That modern Europeans do not understand Don Quixote

August 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Modern Europeans do not understand Don Quixote.  I wrote this once only to provoke angry demands to know what it was I fancied my readers did not understand.

I demurred.  The matter would have been too grave, too personal, and too revealing to discuss in public; and there seemed nothing to gain by explaining.  But here it is again: Wendy Lesser’s otherwise delightful essay in Nothing Remains The Same discussing all kinds of ways in which Don Quixote ‘makes her think’ (as proponents of modern art like to say) — but none of them is the one which, by rights, ought to be most obvious.

It is obvious to me because I was reared in the spirit of chivalry; not on books of knights errant; but as code of conduct; chivalry as a set of moral precepts.   My descent, my grandmother said, was not a right, but an obligation:  to live up to the name, to act chivalrously.  To speak the truth, to honor promises, to oppose injustice, to have no fear, to yield to the weak, etc.  — no matter what the cost.

As was Cervantes de Saavedra , and many, perhaps most of his intended readers.  All would have understood that to act chivalrously is beautiful and — foolish.  That as beautiful as it is, it results in all sorts of horrible things, it has horrendous costs, it ends in defeat.  For them, the sadness of the final chapter (“In last year’s nests there are no birds this year.  I was mad, and now I am sane; I was Don Quixote of la Mancha, and now I am, as I have said, Alonso Quijano the Good.”) would not have been the sadness of having outgrown the tales of knight-errantry, but something a lot more profound and a lot more tragic:  the realization that their code of conduct will either lead them to defeat or — to its own renunciation, which is, of course, an even greater defeat.  (What would a man gain if he gained the world but lost his honor?)


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