“the mockery that underlies the career of Don Quixote is what we must endeavor to discover” – Miguel de Unamuno
Upon finishing Don Quixote, I find myself questioning what it is that I have learned through my long adventure side by side with our hero and his squire Sancho Pança. It occurs to me that one doesn’t really understand what the novel is attempting to accomplish until one has finished it and seen Quixote on his death-bed ‘repenting of his madness’. It is here that he receives an awakening that brings him to his senses, yet instead of joy at his recovery, we feel the deepest pang of sorrow and cruelty at the poor wretch he is upon the realization that his whole life has been a jest and a mockery. We find that even the ones responsible for his cure are the very ones at the end of his life trying to convince him to continue in his madness and ride out once more; however, their regretful pleas arrive too late to the Don’s fragile state. Not even the encouragement of his companion Sancho can convince him otherwise and thus he meets his death reflecting upon the absurd comedy his life has been.
“At length he waked and with a loud voice, ‘Blessed be the Almighty’, cried he, ‘for this great benefit he has vouchsafed to do me! Infinite are his mercies; they are greater, and more in number than the sins of men.’ The niece hearkening very attentively to these words of her uncle, and finding more Sense in them than there was in his usual talk, at least since he had fallen ill; ‘What do you say, sir, has anything extraordinary happened?’ ‘Mercies’, answered he, ‘that Heaven has this moment vouchsafed to show me, in spite of all my iniquities. My judgment is returned clear and undisturbed, and that cloud of ignorance is now removed, which the continual reading of those damnable Books of Knight-Errantry had cast over my Understanding. I now perceive their nonsense and impertinence, and am only sorry the discovery happens so late, when I want time to make amends by those studies that should enlighten my soul, and prepare me for futurity’” –Don Quixote
Perhaps I should begin by discovering what it is that Don Quixote learned at the end of his life. He claims to have had a revelation from Heaven exposing his madness to himself, but is it as simple as that? It requires one to examine why the revelation had to happen to him when it did, or why it even happened at all.
Don Quixote del la Mancha, after filling his head to the point of madness with books of Chivalry and Knight-Errantry, set out on his quest for eternal glory and fame; he procured for himself his trusty steed Rozinante, a sickly mare that barely traveled faster that a trot; he also found himself a squire in Sancho Pança and a mistress in the fair Dulcinea del Toboso (whom he had never actually met, only heard of her beauty through the praise of others). He promised Sancho that once his fame was achieved, he would allow him to govern some island or kingdom of his own as reward for being the squire of so gallant a Knight-Errant. It is then that the adventures begin and the foolishness of Quixote manifests itself before the eye of the public. Once he had left his home, his niece and family friends immediately set about procuring ways of getting him to come home and have his right senses returned to him. Yet, Don Quixote’s particular brand of madness makes this difficult for them to make any successful attempt at getting him to return. All things to Don Quixote are able to be explained as serving his purpose in his perspective. When things appear to him different than they should seem, he blames his misfortune on enchantment or sorcery, for that was how it happened in his books of Knight-Errantry. Thus, every fortune and misfortune is explained and given its particular purpose towards Don Quixote’s end. Until at long last, the grand design of Don Quixote’s friends succeeds and a hired man in armor challenges the Don to a fight, under the condition that if he loses he must return home for one year and not practice any Knight-Errantry nor partake in any adventures of any kind. They found this to be a well-crafted plan because they knew that Quixote, being a man of honor, would follow through on the conditions and with that they hoped to rid his mind of madness and return his senses to him. The challenge is made and the knights ride at each other when – Quixote falls from his horse. He lost. This puts Don Quixote in such a despair that some of his sense returns and he begins to curse his misfortune and the continual upturning of all his plans hitherto. The walk home was one of great suffering because he and Sancho were robbed and beaten more than once before they reached their homes. This time, however, they did not have their shining star of glory to provide them comfort and consolation in the midst of their pain; since he had lost, all became dark and oppressive to Quixote. His return to his senses was one of pain and great suffering. He was forced to admit and his whole life’s purpose and goal was meaningless and all a mockery. What has the Don learned?
My brief and wholly incomplete summary of the events that led to his final exclamation on his death-bed repenting of his madness, is meant to give an idea of the overall idea of the novel as I see it. Are we to triumph at the return of Don Quixote’s senses? It is probably clear that I am one who shall never find joy that Don Quixote had his senses restored. With this restoration, his life lost all of its meaning and we are left with just another poor, ordinary man. What man was discovered in this process? Which man was the real man? This is my question.
Miguel de Unamuno, a philosopher I love, has much to say on the subject of Don Quixote and what he represents for modern Spain and modernity in general. Don Quixote brings us to ourselves, but not in the way the novel represents, Unamuno argues. His return to his senses is seen as a self denial to Unamuno:
“The philosophy in the soul of my people appears to me as the expression of an inward tragedy analogous to the tragedy of Don Quixote, as the expression of a conflict between what the world is as scientific reason shows it to be, and what we wish that it might be, as our religious faith affirms it to be…no, Don Quixote does not resign himself either to the world, or to science or logic, or to art or esthetics, or to morality or ethics.” –Miguel de Unamuno ‘Tragic Sense of Life’
The final exclamation of Don Quixote is when the Don gives up his desire and struggle for life and resigns to his rationality. For what else is it that he gives up if not his belief in something greater than himself? No, the persuading and mischievousness of his niece and company, set out to rid him from this belief because it is not grounded in the senses or upon reason. In the world of rationality, is it any wonder why a man like Don Quixote, a man of strong conviction and belief, should be made out to be a madman? His adventures harmed no one (other than themselves, especially poor Sancho) and at most occasionally caused passers-by some inconvenience by his antics. He was no criminal, only a strong believer in what he felt to be the noblest of causes, Chivalry.
Even though virtually none of his adventures worked out, that does not make him any less of a believer in his cause. His life was ordered, meaningful and with purpose. No misfortune could hold him back for long because he was a doer and he was living what he believed in. The ones who restored him to his senses did not have such a conviction. They want him to return to his senses and.. then what? Simply be like them? Was it because they were jealous of his determination? Why? I do not understand. It seems that they wanted this restoration simply because that was what was normal and appropriate behavior; they wanted him to be just as confused and lost in life as they were, is that so?
This, I feel, is why the ending of the novel is so powerful because all those who restored him to his senses immediately were filled with regret at this poor hopeless man that they knew they had turned him into. They had stripped his life of its meaning and you find them at the end pleading with him to take up his madness again. How strange! What is it the others discovered in this? It appears that they discovered their own meaninglessness as well in this conversion. Here they saw before them a casualty of Reason (capital R), their guiding star, and they were forced to question their own motives. All parties present at the Don’s death found themselves guilty and responsible for their actions. Quixote saw his madness as a sin and the others saw their deprivation of the Don to be a sin. Thus the novel concludes with everyone brought before themselves in the most difficult self-recognition possible: the acknowledgement of their own sin. Yet, what was Quixote’s real sin? In his madness, he believed, like in the epics of Homer and Virgil that God was present in his actions and Providence was guiding him and bestowing fortune and misfortune to him according to God’s will. Perhaps he was not aware of himself as an acting agent with his own responsibilities before God, but at the same time I feel that he was. He was not believing all this blindly or just on the surface: he believed it all with every fiber of his being. To deny this conviction would be akin to death for Don Quixote, which proved to be true in the end. So I do not see the sin at least in proportion to the sin recognized by the others, and perhaps I have not lived enough to understand the sin yet, which is very possible. Now, it seems to be that the others were very much in the wrong and stripped the innocent Don Quixote of his purpose for living. It is no surprise that his final loss was followed almost immediately by his death, for how could he live on after all he believed his whole life was proven to be a sham?
In Nietzsche’s On The Genealogy of Morality, he describes human beings as fundamentally meaning-seeking creatures and one of the biggest problems we encounter in our lives is the issue of suffering. How is one to account for the suffering in the world? If it has no intrinsic meaning that we can discover, then what is the point of our participating in anything in the world if we face misfortune and loss without any reason? Nietzsche concludes that humans would rather “will nothingness, than not will”. By this, he is making a claim, I argue, about our ontology that we necessarily create for ourselves a meaning for our sufferings, even if there may be no real evidence for them. What else is Don Quixote’s folly? He has given a purpose for his life that provides a meaning for his suffering and his joys alike. One is reminded of Kierkegaard’s portrayal of the Tax-Collector in Fear and Trembling. He finds joy in all things, even in the ugly; fortune and happiness even in the misfortunate and the sorrowful. No matter what befell Don Quixote and Sancho Pança in their adventures, Providence was always guiding them and that was his belief.
To believe, or not to believe? That is the question. Unamuno pushes that we must become quixotically ridiculous to others and more importantly ourselves. This does not mean that there is no room for true Belief however. Yet, why is it that if a true Don Quixote were to appear to us today we would immediately dismiss him as a madman (even we Christians) and go about our business. Have we no strength to believe as Don Quixote? Have we not the courage to live and do as Don Quixote? Perhaps we have lost our admiration for that which is greater than ourselves and have settled for something much less; we have lost the desire for the great and the wonderful and resigned it all for the ordinary and the plain. Are we so weak and cowardly?