Finishing Don Quixote

October 13, 2020

Don Quijote calls St. Paul “a knight errant in life, and a barefoot saint in death” (Vol. II, ch. 58), which shows again that his idea of knight errantry is about virtue, service, and faith.

Near the end of the novel Don Quijote shows himself to be a linguist, with his explanation of Arabic words imported into Spanish.  And Sancho gives him the highest compliment, of the kind reserved for men and women whom we regard as saints:  he says that Don Quijote is one who “may be returning after a defeat in battle but who has won the battle with himself, and that, according to what he’s told me, is the greatest victory anyone could want” (Vol. II, Ch. 73).

Back in ‘98 I read a piece by Simon Leys in the New York Review of Books, “The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote.”  I re-read it last week; it relates a complaint by a scholar that Don Quijote takes innumerable beatings but Cervantes never comes to our knight’s defense.  But that’s wrong:  see Vol. II, ch. 70 where he says the duke and duchess are being revealed as fools for what they’re doing to our knight and squire.

Because of that NYRB essay and others, I was expecting many physical beatings in Vol. II.  So I’ve been reading in dread.  I kept expecting that our knight and squire would get beaten senseless by the duke and duchess, or the bandits, or the Barcelona nobility, or perhaps their military, or really all the characters we meet on the road.  But many of the encounters in Vol. II turned out benign, or at least less they didn’t advance to the point of senseless beatings (of which there are actually more in Vol. I).  And though the bandits and Barcelona nobility want to have fun with him, they genuinely honor him, and want only to enjoy what he has to offer; they laugh, but not at his expense. 

Our knight and squire do get trampled twice by charging animals, first by bulls and then pigs; Don Quijote is also attacked by cats, and he takes some punches in the dark from the duchess and Altisidora.  Sancho of course takes a little physical abuse during the mock battle at the end of his governorship; and at the duke’s house he takes some real punches.  But what he and his master continually suffer is not physical harm; the unceasing abuse they suffer is being pranked and made fun of.  That never stops, while they’re adventuring.  This abuse is perhaps what I read about in essays and assumed to be physical beatings.  It’s always present, sometimes benign, other times erupting into something more serious.  But it’s so unceasing that long before you reach the end of the book you see what a hunger people have for making fun of others – and how much a sincere figure like Don Quijote is a ripe temptation for them.

(Spoilers ahead.)

The duke and duchess are truly hateful when they make their reappearance near the end of the novel, putting on yet another grotesque show, and this time actually hurting Sancho.

I knew that our knight somehow, as I’d read in the NYRB essay, “awoke” from his illusion, and that he died a broken-hearted man.  So I’ve been reading with tense anticipation, wondering how he would wake up, what would bring it about.  Again, I suspected it might be physical beatings, but it turned out not to be so.  I wondered if he would come to his senses the way Corchuelo does after getting beaten in a fencing match (page 461); or the way Sancho came back to his former life.  I remembered, too, the way Don Fernando had come around in Vol. I, when Dorotea and everyone else at the inn was entreating him and he had no choice but to see his errors and to realize what his duty was.  All of these guesses missed the mark, of course.

When Altisidora reveals that the sham resurrection ceremony was in fact totally fake, and thus her affection also fake, I wondered, “This should do it; the unhorsing alone hasn’t done it, but this might.”  But it didn’t.

I also wondered throughout Vol. II if our knight would come across the genuine printed history of his exploits, and that it would show him that he was after illusions.  His visit to the printing press seemed a particularly dangerous moment for him.  Of course a mere text might have limited impact upon his illusions.  But if had he encountered it, he would have at least seen that even the history-book that he himself acknowledges as authoritative regards him as cracked in the head; and that this history reports everyone else to see him that way; but he never comes across the true history, only the false sequel.  And that’s disappointing for any number of reasons.

The interlude in Barcelona, and on the sea, is full of life and light; here, Spain does not seem in decline, and we seem to be in a world as bright as that of the Moors as we saw it in the tale of the captive.  It’s not just the vigor of the action; a certain nobility comes through in nearly everyone.  Sancho takes pity on the galley slaves (after saying awful things about black slaves, and Jews, in Vol. I); Barcelona’s governor insists on winning clemency for Ricote and his daughter, even going against Count Salazar’s strict policy concerning expulsions of Moors.  Don Quijote is made fun of as always, but it’s good-natured fun; and his hosts’ concern for him after he is unhorsed is nothing if not knightly.

Samson’s reappearance was fully expected, but when his long-awaited second attempt at restoring Don Quijote to his senses finally takes place, we no longer want it.  If the first attempt had succeeded, it would not have been heart-breaking as the second attempt proved to be.  Don Quijote by then is happy, and quite often thrilled to be honored and adopted by so many.  Yes, he’s still insane, and could still hurt himself, or others, and that’s something I never stopped worrying about; yet when Don Antonio says to Samson that Don Quijote should never be made sane, we now agree with him.

I found it very interesting that our knight, upon his return to the duke and duchess, finds dancing to be exhausting.  This is a bit like me.  He just can’t enjoy it or get into it – whereas Sancho, who concedes that formal dancing is also not to his liking, says that he can dance “like a lord” to the songs and music of his own village.  I’m sure Don Quijote was incapable of that, too.  I think our knight may have been on the spectrum.

Don Quijote’s song in Vol. II, Ch. 68 is beautiful and haunting: 

I hurry toward Death’s own darkness…

Thus life remains my murderer.

Paul Gustave Doré

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