MY TOP SHELF

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

11

DON QUIXOTE

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1605)

Random House, 1941; translated by Peter Motteux; illustrated with wood engravings by Hans Mueller; rebound in half-calf buttercup yellow, with cloth boards, and purple label in leather embossed in gold.

Here I am with my name in the history books…..

Don Quixote took it upon himself to free galley-slaves.  Some utterly presumptuous – no, more like it, completely mad – officers of the King took it upon themselves to execute an arrest warrant against the Don for this act of madness.  They tell the Don that he is the King’s prisoner and they call on all present to ‘aid and assist the Holy Brotherhood’.  For their pains, they stop a full fusillade from this manic Castilian knight.  The Don erupts in vituperation at the forces of the law in a manner that all of us have felt at least in part when given a speeding ticket.

Don Quixote smiled at the supposed simplicity of the fellows.  At last, with solemn gravity, ‘Come hither’ said he, ‘you offspring of filth and extraction of dunghills, dare you call loosing the fetters, freeing the captives, helping the miserable, raising the fallen, and supplying the indigent; dare you, I say, base-spirited rascals call these actions robbery?    You are a band of officers; you are a pack of rogues indeed, and robbers on the highway by authority.  What blockhead of a magistrate durst issue out a warrant to apprehend a knight-errant like me?  Could not his ignorance find out that we are exempt from all courts of judicature?  That our valour is the bench, our will the common law, and our sword the executioner of justice?

You are now in the world of what the title page of the book refers to as that Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha. He is probably the most loved character in the literature of the world.

Don Quixote was a Spanish gentleman under another name, of middle age.  He read so much about knight-errantry that he became captivated by its mythology.  He went out of his mind and then he went out into the world as a knight errant.  His madness was transparent to all who encountered him, even to his proverbial squire, Sancho Panza.  His most famous exploits were his mounted charges at windmills that his madness led him to see as giants.  As a result, the word quixotic is often translated as ‘tilting at windmills’.

His bizarre and hilarious adventures filled two volumes.  The second contains comments on the first.  He recovers his sanity just before he dies.  The novel was instantly successful and is widely regarded as the first and most popular of the modern novels.  It is frequently voted the best by writers.  William Faulkner read it once a year.

We cannot define the Don.  He comes down to us as a kind of hero, as a kind of clown, and as a kind of saint.  He has his own innocence, like a dog does.  He stands up for the oppressed.  He believes in the Sermon on the Mount, especially that part that says the meek shall inherit the earth.  But he can be philosophical about his mission.  After being trampled by a herd of bulls, he says;

Here I am with my name in the history books, a famous man of arms, courteous in my conduct, respected by princes, sought after by damsels, and just when I was expecting palms, triumphs, and crowns, I find myself this morning, as a climax to it all, trodden under foot, battered and kicked by a herd of filthy animals.

The only comparable character in literature is Falstaff.  Sir John Falstaff was one of the low company kept in the east end of London by the Prince who went on to become king in Henry V.  He stars in Henry IV, Parts I and II.

Don Quixote was nearly fifty when he went mad.  Falstaff was in his seventies when he died.  He was egregiously fat.  This was one of the principal items of abuse against him.  So far as we can see neither man ever married, although at least one woman claimed to have been on the end of a promise from Falstaff.

Falstaff was loud, boorish and rude.  Don Quixote was quiet, courtly and chivalrous – except when issuing a challenge to a discourteous knight or to the unwashed.  Falstaff was usually drunk – at any time of the day.  Don Quixote hardly touched the stuff.  Falstaff was completely dishonest and unreliable and unable to follow the rules unless it suited him.  It is hard to find anyone saying anything good about Falstaff – except a drunken slut or her importuned madam – even when they think he is dead.  Don Quixote was a man of honour, punctilious, guided by forms and precedents.  He professed to be guided by the behaviour of knights-errant of the past and he thought that he knew the lives of all of them.

Falstaff was a person of gross appetite who would now be diagnosed as someone prone to substance abuse.  Don Quixote was almost ascetic, to the chagrin of the relatively normal Sancho Panza, and felt drawn by the precedents of knights-errant to sleep outside.

Falstaff was an utter coward.  (Some quixotic critics dream the contrary, but they are away with the birds.)  Don Quixote may not have been too brave – because of his madness he hardly knew fear, and to the extent that he contemplated death as a possible outcome, he may have even relished it.  He was a man of faith.  Falstaff could have had none, except perhaps when scared, which was often.  They were both nothing if not resilient and the one vice they shared was excessive pride in what they saw as their virtues.  Falstaff could see things differently because he was bad; Don Quixote had to see things differently because he was mad.

Sir Anthony Quayle described Falstaff as a man who was ‘frankly vicious’.  We do not have the same problem with Don Quixote.  Whether or not he is out of his mind, we do not see him as a threat to others.  He is entitled to be the patron saint of those who are off-centre, in a way that Falstaff could never be.  It is not just that we have to get over our fear of madness – it is just as important that we get over our distaste for the odd.  A brush with the off-centre can be liberating for people of all sorts.

Shakespeare launched Falstaff as an attack on the establishment.  Our modern sensibility cannot now accept that the English caste system could treat other humans as cannon fodder in the way that Falstaff did – a trait that the English maintained until 1918 – but we find no negative forces like that in Don Quixote.  He represents a surer celebration of humanity.  The Asian Wall Street Journal on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the publication of Don Quixote concluded its editorial by saying that the book –

… will continue to have important things to teach us about the impulses that animate mankind.

Writing in The Times on the same anniversary, Simon Jenkins said that 1605 also saw the first publication of the full text of Hamlet.  He said that both figures lead from the Middle Ages to introspection and the modern era.

But Quixote is the more inventive, funnier, sadder, the loftier mind and the better conversationalist.  His dialogues with Sancho, the knightly believer and the doubting servant, are among the most enchanting in literature.

Mr Jenkins expresses the view that if Einstein had not existed physics would have invented him, but if Cervantes had not existed there would be a hole in the tapestry of Europe.  It is hard not to agree.

Of course, people of all sorts have gone overboard over Don Quixote (as they have over Falstaff).  The first published work of Ortega y Gasset was a series of Meditations on Don Quixote which appeared in 1914.  Its temper is apparent from the following, which is anything but silly; it is, among other things, Latin, informed, graceful and spiritual.

In a certain way, Don Quixote is the sad parody of a more divine and serene Christ: he is a Gothic Christ, torn by modern anguish; a ridiculous Christ of our own neighbourhood, created by a sorrowful imagination which lost its innocence and its will and is striving to replace them.  Whenever a few Spaniards who have been sensitised by the idealised poverty of their past, the sordidness of their present, and the bitter hostility of their future gather together, Don Quixote descends among them and the burning ardour of his crazed countenance harmonises those discordant hearts, strings them together like a spiritual thread, nationalises them, putting a common racial sorrow above their personal bitterness.  ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name’, said Jesus, ‘there am I in the midst of them.’

The two characters reflect the simple proposition that the impulses that animate mankind are the same for a mad knight and his squire as they are for an old-fashioned gentleman, or a waggoner bearing lions to the King of Spain, and they are the same for a drunken knight and his drunken slut as they are for a guilty king and his calculating son, the Prince of Wales.  Since it is the function of art to offer a lyrical reflection on the human condition, the persistence of these two reflections is a testament to their creators.  Between them, our two heroes, we have our protest against Bible-bashers, bully-boys, ego-trippers, footnote-fetishists, God-botherers, hair-splitters, hangers-on, killjoys, logic-choppers, nail-biters, name-droppers, place-fillers, possum-stirrers, shadow-boxers, shilly-shallyers, smart-alecs, tax-dodgers, time-stretchers and title-claimants – bull-artists one and all.

Don Quixote saw his mission simply. It was to relieve the losers.  As it happens, that mission was defined for an English court at that time in these terms: ‘…the refuge of the poor and afflicted; it is the altar and sanctuary for such as against the right of rich men, and the countenance of great men, cannot maintain the goodness of their cause.’

There is a consensus that Shakespeare and Cervantes died on about the same day, 22 or 23 April 1616.  If that is so and there is a Heaven, and these guys made it, some would be entertained by the prospect of calculating the possible accretion to a literary Paradise.

Like Falstaff, Don Quixote is a self-portrait of our own absurdity, and unless we can laugh at ourselves, we may as well turn our toes up – as well as our noses.  Above all, when you put this book down, you will do so with a feeling of loss of innocence that you have not felt since you put down The Famous Five or Biggles, The Secret Seven or The Saint.  This is Spain’s great gift to the world.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s