When Poetry Conquers Philosophy: Reflections on Don Quixote

don-quixoteDon Quixote (1955) by Pablo Picasso

In the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy, the poets claim to be the true educators of virtue. Their claim is of the superior power of poetry to impel people to do great things, and who can disagree? Where would the Venus de Milo or the Sistine Chapel be without the hands of the poets? Surely, great works of art are evidence of the powerfully erotic inspiration of the poets. Homer, the father of poetry, was called the “educator of Greece” by Socrates in Plato’s Republic, though he goes on to severely regulate the poets, and restrict the uncontrolled nature of eros, as is philosophy’s desire.

On the other hand, philosophy devoid of eros and overwhelmed by the intellect, is drab. Consider the monumentally dreary task undertaken by thousands of philosophy students each year when they read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. They busy themselves, writing endlessly irrelevant papers on a priori versus a posteriori knowledge. In this way, a kind of un-erotic suffering, absent of thumos, becomes the necessary pilgrimage for the modern liberal arts student. When philosophy is not cloaked in the sweet, enticing scent of poetry, it loses its profundity and it ceases to inspire. The intellect can only go so far, and it can have trouble reigning in the overly-indulgent power of eros.

So what if the opposite happens? What happens when eros completely overwhelms the intellect, and poetry conquers philosophy? In other words, what happens when an ordinary gentleman from La Mancha (perhaps meaning “the stain” in rural central Spain) becomes so infatuated with reading chivalrous romance novels -stories of knights, princesses, castles, and dragons- that “his brains dried up causing him to lose his mind” and he fabricates a delusion that he is a knight errant? The moment Alonso Quijano becomes so enamored with the world of knight errantry, based on the accounts of the poets, he becomes Don Quixote (quixote – meaning the part of medieval armor that covers the thigh). It is the moment that poetry is embodied in the modern world. Don Quixote’s ordinary commonplace life becomes filled with wonder -prostitutes become ladies, windmills become giants (Chapter VIII), barbershop washbasins become famous helmets, and so on. Even a sweaty peasant girl named Aldonza, becomes Dulcinea de Toboso, a famed lady of immense beauty, a nod to Dante’s Beatrice. All of this imaginative world is the result of imitation (mimesis) -a deep desire to see the work of art come to life. Don Quixote reads the fantasies of the poets as if they are a true history, but he also believes that they are an ideal worth striving toward. The poet presents an image that orients the soul, either in pursuit of the high-born or low-born things. For example, Don Quixote reads a book about Amadís of Gaul as if the text is sacrosanct -the word of God -and, in a way, he deifies the chivalric actors. In doing so, he cannot simply remain an “idle reader,” and he must take up his lance, mount his aging horse, Rocinante, and sally forth according to his new religion.

I have to wonder, is anyone ever simply an “idle reader”, as the narrator of Don Quixote pronounces? The act of reading books, and contemplating their ideas, is risky. It can lead to a kind of madness -like the story of Thales falling down the well in Plato’s Theaetetus. The philosopher appears to many as odd and frivolous. However, not just philosophers, but poets, theologians, and all the rest are deeply affected by books. Consider those who claim to act in accordance with the Bible or the Quran, or those who reed deeply into Marx or Hegel and attempt to prophesy the progression of political society. Books can be dangerous. What good is philosophy without the allure of the poets? When we read the poets, like Don Quixote does, the world of the imagination overcomes the dreary world around us.

However, the narrator of the novel never fails to remind the “idle reader” that the world of Don Quixote is a farce. The narrator is decidedly modern and his mission is to provide an “absolutely true history” of Don Quixote’s quest. Is the narrator the same as the author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra? It is difficult to tell. Borrowing from Plato, Cervantes conceals his true writerly predispositions behind several layers of ambiguity – who is the true author of Don Quixote? We cannot know as we do not know the compiler of the history of La Mancha, or enough about the Arabic translator, as the narrator tells us. If Don Quixote is a pure example of the dangers of intellectual deprivation, the narrator of the novel is the pure example of erotic deprivation. At the outset of the Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha the narrator (pulling from the records of La Mancha, as well as from Arabic parchments translated back into Castilian Spanish by someone named Cide Hamete Benengeli – meaning something like “Lord Hamet of the Eggplants”) both praises Don Quixote as a noble knight, but he also continually refers to him as a “lunatic.” The narrator is a gatherer of data, as he is merely the “stepfather” of Don Quixote. He is a mere historian, in the modern sense. The “true account” of Don Quixote is deliberately obfuscated. But in Part II (1615), published ten years after the release of the first part, Don Quixote is knowingly sallying forth to combat the untruths published about his earlier adventures in the false Quixote, a novel actually published in 17th century Spain by a writer named Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda (a nome de plume). Somehow, Don Quixote (the character) becomes aware of Don Quixote (the novel) and he is obsessed with its existence. He has lost control of his name. In this way, the work of art takes on a life of its own. Meta-textually, the reader is aware that the entire novel is a fabrication. However, within the confines of the novel, the line between truth and untruth is blurred, as verisimilitude is brought to the extreme test. The criteria for historical accuracy in Don Quixote is absurdly hilarious -he is an ancient knight parading around among disenchanted people.

Don Quixote is often called the ‘first modern novel.’ What is modern about Don Quixote? First, the character of Don Quixote is anachronistic -he sees himself in the eyes of the ancient heroes, while dwelling in an unremarkable time and place (though the novel was published during Spain’s Siglio Oro). However, Don Quixote also lives in a changed world -a world largely devoid of the gods, absent of true chivalry, and a world that possesses new technologies, like guns and the printing press -both of which transform the entire landscape (see the armed guards in Part I, Chapter XXII). What is critical is that the novel takes place in a contemporary place and time, filled with commonplace people and ordinary events, that Don Quixote imagines into something much grander. Don Quixote’s project is to test how well the modern world lives up to its ideals of nobility, by stamping the world with a present-day hero from antiquity, but lamentably it is a test that spectacularly fails. Dostoevsky was a great fan of Don Quixote – he once wrote that Don Quixote is one of the saddest tales ever written because it is the story of disillusionment. Indeed, the narrator sets a tone of disillusionment from the outset, for he speaks as if among the crowd in observation of the unusual character of Don Quixote’s madness. We do not find such a narrator in other works, such as those of Homer or Virgil. In the writings of the ancients, the hero’s motives were unquestioned, and the author assuredly did not write in the common vernacular.

Following on this point, the focus of much contemporary discussion is regarding Don Quixote’s psychology -indeed modern scholars like Freud, Foucault, and Lacan have attempted to examine Don Quixote’s particular madness, in the same way that the priest and the barber do in the novel when they attempt to locate the catalyst of Don Quixote’s “madness” and end up blaming the books, burning selections from his library (though they graciously decide to spare Cervantes’s earlier book Galatea, a pastoral novel). Are the books at fault? Who is to blame for Don Quixote’s condition? And why does he embark on his mission in the first place? This has become the standard question. A review of Part I indicates he embarks “for the sake of his honor and as a service to the nation, to become a knight errant and travel the world with his armor and his horse to seek adventures and engage in everything he had read that knights errant engaged in, righting all manner of wrongs and, by seizing the opportunity and placing himself in danger and ending those wrongs, winning eternal renown and everlasting fame” (21). His quest is two-fold: a personal quest for his “honor” and a political quest “as a service to the nation.” At the conclusion of part II, wherein he renounces chivalry, and has a brief dream to live a pastoral life as a shepherd, an argument can be made that he achieves both of these objectives, as even today Don Quixote is considered the seminal text of the nation of Spain. 

Lastly, what is the role of comedy in the novel? Contemporary scholarship of Don Quixote either tends to feel sorrow for him as the Caballero de la Triste Figurais (Grossman translates this as the “knight of the sorrowful countenance”) when he is physically abused in scene after scene, most notably in his encounter with the Duke and the Duchess in Part II; or scholars attempt to psychoanalyze the novel, or even interpret the story through a Hegelian-Marxist lexicon. Leaving aside the frailties of modern scholars (see Nabokov’s lectures on Don Quixote in 1983) – the novel is undoubtedly hilarious, as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza have become the standard comedic archetypes for over 400 years. In reading the book, we cannot help but laugh. But what is so funny about a madman who is continually beaten up and played tricks on? Comedy points to a reflection of the audience’s tastes. In order to be funny, it must ridicule things or people trying to grasp at something of an impossibly high nature, like the gods, kings, poets, chivalry, or knight errantry; and at the same time, comedy shines a light on base things. Laughter is a temporary release from political constraints. It is light For example, in Don Quixote we see a man acting like a child, attempting the grasp at nobler things. We get the joke because he is  In Aristotles Poetics he notes that comedy imitates inferior people, and it is largely harmless and playful, like a child. In contrast, Aristotle notes that tragedy imitates superior people who experience a gravely destructive downfall. In more ways than one, Cervantes subverts the classical Aristotelian formulas for great works -whereas in the the Odyssey Odysseus returns home from his adventures and rescues his household for a happy ending, in Don Quixote the hero returns home exhausted in defeat, and he dies ending his dream of nostalgia for a bygone era. Unlike Melville’s Captain Ahab, who is assuredly not funny and who dies chasing his wild revenge-fantasy, Don Quixote is defeated by the malaise of the modern world. Throughout the novel, we grow to love Don Quixote, and his dream becomes our dream. Despite endless scenes of physical abuse, the novel is only tragic at the conclusion, when his counterparts do not want the adventure to end, but Don Quixote renounces his imaginative world.

Perhaps it can be said, at the conclusion, that the unbridled eros of the poets is gravely dangerous because of their power to inspire and encourage the soul to reach outside itself. The poets provide a reflection of being by encouraging becoming. The true sorrow of the poets is when the dream is over and someone awakens in disillusionment. Disillusionment represents a stagnancy and ultimately a down-going of Western civilization -when the dream of antiquity is too archaic and the old moral code is ridiculed. Socrates is the central example in Western literature of the dangers of the poets, as in the Apology he cites Aristophanes’s Clouds as one of the chief reasons he is misunderstood by the masses – a brutal satire of Socrates and the seeming irrelevance of philosophy. Nevertheless Athens puts Socrates to death, despite his apology. He goes to his death, smiling in great irony at paying his debts (making sure his debt of a ‘cock to Asclepius’ is paid). His death is as much a comedy as it is a tragedy, while with the death of Don Quixote we are faced with sorrow and a yearning to rebuild his dream. Recall at the conclusion of Plato’s Symposium in which Agathon (tragic poet), Aristophanes (comedic poet), and Socrates are the only remaining three awake from the evenings drinking party and Socrates is attempting to convince both poets that a tragic poet must be both tragic as well as comic. The two poets have a hard time tracking with Socrates. As the revelries end, to quote Shakespeare, and the drinking party subsides, the duality of comedy and tragedy becomes apparent, especially for the sober mind of the philosopher. We see these two elements beautifully mixed in Don Quixote.

(For these scattered reflections I used Edith Grossman’s masterful translation.)

donquixote2“Don Quixote and Sancho Setting Out” By Gustave Dore

donquixote4“The Don’s mind is enflamed with romances of chivalry” by Gustave Dore



donquixote 6“Windmill Adventure” by: Gustave Dore

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