I’ve been reading Don Quixote again. I had put it down when we came back from Spain. Recently, something that has always troubled me about the book and its protagonist suddenly became clearer.
We know that Don Quixote is mad and imagines things. The book derives its comic power from the fact that windmills stay windmills and from Don Quixote’s belief that they are giants, and yet also from how he excuses his behaviour when he realises that they are not giants. But his persistence in the face of opposing reality is such that he begins to take on heroic dimensions, and we cannot help but admire him, even when we laugh at his absurdity. He finds the adventures he sets out to find, or creates them if he has to. He has, in fact, become greater than the “real” knights he sought to emulate. For all the beatings he gets, there are just as many times that he deals them out to others, with the result that just when we are sure he is nothing more than a decrepit bag of bones, he turns out to be a force to be reckoned with. Sometimes his victims are reasonable people who become hapless fools because they don’t understand his madness, or because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; but sometimes they are actually scoundrels and villains who deserve what they get from him, or if they are abusing him, have their villainy confirmed for us by their abuse of him.
In his introduction to Edith Grossman’s 2003 translation, Harold Bloom says, “No critic’s account of Cervantes’s masterpiece agrees with, or even resembles, any other critic’s impressions. Don Quixote is a mirror held up not to nature, but to the reader.” I believe this is because we are never quite sure what is really real, what the true nature of Don Quixote is. Reality, just beneath the surface of things, seen through an endlessly shifting prism, is always changing form, as if we readers shared his madness, and could not tell giants from windmills.