Friday 5 April 2024

Don Quixote: “my master Don Quixote de La Mancha is about as enchanted as my mother is”

1/ As I’m reading for the first time such a rich, complex book, full of layers and meaning, I don’t expect to write anything particularly insightful—I’m mostly jotting down my observations. 

There are lots of interesting bits in the book. For example, there’s a bit when Don Quixote stops a bunch of merchants on the road and tells them to confess that “there’s no more beautiful a maiden in the world than the empress of La Mancha, the peerless Dulcinea del Toboso”: 

“… One of them, who was something of a jokester, and very witty, said to him: “Señor knight, we don’t know who this good lady you’re talking about is. Show her to us, and if she’s as beautiful as you declare, we’ll confess the truth you’ve asked of us, with pleasure and without any compunction.”

“If I were to show her to you,” replied Don Quixote, “what good would there be in confessing such an obvious truth? The important thing is for you to believe, confess, affirm, swear, and defend it, without having seen her. If not, you’ll be in battle with me, monstrous and arrogant people. You can attack one at a time, as the laws of chivalry have ordered, or all at once, as is the custom and wicked practice of people of your breed. Here I stand, waiting for you, confident that I have right on my side.”” (P.1, ch.4) 

Now you might say Don Quixote is a madman and these things are meant to be nothing but funny, but this is interesting, no? Don’t people sometimes confess things they don’t know and haven’t seen? 

Now look at this passage, when Don Quixote’s about to do penances in the mountains: 

““It seems to me, señor,” said Sancho, “that those knights were motivated and had reasons to perform these foolish acts and penances, but what reason does your grace have to go crazy? What lady rejected you? What evidence did you find that proves that your lady Dulcinea del Toboso has committed some childish nonsense with a Moor or a Christian?”

““That’s the point,” responded Don Quixote, “and that’s the beauty of my plan. If a knight goes crazy for a reason, there is no thanks or value attached to it. The thing is to go crazy without a reason, and to make my lady understand that if I do this when dry, what will I do when drenched?…”” (P.1, ch.25) 

That looks like a crucial passage for understanding the novel. 

The quote in the headline, said by Sancho Panza, comes from P.1, ch.47. 

2/ In 2020, I wrote a blog post saying that there were 2 kinds of big novels (excluding Moby Dick, a different kind of beast altogether). 

“The 1st type is the multiple-strand novel, which is essentially several novels put together. An example is Anna Karenina, in which we have the Anna strand and the Levin strand. Some characters belong to both sets of characters, such as Kitty or Oblonsky, but the Anna plot and the Levin plot are separate.”

Other examples are Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, Little Dorrit, Life and Fate… 

The 2nd type is “the one-big-story novel. War and Peace has 5 families and about 500-600 characters—they are all inter-connected and their lives are intertwined.”

Other examples are The Tale of Genji, Hong lou mengVanity Fair, Bleak House, The Brothers Karamazov… fit into this group but they’re more like one long story rather than one big story, as they have a small set of characters. 

I didn’t know at the time till Tom (Wuthering Expectations blog) told me, but I can see now that Don Quixote is the 3rd type: the adventure novel in which the main characters move from one place to another and meet new sets of characters. 

3/ There are, throughout Don Quixote, discussions between the characters about chivalry romances, and there are two long ones at the end of Part 1—between the priest and the canon, then between the canon and Don Quixote. 

The canon says to the priest: 

““… And if you tell me that those books were written as fiction so their authors don’t have to pay strict attention to the fine points, or the way things really are, I’d respond that fiction is better the more it resembles the truth, and it’s more delightful the more it has of what is truthful and possible. Fictional tales must suit the understanding of the reader and be written in such a way that impossible things seem possible, excesses are smoothed over, and the mind is kept in suspense, so that they astonish, stimulate, delight, and entertain us in such a way that admiration and pleasure go together; and the person who flees from credibility and imitation—which is what perfect writing consists of—cannot accomplish this.”” (P.1, ch.47) 

Does Cervantes think this? I wonder. In the main plot, he satirises chivalry romances as he shows what happens when an unequipped and deluded man such as Don Quixote goes into the real world, trying to save people and bring justice. But his subplots are fantastical like romances: the captive’s tale is an example; the story of Luscinda, Cardenio, Dorotea, and Don Fernando is good but resolved in an unconvincing, fairytale-like way, and so on.  

The funny part is that when the canon goes on a rant about the improbable, ridiculous, nonsensical things in chivalry romances and asks “What imagination—unless it’s one that is barbarian and uncultured—can be entertained reading [them]?”, I can’t help thinking about today’s superhero and action movies: 

““… These plays that one sees nowadays—the ones that are purely fictional, as well as those based on history—all, or most of them, are acknowledged to be pure garbage, without rhyme or reason, yet they’re relished by the common folk, who think they’re good when they’re so far from being so; and the authors who write them and the actors who play in them say that they have to be that way because that’s what the public wants. […] And although I’ve tried to persuade producers on occasion that they’re making a mistake, and that they would attract more people and become more famous if they put on plays that follow the rules, instead of these nonsensical ones, they’re so attached to their opinion and so obstinate that there is no reasoning or proof that will convince them otherwise…”” (P.1, ch.48) 

That sounds like Hollywood producers today, continually pumping out nonsensical garbage because they think “that’s what the public wants”. 

Don Quixote mounts a good defence of chivalry romances though, mixing fiction and fact. 

4/ It amuses me though to read the priest’s rant against plays: 

““You’ve touched upon a subject, señor canon,” said the priest, “that has aroused in me an old dislike that I have for the plays that are put on nowadays […] those that are put on nowadays are mirrors of nonsense, models of foolishness, and images of bawdiness. What greater nonsense can there be for a character to be in diapers in the first scene of act one, and in the second act come out as a bearded man? And what greater stupidity can there be than to represent a valiant old man, a cowardly youth, an eloquent lackey, a counselor-page, a handyman king, or a dishwashing princess?

“What can I say about how much attention they pay to the locales in which actions can or could happen? I’ve seen a play whose first act began in Europe, the second act in Asia, the third act ended in Africa, and if there had been four acts, the last doubtless would have been set in America, and all four corners of the earth would have been accounted for. And if the main thing in drama is that it’s supposed to imitate real life, how is it possible for it to satisfy an average intellect, if when we have a play that is supposed to take place during the time of Pippin and Charlemagne, the main character is Heraclius, who is seen entering Jerusalem bearing the Cross and winning the Holy Sepulcher, as Godefroy de Bouillon did, when there were infinite years between one event and the other? And what about those plays based on pure fiction that mix in historical facts, as well as things that happened in the lives of people at different times, and none of it believable, but rather filled with errors that are wholly inexcusable?...”” (ibid.)  

I have never read the plays of Lope de Vega or Cervantes himself, but all these complaints fit Shakespeare’s plays—the priest sounds like Tolstoy whining about the bawdiness, improbabilities, and lack of realism in Shakespeare. 

5/ In the last blog post, I mentioned that all the (named) female characters were beautiful: Luscinda, Dorotea, Zoraida, and Camilla in the inserted story. 

I forgot about the shepherdess Marcela, whose beauty led to the death of Grisóstomo.

After the last blog post, we encounter 2 more beautiful women: Clara de Viedma (niece of Ruy Perez, the captive) and Leandra (the one who falls for the cad Vicente de la Rosa). 

Cervantes is biased against uggos. 

I have now finished reading Part 1 of Don Quixote, after about 3 weeks. Wonderful book. 

Let’s hope I have some more interesting things to say when I read Part 2. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Be not afraid, gentle readers! Share your thoughts!
(Make sure to save your text before hitting publish, in case your comment gets buried in the attic, never to be seen again).