Quixote at 400: A Tribute
SALMAN RUSHDIE: We’re gathered here to praise what many people would call the greatest novel ever written: El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha (The Ingenious Knight, Don Quixote of La Mancha). And when there was a poll in Europe last year—I don’t know if Americans were involved—well over a hundred writers were asked to name the greatest works of literature. Don Quixote came first, and poor old Shakespeare had to settle for second and third place. But just remember that the author of Don Quixote and the author of Hamlet and King Lear were born on the same day in the same year. Actually, Don Quixote was published in the same year as the story of that other mad old man, King Lear, so it was a great year for mad old men. There are more jokes in Don Quixote.
There’s a sense in which India can take a little bit of the credit for this great novel. The clue to that is in the use by Cervantes of a narrator, a fictional narrator, an ostensible narrator who is not himself, but in fact a Moorish narrator, Cide Hamete Benengeli. Now, Benengeli is a very interesting figure in the book because in Volume One of Don Quixote, the book is episodic; it’s full of little tales and actually it looks very like The Arabian Nights’ framed narrative. You have the framed narrative of Quixote and Sancho Panza and inside that are set any number of wonderful tales. And to have that told ostensibly by an Arab narrator is, in my view, an obvious homage by Cervantes to the Arab origin of the wonderful tale. Now you have to remember that the Arabs didn’t make it up; the Arabs got it from India. The Arabs had algebra; they can settle for that. But the wonderful tale came from India into Arab culture, from Arab culture to Spain, from Spain into the Quixote, from Don Quixote to Latin America, from Latin America into García Márquez. And so, you see, it’s all India, really.
In part two of Don Quixote—in my view a better book than part one—Cide Hamete Benengeli changes: He becomes a very unreliable narrator; he keeps getting things wrong; he gets things wrong about the story; he gets things wrong about Don Quixote. And Cervantes has fun at his expense, which may be Cervantes’s way of saying, “Well, okay, it’s Arab up to a point, but I wrote this book.” One of the reasons to celebrate this great novel is that it stands as the unifying novel between the literatures of the East and the West: It is the novel into which things poured from the East and out of which things poured to the West. The history of the literature of the world comes out of this single novel. And what better reason to celebrate a book?
LAURA RESTREPO: 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.
ANTONIO MUÑOZ MOLINA: Becoming, not being, is what the novel as an art form is all about. And that is why we regard Don Quixote as the first modern fictional hero. In epic poems and tragedies, the task of the hero is to fulfill his destiny. According to Bellow, the be-ers are those who try their best to remain forever the way they are, who are content with their lives, with their names, with the places they live in. Becomers always feel ill at ease with the world as it is and what they love are not the certainties of being, but the adventures of becoming. There is always another life they would rather believe in, another country or distant city where they suspect a better life might be possible, another job, more beautiful or passionate lovers, more exciting friends. Personal identity is not their home but a prison. Identity, this celebrated mantra of contemporary culture, is not what they are in search of, but what they are very often fleeing from. That is why the heroes of so many modern novels are liars, deceivers, fugitives, impersonators, impostors, becomers—perpetually unsatisfied with their lot in this world, forever trying not to be what other people have agreed or decided they are, but something else, somebody else. For them, Arthur Rimbaud wrote, “True live is elsewhere.” But then, Rimbaud was a fugitive himself, a poet and an outcast, who gave up poetry altogether and became an arms trader in Africa.
Nowadays, as in Don Quixote’s time, social pressures compel us to conform to an established identity, to be part of a group and proudly proclaim what we already are, not what we have done or what we would like to be or do. Through our blind allegiance to an original culture, to our sexual pressure or national being, we are expected to achieve a better self, the only possible one for each of us. This seems to be a time for be-ers, not becomers. But that is precisely why Don Quixote is so relevant, especially to those among us who are not willing to abide by any fixed laws of identity. That is why we love to read novels in the first place and also why some of us like to write them.
In our time, to break through the boundaries, we are not supposed to trespass, to escape beyond the limits of the self, the frontiers of the space, in what Vladimir Nabokov called “the prison of time.” Novels, stories, and plays are almost always about someone who is eager to escape, who sets out on a journey toward an uncertain destination. Like a spy or like an actor—like an effector—the gentleman Alonso Quixano provides himself with a false identity before taking to the world. Chanting the name that was given to you at birth is the first step toward starting on a new life. After having read so many adventures, Alonso Quixano is ready to enact a new one that has yet to be written, namely the adventure of becoming one of the heroes he has read so much about. The author and master of his own story, like any other, he has to begin by choosing the right names for his characters—for himself, for the lady he has decided he must be in love with, even for his horse. Of course, we know he’s a ridiculous old man, grotesquely caught up in homemade armor, so intoxicated by what he has read in books that he can no longer tell reality from fiction. We laugh at him because we know he’s bound to be defeated again and again, to be taken in by his lack of attention to the hard facts of reality and his stubborn reliance on the lies told in books. But these are the dangers every becomer has to face. Not only the heroes we have learned to love in novels, plays, and films but also each one of us, who cannot say like Don Quixote, “I know who I am, and who I am in my heart of hearts has nothing to do with your ideas and your expectations about me.” Our highest aims seem very often a ritual, and the same imagination that allows us to identify them exaggerates the hardships we will have to confront in order to achieve them.
Being is comfortable; becoming is risky. And there is always the chance that we may tilt at windmills, mistaking them for frightful giants. This is the second lesson we learn from Don Quixote and through him, from Cervantes’s wisdom and irony: You should have the courage to desire, but also the shrewdness to look very carefully at things so as not to get lost among the mirrors of your imagination. This book of laughter is also a book of sadness, and in its celebration of the power of desire and the joys of fiction lies a serious warning about the boundaries between self-invention and self-delusion. Having been a failure himself most of his life, Cervantes knew what he was writing about. Many appearances are deceiving, as we readers of Don Quixote’s adventures know all too well. Failure and success can be as deceiving as windmills and giants. Miguel de Cervantes was really only an obscure Spanish writer, a failed playwright, a handicapped veteran, a survivor of poverty and misfortune. What is it that has brought so many of us here tonight to remember his name and pay tribute to his masterpiece?
MARGARET ATWOOD: I’d like to speak briefly about a small piece of Don Quixote’s posthumous life: the recent opera by Cristóbal Halffter, which premiered in Madrid at the Teatro Real in the year 2000. I saw it completely by accident. It was what was on; I knew nothing about it. This is an unmediated-by-media view of the opera; I didn’t read any reviews.
This opera is one more installment in the continuing saga, the centuries-long afterlife of a literary creation. There’s a book called Dead Elvis about the after-death activities of Elvis Presley—his appearances in parking lots and so forth. But a much thicker book could be written about the posthumous lives of Don Quixote. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza have been painted by artists and sculpted by sculptors and turned into ballets; they can be bought on eBay in many forms, including fridge magnets, posters, centennial trays, and ladies’ cowboy boots. And a large number of operas have been written about them.
Halffter’s surprising and audacious new opera is episodic rather than linear. As the audience takes their seats, a bulldozer is pushing piles of books into a huge hole in the middle of the stage. Cervantes enters, dressed solemnly in black, and makes his way to his writing desk. The writing into being of Don Quixote takes place in the vicinity of a memento-mori skull. Cervantes must die, as all human beings will, but then another image is presented to us: an enormous mountain of outsize books rises up through the stage. The small, buried, dead books have given rise to huge living books and as we watch, the covers of the books open and some of the characters of Don Quixote climb out of them. Two women are wheeled on in two gigantic red high-heeled shoes. I liked that part. They sing the roles of Dulcinea and Aldonza, the two aspects of the same person: the peasant girl Don Quixote decides is really a noble lady. In this scene, they also act as muses, inspiring Cervantes to create not only his novel but also themselves. This doubling of the heroine is repeated in the hero because the Don Quixote figure, who arrives from the air, a luftmensch in a monoplane, is the other self of Cervantes.
Next, the mock knighting of Don Quixote in the inn is accompanied by a chorus extolling the mindless life of the senses. The windmill scene follows; the windmills are giants for Don Quixote and windmills for Sancho Panza, but for Halffter, and thus for the viewer, they are giant, ruling, newspaper-printing presses. I was happy they weren’t printing books, just newspapers, thus representing, says Halffter in his notes, “power exercised from banality by the liar, the mediocre, and the miser.” Don Quixote fights them in the name of truth and justice and is defeated. In the next scene, Don Quixote’s familiar domestic circle, the niece, the barber, the scholar, and the priest—well-meaning folk in the novel, but in the opera a more sinister bunch—denounce the books they feel have led Don Quixote into madness. The list includes, not only those authors named by Cervantes but also a great many others, including Wilhelm, Joyce, Freud, Kafka, and Cervantes himself.
Then in come the two flocks of sheep, which for Sancho Panza are sheep, for Don Quixote armies, and for Halffter, the forces of military might and the masses who obey them. This sheep chorus starts helping the domestic circle in their preparations for book burning. By this time, the mountain of outsize books is smoldering; these, we recall, are the books from which the characters themselves emerged. The characters are thus destroying the basis of their own reality.
The last scene in the opera is the death of Don Quixote. The books lie in ruins. Cervantes tells Don Quixote that he is not allowed to die; he is not a man but a myth, and his role is to fight, to right wrongs, and to bring justice to the world. At the end of the death scene, it is thus the Cervantes character who dies. The chorus of sheep happily believes it has triumphed over books, reading, and the imagination, and that it is now a mindless, homogeneous flock. But a cracked bell continues to sound: “The symbol of Don Quixote,” says Halffter, “and all that was attempted to reflect through him: utopia, culture, tradition, chivalry, idealism, interpreted reality, creative fantasy, literary creation, and a lengthy et cetera.”
There have been many other Don Quixote operas. The best known is probably Massenet’s, in which Don Quixote is a persecuted Christ figure, too good for this earth. Halffter’s intriguing version is closer to the spirit of Beckett and to the Ionesco of Rhinocéros. The Don struggles on against forces that are too vast and malevolent for him, but he struggles nonetheless. He does not win; the sheep are not destroyed. But he doesn’t lose completely, either, since his cracked bell continues to sound. This is about as much sustained hope as we can handle here in the twenty-first century: the sound of a cracked bell ringing. What will Don Quixote become next? It’s hard to say. But he will become something, for he is a figure of many lives, always transforming. In his multiplicity is the secret of his immortality.
PAUL AUSTER: In City of Glass, a man named Daniel Quinn whose initials are D.Q. has taken on a job as a private detective under the name of someone named Paul Auster. He meets Paul Auster, who turns out not to be the detective at all. And they’re having a conversation—this Auster that he meets is a writer, of all things—and during this conversation they have, I will quote, he began to question Auster about his writing. Auster was somewhat reticent about it, but at least he conceded that he was working on a book of essays. The current piece was about Don Quixote:
“One of my favorite books,” said Quinn.
“Yes, mine too. There’s nothing like it.”
Quinn asked him about the essay.
“I suppose you could call it speculative, since I’m not really out to prove anything. In fact, it’s all done tongue-in-cheek. An imaginative reading, I guess you could say.”
“What’s the gist?”
“It mostly has to do with the authorship of the book. Who wrote it, and how it was written.”
“Is there any question?”
“Of course not. But I mean the book inside the book Cervantes wrote, the one he imagined he was writing.”
“It’s quite simple. Cervantes, if you remember, goes to great lengths to convince the reader that he is not the author. The book, he says, was written in Arabic by Cid Hamete Benengeli. Cervantes describes how he discovered the manuscript by chance one day in the market at Toledo. He hires someone to translate it for him into Spanish, and thereafter he presents himself as no more than the editor of the translation. In fact, he cannot even vouch for the accuracy of the translation itself.
“And yet he goes on to say,” Quinn added, “that Cide Hamete Benengeli’s is the only true version of Don Quixote’s story. All the other versions are frauds, written by imposters. He makes a great point of insisting that everything in the book really happened in the world.”
“Exactly. Because the book after all is an attack on the dangers of the make-believe. He couldn’t very well offer a work of the imagination to do that, could he? He had to claim that it was real.”
“Still, I’ve always suspected that Cervantes devoured those old romances. You can’t hate something so violently unless a part of you also loves it. In some sense, Don Quixote was just a stand-in for himself.”
“I agree with you. What better portrait of a writer than to show a man who has been bewitched by books?”
“In any case, since the book is supposed to be real, it follows that the story has to be written by an eyewitness to the events that take place in it. But Cide Hamete, the acknowledged author, never makes an appearance. Not once does he claim to be present at what happens. So, my question is this: Who is Cide Hamete Benegeli?”
“Yes, I see what you’re getting at.”
“The theory I present in the essay is that he is actually a combination of four different people. Sancho Panza is of course the witness. There’s no other candidate—since he is the only one who accompanies Don Quixote on all his adventures. But Sancho can neither read nor write. Therefore, he cannot be the author. On the other hand, we know that Sancho has a great gift for language. In spite of his inane malapropisms, he can talk circles around everyone else in the book. It seems perfectly possible to me that he dictated the story to someone else—namely, to the barber and the priest, Don Quixote’s good friends. They put the story into proper literary form—in Spanish—and then turned the manuscript over to Simon Carrasco, the bachelor from Salamanaca, who proceeded to translate it into Arabic. Cervantes found the translation, had it rendered back into Spanish, and then published the book The Adventures of Don Quixote.”
“But why would Sancho and the others go to all that trouble?”
“To cure Don Quixote of his madness. They want to save their friend. Remember, in the beginning they burn his books of chivalry, but that has no effect. The Knight of the Sad Countenance does not give up his obsession. Then, at one time or another, they all go out looking for him in various disguises—as a woman in distress, as the Knight of the Mirrors, as the Knight of the White Moon—in order to lure Don Quixote back home. In the end, they are actually successful. The book was just one of their ploys. The idea was to hold a mirror up to Don Quixote’s madness, to record each of his absurd and ludicrous delusions, so that when he finally read the book himself, he would see the error of his ways.”
“I like that.”
“Yes. But there’s one last twist. Don Quixote, in my view, was not really mad. He only pretended to be. In fact, he orchestrated the whole thing himself. Remember: throughout the book Don Quixote is preoccupied by the question of posterity. Again and again he wonders how accurately his chronicler will record his adventures. This implies knowledge on his part; he knows beforehand that this chronicler exists. And who else is it but Sancho Panza, the faithful squire whom Don Quixote has chosen for exactly this purpose? In the same way, he chose the three others to play the roles he destined for them. It was Don Quixote who engineered the Benegeli quartet. And not only did he select the authors, it was probably he who translated the Arabic manuscript back into Spanish. We shouldn’t put it past him. For a man so skilled in the art of disguise, darkening his skin and donning the clothes of a Moor could not have been very difficult. I like to imagine that scene in the marketplace at Toledo. Cervantes hiring Don Quixote to decipher the story of Don Quixote himself. There’s great beauty to it.”
“But you still haven’t explained why a man like Don Quixote would disrupt his tranquil life to engage in such an elaborate hoax.”
“That’s the most interesting part of all. In my opinion, Don Quixote was conducting an experiment. He wanted to test the gullibility of his fellow men. Would it be possible, he wondered, to stand up before the world and with the utmost conviction spew out lies and nonsense? To say that windmills were knights, that a barber’s basin was a helmet, that puppets were real people? Would it be possible to persuade others to agree with what he said, even though they did not believe him? In other words, to what extent would people tolerate blasphemies if they gave them amusement? The answer is obvious, isn’t it? To any extent. For the proof is that we still read the book. It remains highly amusing to us. And that’s finally all anyone wants out of a book—to be amused.”
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.”
NORMAN MANEA: We are celebrating four centuries since the birth of a masterpiece, author and hero. In the last four hundred years, the irresistible errant and dreamer Don Quixote and his Sancho Panza have been accompanied by numerous relatives and successors and by many similar buffoonish couples made of the boss and of his servant. You may imagine the boss as the President, the General Secretary, the Chief of Army, the boss of your marriage or of your building, whatever you think. You immediately discover the servant. Even the history of the circus is focused on such a couple: the vain, dignified white clown and, august as a fool, the humble and humorous loser, kicked in the ass by his stiff and pompous partner. In Cervantes’s narrative, the role of each is interchangeable with the other. The hilarious and wheedling companionship continuously varies the fascinating dynamics.
For somebody coming from the much-troubled area of Eastern Europe, it is not easy to ignore the connection between the history of the circus and history itself. The Communist Manifesto announced the specter of the great utopia haunting Europe, but failed to warn us against its bloody tyranny. The always-deceived Sancho Panza was meant to take a deceptive dogma of the revolution as an entitlement and start the brutal war against everybody. Don Quixote’s dream of bettering the world was to be used as a cover-up of a farce that didn’t affect only the misleading irony of buffoons believed to be missionaries, but instead destroyed generations of victims—the specter of Communist totalitarianism and the nightmarish Nazi totalitarianism of the world’s twentieth-century history.
We are paying homage to this great book in a time when we are reaching a routine cohabitation with a very different outrageousness: religious fanaticism and terrorism, political manipulation, the cacophony of perverted simplification, the belligerent marriage between a new messianism and an aggrandizing quixotic blindness. With a free market carnival, nothing seems visible unless it is scandalous and nothing is scandalous enough to be memorable. Yet, we are celebrating a book. As long as we are still entertaining this childish ritual, perhaps not everything is lost. We never have been interested in our neighbors called Sancho, Dulcinea, the barber, the priest, or even the old mad man, self-appointed great Hidalgo, as much as we were and still are in love with the characters impersonating them in this essential book about our not-too-idyllic human destiny. And we are grateful to our young Spanish colleague and master, Don Miguel de Cervantes de la Mancha.