Viral Days

The Windmills of Our Minds

Reading Cervantes during the pandemic

By Sheila Kohler | August 3, 2020
Detail from Gustave Doré's frontispiece for the 1863 Paris Hachette edition of Don Quixote
Detail from Gustave Doré's frontispiece for the 1863 Paris Hachette edition of Don Quixote

With long periods of solitary time on my hands, I was looking for something lengthy to read, something that might distract me sufficiently without plunging me into passions too deep or predicaments too dire. I didn’t think I could face Russian drama or a serious family saga. I wanted something at once playful and stimulating, a book that would also have something to say about life both before and during this pandemic, when death threatens us daily. Then a friend, a psychologist who came for a socially distanced tea on the terrace, said she thought the isolation forced upon us by Covid-19 was almost like a kind of madness, which was when I thought of Don Quixote.

As I have found these past few months, Cervantes manages to delight, to distract, to make us laugh aloud, and ultimately to say something profound about the way we view the world. As Erich Auerbach wrote in his landmark work of literary criticism, Mimesis, the “theme of the mad country gentleman who undertakes to revive knight-errantry gave Cervantes an opportunity to present the world as play in that spirit of multiple, perspective, non-judging, and even non-questioning neutrality which is a brave form of wisdom.”

Though little is known for certain about his life, Miguel de Cervantes probably conceived of Don Quixote while in a prison cell. He seems to have been incarcerated several times, once for fighting a duel and on more than one occasion for financial problems. Between 1575 and 1580, the Ottomans held Cervantes in Algerian bagnos, or prison houses. Some scholars believe he converted to Islam before he was ransomed and sent home. His long years in captivity, the lengthy periods of solitude, might have suggested to him what it is like to go mad. They certainly explain the recurring image of a window throughout his book. We might imagine a locked-down Cervantes standing in his cell, staring longingly at the outside world, as so many of us do now, through a slit in a wall.

Despite the instant success of his great book, which was quickly translated into English, French, German, and Italian, Cervantes died a poor man in 1617—the same year Shakespeare died. They may even have died on the same day, though their financial states were considerably different.

Don Quixote is both a mad hidalgo, or gentleman, and an outlaw, and the overarching plot of the first volume is the persecution and capture of the knight by Spain’s Holy Brotherhood, which has a warrant out against him. The suspense—will he or will he not be caught?—keeps us reading. Throughout the book, death hovers near but not too near, increasing the suspense. The Don may be relentlessly mocked and tricked by those he encounters, but we are both moved and entertained by his formal, high-flown discourse, and his archaic speech and actions. We are sympathetic to his desire to bring fame and glory to his lady love, Dulcinea, as well as his efforts to help the plucky Dorothea and other women less fortunate than he.

Indeed, he is interested mainly in the downtrodden—criminals, prostitutes, orphans, widows, and the peasant women he imagines to be damsels in distress. In his attempts to free the enchained and to succor those who need the strength of his arm, we see that he has a good heart. This brave, misguided knight-errant, inspired by outdated books on chivalry, follows his own code of conduct and his marvelous imagination, as he embarks on a life of adventure on the road, committing one foolish act after another in his quest to right the wrongs of the world.

Eventually, the Holy Brotherhood catches up with the Don, though like everything else in the novel, this scene of capture has a comic side. The officer is portrayed as ignorant—he can hardly read the arrest warrant—and the priest persuades the brotherhood to let Quixote go on grounds of insanity. The Don is eventually bound in his sleep, placed in an oxcart, and taken ignominiously home, only for him to sally forth again in the novel’s second volume. Such obdurate courage and determination are strangely comforting in these difficult days.

This is but one reason why I have taken such pleasure in following this crazy criminal, this man of 50 dubbed by his squire, Sancho Panza, as the Knight of the Sorrowful Face, a knight who loses several teeth in one of his battles but rides on courageously astride his ancient nag, the down-to-earth squire at his side. What a wonderful contrast the Don and Sancho make! Sancho strings together mismatched proverbs, longing for a rich repast and the island he hopes one day to gain and govern. Food, drink, money, and ambition thus anchor the story sufficiently in the real, and above all portray its great theme of perspectivism, how reality can be seen in such diametrically different ways. Here we cannot help finding echoes of our own divided and conflicted world, where contagion and death are labeled fake when not to our leaders’ liking. Perhaps if our divisions were seen the way we perceive the differing views of Sancho and Don Quixote’s, we might be able to chuckle at them.

Madness is all around the Don, and he has many doppelgängers in the book’s first and second volumes who are almost equally mad, for example, Cardenio and Anselmo. Even Sancho dwells for a time in a world of delusion. Gradually, Quixote realizes that his illusions are born of madness, and he comes little by little to control that madness. At the very least, he becomes increasingly aware of the harsh and unjust world in which he lives, his remarkably reasonable speeches showing a concern for a world beset by corruption and greed. Cervantes may not have intentionally used his hero to show up the evil prevalent in 16th- and early-17th-century Spain, yet the Don does take great concern in the plight of such characters as Ginés de Pasamonte, who has been arbitrarily tortured and weighed down with chains and whom the Don manages to free. We can easily imagine Don Quixote in our own world, charging down the road and protesting injustice, freeing prisoners of color held down by an officer’s knee.

Don Quixote, then, is both a novel for all times and one particularly for our own—the hallmark of any great work of art. It has all the excitement and suspense of an adventure novel, all the forward movement of a glorious fairy tale. With its plethora of unidentified strangers, who make their entrances masked or veiled—gathering at inns or palaces, in the mountains or the forest—it has the qualities of the most compelling mystery. And it is a perceptive study in character, particularly when it comes to Sancho, who is transformed by novel’s end, slowly taking control of his situation, his master’s erudition, imagination, and rhetoric apparently rubbing off on him. As the book’s characters come and go, telling tales of love affairs that end well or badly, of reversals of fortune, of illusion and disillusion, Cervantes’s generous, multilayered narrative, full of gaiety, never judgmental, has the power to lift our spirits in these dark days, carrying us onward on the road of our own adventures.

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