Halfway through Don Quixote

October 2, 2020

I’ve finished Volume 1.

I’m going to miss all the side-characters.  Even before they split off from our core group, saying goodbye to our knight, squire, priest and barber, it was clear that their stories were now more-or-less resolved and that the rest of Vol. I would probably just take the core group back to Don Quijote’s village in La Mancha.  Zoraida in particular has just gotten to Spain and I thought we were merely in the middle of her story.  But what I miss, precisely, is not so much that the characters aren’t there anymore; I was just disappointed that such wonderful stories were resolved and wouldn’t be continuing.

Cervantes interrupts even the beating-up of the innkeeper.  And it turns out that he “interrupts” Don Quijote’s whole story, saving the rest, as he foreshadows, for Vol. II.

All the meetings at the inn of far-flung characters are so improbable that I will never again listen to a lesser book being put down for the sin of improbable meetings.  War and Peace has this “problem” too.  But it’s part of how a novel stitches together life.  If the giants of literature could do it, we should maybe rethink how we criticize novels.

The story of Eugenio and Leandra makes chivalric notions of love look not only ridiculous but pernicious.  Here we have a whole forest of men dedicated to variously feeling love or hatred of a girl who has done no more than make a mistake with one very bad man.  And Cervantes says explicitly that most of these men love and/or hate without having ever even talked to the object of their desire.  It’s grotesque, and Cervantes says openly that it produces a forest of misogynists.  As Eugenio says, “I’ve taken an easier road, which also seems to me better justified, and that is to criticize the fickleness of women, their inconstancy, their double-dealing, their broken promises, the good faith they can’t and won’t keep, and – to sum it all up – the lack of good sense they display in directing their thoughts and desires.”  What Cervantes does here must be among the reasons that “Don Quixote” is regarded as a modern novel and even one for the 21st century; I’m left wondering how little of this was truly understood in his own time.  Harold Bloom says that Spain at this time mostly regarded “Don Quixote” as a comedy.  So perhaps they took in this story about Leandra, and the forest of “rejected” suitors, to be mere absurd and enjoyable comedy.

The two priests in the novel, along with Sancho, are really the only ones who confront Don Quijote at length about what he thinks and does.  Apart from the barber and Andres and maybe one or two others who have a brief go at him, everyone else mostly stares at our knight blankly, or beats him up. 

The cathedral priest gives the fullest expression of what I think must be Cervantes’ own ideas about chivalric literature and the admittedly broad border that separates pure entertaining garbage at one extreme and high learning at the other.  He acknowledges that on both sides we can treat great matters, that we can be entertaining and educational on either side of the border, and that there’s an uncertain line in discerning what is historical and what is fiction.  He does all this without for a moment compromising on the observation that most chivalric literature is addictive and inferior.

But I did think it was disarming for Cervantes to have the cathedral priest actually acknowledge good points in Don Quijote’s arguments.  The priest had seemed a little strident in his views, so it was a bit surprising that he was compassionate and somewhat open to a man espousing things that he’d been tearing down.  And of course, the priest admits that he himself once tried his hand at writing a chivalric novel and composed fully a hundred pages.

So Cervantes is acknowledging complexity here, though in truth, his novel does so in itself, if for no other than that Don Quijote and Sancho are good people with good hearts, even if they’ve got problems.  And there’s this other simple fact of the novel:  Don Quijote’s knight errantry produces something that for Cervantes is worth telling in good humor rather than nasty condemnation.  Our knight and his squire do cause a lot of mayhem and some genuine harm, but no lasting damage, so all in all, with Volume I down, you can say that what they brought into the world is a little more laughter and enjoyment:  a little bit for Don Quijote’s fellow characters, and a lot for the reader.  No book has made me laugh more.

What Cervantes does with tales of chivalry is more or less what Tarantino did with pulp fiction.  The chivalric genre was probably the pulp fiction of its day.  Cervantes elevated the form, partly by subverting it, and partly by infusing it with unforgettable conversation and dialogue, just as Tarantino did.  Cervantes does criticize his art form more than Tarantino seems to do.  His movie seems to have been something of an homage.  It was an intelligent and creative one that must have subverted some tropes or expectations; but it doesn’t seem to contain satire.  Or maybe it does.  I know even less about 20th century pulp fiction than I do about 16th century chivalry tales (the little I know of the latter coming principally from Cervantes’ explanations).

Honoré Daumier

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