Don Quixote (Penguin Classics)Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


For most of us, the name Don Quixote brings to mind the image of the comic-tragic mad idealist on his wizened horse Rocinante tilting at windmills in an attempt to live an impossible dream—-a dream, like Christ’s Kingdom, “not of this world” yet beckoning us forward through this world into a nobler world just beyond reach. Perhaps for many of us it is the words of the great popular song, “To Dream the Impossible Dream” sounding in our ears and in our imaginations from the show “Man of La Mancha” which call up his image to our minds:

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go
To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far

To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell
For a heavenly cause

And I know if I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star

What then was the true object of Don Quixote’s quest? Like all tragic figures who permanently live in and excite our imaginations, both their own complexity and the complexity of the overlapping worlds they embody and inhabit make any answer impossible. What were Hamlet’s true motivations which drove him to his destiny? In human terms, what was the object Christ saw in his quest when he began his ministry and when he refused to flinch or turn aside on the road leading to crucifixion on Golgotha?

The comparison to Shakespeare is an apt one, as in one of history’s little ironies, it so happens that Cervantes and William Shakespeare died on the exact same day, April 23, 1616, and thereafter underwent arm-in-arm, a twin apotheosis as the two great Herculaean pillars holding up the sky of Modern Western Literature. The comparison of Don Quixote and Hamlet is apt in another sense, in that both try to answer in their varied ways the immortal question framed by Hamlet’s dilemma:

“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles……”

Crucially, for Don Quixote one of his principal motivations and objects is shared with Hamlet: the quest after that which is “nobler in the mind.” Shared equally with Hamlet as well is the cutting point of the dilemma “To be, or not to be?” For Don Quixote’s “taking up arms” to embark on his knightly quest is never defined by any material reward, such as Sancho Panza’s fixation on ruling his island, or even simply the higher concern with worldly or knightly reputation. In a sense his decision to embark on his quest is an existential one—he can only “be” in any sense commensurate with his ideal self by the willful act of throwing down the gauntlet of challenge to the entire world and its existing order of fallen values, come what may, and taking to the high road of quest and adventure. Had he remained in his armchair as “the good Alonso Quixano,” with his nose buried in diverting books, it could be said that “Don Quixote” had never been. He must existentially choose a path of his own becoming and create both himself as self and and his envisioned cum delusional world as world in order “to be” at all.

This calling of self into being—self-creation or at least self co-creation within a greater order is one of the defining attributes of Western Modernity. One Eastern pillar of Western Civilization, Socrates, famously declared: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Cervantes at the Western pillar extends that rejection of mere “survival” and says to us through the figure of Don Quixote: “The unimagining life is not worth living—to live without a dream—a life uninspired of any ideal of a better and nobler self realized in quest of a better world—-is to never have lived at all in any meaningful human terms beyond the merest and most insignificant animal survival. Had Don Quixote, Hamlet, Socrates or Christ retired to their easy-chair and abandoned their quest for “what is nobler in the mind,”—–had they flinched at each of their “impossible dreams,” they would never have been, and our Western Civilization would never have been as we know it today.

Moreover, had Siddhartha flinched at the “impossible dream” of Enlightenment, had Mohammad and Rumi balked at the “impossible dream” of “Tariqah” or union with Allah, had Moses balked at the “impossible dream” of Exodus and the Promised Land, had Lao Tzu and Confucius flinched at the “lmpossible dream” of attaining “The Dao,” they would never have been in any meaningful sense, nor would our Universal World Civilization and its World Literature have been, as we know it today.

Cervantes himself led a mixed life of adventures and disappointments prior to gaining fame as the author of Don Quixote. As a young man he traveled first to Rome to seek his future, then joined the Spanish Marines when naval war broke out in the Meditarranean between the forces of the Ottoman Empire and the coalition of Christian forces led by the Spanish. At the Battle of Lepanto of 1571, the Christian navies dealt the Ottomans a decisive defeat, effectively seizing control of the Mediterranean and halting the Ottoman advance into the West. At that battle Cervantes fought bravely and well, but was severely wounded, leaving his left arm permanently maimed. On returning to Spain by ship somewhat later, his ship was captured by Barbary Muslim pirates, and he was taken as a slave to Algeria. [Parenthetically, it is well to remember that in history slavery was by no means an exclusively Western colonial sin, having been not only endemic to Africa before the Europeans began the large-scale Transatlantic Slave Trade of the “Middle Passage,” as well as in the pre-existing Roman Empire, but was endemic in the Muslim World to such a degree that scholars believe most likely the total African slaves shipped to Muslim countries from the time of Muhammad (650-1900 AD of 10-16 Million) exceeed the total Western Transatlantic trade (1500-1900 of 12-13 Million), to which can be added the Arab Slave Trade in European slaves such as Cervantes and Captain John Smith of the Pocohantas legend and Slavic slaves who probably totaled another 2 Million.] Finally bought from slavery by his family and returned to Spain he lived precariously nearly thirty years as a minor tax collector and clerk and unsucessful writer, imprisoned several times for either debt like Dickens’ father, or on accusations of corruption, until at the ripe age of fifty-eight he published Don Quixote which made him almost immediatly famous across Europe, though not necessarily rich. His experience as an Arabian slave is reflected in such episodes in Don Quixote of the freeing of the convict galley slaves.

Don Quixote was published in two parts, the first in 1605 and the second in 1615, shortly before Cervantes death. Part I deals with the initial undertaking of the hero’s quest and the first knightly sallies “on the road” from his hometown. Part II, published ten years later adds a significant “netafictional” dimension to the novel, as Don Quixote from the initial success of Part I, has become a public legend, and the figures he encounters are aware of him as a living legend and begin to interact with him in terms of living out that legend. Additionally, Part II also deals with the humorous textual circumstance that before its publication by Cervantes a fake or “pirate” second part was published without authorization by Avellaneda, and Cervantes’ own Part II sets out to disprove and discredit the apochryphal sequel. On top of this is the ironic distancing of the narrative from the action of the novel. Cervantes claims that he is relating a true history drawn from an Arabic chronicler, Cid Hamet Benengeli, seemingly endowed with omniscient magical power to look into the minds of the characters, hailed as meticulous, yet also subject to doubt as he is a Moor.

Part I

The First Sally

Alonso Quijano, the protagonist of the novel who becomes Don Quixote, is a retired country gentleman nearing fifty years of age, living in an unnamed section of La Mancha with his niece and housekeeper. While mostly a rational man of sound reason, his reading of books of chivalry to excess has had a profound effect on him, leading to the distortion of his perception and the wavering of his mental faculties. In essence, he believes every word of these books of chivalry to be true, though, for the most part, the content of these books is clearly fiction. Otherwise, his wits are intact. He decides to go out into the world as a knight-errant in search of adventure. He dons an old suit of armour, renames himself “Don Quixote de la Mancha,” and names his skinny horse “Rocinante”. He designates Aldonza Lorenzo, a neighboring farm girl as his idealized lady love, renaming her Dulcinea del Toboso, while she knows nothing about this.

He sets out in the early morning and ends up at an inn, which he believes to be a castle. He asks the innkeeper, whom he thinks to be the lord of the castle, to dub him a knight. He spends the night holding vigil over his armor, where he becomes involved in a fight with muleteers who try to remove his armor from the horse trough so that they can water their mules. The innkeeper then humoring the madman dubs him a knight to be rid of him, and sends him on his way. Don Quixote next to fight injustice “frees” a young boy who is tied to a tree and beaten by his master by making his master swear on the chivalric code to treat the boy fairly. The boy’s beating is continued as soon as Quixote leaves. Don Quixote has a run-in with traders from Toledo, who “insult” the imaginary Dulcinea, one of whom severely beats Don Quixote and leaves him on the side of the road. Don Quixote is found and returned to his home by a neighboring peasant.

The Second Sally

While Don Quixote is unconscious in his bed and to prevent the relapse of his delusions, his niece, the housekeeper, the parish curate, and the local barber secretly burn most of the books of chivalry, and seal up his library pretending that a magician has carried it off. After a short period of feigning health, Don Quixote approaches his neighbor, Sancho Panza, and asks him to be his squire, promising him governorship of an island. The uneducated Sancho agrees, and the pair sneak off in the early dawn. It is here that their series of famous adventures begin, starting with Don Quixote’s attack on windmills that he believes to be ferocious giants. The two next encounter a group of friars accompanying a lady in a carriage. Don Quixote takes the friars to be enchanters who hold the lady captive. He knocks a friar from his horse, and is immediately challenged by an armed Basque traveling with the company. The combat ends with the lady leaving her carriage commands those traveling with her to “surrender” to Don Quixote. Time and again, Don Quixote proves himself to be at war with Freud’s “Reality Principle,” not in service to a rampant “id” which might be associated with Sancho, but rather with an unrestrained yet idealizing and spiritualizing “superego.” Reality proves to be “out of joint” with the superabundant ideals of this unique “Discontent” of civilization.

Part II

The Third Sally

While Part I was mostly farcical, the second half, Part II, is more serious and philosophical about the theme of deception, illusion and reality.

As Part Two begins, it is assumed that the literate classes of Spain have all read the first part of the history of Don Quixote and his squire. Cervantes’s meta-fictional device was to make even the characters in the story familiar with the publication of Part One, as well as with an actually published fraudulent Part Two. When strangers encounter the duo in person, they already know their famous history. A Duke and Duchess, and others, deceive Don Quixote for entertainment, setting forth a string of imagined adventures resulting in a series of practical jokes. Some of them are quite sadistic, and they put Don Quixote’s sense of chivalry and his devotion to Dulcinea through many tests.

Even Sancho deceives him at one point. Pressured into finding Dulcinea, Sancho brings back three dirty and ragged peasant girls, and tells Don Quixote that they are Dulcinea and her ladies-in-waiting. When Don Quixote only sees the peasant girls, Sancho pretends that their derelict appearance results from an enchantment of his senses. Sancho later gets his comeuppance for this when, as part of one of the duke and duchess’s pranks, the two are led to believe that the only method to release Dulcinea from her spell is for Sancho to give himself a surplus of three thousand lashes. Under the duke’s patronage, Sancho eventually gets a governorship, though it is false, and proves to be a wise and practical ruler; though this ends in humiliation as well.

The lengthy untold “history” of Don Quixote’s adventures in knight-errantry comes to a close after his battle with the Knight of the White Moon (actually a young man from Don Quixote’s hometown out to “save” him) on the beach in Barcelona, in which we the readers find him conquered. Bound by the rules of chivalry, Don Quixote submits to prearranged terms that the vanquished is to obey the will of the conqueror, which in this case, is that Don Quixote is to lay down his arms and cease his acts of chivalry for the period of one year (a duration in which it is hoped may be cured of his madness). Defeated and dejected, he and Sancho start their journey home.

Part Two of Don Quixote is often regarded as the birth of modern literature, as it explores the concept of a character understanding that he is being written about. This is a theme much explored in writings of the 20th Century.

Upon returning to his village, Don Quixote announces his plan to retire to the countryside and live the pastoral existence of shepherd, although his housekeeper, who has a more realistic view of the hard life of a shepherd, urges him to stay home and tend to his own affairs. Soon after, he retires to his bed with a deathly illness, possibly brought on by melancholy over his defeats and humiliations. One day, he awakes from a dream having fully recovered his sanity. Sancho tries to restore his faith, but Alonso Quixano, for that is his true name, can only renounce his previous existence and apologize for the harm he has caused. After Alonso Quixano dies, the author emphasizes that there are no more adventures to relate, and that any further books about Don Quixote would be spurious.

Don Quixote also had immense influence on the subsequent development of Western Literature and World Literature. Fielding and Sterne, Goethe and Thomas Mann, Flaubert and Stendhal, Melville and Mark Twain, Dostoevsky are among Cervantes’s fervent admirers and pupils. Don Quixote is the only book that Dr Johnson desired to be even longer than it already was. The contrasting and complementary characters of the over-read, noble and idealistic Don Quixote and the down-to-earth, common-sensical and practical Sancho Panza have become archetypes, echoed in such duos as Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and of D’Artagnan and Porthos. Significantly in Part II, at the end of the novel Sancho and Don Quixote undergo a role reversal, yet still comnplementing each other towards human wholeness, as Sancho pleads with him to take up the quest again, the adventures which have given meaning to his life, while the seemingly repentent Don Quixote turns away from those adventures, after which there is only death. In this way in their friendship and common dialogue they have ironically over-persuaded each other in opposite directions. Along their journey they have both suffered humiliation, defeat and scorn, often accompanied by cruelty directed against them. Like Christ and Job they are subjected to the degradation of pain and savage persecution, yet like Christ, Don Quixote is even further ennobled in our minds by reason of his suffering, and in a similar way, in his heroism and martyrdom he redeems for us even in defeat, the dreams which make our lives bearable and meaningful.

Don Quixote also had a significant influence on the composition of my own novel, the contemporary and futurist epic Spiritus Mundi. The archetype of “The Quest” is a radically integral part of Spiritus Mundi, the story of modern day idealists who undertake a Quixotic global campaign, against all odds, for the formation of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, based on the successful model of the international European Parliament, as a new organ of the United Nations for global democracy. The principal protagonist of Spiritus Mundi, is deridingly called “Quixote” by his foe and former classmate, US UN representative Buck Bolger, who blocks adoption of the proposal at the UN. Nonetheless, Sartorius in defeat soldiers on with a Bono-like global grass-roots “People Power” campaign, supported in his suffering idealism also, like Quixote, by the love of a woman, his soulmate Eva Strong, which in Sartorius’ case proves not illusory but life and dream sustaining. In Part II of Spiritus Mundi, divided as Don Quixote and Goethe’s Faust are into two parts, the Quest is extended into the domain of the mythological as he and Eva must venture Verne-like to the Central Sea of “Middle Earth” at the center of the globe and thence through a Cosmic Wormhole through Einsteinian Timespace to the Black Hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy to retreive the Silmaril Crystal which will aid humanity from pending Armageddon in a threatened World War III. Sartorius, like Don Quixote dies at the end of his Quest, Moses-like in failing to partake the acheivement of his dream, yet allowed a glimpse into the future realization of his “impossible dream,” the founding of the United Nations Parliamentary Assembly for global democracy, revealed by time-travelling 23rd Century Senator Abor Linkin, the Magister Ludi as destined to endure until the 23rd Century when it is again will be tested by the Time-Travelling Terminator-like foray of the escaped War Criminal Ceasarion Khannis into our present where Sartorius and Eva, benefit from his help to defeaat his Terminator-like attempt to reverse history.

In conclusion I invite everyone to read this immortal Classic of World Literature, Don Quixote, and to check out Spiritus Mundi, which draws on its aid and power.

For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence and evolution of World Literature:

For Discussions on World Literature and Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…

Robert Sheppard

World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Author’s Blog: http://robertalexandersheppard.wordpr…
Spiritus Mundi on Goodreads: http://robertalexandersheppard.wordpr
Spiritus Mundi on Amazon, Book I:
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance

Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved

View all my reviews

About robertalexandersheppard

Robert Sheppard , Author, Poet & Novelist Pushcart Prize fof Literature 2014 Nominee Professor of World and Comparative Literature Professor of International Law Senior Associate, Committee for a Democratic United Nations (KDUN) E-mail: Robert Sheppard is the author of the acclaimed dual novel Spiritus Mundi, nominated for the prestigious 2014 Pushcart Prize for Literature in two parts, Spiritus Mundi the Novel, Book I and Spiritus Mundi the Romance, Book II. The acclaimed “global novel” features espionage-terror-political-religious-thriller action criss-crossing the contemporary world involving MI6, the CIA and Chinese MSS Intelligence as well as a "People Power" campaign to establish a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly on the model of the European Parliament, with action moving from Beijing to London to Washington, Mexico City and Jerusalem while presenting a vast panorama of the contemporary international world, including compelling action and surreal adventures. It also contains the unfolding sexual, romantic and family relationships of many of its principal and secondary characters, and a significant dimension of spiritual searching through "The Varieties of Religious Experience." It contains also significant discussions of World Literature, including Chinese, Indian, Western and American literature, and like Joyce's Ulysses, it incorposates a vast array of stylistic approaches as the story unfolds. Dr. Sheppard presently serves as a Professor of International Law and World Literature at Peking University, Northeastern University and the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) of China, and has previously served as a Professor of International Law and MBA professor at Tsinghua University, Renmin People’s University, the China University of Politics and Law and at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, China. Having studied Law, Comparative Literature and politics at the University of California, Berkeley (Ph. D.Program in Comparative Literature), Northridge, Tübingen, Heidelberg, the People’s College and San Francisco, (BA, MA, JD), he additionally has been active as professor of International Trade, Private International Law, and Public International Law from 1993 to 1998 at Xiamen University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Graduate School (CASS), and the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. In the US he serves as a Professor at Kean University, as well as having taught at Bergen Community College and Pillar College in NJ. Since 2000 he has served as a Senior Consultant to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Beijing and has authored numerous papers on the democratic reform of the United Nations system.
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  1. Don Quixote is the greatest work of art in literature. It is also as you note above a philosophical work, and one that was pivotal in human thought, or described a pivotal time in human thought, and that is, of self-creation and the meaningful life: to “existentially choose a path of his own becoming and create both himself as self and and his envisioned cum delusional world as world in order ‘to be’ at all.” Of course, every life, even that of the unimaginative, is delusional, so the course chosen by the adventurous is made valuable by the impossible quest for a nobler self and world.

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