Impossible Dreams: Don Quixote at 400

True, Cervantes wasn’t a good stylist. There are bumpy parts in Don Quixote, in which the author seems asleep at the wheel. He is sometimes repetitive. He forgets crucial details, such as the name of Sancho’s wife, calling her variously Juana and Teresa. But novels, especially lasting ones, don’t need to be perfect. What they need to be, of course, is real. And the Quixote, for all its fragmented and picaresque nature -- or indeed because of this -- is unquestionably real. It’s about friendship, about stubbornness, and about how intelligence wears out and needs to be refurbished. It’s about the courage to take action, even if that action is founded on hopelessly incorrect premises and risks utter futility.

It’s also about language, its elasticity, its capacity to describe our inner and outer circumstance. As careless as Cervantes might be with his pen, he has an extraordinary ear for the nuances of speech. Don Quixote and Sancho’s conversation occupies an enormous amount of narrative time and space in the novel -- and this endless loquacity is, needless to say, a condition they have in common with us. Their dialogue deals the basic human questions: Who are we? Why are we here? In what sense are we creatures of time and space? What is our duty to our neighbor? And what lends the book part of its immense power is the fact that the knight and his servant address these questions in utterly different tonalities. Don Quixote is lofty, Sancho pedestrian; one is eloquent to the point of being bombastic, the other foul-mouthed. And most enchantingly, as the book progresses, these two begin to resemble each other while never losing their own inner core of being. Cervantes infuses the novel with a degree of self-referentiality when Don Quixote and Sancho, in the book’s Second Part, find out that they are actually literary characters and that people they come across have read -- and enjoyed -- the First Part. This makes them realize, among other things, that they are and aren’t free. At any rate, therein we find the fluidity of life: all of us are in constant movement, physical as well as spiritual. To call ourselves stable entities is a figure of speech. We are porous, amorphous, even ethereal -- and Cervantes knows this, and knew how to capture that elusive attribute better than anyone before or since.

For a long time it was thought that Cervantes and Shakespeare, in my mind the two inventors of modernity (I would add Montaigne, to make it a triumvirate), died the same day. But Spain and England followed different calendars, so that grim coincidence is apocryphal. Still, I have long wondered about their connection: it doesn’t seem to me that Cervantes knew of Shakespeare; the bard, on the other hand, did know of Don Quixote. He was familiar with the Thomas Shelton translation of the First Part, done in 1607 but published in 1612, and he collaborated with the younger playwright John Fletcher on an adaptation of a segment known as the History of Cardenio.

What these two sensibilities have in common is a passionate commitment to subjectivity. They lived at a time of religious persecution yet their work is triumphantly secular. They understood that the role of literature is not to be pedagogic but exploratory; that is, they didn’t want to offer answers but simply to pose large and largely unyielding existential questions. And, more than anything, they were capable of creating in-depth, complex characters, female and male, who are defined by an inner life that is as rich and complicated as the world that surrounds them.

Which brings me to my essential point: more than a novel (although booksellers can’t think otherwise) Don Quixote is a manual for living. The book dispenses advice subtly yet decisively about what matters and what doesn’t in life. It doesn’t do it in a prescriptive fashion; in fact, you won’t notice it until later. Its formula is simple: it isn’t designed to entertain but to make us see things differently. Just open it and read the first sentence: “In a place of La Mancha, the name of which I don’t care to remember…” Already we see the basic conventions of the form subverted, already we are halfway to being fruitfully, marvelously lost.

I have been teaching literature for decades and during most of those years I did not have a clue how to teach this strange and wonderful book. As a result, I learned to be at once ambitious and discreet in discussing it. So let me close by saying that the book may reject you at first. And if you stumble, try to regain your footing. Maybe you’ll fall again and then -- accept your fate! -- you’ve been weeded out. But if not, you might well be part of the Quixotic nation. Readers, after all, don’t chose books. Books choose their readers, and to be chosen by the Quixote is an honor worth striving for.