Friday, November 04, 2005

The impossible dream

I finished it. All 940 pages. The 52 chapters of part 1, the 74 chapters of part 2. A little behind schedule, but here we are. Don Quixote rocks!

I read Don Quixote for fun, to see what the big deal was. And it was fun.

I love the chapter descriptions (these are a sampling from Part Two):
Chapter IX Which recounts what will soon be seen
Chapter XXIV In which a thousand trifles are recounted, as irrelevant as they are necessary to a true understanding of this great history
Chapter XXXI Which deals with many great things
Chapter LIV Which deals with matters related to this history and to no other
Chapter LXVI Which recounts what will be seen by whoever reads it, or heard by whoever listens to it being read


I have no intention of writing a thesis, but I do have some thoughts. Ahem.

The 2 parts, published 10 years apart, have very different feels. I much prefer the second. While the first boasts many more adventures (or so it seems — the pace is frenetic) with characters of all walks, each with colourful histories of their own, the second is a little more static in its setting and players, slower, richer in its characterizations, with a more philosophical outlook on the events that unfold. (Or maybe this opinion simply reflects the time it took me to properly settle into the book.)

If you've read only the first portion, you're missing out.

As metanovel
Not only is Don Quixote commonly cited as the first novel, it is sometimes called the first postmodern novel, or metanovel. How can that be?

(I've noted before that Don Quixote is Paul Auster's favourite book. "The Auster connection" is dicussed elsewhere. I can see already that my firsthand experience with Don Quixote will enhance my overall appreciation of all sorts of literature.)

Is Don Quixote postmodern? It is self-referential. There is a kind of metanarrative. What the fuck is "postmodern" anyway? Don Quixote reads as if it's of the great oral story-telling tradition. Stories within stories. A la 1001 Arabian (K)Nights. How we still tell stories today — "you'll never believe what happened to a friend of mine..." How we assimilate other people's stories as our own.

While authorship is called into question by postmodernists and the line between reality and fiction is blurred, all the time sporting an attitude of irony and self-consciousness, the real mystery is how our minds evolved to embrace the "modern" novel, where the only interface was a book's physical cover, beyond which we are completely immersed in a virtual reality. So the postmodern novel is a return to the premodern, stripping the illusion, pulling back the wizard's curtain, to show us the program architecture we always knew was there.

But what do I know?

The sidekick
Dare I say it? Sancho Panza is a much more interesting and complex character than Don Quixote.

And I still don't get him. Why does he stick with the mad man? Why doesn't he just turn around and go home? He knows Quixote is insane, he acknowledges that he himself is crazy to stand by him, he realizes they're being played for fools.

Why does he not come clean on the trick he played on Quixote, in which he presents a homely peasant girl as the beauteous Dulcinea under enchantment. Certainly he has his own best interests in mind at first, but later? Surely the Don's wrath would be easier to bear than the task Sancho is called upon to perform to break the enchantment. Can it be he simply does not want to break the illusion? He wants to believe. His unyielding loyalty to Don Quixote, or at least to the best interests of Don Quixote, is more steadfast, and more reasonable, than the proclamations of devotion of any knight. Or is he really all about the money?


Two cliches make us laugh but a hundred cliches moves us because we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion . . . Just as the extreme of pain meets sensual pleasure, and the extreme of perversion borders on mystical energy, so too the extreme of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the Sublime.

Umberto Eco said this in regards to Casablanca, but it applies equally well to Sancho Panza, the spouter of proverbs who won't shut up.

Sancho is governor of an "insula" for a few days; he rules well and wisely.

I like to think that it is Sancho who is the author of these tales; although he's illiterate, I imagine him recounting them to the Arab scribe, who takes some liberties in detailing Sancho's simple character.

Other stuff
What's with the duke and duchess? How cruel. "Cide Hamete goes on to say that in his opinion the deceivers are as mad as the deceived, and that the duke and duchess came very close to seeming like fools since they went to such lengths to deceive two fools." Don't they have anything better to do?

I was somewhat surprised not so much by the characterization of the Moors, either as individuals or as a people, given the time and place of writing, but by a few specific references to the Islamic faith as being inferior and destructive. Will read more on this.

"Tilting at windmills." While the windmill scene, very early among the adventures, presents a strong visual image, I'm not convinced it's the greatest, or most representative, in the book. I'm really surprised that the phrase took hold in so many languages. Possibly used be people who never got past the first 100 pages.

Loudest laugh-out-loud moment:
And turning to Sancho, he asked for his sallet helmet; Sancho did not have time to take out the curds and was obliged to hand him the helmet just as it was. Don Quixote took it, and without even glancing at what might be inside, he quickly placed it on his head; since the curds were pressed and squeezed together, the whey began to run down Don Quixote's face and beard, which startled him so much that he said to Sancho:

"What can this be, Sancho? It seems as if my head is softening, or my brains are melting..."

Short answers
The very best novel ever? Maybe. It's a better candidate than most.

My favourite novel? No. Not yet.

I will probably read it again before I die — parts of it, anyway.

Food for thought
I read an interview with Umberto Eco the other week, in which he dismisses the impossibility of translation. He later elaborates:

I believe that mine is the right philosophical attitude. The kind of reflections in analytical philosophy, in order to be supposedly scientific, don't analyse the real common language but only laboratory situations. For instance, the philosopher [Saul] Kripke illustrates an entire discussion on translation of proper names with the case of a certain Pierre who, being French, knew London as Londra. He was convinced that Londra was a beautiful city. He visited London without realising that it was Londra and wrote that London is an ugly city. Pierre is an idiot or a laboratory fiction. Human beings are not like that. You cannot create a philosophical discourse on the behaviour of a mad person.

With this quotation, as with most everything else I come across these days, I can't help but think of Don Quixote. Of course we do have philosophical discourse on the behaviour of Don Quixote. His imagination — and his library — was more vivid than his waking life as a gentleman in a nameless town. He's a laboratory fiction, but he's more real than real.

All good books have one thing in common — they are truer than if they had really happened, and after you have read one of them you will feel that all that happened, happened to you and then it belongs to you forever.
— Ernest Hemingway

Summary of my DQ reading experience.
Also, some background.


Anonymous said...

Ah, you'e making me want to reread this book! For now, I have to settle for rereading my senior thesis: "Paradox and Dualism in Don Quixote and the Satires of Lucian: A Study in Subversion". A favourite passage:

"It would be easy and gratifying to say that Cervantes puts wise words in the mouth of a 'madman' to show that society is mad, not Quixote. Such an interpretation would not be false by any means; it would, however, be too simple to sustain. The question does not have an either/or answer: if society is mad, Don quixote does not have to be sane. ...If Don Quixote were nothing but a madman, he would not be nearly as engaging because he would be too easily classified; he would also have a tragic potential, since true madness is more frightening than funny. Similarly, if he were a wholly sane man, misunderstood, fighting the world's insanity against tremendous odds, he would certainly be a tragic figure and doomed to failure. ...The contradictory states do not cancel each other out, but compliment each other, as though madness were actually a part of human potential which is not tapped often enough."

Yes, I just quoted my undergraduate thesis at you. I'm so embarrassed...

Isabella K said...

Show-off! ;-)

But you cover in part why I think Sancho's more interesting. In the end, it doesn't really matter if DQ's sane or not — he's self-consistent, and true to his ideals re justice, love, etc. Commendable, but everything about him feels idealized and, well, fictional. On the other hand, Sancho's sanity is never seriously questioned — in that sense, he's as "real" as you or me, making sometimes misguided but "rational" decisions. I see him, and his motivations, as more human, and more humanly flawed.

Anonymous said...

So I should have quoted from my "Sancho Panza and the wisdom of farting" section instead? ;-)

I like Sancho a lot, but I think the two play off each other so much that you can't untangle them that easily. They change places, refute, confound, and complete each other. IMO, of course.

We can take this to e-mail if you'd like, but I was rather hoping other people would join in. Except that I've almost certainly frightened them all away by now.

amcorrea said...

I'll bite!

I agree with many of your thoughts on Pt. II, Isabella. Sancho evolves quite a bit and his mixed motives keep him undeniably human. But I also found this to be the case (to a smaller extent) with Don Quixote. His attempts at enacting his ideals (trying to make myth reality) grew more wistful in the second part. As self-doubt creeps in, he becomes even more broken...and, thus, human.

Isabella K said...

You're right, amcorrea, DQ is more wistful in part 2.

To be honest, it hadn't occurred to me that he was experiencing self-doubt — I felt him to be a believer until he was "broken" and forced into retirement; the wistfulness we feel as a result of seeing more evidence of his intelligence regarding all matters other than knight errantry (the same pity elicited in the other characters — the contrast that shows the extent of the madness).

The question then: when does self-doubt arise? Is it present as part 2 opens, perhaps brought on by hearing of the publication of the fake adventures (or is he setting out simply to set the the record straight)? Is there some other turning point? Although he stands by his account of his experience in the Cave, is that where his uncertainty takes root?

amcorrea said...

Excellent questions. I'm going over my notes and hope to elaborate more later. But for now, I think their stay with the Duke and Duchess has a lot to do with it--although you're right about the opening of Pt. II. Even Sancho notices that DQ begins calling inns "inns" rather than "castles." It's v. subtle. I'll post more textual evidence soon.