In debates, the word “quixotic” is nearly always meant as an insult—which puzzles me, since I can hardly think of a greater compliment. The way most people refer to Don Quixote makes you wonder if they have actually read the book. In fact, it would be interesting to find out whether Don Quixote is still as widely read as the universal popularity of the character would normally suggest.1 But it could be awkward to conduct such an enquiry; especially among educated people, one often encounters a strange misconception that there are a certain number of books one should have read, and it would be shameful to acknowledge that one has failed in this sort of cultural obligation. Personally, I disagree with such an attitude; I confess I read only for pleasure.

Of course, I am talking here about creative literature (fiction and poetry), not about the theoretical literature (information, documents) which scholars and professional people must master in order to perform competently within their respective disciplines. For instance, you would naturally expect that—let us say—a medical practitioner should have read some treatises of anatomy and pathology; but you cannot demand that he be also thoroughly conversant with all the short stories of Chekhov. (Though, when you come to think of it, between two doctors whose medical qualifications are otherwise equal, I believe I would rather trust the one who reads Chekhov.)

Literary critics do fulfill a very important role (as I shall try to show in a moment), but there seems to be a problem with much contemporary criticism, and especially with a certain type of academic literary criticism. One has the feeling that these critics do not really like literature—they do not enjoy reading. Worse even, if they were actually to enjoy a book, they would suspect it to be frivolous. In their eyes, something that is amusing cannot be important or serious.

This attitude is unconsciously pervading our general view of literature. As a result, we tend to forget that until recently most literary masterpieces were designed as popular entertainment. From Rabelais, Shakespeare, and Molière in the classical age, down to the literary giants of the nineteenth century—Balzac, Dumas, Hugo, Dickens, Thackeray—the main concern of the great literary creators was not so much to win the approval of the sophisticated connoisseurs (which, after all, is still a relatively easy trick) as to touch the man in the street, to make him laugh, to make him cry, which is a much more difficult task.

The notion of “literary classic” has a solemn ring about it. But Don Quixote, which is the classic par excellence, was written for a flatly practical purpose: to amuse the largest possible number of readers, in order to make a lot of money for the author (who needed it badly). Besides, Cervantes himself hardly fits the lofty image most people have in mind when they think of inspired writers who create immortal masterpieces: originally a soldier of fortune, he was wounded in action and remained a cripple; captured by pirates, he was sold as a slave in North Africa; when, after long years of captivity, he was finally able to return to Spain, it was only to fall into dire poverty; he was sent to jail several times; his life was a harrowing struggle for survival. He repeatedly attempted—always without success—to earn money with his pen: theatrical plays, pastoral novels—most of these works have disappeared; the little that remains is not particularly impressive.

It was only at the very end of his career—he was already fifty-eight—with Don Quixote in 1605 that he finally hit the jackpot: the book was at once a runaway best seller. And Cervantes died just one year after the publication of the second and final part of his book (1615). Since Don Quixote was rightly hailed as one of the greatest works of fiction of any age, in any language, it is interesting to note that it was also—quite literally—a potboiler concocted by a hopeless old hack, at the very end of his tether.

Furthermore, when we consider what set off Cervantes’ imagination, our puzzlement increases: he had intended his entire book as a machine de guerre directed against a very peculiar target—the literature of chivalry and knight errantry, a genre which had been in fashion for a while. This literary crusade now appears utterly irrelevant, but for Cervantes it was an important cause that mobilized the best of his intellectual energy; in fact, the relentless pursuit of this rather idle quarrel provided the very backbone of his entire narrative. As we all know, the overall structure of Don Quixote is very simple: the basic premise of the story is set in the first few pages of Chapter One, and the thousand pages that follow simply represent its applications to diverse situations—hundreds of variations on one same theme.


Is it necessary to recall here this premise? Don Quixote, who is a kind, wise, and learned country gentleman with little money and much leisure (always a dangerous combination for an imaginative person), develops an extraordinary addiction to the literature of chivalry. In Cervantes’ own words:

This gentleman in the times when he had nothing to do—as was the case for most of the year—gave himself to the reading of books of knight errantry; which he loved and enjoyed so much that he almost entirely forgot his hunting, and even the care of his estate. So odd and foolish, indeed, did he grow on this subject that he sold many acres of cornland to buy these books of chivalry to read. … [In the end], he so buried himself in his books that he spent the nights reading from twilight till daybreak and the days from dawn till dark; and so from little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his wits.

As a consequence, he then decided to turn himself into a knight errant—and out he went into the vast world, in the hope of illustrating his name for all time with noble and valiant deeds. But the problem, of course, was that knights errant belonged to another age, long vanished. In the ruthless modern world, his obstinate quest for honor and glory was a grotesque anachronism. The conflict between his lofty vision and a trivial reality could only lead to an endless series of preposterous mishaps: most of the time, he ended up as the victim of cruel and elaborate practical jokes. In the very end, however, he finally wakes up from his dream, and realizes that, all along, what he had chased with such absurd heroism was a ludicrous illusion. This discovery is his ultimate defeat. And he literally dies from a broken heart.

The death of Don Quixote in the last chapter is the climax of the entire book. I would challenge any reader, however tough and insensitive, to read these pages without shedding a tear. And yet, even at that crucial juncture, Cervantes is still pursuing his old obsession, and once again he finds the need to score a few more cheap points at the expense of some obscure books of chivalry. The intrusion of this futile polemic at that very moment is utterly anticlimactic—but then Cervantes has a perverse habit of ruining his own best effects, a practice that has infuriated many readers and critics (I shall return to this a little later). What I wish to underline here is simply this: it is bizarre to observe how a literary masterpiece which was to exert such universal appeal—transcending all barriers of language, culture, and time—could, from the start, have been entirely predicated upon such a narrow, tedious, and pointless literary quarrel. In order fully to appreciate the oddity of this situation, one should try to transpose it into modern terms; it is as if, for instance, Marcel Proust were to have written A la recherche du temps perdu with the single-minded determination to debunk the sort of trash-fiction that appeared weekly in L’Illustration or in any other popular magazine of the time.

But this, in turn, raises an interesting question. A little while ago, in Australia, I inadvertently caught some critical flak for venturing to suggest in a nationally broadcast lecture (among a few other heresies) the notion (quite banal in fact) that creative literature, inasmuch as it is artistically valid, can carry no message. This view is not new, by the way, and should be self-evident. Hemingway, whom I quoted, had expressed it best to a journalist who was questioning him on “the messages” of his novels; he very sensibly replied: “There are no messages in my novels. When I want to send a message, I go to the Post Office.”

Some antipodean critics reacted indignantly to my statement: “What? No messages in the masterpieces of world literature? And what about Dante’s Divine Comedy? What about Milton’s Paradise Lost?” Even more to the point, they could have added: “And what about Cervantes’ Don Quixote?”

Of course, many poets and novelists think that they have messages to communicate, and most of the time they passionately believe in the momentous significance of their messages. But quite frequently these messages are far less important than their authors originally assumed. Sometimes they prove to be actually mistaken, or downright silly or even obnoxious. And often, after a while, they become simply irrelevant, whereas the works themselves, if they have genuine literary merit, acquire a life of their own, revealing their true, long-lasting meaning to later generations; but of this deeper meaning, the author himself was hardly aware. Most of Dante’s most fervent readers today care very little for medieval theology; and virtually none of Don Quixote’s modern admirers have ever read—let alone heard the names of—most of the books of chivalry that Cervantes attacked with such fierce passion.


Actually it is in this gap between the author’s conscious intention (which may be merely incidental) and the deeper meaning of his work that the critic can find the only legitimate ground on which to exert his craft. Chesterton put it well (in one of the introductions he wrote to Dickens’s novels):

The function of criticism, if it has a legitimate function at all, can only be one function—that of dealing with the subconscious part of the author’s mind which only the critic can express, and not with the conscious part of the author’s mind, which the author himself can express. Either criticism is no good at all (a very defensible position) or else criticism means saying about an author the very things that would have made him jump out of his boots.

The closer a book comes to being a genuine work of art, a true creation fully alive with a life of its own, the less likely it is that the author had a full control and a clear understanding of what he wrote. D.H. Lawrence, who was an exceptionally perceptive critic, summed this up in a statement which I have already quoted many times but which one should never tire of invoking: “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.”

This urge “to save the tale from the artist who created it” has proved particularly strong with the critics of Don Quixote. In fact, some of these critics have developed a most peculiar attitude: it is as if the more they come to love Don Quixote, the more they come to resent Cervantes. At first this paradox may seem far-fetched, but there is a logic in it.

Last century, when theatrical troupes went on tour in the country, performing romantic melodramas for unsophisticated village audiences, it often happened that the actor who had impersonated the villain of the play had to be protected after the show, since the local toughs would be waiting for him in order to beat him up, in punishment for all the evil deeds he had just committed so convincingly on stage. Similarly, it is because Don Quixote has become so intensely alive and real for them that some readers cannot forgive Cervantes for subjecting their hero to such a foul and savage treatment.

Or again, you can find another instance of this same phenomenon illustrated in a popular contemporary thriller: in Stephen King’s Misery (I have not read the book; I only saw the film, which is horribly funny), a best-selling author is being held captive by a female fan; distressed and angered by the fictional death of her favorite heroine, this psychopathic reader tortures the hapless author and forces him to rewrite the ending of his novel.

Now, the four modern critics of Cervantes whose views I wish briefly to survey here rank among the best literary minds of our time, and therefore—needless to say—they should have very little in common with the psychotic freak in King’s story, or with the country bumpkins who used to beat up stage villains at the back door of the theater. And yet, as we shall see, both the sophistication of the former and the crude naiveté of the latter bear witness to the operative virtue of one same magic: the reality of fiction.

The first of the critics I shall consider is Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov gave six lectures on Don Quixote when he was a visiting lecturer at Harvard during the early Fifties.2 When preparing his course, at first he relied upon the memory he had retained of the novel which he had enjoyed in his youth. Soon, however, he felt the need to go back to the text—but this time, he was appalled by the crudeness and the savagery of Cervantes’ narrative. In the words of Brian Boyd, his biographer, “He detested the belly-laughs Cervantes wanted his readers to derive from his hero’s discomfiture, and he repeatedly compared the vicious ‘fun’ of the book with Christ’s humiliation and crucifixion, with the Spanish Inquisition, with modern bullfighting.”

He enjoyed so much thundering against Don Quixote in front of a large student audience that he eventually upset a number of colleagues on the faculty, and he was solemnly warned: “Harvard thinks otherwise.” When, some years later, he applied for a chair at Harvard, his candidacy was rejected, which was a bitter blow for him. Other factors were probably more significant, but the Don Quixote lectures may well have had some part in this fiasco.

Nabokov always found particular enjoyment in challenging received opinions. On the subject of Don Quixote, his taste for the unconventional helped him to formulate at least one original and important observation: contrary to what most readers believe, the narrative of Don Quixote is not made of one monotonous series of disasters. After a careful check, episode by episode, Nabokov was able to demonstrate that the issue of each adventure was actually quite unpredictable, and he even compiled the score of Don Quixote’s victories and defeats as games in a tennis match, which remained full of suspense till the very end: “6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 5-7. But the fifth set will never be played. Death cancels the match.”

His distaste for Cervantes’ sadistic treatment of Don Quixote reached such a point that he eventually excluded the book from his regular lectures on foreign literature at Cornell: he could not bear to dwell on the subject any further. But the corollary of his virulent hostility toward the writer was a loving admiration for his creature, which he expressed in a moving tribute:

[Don Quixote] has ridden for three hundred and fifty years through the jungles and tundras of human thought—and he has gained in vitality and stature. We do not laugh at him any longer. His blazon is pity, his banner is beauty. He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish, and gallant.

The second critic I wish to evoke here is Henry de Montherlant.3 Montherlant, one of the most remarkable French novelists of our century (also an important playwright and essayist), was deeply imbued with Spanish culture. He spent much time in Spain (actually he even learned and practiced bullfighting); his fluent knowledge of Spanish enabled him to read Don Quixote in the original text.

He reread the book four times during his life, and he too experienced an increasing irritation at Cervantes’ coarse treatment of a sublime character. Besides, he felt that the book was much too long and that it contained too many tasteless and cruel jokes. But this objection could be returned against itself: Is this not precisely a perfect definition of life itself? Come to think of it: a story that drags on much too long, and is full of tasteless and cruel jokes… Note that the worst accusations that can be directed against Cervantes always point in the end to the unique and disquieting power of his book to conjure reality.

Finally, what irked Montherlant most—what he could not forgive Cervantes for—was that, through the entire book, not once does the author express one word of compassion for his hero, or one word of blame for the vulgar bullies who relentlessly mock and persecute him. This reaction—very similar to that of Nabokov—once again reflects a paradox, now familiar to us. What infuriates the critics of Cervantes is precisely the main strength of his art: the secret of its life-likeness. Flaubert (who, by the way, worshiped Don Quixote) said that a great writer should stand in his novel like God in his creation. He created everything, and yet is nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be heard. He is everywhere, and yet invisible, silent, seemingly absent and indifferent. We curse him for his silence and his indifference, which we take as evidence of his cruelty.

But if the author were to intervene in his narratives—if, instead of letting facts and actions speak for themselves, he were to speak in his own voice—the spell would be broken at once, we would be suddenly reminded that this is not life, this is not reality—it is merely a tale. When we reproach Cervantes for his lack of compassion, his indifference, his cruelty, for the brutality of his jokes, we forget that the more we hate the author, the more we believe in the reality of his world and his creatures.

This absolute reality of Don Quixote became an article of faith for the most powerful and most original of all his modern commentators—my third critic, Miguel de Unamuno. Unamuno (1864-1936) was a multiform genius: scholar, philosopher, novelist, essayist, poet—Basque, Spaniard, European, universal humanist. He wrote a book, The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza,4 in which he commented on the entire novel of Cervantes, chapter by chapter. His paraphrase of Cervantes is imaginative, paradoxical, profound—and also extremely funny.

His main argument, which he sustained, tongue in cheek, over more than four hundred pages, is that Don Quixote should be urgently rescued from the clumsy hands of Cervantes. Don Quixote is our guide, he is inspired, he is sublime, he is true. As for Cervantes, he is a mere shadow: deprived of Don Quixote’s support, he hardly exists; when reduced to his own meager moral and intellectual resources, he proved unable to produce any significant work. How could he ever have appreciated the genius of his own hero? He looked at Don Quixote from the point of view of the world—he took the side of the enemy. Thus, the task which Unamuno assigned to himself was to set the record straight—to vindicate at last the validity of Don Quixote’s vision against the false wisdom of the clever wits, the vulgarity of the bullies, the narrow minds of the jesters—and against the dim understanding of Cervantes.

In order fully to appreciate Unamuno’s essay, one must place it within the context of his own spiritual life, which was passionate and tragic. Unamuno was a Catholic for whom the problem of faith remained all his life the central issue: not to believe was inconceivable—and to believe was impossible. This dramatic contradiction was well expressed in one of his poems:

…I suffer at your expense,
Non-existing God, for if You were to exist,
Me too, I would truly exist.5

In other words: God does not exist, and the clearest evidence of this is that—as all of you can see—I do not exist, either. Thus, with Unamuno, every statement of disbelief turns into a paradoxical profession of faith. In Unamuno’s philosophy, faith ultimately creates the thing it contemplates—not as subjective and fleeting autosuggestion, but as an objective and everlasting reality that can be transmitted to others.

And finally it is Sancho Panza—all the Sancho Panzas of this world—who will vouch for this reality. The earthy Sancho, who followed Don Quixote for so long, with skepticism, with perplexity, with fear, also followed him with fidelity. Sancho did not believe in what his Master believed, but he believed in his Master. At first he was moved by greed, finally he was moved by love. And even through the worst tribulations, he kept following him because he came to like the idea. When Don Quixote lay dying, sadly cured of his splendid illusion, ultimately divested of his dream, Sancho found that he had inherited his Master’s faith; he had acquired it simply as one would catch a disease—through the contagion of fidelity and love.

Because he converted Sancho, Don Quixote will never die.

Thus, in the madness of Don Quixote, Unamuno reads a perfect illustration of the power and wisdom of faith. Don Quixote pursued immortal fame and a glory that would never fade. To this purpose, he chose to follow what would appear as the most absurd and impractical path: he followed the way of a knight errant in a world where chivalry had disappeared ages ago. Therefore clever wits all laughed at his folly. But in this long fight, which pitted the lonely knight and his faithful squire against the world, which side finally was befogged in illusion? The world that mocked them has turned to dust, whereas Don Quixote and Sancho live forever.

That Don Quixote proved ultimately to have been wise is a point which was persuasively developed by the last of my critics, Mark Van Doren, in his essay Don Quixote’s Profession. This piece, now sadly out of print, deserves urgently to be rediscovered by all lovers of literature.6

Van Doren aptly characterizes Don Quixote as a book of “mysterious simplicity”: “The sign of its simplicity is that it can be summarized in a few sentences. The sign of its mysteriousness is that it can be talked about forever. It has indeed been talked about as no other story ever was. For a strange thing happens to its readers. They do not read the same book…. There were never so many theories about anything, one is tempted to say, as there are about Don Quixote. Yet it survives them all, as a masterpiece must do, if it would live.”

The entire essay begins with a paragraph which deserves to be quoted in full, for, in its luminous elegance, it affords a characteristic example of Van Doren’s style:

A gentleman of fifty, with nothing to do, once invented for himself an occupation. Those about him, in his household and his village, were of the opinion that no such desperate step was necessary. He had an estate, and he was fond of hunting; these, they said, were occupation enough, and he should be content with the uneventful routines it imposed. But the gentleman was not content. And when he set out in earnest to live an altogether different life he was thought by everybody, first at home and then abroad, to be either strange or mad. He went away three times, returning once of his own accord, but in the second and third cases being brought back by persons of the village who had pursued him for this purpose. He returned each time in an exhausted state, for the occupation he embraced was strenuous; and soon after his third homecoming he took to bed, made his will, confessed his sins, admitted that the whole enterprise had been an error, and died.

The central argument in Van Doren’s essay is that (whatever Cervantes himself may have thought on the subject) Don Quixote was not mad. He became deluded only when he tried to assess the progress of his enterprise. And here, the hoaxes to which he fell victim played a fatal role: they gave him a false assurance that his undertaking was really feasible, they confirmed his mistaken hope that he might eventually succeed. Thus, these hoaxes artificially prolonged his career. Yet, at any time he could have abandoned his quest and returned home, had success not appeared to be within reach. Only the illusion which fed on the hoaxes gave him the courage to forge ahead. But he always remained free to decide whether to pursue or to desist. A real madman does not have such a choice: he is the prisoner of his madness; when it becomes unbearable he cannot drop out of it and simply go home to resume his previous way of life.

The occupation which Don Quixote chooses for himself is that of knight errant. He is not under the delusion that he is a knight errant—no, he sets his mind on becoming one. He does not play at being someone else, as children do in their games; he is not pretending to be someone else, like an impostor, or impersonating a character, like an actor on stage. And he adopts the profession of knight after due reflection: it is the result of a deliberate choice. After having considered other options, he finally decided that the career of a knight errant would be the most rewarding, intellectually and morally.

But how does one become a knight? Van Doren asks. By acting like a knight—which is the very opposite of pretense, of make-believe. And to act the way Don Quixote does is more than to ape. To imitate as he does is a profound apprenticeship—the true way of learning and the key to understanding. “What is the difference between acting like a great man and being one?” Van Doren asks. “To act like a poet is to write poems; to act like a statesman is to ponder the nature of goodness and justice; to act like a student is to study; to act like a knight is to think and feel like one.”

Had Don Quixote been simply and plainly mad, or had he indulged in a protracted game of self-deception and play-acting, we should not be talking of him now, Van Doren observes—“We are talking of him because we suspect that, in the end, he did become a knight.”

“Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself, and then comes to resemble the picture.” Iris Murdoch made this observation in a different context, but it accurately identifies a defining feature of human nature. It was most memorably exemplified by Don Quixote—which gave Cervantes’ novel its universal relevance.

Unlike Don Quixote, however, most of us do not have the chance to select and decide for ourselves which characters we should apply ourselves to becoming. Circumstances of life do the casting; our roles are being imposed on us, other people dictate to us our lines and prompt our acting. A haunting illustration of this was provided in one of Rossellini’s last films, General della Rovere (1959). A petty crook in Italy at the end of World War II is arrested by the Gestapo and forced by them to impersonate a prestigious figure of the Resistance, General della Rovere, so that they can extract information from political prisoners. But the con man performs his role so convincingly that the other prisoners come to worship him as their moral leader; thus he is progressively compelled to live above himself and to match the image created by their expectations. In the end, he refuses to betray their trust; he is put in front of a firing squad and dies the death of a hero. He has truly become General della Rovere.

As for us, life seldom offers such dramatic scripts. Usually the roles we have to play are more humble and banal—which does not mean that they are less heroic. We too have companions of captivity with extravagant expectations that can force us to enact parts well beyond our natural abilities. Our parents expect us to be sons or daughters, our children expect us to be fathers and mothers, our spouses expect us to be husbands and wives; and none of these roles is light or easy. They are all fraught with risks and challenges, with trials, anguishes, humiliations, with victories and defeats.

To the basic interrogation of man: Why is it that God never speaks to us openly or answers us directly with a clear voice? Why are we never allowed to see his face? C.S. Lewis gave a striking answer: How can God meet us face to face, till we have faces?

When we first enter upon the stage of life, it is as if we were only given masks that correspond to our respective roles. If we act our part well enough, the mask eventually turns into our true face. Thus Don Quixote becomes a knight, Rossellini’s petty crook becomes General della Rovere—and each of us, we can become at last who we were originally meant to be.

The famous multibillionaire Ted Turner made a remarkable statement some years ago. He said he disliked Christianity, as he felt that it was “a religion of losers.” How very true! What an accurate definition indeed!

The word “quixotic”—as I indicated at the very beginning—has entered the common language, with the meaning “hopelessly naive and idealistic,” “ridiculously impractical,” “doomed to fail.” That this epithet can be used now in an exclusively pejorative sense not only shows that we have ceased to read Cervantes and to understand his character, but more fundamentally it reveals that our culture has drifted away from its spiritual roots.

Make no mistake: for all its earthiness, its cynical jests, its bawdy and scatological realism, Cervantes’ masterpiece is anchored in Christianity—more specifically, in Spanish Catholicism, with its strong mystical drive.In this very connection, Unamuno remarked that John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Ignatius of Loyola did not reject rationality, nor did they distrust scientific knowledge; what led them to their mysticism was simply the perception of “an intolerable disparity between the hugeness of their desire and the smallness of reality.”

In his quest for immortal fame, Don Quixote suffered repeated defeats. Because he obstinately refused to adjust “the hugeness of his desire” to “the smallness of reality,” he was doomed to perpetual failure. Only a culture based upon “a religion of losers” could produce such a hero.

What we should remember, however, is this (if I may thus paraphrase Bernard Shaw): The successful man adapts himself to the world. The loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the loser.

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This Issue

June 11, 1998