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Miqeul de Cervantes >> Don Quixote (page 5)


The scramble for copies which, as we have seen, followed immediatelyon the appearance of the book, does not look like generalinsensibility to its merits. No doubt it was received coldly bysome, but if a man writes a book in ridicule of periwigs he mustmake his account with being coldly received by the periwig wearers andhated by the whole tribe of wigmakers. If Cervantes had thechivalry-romance readers, the sentimentalists, the dramatists, and thepoets of the period all against him, it was because "Don Quixote"was what it was; and if the general public did not come forward tomake him comfortable for the rest of his days, it is no more to becharged with neglect and ingratitude than the English-speakingpublic that did not pay off Scott's liabilities. It did the best itcould; it read his book and liked it and bought it, and encouraged thebookseller to pay him well for others.

It has been also made a reproach to Spain that she has erected nomonument to the man she is proudest of; no monument, that is to say,of him; for the bronze statue in the little garden of the Plaza de lasCortes, a fair work of art no doubt, and unexceptionable had it beenset up to the local poet in the market-place of some provincialtown, is not worthy of Cervantes or of Madrid. But what need hasCervantes of "such weak witness of his name;" or what could a monumentdo in his case except testify to the self-glorification of those whohad put it up? Si monumentum quoeris, circumspice. The nearestbookseller's shop will show what bathos there would be in a monumentto the author of "Don Quixote."

Nine editions of the First Part of "Don Quixote" had alreadyappeared before Cervantes died, thirty thousand copies in all,according to his own estimate, and a tenth was printed at Barcelonathe year after his death. So large a number naturally supplied thedemand for some time, but by 1634 it appears to have been exhausted;and from that time down to the present day the stream of editionshas continued to flow rapidly and regularly. The translations showstill more clearly in what request the book has been from the veryoutset. In seven years from the completion of the work it had beentranslated into the four leading languages of Europe. Except theBible, in fact, no book has been so widely diffused as "DonQuixote." The "Imitatio Christi" may have been translated into as manydifferent languages, and perhaps "Robinson Crusoe" and the "Vicar ofWakefield" into nearly as many, but in multiplicity of translationsand editions "Don Quixote" leaves them all far behind.

Still more remarkable is the character of this wide diffusion."Don Quixote" has been thoroughly naturalised among people whose ideasabout knight-errantry, if they had any at all, were of the vaguest,who had never seen or heard of a book of chivalry, who could notpossibly feel the humour of the burlesque or sympathise with theauthor's purpose. Another curious fact is that this, the mostcosmopolitan book in the world, is one of the most intensely national."Manon Lescaut" is not more thoroughly French, "Tom Jones" not moreEnglish, "Rob Roy" not more Scotch, than "Don Quixote" is Spanish,in character, in ideas, in sentiment, in local colour, ineverything. What, then, is the secret of this unparalleled popularity,increasing year by year for well-nigh three centuries? Oneexplanation, no doubt, is that of all the books in the world, "DonQuixote" is the most catholic. There is something in it for every sortof reader, young or old, sage or simple, high or low. As Cervanteshimself says with a touch of pride, "It is thumbed and read and got byheart by people of all sorts; the children turn its leaves, theyoung people read it, the grown men understand it, the old folk praiseit."

But it would be idle to deny that the ingredient which, more thanits humour, or its wisdom, or the fertility of invention orknowledge of human nature it displays, has insured its success withthe multitude, is the vein of farce that runs through it. It was theattack upon the sheep, the battle with the wine-skins, Mambrino'shelmet, the balsam of Fierabras, Don Quixote knocked over by the sailsof the windmill, Sancho tossed in the blanket, the mishaps andmisadventures of master and man, that were originally the greatattraction, and perhaps are so still to some extent with themajority of readers. It is plain that "Don Quixote" was generallyregarded at first, and indeed in Spain for a long time, as little morethan a queer droll book, full of laughable incidents and absurdsituations, very amusing, but not entitled to much consideration orcare. All the editions printed in Spain from 1637 to 1771, when thefamous printer Ibarra took it up, were mere trade editions, badlyand carelessly printed on vile paper and got up in the style ofchap-books intended only for popular use, with, in most instances,uncouth illustrations and clap-trap additions by the publisher.

To England belongs the credit of having been the first country torecognise the right of "Don Quixote" to better treatment than this.The London edition of 1738, commonly called Lord Carteret's fromhaving been suggested by him, was not a mere edition de luxe. Itproduced "Don Quixote" in becoming form as regards paper and type, andembellished with plates which, if not particularly happy asillustrations, were at least well intentioned and well executed, butit also aimed at correctness of text, a matter to which nobodyexcept the editors of the Valencia and Brussels editions had giveneven a passing thought; and for a first attempt it was fairlysuccessful, for though some of its emendations are inadmissible, agood many of them have been adopted by all subsequent editors.

The zeal of publishers, editors, and annotators brought about aremarkable change of sentiment with regard to "Don Quixote." A vastnumber of its admirers began to grow ashamed of laughing over it. Itbecame almost a crime to treat it as a humorous book. The humour wasnot entirely denied, but, according to the new view, it was rated asan altogether secondary quality, a mere accessory, nothing more thanthe stalking-horse under the presentation of which Cervantes shothis philosophy or his satire, or whatever it was he meant to shoot;for on this point opinions varied. All were agreed, however, thatthe object he aimed at was not the books of chivalry. He saidemphatically in the preface to the First Part and in the last sentenceof the Second, that he had no other object in view than to discreditthese books, and this, to advanced criticism, made it clear that hisobject must have been something else.

One theory was that the book was a kind of allegory, setting forththe eternal struggle between the ideal and the real, between thespirit of poetry and the spirit of prose; and perhaps Germanphilosophy never evolved a more ungainly or unlikely camel out ofthe depths of its inner consciousness. Something of the antagonism, nodoubt, is to be found in "Don Quixote," because it is to be foundeverywhere in life, and Cervantes drew from life. It is difficult toimagine a community in which the never-ceasing game ofcross-purposes between Sancho Panza and Don Quixote would not berecognized as true to nature. In the stone age, among the lakedwellers, among the cave men, there were Don Quixotes and SanchoPanzas; there must have been the troglodyte who never could see thefacts before his eyes, and the troglodyte who could see nothingelse. But to suppose Cervantes deliberately setting himself to expoundany such idea in two stout quarto volumes is to suppose somethingnot only very unlike the age in which he lived, but altogetherunlike Cervantes himself, who would have been the first to laugh at anattempt of the sort made by anyone else.

The extraordinary influence of the romances of chivalry in his dayis quite enough to account for the genesis of the book. Some idea ofthe prodigious development of this branch of literature in thesixteenth century may be obtained from the scrutiny of Chapter VII, ifthe reader bears in mind that only a portion of the romances belongingto by far the largest group are enumerated. As to its effect uponthe nation, there is abundant evidence. From the time when theAmadises and Palmerins began to grow popular down to the very end ofthe century, there is a steady stream of invective, from men whosecharacter and position lend weight to their words, against theromances of chivalry and the infatuation of their readers. Ridiculewas the only besom to sweep away that dust.

That this was the task Cervantes set himself, and that he hadample provocation to urge him to it, will be sufficiently clear tothose who look into the evidence; as it will be also that it was notchivalry itself that he attacked and swept away. Of all theabsurdities that, thanks to poetry, will be repeated to the end oftime, there is no greater one than saying that "Cervantes smiledSpain's chivalry away." In the first place there was no chivalry forhim to smile away. Spain's chivalry had been dead for more than acentury. Its work was done when Granada fell, and as chivalry wasessentially republican in its nature, it could not live under the rulethat Ferdinand substituted for the free institutions of mediaevalSpain. What he did smile away was not chivalry but a degrading mockeryof it.

The true nature of the "right arm" and the "bright array," beforewhich, according to the poet, "the world gave ground," and whichCervantes' single laugh demolished, may be gathered from the wordsof one of his own countrymen, Don Felix Pacheco, as reported byCaptain George Carleton, in his "Military Memoirs from 1672 to1713." "Before the appearance in the world of that labour ofCervantes," he said, "it was next to an impossibility for a man towalk the streets with any delight or without danger. There were seenso many cavaliers prancing and curvetting before the windows oftheir mistresses, that a stranger would have imagined the whole nationto have been nothing less than a race of knight-errants. But after theworld became a little acquainted with that notable history, the manthat was seen in that once celebrated drapery was pointed at as aDon Quixote, and found himself the jest of high and low. And Iverily believe that to this, and this only, we owe that dampness andpoverty of spirit which has run through all our councils for a centurypast, so little agreeable to those nobler actions of our famousancestors."

To call "Don Quixote" a sad book, preaching a pessimist view oflife, argues a total misconception of its drift. It would be so if itsmoral were that, in this world, true enthusiasm naturally leads toridicule and discomfiture. But it preaches nothing of the sort; itsmoral, so far as it can be said to have one, is that the spuriousenthusiasm that is born of vanity and self-conceit, that is made anend in itself, not a means to an end, that acts on mere impulse,regardless of circumstances and consequences, is mischievous to itsowner, and a very considerable nuisance to the community at large.To those who cannot distinguish between the one kind and the other, nodoubt "Don Quixote" is a sad book; no doubt to some minds it is verysad that a man who had just uttered so beautiful a sentiment as that"it is a hard case to make slaves of those whom God and Nature madefree," should be ungratefully pelted by the scoundrels his crazyphilanthropy had let loose on society; but to others of a morejudicial cast it will be a matter of regret that recklessself-sufficient enthusiasm is not oftener requited in some such wayfor all the mischief it does in the world.

A very slight examination of the structure of "Don Quixote" willsuffice to show that Cervantes had no deep design or elaborate plan inhis mind when he began the book. When he wrote those lines in which"with a few strokes of a great master he sets before us the paupergentleman," he had no idea of the goal to which his imagination wasleading him. There can be little doubt that all he contemplated wasa short tale to range with those he had already written, a talesetting forth the ludicrous results that might be expected to followthe attempt of a crazy gentleman to act the part of a knight-errant inmodern life.

It is plain, for one thing, that Sancho Panza did not enter into theoriginal scheme, for had Cervantes thought of him he certainly wouldnot have omitted him in his hero's outfit, which he obviously meant tobe complete. Him we owe to the landlord's chance remark in Chapter IIIthat knights seldom travelled without squires. To try to think of aDon Quixote without Sancho Panza is like trying to think of aone-bladed pair of scissors.

The story was written at first, like the others, without anydivision and without the intervention of Cide Hamete Benengeli; and itseems not unlikely that Cervantes had some intention of bringingDulcinea, or Aldonza Lorenzo, on the scene in person. It wasprobably the ransacking of the Don's library and the discussion on thebooks of chivalry that first suggested it to him that his idea wascapable of development. What, if instead of a mere string offarcical misadventures, he were to make his tale a burlesque of one ofthese books, caricaturing their style, incidents, and spirit?

In pursuance of this change of plan, he hastily and somewhatclumsily divided what he had written into chapters on the model of"Amadis," invented the fable of a mysterious Arabic manuscript, andset up Cide Hamete Benengeli in imitation of the almost invariablepractice of the chivalry-romance authors, who were fond of tracingtheir books to some recondite source. In working out the new ideas, hesoon found the value of Sancho Panza. Indeed, the keynote, not only toSancho's part, but to the whole book, is struck in the first wordsSancho utters when he announces his intention of taking his ass withhim. "About the ass," we are told, "Don Quixote hesitated a little,trying whether he could call to mind any knight-errant taking with himan esquire mounted on ass-back; but no instance occurred to hismemory." We can see the whole scene at a glance, the stolidunconsciousness of Sancho and the perplexity of his master, upon whoseperception the incongruity has just forced itself. This is Sancho'smission throughout the book; he is an unconscious Mephistopheles,always unwittingly making mockery of his master's aspirations,always exposing the fallacy of his ideas by some unintentional adabsurdum, always bringing him back to the world of fact andcommonplace by force of sheer stolidity.

Title: Don Quixote
Author: Miqeul de Cervantes
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