Memorial Day Weekend Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quixote


“It is one thing to write as poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.” — Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

All modern fiction flows from Don Quixote.

Its author, Miguel de Cervantes, was born into a poor family about 1547 in the Castilian city Alcala de Henares, which lies several miles northeast of Madrid.  As a youth he fell madly in love with a local barmaid by the name of Josefina Catalina de Parez, but was forbidden to see her as a result of his poor prospects of making a living, given the lowly station of his bird.  He fled the rough circumstances of his birth, as many Spaniards did at the time, by first landing a job as a chamber assistant to a wealthy priest in Rome in 1569.  A year later he joined the Spanish Navy Marines (the Infanteria de Marina), which was stationed in Naples, Italy, then a possession under the Spanish crown.  While in Italy he was greatly influenced by the art, architecture, and learning of the high Renaissance that was all around him, and wrote about these experiences in his later writings and through fictional situations.

After only a year in Naples he participated in the significant sea battle of Lepanto in October 1571.  During this battle the Holy League, hoping to stem the Islamic Ottoman Empire’s influence into the Western Mediterranean, prevailed over its rival, who had not lost a sea battle since the century before.  Cervantes, suffering from fever, participated in the battle nonetheless, and was wounded three times from gunshot wounds: two in the chest and one to his left arm that left it useless for the remainder of his life.

He was hospitalized six months from his wounds from the battle and then returned to service and Naples until September 1575.  During this period he participated in additional expeditions and battles, including the fall of Tunis to the Turks.  At the end of his assignment in Naples, he boarded the galley Sol, which was headed to Barcelona, carrying with him letters of commendation from the Duke of Sessa to the King of Spain for his heroism and service.  While off the Catalan coast the Sol was engaged by Algerian corsairs and, after the captain and many officers perished, was taken as a prize, the survivors–including Cervantes–made slaves.  He attempted to escape at least four times over the five years of his captivity in Algiers.  It was not until his parents successfully ransomed him through the intercession of the Trinitarian order was he able to return to Madrid and freedom.

After his return to Spain Cervantes struggled to find his place in Spanish society.  His request two times to emigrate to the New World, in 1582 and 1590, which was another means of rising in Spanish society, were denied by the Spanish Crown.  Though married in December 1584 he worked at various jobs as well as launching his career as a writer, including as a purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada, and as a tax collector.  During this time he continued to struggle financially.  In 1585 he published his first major work, La Galatea, which garnered very little interest from the Spanish public.  Ostensibly a pastoral romance the stories of the novel stitch together his poetry, which seem to be the main purpose of the work and has established him in the pantheon of great poets.  But La Galatea also anticipates many of the themes that he pursued to much better effect in Don Quixote: low people with high values, and high characters with low intentions.

He also wrote several plays during the period prior to Don Quixote, barely making a living and fell into bankruptcy and imprisoned as a result at least twice: in 1597 and 1602.  It was supposedly during his second imprisonment in La Mancha that the idea for Don Quixote came to him.  Thus, at the age of 58, Cervantes successfully published the first part of his classic work, following with the second half in 1615.

The work has become such a part of our literary and cultural heritage that we have woven its images and themes into our lexicon (e.g., quixotic) and in our art, as with this iconic image by the artist Salvador Dali:

Dali Don Quixote

Most of this imagery is based on the popular first, farcical, part of the novel, which is probably as far as an average reader can get through the work.  It is in this part that the stories of the muleteers, his tilting against windmills, the goatherds, and his other popular misadventures are told.  In the later, second part, Cervantes employs devices never before seen in fiction, and which anticipate many of the devices seen in the modern novel today, such as the character that is aware that it is being written about.

All of these characteristics do make the novel both the first modern novel and one of the greatest of all time.  But my post is most concerned about how Cervantes through Don Quixote speaks to us today.  In order to understand this we must first place both Cervantes and Don Quixote in their time, which was one of the most significant periods in European history.  Spain at the time, particularly prior to 1588, was the first of what we would later characterize a world superpower.  The original saying, that became known to apply later to the British Empire, was that “the sun never sets on the Spanish Empire.”  The Spanish monarchs influenced and defended the first transnational organization that unified most of Europe–the Roman Catholic Church residing in the Vatican.  From the Netherlands, to Italy, across North Africa, into Asia, the Philippines and the Spice Islands, across the African horn, the Indian subcontinent, and the New World it was the Spanish flag and Spanish authority that contended for hegemony against its sworn enemy: Islam and other forms of heresy.  Its holdings in all of these places brought to the home country galleons burgeoning with silver, gold, and spices that expanded their coffers.

The Spanish Imperial vision was also an apocalyptic one and so–as with most great nations–the strengths that forged its origins and the weaknesses that were baked into those origins later evolved into extreme and grotesque embodiments of themselves, leading both to its cultural fugue and slow decline.  Three years mark significant events related to these weaknesses:  1478, 1492, and 1609.  The first, 1478, marked the start of the Spanish Inquisition, which was a means of the Spanish monarchs to seize control of religious orthodoxy from Rome.  Combined as it was with fealty to the Spanish monarchy, it enforced a type of severe theocracy upon the Catholic people of the Iberian peninsula which was not only enforced from above but insinuated itself into the fabric of Hispanic society anticipating such totalitarian societies as the Soviet Union, Castro’s Cuba, and Cultural Revolution-era China.  The second date was the year Columbus under the authority of the Spanish Catholic Monarchs landed in the New World (though he believed to his death that he had landed in Asia).  More significantly it marked the final conquest of Granada, which was the final foothold of the Moorish (Arab) political authority in Iberia, and the expulsion of the Jews.  The latter royal decree, which was followed up in 1501 to apply to the Moors remaining on the peninsula, took the form of an ultimatum to convert to Catholicism or to leave.  The final date, 1609, marked the forcible expulsion of the Morisco Conversos (Moors who converted to Catholicism) to North Africa.

Prior to 1478, while the Iberian peninsula was in play between the Spanish monarchs and the Moorish caliphs of Al-Andalus, there were periods of tenuous peace and cooperation in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society that helped spark the early European Renaissance.  It was in the Iberian peninsula, Sicily, and the Italian city-states that the Jewish scholars, bringing with them the classical texts of the Hellenic and Hellenistic philosophers preserved by the Arab conquerors, reintroduced these ideas into European society by translating them into Latin.  It was also through the free intercourse of a diverse people through trade and intermarriage that knowledge of Asia and the Spice Islands sparked the European Age of Discovery.

It was not that life during such Golden Ages, where our current concepts of human rights and freedom were unknown, were ones that approached our current state of safety and our current sense of fairness.  Al-Andalus suffered periods of Islamic religious fundamentalism and oppression from time to time.  Relative to what was to come, however, the people of the Iberian peninsula had developed a free and tolerant attitude that was undermined by the legal authority of both the Catholic monarchs and religious authority, enforced by the medieval code of chivalry.  Spain became a terrorist state, focused on the concept of Christian “limpieza de sangre” (purity of blood).  By the time of Cervantes, there was a large black market in false family trees to ensure that one’s Jewish or Moorish ancestry would not be uncovered.

The chivalric tradition, with its emphasis on defending the Catholic Church and the monarchy, stood in opposition to the emerging idea of civic republicanism, also known as civic humanism.  This concept emphasized, in the words of Paul Rosenberg recently at

“was practiced by the Renaissance-era Italian city-states. In a world dominated by large feudal hierarchies, with powerful militaries at their command, citizens of republics were collectively and individually responsible for sustaining the sphere of relatively remarkable freedom they enjoyed — including, but not limited to being responsible for military defense. The spirit of patriotism which animated them derived from the fact that they were responsible for continually re-creating the political community that gave their lives meaning.”

The most prominent advocate of this concept came from Niccolo Machiavelli, who lived from 1469-1527, and it would be hard in reading Cervantes that he was not influenced by the Italian reintroduction of civic virtue in this manner.  Living under oppression the artist across history has found many ways to express heterodox ideas without running into trouble with the authorities or other self-appointed defenders of orthodoxy.  I believe the same is true of Cervantes in his great book.

Thus, given this context, we learn in Book One of Don Quixote that the story was conveyed to the author by the (fictitious) Muslim historian Cide Hamete Benengeli.  In this way Cervantes ties Spanish tradition at the outset to their Moorish influences–a tie that would not be permissible in any other real way.  Furthermore, we find in the fictional narrative that the chronicles of Don Quixote were originally written in Arabic and translated by a Morisco.  Throughout the tales of this Picaresque novel we find the protagonist applying the principles of chivalry through the lens of his delusions in increasingly outlandish and satirical ways.  What happens to Don Quixote and his loyal servant Sancho Panza are both extremely funny and sad.  Almost everyone he encounters swears fealty to chivalric traditions, religious and cultural orthodoxy but, in the end, are interested only in their own self-interest and in deceiving the obviously deluded old man before them.  In the second book the cruelest deceptions are inflicted by a Duke and Duchess, the legend of Don Quixote and his squire now known far and wide among the literate classes of Spain.

Thus 16th and 17th century Spain, through its oppression in seeking racial and religious purity, had created a vast wasteland.  The old virtues no longer held sway, if they ever did, and the people–isolated as they were by fear and loathing–could not adopt the new ones.  Only delusion held things together.  In the novel, when our Knight Errant returns to reality and, once again becomes Alonso Quixano the hidalgo, he has no choice but to die.  Imperial Spain was rotting from the inside.  It would take another 200 years before its decline would lead to its fall at the hands of Napoleon’s France.

Thus Don Quixote is many things and its full meaning has eluded readers for over 400 years.  It is both funny and extremely sad, as life is; and certainly as we look back at Cervantes’ own life, as it must have been for him.  For one can only cry and laugh at the extreme cruelties, stupidities, deceptions, and hypocrisies of his time and our own.  He was an insider, a heroic man who, like his character, at first believed in the cause for which he fought, was wounded, enslaved, and upon his liberation, found that in his own society that he was also an outsider; deceived, rejected, defrauded, and imprisoned.  In the end Alonso Quixano became Don Quixote on his own terms, just as the wounded hero Miguel de Cervantes became the one of the greatest authors of all time.

 “Too much sanity may be madness and the maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.” — Miguel de Cervantes