Miqeul de Cervantes >> Don Quixote (page 6)

By the time Cervantes had got his volume of novels off his hands,and summoned up resolution enough to set about the Second Part inearnest, the case was very much altered. Don Quixote and SanchoPanza had not merely found favour, but had already become, what theyhave never since ceased to be, veritable entities to the popularimagination. There was no occasion for him now to interpolateextraneous matter; nay, his readers told him plainly that what theywanted of him was more Don Quixote and more Sancho Panza, and notnovels, tales, or digressions. To himself, too, his creations hadbecome realities, and he had become proud of them, especially ofSancho. He began the Second Part, therefore, under very differentconditions, and the difference makes itself manifest at once. Evenin translation the style will be seen to be far easier, moreflowing, more natural, and more like that of a man sure of himself andof his audience. Don Quixote and Sancho undergo a change also. Inthe First Part, Don Quixote has no character or individualitywhatever. He is nothing more than a crazy representative of thesentiments of the chivalry romances. In all that he says and does heis simply repeating the lesson he has learned from his books; andtherefore, it is absurd to speak of him in the gushing strain of thesentimental critics when they dilate upon his nobleness,disinterestedness, dauntless courage, and so forth. It was thebusiness of a knight-errant to right wrongs, redress injuries, andsuccour the distressed, and this, as a matter of course, he makeshis business when he takes up the part; a knight-errant was bound tobe intrepid, and so he feels bound to cast fear aside. Of allByron's melodious nonsense about Don Quixote, the most nonsensicalstatement is that "'t is his virtue makes him mad!" The exact oppositeis the truth; it is his madness makes him virtuous.

In the Second Part, Cervantes repeatedly reminds the reader, as ifit was a point upon which he was anxious there should be no mistake,that his hero's madness is strictly confined to delusions on thesubject of chivalry, and that on every other subject he is discreto,one, in fact, whose faculty of discernment is in perfect order. Theadvantage of this is that he is enabled to make use of Don Quixoteas a mouthpiece for his own reflections, and so, without seeming todigress, allow himself the relief of digression when he requires it,as freely as in a commonplace book.

It is true the amount of individuality bestowed upon Don Quixoteis not very great. There are some natural touches of character abouthim, such as his mixture of irascibility and placability, and hiscurious affection for Sancho together with his impatience of thesquire's loquacity and impertinence; but in the main, apart from hiscraze, he is little more than a thoughtful, cultured gentleman, withinstinctive good taste and a great deal of shrewdness andoriginality of mind.

As to Sancho, it is plain, from the concluding words of thepreface to the First Part, that he was a favourite with his creatoreven before he had been taken into favour by the public. An inferiorgenius, taking him in hand a second time, would very likely have triedto improve him by making him more comical, clever, amiable, orvirtuous. But Cervantes was too true an artist to spoil his work inthis way. Sancho, when he reappears, is the old Sancho with the oldfamiliar features; but with a difference; they have been brought outmore distinctly, but at the same time with a careful avoidance ofanything like caricature; the outline has been filled in where fillingin was necessary, and, vivified by a few touches of a master's hand,Sancho stands before us as he might in a character portrait byVelazquez. He is a much more important and prominent figure in theSecond Part than in the First; indeed, it is his matchless mendacityabout Dulcinea that to a great extent supplies the action of thestory.

His development in this respect is as remarkable as in any other. Inthe First Part he displays a great natural gift of lying. His lies arenot of the highly imaginative sort that liars in fiction commonlyindulge in; like Falstaff's, they resemble the father that begetsthem; they are simple, homely, plump lies; plain working lies, inshort. But in the service of such a master as Don Quixote hedevelops rapidly, as we see when he comes to palm off the threecountry wenches as Dulcinea and her ladies in waiting. It is worthnoticing how, flushed by his success in this instance, he is temptedafterwards to try a flight beyond his powers in his account of thejourney on Clavileno.

In the Second Part it is the spirit rather than the incidents of thechivalry romances that is the subject of the burlesque. Enchantmentsof the sort travestied in those of Dulcinea and the Trifaldi and thecave of Montesinos play a leading part in the later and inferiorromances, and another distinguishing feature is caricatured in DonQuixote's blind adoration of Dulcinea. In the romances of chivalrylove is either a mere animalism or a fantastic idolatry. Only acoarse-minded man would care to make merry with the former, but to oneof Cervantes' humour the latter was naturally an attractive subjectfor ridicule. Like everything else in these romances, it is a grossexaggeration of the real sentiment of chivalry, but its peculiarextravagance is probably due to the influence of those masters ofhyperbole, the Provencal poets. When a troubadour professed hisreadiness to obey his lady in all things, he made it incumbent uponthe next comer, if he wished to avoid the imputation of tameness andcommonplace, to declare himself the slave of her will, which thenext was compelled to cap by some still stronger declaration; and soexpressions of devotion went on rising one above the other likebiddings at an auction, and a conventional language of gallantry andtheory of love came into being that in time permeated the literatureof Southern Europe, and bore fruit, in one direction in thetranscendental worship of Beatrice and Laura, and in another in thegrotesque idolatry which found exponents in writers like Felicianode Silva. This is what Cervantes deals with in Don Quixote's passionfor Dulcinea, and in no instance has he carried out the burlesque morehappily. By keeping Dulcinea in the background, and making her a vagueshadowy being of whose very existence we are left in doubt, he investsDon Quixote's worship of her virtues and charms with an additionalextravagance, and gives still more point to the caricature of thesentiment and language of the romances.

One of the great merits of "Don Quixote," and one of the qualitiesthat have secured its acceptance by all classes of readers and made itthe most cosmopolitan of books, is its simplicity. There are, ofcourse, points obvious enough to a Spanish seventeenth centuryaudience which do not immediately strike a reader now-a-days, andCervantes often takes it for granted that an allusion will begenerally understood which is only intelligible to a few. For example,on many of his readers in Spain, and most of his readers out of it,the significance of his choice of a country for his hero is completelylost. It would he going too far to say that no one can thoroughlycomprehend "Don Quixote" without having seen La Mancha, butundoubtedly even a glimpse of La Mancha will give an insight intothe meaning of Cervantes such as no commentator can give. Of all theregions of Spain it is the last that would suggest the idea ofromance. Of all the dull central plateau of the Peninsula it is thedullest tract. There is something impressive about the grimsolitudes of Estremadura; and if the plains of Leon and Old Castileare bald and dreary, they are studded with old cities renowned inhistory and rich in relics of the past. But there is no redeemingfeature in the Manchegan landscape; it has all the sameness of thedesert without its dignity; the few towns and villages that breakits monotony are mean and commonplace, there is nothing venerableabout them, they have not even the picturesqueness of poverty; indeed,Don Quixote's own village, Argamasilla, has a sort of oppressiverespectability in the prim regularity of its streets and houses;everything is ignoble; the very windmills are the ugliest andshabbiest of the windmill kind.

To anyone who knew the country well, the mere style and title of"Don Quixote of La Mancha" gave the key to the author's meaning atonce. La Mancha as the knight's country and scene of his chivalries isof a piece with the pasteboard helmet, the farm-labourer on ass-backfor a squire, knighthood conferred by a rascally ventero, convictstaken for victims of oppression, and the rest of the incongruitiesbetween Don Quixote's world and the world he lived in, betweenthings as he saw them and things as they were.

It is strange that this element of incongruity, underlying the wholehumour and purpose of the book, should have been so little heeded bythe majority of those who have undertaken to interpret "DonQuixote." It has been completely overlooked, for example, by theillustrators. To be sure, the great majority of the artists whoillustrated "Don Quixote" knew nothing whatever of Spain. To them aventa conveyed no idea but the abstract one of a roadside inn, andthey could not therefore do full justice to the humour of DonQuixote's misconception in taking it for a castle, or perceive theremoteness of all its realities from his ideal. But even when betterinformed they seem to have no apprehension of the full force of thediscrepancy. Take, for instance, Gustave Dore's drawing of Don Quixotewatching his armour in the inn-yard. Whether or not the Venta deQuesada on the Seville road is, as tradition maintains, the inndescribed in "Don Quixote," beyond all question it was just such aninn-yard as the one behind it that Cervantes had in his mind's eye,and it was on just such a rude stone trough as that beside theprimitive draw-well in the corner that he meant Don Quixote to deposithis armour. Gustave Dore makes it an elaborate fountain such as noarriero ever watered his mules at in the corral of any venta in Spain,and thereby entirely misses the point aimed at by Cervantes. It is themean, prosaic, commonplace character of all the surroundings andcircumstances that gives a significance to Don Quixote's vigil and theceremony that follows.

Cervantes' humour is for the most part of that broader and simplersort, the strength of which lies in the perception of the incongruous.It is the incongruity of Sancho in all his ways, words, and works,with the ideas and aims of his master, quite as much as thewonderful vitality and truth to nature of the character, that makeshim the most humorous creation in the whole range of fiction. Thatunsmiling gravity of which Cervantes was the first great master,"Cervantes' serious air," which sits naturally on Swift alone,perhaps, of later humourists, is essential to this kind of humour, andhere again Cervantes has suffered at the hands of his interpreters.Nothing, unless indeed the coarse buffoonery of Phillips, could bemore out of place in an attempt to represent Cervantes, than aflippant, would-be facetious style, like that of Motteux's version forexample, or the sprightly, jaunty air, French translators sometimesadopt. It is the grave matter-of-factness of the narrative, and theapparent unconsciousness of the author that he is saying anythingludicrous, anything but the merest commonplace, that give its peculiarflavour to the humour of Cervantes. His, in fact, is the exactopposite of the humour of Sterne and the self-conscious humourists.Even when Uncle Toby is at his best, you are always aware of "theman Sterne" behind him, watching you over his shoulder to see whateffect he is producing. Cervantes always leaves you alone with DonQuixote and Sancho. He and Swift and the great humourists alwayskeep themselves out of sight, or, more properly speaking, neverthink about themselves at all, unlike our latter-day school ofhumourists, who seem to have revived the old horse-collar method,and try to raise a laugh by some grotesque assumption of ignorance,imbecility, or bad taste.

It is true that to do full justice to Spanish humour in any otherlanguage is well-nigh an impossibility. There is a natural gravity anda sonorous stateliness about Spanish, be it ever so colloquial, thatmake an absurdity doubly absurd, and give plausibility to the mostpreposterous statement. This is what makes Sancho Panza's drollery thedespair of the conscientious translator. Sancho's curt comments cannever fall flat, but they lose half their flavour when transferredfrom their native Castilian into any other medium. But if foreignershave failed to do justice to the humour of Cervantes, they are noworse than his own countrymen. Indeed, were it not for the Spanishpeasant's relish of "Don Quixote," one might be tempted to thinkthat the great humourist was not looked upon as a humourist at allin his own country.

The craze of Don Quixote seems, in some instances, to havecommunicated itself to his critics, making them see things that arenot in the book and run full tilt at phantoms that have no existencesave in their own imaginations. Like a good many critics now-a-days,they forget that screams are not criticism, and that it is only vulgartastes that are influenced by strings of superlatives, three-piledhyperboles, and pompous epithets. But what strikes one as particularlystrange is that while they deal in extravagant eulogies, and ascribeall manner of imaginary ideas and qualities to Cervantes, they show noperception of the quality that ninety-nine out of a hundred of hisreaders would rate highest in him, and hold to be the one thatraises him above all rivalry.

To speak of "Don Quixote" as if it were merely a humorous book wouldbe a manifest misdescription. Cervantes at times makes it a kind ofcommonplace book for occasional essays and criticisms, or for theobservations and reflections and gathered wisdom of a long andstirring life. It is a mine of shrewd observation on mankind and humannature. Among modern novels there may be, here and there, moreelaborate studies of character, but there is no book richer inindividualised character. What Coleridge said of Shakespeare inminimis is true of Cervantes; he never, even for the most temporarypurpose, puts forward a lay figure. There is life and individuality inall his characters, however little they may have to do, or howevershort a time they may be before the reader. Samson Carrasco, thecurate, Teresa Panza, Altisidora, even the two students met on theroad to the cave of Montesinos, all live and move and have theirbeing; and it is characteristic of the broad humanity of Cervantesthat there is not a hateful one among them all. Even poorMaritornes, with her deplorable morals, has a kind heart of her ownand "some faint and distant resemblance to a Christian about her;" andas for Sancho, though on dissection we fail to find a lovable trait inhim, unless it be a sort of dog-like affection for his master, whois there that in his heart does not love him?

Title: Don Quixote
Author: Miqeul de Cervantes
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