Wednesday 22 May 2024

Don Quixote: “lovers and madmen have such seething brains”

1/ I don’t understand people who call Don Quixote unreadable or boring.  

““If you were the devil, as you say and as your appearance reveals, you should have already recognized that knight Don Quixote de La Mancha, since here he is right in front of you.”

“Before God and my conscience,” responded the devil, “I wasn’t paying attention—I have so many different things to think about that the reason I came slipped my mind.”

“Doubtless,” said Sancho, “this demon must be a good man and a good Christian, because if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have sworn ‘before God and my conscience.’ Now I believe that in hell itself there must be good people.”” (P.2, ch.34) 

(translated by Tom Lathrop) 

The book is hilarious.

Cervantes must be the funniest of great writers apart from Shakespeare. 

2/ Don Quixote is a book about books, about reading and writing and telling stories.

Many of the characters are readers—they consume the same books that Don Quixote devours. Many of them are also storytellers. I mentioned that in a blog post about Part 1, and Part 2 is also full of storytellers—pranksters, con artists—but Cervantes also has Don Quixote and Sancho Panza meeting an acting company, a writer, a poet (Don Lorenzo, son of Don Diego), a puppeteer, and so on. 

I keep thinking that there’s something there—some pattern or idea—but I don’t quite know what it is. 

However, I’m now thinking of Theseus’s speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,

Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend

More than cool reason ever comprehends.

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet

Are of imagination all compact.

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold—

That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven.

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.”

Cervantes does let us see the seething brains and shaping fantasies of the lunatic, the lover, and the poet in Don Quixote

3/ I like what Himadri (Argumentative Old Git) wrote about Sancho and fantasy: 

“When charged with finding Dulcinea, rather than tell his master to his face that he is mad, he finds a lusty peasant girl, and claims she really is Dulcinea … but Dulcinea enchanted. And this introduces yet another level of fantasy: Dulcinea is an imagined figure even in the context of various levels of fantasies, but here she is made “real”, made flesh, through yet another fantasy. And the fantasy this time is Sancho’s, not his master’s.” (full post

The Duchess later says to Sancho “Sancho, thinking he was the deceiver, turns out to be the deceived one.” (P.2, ch.33) 

This is something she says in order to trick him about the disenchantment of Dulcinea, but it happens later in the business about Countess Trifaldi (or the Distressed Duenna) and the flying horse—Sancho lies, not realising he is the one getting tricked. 

And yet, can we say for sure that the Duke and Duchess, whilst playing a prank on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, aren’t themselves getting fooled? 

I like this bit: 

“Don Quixote went over to Sancho and whispered in his ear: “Sancho, if you expect me to believe what happened to you in the heavens, I want you to believe what I saw in the Cave of Montesinos, and I say no more.”” (P.2, ch.41) 

Isn’t that what they do throughout all the adventures—indulging each other’s delusions? But that line suggests that Don Quixote does know his fantasies are fantasies—I will accept yours if you accept mine. Can we still say he doesn’t know the Duke and Duchess’s pranks are pranks? The cruelty of the Duke and Duchess contrasts sharply with the nobility of Don Quixote. 

4/ Sancho says:

“Since I came back down from the sky, and saw the earth so small from that high place, my desire to be a governor has diminished somewhat, because what greatness is it to be in control of a mustard seed, or what dignity or power is there in governing half a dozen men—that’s how many there appeared to me to be—no bigger than hazelnuts?” (P.2, ch.42) 

He is making things up, but isn’t this like the thoughts of astronauts when they’re in space? 

5/ I can’t help thinking that my blog posts so far haven’t conveyed very well the brilliance and wit, the complex layers, the dazzling quality of Don Quixote, especially the characterisation. The genius of Cervantes is very different from the genius of Tolstoy, James, or Proust. On the one hand, the characterisation in Don Quixote might appear rather crude, whereas the other three writers are very subtle in their depiction of the human mind; but on the other hand, the characters created by Tolstoy, James, and Proust cannot be imagined outside the works in which they exist, whereas Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are larger than life, greater than the book they’re in (like Dracula, Frankenstein, or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). There is something magnificent about these creations that is ineffable. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are in many ways ridiculous, but they are also sublime. 

But how does Cervantes achieve that? I have no idea. 

I don’t buy the idea that Cervantes intended Don Quixote to be merely ridiculous and that the sadness of the character is a 19th or 20th century concept. Firstly, he could have easily created a character who is an empty-headed madman, but no, he also gave him great intelligence and understanding, nobility, and a desire to do good. 

Secondly, he’s a contemporary of Shakespeare—when Shakespeare wrote “I was adored once too”, we cannot say that he intended Sir Andrew Aguecheek to be no more than a comic figure—Sir Andrew’s a laughingstock until that moment, those five words transformed him, and Shakespeare wrote those words. People make the same argument about Shylock, and I also don’t buy it. I know 17th century people had different sensibilities and norms—they got amusement from watching bear-baiting, which we now cannot comprehend—but Shakespeare nevertheless gave us Shylock’s point of view and humanised him in a way that Christopher Marlowe didn’t do with Barbaras. But above all, it doesn’t quite matter—however Shakespeare and Cervantes saw their characters, we can see something in the characters because it’s there, whether or not the author was conscious of what he was doing. 

This is such a wonderful, wonderful book. 


  1. Arthur Machen loved DQ, but he especially is given to quoting and alluding to Dickens. Machen is best known for a few horror stories written early in his career, but I like to recommend his autobiographical Far-Off Things and his stories "The Great Return" and "N."

    Dale Nelson

    1. Haha, I currently have a looooong TBR list.

  2. I've seen complaints about the long, digressive stories within the story (I read the Edith Grossman translation), but those were some of my favorite things. I just love the idea of getting all the story you possibly can - it's like the way old movies were, where a single movie gave you comedy, romance, drama, music, dancing etc.

    1. Oh yeah, I love those digressions.
      Maybe part of it is because in real life, I always go on tangents when telling a story, haha.


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