My rating: 4 of 5 stars
‘For me alone was Don Quixote born, and myself for his sake; he knew how to act and I to write,’ Cervantes has written with his pen. And I say that for Cervantes to recount their lives, and for me to explain and elucidate them, were born Don Quijote and Sancho. Cervantes was born to narrate, and to write commentary was I made.
Miguel de Unamuno defies classification. At once a philosopher, a literary critic, a novelist, a poet, and an essayist—and yet none of them completely—he resembled Nietzsche in his mercurial identity. In this way, too, did he resemble Nietzsche: though he had many themes and central ideas, he had no system. He wrote in short feverish bursts, each one as fiery and explosive as a sermon, going off into the branches (as the Spanish say) and returning again and again to his ostensible subject—only to depart once more. He was a wandering knight errant of a writer.
Unamuno was a member of the so-called Generation of ‘98. The date—1898—alludes to the Spanish-American war, a conflict in which Spain suffered a humiliating defeat and lost nearly all of her colonies. After this, it became impossible to see Spain as a world power; her decline and decadence were incontrovertible. This generation of intellectuals and artists was, therefore, concerned with rejuvenating Spanish culture. In Unamuno’s case, this took the form of finding Spain’s ‘essence’: which he did in the person of Don Quixote. He sees in the knight errant everything profound and important in Spanish culture, as a kind of Messiah of Spanish Catholicism, often comparing Quixote to Iñigo de Loyola and Teresa de Ávila.
This book has, therefore, a quasi-nationalistic aim, which may weary the non-Spanish reader. But it survives as one of the greatest works of criticism written on Spain’s greatest book.
The title of Vida de Don Quijote y Sancho is usually rendered in English as Our Lord Don Quijote; and this title, though not literal, does ample justice to Unamuno’s project. In this work Unamuno undertakes to write a full, chapter-by-chapter commentary on Cervantes’ novel; but his commentary is no conventional literary criticism. Unamuno declares his belief that Don Quixote and his squire were real, and that Cervantes did a grave injustice to their lives by writing it as a farce. In reality, the Don was a hero of the highest order, a saint and a savior, and Unamuno aims to reveal the holiness of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance for his readers.
Unamuno is, thus, the most quixotic of interpreters. He claims to see naught but pure nobility and heroism in the great knight from La Mancha. And yet the grandiose and ludicrous claims of Unamuno, and the farcical nature of Don Quixote himself, put the reader on guard: this commentary, like the great novel itself, is laden with delicate irony—an irony that does not undermine Unamuno’s literal meaning, but complements and complicates it.
You might call this Cervantine irony, and it is difficult to adequately describe, since it relies on a contradiction. It is the contradiction of Don Quixote himself: perhaps the most heroic character in all of literature, braver than Achilles and nobler than Odysseus, and yet laughably ridiculous—at times even pitiable and pathetic. We are thus faced with a dilemma: applaud the knight, or ridicule him? Neither seems satisfactory. At times Quixote is undeniably funny, a poor fool who tilts at windmills; but by the end of the novel—an ending more tragic than the darkest of Shakespeare’s tragedies—when he renounces his life as a knight and condemns all his adventures as insanity, we cannot help but feel profoundly sad, and we plead along with Sancho that he continue to live in his fantasy world, if not for his sake than for ours.
This is the paradox of idealism. To change the world you must be able to re-imagine it: to see it for what it might be rather than for what it is. Further, you must act “as if”—to pretend, as it were, that you were living in a better world. How can you hope to transform a dishonest world if you are not honest yourself, if you do not insist on taking others at their word? Quixoticism is thus the recipe for improving the world. Dorothea, from Middlemarch, is a quietly quixotic figure, only seeing pure intentions in those around her. But paradoxically, by presupposing only the best, and seeing goodness where it is not, she creates the goodness that she imagines. Confronted with a person who sees only the most generous motives, those she meets actually become kind and generous in her presence.
We then must ask: Is Dorothea a fool? And if so, does it even matter? And what does it even mean to be a fool? For as Lionel Trilling pointed out, Cervantes posed one of the central questions of literature: What is the relationship between fiction and reality?
Human reality is peculiar: We acknowledge an entire class of facts that are only facts because of social agreement. The value of a dollar, for example, or the rules of football are real enough—we see their effects every day—and yet, if everyone were to change their opinion at once, these “facts” would evaporate. These “social facts” dominate our lives: that Donald Trump is president and that the United States is a country are two more examples. You might say that these are facts only because everyone acts “as if” they are: and our actions constitute their being true.
The reality that Don Quixote inhabits is not, in this sense, less real than this “normal” social reality. He simply acts “as if” he were residing in another social world, one purer and nobler. And in doing so, he engenders his own reality—a reality inspired by his pure and noble heart. What is a queen, after all, but a woman who we agree to treat as special? And if Don Quixote treats his Dulcinea the same way, what prevents her from being a queen? What is a helmet but a piece of metal we choose to put on our heads? And if Don Quixote treats his barber’s bowl as a helmet, isn’t it one? We see this happen again and again: the great knight transforms those around him, making them lords and ladies, monsters and villains, only by seeing them differently.
In this way, Don Quixote opens a gulf for us: by acknowledging the conventional nature of much of our reality, and the power of the imagination to change it, we are left groping. What does it mean for something to be real? What does it mean to be mistaken, or to be a fool? To improve the world, must we see it falsely? Is this false seeing even “false,” or is it profoundly true? In short, what is the relationship between fiction and fact?
To me, this is the central question of Cervantes’ novel. But it remains a dead issue if we choose to see Quixote merely as a fool, as he is so commonly understood. Indeed I think we laugh at the knight partly out of self-defense, to avoid these troublesome issues. Unamuno’s worshipful commentary pushes against this tendency, and allows us to see the knight in all his heroism.