When Poetry Conquers Philosophy: Reflections on Don Quixote

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Don Quixote
(1955) by Pablo Picasso

Poetry is a sweet and enchanting elixir. It points us toward beautiful things, but not necessarily toward true things. Philosophy, on the other hand, when it is devoid of eros and overwhelmed by the intellect, becomes drab and mundane. Philosophy needs poetry to uplift from its gravitas. For example, consider the monumentally weighty task undertaken by thousands of philosophy students each year as they read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, busying themselves writing endlessly irrelevant papers on a priori versus a posteriori knowledge. This activity breeds a certain kind of un-erotic suffering, absent of spiritedness or thumos, and it becomes the necessary pilgrimage for the modern liberal arts student en route to his laurels. When philosophy is not cloaked in the sweet and enticing scent of poetry, it loses its profundity and it ceases to inspire. Yet human intellect also possesses trouble reigning in the overly-indulgent power of eros. There is often an imbalance between poetry and philosophy. One rare exception can be found in the blend of philosophy and poetry found in the dialogues of Plato.

This debate between philosophy and poetry is nothing new. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates describes an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy, in which both poetry and philosophy claim to be true educators of virtue. The poets claim to possess a greater power to impel people to do great things. And who can disagree? After all would we see the Venus de Milo or the Sistine Chapel without the words of the poets? Surely, great works of art are evidence of poetic eros and its vitality. Indeed Homer, the father of poetry, was once called the “educator of Greece” by Socrates in Plato’s Republic –though in the dialogue Socrates also severely regulates the freedom of the poets. Socrates recognizes Homer’s authority but he prohibits it for being dangerous. In doing so, Socrates represents philosophy’s hidden desire: to restrict and regulate poetry. Poetry poses a threat to philosophy precisely because of its wayward power over people. Per Aristotle, poetry is mimesis (or “imitation”) while philosophy on the other hand seeks to discover and contemplate the nature of things, not merely to create a representation or “imitation” of things. Thus there is a natural tension between philosophy (the intellect) and poetry (eros). The poetic man is at times unknowingly governed by the passions, but the philosophic man strives for the intellect to rule over the passions.

However, what if we suppose the opposite were to happen? What if eros were to completely overwhelm the intellect and, in a word, poetry conquers philosophy? In other words, what happens when an ordinary gentleman from La Mancha (meaning something akin to “the stain” in rural central Spain) becomes so infatuated with reading chivalrous romance novels -stories of knights, princesses, castles, and dragons- that ‘his brains dry up causing him to lose his mind’ and he fabricates a delusion that he is a knight errant? In one moment an ordinary hidalgo named Alonso Quijano becomes so enamored with the fictional world of knight errantry, based on the enticing accounts of the poets, that he transforms into Don Quixote (quixote – meaning the part of medieval armor that covers the thigh). It is in this moment that poetry becomes ensouled 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 heroic 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 and Homer’s Helen. All of this imaginative world is the result of imitation (mimesis) -a deep desire to see a work of art come to life. When poetry overcomes the dreary quest for truth, the world becomes untruth and it becomes enchanted again. Don Quixote reads the fantastical legends of the poets as if they are a true history, or at least as a noble ideal worth striving toward. 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 fictional chivalric characters. 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.

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“Don Quixote and Sancho Setting Out” By Gustave Doré (1863)

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 a well in Plato’s Theaetetus. The philosopher appears to many people as odd and frivolous. He is useless, often silly, and perhaps clumsy. However, not only philosophers, but also 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 read deeply into Marx or Hegel and attempt to prophesy the progression of a new political society. Books can be dangerous. When we read the poets, like Don Quixote does, the world of the imagination overcomes the dreary world around us. The imagination becomes a wild and dangerous wilderness.

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“The Don’s mind is enflamed with romances of chivalry” by Gustave Doré (1863)

However, the narrator of the novel never fails to remind the “idle reader” that the world of Don Quixote is a farce. The narrator of the novel is decidedly modern and his mission is to provide an “absolutely true history” of Don Quixote’s absurd 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 truly know because we do not know the compiler of the history of La Mancha, or enough about the Arabic translator, as the narrator constantly reminds 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 or an anthropologist, 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 knowingly sallies forth to combat the untruths previously published about his 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 own story. 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 complete fabrication. However, within the confines of the novel, the line between truth and untruth is blurred, as verisimilitude is brought to its most extreme test. The criteria for historical accuracy in Don Quixote is absurdly hilarious -he is an ancient knight parading around among disenchanted people and the whole adventure is being meticulously documented by a string of narrators and compilers.

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 like Achilles or Aeneas, 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 in possession of new technologies, like guns and the printing press -both of which transform the entire landscape (see the armed guards in Part I, Chapter XXII). Crucially, the novel takes place in a contemporary time and place, filled with commonplace Spaniards and ordinary events, but Don Quixote imagines this world as something much grander. Don Quixote’s project is to test how well the modern world lives up to its noble ideals, by launching himself as a classical hero, a lone crusader from antiquity, but lamentably his project is also a test that spectacularly fails. Dostoevsky, a great fan of Don Quixote, once wrote that Don Quixote is among the most sorrowful tales ever written because it is the story of disillusionment. Indeed, the narrator sets a tone of disillusionment from the outset, he speaks as if among a crowd observing 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 epics from antiquity, the hero’s motives are always unquestioned and he appears to us as superior perhaps even godlike, and the author assuredly does not write in the common vernacular as Cervantes does.

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“Don Quixote on his first sally” by Gustave Doré (1863)

Following on this point, the focus of much contemporary scholarship on Cervantes seems to question to Don Quixote’s troubled psychology -indeed modern scholars like Freud, Foucault, and Lacan have attempted to examine Don Quixote’s particular madness in the same way that characters inn the novel like the priest and the barber investigate Don Quixote by searching for the singular catalyst of his “madness.” They proceed like physicians searching for a diagnosis. Naturally, they end up blaming the books for poisoning his mind, burning selections from his personal library (though they graciously decide to spare Cervantes’s earlier novel Galatea, a pastoral romance). Are the books truly 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 experiences 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. It is a patriotic tale, and Don Quixote is a celebrated national hero. 

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 (Edith Grossman translates this phrase as the “knight of the sorrowful countenance”) especially 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 or Marxist lens. Leaving aside the frailties of modern scholarship (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 an aging madman who is continually beaten and mocked? Comedy points us to a reflection of the our own tastes. In order to be funny, it must ridicule things or people who try to grasp at something higher than their own nature, like the gods, the kings, the poets, chivalry, or knight errantry; and at the same time, comedy shines a light on base things reaching upward. Comedy reveals things we consider to be noble or base. The act of laughter is a temporary release from political and social constraints. It is light and freeing; in a word, comedy is elevating to the soul. For example, in Don Quixote we see a man acting like a child, attempting to grasp at nobler things. We get the joke because he is behaving ridiculously. In Aristotle’s Poetics comedy is a kind of mimesis that imitates inferior people, and it is largely harmless or playful, like a child. In contrast, Aristotle notes that tragedy imitates superior people who experience grave or destructive events. Comedy situates its audience in an elevated stance, looking down upon less noble people who are incapable of achieving their desired nobility. However, in more ways than one, Cervantes subverts the classical Aristotelian formula. Whereas in the the Odyssey the hero Odysseus returns home from his adventures and rescues his household to make for a satisfying ending, in Don Quixote the hero returns home exhausted and defeated, and he dies in a sorrowful state, 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 and psychological torment, the novel is only tragic at the conclusion, when Don Quixote trudges homeward even though his compatriots do not want the adventure to end. Don Quixote renounces his imaginative world and he dies.

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“The Don and Sancho approach the Sierra Morena” by Gustave Doré (1863)

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 does not always find itself at home in the world. 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. This notion of disillusionment represents a stagnancy and ultimately a down-going of civilization -i.e. when the dream of antiquity is too archaic and the old moral code is ridiculed. After all, antiquity and nobility are merely aging ideas in the modern world. Socrates is the central example in Western literature of the dangers posed by the poets, as in the Apology he cites Aristophanes’s Clouds as one of the chief reasons he is misunderstood by the people of Athens and condemned to death. In The Clouds, Socrates is brutally ridiculed and Aristophanes pokes fun at the seeming irrelevance of philosophy. Nevertheless Athens puts Socrates to death despite his apology. Socrates goes to his death, smiling in great irony at paying his debts (making sure his debt of a ‘cock to Asclepius’ is compensated). 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 lost dream. Recall at the conclusion of Plato’s Symposium in which Agathon (a tragic poet), Aristophanes (a comedic poet), and Socrates (a philosopher) are the only three people who remain awake from the evening’s drinking party. In the scene, 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 mixed beautifully and soberingly in Don Quixote.

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“Windmill Adventure” by Gustave Doré (1863)


For this reading I used Edith Grossman’s brilliant translation of Don Quixote.

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