Among the literary works that emerged in the so-called Golden Age of Spanish culture in the 16th and 17th centuries, one shines so brightly that it seems to eclipse all others, and indeed is said to not only be the foundation of modern Spanish writing, but of the modern novel itself. Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote synthesized the Medieval and Renaissance literature that had come before it in a brilliantly satirical work, writes popular academic Harold Bloom, with “cosmological scope and reverberation.” But in such high praise of a great work, we can lose sight of the work itself. Don Quixote is hardly an exception.
“The notion of ‘literary classic,’” Simon Leys writes at the New York Review of Books, “has a solemn ring about it. But Don Quixote, which is the classic par excellence, was written for a flatly practical purpose: to amuse the largest possible number of readers, in order to make a lot of money for the author (who needed it badly).” To mention these intentions is not to diminish the work, but perhaps even to burnish it further. To have created, as Yale’s Roberto González Echevarría says in his introductory lecture above, “one of the unquestioned masterpieces of world literature, let alone the Western Canon,” while seeking primarily to entertain and make a buck says quite a lot about Cervantes’ considerable talents, and, perhaps, about his modernism.
Rather than write for a feudal patron, monarch, or deity, he wrote for what he hoped would be a profitable mass-market. In so doing, says Professor González, quoting Gabriel García Márquez, Cervantes wrote “a novel in which there is already everything that novelists would attempt to do in the future until today.” González’s course, “Cervantes’ Don Quixote,” is now available online in a series of 24 lectures, available on YouTube and iTunes. (Stream all 24 lectures below.) You can download all of the course materials, including the syllabus and overview of each class, here. There is a good deal of reading involved, and you’ll need to get your hands on a few extra books. In addition to the weighty Quixote, “students are also expected to read four of Cervantes’ Exemplary Stories, Cervantes’ Don Quixote: A Casebook, and J.H. Elliott’s Imperial Spain.” It would seem well worth the effort.
Professor González goes on in his introduction to discuss the novel’s importance to such figures as Sigmund Freud, Jorge Luis Borges, and British scholar Ian Watt, who called Don Quixote “one of four myths of modern individualism, the others being Faust, Don Juan, and Robinson Crusoe.” The novel’s historical resume is tremendously impressive, but the most important thing about it, says González, is that it has been read and enjoyed by millions of people around the world for hundreds of years. Just why is that?
The professor quotes from his own introduction to the Penguin Classics edition he asks students to read in providing his answer: “Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s masterpiece has endured because it focuses on literature’s foremost appeal: to become another, to leave a typically embattled self for another closer to one’s desires and aspirations. This is why Don Quixote has often been read as a children’s book, and continues to be read by and to children.” Critics might be prone to dismiss such enjoyable wish fulfilment as trivial, but the centuries-long success of Don Quixote shows it may be the foundation of all modern literary writing.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
Interesting, thank you.
I read Don Quixote 8 or so times (both the Penguin translation and Edith Grossman’s). I think Rutherford translation is the best.
After I read it 5 times I think it seemed clear to me that Cervantes was exposing religion as the ‘madness’ – all we need to do is replace the ‘books of chivalry’ with the bible. I think that was his main message which had to be expressed as a metaphor so many centuries ago.
I know many people who seem very wise and intelligent until they start talking about their invisible friends/masters (i.e. religion).
Wherever DQ is at his maddest – his friend the priest is usually there and it’s obvious that he makes DQ more deluded (while pretending he was trying to help him. Cervantes often makes sure to show how versed the priest is at tricking people, acting and basically lying (but usually in a helpful context). That was one hint to me.
I think what he was trying to show to us is how absurd the world becomes when everyone starts lying and pretending they believe other people’s lies – as Sancho Panza obviously does.
The danger of being so lost in lies and delusions is illustrated when the Duchess manages to persuade Sancho that Dulcinea is really enchanted (” while Sancho himself was both the enchanter and the hoaxer..” (p.720)
There are other examples like that and many illustrations of how what seems like a miracle is actually a clever trick – like the fake suicide at Cardeno’s wedding. There are also illustrations (like the night at the inn when everyone meets by coincidence) which illustrate how very unlikely events can happen in real life (stranger than fiction like the Bible). He also often contrasts the real-life collaboration with real people to imaginary stupid delusions (and it’s often clear that real life, real people are superior to any imaginary friends/masters.
As if he was trying to tell us – you see how easy it is to create fake miracles, how stupid it is to be obsessed with a book, or how what seems as a divine intervention is really something done by real people (often with the intention to trick you).
Another hint to me was DQ’s death – and how he admitted pretending to believe what was fake, and how absurd that is and how harmful. He apologizes to Sancho for distracting him from reality.
Also the way the Duke and Duchess ‘knew’ about DQ (because they read the book about him) – which is kind of illogical and impossible -that also refers to the circular explanations of fake events from the Bible.
There are many more examples, but you get my drift: the madness Cervantes referred to was RELIGION as described in the Bible (aka Books of Chivalry)
Thanks for the lecture
Tomo, great review! It is obvious that you know the story well. I have also read many translations several times. I will be thinking about your analysis. Thank you.