Don Quixote goes mad in the second paragraph of his own story. This madness, diagnosed by Cervantes, flows from the belief that everything he has read in books of chivalric romance is literally true. He fails to distinguish fiction from reality. His madness is therefore not chemical, nor genetic, nor the result of abusive nurture, but stems from too much reading and, more precisely, too little ability to read what he is reading. His is a literary ailment. In a book of chivalric romance this knight-errant would be quite normal. In a realist novel he is mad; a character who falls frequent prey to his delusions. Aged about 50, lean, with pasteboard helmet and decrepit armour and riding a skinny barn nag, he takes up lance and sword and sets forth, bent on righting wrongs, defending the helpless and destroying the wicked. He is passionately attached to the ideals he has read about; his vision becomes his mission. “The famous Don Quixote de la Mancha, the redresser of injuries, the righter of wrongs, the reliever of maidens, the dread of giants, and the conqueror of battles.”
Every reckless adventure on the road ends for the lean, withered and pitiful Quixote in injury or humiliation. A fate his companion Sancho Panza, a befuddled, earthy local farmer, fails each time to prevent. Quixote is bloodied but unbowed taking his daily beatings stoically, as mere flesh wounds. In his quest to destroy injustice, he merely creates more of it. At war with Freud’s reality principle he is buffeted time and again by sheer stubborn recalcitrant reality. And despite all this, fortified by his lofty dedication to knight errantry, even though his zeal is committed to an honour that no longer exists, he retains the unshakable belief that he is magnificent. He and Sancho grow more and more likeable as they suffer. Quixote lives by illusion and folly and so is the opposite of an empirical philosopher: he is a loveable human being.
These are some of his adventures in Part 1.
- Quixote launches a charge on twenty Yanguesians who club him with vehemence and animosity before departing. He explains away his defeat to Sancho afterwards as the result of drawing his sword against non-knights which is a violation of the strict chivalric code. “I believe the God of battle has permitted this chastisement to fall upon me as punishment for having transgressed the laws of chivalry.”
- Feeling ill Quixote mixes ingredients to make a medicine (oil, wine, salt and rosemary). He drinks it and immediately vomits. Claiming to feel slightly better he declares he has discovered the mythical Balsam of Fierbras. It fails to improve Sancho’s health but this is because “you are not dubbed knight; for I am of opinion, this liquor can do no good to those who are not.”
- He and Sancho see a flock of sheep on the hill. Quixote mistakes them for a great army and after describing to Sancho the knights in great detail charges into the fray and kills seven sheep. He points out afterwards that a sorcerer brought about this metamorphosis in the midst of battle to thwart him.
- Quixote mistaking windmills for giants charges with lance at the sails, is hitched, circulated into the air and dumped on the ground. “Now I verily believe, and it is almost certainly so, that the sage Friston who stole away my chamber and my books, has metamorphosed these giants into windmills, on purpose to deprive me of the glory of vanquishing them, so great is his enmity he bears me.”
- He takes a basin from a passing barber and asserts it to be the mythic and powerful helmet of Mambrino and places it with dignity upon his head. Sancho says it is just a barber’s basin. Quixote, with condescension, explains the enchanted helmet fell into a barber’s hands who, not understanding what he had, melted it down “which as you say does look like a barber’s basin: but, be it what it will, to me, who knows it, its transformation signifies nothing.”
- Seeing a group of passing penitents carrying an icon of the Virgin Mary in procession to a hermitage, and thinking they are ruffians who have captured a luckless lady, Quixote ferociously attacks them to restore her liberty. He is repelled and gets a beating from the ecclesiastics who leave him for dead. “Sancho, it will be great prudence in us to wait until the evil influence of the stars which now reigns, is over-passed.” They decide to go home until Quixote’s foul luck has turned.
Quixote pursues his ideals without ever understanding his actual situation. When brute reality collides with his unshakeable vision, he explains away his misreading by a further misreading. His ideal is imperishable because any doubt is finessed with a fresh assertion of the ideal that resolves the doubt. Counter evidence is twisted into service as further evidence. He never comes face to face with his own limitations and instead gently chides the sceptical Sancho for his misunderstanding. Being an idealist means, it seems, never having to say you’re sorry. The novel is a rumination on the mad certainty of belief. Quixote believes not because he can understand, he believes because he can believe. The more dogmatic is his certainty, the more uncertain is ours. His madness is nothing more than the madness of humans who strive and strive again, with lofty certainty, against all possibility.
Nabokov thought the book an encyclopaedia of cruelty, a bitter and barbarous work. Auden and Dostoevsky found in Quixote’s sorrowful countenance a portrait of the Christian saint. Imitations have been written by Melville, Flaubert, Borges, Kafka, Gogol and others. Someone has counted that there are over fifty English translations alone (only the Bible has more). There are seven ballets, an Opera, several plays (one, Cardenia, now lost, was written by Shakespeare), films and iconic images by Gustav Doré, Picasso, Dali and Honoré Daumier. Faulkner said he read it once every year. There is a board game, a 1964 musical and even (I am told) a 60s Danish porn adaptation. Terry Gilliam is trying to film a version as I write, dementedly pursuing the unlikely goal of adapting this book for the screen. An asteroid has been named after it, and a video game. Hugo Chavez, when President of Venezuela, distributed one million copies of the novel free under the title Operation Dulcinea. And all this from a novel about delusional desire, published in 1605. (Ben Okri says that Cervantes’ Don Quixote contains the seedlings for every novel written since.)
Humans, for some reason, have a unquenchable need to imagine people and things that don’t exist. Through the unrealities of art humans make imaginative versions of the world. Readers need to be able to understand the difference between literature and reality. Unlike Quixote we understand the fictionality of fiction, don’t take it literally, and are able to decode it. At the heart of this novel is a confrontation between real life and fantasy. Cervantes wrote a realist novel about a man trying to live a life of romantic chivalry. We understand that romance is full of marvels and the supernatural, whereas realist novels are empirical. In a book of chivalric romance this knight-errant would be quite normal, in a realistic novel he is quite mad. It’s as if Cervantes has inserted his character into the wrong text. We, as good ironic readers of fiction, can understand this. Quixote, as a bad literal reader of fiction, cannot. To identify Quixote’s idealism as madness we are required to read the realistic part of the narrative as accurate and read Quixote’s idealism as delusion. From that contradiction this comedy of misunderstanding flows. But the whole of Cervantes’ narrative (idealism and realism) is nothing more than words conjured from thin air by the author. Both the idealism and the realism here are literary constructs. It is hardly surprising if Quixote lives and talks like a book because he is in a book, but then so is Sancho. In the end there is no actual difference between the imaginary reality of Quixote’s delusions and the imaginary reality of the world Cervantes has inserted him into. To read this novel properly then, requires us to fail to identify the unreality of the world Quixote encounters. And it was this sort of delusional failure and misreading that sent Quixote mad in the first place. In being forced to submit to this mistake are we not as enchanted by reading as Quixote? Where did I put my helmet of Mambrino?