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Miguel de Cervantes: That Ingenious Gentleman

A Very Human Legacy

It is hard to imag­ine Spain with­out the lega­cy of Miguel de Cer­vantes Saave­dra. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Cer­vantes cre­at­ed much of the imagery that our mod­ern imag­i­na­tions depend on. Despite the mag­ni­tude of the great writer’s influ­ence, most of us strug­gle to define the fea­tures of his work that make him icon­ic on a glob­al scale. We know that he wrote the best-sell­ing book of all time, The Inge­nious Gen­tle­man Don Qui­jote de la Man­cha. We’ve also been told that it is rec­og­nized as the first mod­ern nov­el. Many of us read parts of it in school and appre­ci­at­ed it for its appar­ent slap­stick humor. For me how­ev­er, there has always been a dis­con­nect. What is it real­ly about Don Qui­jote and his cre­ator that fix­es them near the apex of lit­er­ary his­to­ry and at the heart of Span­ish culture?

For the last few weeks, I’ve gone back to take a hard look at this mat­ter, and in doing so, I’ve dis­cov­ered a wide range of curi­ous minds ask­ing the same ques­tion. Not a few books have been writ­ten on the sub­ject, and I have to say that my favorite thus far has been The Man Who Invent­ed Fic­tion: How Cer­vantes Ush­ered in the Mod­ern World by William Eggin­ton (Johns Hop­kins). Eggin­ton approach­es the ques­tion by irrev­o­ca­bly tying Cer­vantes and Qui­jote togeth­er. In oth­er words, the nov­el reflects the fas­ci­nat­ing and some­what trag­ic life of its author. Fur­ther­more, the life of the author reflects the fas­ci­nat­ing, and some trag­ic sto­ry of Spain in the face of chal­lenge and change. The resul­tant lit­er­a­ture is thus fused to our human expe­ri­ence in ways that would shape who we are today. 

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The Most Published Novel in History

Cer­vantes was born (1547) into a Spain that was expe­ri­enc­ing a seri­ous case of impe­r­i­al indi­ges­tion. The rich­es from the new Amer­i­can con­quests were mak­ing Spain nom­i­nal­ly wealthy, but Haps­burg Emper­or Charles V (also King of Spain) was spend­ing it as soon as it arrived to fund his wars against Islam in the east and Protes­tants in the north. Fur­ther­more, Charles’ for­eign blood and entourage were cre­at­ing a xeno­pho­bic back­lash. Blood­lines and patents of nobil­i­ty were becom­ing exclu­sive tick­ets to pro­fes­sion­al and social advance­ment. The days when a person’s worth could be deter­mined by their achieve­ments (dubi­ous­ly assumed to be the case through­out the pre­vi­ous cen­turies dur­ing the chaot­ic re-con­quest of the Penin­su­la from the Moors) seemed to be a dis­tant dream. As if the tur­bu­lence in Spain were not enough, out­side of Spain the Renais­sance and Ref­or­ma­tion were in full swing in much of Europe, reflect­ing emerg­ing human­ist trends such as wider access to Scrip­ture and oth­er texts, clas­si­cal­ly inspired anatom­i­cal verisimil­i­tude in paint­ing and sculp­ture, and grow­ing chal­lenges to feu­dal insti­tu­tions. These new ideas were being fur­ther facil­i­tat­ed in the same decade as Cer­vantes’ birth with the intro­duc­tion of the print­ing press. 

Cer­vantes was born into this con­flu­ence of his­tor­i­cal lines:

  • A strug­gling, elit­ist Spain that cre­at­ed an illu­sion of pros­per­i­ty but could not deliv­er oppor­tu­ni­ty to its peo­ple. (Imag­ine a mod­ern oil-pro­duc­ing nation today that can­not har­ness its wealth for the bet­ter­ment of its population.)
  • The increas­ing force of Renais­sance Human­ism in Europe that dared per­ceive some degree of val­ue in the indi­vid­ual beyond his or her pre-des­tined role in the feu­dal structure. 
  • The emer­gence of the print­ing press, dri­ving changes com­pa­ra­ble to the inter­net in the 21st century. 
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Early Wooden Printing Press

Cer­vantes was the son of a strug­gling bar­ber-sur­geon in Alcala de Henares near Madrid whose own father had been an attor­ney and per­son of rel­a­tive impor­tance in the Andalu­sian city of Cor­do­ba. Although advan­taged with a good edu­ca­tion, Cer­vantes strug­gled his entire life to be rec­og­nized as a hidal­go. This very Span­ish word, when direct­ly trans­lat­ed, means son of some­thing”. His mixed blood­lines (part­ly Jew­ish) would pre­vent him from gain­ing the sta­tus of nobil­i­ty so he would seek to over­come this con­straint through mil­i­tary ser­vice. Believ­ing that show­ing loy­al­ty to the King and the Faith he could ele­vate him­self above his sta­tion, he joined the mil­i­tary cam­paign against the Turks which cul­mi­nat­ed at the Bat­tle of Lep­an­to. Cer­vantes’ brav­ery in the naval engage­ment was well record­ed and result­ed in severe injury and the loss of a hand. Adding insult to his injury, on the way back to Spain after his recov­ery, he was tak­en hostage by Bar­bary Pirates and held for ran­som in Algiers for over five years. Upon final­ly return­ing to Spain, he was great­ly dis­cour­aged by the dis­re­gard for his mil­i­tary ser­vice and the Crown’s lack of appre­ci­a­tion for most of its mil­i­tary vet­er­ans. His life in Spain was ten­u­ous at best, work­ing a vari­ety of odd jobs that kept his fam­i­ly on the edge of pover­ty. He was jailed on sev­er­al occa­sions and it was not until he was almost 60 (a ripe old age at the time) that he pub­lished the first part of Don Qui­jote.

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The Battle of Lepanto by Andries van Eertvelt

By now, you are prob­a­bly feel­ing a con­nec­tion between Cer­vantes’ dis­il­lu­sion and the illu­sions” that plague the pro­tag­o­nist of his great nov­el. Let’s take some time to con­sid­er the nov­el. One of the core fea­tures of the Renais­sance was the resur­gence of clas­si­cal texts, art, and phi­los­o­phy. Despite their rel­a­tive obscu­ri­ty dur­ing the Dark Ages, the clas­si­cal approach to writ­ten text had nev­er real­ly changed. There were essen­tial­ly two types: His­to­ry and Poet­ry. Both approach­es were instruc­tion­al. Aris­to­tle tells us that his­to­ry relates what hap­pened”. Poet­ry relates what may hap­pen”. In oth­er words, his­to­ry relat­ed facts (as the author knows them), while poet­ry relates ideals (as the author under­stands them). Both forms are designed with the assump­tion that the read­er accepts the text with­out agency or the right of crit­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tion. The same can be said for the char­ac­ters. In poet­ry for exam­ple, if a snake is a sign of evil, it can­not be inter­pret­ed oth­er­wise. It can­not be a sign of good luck. Char­ac­ters were swept along in verse, slaves to the instruc­tion­al nar­ra­tive rather than inter­preters of the world around them. 

This approach to lit­er­a­ture con­flict­ed with emerg­ing human­is­tic trends of the Renais­sance that were begin­ning to envi­sion indi­vid­u­als as agents of their own des­tiny. It was here that Cer­vantes’ work departs from the past and becomes the first mod­ern nov­el. Don Qui­jote him­self rep­re­sents a tri­umph of free will vs des­tiny. I know who I am” he says, and even though we as read­ers may think that he is odd or sil­ly, he is cer­tain­ly not swept along by a pre-deter­mined nar­ra­tive. This brings us to the more impor­tant point. Don Qui­jote is giv­en agency to inter­pret the world around him. He may inter­pret the world in ways that make us laugh, but this very char­ac­ter­is­tic is one that will dri­ve the nov­el as an art form into the mod­ern age. Where San­cho Pan­za saw wind­mills, our pro­tag­o­nist sees giants that must be defeat­ed. This is so much more than com­e­dy. As we think about Cer­vantes’ life, we can imag­ine his own dis­il­lu­sion. The war that he per­ceived as an hon­or­able cause and steplad­der to nobil­i­ty, turned out to be more of a logis­ti­cal and admin­is­tra­tive mat­ter to the Span­ish State, just one of anoth­er series of mil­i­tary con­flicts that ben­e­fit­ted the indus­try of war and pol­i­tics” while crip­pling and killing the pawns that were moved care­less­ly around the board. The very idea that the indi­vid­ual can see war, or the aims of pol­i­tics, or reli­gion, or love in ways that may not com­ple­ment tra­di­tion­al insti­tu­tion­al per­spec­tives was nov­el indeed (no pun intend­ed). As time passed and human­ism became the dri­ving fac­tor in the Enlight­en­ment, this diver­gence would lit­er­al­ly rip the new world from the old. (See my recent post on Goya.)

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Battling Giants

This new approach to lit­er­a­ture land­ed in a Spain that was dis­con­tent with its place in the world and its stag­nant feu­dal­is­tic soci­ety. The print­ing press spread Don Qui­jote through­out Europe at a rapid pace, and he quick­ly became an under­ground hero for his indi­vid­u­al­ism and comedic mock­ery of insti­tu­tion­al hypocrisy. Even our found­ing fathers were afi­ciona­dos, with the nov­el serv­ing as a prized cen­ter­piece of George Washington’s pri­vate library at Mt. Ver­non. Most books and movies that enter­tain us today are influ­enced by Cer­vantes. An event occurs. The same event is inter­pret­ed in dif­fer­ent ways by dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters. Free will is exer­cised. Dra­ma results. 

I hope that this post pro­vid­ed some insight to you regard­ing Cer­vantes’ world and the rea­sons behind the force of his lega­cy. There is much more of course, and it’s real­ly too much to tack­le in a sin­gle serv­ing. The under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed geo­graph­i­cal area of Castil­la-La Macha where the dra­ma is set is fas­ci­nat­ing in its own right. Among the beau­ti­ful vil­lages is Con­sue­gra where you can see some of the most icon­ic wind­mills. Toboso (home of the Don and his fair maid­en Dul­cinea) is anoth­er exam­ple of a place that Qui­jote pil­grims don’t miss. Paradores of Spain has an entire route estab­lished to facil­i­tate vis­its to this beau­ti­ful area. So be brave, and sal­ly out into the world ye curi­ous knights-errant. Giants await. 

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Windmills Decorating the Plains of Castilla-La Mancha