Don Quixote at 400
By HAROLD BLOOM
February 23, 2005; Page A16
The Desert Island Question ("If just one book, which?") has no universal answer, but most readers with authentic judgment would choose among the Authorized English Bible, Shakespeare complete, and "Don Quixote" by Miguel de Cervantes. Is it an oddity that the three competitors were almost simultaneous?
The King James Bible appeared in 1611, six years after the publication of the first part of "Don Quixote" (whose 400th anniversary was just upon us). In 1605, Shakespeare matched the greatness of Cervantes's masterwork with "King Lear," and then went on rapidly to "Macbeth" and "Antony and Cleopatra." James Joyce, when asked the Desert Island Question, gloriously answered: "I should like to say Dante but I would have to take the Englishman because he is richer." A certain Irish resentment of Shakespeare can be felt there, and also a personal envy of Shakespeare's audience at the Globe, which is expressed in the still unread (except by scholars and a few other enthusiasts) "Finnegans Wake." The Bible is read, Shakespeare is performed and read, but Cervantes seems less prevalent in English-language countries than once he was. There have been many good translations into English since Thomas Shelton's in 1612, which Shakespeare evidently knew, but the extraordinary version by Edith Grossman, published in 2003, deserves to be read by those among us who cannot easily absorb Cervantes's Spanish.
Cervantes died in the same year, 1616, as Shakespeare, and doubtless never heard of him. Shakespeare had so colorless a life that no biography of him can be at all persuasive. The significant facts can be stated in a few paragraphs. Cervantes however experienced a difficult and violent existence, though no account of his life, worthy of the subject, exists as yet in English. Even an outline sounds like a Hollywood script. Scholars do not agree whether Cervantes was "Old Christian" or of a "New Christian" family, Jewish conversos who became Catholic in 1492 in order to avoid expulsion. To join the Imperial Spanish army you had to swear you were of "untainted" blood, and he and his brother did so, but one wonders why a hero who was permanently maimed in his right hand at the great sea-fight against the Turks at Lepanto in 1571, never received even a shred of preferment from Philip II, fiercely Catholic King of Spain. Until his old age, made somewhat comfortable by a nobleman's belated patronage, Cervantes's personal story is a cavalcade of hardships.
Sent into exile after a duel in 1569, he went to Italy, where he enlisted in a Spanish-Italian campaign against the Ottoman Empire. After Lepanto, Cervantes fought through several more naval battles until 1575, when he was captured by the Turks and endured five years of slavery in Algiers, from which Philip II declined to ransom him. His family and a friendly monk managed to redeem him in 1580. Still unable to find employment from Philip II, he began a precarious literary career, failing repeatedly as a dramatist. Desperately, he became a tax-collector, only to be jailed on charges of embezzlement in 1598. In prison, he began writing "Don Quixote," finished in 1604 and brought forth the next year by a publisher who cheated him of all royalties. The great book was an instant sensation, but had little immediate effect on the needs of Cervantes and his family.
In 1614, a counterfeit second part of Quixote appeared, to be answered by Cervantes's true second part in 1615. A year later, the greatest author ever to compose in Spanish died and was buried in an unmarked grave. Reading Quixote, I am not at all convinced that scholars who believe book and writer devout are at all accurate, if only because they miss his irony, which frequently is too large to be seen. But then, many tell us that Shakespeare was Catholic, and again I am not persuaded, since his major allusions are to the Geneva Bible, a very Protestant version. "Don Quixote," like the later Shakespeare, seems to me more nihilistic than Christian, and both of these greatest Western imaginers hint that annihilation is the final fate of the soul.
What is it that makes "Don Quixote" Shakespeare's only rival for the highest aesthetic glory? Cervantes is superbly comic, as is Shakespeare, but Quixote is no more to be characterized as comedy than is "Hamlet." Philip II, who exhausted the resources of the Spanish Empire on behalf of the Counter-Reformation, died in 1598, a decade after the fiasco of the Armada. The Spain depicted in "Don Quixote" is post-1598: impoverished, demoralized, clergy-ridden, with the underlying sadness of having wrecked itself a century before by exiling or driving underground its large and productive Jewish and Muslim communities. Much of "Don Quixote," as of Shakespeare, needs to be read between the lines. When the amiable Sancho Panza shouts that he himself is an Old Christian and hates the Jews, does the subtle Cervantes intend us to receive this without irony?
Cervantes's novel (the inauguration of that genre) is memorable for two marvelous human beings, Quixote and Sancho, and for the loving if irascible communion between them. There is no such relationship in Shakespeare, where Falstaff is loving and Prince Hal irascible, and Hamlet has only an idolator in Horatio. I once observed that Shakespeare teaches us how to talk to ourselves, while Cervantes alone instructs how to talk to one another. Though both Shakespeare and Cervantes construct realities large enough to contain us all, Hamlet's is an individuality ultimately indifferent both to itself and to others, while Quixote's is a singularity that cares, for itself, for Sancho, and those who need help.
As masters of representation, Shakespeare and Cervantes alike are vitalists, which is why Falstaff and Sancho Panza bear the Blessing of more life. But these two foremost of modern writers are also skeptics, so that Hamlet and Quixote are ironists, even when they behave like madmen. Gusto, a primal exuberance, is the shared genius of the Castilian father of the novel and the English poet-dramatist beyond all others, before or since, in any language.
Freedom, for Quixote and for Sancho, is the function of the order of play, which is disinterested and precarious. The play of the world, for Quixote, is a purified view of chivalry, the game of knights errant, virtuously beautiful and distressed damozels, nasty and powerful enchanters, as well as giants, ogres, and idealized quests. Don Quixote is courageously mad and obsessively courageous, but he is not self-deceived. He knows who he is, but also who he may be, if he chooses. When a moralizing priest accuses the knight of an absence in reality, and orders him to go home and cease wandering, Quixote replies that realistically as knight errant he has righted wrongs, chastised arrogance, and crushed assorted monsters.
Why did the invention of the novel have to wait for Cervantes? Now in the 21st century, the novel seems to be experiencing a long day's dying. Our contemporary masters -- Pynchon, Roth, Saramago and others -- seem forced to retreat back to picaresque and the romance form, pre-Cervantine. Shakespeare and Cervantes created much of human personality as we know it, or at least the ways in which personality could be represented: Joyce's Poldy, his Irish-Jewish Ulysses, is both Quixotic and Shakespearean, but Joyce died in 1941, before Hitler's Holocaust could be fully known. In our Age of Information and of ongoing Terror, the Cervantine novel may be as obsolete as the Shakespearean drama. I speak of the genres, and not of their supreme masters, who never will become outmoded.