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To Dream the Impossible Dream

Visiones del Quijote, Ocatvio Ocampo, Mexican ArtistFirst things first, Sancho, of course, is Spain… but their question also assumes that the Don Quijote is The First Novel, or at least a novel. That Cervantes is writing according to our expectations of what a novel is. That DQ is no different than 1984, A Brave New World, The Sun Also Rises, or Absalom, Absalom, only longer.

And, I stand by my reading of DQ as political satire of a degenerate Hapsburg monarchy. (By making Quijada (Jaw-bone) one of Quijote’s possible real last names, I believe that Cervantes is alluding to the prominent jaw of the Hapsburgs.) Charles V and his large jaw bone Not only this, the Hapsburgs all loved to be depicted astride horses. As in this Velasquez painting of Philip III, the king at the time of Cervantes’s writing (below) The jaw, you see, is hidden by the ruffles.

But it is Titian’s magnificent rendition of Charles V as a true knight errant that is distorted in the opening pages of the book… the rusted weaponry, the mismatched armor. What is more, both DQ and CV found the modern world rather unsettling. The emperor, in fact, abdicated his throne in 1556, retired to a monastery (where he received daily dispatches, so he wasn’t completely cut off) and spent most of his time reading and rereading his favorite books, looking at his collection of Titian paintings (upon whom he bestowed knighthood after he painted him as a knight errant), and listening to music. Is this not DQ who let his house go to waste over his love of books?

Students’ disbelief assumes that DQ must be or represent one thing. (And, Apollo and the Nine Muses know that I have little love for the art means many things to many people, find your own meaning and hang on for dear life kind of readings that kids have been inculcated with in HS and other places.) No, what I mean is that DQ, though not the first novel, The Golden Ass might be the first (and I doubt this too), is a great work of literary pastiche and bricolage.

There are many moments to the Quijote.

Valencia Newspaper 1889-1890

Again, Sancho Panza, and not just in this more politicized reading of the Quijote, is Spain itself. Not just any part of Spain, but jornalero, campesino Spain, the Spain that is hungry and needs hope and needs bread. The great 19th-century Romantic readings (those coming out of Schlegel’s Athenaeum that fixate on DQ’s insanity and idealism, that cast DQ as the great romantic hero) all note that DQ is the idealist and Sancho the realist. Yet, Sancho’s realism has to do with the fact that he has a family to care for, a wife and a daughter who need a father, husband, and provider. His associating himself with DQ is utterly pragmatic, if somewhat naive and simple. If DQ lives on dreams, Sancho lives day to day worrying about food. (Which, this, however bastardized, is the reading that most college kids want to do of DQ… not because this is their reading, but because this is the culture’s reading of it. It would be nice if we could blame Disney, and there are some that do, but this is how HS students in Spain read DQ. It’s how HS students in the U.S., should they read Huck Finn, read HF, as little more than a fun adventure read.)

But in order to do this kind of reading, one must not read the prologue. Which, nobody does anymore. Especially not a prologue as boring, pretentious, and convoluted as DQ’s… a prologue in which the author makes fun of prologues and mocks every literary convention possible… a prologue in which the author defames his own book as a stepchild he practically disowns. Yet in this prologue the author chooses a highly politically charged proverb to speak of the utter freedom all readers have to either read or not read and to praise or blame that which they do. Now, the proverb is just a proverb…still, Cervantes could’ve used a whole host of proverbs. Instead, he uses “Under my cloak I kill the king.” Of course, we can’t make too much of this. After all, it’s just a proverb and we all have the right to be kings in our own castles, lords of our own manors, and editors of our own pamphlets. All I’m saying is that Cervantes chose a proverb with unquestionable political significance.

José Luis Fariñas, Cuba In order to do the DQ is insane in the membrane kind of reading, one must always stop after the first sally… In a way, DQ has an invisible banner that unfurls whenever anyone opens it that says: Read to the Windmills and No Further.

But Quijote leaves again, with Sancho by his side. All told, they sally forth three times together. And time and again, whether they are riding off into the sunset and Sancho is listening to DQ’s dreams and dreaming himself of an insula to rule or they are huddled around a campfire, the topic turns to politics. DQ goes on and on about living in an age of iron, in an age where money buys things (like knightships) and firearms have changed the rules of war. This is not an idle lament on the part of a nostalgic and crazed knight errant who has strayed from reality; these are the questions that are obsessing the jurists, theologians, and politicos of the day. Hundreds (I exaggerate only slightly) of books on political theory, called mirrors for princes are being written at this time… all of them addressing the self-same questions that obsess DQ and about which he soliloquizes in both tomes. (In fact, in the second book, in a wonderfully carnavalesque moment Sancho gets to rule his own little insula for a day… and speaking of the second book, nobels are presented as idle time wasters, who, like Philip III, prefer to spend their days hunting and viewing plays rather than governing the land… well, in the case of DQII, they prefer to come up with elaborate games involving DQ and Sancho.)

But, yes, there is more to DQ than just its socio-political satire. In DQI Cervantes explores different types of narrative. It is, in fact, a catalogue of Early Modern genres: there is, of course, the chivalric romance (which he utterly mocks… though with much gentleness and love. Cervantes satirizes, much like Spivak deconstructs, only because he cares so much about the genre.), the pastoral novel, the courtly love or sentimental novel, the byzantine novel (or, the captivity narrative, which for 16th- and 17th-century Spain had to do with moors, thus byzantine), the picaresque novel… all of these genres make their appearance in the novel… all are made fun of.

But it’s even more than just a catalogue of literary genres…it’s a novel about reading as a communal event. Even before the second book where everybody who meets DQ play act as if they were in the novel (the original pimping yourself out for 15 minutes of fame?), people are shown sitting down, reading and relating stories to one another.

It is, of course, also about the power of fiction… for ill, for good, for fun.

To return to both the first chapter of DQI and the first part of this too long essay, it would be naive to think that DQ is about satirizing Charles V… Cervantes isn’t Jon Stewart nor the cast of Saturday Night live. However, can we really read the opening of the book without seeing the resemblence between Charles V (the avid reader of chivalry novels, who abdicated his throne to abscond himself in a library) astride his mighty stead in shining armor and DQ astride his emaciated nag wearing his mismatched rusting armor leaving his library to go conquer the world?

 

Comments

yes, it’s that time of the semester where i’d rather do anything than grade papers…

here you have it

i’m not crazy if an NEH seminar at the UofC is proposing this… it must be true.

however, i am crazy… i spent way too much time last night on this inconsequential post.

the crazy thing is that no one has yet to write an essay exploring this… granted, DQ is like shakespeare and the bible… but i’ve read a considerable amount of DQ crit and that NEH seminar is the first thing that i’ve come across that mentions this connection to Titian and Charles V

oh, yeah… Sancho, also, doesn’t have to be anything or anyone but Sancho… though, of course, he has been read, oftentimes, as Spain. DQ isn’t a political allegory, per se.

Do you perchance have any particular translation of DQ that you would recommend (despite my stabs at studying both German and Spanish, I really only read dead languages—and I probably don’t even do that with any alacrity or skill anymore)? DQ is on that list of Books I Have Not Read but also on the list of Books I Mean to Read. . . a long list, I grant you, but you never know.

Color me ignorant, but why the exchange of J for X in “Quijote?”

As an avid fan of the musical (but one who has not read the book itself yet), this discussion is actually quite fascinating.

And Sophia Loren is HOT!

My guess is J’s being languagist linguist.

yeah, you could say that.

it’s ‘cuz cervantes wrote it as quijote. in english we use quixote because of the french. by the 17th century x was rarely used in Spanish. and typically only as a patronym, or a definite archaic neologism.

it’s my way of sticking it to francophilia.

feefifofum somebody’s been playing with my layout…but i like it!

I hoped the changes would fix the editing problem, but it was a small hope, which came to nought. I don’t know what’s up with this article. Everything else works. I’ve got a question started in an appropriate forum to see if anyone else knows what the problem might be.

rumor has it that edith grossman’s new translation isn’t all that musical nor all that accurate. this i’ve heard from gonzalez echevarría in a very catty intro to a talk he gave. and from the person who heads up the translation program at our school, and served as editor for a recent translation of the quijote.

she, of course, highly recommends the book that her friend translated and she worked on

it has an advantage over grossman, lathrop not only is a DQ scholar who consults the dictrionary composed at the same time that book was written it also is llustrated by Jack Davis, the illustrator of MAD Magazine.

the Modern Library edition, however, is also quite solid

so ere, why don’t you publish the essay on this? It couldn’t take much longer to write an actual article than it did to assemble the art, thoughts, etc. for this post. Maybe a week or so? Then you could put off grading a bit longer and feel legit about it.

i’ve toyed with the idea on and off for about a year… but, i’ve got a book to write for tenure that has little to do with DQ, however much I’d love to write about it. slowly, though, i’m gathering river stones to take on my own giant. (D & G, btw, also makes their appearance in the prologue… but what doesn’t make an appearance in the book?)