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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Don Quixote DOES Have a Point

I've been reading Don Quixote with my junior English class since late March. I often feel unqualified to teach what I am supposed to, but wow, not only do I not know enough about this book, I am so unbelievably tired of it. Yes, I read it in college, but listen, it was at the end of my senior year, and I certainly wasn't giving it my undivided attention. Also, can I just say, Cervantes needed an editor. This story should have ended 400 pages ago. Lest you all run away from me in horror and disgust, with loud proclamations of the importance of this work in the development of the novel, the enduring quality of Quixote's ideals, and the simply lovable little Sancho Panza, please understand that I do actually agree with you. I love the chivalrous Don Quixote, as I am quite an idealist romantic melancholic optimist myself. I even make my students memorize the Code of Chivalry (taken from Howard Pyle). And I've been marvelously rewarded by the sight of teenage boys hotly debating the particulars of the loss of chivalry in modernity, arguing passionately on the cause and nature of its decline, and what needs to happen to bring it back. One of my favorite quotes of the week (imagine a gangly enthusiastic 17 year old gesticulating wildly): "She loves him because she is BOUND to him!" Yes!! Good... So, thank you, Cervantes, for that.

Let's just do a favor for our friend, The Knight of the Sorrowful Face, and say that he's pictured here with Lady Dulcinea.
All of that being said, I stand fast by my earlier statement -- the length of this book is out of control.

One of the chapters I read today, however, seemed particularly noteworthy. Cervantes likes to talk about writing as much as any author, and in chapter 47, he does just that in a discussion between a Canon and a priest. If you haven't read the book, you should know that this priest is a scandalous hypocritical moron who reads the 16th century equivalent of Nora Roberts and generally behaves without dignity, so if you look up the whole chapter, take what he says with a grain of salt. And maybe a shot of tequila while you're at it. The following rather lengthy passage is the Canon's presentation to this priest of his views on chivalric novels, his criticism of their common weaknesses, and his idea of what well-written fiction actually contains (from Edith Grossman's translation, emphasis added):

"Truly, Senor Priest, it seems to me that the books called novels of chivalry are prejudicial to the nation, and though I, moved by a false and idle taste, have read the beginning of almost every one that has ever been published, I have never been able to read any from beginning to end, because it seems to me they are all essentially the same, and one is no different from another. In my opinion, this kind of writing and composition belongs to the genre called Milesian tales (footnote: A kind of sensual, supposedly decadent writing associated with the ancient Ionian city of Miletus), which are foolish stories meant only to delight and not to teach, unlike moral tales, which delight and teach at the same time. Although the principal aim of these books is to delight, I do not know how they can, being so full of so many excessively foolish elements; for delight conceived in the soul must arise from the beauty and harmony it sees or contemplates in the things that the eyes or the imagination place before it, and nothing that possesses ugliness and disorder can please us... What beauty, what proportion between parts and the whole, or the whole and its parts, can there be in a book or tale in which a boy of sixteen, with one thrust of his sword, fells a giant as big as a tower and splits him in two as if he were marzipan...? What mind, unless it is completely barbaric or untutored, can be pleased to read that a great tower filled with knights sails the seas like a ship before a favorable wind, and is in Lombardy at nightfall, and by dawn the next day it is in the lands of Prester John of the Indies, or in others never described by Ptolemy or seen by Marco Polo? If one were to reply that those who compose these books write them as fictions, and therefore are not obliged to consider the fine points of truth, I should respond that the more truthful the fiction, the better it is, and the more probable and possible, the more pleasing. Fictional tales must engage the minds of those who read them, and by restraining exaggeration and moderating impossibility, they enthrall the spirit and thereby astonish, captivate, delight, and entertain, allowing wonder and joy to move together at the same pace; none of these things can be accomplished by fleeing verisimilitude and mimesis, which together constitute perfection in writing. I have seen no book of chivalry that creates a complete tale, a body with all its members intact, so that the middle corresponds to the beginning, and the end to the beginning and the middle; instead, they are composed with so many members that the intention seems to be to shape a chimera or a monster rather than to create a well-proportioned figure. Furthermore, the style is fatiguing, the action incredible, the love lascivious, the courtesies clumsy, the battles long, the language foolish, the journeys nonsensical, and finally, since they are totally lacking intelligent artifice, they deserve to be banished, like unproductive people, from Christian nations."

On rereading that just now, I realize I have more to say than I thought. My first reaction is to nod enthusiastically, agreeing with everything he says, and give him a congratulatory pat on the back for "fleeing verisimilitude and mimesis". Amazing, right?? His last sentence is pretty wonderfully caustic as well, and that, together with the fact that I must be "completely barbaric or untutored" to disagree with him, makes me initially certain that I'm on his side. But wait, hang on. What about Beowulf? The particulars of that story are the definition of unrestrained exaggeration and immoderate impossibility. And who can help but cheer at the strength of SIXTY men in Beowulf's two hands? Who can help being joyfully astounded at his feat of swimming with THIRTY suits of armor in tow? How about that time he swam underwater in full chain mail for a whole day so that he could battle Grendel's mother, after having ripped Grendel's arm from its shoulder with his bare hands ("Sinews split and the bone-lappings burst...")? And as far as the Canon's first example of impossibility is concerned, the young boy felling a giant, what about David and Goliath?

Yes, we're all supposed to like Michaelangelo's David the most, but Bernini is so my favorite. Look at that angry brow.

Obviously, I agree that writing needs to be intelligent, and anything less is merely an insult to the audience. I also agree, not surprisingly, that nothing ugly or disordered can bring real delight to our souls. The style of the writing needs to be snappy (read Austen, not James Fenimore Cooper!) and the plots need to be strong enough to entice us to suspend our disbelief. But since when has exaggeration been a bad thing? We're HUMANS. We like things to be over-the-top, and guess what? we learn and remember best through big, dramatic, crazy examples. And there's nothing to say that "action incredible" exists to the exclusion of intelligent artistic construction. As I tell my students, time and time again, FICTION IS NOT OPPOSED TO REALITY (Thank you, Fr. Maguire!). Simply because something never factually happened, or because the particulars of a story couldn't happen in real life (Orcs and Hobbits just don't exist and never will), doesn't mean that the truths communicated by the characters are any less real. Of course, based on the wild events that make up the main narrative of Don Quixote, this is exactly what Cervantes thinks himself. Your thoughts?


  1. First, I was waiting for the LOTR reference...

    Second, I think that the writers in C's time just hadn't gotten good enough at writing fantastical stuff, and so were shown up (as you imply at the end) by DQ himself.

    Third, I must profess I haven't actually read the tale in question, and am therefore admittedly highly suspect in my opinions.

    Fourth, I cannot fathom why anyone would be reading this in high school. Chivalry can be conveyed so easily to teenagers already disposed to such things. I would never have felt comfortable tackling such windmills (and yes, that might be a little windy of me to say... chuckle chuckle chuckle) at that age.

    And... that's about it.

    1. Glad you like LOtR. I need to watch / read those again.

      Second, I think I'm confused by what you mean when you say "fantastical stuff". Fantasy writing, as I understand it, has been around since the beginning, right? All the deities in Homer, the monsters in Beowulf... Cervantes was certainly the most significant early novelist, but I don't know that fantasy was news in his day and age.

      Third, I haven't actually ever finished reading it either. I know, I'm an awful teacher. But what is it, 900 pages long? I have other classes to teach, too!

      Fourth, I agree with you. If I were the one designing the curriculum, things would be different. But I just do what I'm told (when all else fails). We don't actually read all of it - just the first half. Cervantes took a 10-15 year break in between writing parts 1 and 2, and the 2nd part, which I'm not doing with my kids, is supposedly much different in feel, more serious, than the first. Honestly, though, these students are handling it really well, and I think many of them like it more than I do. They're great. I read Dante with them in the fall, and they did beautifully with it, much better than I did when I was their age. So, I'm sure that at this point, if you felt so inclined, you would certainly be able to tackle the windmill :) It's really an episodic adventure story, so it can be fun, IF you don't get bored with it.

  2. Cervantes' defects as a writer owe to his century's virtues. Before television, Facebook, and Blogs, immersing oneself in seemingly endless narratives was the greatest and noblest of entertainments (as well as the only known remedy for a toothache).