His words still shape our consciousness, even if we fail to read him. This is not due to some hackneyed idealism (“tilting at windmills”), but rather to his pervasive impact on the genre that taught us to think like moderns: the novel. He pioneered the representation of individual subjectivity and aspiration, which today undergirds the construction of agency in any narrative, whether in novels, films, television, or the daily self-fashioning by millions of users of social media. Thus William Egginton recently bestowed upon him the title, “the man who invented fiction.” He discovered the fictive within each of us.
Ever since his 1605 prologue incited the reader to “say of the book what you will,” Cervantes has been associated with that extra province of Imagination annexed to every territory in the world, where humans explore unrealized possibilities and enjoy, regardless of material or political circumstances, a modicum of freedom. This association has drawn creators of all periods and lands to pay homage to the author of Don Quixote. From such networks of adaptation and allusion the cultural fabric of modernity is woven.
Yet no sooner do we begin reading Don Quixote than that tradition threatens to unravel before our eyes.
Despite his familiarity, Cervantes is among the most misunderstood of Old Masters. When we actually read his masterpiece, preconceived expectations quickly fade. Quixote is not presented to the reader the way the hero of a modern novel should be. Instead of an unbiased narrator transparently revealing the character’s mind, we find one who sarcastically mocks him, encouraging us to laugh at his absurd behavior and anachronistic beliefs. Gradually, however, Cervantes complicates this picture—especially through the addition of Sancho Panza, whose peasant worldview provides a constant counterpoint to Don Quixote’s aristocratic one. As their ongoing conversation blossoms into friendship, despite ourselves we begin to sympathize with the mad knight, and thus are gripped in an irreducible ambiguity. Are we to laugh at the hero or admire him? Or should we focus on the playful interaction of multiple genres and levels of narration, which reveal the discursive nature of subjectivity, its emergence from an array of conventional literary styles and the metafictional slippage between them? Indeed, Don Quixote demands to be understood as experimental fiction.
The historical context of Cervantes’s life may be our best guide among these readings. Returning to Spain from Algerian captivity, he sought a public voice as a playwright, exploiting his firsthand knowledge of the timely issue—then and now—of Muslim-Christian tensions in the Mediterranean. Yet the popularity of Lope de Vega’s formulaic comedia nueva drove him from the stage, forcing him to invent a new kind of writing through which to cultivate a different relation to his audience. Much has been written on the marvelous companionship between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, but seldom mentioned is the extent to which that friendship models our own with the author. Simultaneously frank and oddly evasive, his stance is both intimate and shot through with an irony that keeps the reader off balance, provoking reflection on the applicability of episodes to social and political realities of the time, among them crime, justice, and abuse of power; militarism and empire; marriage and parental authority; class, privilege, and racial-cum-religious identity; and free thinking vs. censorship. Cervantes neither permits the reader to remain comfortably complacent nor simply to adopt the eccentric viewpoint of the lunatic knight. Quixotic anachronism dislodges us from unthinking adherence to the status quo, but provides no readymade solutions. Thus we arrive at an understanding of Don Quixote as satire, between the lines of which we may read non-conformity. Its marvelously ambiguous anti-hero works on two levels: a ruthless parody against the ideology of chivalry, coupled with the affirmation of the protagonist’s self-invention, his autonomy to make of his life what he chooses.
Here the professor in me admonishes: if you would understand Cervantes, read his other works, especially the Exemplary Stories and The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda, his posthumously published literary testament. These books are filled with characters who improvise identity: tricksters confounding societal norms, wanderers taking to the road to escape repressive communities, cross-dressing women willfully defying the men who surround them. Moreover, Persiles and Sigismunda evinces Cervantes’s ambition to be, not merely a Spanish, but a cosmopolitan writer. He deploys a fascinating array of people from across Europe and the New World, imaginatively joining North Africa, America, England, Ireland, Iceland, Denmark, Poland, Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy, winding up in Rome. This final extravagant romance epitomizes Cervantes’s humanism, thematizing the boundary-crossing individual human’s ontological superiority to all representations that serve as its mirror images, and to any judicial structure that would curtail its freedom.
The twenty-second of April is the 400th anniversary of the day Cervantes’s restless pen was stilled forever. This was entirely against his will, for, unlike the equally illustrious writer to the North who died a few days after him—Shakespeare—Cervantes never retired from writing. On his deathbed, after receiving extreme unction, he dedicated Persiles and Sigismunda, promising that if God by some miracle granted him life, he had several unfinished works he still hoped to complete. Nor did he spare the reader a parting shot of dark humor: “Farewell, graces; farewell, witty remarks; farewell, ebullient friends; for I am dying as I go (que yo me voy muriendo), and I look forward to seeing you soon, content in the next life!”
He bequeathed us a birthright we squander at our peril.
Featured image credit: Honoré Daumier [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons