Don Quixote’s preference of literary fantasy over mundane reality initiates a larger discussion about the lure and danger of the creative universe which, almost inevitably, turns one mad if they stay in it long enough. Demonstrated in Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan, In Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, in the siren song in Odysseus and alongside many different narratives throughout literary history, the creative universe is always portrayed as the most alluring, charming, interesting and fundamentally meaningful environment one could inhabit. And, as humans, we will always be attracted to its call -for the sake of our own “sanity.”

In 1965, Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh[1],  wrote a song together called “The Impossible Dream.”  This song then became the most famous song from the musical The Man of La Mancha, adapted to stages everywhere from Cervantes’s revolutionary novel Don Quixote[2].  In this song there is a part that goes, “one man scorned and covered with scars still strove with his last ounce of courage to reach the unreachable stars; and the world was better for this.”

Don Quixote is a famous book for many reasons. The re-definition Cervantes brings to the reader – author relationship, the wide scope of different genres and the questions it raises about the ontology of the text make this book especially significant.  Throughout the book, Cervantes keeps playing with our conception of who the story actually belongs to (with introducing different writers and manuscripts). It is almost as if he is saying “you and me, we are writing this book together.”  He also picks up different genres from different times and distorts them in a way that fits his own story. The chivalric and epic discourses, the Platonic descriptions, the different styles used in all the digressive stories all go hand in hand with the adventures of Don Quixote, making the story more appealing.

These are just a few examples of why Don Quixote is a work of true brilliance, they portray how it defies all the conventions of its time. However I was moved by and drawn to Don Quixote’s world not because of perfectly executed literary mechanisms, but because it illustrated a world of freedom, self-fashioning and liberation. “Everything he reads in his books took possession of his imagination,” writes Cervantes while describing Don  Quixote’s fixation with books of chivalry,  “the idea that this whole fabric of famous fabrications was real so established itself in his mind that no history in the world was truer for him.” Don Quixote then picks up a rusty armor and puts it on, he re-names his horse and himself and sets out to discover great adventures.

Although Cervantes declares Don Quixote “mad” right before this passage, this act of self fashioning tells another tale. Don Quixote comes on the world stage and transforms the reality of this world to the one that he wants to believe in. He creates another alternative in which the discussion of debatable ‘madness’ is completely irrelevant.

Throughout the first book, we will continue to see Don Quixote stand up against people who are trying to reason him back to sanity. We will see this when his neighbor tries to convince him that his name is in fact Senor Quixana, to which he will reply “I know who I am […] and I know I can be all those I have mentioned! (51),”  and when he encounters Marcela (who illustrates another way of self-fashioning) and tries to protect her way of life. All these episodes demonstrate an existentialist point of view that bases itself on the notion, “I have the power to create myself,” and make us believe that Don Quixote is playing the game of madness to expose its follies, opportunities and materialistic values. While knowing the absurdity of his actions, he will persist in the name of defining himself in his existence and not in his essence.

Intentionally or not, Cervantes exposes the short-comings of hegemonic structures such as family, feudality and religion -all of which Don Quixote is nearly exempt from (at least  in the first book). There are times where we subconsciously find dignity in Don Quixote’s madness, and in those times we also realize that the only freedom that can be found in these structures comes through the salvation madness provides. It almost does not matter whether we think Don Quixote is really mad or not. What is important is that his way of thinking and acting proves to us one more time that all truth is relative. Besides its many qualities, I believe that this is the most pivotal realization that comes out of the novel.

Therefore, if we look at the ending of Don Quixote (with the structure of the second book in mind), we will see how all these important themes are nearly destroyed by Cervantes.  Compared to the first book, the second book is more religious and didactic; instead of books of chivalry, Don Quixote turns to the Bible and the world around him becomes more realistic and cruel. However, none of these can, and will ever be enough to justify the ending.

The ending of Don Quixote is a complete and utter betrayal, for Don Quixote dies a sane man, penitent of his follies. All of his qualities that we have come to love evaporate into thin air with the ending Cervantes fashions for him; he is no longer attached to his beloved books, he sees that he has been mad, and is sorry for it. It is a betrayal because Cervantes violates the contract he made with us at the beginning of the first book; we are not creating this story together anymore –not with this absolute ending that is not open to any interpretation. The power of literature is less important, so is one’s capability of fashioning themselves (for the expectancies of the outside world fashions everyone now), but what is really sad is seeing an author tearing his own character apart.

My personal feelings about the finale aside, I can see no literary reason to create such an ending either. Characters and stories are complex and beautiful structures and we enjoy reading them is because, over time, they familiarize themselves to us. After that process, a writer has every right to make everything they have built collapse –but only if it serves an artistic reason. If the demolition excites, moves, shocks the reader; if it makes us think even more and find new layers in the story that we have not seen before. The ending of Don Quixote does neither of those things and it leaves the bitter after-taste of an accident, not a carefully planned reconstruction.

I got encaptured in Don Quixote’s world because although there was always a constant battle between reason and fantasy, it told me the way we create ourselves is ultimately what we will become.  Even though the ending completely reverses that idea, that is what I will choose to believe in and what I will take away from this book. Because I believe, just like the song does, that the world will be better for it.

[1] Leigh, Mitch, Joe Darion, and Salvadore Camarata. Songs from Man of La Mancha. Disneyland, 1965. CD.

[2] Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de, and John Rutherford. Don Quixote. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Image: Don Quixote by Adolphe-Joseph-Thomas-Monticelli


Written for my  Don Quixote and the Poetics of the Novel class, 01.06.2015.

Studying Don Quixote in my second year of college was one of the most enlightening experiences of my time as a literature student. It propelled me into the world of novels and critical reading with a speed that other material could not and changed my perspective on a lot of things such as literary analysis, authorial questions and how I (as a literature student), should approach texts so abundant in possible readings. Reading this assignment back, I realized that there was one main concept that kept resurfacing throughout the rest of my literature studies: the Quixotic Ideal; which refers to the underlying and ever-present tension between the fantasy and reality in the characters’ lives.

 

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