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Often times a work of art can have such a significant impact on a culture that it almost becomes synonymous with that culture. Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote has become a defining symbol of what it means to be Spanish, and serves as one of that country’s claims for spearheading the literary genre that would eventually become known as “the novel.” Though some credit Lazarillo de Tormes as being the first novel, it is really Don Quixote that establishes the formula for what we would come to recognize as the novel. Recently celebrating the work’s four-hundredth anniversary affords us a unique opportunity to inspect the ways in which Don Quixote has influenced Spanish culture over time and what ramifications the novel’s substantial presence in the culture may have.

Not only was the work of Don Quixote straddling a crossroads, but the character was as well. Situated on the lowest rung of the nobility, not even really deserving of the title “Don,” Don Quixote is more representative of a movement to the depiction of the common versus the classical tradition of only portraying nobles of the highest rank and royalty. In this respect, and in several others, the novel does inherit the tradition of the picaresque; the picaresque can be seen as a precursor of the novel’s initial fixation on realism by portraying only those on the lowest levels of society or the common man. Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria writes:

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s masterpiece has endured because it focuses on literature’s foremost appeal: to become another, to leave a typically embattled self for another closer to one’s desires and aspirations.

Relatability is one of the over-arching aspects of the Quixote that makes it such a treasure to the Spanish people; that aspect is part of what got its foot in the door, so to speak, though careful consideration is needed to determine just how much of the portrayal of the common man is occurring. Consider the role of characters like the inn-keeper and Sancho Panza; these are men who traditionally would have little to no visibility in literature yet now appear all over the pages of the Quixote.

Don Quixote is important in the history of Spain because it occurred during a time when the country was an international superpower, controlling vast tracts of land across the globe, and wielding tremendous influence. Part of the reason the text has become so ingrained in the culture is because it reminds Spaniards of a time when they dominated the politics of Europe; in fact, had it not been for the misfortune of the Armada, the course of world history would have been dramatically altered and what became the United States may well have remained largely under Spanish control and influence. The Quixote is a text that symbolizes the essence of “Spanish-ness” in the cultural imagery in the sense that it is synonymous with the greatness of the culture. It is a Golden Age text.

Of course, this analysis can also be seen from a different perspective as Ian Watt notes:

Faustus, Don Quixote, and Don Juan are all characterized by the positive, individualistic drives of the Renaissance; they wish to go their own way, regardless of others. But they find themselves in conflict, ideologically and politically, with the forces of the Counter-Reformation; and they are punished for it.

There is an embedded caution against gross excess, materialism, and self-centered individualism at the ultimate expense of the soul, particularly in the case of Doctor Faustus.

As a snapshot of Spanish life, Don Quixote succeeds wildly, though its success is more incidental through the eyes of Don Quixote. From his perspective, the narrative is centered on him, but its scope is quite wide, incorporating many of the diverse characters we see. Additionally, though Don Quixote’s arc of journey is very limited, particularly in Part I of the tale, the La Mancha region portrayed is in keeping with the notion that the common man is being portrayed in the book. La Mancha being a relatively arid and poor area of Spain underscores this. Don Quixote is not traveling to exotic locales, he is staying within Spain. The portrayal is of a Spain in a Golden Age in terms of wealth and world power. The fear of the Inquisition is mostly subtextual, but it is present; in this respect, as well as Cervantes’s satirizing the romance novels, many have seen Don Quixote as going against the Counter-Reformation grain. Echevarria explicates:

Postromantic habits of thought have led some to make Cervantes into a rebel or an outcast, if not the member of a religious minority chafing under oppression. How could the author of such an original book, so deviously ironic, not be working against established authority? The paucity of documentary evidence about Cervantes’ life has allowed for no small amount of speculation along these lines, fueled by common-places about the Spain of the Counter-Reformation, redolent with hooded inquisitors, and by the racial and religious strife of our own era. It is just as hard to disprove as to prove anything about Cervantes, given how little is known, but what we do know, together with sensible reading of his works, makes it reasonably clear that the author of Don Quixote was a loyal Spanish Catholic and a patriotic one at that. Spaniards did not have to stop being Spanish or Catholic to be audacious and modern.

So another school of thought holds that most of the speculation about Cervantes’s and Don Quixote’s ethnic origins is indeed just that: speculation, with little grounding in fact. It is most likely another of these post-modern attempts to “claim” European authors by the non-European Other, to cheapen and appropriate our inheritance.

The work of Don Quixote has created so much debate because it stands at a literary crossroads of sorts, finding itself straddling many different forms and struggling, even, to define what it was itself. As Bruce W. Wardropper says, “One is left with the conclusion that the work is at the same time poetry and history, that it is, to use Castro’s critical imagery, a watershed from which the two slopes, the ‘vertiente poetica’ and ‘vertiente historica,’ may be contemplated.” The progressive nature and the veritable melting pot of literary forms and styles found in the Quixote is another reason it is treasured by the Spanish and why it is often cited as an example, perhaps, of the first novel. Echevarria writes, “As much else in Don Quixote, the parts do not fit…It is as difficult to overstate Don Quixote’s originality as it is to relive the surprise of its first readers when it reached their hands.”

As then Don Quixote gave rise to a new art form, Spain was at its zenith of international prominence, entrenching the belief that the Counter-Reformation was right and was in part responsible for the fortuitous rise of the nation to global dominance. An interesting concept; as Spain straddled several different continents, controlling them and employing mercantilist policies to acquire gold bullion, the Quixote was synthesizing many different literary traditions to give rise to a singular art form that we now know as the novel. Quoting Wardropper:

The friend who advises him, in the prologue to Part I, about the preliminaries to his work, calls it simply a “book.” If, as the friend assumes, Don Quixote is essentially a parody of the libros de caballerias, one would think that the term designating the original would be the best to apply to the parody. But Cervantes seldom uses it in the body of his text. He prefers to call his book an “historia,” by which, as we shall see, he means, not a story, but a history. We know, of course, that he is fooling us: Don Quixote may be a romance, or a novel, or a story, but it is certainly not a history. We have to deal, then, with a story masquerading as history, with a work claiming to be historically true within its external framework of fiction. The study of Don Quixote, it seems to me, must begin with this paradox.

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How do we reconcile this paradox then? Can it be reconciled? The Age of Exploration has often been seen as the product of the Renaissance, an analog with the Age of Enlightenment, in the words of J.R. Hale, “a necessary correspondence between the peak of Renaissance intellectual and artistic achievement on the one hand, and, on the other, the age of discovery.” Part of the shift from medieval philosophy to Renaissance ideal was the discovery and probing of the self; Don Quixote very much does that. To again quote Echevarria:

If the Renaissance… meant renewed faith in the human capacity to make, organize, and control… Don Quixote signals that the resulting new science and philosophy have also led to radical doubts about the self. Sancho’s island is the distorted version of utopias such as Thomas More’s and well-run kingdoms like the ones envisaged by Niccolo Machiavelli…The emerging modern self-experiences a frightening freedom when, armed with its limited if autonomous powers, it faces the immensity of the universe. It is Don Quixote setting out alone on his first sally, at dawn, heading aimlessly toward the broad Castilian plain.

Not only does the Quixote serve as a metaphor for the rise of a modern Spain on an international scale, as well as a synthesis of multiple literary styles, it sits at a philosophical crossroads as well. It is looking out into modernity, taking the Renaissance ideals and opening the gate into the Enlightenment. It is taking a conception of the self, a sort of metaphysical exploration, and applying it to a literal exploration. As J.R. Hale considers;

“Could the discovery of the world have taken place without the discovery…of man—man, that is, as a self-confident, self-justifying individual whose knowledge of self and questioning attitude to nature nothing is impossible?”

Don Quixote is a veritable explosion onto the world stage and that is in part why it is so treasured by the Spanish people. There is so much going on in the book; it is at once the embodiment of the self and a look into the very essence of cultural identity—what it is to be Spanish. Bruce W. Wardropper writes;

“English, alone among the Indo-European languages, draws a clear (though not absolute) distinction between history, the narration of true events, and story, the narration of imagined events.”

From my perspective as effectively Anglo, it is tempting to insert a cultural and linguistic bias on the text, but it is imperative to understand that we are looking at a translation—not only of the language but of the ideas themselves. If the Quixote is a snapshot of a moment in time, then we are forced to look at the text as a history, at least in part. But that notion of the blurring of lines is what gives the Quixote its universality, what allows it to extend beyond a time and place and reach other people. Spain is now living with the Quixote’s legacy.

As Spain extended beyond its borders in exploration, Hale’s notion of the endless possibility of man’s inquiry become realized in physical form as the Spanish Empire stretched across Europe and the Atlantic to North and South America. Because of this, those former Spanish colonies are also inheritors to the tradition of the Quixote. The legacy is of a literal history and a shared cultural consciousness.

Depending on when you look, Don Quixote has had different impacts on the culture. From Spain: Then and Now,

“The fame that Don Quixote now enjoys is not the same as the fame he achieved in Spain and other European countries during the 17th century and most of the 18th.  During that time, his fame was based not on his noble ideals and heroic steadfastness but on his comical misadventures.”

In hindsight, it is easy to be troubled or at least perplexed by Don Quixote’s fixedness on becoming a famous knight-errant. His preoccupation and downright narcissism mirror the ways in which empires inevitably fall victim to their own bloat and gain. Over time, the empire rotted away and the nation to this day has never recovered the power it once had. Both Don Quixote and Spain had a “dogmatic certainty” about what they were doing, a certainty that precluded the flexibility necessary to preserve the empire, but a certainty that makes it unlikely they would have been such world-conquerors in the first place. The absolutes in both history and literature are what often prove to be the downfall of even the greatest. If in part Don Quixote’s legacy is of a sort of nostalgia when Spain commanded power and respect on the world stage, then it is also a cautionary tale.

Don Quixote has become legendary as much now for its legacy as the actual contents within the covers. There is so much debate surrounding the text and its role in literary history, and even within those pages, we see that there is uncertainty as to just what Don Quixote is. It has impacted people all over the globe in many different ways; its association with the very essence of Spanish-ness is not accidental, as both the text and the legacy support the argument that Don Quixote is inextricably intertwined with the fiber of Spanish culture. As partial inheritors of the Spanish legacy it is seen through a different lens in Latin America but is no less influential. The text has radiated outward, just as Spain did as an embodiment of both Renaissance ideals and powerful, self-assured faith in God—Divine Providence impelled the unified kingdom, having not long ago re-conquered their nation from the Moors, to establish a colossal empire, while at home works like Don Quixote, far from being a product of the “brain drain” 19th century certain propagandists and contemporary post-colonial historians attribute to the Inquisition, continues to form the bedrock of the wonderful and bounteous intellectual tradition of both Spain and the West.

The four-hundredth anniversary of the text cannot be viewed as a culmination, nor can the timeline of the text be seen as strictly linear, for as Cervantes aimed to blur the lines of poetry, prose, history, picaresque, burlesque, and romance, the notion of a legacy has far-reaching implications.

Ironic but necessary, the looking back at this text yields insight into both the past and the future of the very essence of what it means to be Spanish.


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John Q. Publius

by John Q. Publius

John Q. Publius writes for Republic Standard and runs the blog The Anatomically Correct Banana.