109 chapters into Don Quixote

October 11, 2020

Our knight and squire are clearly “in a book.”  In Vol. II, ch. 33, Sancho says of an adventure from near the start of Vol. II:  “it isn’t in the book yet”.

My kids love to exclaim, “I am Don Quijote,” while doing a pretend-attack, mimicking the title character from “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”.  I’ve been showing them the trailer and telling them about certain adventures: the windmills; Basilio’s wedding; and Sancho pooping on the plain while gripping his master’s leg.  I told my son about the finding of the “golden” helmet/barber’s basin; Don Quijote’s plan to get a sword that cannot be overcome by any enchantment; and the affection between Rocinante and the donkey, who stand for ours at a time with their necks touching.  I told Ava about how Don Quijote and Sancho Panza turn out to be in a book, after she found our old copy of “We Are In A Book.” Also told my wife Dess about Rocinante getting fresh with the ladies.

Don Quijote and Sancho Panza have just taken leave of the duke and duchess.  28 chapters have gone by, and I feel little for our hosts that I didn’t when we first arrived at their castle; they’ve shown some likeable qualities here and there but I have no sympathy for these pranksters.  And after all this time spent with Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, they have not been won over by these two lovely gentlemen, which makes them all the more unlikeable.  It’s one thing to hold yourselves high-and-mighty over people you never come in touch with, or live with; but to live with these two men and not grow to love them, shows them to be fundamentally cold.  It would be too much to call them cold-hearted, or even bad; and they do have one human moment, when they regret how the cat-prank ends up injuring our knight; and they make sure that the final joust cannot possibly hurt Don Quijote.  But they’re interminably interested in play, and little else, as a cat might be interested in playing with mice. 

The duchess seems genuinely to find Sancho’s proverbs and his general speech endearing and funny, as anyone would; but it seems to touch her sense of play only, and not her heart.  She and her husband can care about guests taking injury, but even then it seems to offend only their sense of chivalry/propriety, and to interfere with their fun.  The set-piece they engineer in the forest, to portray Dulcinea as enchanted, is grotesque, and I’m not talking about the garish devil-costumes, although there is that; I mean the sheer scale of it all, with apparently hundreds of people employed in the charade, is ridiculous and extreme.  All it takes to convince Don Quijote that his mistress is enchanted, or anything of like nature, is a few words in conversation.  Such an elaborate set-piece is, apparently, just part of the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

And then to take it to the point of Sancho needing to whip himself!  I was afraid that the whipping needed to be done on the spot.  This was about as dark a turn as the book had taken so far.  As it turns out, our hosts are not (physically) sadistic; but their sense of what’s fun is juvenile, yet blown up in scale by these two adults with infinite wealth and time on their hands. 

I felt real pity for Sancho at that moment, but what moved me the most was not his near-sobbing over his task, but rather the way he stood up for himself at that moment, and refused the ridiculousness, once again.

Some of the jokes played on Don Quijote and Sancho have their funny moments:  like the ladies-in-waiting revealing, in one swift movement, that their great misfortune is to have beards (Vol. II, ch. 39); here the chivalrous idea of “woe” is being lampooned by our hosts, maybe not for the right reasons; but the satire is appreciated all the same.  The man who comes to see Governor Panza about his future daughter-in-law, saying in one breath that she’s beautiful, but in every other breath describing hideous features, is laugh-out-loud funny.  So is Altisidora’s serenade of Don Quijote.

But all in all, the best thing about this long parade of pranks is that Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, though they never realize that they are being pranked, end up beating the jokes.  They beat them by being better than the jokesters.  In this section of the book, our two heroes soar, by what they show in their character.  They take all the set-ups seriously, and thus give the best of themselves, always astonishing the jokesters by showing themselves not to be the fools that they’re taken to be.

Don Quijote reaches his heights when he offers his words of counsel to Sancho, as the latter is about to get his governorship.  He is also marvelous in “protecting” his chastity, but not until the end of that sequence; for the most part he seems merely antiquated and silly; but after Altisidora serenades him, rather than dwelling on what he can’t have, he gets angry at this young maiden because it’s an offense against Dulcinea.  Of course, his mistress, and her love, both remain creations of his imagination; but this tendency, at this moment of personal temptation, to think of her rather than himself, shows an extraordinary sweetness and purity of heart.  He achieves a lack-of-ego here that many more-grounded men never reach.

And something of this seems to win over Altisidora, who starts out, presumably, merely wanting to prank the silly old knight, but ends up tenderly caring for him after the cats have done their work.  She makes a confession of her feelings which Cervantes leaves a little ambiguous; we don’t know if this is just a continuation of the prank. Certainly, after we learn that she and the duchess further beat him in the darkness a few days later, it becomes harder to believe that she really loves him. But it may have been a genuinely temporary moment of tenderness, when she tended his wounds.

Now, the one who really shines in this whole section of the book is Sancho.  He surprises all around him, and us, with the things he comes up with.  Not all of his decisions as governor seem to be good ones.  He’s clearly making this up as he goes along, and just reaching inside of himself for whatever he can.  But what’s there is far more than you ever suspected was there – and much deeper, and thoughtful.  And the thing is, he’s given a chance to show all this, by the very fact that the pranksters go to such lengths.  The more they try to make a fool of him, the more they end up making him look like a real governor.

They send Sancho up into the sky, thinking just to have fun with him, but he turns his observations into some actual wisdom, sounding like Carl Sagan himself, when he says that he is no longer so keen to see his little ambition about a governorship come true, after he’s seen that the entire earth from a great height looks no larger than a mustard seed.

Sancho’s proverbs have never been better, or more numerous, than in this long interlude with the duchess and duke (Vol. II, chs. 30-57).  I love this one especially:  “Whether the pitcher hits the stone or the stone hits the pitcher, it’s bad luck for the pitcher” (Grossman); “Whether the pitcher whacks the stone, or the stone whacks the pitcher, it’s the pitcher that breaks” (Raffel) (Vol. II, ch. 43).  I’ve ordered a book of Sancho Panza’s proverbs. 

The moment when I hated the duchess the most was not when she required Sancho to whip himself.  Rather it was the moment when Sancho reported correctly that Dulcinea’s enchantment was his own idea, his own trick played on his master, and she took that single achievement of his away and insisted that in fact Dulcinea had been enchanted.  She wouldn’t respect his intelligence or let him have it, or let it run; and then Sancho meekly acquiesces, saying that “my dull wits” could never have come up with the truth of the matter (Vol. II, ch. 33).  Grrrrrrrrr!

When Sancho has had enough of his governorship, he walks slowly and deliberately to his donkey, and he has with his animal the single most tender moment of the novel. 

Sancho Panza has been brought to his senses.  Now let’s see about his master.

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