Starting Don Quixote

September 28, 2020

Twenty-two chapters into “Don Quixote“, a book I’ve been meaning to read since the 1990s.

A few things are already clear:

  • Rocinante is not a gentleman (Vol. I, ch. 15).  Neither is Don Quijote, who doesn’t listen, doesn’t ask questions before attacking, or attacks if he asks questions and gets answers he doesn’t like.  Nor even is Sancho Panza, who routinely sneaks clothing, food and wine from his opponents, even when they’re lying on the ground defeated.
  • Don Quijote vomits all over Sancho Panza, who relieves himself while clutching his master’s leg (Vol. I, ch. 20), and all this alone disqualifies them.
  • Sancho grabs his master’s leg because he cannot let his master go, but his problem is that he can’t not let his load drop.  If this is not a true philosopher’s dilemma, nothing is.

Marcela has the best speech thus far, with language just as passionate and poetic as that of Grisóstomo – the man who killed himself after being rejected by her – but filled with a fierce logic that he lacked.  Here Cervantes is taking a direct lance to a certain trope, namely that of the rejected lover.  In tales of chivalry, apparently, a man carries a torch for a beloved lady that he sustains quite by himself, fueled only by his own idea, his own desire, not needing the woman’s presence at all (just as the true knight doesn’t even need food).  Naturally this disembodied idealization results in men who feel that a loving relationship is present even when it is absent or the woman in question may never even have heard of him; and when the woman does know her suitor and rejects him, even if she does not despise or dislike him but simply wants to flee society and to live in peace, he can feel and act as if she wanted love and he simply failed to live up to her standards; the blame then falls on her, concerning a question that she had nothing to do with raising, because obviously her standards were too high or her compassion lacking. 

Not only can such men keep alive their joyful feelings of love and admiration without the fuel of a woman’s presence or input, in the same way can they fuel their painful feelings: without taking any input from the other party.  Granted, this is a human foible and Cervantes does give Grisóstomo some arresting poetry to describe his pain; the author knows that the pangs of rejection, and how we describe them, are universal, and not lightly dismissed, or entirely lacking in beauty.  When we are done reading the posthumous letter, we feel that even if this idealistic young man is exaggerating as all of us can do and have done, Marcela was likely cold or cruel in some way – if not persistently, perhaps at least in a particular moment of refusal.  But that is demolished by Marcela’s speech; and even the man’s friends-in-life, attending upon his funeral, are won over by it.  Clearly Cervantes has no truck with the kind of chivalric ideal that encourage that kind of self-pity and self-damage, which leads in this case to the suicide of a young man who had everything to live for.  Cervantes lays out here the common-enough declaration that “I would die for your love” (or, “I would die without it”), lays it out literally, and we see it as something, not nobly tragic, but merely sad and mistaken.

Don Quijote struck me at first as the kind of crazy homeless person I’ve seen countless times in New York, where I’ve lived nearly all my life.  Sometimes these people are pitiable, sometimes they have a whiff of danger about them; but I’ve trained myself long ago to avoid them, especially when they’re making speeches and seeking the attention of others.  So it’s a little difficult trying to sympathize with our knight.  I sympathize immediately with the people around him who stare at him with blank faces or avoid him, or demand rightfully owed payment from him – but not with those who beat him up.

But then if I try to see our knight not as mentally ill but actually up to something, a la Hamlet (see Harold Bloom), he repulses me in another way.  If he’s aware of what he’s doing, well on his very first sally he crushes the skull of a man who has done him no wrong and is merely trying to water his animals, which makes Don Quijote not a mentally ill menace but a willful one.  This is hard to believe, actually, and it seems rather that our knight really does believe his fantasies and is caught in them.

Still I find all this difficult.  I cringe when Don Quijote has a ready-made answer to block out the force of the evidence in front of him, when for example, after lancing a windmill’s sail and getting unsurprisingly tossed to the ground, he concedes to Sancho that these are windmills but only because an evil spirit must have transformed the giants he saw.  He’s completely locked into, or committed, to his fantasies. 

I’d prefer to believe him insanely locked in, rather than willfully committed.  Maybe he’s both.  But even if he’s merely insane, not all mental illness is complete; some sanity and agency can remain.  And this man has no shortage of powers of resistance; but he won’t resist his fantasies.  So he’s not easy to sympathize with, this character who I had always assumed was merely a charming hero of some kind.

Then there’s his sensitivity to Sancho’s teasing/ribbing about the hydraulic machines which Quijote had feared so much.  He comes off not only as a man full of problems, with some good ideals tucked away somewhere in his heart and mind, but also as prickly and full of himself, with a sizable ego.

That prickliness, by the way, seems to contradict Bloom’s theory that Don Quijote might be acting in some way, or might not believe entirely in his fantasies.  If he’s partly acting, and not fully identified with these shenanigans, some teasing from a friend should not be difficult.  Perhaps his taking offense is also an act; but it doesn’t look that way to me right now.

Everyone knows what “quixotic” means.  It means being silly and charging at windmills; trying for something impossible; and maybe also having an idealized, distant beloved.  I didn’t know it also meant bashing in other people’s shoulders or skulls, and getting your own bashed in return.

Cervantes hits the pause button on Quixote’s charge toward the Basque, which I guess is an early cliffhanger, but it feels like something more recent. He also trolls the reader, implying that he cannot finish the story, when he actually can.

I love it that Don Quijote has been reading one of Cervantes’ books (“Galatea,” which has a prologue very relevant to me because I’ve always put off publishing my writing).  And that it was critiqued, and found salvageable, but ended up in the flames all the same.  So our knight is reading at least one sensible thing.  Or maybe it was the one book on his shelves that he means to read but has never gotten around to.

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