Cervantes and his Don Quixote.
THE NOBLE HIDALGO, a long-awaited guest, has finally come to us, too. He comes at a time when we require his assistance and advice perhaps the most. In the terrible collision of the giants of this world, our small and dear country desperately needs just such naive belief in its human cultural mission. The armor-bearers have been waiting for their knights-errant and have missed them so badly that the appearance of the great optimist in the fields of our literature may definitely be regarded as the best omen sent to us by the gods.
It is notable that the incorporation of Cervantes into the Lithuanian depository is perhaps the most important, if not the only, fact of our literary life this past year. We are shamefully ignorant of the classics; nor do we apprehend those ideological and artistic opportunities which, amassed in the works of great masters, offer themselves to every traveler of this earth as a shared property of humanity. The occasional earlier translations of the classics, as well as dry rudimentary literature textbooks only terrify the youth and scare them away from taking any interest in literature. If he has spoken to his students about Dante with enthusiasm, a conscientious professor of literature is forced to forbid them to read the Divine Comedy in Lithuanian, for fear of passing for a charlatan. This is why, upon receiving a truly exemplary translation of Don Quixote, a pleasure for both the eye and the soul, ever more so must we "make merry and rejoice," thanking Andriusis and Churginas for all the toil they have put into it.
If every nation must contribute its seed into the common granary of humanity, Spain has paid off its debt in full with one stroke by Don Quixote, by effecting a true salto immortale. Confronted with the work by Cervantes, just as when confronted with any great work by a genius, the reader experiences the entire complex of his human nothingness, feeling not only the abyss that separates him from the heights of the genius's thought, but also comprehending the enormous disproportion between the author and his era, on the one hand, and between the author and his work, on the other. Even the pen of the most sophisticated critic working according to the principles of Taine's determinism that have already been put to the test, will not be able to elucidate Don Quixote through Cervantes, a hero of Lepanto, nor Hamlet through a dozen problematic Lord Shakespeares. The mysterious gap which separates man from the greatness of thought that he himself has created will remain unexplained.
Cervantes emerges in Spain in the fairest days of its Golden Age. Born in the empire of Charles V on which the sun never set, as a war invalid missing a hand, Cervantes experiences Spain's full honor and grandeur along with Philip II, and dies seeing its decline. Alongside his contemporaries Lope de Vega and El Greco, and the somewhat younger Quevedo, Velazquez, Calderon and Murillo, he forms Spain's iron honor guard.
Spain is a strange country: having saved Europe from Islam in the battle against the Moors which lasted for eight centuries; having discovered and conquered America; having created the largest empire in the world, expelling the Jews and the Moors--restoring the unity of the true faith, enthroning popes and kings, and ruling the gold of the entire world--the hidalgo suddenly noticed that he was ragged and indigent and had to tramp. Heroically devoted to both the chivalrous and folk medieval tradition, full of the valorous spirit to fight for that abstract honor which is of no benefit to himself, having sacrificed himself to the struggle for king and faith, stunned by the boundless opportunities supplied to him by space and time, the proud Spaniard didn't have the time to feel the disintegration of feudal cosmogony, nor to be alarmed at the formation of the new bourgeoisie. Every year ships took thousands of new conquerors and seekers of happiness in all directions and brought back to the motherland crews of invalids and unlucky fellows in life, who, upon coming ashore, merged with the crowds of tramping students and monks, charlatans and bankrupted hidalgos. At the base of the great and magnificent empires carved out with seas and mountain chains swarmed and multiplied the newly forming society of tramps, the picaros. The picaros are not characteristic of Spain alone, pauperization is a common feature of those times, but, as Marcel Bataillon puts it, "the contagion of vagabondage throughout nearly the entire social body" is characteristic of Spain (qtd. in Cassou 25). In vain the ascetic king, for the last maravedis squeezed out of his subjects, will attempt to force the world to accept the image of his abstractly contrived empire. In vain he will squander pistoles and arm armadas to restore the unity of the holy faith--"arrogant and lonely, the Spanish Empire ... offers the pathetic appearance of things that can only but collapse and whose fall arouses an impassioned satisfaction" (Cassou 12).
This tragic essence of the Spanish Empire, challenged by the hopeless struggle of traditional medieval dogmatism against the realities of life, had deep roots in those internal human contradictions which were particularly emphasized by the Renaissance. In that time of universal revival, the belief in man was posited anew. At first, the enthusiastic eagerness to look for new human values appeared to conceal in itself great dangers and disappointments. Once medieval cosmology collapsed, man stopped feeling those permanent relations with God that had never raised any doubts and which had been established for him by revelation. Man lost the calm and firm point of view from which he could assess things and phenomena. People's opinions as well as their customs and relations in society--everything now seemed to him relative and prone to change. It is thus not surprising that Erasmus, the great humanist, who enjoyed such a success in Spain that even the Holy Inquisition had forbidden to write against him, embarked on the path of skepticism. And since in this case, the noble soul can only find its way out in irony diluted with sadness, it is not hard to find a path which, through Stultitiae Laus, leads to the highroads of Don Quixote's roams.
Upon freeing itself from Aristotelian scholasticism, the human mind went in one of two directions: it either moved down to nature, looking for wisdom and choosing experience so as to assess things; or, after flinging open the cover of Plato's tombstone, rose with him into the heights of the world of ideas in hope of finding the origins of eternal beauty. And again, the mind of the man who has just recovered his sight stumbles on contradictions, since according to Selma Lagerlof, we know "that without having been punished, no one can worship the goddess of wisdom" (425).
Obviously, it is dangerous to give the individual too much freedom. The individual gets scared when he sees the many avenues from which his free will can choose; he feels very lonely and small in this weird, motley world. "The pessimism and melancholy which throughout the entire sixteenth century incessantly kept a watchful eye on the advances made by the new spirit became very relevant once again. The religious thought of the Middle Ages stood guard ready to attack the progress achieved by the concept of man's autonomy" (Castro 30). Having lost his trust in the power of the mind, the individual dashes back into religion, the shelter of all those disillusioned, and looks for consolation or gratification for the exalted flights of his spirit. In that sense, both the Reformation and later the Counter-Reformation launched by the Council of Trent represent first of all a turning away from the Renaissance, a cry to God by the horror-struck individual. Upon finding his God, the individual lifts his head up high again. Yet now his belief is no longer calm, but exalted, his voice is no longer firm and certain of itself, no--rather, it is a cry "Lord, I believe in You--help my disbelief!" Obviously, tasting the fruit of knowledge takes its toll. And now, having experienced all the vanity of earthly honor, Spanish heroism begins anew the fight for the primacy of the spirit, refusing to accept the world the way it is.
It is in this land of Spaniards that abounds in contrasts, in that self-contradictions-charged "atmosphere made up of sadness and greatness of spirit" that Cervantes's personality was formed (Castro 32). In the poor family of a lowly surgeon, in the company of five hungry children, his entire childhood and youth drown in the fog of paupers wandering from town to town, which allows one to assume a frequently empty stomach, floggings, and ample familiarity with spiritual and material wretchedness. And his entire life, except perhaps for a couple of lighter years spent in Italy, provides the image of a constant and incessant poverty: his five long years of slavery in Algeria; his continuous roaming after founding a family, and the hope to make it through in one way or another; the unsuccessful marriage that left no trace; the degrading and cruel services rendered as a commissary agent for food supplies and as a tax collector, accompanied by debts and imprisonment--all this would have laid low and worn out many a person. All that useless heroism in the Battle of Lepanto, which deprived him of his left hand "to the greater honor of the right hand," as he himself wrote later; all those unsuccessful attempts to escape from slavery; his stirring assumption of guilt for contriving an escape, which was rewarded only by slanders from the renegade monk Juan Blanco de Paz; his constant futile endeavors to win literary fame--rather than wear down this resilient Spaniard, all this spawned in him the belief in what is impossible. And all this life of an unheroic-looking hero found its expression in the Quixote, which Cervantes started to write in a lupanarian prison. "The vomit, the rubbish, all of this magnificent color of bile and excrements which satiric Spain uses in its paintings, find their place in his work, too, but this place is very modest ..." (Cassou 113). It is indeed remarkable that after so many disappointments and years of poverty, Cervantes does not feel any malice toward life, and that all his works simply gleam with a great understanding of man and a love for him. "Obviously, my lady, the world is indeed but the reflection of our soul," as Sylvestre Bonnard explains (France 154).
Cervantes's heroic nature admired the medieval chivalric tales which deluged Spain thanks to the invention of printing. The unreal and stereotyped characters of those novels roamed the world doing good and eliminating evil, fighting with the cross against the crescent. This basic dualism was already close to the Spaniard's heart, while in the fantasy of this passionate reader of novels, the abyss between good and evil, between ideal and reality, is further increased by every fall from the world of dreams into poverty and misery. And in his sleep, Cervantes must have risen from his bed many a time and, upon taking up his lance and shield, turned from a reader of novels into a "novels' experiencer," a "viveur de romans" (Thibaudet 251). This is why he finally let Don Quixote into the world, mandating him to experience not only novels, but also his own existence, allowing others to make fun of him, and sharing a painful laugh at himself. Preserving the feeling of genuineness, this "rare discoverer," as he refers to himself, through the creation of his fantasy squeezed Don Quixote into the rigid frames of the daily routine, thereby not only ridiculing, denying, and smashing the literature of chivalric tales, but at the same time, as a truly great poet, creating something grand and new--our modern novel.
Don Quixote's wanderings under Spain's sky have been as adventurous as the many surprises and changes that he encountered in his travel through time, and the three ages of roaming in people's imaginations have changed, developed, and enriched him to such an extent that Cervantes himself would hardly recognize the beloved child of his soul. He was respected as the destroyer of medieval chivalrous and senseless illusions, children laughed till they cried following him in his marches; Romanticism placed the banner of idealism in his hands; while the twentieth-century Spaniard Unamuno turned him into the fighter for immortality and the prophet of the national Spanish religion. Humanity misses his "lessons of tender and crazy wisdom" (Cassou 114); having feasted too much on earthly blessings and having tired its eyes from the clarity offered by its mind, humanity feels again, like St. Augustine, its inquietum cor and longs for the heights of the soul. It was in the same atmosphere as that of Cervantes's times, after the religion of the mind reigned with exaggerated self-confidence, that Romanticism "discovered" Don Quixote and Hamlet, just as in our times, surfeited with positivism yet unable to refute it entirely, the numerous philosophical and pseudo-philosophical systems like William James's pragmatism, Bergson's demimondaine philosophy, the tragic hedonism of Unamuno, and vitalisms and existentialisms of various sorts, consider our desperate hidalgo the true and prime guide. The miscellaneous, and even the most unusual interpretations of Don Quixote's personality reveal only the greatness of Cervantes's genius, the abundance of issues and inferences in his work, and its exceptional radiance of universal human kindness, to which millions of hearts respond. As for us, is it so important what the author really wanted to say and what he said? What lives is what you and I, as readers, find in the book, and I believe that we primarily want to befriend the kindhearted hidalgo and his wise armor-bearer.
And Don Quixote will teach us how to attain immortality by appearing funny. For everyone who does not live with his century looks funny: both the one who wants to regain the dreamt-of past and the one who yearns to draw closer the Golden Age of humanity spied in the distant horizons. He will teach us how to fight windmills with no fear of ridicule and how to cry, when struck down to the ground by a mocking barber: "And yet Dulcinea is the fairest woman in the world, and I the most unfortunate knight on earth...!" (2.64:572).
Taking part in his brotherly and intimate conversations with Sancho, one can hear many instructive things and, although being of the soundest mind, just like Sancho, one is fascinated by the absurd cause that Don Quixote defends, and follows him on a donkey. From him we find out that, despite the mocking crowd, we have to fight for man's right and obligation to make his own fate, to be the "artifice de su ventura" (Cervantes 2.66:580), the smith of his own happiness: we discover what a capital thing it is to preserve and protect the spontaneity of one's nature, that the privacy of one's personal life is purchased at a high cost--the price of one's poor and tragic, yet not servile destiny. We see that it is not happiness that the noble knight is looking for. And unlike Isolde for Tristan, Dulcinea does not prepare a soft bed of moss and leaves for him; he does not care about happiness: what he seeks is the full realization of his life, justifying it and filling it with meaning, thereby creating his personal honor for himself. It is then that one comes to understand that beyond this world of poor and defunct surfaces, there is another, more genuine and beautiful reality--the world of thoughts and forms created by man himself, following his divine image. And Don Quixote tells you: "Think hard of great things and know that thought is the only reality in the world. Raise nature up to your level, and let the entire world be but a reflection of your heroic soul. Fight for honor, this alone is definitely worth a man; and if you are wounded, spill your blood as the beneficent dew, and smile" (France 149).
All of this severe reality; all of this hopeless world which irreversibly and rationally advances according to the laws of determinism which have been thought out by man's mind; that terrible and categorical assertion that what happens was to happen--could man bear all of this if Don Quixote's shade did not roam the world, and, cheering up cowards, appeasing those who have lost hope, did not invite everyone to follow him into the night and storm rather than to accept to be ground up in the millstones of the necessity of inexorable history? And Miguel de Unamuno, the apostle of quixotism, gives us even bigger hopes: Don Quixote died and descended into hell, which he entered lance at rest, and freed all the condemned, as he had freed the galley slaves, and he shut the gates of hell, and tore down the scroll that Dante saw there and replaced it by one on which was written "Long live hope!" and escorted by those whom he had freed, and they laughing at him, he went to heaven. And God laughed paternally at him, and this divine laughter filled his soul with eternal happiness. (196)
Translated by Julija Korostenskiene
Bataillon, Marcel, ed. Le roman picaresque. Les Cent chefs-d'oeuvre etrangers 124. Paris: La Renaissance du Livre, 1931. [Annotated translation of excerpts from Francisco de Quevedos Historia de la Vida del Buscon llamado Don Pablos: Ejemplo de vagamundos y espejo de tacanos, Mateo Aleman's Guzman de Alfarache, and La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes, y de sus fortunas y adversidades.]
Cassou, Jean. Cervantes. Paris: Editions sociales internationales, 1936.
Castro, Americo. Cervantes. Maitres des litteratures 11. Paris: Rieder, 1931.
Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. Ismoningasis idalgas Don Kicbotas is La Mancos. Trans. Pulgis Andriusis. Revised by Aleksys Churginas. Illus. Gustave Dore. Introd. Jonas Grinius. Kaunas: State Publishing house, 1942.
France, Anatole. Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard, Membre de l'Institut. Paris: CalmannLevy, 1881.
Lagerlof, Selma. Padavimas apie Gostq Berlingq [Gosta Berling's Saga], 3 vols. Kaunas: Naujasis zodis, 1931.
Thibaudet, Albert. Reflexions sur le roman. Paris: Gallimard, 1938.
Unamuno, Miguel de. Le Sentiment tragique de la vie chez les hommes et chez les peuples. Trans. Marcel Faure-Beaulieu. 8th ed. Paris: Gallimard, 1937.