversary, we say with all our hearts, to our great Don Quixote, long life. May he live at least another four hundred years. At the same time, I believe we must recover from oblivion that which was once so healthy: the old, solid windmills of reality. We mustn’t forget they also exist. Or who knows? Do they really exist? I have to confess, I suspect they might not anymore, except in the Netherlands of course, where they have been reduced to mere cultural ornaments.