Absurdism, Books

Windmills of the mind, Part 2

Don Quixote’s madness stems from his literal reading of books of chivalric romance and his deluded belief that he actually is a knight errant. He rides out into the realist world of Cervantes’ novel with a lofty dedication, inflicting his good intentions on others, and time and again is buffeted by stubborn reality. Quixote is generous, brave, courteous, resilient, knowledgeable, eloquent, and a complete idiot. I wrote about Part 1 of the novel last month. He rides out again, in Part 2, with his trusty squire Sancho Panza, having been revived after a month’s rest and the consumption of six hundred eggs.

Part 1 was published in Spain in 1605 and was an immediate success. It was soon renowned throughout Europe and within the year was being published in Portugal, Barcelona, Valencia and Antwerp. Figures representing Quixote and Sancho on their nags could be seen at masquerades and carnival festivals far and wide. A copy of the novel was on the shelves of Sir Thomas Bodley in England by late 1605. There were translations into English, French, Italian and German and shipments to the New World. The novel was so successful that an unauthorised fake second part was published by another author in 1614. Cervantes own Part 2 came out a year later.

In Part 2 Quixote and Sancho meet characters who have actually read Part 1. They have become celebrities and find themselves famous. Quixote’s madness in Part 1 was indicated by his strutting and pontificating as if he were a character from a book, a fact that now disconcertingly turns out to be true. Quixote is fortified when told that his noble deeds of chivalry have been celebrated in print: “if it were true that there was such a history, since it was about a knight errant it must perforce be grandiloquent, lofty, remarkable, magnificent and true”. Who can be found now willing to diagnose Quixote’s madness as the delusion that he is a hero from a book?

Characters who have read Part 1 now start staging episodes in Part 2 for Quixote to take part in, purely for their own amusement. They chide him with devilish pranks laced with cruelty to make sport for themselves. In Part 1 we laughed at Quixote; in Part 2 we are affronted when others do so. Samson Carrasco dresses as the Knight of the Mirrors and, later, the Knight of the White Moon and fights Quixote. A Duke and Duchess invite him to their Palace and, whilst treating him to the customs of books of chivalry, torment him with sadistic burlesque. Characters are now dressing and acting in a way that imitates Quixote’s world and he becomes the victim of their plotting. The deceivers start to display the same madness as the deceived. A Catalan Bandit, Roque Guinart, recognises Quixote but claims he does not believe that the stories he has read about are true. Quixote is now forced to prove his own authenticity. As Part 2 proceeds Quixote is less belligerent and more endearing. If in Part 1, at the hands of those he met on the road, Quixote was the subject of physical cruelty in Part 2 he is subjected to psychological cruelty. Some characters indulge his fantasy thus validating his belief that he is a knight errant, whilst others raise the suspicion that he is nothing more than a mere fiction. The irony draws us deeper into the novel blurring the lines between madness and sanity, truth and lies.

As if this is not complicated enough, Cervantes then drags the ersatz sequel from 1614 (written by Alonzo Fernandez de Avelleneda) into his own novel. Quixote and Sancho are outraged when, in chapter 59, they overhear two gentlemen at an Inn who have read this counterfeit sequel. Quixote denounces it as fake and refuses to read it. On being told that the impostor Don Quixote went to Zargosa to take part in a jousting competition, the real Quixote declares he will go to Barcelona instead. This raises the prospect of an existential crisis brought about by the meeting of two Don Quixotes on the road. There is a rival pretender at large in the world. Entering a printing house in Barcelona they find Avelleneda’s version of the second part being printed. Quixote is loftily contemptuous “I thought it had been burnt by now and reduced to ashes for its presumption”.

In chapter 72 Quixote and Sancho meet a character, Don Alvaro Tarfe, from Avelleneda’s sequel who tells them that the other Don Quixote is his best friend. The ‘real’ Quixote now has to prove that he is the legendary figure he claims to be. He faces the hardest task of any fictional character: he has to prove his authenticity. Don Alvaro Tarfe is forced to sign an affidavit to the effect that Quixote is the ‘real’ one. Quixote is asserting his reality by recourse to a prior fiction: we are now well and truly lost in the epistemological labyrinth. There are three works of fiction with competing claims for reality, all on impossibly shaky grounds. Quixote was always from the wrong fictional world anyway and now he is confronted with a character from an impostor plagiarist book. We have finally crossed through to the other side of the looking glass.

One philosopher defined comedy as residing in the incongruity between our concepts and objective reality. This comedy can be seen as one of the greatest of all inquiries into the relation between fiction and reality. A battle to the death between undying reality and our immortal desire to transcend it.

In the end Quixote falls sick for six days and on the seventh denounces his passion for books of chivalry, regaining himself by subduing the forces of desire. Quixote’s death is moving because he is saddened by the unexpected disintegration of his dreams. Those at his bedside try to reignite him with fantasy news of his (not-so-fair) lady Dulcinea. But his refusal to reenter his own imaginary world signals the end. It is not just the end of life, but the end of storytelling. When he disavows the books of chivalry he ceases to exist. Now we want him to pursue his madness because only then can we believe in him: he is nothing if he is not mad. Now we are with him in his fantastic protest against the limitations of worldly existence. Now we are on his side against the forces of sanity and reason. Now our complicity in his madness is complete.

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