Sunday, August 23, 2015

Who Is Cervantes Making Fun Of?

Or for those who don’t know the wonderful witticism that may or may not have originated with Winston Churchill: “Of Whom Is Cervantes Making Fun?” Actually, I think he may be making fun of pedants, maybe even pedants who cite overly fastidious grammatical rules. (And as a pedant who cites only moderately fastidious grammatical rules, I have the right to laugh with Cervantes.) But more on the satire in a moment.

First I have to say a word on the difference between book I and book II. While I’ve been rereading Don Quixote, I’ve noticed that I remember a lot from book I and almost none from the second half. I was puzzled about the stark difference for a while, but I think I now know why it is. Despite Cervantes’s efforts to improve his writing for the conclusion of the novel (he says right in the narration that he’s trying to satisfy the critics who found fault with book I), I just don’t find book II nearly as entertaining. The efforts of Don Quixote’s family and neighbors to keep him from going out again are fun. But soon after he sets forth on his final quest for new adventures, he falls in with a Duke and Duchess who take up at least 25% of the whole work playing tricks on poor Don Quixote. I can laugh at the Knight of the Sad Countenance when he mistakes windmills for enchanted giants, but I can’t laugh with the supposed nobles who tell Don Quixote that a particular bearded man is an enchanted woman just to see what he’ll do. If I can’t laugh with the Duke and Duchess, I’m not laughing at Don Quixote. And if I’m not laughing at Don Quixote, I’m not having as much fun. I must have thought the same thing the last time I read the great Spanish treasure, and that would explain my remembering so much more of the first part.

Still, if Quixote’s delusions aren’t funny in the second part, at least he has interesting things to say. And Sancho is still funny – maybe even funnier than he is in book I. And I’m still more than happy about including every word of this most wonderful classic on my ten-year reading plan. So I’ve been thinking: who is Cervantes making fun of in this book? On the surface level, he’s making fun of Don Quixote (at least when he’s not making sport of him). And of course he succeeds famously: history’s last knight errant is such a hilariously great character that everyone, even people who haven’t read the book, knows about Don Quixote and his mad attempt to tilt at windmills (an episode found in book I, naturally).

But the satire runs deeper. Don Quixote himself says that he wants to style his life after the knights he reads about in books. So apparently Cervantes is poking some fun at Spanish heroic romances written at and just before his time. If Cervantes primarily aimed his barbs at these knightly tales, the wonder is that Don Quixote is still funny for us today, since virtually no one now knows the originals.

I think, though, that Cervantes goes after even larger game. Many times in the book, people marvel that someone who talks so intelligently and even wisely could behave in such a barmy way. This oft-mentioned view of Don Quixote has me thinking that he represents scholars, authors, and (perhaps especially) critics: people who live off of the words they spout out but don’t necessarily live as wisely as they speak. Come to think of it, though, isn’t that all of us? We all talk a good game, and we all fall short of the glory of God. So ultimately perhaps Cervantes is making fun of the whole human race. And maybe that’s why we all love Don Quixote so much and are so ready to forgive him.

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