The excerpts quoted from Don Quixote in this post are taken from the translation by John Rutherford, published by Penguin Classics.
After one of Don Quixote’s many misadventures, Sancho Panza refers to his master’s “triste figura”. And indeed, his master has been knocked about a fair bit: “triste figura” is a reasonable way to describe his face. Don Quixote however seizes on this: the term “triste figura” clearly means more to him that it does to Sancho, and he determines henceforth to be known as “El Caballero de la Triste Figura”. What was no more than a literal description on Sancho’s part acquires far greater resonance for no better reason than that Don Quixote demands it should.
And in a way, this is emblematic of the entire novel. The idea of a man living in unremarkable contemporary times, but imagining himself a knight errant, and mistaking the ordinariness around him for the extraordinariness of magical tales, seems no more than the material for a short comic sketch; but Cervantes makes of this seemingly slim material two substantial novels, published ten years apart, and, together, taking up nearly a thousand closely-printed pages in my Penguin Classics edition. These two novels, taken together (as they usually are), have come to be seen as one of the major cornerstones of Western literature; it has become a myth far more potent than the myths it had initially set out to debunk, and which are now largely forgotten; it resonates in our minds because, just as Cervantes’ creation had demanded that the simple literal description “triste figura” be seen as signifying far more than merely its literal meaning, so Cervantes himself insists that this material for a brief comic sketch be seen as something far, far more significant than what it may at first sight seem.
Previous generations of translators had rendered “triste figura” as “doleful visage” or “sorrowful countenance”, or some other sonorous expressions that could never have occurred to the illiterate peasant Sancho. John Rutherford translates it more credibly as “sorry face”. (Edith Grossman prefers “sad face”, but they were both thinking along similar lines.) The whole point is the transformation – the transformation of something simple to something big: if the English rendition of “triste figura” is big-sounding in the first place, there is no transformation to be achieved. However, a transformation does happen, and here, there really is a sort of magic involved. As the simple expression “triste figura” becomes transformed, at Don Quixote’s insistence, into something far more resonant and far more profound, so the novel itself transforms from a mere idea of a comic sketch into something far bigger, and far more magnificent. But what it transforms into remains, I think, elusive.
We can get the obvious things out of the way: yes, everyday life is dull, mean, and often sordid, and there seems little or nothing in it to warrant descriptions such as “glorious” or as “beautiful”; that Don Quixote’s madness, while obviously denying reality, is replacing it with a vision of life which, though unreal, is nonetheless noble and beautiful; and that the beauty of Don Quixote’s vision is often cruelly deflated by the reality, and that’s comic; but, at the same time, it often transcends reality by being more noble and more beautiful, and that’s sublime; and that the greatness of Cervantes’ achievement is not seeing it as one or the other, but as both – as crude and comic, and, at the same time, as resplendent and sublime. So far, so obvious. But what I find fascinating is the question of why this particular fusion of opposites should resonate over the centuries so powerfully in our collective consciousness.
I am not sure whether I can answer this question – or whether indeed there can be any answer to it at all – but I think it is worth posing. Don Quixote (we only know him by his assumed name: his real name is Quixana or Quesada – even the author claims not to be sure) does not merely question reality – he denies it altogether. And at times, one gets the impression that this madness – for madness is surely is – is willed: the denial of reality is not a state he has been forced into by the deficient workings of his mind, but, rather, is something that is freely chosen. And it is too easy, and, hence, simplistic, to think that he has become mad as a refuge from the mundane and soul-destroying banality of everyday life, but there is nothing I’ve encountered in the text to lead one to such a conclusion: if Don Quixote has indeed chosen madness, it is for no better reason that that he had wanted to. In chapter 25 of the first part, he resolves to do penance, to go mad in the wilderness in imitation of the great knights of the mythical past; and when Sancho points out to him that those knights he mentions had become mad for a reason, Don Quixote responds magnificently:
That is the whole point … and therein lies the beauty of my enterprise. A knight errant going mad for a good reason – there is neither pleasure nor merit in that. The thing is to become insane without a cause …
I doubt Cervantes knew himself why this story of a man choosing to become insane without a cause should resonate so powerfully: possibly, when he started, he had no thought of it being anything other than a mere comic sketch. But if that were indeed the case, he must have realised quite early on that he had struck gold, for he does not end his story after the first few chapters, as he could so easily have done. Instead, he decides to continue the story – and not merely with Quixote at the centre: this Don Quixote needed a companion – a servant who complements his master’s madness. The obvious thing to do is to present Don Quixote as completely mad, and given over to fantasy, and his servant as the realist, but that is too crude and too schematic for Cervantes’ purposes: for Don Quixote is frequently intelligent and perceptive, and Sancho, although he can see windmills for what they are rather than as giants, and can see sheep but as sheep rather than as armies, is nonetheless caught up to such an extent in his master’s madness that he half believes it. And when his master promises him governorship of an island, Sancho’s cupidity leads him frequently to suspend his scepticism. At one point, when he thinks the island he will govern will be populated by black people, Sancho goes so far as to speculate on how much he will make if he were to sell them all into slavery. I cannot remember from my earlier readings how Sancho is developed in the second part, but in the first part, at least, Sancho contrasts with Don Quixote not so much in terms of his being a realist to Don Quixote’s fantasist, but, rather, in his being greedy, credulous, and cowardly, while, in comparison, his master remains idealist, noble, and courageous. Indeed, Sancho here is redeemed only by his loyalty to, and genuine affection for, his master.
I do get the impression, though, that Cervantes wasn’t as sure with this material here as he was in the second part, published ten years after. Oh – there are wonderful things here, certainly: the famous fight with the windmills, the attack on the sheep, the deliberate madness (for no cause) and the penance (for no sin) in the Sierra Morena, and so on. But there are also interpolated stories that are frankly tedious. The Captive’s Tale at least has the merit of being an exciting adventure story of imprisonment and escape – and is also surprisingly sympathetic in its depiction of the mental torment of a Moor whose daughter forsakes her father’s religion; but good adventure stories are frankly two a penny: why Cervantes should wish to hold back the far more interesting tale of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in order to give us a mere adventure story is anyone’s guess. And as for the other tales – the dull and psychologically dubious tale dubbed (in Rutherford’s translation) “The Tale of Inappropriate Curiosity”; and the even duller and even more psychologically dubious tale of Cardenio, Dorothea et al that is embedded into the main storyline itself – the less said about them the better. These are things we patiently read through because we know there are wonders yet to come; or, better still perhaps, these are chapters we skip over. I can only conjecture that Cervantes was padding his novel out with such material because he wasn’t as yet fully confident of doing full justice to the story he had broached of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: at the very least, it is surely significant that there are no such interpolated stories in the second part, where Cervantes seemed surer of his material.
Similarly with his conceit that he is narrating to us a story originally written in Arabic by a Moorish author Cide Hamete Benengeli, and that he, Cervantes, had chanced across this manuscript by accident in the market. In the eighth chapter of the first part (the one that starts with the now mythical attack on the windmills), Cervantes sets up a fight between Don Quixote and a Basque; and, just as the fight is about to commence, he tells us that he cannot narrate what happens next, as the manuscript he had been transcribing for us stops at this point. It’s a wonderful gag – of a kind we’d dub “post-modernist” or something similar – but, having introduced this conceit, Cervantes rather surprisingly does not refer to it again. As I remember from my previous readings, he has great fun with it in the second part, but I can’t help wondering whether his reticence on this matter in the first part is a consequence of his not yet having absorbed fully the implications of what he has created, and, further, being aware of the fact that there’s more there than he could immediately do justice to.
All this may give the impression of the first part of the novel being, in effect, a trial run for the more accomplished second part. That would certainly be unfair, because, if we were to ignore the tedious interpolations, what we have is clearly a work of genius. The genius lies not merely in the creation of Don Quixote and of Sancho Panza, but also in the realisation of their potential: it is a genius that recognises how powerfully the fusion of knockabout comedy with sublimity could resonate in the human mind, how a deliberate rejection of reality can appear simultaneously elevated and absurd. But I do, I admit, find it hard to resist the impression that Cervantes knew he would have to let the implications of his creations sink more deeply into his own mind before he could do them full justice; and that a second part would be called for once they have sunk in to a sufficient depth.
At the end of the first part, Don Quixote is brought back home in a cage, but Cervantes promises us there will be further adventures. There is more to El Caballero de la Triste Figura, the Knight of the Sorry Face, than has so far been apparent. Many questions remain unanswered. of which the most intriguing, for me at any rate, is: why is the Knight so sad? What great sadness of the world has he taken on? For there is, undoubtedly, a very great sadness amidst all the laughs (and Rutherford’s translation is frequently laugh-out-loud funny): Dostoyevsky famously referred to it once as the “saddest book ever written”. Does the sadness lie in the fact that the denial of reality is but a madness, and cannot be otherwise? Possibly. The ultimate reality, after all, is death: that is what we all inevitably come to. That this ultimate reality claims us all, no matter how madly we may wish to deny it, is indeed a source of infinite sadness. Anticipating somewhat, this is where the second part eventually leads us – that Ultimate Reality that cannot be gainsaid. But before then, there are many adventures yet to come for the Knight of the Sorry Face.