The Possible Dream
The Quixotic Wisdom of Don Quijote’s Sancho
by Bernardo Aparicio García
Quixotic is an adjective that—though not necessarily complimentary—has thoroughly benign connotations. I might not be pleased
if someone described my endeavors as quixotic, but I would not therefore judge myself maligned; I would understand the person who so described them to mean, not that my activities were lacking in goodness, but rather that they suffered from an excess of it. Don Quijote, Cervantes’s mad knight from La Mancha, has passed into the popular imagination as the archetype of a dreamer whose dreams are only too noble for the world. He is the idealist par excellence—a fundamentally good man, only too naïve or too crazy to realize that he cannot save the world.
This characterization does not seem too far off the mark, but perhaps such a portrayal should give us pause. One hears much talk these days of saving the world—whether that means a grand scheme to make it safe for democracy or to stop a global warming apocalypse. In this sense a culture-wide pilgrimage to La Mancha seems long overdue. Cervantes reminds us that there is only a fine line separating the starry-eyed idealist who wants to save the world and the hardened ideologue who wants to recreate it in his image. The man who wants to leave his mark because he loves the world may one day gaze into the mirror and find a man who wants to do so only because he loves himself.
These character types are in certain ways contradictory, and yet they seem inextricably entangled. As Don Quijote continues his adventures in the second volume of the novel—having learned to his astonishment that a book narrating his previous exploits has been published—it becomes increasingly difficult to discern what character type better suits him. Knowledge of the book seems to cast a shadow on his mind, bringing the sustained purity of his motives into question. Is Don Quijote straddling the line between idealism and egomania? And if idealism cannot save him, what can? It may be that darker undertones lie just beneath the surface of the quixotic.
Consider a pair of conversations that occur toward the beginning of each volume of the novel. The chapters in which they take place are generally lacking in the sort of wild adventures that characterize the book, and it is all too easy to skim over them in anticipation of new exploits, yet the reader who is willing to pause and ponder them will find his time rewarded. In each of these conversations, Don Quijote not only reveals important facets of his mind and motives, but as he faces the challenges of questioners, he actually develops his thought concerning knight-errantry as a philosophy of life.
The Knightly Vocation
In chapter thirteen of volume one, as Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, his squire, are traveling with a group of goatherds to the funeral of a love-struck shepherd, they run into another group of travelers on their way to the same event. In the group is a gentleman who takes an interest in Don Quijote. He is surprised to see a man so armed in the midst of “such a peaceful land” (note: translations are my own unless otherwise noted), and so he asks Don Quijote for an explanation.
The latter is, of course, all too eager to satisfy his questioner, and soon the two are embroiled in a conversation about knight-errantry. Vivaldo, the traveling gentleman, soon concludes that his interlocutor must be insane, but in order to amuse himself and satisfy his curiosity, he pretends to take the knight in earnest. Having learned that Don Quijote believes himself a knight-errant, the traveler opines that such a profession must be one of the most austere on earth, and that he believes that “not even that of a Carthusian monk must be so austere.”
It is this comparison between knight-errantry and the religious life that connects this conversation to the one that occurs in chapter eight of volume two, which we shall discuss later. The comparison is not wasted on Don Quijote, who launches into an apologetic for knight-errantry, stating that while the Carthusian vocation may be quite as austere as his own, he is “very close to doubting” that it is “as necessary in this world”:
Having thus characterized the religious life and the knightly vocation, he concludes that knights-errant “are ministers of God on earth, and arms by which His justice is executed.” Here Don Quijote sees it as his task to make the Kingdom of God palpable on earth, or, as he states elsewhere in the same chapter, to “volunteer my arm and my whole self to the most dangerous adventures fate may have in store for me, in aid of the weak and needy.”
To this description, Don Quijote—contradicting his initial admission that the Carthusian life might be as austere as his own—adds that knights-errant rarely gain worldly rewards for their labors, their sort of work being “harder and more buffet-ridden, as well as hungrier, thirstier, more miserable, more ragged, and more louse-ridden” than that of religious ascetics. While Don Quijote may yet foster hopes of some day becoming an emperor, it seems that he considers his vocation a life of doing and striving for the good, and thus its own reward. What sort of idealism could be nobler?
The Effect of the Book
Throughout volume one, a certain degree of self-consciousness is recognizable in Don Quijote—as when he speaks to Sancho about the mythical sage that will record his exploits and make them known to the world—but this awareness does not seem to weigh on him until volume two, when he discovers that someone has in fact published a book that narrates his adventures.
Upon learning this fact from Sansón Carrasco, a university graduate from his home town, Don Quijote reveals a significant degree of interest in the way his actions are being recorded and described. He questions Carrasco about the character of the book and is distraught to learn that certain unflattering episodes have not been edited out by the author. (Heroes never get a break from the media.) The sure knowledge that his actions really are being scrutinized and made public lays a burden on Don Quijote that only seems to grow heavier as the novel progresses. This burden forces him—in time—to come to terms with the nature of his motives and aspirations.
The strong awareness that his legacy and reputation are at stake at nearly every juncture appears to heighten the importance of these factors in Don Quijote’s mind. They begin to contend as motives for action with his purer or more selfless ideals. More and more, we see evidence that devotion to the weak and needy—or even to an ideal of beauty as represented by the imaginary Dulcinea del Toboso—begins to give way to concern for fame and glory.
In volume two, Don Quijote makes attempts at being a peacemaker, a protector of lovers threatened by circumstance, and a defender of his lady Dulcinea, yet at the same time he pursues adventures whose only merit is their boldness. On one noteworthy occasion, he forces a man transporting a group of lions to open their cage in order that he may confront them and thus demonstrate his fearlessness. It is an impressive display of courage, but also a desperate act that unnecessarily places many people in great danger.
Don Quijote is a conflicted man—a defender of the oppressed who is himself oppressed by a desire for glory. Who will liberate him?
Seeking a Famous Name
The turmoil that grips Don Quijote’s soul reveals itself in chapter eight of volume two, when he enters into a long conversation with Sancho on the road to Toboso. Early in the chapter, Don Quijote explicitly voices his concerns:
From these words it is evident that Don Quijote’s concern is not only for what has already been written about him, but also for what will surely be written in the future. The conversation quickly turns to the question of fame, and the many foolish, desperate, and downright evil deeds of which people are capable on its behalf.
At this point Don Quijote embarks upon a long discourse on the “deeds of fame,” holding forth on the matter like one imagines Meno might have done on the subject of virtue before encountering Socrates. The lecture is ostensibly for Sancho’s benefit, yet the humble squire, according to Burton Raffel’s translation, has already declared:
Sancho, then, has no need of Don Quijote’s words. It seems much likelier that it is the knight himself who needs to hear them. Don Quijote begins by telling of a famous poet who, “having composed a malicious satire against all courtesans, did not include or mention one lady about whom there was a doubt whether she was one or not.” This lady, seeing herself excluded, complained to the poet and demanded that he revise the satire in order to see herself in it. He granted her wishes, describing her in the crudest of terms, with which the woman was satisfied, “seeing herself famous, though infamous.”
Don Quijote follows his account of this foolish act with a more serious example, that of Erostratus, the man who burned down the great temple of Diana in order to see his name immortalized. Don Quijote explains that he achieved his end, even though, in an effort to deny his wish, it was decreed that no man should ever speak or write the arsonist’s name.
A Savior Tempted
But the lecture does not end there. Don Quijote then moves on to an example that hits closer to home: the story of a knight who almost throws himself and Emperor Charles V from the roof of the Pantheon in order to secure his immortal fame. This example is particularly significant because the knight does not actually do the deed, yet he is strongly tempted to do so while he and the emperor are gazing down an opening in the temple’s roof. Having climbed down from the top, the knight confesses to the emperor: “A thousand times, your Sacred Majesty, the desire came to me to clasp my arms around your Highness and hurl myself from that skylight in order to leave of myself eternal fame in the world.”
What is Don Quijote telling us? This is not just another example of the foolish things men will do for fame. The stakes have been raised dramatically; we are now dealing with suicide and the murder of an emperor. We are dealing with evil. This example reveals a serious inward struggle—a knight’s struggle, no less—between the desire for renown and the commitment to oppose evil in the world. Is Don Quijote, like the knight, gazing into the abyss?
If so, this is not the same Don Quijote we met in volume one, whose only desires were to serve his lady, protect the weak, and see the Golden Age of chivalry revived upon the earth. Now he is a savior tempted, a slayer of monsters in danger of becoming a monster himself. He can no longer be the naïve idealist the word quixotic regularly brings to mind. Something darker is at work within the soul of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance—soon to be reborn as the Knight of the Lions. The specter of the book, which haunts Don Quijote throughout volume two, appears to place him in a situation of serious moral struggle unlike any he has faced so far.
Following the story of the tempted knight, Don Quijote mentions a series of daring exploits that various knights and soldiers have performed throughout history. He attributes all of these deeds to Fame herself, whom he says “all mortals desire as a reward and a share in the immortality that their famous acts deserve.”
Sancho Not Fooled
Don Quijote’s words strongly suggest that he admires these famous men and desires this immortality for himself; but then, realizing that he is skirting the boundaries of his professed code, he immediately qualifies his statement. While the fame of these men might be desirable, Don Quijote points out (to himself?) that “Christian, Catholic, errant knights must be more concerned with the glory of the ages to come, which is eternal in the ethereal and celestial regions, than with the vain fame that can be obtained in this present and perishable age.”
He then proceeds to explain how the Christian knight must slay each of the capital sins. “In killing giants,” for example, he “must kill pride itself.” “Here you see,” he tells Sancho, “the means by which one reaches the extreme praise that good fame brings in its wake.”
The relationship between Don Quijote and Sancho tends (justifiably) to generate much talk about the “ennoblement of the humble.” The learned master’s erudition, which is at some points unquestionable, is supposed to raise the servant to heights of wisdom that were for him previously unreachable. That, however, is not what occurs in this conversation. We have, rather, a case of the ennoblement of the proud—of the enlightenment of the wise through the ministry of the ignorant.
I say this because Sancho is not fooled by his master’s speech—not fooled into thinking that he was the one who needed to hear it, or that Don Quijote has truly resolved his inner conflict with his concluding words about the search for “good fame.” Instead of simply accepting his master’s discourse, Sancho plays Socrates to Don Quijote’s Meno.
The More Laudable Deeds
Like the good Socrates, Sancho begins by acknowledging his ignorance, asking whether Don Quijote can help him resolve a doubt that is still bothering him. Don Quijote agrees, and Sancho launches into a series of questions. He begins by asking where all these famous knights have gone, now that they are dead, to which Don Quijote gives a very conventional reply, saying that “without a doubt” those who were pagans are in Hell, while those who were good Christians must be in Heaven or Purgatory.
Sancho then asks about the tombs of these deceased knights—about their character and the sort of ornaments they are decorated with. Here again Don Quijote attempts to make a display of his knowledge, but he makes an obvious error in suggesting that Julius Caesar’s ashes were entombed in a great stone pyramid “which in Rome they call today the Needle of Saint Peter.” Of course, Saint Peter’s Needle is an obelisk, not a pyramid, and it does not contain Caesar’s ashes.
Yet it is the correct part of Don Quijote’s answer that Sancho finds most interesting: his admission that these tombs, however grand, were not “adorned with shrouds or other offerings and signs that would show that the ones there entombed were saints.”
Sancho presses on with his enquiry, getting Don Quijote to admit that the acts of the saints—such as bringing dead men back to life—are more laudable than the deeds of knights-errant—such as killing giants.
Here it is worthwhile to note that since Don Quijote has already assigned a symbolic interpretation to the slaying of giants, connecting it to the defeat of pride, one may give a similar interpretation to Sancho’s words. As even those things considered strictly miraculous—such as the resurrection of dead bodies—are inherently signs of something else, Sancho may well be referring to the way saints live to bring spiritually dead men back to life. And even if this is not Sancho’s intention, even if we have to supply the symbolic interpretation ourselves, the conclusion remains the same: The miracles of saints—understood either literally or symbolically—surpass the “miracles” of the most valiant knight.
Don Quijote cannot help but agree, and still Sancho presses his point even further:
Again Don Quijote agrees, and again Sancho continues to press the point, enumerating many other advantages of saintly, over knightly, fame.
At last Don Quijote understands that his squire is getting at something, so he asks: “What do you wish me to infer, Sancho, with all this you have said?” Surprisingly, Don Quijote still has not grasped the object of his squire’s questions and conclusions, so Sancho makes his meaning clear: “I mean,” he says, “that we ought to devote ourselves to becoming saints.”
A Startling Conclusion
By this point Sancho’s hints should have been rather obvious, but perhaps we can excuse Don Quijote his obtuseness, for it is really a startling conclusion. It is a simple-minded suggestion, yet at the same time profound and even shrewd. In his own words Sancho is saying: “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” For that is precisely Don Quijote’s predicament—in his enthusiasm for glory, he seems close to forgetting his professed goal to be a minister of God on earth, volunteering his arm and his “whole self . . . in aid of the weak and needy.”
Yet Sancho’s incisiveness goes even deeper, for in effect he is also saying, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” That is, even if one’s goal is temporal glory, the humble way of the saint is preferable. Sancho has laid bare the temptation afflicting Don Quijote, revealing its deceptiveness: If the knight betrays his ideals, not only will he lose his soul, he may not even gain the world. In contrast, Sancho posits the example of “two little discalced friars” who were recently canonized, “whose iron chains—with which they bound and mortified their bodies—it is now considered greatly fortunate to kiss and touch, and are more venerated, I hear, than Roland’s sword in the king’s armory.”
By the end of the conversation, Don Quijote is not quite ready to leave behind his sword and enter the nearest monastery, but something surprising has happened: Don Quijote is forced to defend knight-errantry to the extent that it is compatible with saintliness. “Not all of us can be friars,” he says, “and many are the ways by which God leads his own to Heaven. Knighthood is religion; saintly knights there are in celestial glory.” Another way of stating this could be: “It is okay for me to be a knight, so long as I am a saint also.”
Notice the radical change of perspective that Sancho has wrought in Don Quijote, who had previously described knight-errantry as a worthier profession than that of the religious man. Sancho’s probing effects a revision in Don Quijote’s understanding of both knight-errantry and the religious life. It seems that the goal of “little discalced friars” is not, as Don Quijote proposed during his conversation with the traveling gentleman, to “plead to Heaven for the good of earth,” but rather to “resurrect the dead, give sight to the blind . . . heal the sick,” and all the rest (again, all of which bears a symbolic interpretation).
Under this perspective, surprisingly enough, the struggles of the knight become but a symbol and a shadow of the spiritual warfare waged by any lowly monk, who in his lowliness may well be better able to slay the aforementioned “giant” of pride.
Sancho has thus turned the world on its head. He has transfigured the life of a good and holy man, until then considered one of idleness and safety, into the very epitome of a life of adventure. Knight-errantry must measure up to that ideal, and not vice versa. This is strongly reminiscent of the “revaluation of all values” that Nietzsche argues Christianity brought about through the paradox of God on the cross. Nietzsche may not have liked the character of that revaluation, but in this case it seems to save Don Quijote from himself.
Of course, Don Quijote continues to struggle throughout volume two—during which he commits a fair number of rash acts—and he never quite slays the monster of pride, except perhaps at the very end. Still, Sancho’s lessons seem to give him a means by which to struggle—the tools he needs to avoid losing his soul. After giving up knight-errantry and forswearing acts he now regards as foolishness, Alonso Quijano renames himself again—this time not in memory of vanquished beasts, but in honor of what he stood for: “the Good.”
There is, then, much more packed into that adjective, quixotic, than is commonly understood. It is a word that speaks of a search and a struggle, of conflict, of foolishness, of longing, of both the ethereal and the earthy—of the whole of life. For the quixotic should encompass the “sanchistic,” if you will allow the term—the two are inseparable.
Without Sancho’s earthiness, Don Quijote’s high-mindedness cannot remain pure. And we must understand that, however unworldly Sancho’s lessons may be, they are essentially earthy, in the sense that they are rooted to the ground on which all mortals walk. Sancho’s ideals, as expressed above, grow out of a contemplation of the life of simple, humble men—men of the real world—not of a select few chosen by destiny to perform the great feats of legends. In all his delightful bodiliness, Sancho is as a sacrament unto Don Quijote: a material sign—a sign from within the stuff of the world—communicating divine truth and grace.
It is this “sanchistic” grace that redeems Don Quijote at various crucial points in the book. It draws his gaze away from the abyss just long enough to keep him from jumping. Sancho may have turned the world on its head, but only then can Don Quijote begin to suspect that he has been standing upside-down. •
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“The Possible Dream” first appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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