Reviews of Don Quixote (1605) and related work

Don Quixote (1605)

Miguel de Cervantes (writer).

Read in 2020.

This review refers to the original novel, not the 1615 sequel. I read it in John Ormsby’s 1885 translation, after having read excerpts in Swedish years earlier.

An old man becomes mentally ill in a manner consistent with contemporary humoral pathology. Eventually enlisting the aid of a stereotypically stupid peasant, he roams Spain thinking he is a knight errant, long after the age of chivalry. Both men suffer frequent physical beatings, sometimes avoiding more of the same, and hear irrelevant stories from other people:

Thus matters stood at the inn-gate, where there was a very lively exchange of fisticuffs and punches, to the sore damage of the landlord and to the wrath of Maritornes, the landlady, and her daughter, who were furious when they saw the pusillanimity of Don Quixote, and the hard treatment their master, husband and father was undergoing. But let us leave him there; for he will surely find some one to help him, and if not, let him suffer and hold his tongue who attempts more than his strength allows him to do; and let us go back fifty paces to see what Don Luis said in reply to the Judge whom we left questioning him privately as to his reasons for coming on foot and so meanly dressed.

A landmark in literary history and part of Harold Bloom’s dubious canon, this farce is many things, but not funny. For comparison, it’s less funny than The Golden Ass (ca. 160 CE), whose wineskin scene it repeats. It’s much less funny than True History (ca. 175 CE), outdoing it only by adding more metafiction, including a layer of realism greater than that of the genre it targets. Here, the object of ridicule is late-medieval knightly romances.

Ormsby’s translation is generally considered accurate but dry. Many other translations to English are available, about 25 in total as of 2020, and many of them emphasize humor. In a 2009 appearance, Edith Grossman, whose 2003 translation was the most celebrated at the time of my reading, said this:

When I first started to read the Quixote, I thought it was the most tragic book I had ever read, and I would read it and weep. I was so moved by Quixote, and the cruelty of the people around him who berated him, laughed at him, played tricks on him, and so forth. As I got older and my skin got thicker and thicker I guess, and I became less and less sensitive, I found it funnier and funnier. And so, when I was working on the translation I was actually sitting at my computer and laughing out loud.

[Cervantes combined tragedy and comedy] by never letting the reader rest. You are never certain, reading the Quixote, whether you’ve really gotten it, because as soon as you’re sure that you know what’s going on, Cervantes introduces something that contradicts your premise.

Grossman finds this technique brilliant. She assumes it is a technique. It seems to me that a simpler explanation is available. Bad fiction is often ambiguous and self-contradictory. The constant violence done to a psychotic man and a fool in this book is comic in its intent, but I do not find it funny. Without assuming the author’s Schadenfreude, the book would be incomprehensible, not tragic. Similarly, the intent of pathos is obvious, but the story does not deliver any of that either.

To be fair, there are brief moments of wit and a handful of interesting scenarios, but they disappear in the mass of text with its many digressions. Of course, Cervantes must comment wrily on his own digressions. Here he is doing so in chapter 27:

To this the curate replied that not only were they not weary of listening to him, but that the details he mentioned interested them greatly, being of a kind by no means to be omitted and deserving of the same attention as the main story.

In chapter 51, a goatherd comments on an evident digression inside a hypodiegesis which itself constitutes a digression inside a hypodiegesis:

To-day he would appear in one gay dress, to-morrow in another; but all flimsy and gaudy, of little substance and less worth. The peasant folk, who are naturally malicious, and when they have nothing to do can be malice itself, remarked all this, and took note of his finery and jewellery, piece by piece, and discovered that he had three suits of different colours, with garters and stockings to match; but he made so many arrangements and combinations out of them, that if they had not counted them, anyone would have sworn that he had made a display of more than ten suits of clothes and twenty plumes. Do not look upon all this that I am telling you about the clothes as uncalled for or spun out, for they have a great deal to do with the story.

They don’t, really. Cervantes could have used an editor and another few drafts.

As I expected, the author mocks the implausible literary tropes of knightly romances, but not in same way Lucian mocked the tropes of the epic in True History. It is not a pastiche, or even a proper parody. Nothing in Don Quixote provides the beauty, thrill or imagination of the romances to deconstruct their conceits. It has structural elements of the picaresque, but not the genre’s characters. It has other structural elements of the frame story and anthology, but everybody seems to read it for the frame within the frame.

More importantly, Don Quixote is not good satire. It is too servile. There are scenes where cowardice, viciousness and horniness—including Quixote’s own—are cloaked in the romantic emblems of late-medieval society to point to hypocrisy, but it’s only personal hypocrisy. Cervantes may not have understood that these emblems and the very genre he mocks were invented to flatter those upper classes who gained status through force, terror and rent. He uses phrases like “a person of quality and good birth” without any apparent irony. In the goatherd’s story, respect “is the natural consequence of being rich”. In the end, Sancho returns to his poor wife, who is named only as an aside, and he concludes “that there is nothing in the world more delightful than to be a person of consideration”. Compare True History, where Lucian gleefully attacks the Greek cultural establishment by retconning, amending and undermining its classics. Compare the many popular medieval texts that made fun of the powerful; among them, “A Gest of Robyn Hode” (ca. 1450) is one of the more respectful. Satire criticizes power, at least by proxy. Cervantes does not.

The fluid escapes from nearby genres are not necessarily intentional, but intellectually influential, perhaps on the taboo against calling the “literary novel” genre a genre. Don Quixote is also a step toward humanism, compared to the ancient authors or The Song of Roland (ca. 1115), but it is still remarkably inconsiderate. Sancho, for example, is celebrated in fandom for his purported common sense, but in this first entry he is a type, not much more human than the squires of the romances. This changed in the sequel, which seems to show that Cervantes recognized the first novel as a mistake. I find it hard to avoid the impression that Don Quixote is famous in part because it was received in the rest of Europe as an opportunity to caricature the Spanish as whimsical, shall we say quixotic wastrels and clowns. Even the Spanish themselves soon elevated the franchise to a national myth.

If you read this early-modern novel, do it for the history of literary epistemology and metafiction. Chapter 25 has an exchange on Quixote’s wash-basin helmet where shades of unfalsiable, narcissistic, ego-preserving conspiracy theory are brought to the fore. In chapter 49, Don Quixote debates a canon who suggests he read Judges (ca. 650–500 BCE) as if it were true, and for precisely that reason. In moments like that, Cervantes manages to meditate on illusionism in art and the functions of literature in a way that clearly looks ahead to good fiction, but the layered frames and rambling language obscure his arguments, if he had any. It is not at all clear that Cervantes knew what he was doing. In the outermost frame, the author’s fictionalized version of himself pretends to decry the romances he loves, but for all I know, he thought Judges was wonderful.

References here: Life in the Middle Ages (1910).

fiction text

Lost in La Mancha (2002) IMDb

Terry Gilliam (cast).

References here: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018).

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The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018) IMDb

Terry Gilliam (director).

Seen in 2019.

Seen in a jam-packed Draken as the last film of GIFF 2019.

A director once made a student film about Don Quixote. He has returned to that motif in an advertisement ten years into his career.

Contemporary Todorovian-uncanny metatheatre. This film completes the project documented in Lost in La Mancha (2002).

The good: Gilliam is admirably restrained with the CGI effects. There are clever little touches throughout the narrative, including the blending of Muslim migrant workers and Quixote’s Saracens, a motif twisted later on when Quixote himself preaches religious tolerance along the lines of the many Spanish states that slowed or resisted the long Reconquista. The whole thing flows well enough except for the awakenings. Gilliam demonstrates real love of the literary figure whose themes underpin his entire career. Unsurprisingly, Gilliam aligns himself personally with Don Quixote: Like Toby, Gilliam has spent much of his preceding ten years in advertising, with Hollywood spectacles and prominently branded short film productions, and it is Toby who gets to carry the torch in the end. Toby’s passively grey-black morality is a pretty good recurring joke and his profession enables the unsubtle metatheatre. On the whole, it is a successful attempt to cover both the farce of the original and Quixote as a portal to modern literature, for a modern audience, without just bringing the whole thing into the present day.

The bad: Whereas Cervantes allows Dulcinea to be an unseen normal person, realistically unresponsive to Quixote’s creepy idolization of her, Gilliam inserts three female characters who are all on screen, identified primarily as sexual objects. There is some nuance but it’s uncomfortably close to the madonna-whore gender roles that infest Gilliam’s immediately preceding features, most prominently The Zero Theorem (2013). Sex intersects a melodrama with the boss and the oligarch as mutually redundant villains. This melodrama should exist in Quixote’s wishful thinking but for some reason, it is equally flat and intractable in external reality, which leaves no point to the escapism. A tertiary villain, the unnamed “Gypsy”, is less consistently evil, but his violence against the Civil Guard aligns too neatly with antizigan stereotype. Like Cervantes, Gilliam fails to make a point out of dissolving the barriers between reality and the various levels of fantasy: Supernatural medieval knight-errantry vs. Quixote’s racist 17th century vs. a romantic version of modern Europe etc. The transitions can be awkward, like the awakenings; the village where Toby shot his student film is just called “The Dreams”, which is sophomoric. In the end, there aren’t any major surprises or great depths in this creative vision, despite it taking 29 years to make the movie.

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