Anthony James 

In 2005 we reached the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of Part 1 of Miguel de Cervantes’s novel Don Quixote, the first and perhaps still the best modern novel.  This anniversary was celebrated in the Hispanic world, though much less noticed in the English-speaking world.  The four hundredth anniversaries of the publication of Part 2 in 1615 and of Cervantes’s death in 1616 are likely to be occasions of great literary celebration across the world. 

It is very widely believed that no other Western writer in the last five hundred years has produced work on the level of that of Cervantes and Shakespeare and this essay is also based on that belief, further, in my own case, I have returned much more often and more rewardingly to Cervantes than to Shakespeare.  Whatever our preferences, these two writers have in common an extraordinary accessibility and popularity.  Generations of ordinary people have been convinced that great literature is something beyond them, only to find, when they are persuaded to watch a production of Hamlet or Macbeth or read a few chapters of Don Quixote, that these works are not only comprehensible, but also hugely enjoyable. 

Cervantes suffered more sharply in his own life than almost any of the world’s great writers. At twenty-four his left hand was shattered and maimed at the Battle of Lepanto and four years later, he was snatched by pirates and made a slave in North Africa for five years, heroically and repeatedly trying to escape and conducting himself with great dignity.  He was always poor, though in the last ten years of his life his circumstances were more comfortable and he was a famous writer.  When he was forced by poverty to earn a living as a tax collector, he was twice imprisoned in the 1590s, although he had done nothing dishonest.  As a man and as a husband and father, he seems to have been unusually kind and decent, lovingly remembered by his wife Catalina, a woman eighteen years younger than himself, though less kindly remembered by his daughter Isabel.  In his last years his health was frail. 

Don Quixote did not have a very promising creative beginning for one of the world’s great books.  Cervantes began it as a satire (a very savage one) on the cheap romances of knightly adventures and chivalry that were still widely read in his day, an interesting and entertaining project, but hardly great literature.  However, as often happens with writers, once he had begun, his creative imagination and his creation ran away with him, so that his two main characters, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza seem more real, alive and interesting than most of the people we actually encounter in our lives.  Alonso Quixano, an impoverished, elderly country gentleman becomes obsessed with the colourful tales of chivalry which he has been reading for years and seems to go mad, believing himself to be a noble knight whose mission is to fight the cruelty, oppression and injustice of the world, calling himself Don Quixote de la Mancha.  After some initial adventures alone, he chooses as his squire a shrewd peasant called Sancho Panza (the name implies pot-bellied or paunchy in Spanish.)  The novel turns into a satire not just upon cheap romances but also upon the heroic, impractical, dreaming element in the Spanish national character, as well as a celebration of that aspect of Spanish society.  It is also an endlessly rich and detailed picture of the Spain of that time, dusty roads, inns, villages, shepherds, prostitutes, peasants…It is much more than this, however.  Cervantes’s psychological sophistication is breathtaking.  Before going out on his first adventure, Don Quixote equips himself with an old helmet and in order to test its strength, he slashes at it with his sword and is disappointed to find that the sword cuts straight through the visor.  He soon cheers up and makes a new visor for his helmet out of cardboard, but significantly he does not test the new one with a blow from his sword.  In fact, he will never again subject his great idea to the test of reality.  Does Don Quixote truly believe in his mission? He certainly does believe in it and in its seriousness and nobility, but he never loses his awareness of everyday reality, and he knows that the two realities are impossible to reconcile.  Cervantes explores the relationship between appearance and reality, nobility and stupidity, madness and sanity.  Who is more mad, Don Quixote or the all too frequently cruel and vicious people around him who cling to common sense and normal, respectable life? 

Cervantes’s book is profound, the most profound novel ever written, but is never obscure, solemn or pompous, as much tragedy as comedy, it is utterly free of pretentiousness and it is never hard going. 

As Edith Grossman remarks in the introduction to her translation of Don Quixote, which surpasses all other translations into English,[1] ‘Cervantes wrote in a crackling up-to-date Spanish’ which was never ponderous, archaic or quaint.  In his time, just as today, Spain occupied a strange intermediate position between the Islamic world of the Middle East and the rest of Europe.  It has been said that the great deserts and burning skies of the Middle East contributed much to the mental atmosphere of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For those of us who know Spain well, the landscape and climate become inseparable from a vision of sun, sol, above and earth, tierra, below, with the long shadow of a human figure on a horse as the symbol of soul, alma, standing out bravely between, a vision which recurs in the work of Lorca, the great poet murdered by Franco’s forces in 1936. Despite the Catholic Church, the Spanish imagination is essentially humanistic.  Harold Bloom reminds us that ‘Don Quixote is the originator of the actual Spanish religion, Quixotism.’[2]  This is quite literally true.  Across the world and in all human cultures, virgin births, miraculous resurrections, visits by gods involving themselves in human affairs are a persistent feature of literature and art.  These wonders express a deep intuition within human beings that life amounts to more than birth, sex, death, prosperity and material comfort, they convey a sense of life as adventure, sacrifice and quest.  The Jesus of the New Testament invites ordinary fishermen to follow him and seek something more transcendent than everyday prosperity.  Don Quixote passionately takes his world by the throat and tries to convert its inhabitants and Cervantes’s readers to his own vision. Don Quixote is comedy, tragedy and epic and also myth, it is one of the world’s great myths, adapted to the new world of the Renaissance humanism of Cervantes’s lifetime and to our own world.  The new humanism, however, allowed Cervantes to see Don Quixote’s quest with a detachment and humour that would have been impossible in earlier epochs. 

The English writer J.B.Priestley, now almost forgotten as a novelist, wrote beautifully about Cervantes: ‘ for how does the world behave when it is challenged by Don Quixote and his illusions?  It laughs, but its complacency shattered, there is anger in its laughter, and so it daubs his long mild face with mud, thumps and cudgels his bony frame…But this angry brutal world itself is under a wicked spell, has become its own spiteful enchanter, has disinherited itself, by means of the miserable “collective representations” it calls reality.’[3]       

The fall-out from the explosion of Cervantes’s genius has been immense.  He has permeated our culture, and therefore altered the scenery of the minds of everyone, as thoroughly as Homer, the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, as thoroughly as Beethoven and Mozart in music or Darwin, Einstein and Marx in the world of ideas.  Most novels and much poetry since Cervantes have in one way or another explored the same themes and concerns as those explored in Don Quixote. 

Fielding in Tom Jones composed a novel which embodies Sancho Panza’s view of life, but this is not balanced by Don Quixote’s vision, whereas in Cervantes there is a wonderful, endless dialogue between the two characters and the perception of things which each of them represents.  This is perhaps the reason for the essential mediocrity that some modern critics have detected in Fielding. In Middlemarch, which is perhaps the greatest novel in English, George Eliot has left us a picture of the England of her day almost as vast and panoramic as the one which Cervantes painted of the Spain of his lifetime, as well as a scathingly bitter account of the fate of women in that society when they aspire to live life as a quest.  Dorothea Brooke, Eliot’s central character does not want comfort or advantage and sincerely and idealistically longs to contribute something of great and lasting value to the world, but her society limits and stifles her freedom of action and continues to trap her.  This is one of the great nineteenth century themes, one of its great variations on Cervantes’s concerns.  Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler stand in direct line of succession to Don Quixote.  We wonder about them, just as we wonder about Quixote, how sane, absurd or frightening are they? 

Pierre Bezukhov pursues his quest for truth and the way to be a good man through a quixotic series of conversions in Tolstoy’s War and Peace and seems to have found both by the end of the novel, but Tolstoy makes it clear that he will become a Decembrist devoting himself to opposing the Tsarist system and will therefore risk death or imprisonment. He is the first in a long line of quixotic figures who have a political dimension, continuing in European literature in the great French existentialist novels of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus and in several superb novels of women’s self discovery in the late twentieth century.  Joyce’s Ulysses, the most highly regarded novel of the twentieth century by the critics is hardly political at all, but in it we return to a contrast between two characters almost as sublime as Don Quixote and Sancho. Stephen Dedalus the young and utterly dedicated writer is poised to leave Ireland on the day he meets Leopold Bloom, an ‘ordinary’ man, a ‘nobody’ who possesses a decency and wisdom that the quixotic Stephen lacks. 

In the last hundred years the lives which writers, most of all poets, have led have tended to echo the Quixote myth as much as the content of literary works, Anna Akhmatova, Federico Garcia Lorca, Sylvia Plath, Pablo Neruda, Paul Valery and many others have set out on their own lonely and heroic quests either to keep literature alive in the face of terrible discouragement or to explore the strange silences and agonies of their own minds.  Philosophy has been hardly less quixotic.  Friedrich Nietzsche, virtually unknown and unread in his lifetime, wandered between hotels elaborating a philosophy by which life could be joyfully affirmed without the need for belief in God, and Karl Marx, continually ill and impoverished, toiled away in the British Museum for years to explain how human beings could find their way to the next stage of history and live a fully human and rational life for the first time. 

When we are confronted by a writer like Cervantes we are inclined to ask the big questions about life.  Don Quixote rides out to rid the world of injustice. What then, we might ask, is justice and why are human beings haunted by such a concept?  Jacob Bronowski was a scientist who turned away from physics after the development of the atomic bomb in 1945 and devoted the rest of his life to human biology and particularly to the study of those qualities that are uniquely human and specific to our species, producing several beautifully written and highly accessible books.[4] Bronowski took great pains to show that justice has a biological origin: ‘a tightrope than man walks, between his desire to fulfil his wishes, and his acknowledgement of social responsibility.  No animal is faced with this dilemma: an animal is either social or solitary.  We alone aspire to be both in one, a social solitary.’ 

If justice has a biological origin, then we would expect all morality and all altruistic behaviour to derive from biology also.  In fact, the existence of a moral sense in human beings is a quite extraordinary phenomenon.  Taking a detached historical view, we can see that once human technology reached a certain level, the rise of Hitler or someone like him was to be expected, but the existence of a sense of moral values that would underpin the struggle to destroy Hitler is far more astonishing.  The wonderful way in which the moral faculty developed can now be explained in some detail, and one of the most gripping accounts of this has been written by Richard Leakey after spending a lifetime studying early human evolution, often at Lake Turkana in Kenya.[5] 

Human beings at an early stage of evolution competed within their own groups for a greater share of food, status and sexual favours and used forms of tactical deception to do so, just chimpanzees, gorillas and baboons do.  This capacity to play a kind of social chess game for advantage against members of the same species is not possessed by any other animal, and naturally it is played best by those individuals who can guess what a rival will do next, while those who can guess what a rival is feeling will guess more accurately. With the development of the hunting-and-gathering way of life, human society became more complex and the benefits of winning the social chess game became greater, and those humans with the ability to imagine the feelings of others most clearly were favoured.  As human society became more sophisticated, cooperation became ever more important and rules of conduct grew out of the need to serve a common good.  The ability to imagine the pain or happiness of others could never be removed once it had developed in human beings, and as the capacity to think in the abstract grew with it, we acquired altruism and a moral sense.  Human beings possess compassion – in the original sense of feeling with - for sound biological reasons. 

The rise of scientific knowledge, Newtonian physics and later, evolutionary biology, ran parallel with the decline in influence of organized Christianity and of religious belief.  Thus, for many decades science seemed to contradict or deny moral values, but as I have tried to point out, the findings of science in recent years have confirmed the reality of ethics and ethical questions.  The eventual impact of quantum physics will surely be particularly striking.  When science had only progressed as far the picture of the universe given by Newtonian physics, it was reasonable for anyone who could not take a religious view of things to accept the death of our bodies as final.  However, now that we know that every particle of matter in the universe is simultaneously a wave also and that the wave aspect is as real as the particle aspect, we also realize that this applies to the particles that make up our own bodies and brains.  The wave aspect, as the Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman explained, is the sum of all the possible histories of the particle, which takes every possible path.[6]  Just as every particle has a wave aspect, so must each highly complicated pattern of particles – such as the human brain and body.  We may have to rethink our concepts of mortality, not for religious reasons but for scientific ones.  

Don Quixote believed in courage, justice, honour and these things have a scientific reality and, so to speak, a scientific value.  He also believed in a life of sacrifice and struggle.  Today, in the developed, industrialized world there is great material prosperity, yet we know that the large corporations of our western economies rely increasingly on low-wage production in poorer and less developed parts of the world.  Just as in the Spain of Don Quixote, the wealth of one section of humanity rests on the deprivation of another section.  Perhaps, four hundred years after Cervantes, there is a man or woman somewhere who has already begun writing a work equal to Don Quixote, a work which will give us another of the great myths of the human race.  It is fairly certain however, that there will continue to be quixotic individuals who see life as an adventure and a quest.  Let us hope so, if only because our world needs its ‘complacency shattered’ even more than the world of Don Quixote.  


[1]  Don Quixote translated by Edith Grossman, Harper Collins, New York, 2003.

[2]  Introduction to the Edith Grossman translation by Harold Bloom, 2003.

[3]  J.B.Priestley, Literature and Western Man, London, 1960.

[4]  Jacob Bronowski, The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination, Yale, 1978. The Ascent of Man, London, 1973  

[5]  Richard Leakey, Origins Reconsidered: In Search of What Makes Us Human, London, 1992

[6]  Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1967