The image above is Salvador Dali’s painting of Don Quixote.
Thursday, June 4, 2009


Don Quixote

Readers who have seen the movie Man of La Mancha know that it was based on Don Quixote, but in order to do a two hour play or movie much of the book was omitted. What you get is part of the opening of the book, including the adventure at the inn, and Don Quixote being knighted.

Cervantes fought at Lepanto and was a prisoner, for five years, of the Algerians. In Chapter V, Cervantes says of Don Quixote that “His madness made him remember that of the Marquess of Mantua and Baldwin…a story familiar to children, not unknown to youths, celebrated and even believed by old men, yet for all that, no more authentic than the miracles of Mohammed.” So Cervantes, who has good reason to dislike Islam, dismisses Mohammed as a false prophet, and a faker.

Chapter VI is an inquisition upon Don Quixote’s books. It is also a venture into literary criticism, and even, to some extent, literary theory, or at least a theory of translation, as in this passage, “This is what happens to all who translate books of verse into another tongue, for in spite of all the trouble they take and all the skill they display, they will never reach the level of the original.”

We even find a bit of self-reference when the inquisitors, Don Quixote’s barber and curate, come across Galatea by Cervantes.

Chapter IX has what seems to be an anti-Arab comment when Cervantes says, “if any objection can be raised against the truth of this history, it can only be because its author was an Arab, for those of that nation are much inclined to lying; and since they are such bitter enemies of ours, we might more readily suppose him to have fallen short of the truth than to have exaggerated.”

In Chapter XI Don Quixote encounters some goatherds. He gives a long speech that looks upon the present (early 17th century) as an age of iron, and looks back to a golden age. This is a recurrent them in literature and philosophy. We encounter it in Plato’s myth of Atlantis in Timaeus, in Ovid, in Spengler, and elsewhere. A related myth, that of the noble savage, is found in Rousseau, the gentrification of the Amerinds among the multicultis, and other places.

In XIII Don Quixote gives a justification for knight errantry, and for the military profession.

XIX features a scene that is based on an incident concerning St. John of the Cross. According to the translator’s note, after John’s death (Dec. 14, 1592) his body was transferred in secret from to Segovia from Madrid. Before they reached the village of Martos, they were confronted by a man who cried out, “Where are you carrying the body of the saint? Leave it where it was!” This is supposed to have caused such fright that their hair stood on end.

At about XXIV we get a story that may, or may not, have been incorporated into a lost play by Shakespeare. Lewis Theobald claimed to have a copy of Cardenio by Shakespeare, but for some reason neglected to publish it. What he did publish was a play called Double Falsehood, which was, according to him, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. This is an anglicized version of the Cardenio episode from Don Quixote. I won’t attempt to summarize the plot of either the section from the novel, or of Double Falsehood, except to say that they both involve elements of betrayal, seduction, and marriage.

One of my first classes at Catholic University was Shakespeare. This was taught by Gary Taylor, with Stanley Wells one of the editors of the Oxford Shakespeare. During the course of one semester we read the entire Shakespeare corpus. During the course of a semester, reading three plays a week, you become pretty familiar with an author like Shakespeare, and one thing that was obvious when dealing with plays like The Two Noble Kinsmen, a late collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, is that Shakespeare’s characters don’t do certain things. For example, Isabella, in Measure for Measure, never succumbs to Angelo. She arranges a “bed trick” in which the girl he dumped, Mariana, is substituted for Isabella. In All’s Well That Ends Well, Helena, the lawful wife, takes the place of Diana, the intended mistress. Theobald’s play has more in common with Fletcher’s parts of Two Noble Kinsmen, than it does with the genuine works of Shakespeare.

The interested reader will find a link over on the right to what Charles Hamilton claimed was the lost play. This is, according to comments that I have read, actually The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, which is based on a story embedded within the Cardenio material in Don Quixote (Chaps XXXIII-XXXV).

The story that forms the basis of The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, is similar in theme to that of the magic cup that Rinaldo refuses in Orlando Furioso. In this instance, Anselmo seeks to find out whether his wife is faithful. So he persuades his friend Lotario, or Lothario in other translations, to test his wife. Naturally both Lotario and the wife fail the test, with tragic consequences for all concerned.

In XXXVII we get the beginning of Don Quixote’s discourse on arms and letters. He argues that the military profession is better than the profession of letters, liberal arts, because its aim is peace. This is a rather idealistic view of both arms and peace. Arms can be used to attain an unjust peace, one in which the victor takes vengeance upon a captive population. This discourse continues into the next chapter.

From XXXIX through XLI we get the story of a captive. This appears to be modeled on Cervantes own history to some extent, and he refers to himself as having been a prisoner with the captive. The story told by the captive involves him being captured, and the beautiful daughter of a wealthy Moor falling for him and becoming Christian. She enables him to escape, and after a series of adventures they wind up at the inn with Don Quixote and company.

In XLV Don Quixote delivers a defense of his liberation of crown prisoners. His defense is essentially that knights-errant are laws unto themselves. He asks what knight-errant ever paid taxes, customs, etc., or even paid his bills. I don’t recall any of the knights in Orlando Furioso or in what I’ve read of Mort d’Arthur, paying any tavern bills, but that may be because, like bathroom breaks in 24, it’s more or less understood to happen without being shown.

At the end of XLVII and throughout XLVIII we get some literary criticism from the canon. He derides the lack of realism in the romances. Now I agree with him that a work such as Orlando Furioso is not realistic, but like the Don, that is not what I look for in courtly romances. A little later on, in XLVIII, we get some drama criticism. I’m not sufficiently well versed in Spanish drama, or literature, to make an intelligent estimate of the criticism offered except to note that the canon wants to uphold the neo-classical unities, time, action, and place. It should be noted though, that Lope de Vega, the best known Spanish dramatist from the period, frequently violated or disregarded these unities, as did Shakespeare. The canon also advocates that a review board should be established to license drama and ensure that only plays that adhere to the unities are produced. He doesn’t deal with the problem of censorship, or the possibility of corruption.

It is notable that throughout Part I we never see Dulcinea. When we first encounter her in Part II, we are not even sure if it is the same woman that Sancho took the letter to in Part I. Sancho claims that a peasant girl is Dulcinea, but oddly enough Don Quixote is not deceived, and sees her as the peasant girl, with all of the problems, bad breath, body odor, etc., that peasant girls are prone to.

Sancho gives testimony to his faith in Part II, VIII: “Why if I’d nothing else to my credit but my believing as I do believe firmly and truly in God and the Holy Roman Catholic Church and my being a mortal enemy of the Jews….” The Jews had been expelled in 1492, so Sancho is not likely to have seen any in real life. There were supposed to be some who were outwardly Christian, but secretly practised the Jewish faith, and the Inquisition is supposed to have been on the lookout for them.

Medieval and Renaissance anti-Semitism is troubling, and it does stand as a blotch on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and others, and even in some saints. I confess that I’ve never been sure how to deal with it on a personal and emotional level when someone whose work I admire, such as Ezra Pound, or T. S. Eliot seems tinged with this prejudice.

The prejudice is there in Sancho. Whether it’s also in Cervantes I can’t say at this point.

A little later Sancho attempts to engage the Don in a Socratic style dialog on the virtues of knight errantry and the religious life. Sancho contends that they should set about becoming saints rather than knights-errant. The Don concedes everything that Sancho says, but then says that not everyone can be a friar, “and there are many paths by which God takes his own to Heaven. Chivalry is a religion, and there are sainted knights in His glory.”

The statement that chivalry is a religion seems to me to be problematic. Does the Don mean that chivalry is an alternative religion to Christianity, or does he somehow mean that chivalry is a subreligion, a sect within Christianity?

In 2, XI, the Don and Sancho encounter a cart full of actors. There is a eerie bit that seems almost a prophecy of certain events of 1994-5. “Follow my advice and never meddle with actors, for they’re favored folk. I myself have seen an actor arrested for two murders, and yet get off scot-free.” Of course, some actors wind up in jail on unrelated charges.

In 2, XXVII Don Quixote gives some reasons to fight:

  1. Defense of the Catholic faith;
  2. Self defense;
  3. Defense of honor;
  4. In a just war;
  5. In defense of one’s country.

He condemns those who take up arms for childish reasons. In contending that it is permissible to fight a just war the Don echoes traditional Christian teaching, but he does not define what a just war is, or whether there can be unjust ways of fighting a just war.

I haven’t done much reading on just war theory and practice, but I would argue that any political leader has a primary responsibility to the men and women of his military, and that part of that responsibility is not to waste their lives needlessly. If that means deceiving the enemy through active deception, or destroying their economic infrastructure as Sherman did, or as the firebombing of Japanese cities was intended to do, or using nukes in order to end a war sooner, and save both your and your enemies lives, then the leader has to make the decision, and face the consequences.

There is a moral theory called consequentialism that apparently hold that the goodness or the badness of an action is determined by its results. In short “the end justifies the means.” That’s not quite true, but in any kind of decision, especially those involving others, the consequences, especially as they affect others, have to be considered. I blogged a while back about the movie The Cheyenne Social Club. Jimmy Stewart inherits a cathouse. His impulse is to turn the women out, and tell them to find other work. He regards this as moral. The moral thing, which involves closing the establishment, is to help the women find either jobs or husbands as quickly possible. He has the moral responsibility not just to promote chastity, but to enable his employees to lead chaste lives. In the military arena, this means that the commander must consider not just the effect on the enemy, but also the effect on his military, and the effect on the opposition’s military. These moral views and actions have consequences which must be considered.

Cervantes, however, does not carry the argument about the morality of war forward, he merely assumes that the reader is familiar with just war theory.

Cervantes, in 2, XXXIV defends hunting as training for war because it involves stratagems, ambushes, and similar things.

When Sancho sets out upon his governorship, in 2, XLII, the Don advises him to fear God, and to know himself. He also advises Sancho to dress well, “Do not wear you clothes baggy and unbuttoned, Sancho for slovenly dress is proof of a careless mind, unless, as in the case of Julius Caesar, it may be attributed to cunning” (2, XLII). Why does he say this? It goes to a part of the rhetorical appeal known as ethos. Part of ethos, is the demonstration that one has good sense, or phronesis. When you see someone dressed in baggy pants, a baseball cap pointed backwards, spiky hair, multiple piercings, and so on, or who conveys a hostile, hectoring attitude your reaction is not only repulsion, but also to see that person as a clown. If that clown tries to tell you something, you don’t value his opinion because you don’t believe he has good sense, or phronesis.

In 2, XLV Sancho takes possession of his island. One of the cases that is brought before him involves a woman who claims to have been raped in a field. Since the issue also involves money, Sancho tests her to see if she will fight to defend her purse. She does, and Sancho concludes that if she could so savagely to defend her purse, she could have fought to defend herself, and that she didn’t. He therefore lets the guy off . I’m not sure where it was, possibly in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, but Freud comments on this passage, and says that Sancho was wrong. That sometimes the knowledge that a rape is impending paralyses a woman so that she cannot resist.

In XLIII, the Don makes a passing reference to “the barefoot friars,” evidently Carmelites.

There are several references throughout part two to Don Quixote seeing inns as inns and not as castles, and when Sancho points out to him the girl who is supposed to be Dulcinea, he sees her as a peasant girl. Cervantes doesn’t say so, but it is possible that at this point Don Quixote is regaining his sanity.

When he dies, he renounces his books of chivalry, and has a final moment of clarity in which he sees all his adventures as symptoms of a mania.

I should do Descartes’ Meditations next, but I’m going to do the volume from I Tatti called Humanist Comedies. That will be followed by John Ringo’s Eye of the Storm, and then I’ll turn to Descartes.

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