Saturday, September 24, 2011

Don Quixote, Installment Uno, Cervantes

Don Quixote
Miguel Cervantes
translated by Tobias Smollett, revised by Carole Slade

            Lately I’ve been reading a book of criticism called 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, by the novelist Jane Smiley. It’s a huge book, and though I’m making slow progress, I’ve been enjoying it very much. The final chapter of the book is Smiley’s collected musings on 100 novels, kind of like what I’m doing here. One is Don Quixote. Smiley references Cervantes’ novel many times throughout her text, calling its creation “the invention of the novel-of-a-man-at-odds-with-his-world” and claiming that “it is hard to overestimate the influence of Don Quixote on the subsequent history of the novel.” You can understand, then, why I was intrigued.
            I want to offer two ideas to consider before doling out my thoughts on the book to this point (400 pages in).

1) As a writing teacher, it bugs me when students say “but that’s obvious” or “everybody knows that” when they read work produced at any point in the past. For example, I live in Portland, OR, where everybody recycles, rides their bikes to work in the rain, and eats local, organic food at every meal. When I assigned an excerpt from one of Michael Pollen’s books to my writing class, 80% of my students were bored out of their minds. It was so obvious, they told me. We already know this! Of course we do, I replied, because Michael Pollen started writing about it. The point is not always the content: what can we learn from the way messages are conveyed? How can we learn to do research and write in ways that also change the world, and what people believe is common knowledge?

2) For my Master’s degree in English I was required to take two classes in English literature prior to 1600. One of these ended up being Arthurian Literature: knights of the Round Table, Merlin, Camelot, Lancelot and Guinevere, etc. At first, I hated it. It was sexist and shallow and banal, I thought. Worst of all, it was poorly written. After a while though, as I grew more knowledgeable about the history and tradition of this type of literature, I began to appreciate the class for what it was (and, incidentally, what my university had intended when they created the requirement): an education in English, and how it has evolved and changed over time. The stories we read today are shaped by those “transcribed” by long ago writers (writers of antiquity usually claimed that their tales were true, and that they were translated from an ancient source known only by the author). My understanding of this truth helps me appreciate Don Quixote and realize that Smiley is absolutely right: Cervantes has indeed shaped our understanding of what it means for something to be a “novel.”   

            Don Quixote is “about” a landed gentleman who reads so much chivalric literature that the stories pickle his brain. Under the influence of these tales of heroism, he decides to take up the “profession” of knight errantry. He outfits himself and rides off on his sorry old nag, picking up the peasant Sancho along the way. Sancho is sane, where Quixote is not, but he’s not terrifically bright, and so Quixote is able to convince him to travel along as his servant by promising to bequeath to him an island kingdom (which the reader understands Quixote does not possess) upon the completion of their adventures. Together they get into all kinds of scrapes, and meet a good many people, all of whom almost immediately understand Quixote to be crazy. Perhaps cruelly, the people that he meets all go along with Don Quixote’s foolhardy attempts at chivalry, just to see what will happen. Maybe that’s one of the themes or questions at stake here – how do we treat the mentally ill? What connection is there between mental illness and art? Don Quixote provokes some of the same questions that our famous artists and/or crazy people do today – i.e. which comes first, the art or the crazy? Do the books he reads make Don Quixote crazy, or do they merely give him an outlet through which to filter and conduct his infirmity? Is it an infirmity? Is fiction dangerous? Is art useful?
            As I said before, it’s hard to judge a text so old on its own terms, without letting modern thinking color our understanding. Is Don Quixote making a statement about chivalry? Violence? The position of women in the world? The Crusades? I think one could make any of these arguments convincing. It seems obvious enough, at least, that one of the things Cervantes definitely wants to talk about in Don Quixote is fiction itself. Smiley says she doesn’t know if Cervantes is making fun of the idea that fiction is dangerous, or whether he aims to illustrate exactly that. But to make use of the very form you intend to deride seems to me at best naively ironic and at worst ludicrous. Judging by what I’ve read of the book so far I feel certain that Cervantes must be making fun of the public’s concern about fiction as a kind of “dangerous lie.” To make his point – that fiction is enjoyable, not harmful – he uses a very convincing rhetorical device: gentle self-mockery in combination with humor at society’s expense.

That’s all I’ve got so far. Hopefully I’ll know more after the next 600 pages!

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