SPAN 300: Cervantes' Don Quixote
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Cervantes' Don Quixote
SPAN 300 - Lecture 1 - Introduction
Chapter 1. Don Quixote and Its Place in World Literature [00:00:00]
Professor Roberto González Echevarría: So this is the course on Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I am Roberto González Echevarría, from Comparative Literature and the Spanish Department. Normally, in Spanish we go by the first of the two last names, so even though my e-mail is Roberto-dot-Echevarría, I am normally known, if at all, as González, Professor González or Professor González Echevarría, not Professor Echevarría, just for your general information. You will be getting tidbits about Spanish culture such as the one I’ve just given you throughout the course, even if this is not a culture class or a language class, but it is important for you to know them. You will also be getting a good deal about Spanish history, both in the lectures and in the assigned readings, and of course, through the reading of the Quixote. You will also, of course, have to learn a few titles in Spanish, works of Spanish literature that I will be mentioning and that you will learn in the course of the semester; but that is to be expected, I guess.
So in this course we are going to read together one of the unquestioned masterpieces of world literature, let alone the Western Canon, as defined by my friend Harold Bloom in his popular book, The Western Canon, where it appears at the very top of the list, paired with Hamlet. The Quixote is a book that will affect your lives, not just your understanding and enjoyment of literature, I can anticipate that. The Quixote is the first modern novel. I’ll be talking a lot about the novel, modern novel, and it will become clear as we move along, because there is confusion. A novel in which, according to Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel Prize Columbian novelist, a novel where there is already everything that novelists would attempt to do in the future until today.
Young Sigmund Freud formed the Cervantes club with his friends, and the Quixote was Jorge Luis Borges’ obsession. Borges, as you may know, was the great Argentine writer, famous. Ian Watt, the late British scholar considered Don Quixote “one of four myths of modern individualism,” he called them, the others being Faust, Don Juan and Robinson Crusoe, in works by Goethe, Tirso de Molina and Daniel Defoe, but this is not the most important thing about the book. The Quixote has and has continued to be read by millions of readers in every imaginable language. And we will be asking ourselves: Why? What is it that this book has that is so meaningful to so many? I myself have answered the question in this fashion in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition that we will be using in this course, the Penguin Classics translation by John Rutherford. I say there, in that introduction, the following:
So much for my own quote. Sorry. For you, reading the Quixote will be an event that you will always remember, and Don Quixote and Sancho, his squire, will become life long friends about whom you will think often. I can predict that, safely — I think. So, what is the Quixote? A novel, you will say. Well, first of all, the Quixote, if it is a novel, is two novels. One published in 1605 and the other in 1615. Together, they are known as the Quixote — much more about the title in a minute — and knowledgeable people refer to them as Part I and Part II, or the 1605 Quixote and the 1615 Quixote. So the first thing to learn — and I like first things because I like to build on them from the ground up — is that the Quixote consists of two parts originally published separately ten years apart: ten years apart. But what Cervantes wrote, though, considered the first modern novel, was not a novel as we know them today, because novels did not exist as such yet. Novels developed in the wake of the Quixote, so Cervantes could not have set out to write a novel.
In his time, in Cervantes’ time, there were chivalric romances, stories about knight-errants — a lot more about that in the very near future — pastoral romances, stories about fake shepherds, picaresque lives — what we call today confusedly picaresque novels — and brief nouvelle or novella, that is, long short stories of which Cervantes wrote quite a few, and very good ones, and we will read some here in this course, too. The modern novel would evolve from translations and imitations of the Quixote, particularly in France and England, and would attain its current form in the eighteenth century. I am very much a historian and I would like for you to have a clear historical, chronological idea of the development of the novel and of Cervantes’ own career, so take note of these chronological clarifications that I give you.
Now, what may you know about the Quixote? Many of you, I suppose, come to this course intrigued by the name of an author and the title of a book that you may have heard about, but that, like most classics, not many have actually read in its entirety, much less studied. As with most classics, you have probably heard so much about the Quixote that it feels as if you had read it. Many have heard the songs from Man of La Mancha, “The Impossible Dream,” and so forth; perhaps you have even seen the show. It’s quite a good show, by the way. I don’t look down upon it. It is a version of the Quixote in an American mode, very much an American mode, but a very good one. So many of you have seen Man of La Mancha, have heard the songs, and maybe you have even read a comic book based on the novel. There are comic books based on the novel. Others may have read it in a high school class, parts of it, some of you may have read it in a course like Directed Studies, in conjunction with other western classics, such as the Odyssey, the Aeneid and the Divine Comedy. Whatever the case may be, most of you are probably puzzled by the spelling and pronunciation of the protagonist’s name and the title of the book. Let me clarify those as a modest beginning, the first step having been to tell you that the Quixote is two novels. Now, the second step is to tell you about the name of the protagonist and how to pronounce it and how we pronounce it in Spanish and how it’s spelled, and why.
Chapter 2. Explanation on Pronunciation and Full Title [00:10:45]
The way to pronounce it in modern Spanish is Quijote, kee-ho-te. No gliding to the ‘o.’ No ‘kee-hoe-te.’ In Spanish we don’t glide the vowels; they are short and crisp. Why then, that vexing ‘x’ in English? The reason is that when the book was written in the last years of the sixteenth century and the first of the seventeenth, the sound of the ‘j’ in Spanish was still in the process of moving from the /sh/ sound that it had thanks to the influence of Arabic — more about that later — moving towards the aspirated /h/ of modern Spanish, that /sh/ sound was then written with an ‘x’ in the still-to-be-codified spelling of the language. Spelling of modern European languages was not codified until the eighteenth century. For instance, the modern word for ‘soap,’ in Spanish, many of you know who know some Spanish know it — ;’jabón,’ was written then with an ‘x’ and it was pronounced ‘shabón.’ ‘México’ was pronounced ‘Méshico’ and was spelled with an ‘x,’ and that ‘x’ is still retained, though in Spanish it is pronounced ‘Mé-hi-co,’ never “Mé-shi-co.’ Hence, the English, seeing an ‘x’ in the middle of the title of Cervantes’ book — the book was translated very early into English: published in 1605, the first translation appeared in 1611; six years is very fast in the seventeenth century — so the English, seeing that ‘x,’ mispronounced it ‘quic-shote,’ with a sound that it never had in Spanish. That is why you have the ‘x’ in English, and the mispronunciation ‘quixote.’ You follow the history? Now, the French, meanwhile hearing that /sh/ rendered it ‘qui-sho-t’ which is still the way they mispronounce it. The French call it ‘Don Quishot.’ I will always say here ‘Quijote’ and hope that you will learn to do the same from now on, at the risk of sounding a little snobbish to English speakers. But Yalies can sound snobbish if you…
So now a few more basic, very basic facts about the title of the book. The little of a book or a painting is like the first interpretation by its author. It is a sort of what we would call in literary criticism a meta-text, a text above the text. Sometimes, though, titles can be misleading, but they are always interesting, and should be examined carefully making sure that you gain access to the full title of the first edition, not one that has been tampered with by editors or the reading public later. For instance, the Pickwick Papers, the novel by Dickens was really called The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club and it is interesting why it is called so. Now, be careful also with the translations of titles. I will tell you later about some of the Quixotes’ because translations of titles sometimes are very misleading. A novel by Alejo Carpentier called El Siglo de las Luces was translated as The Explosion in the Cathedral. So you say, what? Because the editors thought that The Age of Enlightenment would sound like the title of a textbook or something, so that’s the way that they translated it. So you have to be very careful if you’re going to really read something carefully about the title. So you go to the real title.
Now, the full title of the first part of Don Quixote — remember, published in 1605; I want to engrave that date on your mind — is as follows: El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha. You know that the ‘u’ was rendered as a ‘v’ before the Latin. So El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha. This is a reproduction of the actual title page of the first Quixote. You are seeing it, okay. We are fortunate enough to have a copy of that first edition at Beinecke Library here at Yale.
All right, so let us go over those words one by one. I can assure you we are not going to go over every word in the book one by one as I’m going to do with the title, or it would take the rest of our lives to finish reading the Quixote together! So ‘ingenioso’ does not mean here exactly what it means today in Spanish. ‘Ingenioso’ means today something like ‘acute,’ ‘witty,’ ‘cute,’ or ‘inventive.’ In 1611 Covarrubias writes — now, Covarrubias is a name that you’re going to be hearing throughout the semester, and I’m going to put it on the board, just the last name, because it’s very important. His name was Sebastián de Covarrubias y Orozco. He was a lexicographer who published in 1611 the first dictionary of the Spanish language, the first dictionary of the Spanish language called Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española, Thesaurus of the Castilian or Spanish Language. It’s very convenient that Covarrubias published that dictionary in 1611, right in between the two parts of the Quixote, 1605, 1615; the dictionary comes in 1611. So Covarrubias gives us Cervantes’ Spanish. So this is why it is such an important book for the reading of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The title itself is interesting, because it shows that Castilian and Spanish are one and the same thing. I’ll talk about that a little more later — he writes about ingenio:
So ‘ingenioso’ in the title of Don Quixote, of the Quixote, means ‘a heightened kind of wit or understanding,’ one that verges on madness recalling what Plato said in The Republic about poets, poets being slightly mad. A few years before the publication of Don Quixote, of the Quixote, in the year 1575 within Cervantes’ lifetime, Juan Huarte de San Juan — you don’t have to remember this name so much — a medical doctor published a very important book called Examen de ingenios para las ciencias, and so a very long title. It is ‘Wits Examined’ would be the translation of that title in which he studies different kinds of madness. So Examen de ingenios meant — of Huarte de San Juan — an examination of various kinds of madness of the kind that Covarrubias mentioned. So this is to give you the context of the word ‘ingenioso’ in the title El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha.
Now, ‘hidalgo’ is a contraction of ‘hijo de algo,’ which in Spanish means ‘son of something.’ Of course, we are all sons of daughters of something. But what that meant was you are the son of someone of some distinction, of a worthy lineage, and Covarrubias again, says it means: “The same as noble, with an ancient pure lineage.”
In other words, pure of cast, of origin, of ilk, of tradition. An hidalgo, as you will discover reading the first chapter of the book is a petty nobleman, someone belonging to the lower nobility or aristocracy. It is important here to note that Cervantes does not call Don Quixote here a ‘caballero,’ a knight. The novel is at the most basic level, the story of a petty nobleman who becomes by din of his own self invention a knight worthy of using the ‘Don’ that is given in the title. In 1615, however, in the second part of the Quixote — and we will look at that title page when we come to it — Don Quixote is called a ‘caballero’ for a variety of reasons that I will explain at the proper time.
Now, ‘don,’ D-O-N, is a form of address like ‘sir,’ ‘sire,’ that not everyone had a right to expect. Don Quixote did not, or Alonso Quixano, the man who became Don Quixote, did not, by virtue of his modest station in life, but he takes on the ‘don’ as part of his self invention. ‘Hidalgos,’ in other words, did not have the right to the ‘don.’ ‘Don,’ of course, derives from the Latin ‘dominus,’ ‘sir,’ ‘lord,’ ‘master.’ Your readings in Elliot, Imperial Spain, one of the books for the course, will give you much further background on this.
Now, ‘Quijote’ as you will learn reading the first chapters of the book, too, is said to be a derivation of ‘quijada,’ jaw, or ‘quesada,’ something having to do with cheese, or ‘quejana’ something having to do with complaint. ‘Quijano’ or ‘quijana’ could be, it is said that it is last name, one of them, ‘Quijano’ is the last name of Alonso Quixano, the man of who becomes Don Quixote, the hidalgo who turns himself into Don Quixote. These names echo those words mentioned before, ‘quijada,’ ‘quesada,’ and so forth. They are not very high sounding or ennobling words, quite the contrary — I hope no one here has the last name Quijano or Quijana. It happened to me in one of these classes, as I was explaining this, that a Hispanic young woman in the class had the last name Quijano, and I had to profusely apologize. But I’m just trying to explain the title of the novel, but I am hoping that none of your last names is Quijano.
Now, the ‘–ote’ ending, O-T-E, suffix is a suffix that in Spanish always refers to something base or grotesque and sounds it: ‘gordote,’ from ‘gordo’ is a fatso; ‘grandote’ from ‘grande’ is a hulking big guy, a lummox; ‘feote’ from ‘feo,’ is an ugly cuss, so ‘Quijote,’ then, was meant to sound abasing and ridiculous, particularly when paired with ‘don,’ with which it forms a kind of oxymoronic pair, ‘Don Quijote.’ ‘Don’ is high sounding, and Quixote has all of these negative connotations. It also has echoes of ‘Lanzarote,’ one of the knight-errants that Don Quixote reads about, and it has also been discovered that it is the name of a part of the armor covering the leg, but the important background is what I gave before.
Now, ‘Mancha,’ ‘la Mancha,’ is a region in central Spain, in Castile, that encompasses parts of the provinces of Toledo, Ciudad Real, Cuenca and Albacete. There are maps of Spain on the website and geography is very important in the Quixote, particularly in Part II. This is a novel that is very rooted in a given geography. Now, La Mancha is flat, arid and monotonous. Its main products used to be cereals and wine, but the important thing here is that it is not, or it was not until Cervantes’ work, a particularly desirable place to be from. ‘Mancha’ also means stain in Spanish. It all sounds like a put down. Being from La Mancha was like being from Bridgeport, or Buffalo, or Brooklyn, or Podunk. Now, of course, this has all changed with the book, and now the name has and the region has a poetic air, and there are theme parks in La Mancha with windmills and all in Spain, of course, but that was not what Cervantes intended when he had Don Quixote be from La Mancha. It was to be in contrast to other knights who came from more distinguished places, Amadís de Gaula, from Wales, or Palmerín de Inglaterra, from England, and then, Don Quixote de la Mancha. You see, this is what is supposed to be meant by the title. You wouldn’t have suspected this if I hadn’t told you, because you are still under the influence of Man of La Mancha.
Now, the issue of Don Quixote’s spurious ‘don’ is significant in a broader historical sense. By the sixteenth century, the glory days of the nobility were long gone. Noblemen were no longer much engaged in the military, except that the highest ranks had never seen actual combat. Wars were fought by professional armies. There was little chance for the nobility to exercise marshal-like activities which were left now to jousts and to hunting. War became sports for the aristocracy. The nobility was on the whole on a downturn in Spain because of policies initiated by the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabella, to curtail the power of the aristocracy. Now, certain groups at the highest level cluster around the courts of the descendants of the Catholic Kings just had a lot of power, but on the whole, the nobility is on the decline, more noticeably so in La Mancha, which had a sparse population of hidalgos as opposed to northern regions of the peninsula. So for Don Quixote to practice caballería, knight-errantry, was a way of reviving the past, of reliving a past of splendor and glory, now only really available through reading the chivalric romances which portrayed a medieval world when the aristocracy was truly involved in warfare, or in sports, such as hunting — of which Don Quixote was fond as you will learn in the early chapters of the book. We will have much more on chivalric romances as I promised in the future.
Chapter 3. Clarification about Language; Historical and Cultural Background [00:29:08]
Now, what about the language of the Quixote, what language did Cervantes write? You say: in Spanish; yes, but we’re in the sixteenth, seventeenth century. In the sixteenth century Spanish was undergoing its last significant linguistic revolution, its last significant change. And at the time that the Quixote was written and published, pronoun and verb forms were still in relative flux. But Cervantes’ Spanish does not sound to the modern Spanish ear as archaic and arcane as Shakespearean English does to modern English readers. I have a difficult time understanding Shakespeare on the stage sometimes with my American English. It does sound, the Spanish of Cervantes, does sound quaint, and the book’s fame gives Cervantes’ Spanish today a formal sound that it did not have to its contemporaries for whom the book was not, of course, still a classic.
If read out loud, the Quixote is more comprehensible to current speakers of Spanish from Spain and Latin American than Hamlet is to a modern British or American audience. But, what language was it that Cervantes used? Well, he wrote in Castilian or Spanish, which are the same, as we learn in Covarrubias’ title. Americans have the mistaken notion that they speak Castilian in Spain, and we don’t know in the rest of Latin America. It is the same language. Castilian was the language of Castile, land of castles, because as the re-conquest — you will learn what the re-conquest is, that is, the re-conquest of Spain from the Moors — advanced in central Spain, as this re-conquest advanced, castles were built to secure the territories, hence, Castile. And then Castile became, as you will read in Elliot, the most influential region, political and military above all of the peninsula, and with the unification of the peninsula under the Catholic kings it tried to impose its language on the rest of Spain.
So you know what the difference between a language and a dialect is? A language is a dialect with an army, so a language is the language of a region with enough power to impose it on other people and become so. So there were — and are — other languages in Spain: Catalan, Galician, Basque, Valencian, but the Catholic Kings and their descendents imposed Castilian on the peninsula as much as they could and on the vast territories of the New World, what is today Latin America, because the discovery and conquest were mainly Castilian projects. Spanish is more uniform as a result of these policies today than English is.
So what is spoken in the Bronx, Mexico City and Madrid? Castilian, which is Spanish, is what’s spoken, it’s spoken in those places. So you can erase that American prejudice from your mind if you ever had it. It is true — I mean, I had a colleague at Cornell, a very distinguished American medievalist who would ask me, “In what language do you write your scholarship, Roberto?” I said, “What do you mean? In English and Spanish.” He was worried that if I didn’t write in English being in Latin America, I didn’t have a language of culture in which I could write, because he didn’t think that in Latin America we had a language of culture. It is an American prejudice.
Well, if Spanish is undergoing its last transformation in the sixteenth century, this was also a turbulent century for Spain in political, religious, social and artistic terms. Consider that in the sixteenth century Spain settled the new world and beyond, the Philippines, and organized a vast imperial bureaucracy to rule it. Spain also controlled parts of Italy and the low countries, and Spain itself was adjusting to the unification brought about by the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, she from Castile, he from Aragon. They created the first modern state — by the way, you will find in the Quixote characters that come from various regions of Spain, most memorably, at the very beginning, a Basque who speaks broken Spanish because, even today, there are regions in Spain, as you now if you’ve been to Spain, where Spanish is really not the language spoken; in Galicia, the Basque countries, and Cataluña, and so forth.
Now, in the religious sphere, Spain became the defender of the Catholic Church, which was breaking up in the rest of Europe as a result of The Reformation. Remember, the Reformation is a sixteenth century event, Spain was the bastion of orthodox Catholicism, and this effected tremendously its political, social and literally life. In 1492 the Catholic Kings expelled the Jews from Spain, and then, in 1613, the Moriscos, the descendents of the Arabs who were still, left, and we will be speaking about that, and there will be distinct echoes of all of these movements and political events in the novel.
One could say that the Quixote is not only the first modern novel, but the first political novel in that it reflects very clearly political controversies of its time. In the social domain, there was a significant population drain to the New World, social mobility, caused by the deliberate erosion of the aristocracy by a crown bent on centralization and control. You will find as you read the book that the characters move through areas that are really depopulated, and this reflects this demographic reality. The new bureaucracy provided ways to attain wealth and power that threatened the status of the old and powerful aristocratic families, as well as the traditional independence of provinces and fiefdoms that dated back to the Middle Ages.
In the literary world, Spain’s greatest splendor came at this moment, in the waning of the Renaissance and the emergence of new modern forms and genres. The sixteenth century opened actually just before the sixteenth century, in 1499, with the publication of Celestina or La Celestina — that is a word that you should learn here… 1499 — and was followed by the emergence of the picaresque in El Lazarillo de Tormes. Lazarillo de Tormes was the first — what we call — a picaresque novel, 1554. And there emerged what came to be known as the Spanish comedia for the Spanish theater. They were not all comedies, but they were called the comedia, and these were written by Lope de Vega — a name that you might want to keep in mind because he was a very prolific writer who was also Cervantes’s rival. He may have written seven hundred plays. How many did Shakespeare write? Thirty-some? Lope would write those in a month. It’s amazing. He was an amazing writer, very powerful, and Cervantes had a very tense relationship with him.
In poetry, the sixteenth century saw Garcilaso de la Vega, a name you will see in the book many times, and his many followers, the late great blossoming of the Petrarchan tradition, you know Petrarch, and the development from that Petrarchan tradition of a powerful strain of mystical poetry, particularly in the verse of St. John of the Cross. So the sixteenth century and seventeenth centuries are what are called in Spanish literary history as the Golden Age. It was also the golden age in painting. If you have been to the Prado Museum in Madrid, you will see what I mean, and we will be talking a great deal about a Spanish painting here, particularly about Velázquez.
Now, our little philological excursion about the title of the book already reveals a number of things about the Quixote and about Spain. You may wonder, Arabic? What do the Arabs have to do with Spain? Well, the Arabs occupied Spain for eight centuries, from 711 — these are good dates to remember — to 1492, when Granada fell, and that was last bastion of Arab power in Spain, and it was taken by the Catholic Kings Ferdinand and Isabella. But the Arabs left an indelible mark upon Spanish history and Spanish language. It was not an occupation in the sense that we envision occupations in the modern period. Historians speak of a convivencia, that is, a living together of these Christian and Muslim cultures which involved fighting with each other, but fighting amongst the Christians, and the Muslims allied with Christians together with Muslims, and so forth. But they were there for eight centuries, and one could say that the Arabic component in the broader sense is the main difference between Spain and the rest of Europe. The title of the book already alludes to that difference because of that ‘x,’ but you will see it in many other ways as you read it.
Now, you can also glean from what I have said that the Quixote was translated very early into other European languages which, as already mentioned, 1611 for the English and it went on to be translated in France and so forth. The Quixote became very rapidly, that first edition in 1605, a European best seller, turning Cervantes, who was, as you will read when you read from the assigned readings in the case book, a minor figure, suddenly into a great success. It never brought him the financial rewards that he desperately needed, but it turned him into a success.
Chapter 4. Don Quixote as Literary Myth in the Present Western World [00:41:21]
They say that at the beginning in the early years the Quixote was read almost universally as a funny book. It’s obviously a misreading, it is much more than just a funny book. Now, let us turn now in this sort of introduction to basics to the title, to the protagonists name in English. All of you, no doubt, have read or heard the word ‘quixotic’ and surely have a general notion of its meaning. Someone who is a Quixote, says the Oxford English Direction is — [quote]:
Hence, ‘quixotic’ is, [quote]:
How many authors or books or characters have entered common usage in this way? Actions or people can be Dantesque, Kafkaesque, Rabelaisian, but are any of these as common as ‘quixotic’? ‘Dantesque’ always refers to the Inferno and conveys a sense of gloom, of fire burning, sinners and all of that is Dantesque. ‘Kafkaesque’ describes the situation in which a labyrinth of forces appears to control your life and it is applied mostly to bureaucracies. Yale’s bureaucracy is becoming Kafkaesque, I can assure you of that — ‘Rabelaisian,’ less common, means uncontrollable appetites, most of the time referring to gluttony: ‘He had a Rabelaisian dinner.’ But you risk really sounding snobbish if you say that you had a ‘Rabelaisian dinner,’ even if you are a Yalie, but not saying ‘quixotic’; ‘quixotic’ is really part of the common usage.
If pressed, I bet any one of you could give a TV Guide abstract of the book, even those who haven’t read a word of it. It would go something like this — I made this up:
That’s the whole novel, right there, encapsulated, and you can put that in a TV guide or something — I have the fantasy that you can do that with any book no matter how complicated. Try it with the Bible or The Odyssey or something like that. But I think with the Quixote it works, and that is what people have in their imaginations about the Quixote. Now, general knowledge of this kind is the aura that surrounds most classics. It can become a temptation not to read them. As a result, this sort of vague knowledge also has an undeniable influence on those who read them. It is nearly impossible to read a classic innocently, unless you are a complete illiterate. Besides, if you have read — in some ways, you have read Don Quixote if you have read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or if you have read Madame Bovary, or if you have read Kafka’s Metamorphosis, because of the influence of the Quixote in all of those works is so great that in a sense you have read it through them. Very few literary characters have this aura. I wonder, Hamlet, of course, Faust, remembering what Ian Watt said, King Lear, Don Juan, Oedipus come to mind. Can you think of any others? There are few within each literary tradition. For instance, Huckleberry Finn in the American context. Jean Valjean, perhaps, in France.
Why is it that Don Quixote has such currency as a kind of literary myth? I think that there is hardly another secular book to which we come with more preconceived notions and expectations. It is also one of the very few great works of world literature that is also a children’s book, as I said in the paragraph of my introduction. I read it first, it was read to me, as a children’s book the first time. Now, is it akin to a modern secular Bible? Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish philosopher, read Don Quixote as if it were a kind of secular Bible, and I have the feeling that my friend Harold Bloom does the same; a kind of new gospel, a gospel for the modern age. Why not? You have to get something out of the Quixote relevant to your own lives, I think, or you’re going to be wasting your time here, believe me. I can’t tell you what that is, you’ll have to find out for yourself, but why can’t it suggest something relevant to you? Or, why has it for so many over so many years?
Now, I gave my explanation in that first paragraph to my introduction to the Penguin Classics, but let me give you a more detailed one now. Whatever other more subtle and specialized answers we give to this question throughout the semester, the only way to respond to it is to say that Don Quixote embodies the most modern of predicaments: the individual’s dissatisfaction with the world in which he lives, and his struggle to make the world in his desire mesh. I mean this world, not a world yet to come, a promised heaven.
Why is this a modern predicament or crisis? Because the world is no longer a given by the time Cervantes writes. The western conception of the universe, which was up to about sixteenth century largely based on a combination of Aristotle and the Bible, that is to say, scholasticism and the work of Aquinas has been proven faulty. Think of one major change, the first part of the Quixote is published in 1605 barely over a hundred years after the discovery of America, a hundred a thirteen, to be exact, and the confirmation that the world is round, which proved beyond argument or doubt that much of the legacy of the ancient world in the Middle Ages was open to question. Think of a second major change, the Reformation had challenged the authority of the Catholic Church and made political gains in many important European nations. Don Quixote is not as a struggle between the individual and the gods, a fight against cosmic abstract forces as in Greek tragedy, it is not as in Dante’s human desire transformed into the yearning for a sublime transcendental vision cast in a universe of perfect coherence, the machine of the world. It is, instead, the struggle of an individual against the intractability of a world in which he lives, a world redolent with the imperfections of the material, caught in a temporal flow that carries it further and further away from ideals that seem to exist only in the individual’s mind. As Hamlet says: “The world is out of sorts and I am here to make it right.”
This is what Don Quixote says, “The novel [says György Lukács, the great Hungarian critic] is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God.”
The novels hero’s psychology is demonic. The objectivity of the novel is the mature man’s knowledge, that meaning can never quite penetrate reality, but that without meaning reality would disintegrate into the inessential, into the nothingness of inessentiality.”
This is very abstract language of Lukács, who was a neo-Kantian, but I think the important thing to remember from that is that it’s a world abandoned by God. That it is not a God-centered world any more, as in Dante, that the Quixote moves through.
There are other less abstract definitions of the Quixote, global definitions that I am fond of. The one by Larry Nelson that I quote in my introduction, too, which goes:
A corollary issue to the question of the individual’s maladjustment to the world is another crucial modern concern; the perception of reality and the organization of that perception into something that can be considered the truth, the way that modern criticism has labeled this in the Quixote is perspectivism. The interpretation of reality depends on the perspective of the individual, meaning in gross terms that one’s interpretation of the world is colored by one’s background station in life reading, desires, and experience in general. There is a hilarious series of episodes when Don Quixote takes a basin from a barber, puts it on his head and says that it is Mambrino’s helmet, a famous helmet from the epic tradition. And in one of the episodes at the inn, there ensues a scholastic like discussion about whether this thing is a basin or a helmet, which is, of course, a funny reenactment of the issue of perspectivism, what for Don Quixote is a helmet, to others it’s a barber’s basin. This is at the core of the book, at the core of much of the humor in the book; this idea of the various perspectives. Don Quixote sees giants and Sancho sees windmills, and the clash repeats itself throughout the book. But this points to a very important issue at the beginnings of modern philosophy, having to do precisely with the perspective of the individual on reality, and not a perspective that has to be determined by received ideas.
Chapter 5. Course Overview [00:52:43]
So these are some of the issues that will come up during the semester as we read the Quixote. Please do the reading as I have set it out in the syllabus. The syllabus, as you know, is on the website. You can download it from the website, and there you will find all of the readings in detail. I want to go over very briefly over that syllabus, although you don’t have it, and also want to have you meet with the two TAs so you can begin to try to set up meetings for the sections. Now, let me go over the requirements for the course, too, because I am sure that you are eager to learn what your requirements will be. Now, a mid term and a take home final exam; four two-page papers. For years I have been using this technique. Four papers, but each paper is only two pages, 500 words, no more and no less. Two pages, because I want something crisp and to the point: an idea. I will give you the topics of the paper for which you can devise your own particular topic but so you don’t have to begin: ‘the Quixote, the novel written by Miguel de Cervantes…’ No, you’re writing for me. I’m giving you what I hope to be a sharp, original take on the topic that I give you, so four of those. And then, you are required to come to class. We will have discussion after my lectures in the last fifteen minutes of the class, and you are required to come to the sections as well, where you will be graded on your performance in the section. The grade distribution, you will find it in the syllabus, it’s forty percent the short papers, twenty percent the midterm and twenty-five final exam, fifteen attendance, and so forth. You can get it and it is rather conventional. Do you have any questions? Yes.
Student: Where are the books available?
Professor Roberto González Echevarría: The books are available at Barnes and Noble and under the number of the course. And the books are three: the Quixote in translation, the Imperial Spain, and the Casebook that I edited with the criticism. Now, there is also available a Spanish edition of the Quixote if you are going to read it in Spanish. It’s the same one that is available for Spanish 660, that is, the graduate seminar. You can buy both if you want to play around with them. I have to say that I am not entirely happy with Mr. Rutherford’s translation even though I wrote the introduction. I’m not happy with any of the translations. There really isn’t a translation as good as Smollett’s, from the eighteenth century, and Rutherford, what I wrote in the introduction — and I had a bitter exchange through the publisher, because I wanted him to change a few things, but he’s an Oxford professor who’s very antiquated and he didn’t change it — But I will be pointing out the shortcomings of his translation as we move along. But I mean, that’s what we have to deal with, because if you’re going to read it in translation, the translation by Edith Grossman that has also circulating a lot, Edie is my friend. It’s a little better perhaps, but I like this one because it has my introduction, which I think is better than Harold Bloom’s for Edie’s translation — Harold is a very dear friend of mine — so this is why I chose, again, to go with the Rutherford translation.
So, any other questions? The books are there. The website has all of the information you could possibly want. My office hours are on Fridays, from ten to twelve. I am not particularly fond of e-mails because I don’t want you to, up at two in the morning, say: I have to e-mail Professor Gonzalez about this idea that I have for a paper. Don’t expect that I’m going to answer the next day, because I get a lot of e-mails. And so I am much more fond of a personal meeting. You come to my office, and we talk about this, okay. Any other questions?
Well, if not, we are going to now pause so that you meet with Elena and Dina who are distinguished students, Elena in Spanish and Portuguese, and Dina in Comparative Literature. Elena, as I said, is from Alicante, in Spain. Dina is from Russia. Are you from Moscow itself? No, no, you are from somewhere in the backlands of Russia. Siberia, perhaps?
Student: Almost, almost.
Professor González Echevarría: So could you meet with them now, and try to begin to set up a meeting? Because I know it’s very complicated so I’m giving you some time. Okay.
[end of transcript]Back to Top
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