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Cervantes’ Don Quixote is the most widely read masterpiece in world literature, as appealing to readers today as four hundred years ago. In Fighting Windmills Manuel Durán and Fay R. Rogg offer a beautifully written excursion into Cervantes’ great novel and trace its impact on writers and thinkers across centuries and continents.
How did Cervantes write such a rich tale? Durán and Rogg explore the details of Cervantes’ life, the techniques with which he constructed the novel, and the central themes of the adventures of Don Quixote and his earthy squire Sancho Panza. The authors then provide an insightful, panoramic view of Cervantes’ powerful influence on generations of writers as diverse as Descartes, Voltaire, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Twain, and Borges.
A Life of Restlessness and Courage
Miguel de Cervantes was born in 1547 in the Castilian city of Alcalá de Henares, a city that boasted a relatively new but already famous university founded by Cardinal Cisneros. Alcalá "was the very focus of Renaissance Spain. More than any other place it symbolized the intellectual exuberance and the ideological fervor that characterized that country until it turned in upon itself in the 1560s, after the triumph of orthodoxy and traditionalism at the Council of Trent. In no more appropriate town could Cervantes have been born."
Miguel inherited from his father, an itinerant surgeon always in debt, an incurable restlessness and the inability either to make much money or to hold on to it. He also inherited an inquisitive scientific mind, one that related facts with possible causes and rejected superstition and magic as the ultimate way to explain events in everyday life. From his mother, who struggled stubbornly to keep the numerous members of the financially strapped family together, he fell heir to the ability to survive adversity, a characteristicthat would serve him well later in life. From both, probably, he acquired a clear mind and a desire to learn. When Cervantes was born, the University of Alcalá was still a brilliant center of learning, and the city swarmed with boisterous and noisy students. This atmosphere must have stimulated his intellectual curiosity to the point that he managed to acquire enough Latin to read the classics.
We know very little about Cervantes's inner life. He left no personal correspondence, no personal diary, and only a few references to himself in the prologues to his works. We also have a verse letter written while he was in captivity in Algiers, an affidavit dealing with his activities as a prisoner during that difficult time, and a paper trail about his business and legal activities. These are like the pieces of a puzzle, but there are too few of them, especially about his youth and his intellectual formation. We are mostly in the dark about his early life. As Malveena McKendrick states, "a pay slip, a christening certificate, a deed of attorney, a theatrical contract-these are the tiny details on which we often have to build our knowledge of the activities of one of the world's great geniuses. From them, however, a strange story gradually unfolds, a story of courage, mismanagement and poverty, of dramatic episodes in a humdrum, even slightly sordid, existence." Cervantes's options were limited by his family's circumstances to certain professions or activities that would be unrelated to trade, commerce, and banking. Justifiably or not, he may have seen himself as a petty nobleman and trade activities were not appropriate for noblemen. He had to earn a living. He chose the army at first, as a way to escape, to travel, and to see the world, starting with the fabled lands of Italy. Later he tried to build a career in low-level administration, with disastrous results. He even applied for permission to go to the New World, which was denied. Indeed, he had little time to write. The bulk of his works-all his major publications except for his first novel-were concentrated in the last sixteen years of his life, after he quit his government work and made a heroic effort to earn his living with his pen, a challenging profession today and even more so in his era.
Cervantes knew many moments of danger and frustration. His left hand was mutilated as a result of a battle wound. He was a war prisoner, practically a slave, in Algiers. He was jailed in Spain. He was excommunicated for having requisitioned some supplies belonging to the church, although it was required of him in his work. Hardship, frustration, and lack of recognition dogged him throughout his life, yet in spite of all the disappointments, he had a serene outlook toward the end of his life. He was at peace with himself. He lived during one of the most dramatic periods of Spain's history. He had fought against the Turks in the great naval battle of Lepanto. His lifetime spans the years of Spain's greatest influence in Europe and the New World. During part of the reign of Philip II, Portugal and Spain were united. Spanish and Portuguese ships crossed the oceans toward India, China, Japan, and the Spice Islands. These years also witnessed the beginning of a long decline for Spain. This transition from greatness to decadence may be reflected in some of his works. His first novel, a pastoral, shines with the visions of beauty and love inspired by the Platonic Renaissance. The end of Don Quixote and some of the Exemplary Novels written toward the end of his life, such as "The Deceitful Marriage and Dogs' Colloquy," express a growing disillusion.
Cervantes must have been aware that the world described by the romances of chivalry never existed except in the imagination of writers, and yet he knew there were moments in the past when honor and valor had inspired kings and vassals alike. For instance, in 1536, eleven years before the birth of Cervantes, Emperor Charles V denounced Francis I, king of France, whose behavior he criticized as cowardly, in a speech addressed to the pope, which ended with these words: "Therefore, I promise your Holiness, in the presence of this sacred college and of all these knights here present, if the King of France wishes to meet me in arms, man to man, I promise to meet him armed or unarmed, in my shirt, with sword and dagger, on land or sea, on a bridge or an island, in a closed field, or in front of our armies or wherever and however he may wish and it be fair." Cervantes must have been mindful of the news coming from the New World-the conquests of Mexico and Peru, the fight for Chile against the Araucanian Indians, and the long search for El Dorado or for the Seven Cities of Cibola-which contained many elements worthy of a romance of chivalry. Life had imitated art for a few moments on a few occasions.
There is more Young Miguel must have been cognizant of the fact that his family had known better times. His grandfather, Juan de Cervantes, was the son of a prosperous cloth merchant and had graduated in law from the University of Salamanca, then the most prestigious in all of Spain. He had been a magistrate in the university town of Alcalá de Henares and lived a comfortable life, with servants, slaves, and horses. For reasons that remain mysterious, he quarreled with his wife and left Alcalá, abandoning her and taking with him only his youngest son, Andrés. Miguel's father, along with the rest of his family, was left suddenly impoverished and had to make a living as a barber-surgeon, a trade that had none of the prestige of a physician. Young Miguel must have dreamed of restoring the status and the vanished riches of the family.
Intensely curious, bookish, and passionate about learning, he must have been disappointed to learn there was no money for him to enroll at the university. Creditors harassed his father. The family moved frequently and was always in debt. Frustration and shame must have been constant companions to Miguel.
In those early years, his escape to Italy and a stint in the army were a temporary solution, one that would reveal new facets of his personality: his courage in battle and his talent for leadership during five long years as a captive in Algiers, where he was recognized as the boldest and most enterprising of prisoners, organizing several attempts to escape.
Back in Spain, Cervantes had to start his life over again, concentrating his efforts on repaying the debt his family had incurred by ransoming him, and trying to make a living. He was talented, ambitious, and gifted. He attempted to survive by becoming a modest bureaucrat in the great administrative machinery of the Spanish Empire. He gathered supplies for the Invincible Armada being prepared for an invasion of England; however, his lack of foresight as an accountant, combined with bad luck, created almost insoluble problems, landing him in jail for a while. As Salvador de Madariaga puts it, "for the rest of his life he had to live in the presence and company of this contrast: his inner worth, as a soldier and a Spaniard; his utter failure to get recognition for it. He might have incarnated examples of manliness and leadership in slavery; in liberty, he lived a life of helplessness and poverty; a king of infinite space in his Algerian cell, he was on the roads and in the inns and boarding houses of Spain but a scribbler of petitions to the King's ministers and of dedications and laudatory epistles to the King's grandees."
Talent, courage, and bravery in war, but no recognition: this can be a formula for bitterness. And yet nothing in his behavior or in his writings indicates he was discouraged or bitter. On the contrary, we associate Cervantes with a good sense of humor. During his years of hope and disappointment he developed a critical mind and an ironic perspective to make sense of his experience.
A person with a good sense of humor can observe the world around him or her with a certain amount of detachment, yet humor leads to critical analysis and ultimately becomes a tool to better understand both the society we are part of and also a few individuals in this society. Making fun of ourselves is the most difficult, even dangerous, stage of humor. It is possible to find a way to laugh at oneself by projecting a part, and perhaps a very small one into a character we are creating and then making fun of this character. There are subtle ways in which Cervantes may have laughed and criticized himself while creating the main character in his novel.
With humor, it is possible to analyze and criticize without utterly destroying the subject being analyzed. Humor can also be like a drop of oil that makes hard surfaces more manageable. From his lofty viewpoint, the author with a fine-tuned sense of humor sees the characters he is creating evolve in a situation where their weaknesses will be revealed. They will be able to go on acting and feeling since the critical blows that rain on them are not lethal. Ideally, the characters should learn from their mistakes. This seldom occurs, but the possibility of going on with their lives, their hopes, their dreams, is still offered to them. Humor is universal, and at the same time it is conditioned by culture and by history. Humor in Cervantes's time was undoubtedly more rough and cruel toward its victims than it would become in the literature of later centuries.
Cervantes did not have a formal education, but he made up for it with an insatiable appetite for reading and travel. His father had a vast collection of books, which at the time was unusual and much prized. There is no reason to think Cervantes was worse off because he did not attend Salamanca or Alcalá de Henares universities, which were then tradition-bound, old-fashioned, and confining. This was especially true of the University of Salamanca. Reading widely and independently better nurtured his sensitive, imaginative, and creative mind.
His experience more than compensated for his lack of officially accepted knowledge. A writer of fiction needs both imagination and a firsthand acquaintance with different levels of life. Cervantes was blessed with imagination and sensitivity, and his experience encompassed several levels. He traveled abroad and within his own country; he knew poets, writers, intellectuals, aristocrats, and also rogues, thieves, and swindlers; he was a prisoner in Africa for five years and later imprisoned in Spain. He was at odds with the church, even excommunicated for a while. He was entangled in a long struggle with the Spanish Treasury Department over accounting problems arising from the bankruptcy of a bank where he had kept a sum of money owed to the government. He had a love affair, from which a daughter was born. He married a woman considerably younger than himself. His daughter had love affairs and entanglements that complicated the life of the whole family. In sum, his life was intense, adventurous, and varied. When he started to write his masterpiece, he could draw on the experiences of a rich life, one that had expanded his mind in all directions.
More than any other Spanish writer of his time, Cervantes had come in contact with other cultures and also with many different levels of society. He was ready to create a synthesis, a summing-up where lofty ideals would be put to the test of everyday experiences. The main character in his masterpiece was not modeled on himself, but surely traces of his life experience translate into the personality of Don Quixote. Both Cervantes and Don Quixote seek to escape their humdrum daily life, Cervantes by traveling abroad as a young man, then, later on, by trying to return to Italy. Both Cervantes and Don Quixote are intellectuals and avid readers, and yet each must bend time and again to practical, mundane needs. When Cervantes returned to Spain after years abroad, he had to start from scratch. After Don Quixote's upsetting experiences at the inn, he learned that a traveler, even if he is a knight-errant, should not leave home without some money and clean shirts and underwear. When he fashions his helmet, after ruining in one blow the work of a whole week, our would-be knight is wise enough to accept his work as perfect, or nearly so. Pragmatism and practicality impinge time and time again on the way Don Quixote handles himself, his horse, his weapons, and ultimately his quest. When he gives advice to Sancho, who is about to become governor of his island, he shows how much common sense and practical wisdom he has stored in his memory.
It is obvious that Cervantes's life would be of little interest to us if he had gone on soldiering in Italy or Flanders or had perhaps become a bureaucrat in some obscure city in the vast Spanish Empire. It is also true that in each human life there are decisive moments when a choice must be made: a fork in the road appears, and our character, our background, our hopes and lifelong projects help us decide which road to take. Whether or not we are really free to make this choice is a complex philosophical question. Once the choice is made, our options become more restricted, and at the same time the consequences of our decision determine many aspects of the rest of our life.
A couple of facets reveal an important part of Cervantes's character: his restlessness and his curiosity. More than any Spanish writer of that time, he was a great traveler. As a boy, he was familiar with Madrid, Valladolid, and Córdoba because he followed his father and his family. As a young man, he traveled to Rome and Naples. Later he fought in the naval battle of Lepanto (1571) and subsequently spent five years as a prisoner in Algiers. His love of travel is reflected in his literary output, where the action is placed in Seville, Salamanca, Barcelona, and in other locales.
In the fifteen years that he traveled through towns and villages in Andalusia, he discovered puppet-theater as well as the Spanish version of the Italian commedia dell'arte as interpreted by Lope de Rueda. Seville was always important to him, for it was there that he met other writers. Seville was also a boomtown, a haven for the Spanish underworld, which Cervantes got to know intimately during the long months he spent in Seville's jail. In spring 1610, he dreamed once more of leaving Spain for an extended period and traveling to Naples. The count of Lemos, who knew and appreciated Cervantes, had been appointed viceroy of Naples. He wanted to set up a literary court and asked his secretary, Lupercio Leonardo de Argensola, to choose the writers to accompany him to Italy. Cervantes knew Argensola, who had praised La Galatea. Nothing came of this project: Argensola chose other writers, whose names have been forgotten, for this literary court, in spite of Cervantes's trip to Barcelona in the hope of obtaining an audience with Lemos to plead his case.
Excerpted from Fighting Windmills by Manuel Durán Fay R. Rogg Copyright © 2006 by Yale University . Excerpted by permission.
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|Ch. 2||Experimenting with existing narrative tools||43|
|Ch. 3||Construction Don Quixote||57|
|Ch. 4||A look into Cervantes's masterpiece||83|
|Ch. 5||Cervantine sallies into eighteenth-century France and England||129|
|Ch. 6||An abbreviated look at Cervantes in nineteenth-century France, Russia, and Spain||165|
|Ch. 7||Don Quixote and the new world : two American perspectives||191|
|Ch. 8||Sightings of Cervantes and his knight in the twentieth century||219|