Sunday, May 13, 2018


Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra (1547-1616) was born in Alcalá de Henares. His father Rodrigo de Cervantes was a physician of modest means. Cervantes seems to have studied with the Jesuits in Córdoba or Seville and perhaps in Salamanca as well. It is fairly certain that he was a pupil of López de Hoyos in Madrid. 

In 1569 he went to Italy as part of Cardinal Acquaviva's retinue. After enlisting as a soldier in 1570 he fought in the battle of Lepanto aboard the galley Marquesa. For the rest of his life he would boast of the wounds that he received in his hands and on his forehead. Subsequently, he fought in the Corfú, Navarino, and Tunis campaigns. 

On his way back to Spain in 1575, the galley El Sol was attacked by Turkish ships and Cervantes was taken to Algeria as a captive, where he may have been sexually abused. During his five years of captivity he wrote the Epístola a Mateo Vázquez. Juan Gil obtained Cervantes's freedom in 1580 in exchange for 500 ducats. 

Once back in Spain, he became a commissioner collecting funds for the supposedly Invincible Armada. He had one daughter, Isabel, from his liaison with Ana de Villafranca. He married Catalina de Salazar y Palacios in 1584. He was twice imprisoned for embezzlement and for failing to pay his debts. He was sent to jail in 1603 when the corpse of Gaspar de Ezpaleta was found on his doorstep, but was released for lack of evidence. From 1613 onwards one of his books was to appear every year until the last one, Persiles, with its dedication in which he takes leave of his readers signed three days before his death, on April 23, 1616. 

Cervantes wrote poems, but they are little read nowadays.  Analysis has also diminished the reputation of his plays, but two of them, Los tratos de Argel and La Numancia, made a significant impact and were not surpassed until Lope de Vega appeared. Cervantes's overall production included 16 dramatic works, among which were eight full-length plays He also wrote eight short farces (entremeses).  Cervantes's farces, whose dates and order of composition are not known, seem not to have been performed in their time. Cervantes endowed them with novelistic elements such as simplified plot, the type of description normally associated with the novel, and character development.

Listed chronologically, Cervantes’ novels are La Galatea (1585); El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha I (1605); Novelas ejemplares (1613); Segunda parte del ingenioso caballero don Quijote de la Mancha (1615), and Los trabajos de Persiles y Segismunda, historia septentrional (1617). Los trabajos attests not only to the survival of Greek novelistic themes but also of the survival of forms and concepts of the Spanish novel current during the Renaissance. 

In 1605 Miguel de Cervantes published the first part of his novel El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha. An unprecedented success, six editions appeared in the first year and it was translated into English in 1612 and into French in 1614. Given to reading books of chivalry, the protagonist, influenced by the exploits of his heroes, loses his mind and decides to become a knight, go out in search of adventure and impose justice according to the code of the knights errant. Cervantes's work, a keen critique of the literature of his time, presented the clash between reality and the ideals which Don Quijote sought to revive, and at the same time originated the theme of the clairvoyance of insanity. 

Don Quijote has been termed the first novel, which does not seem quite right as their were novels in Greco-Roman antiquity.  Yet Cervantes created a new, more capacious model of the novel, synthesizing earlier precedents such as the tales of chivalry and accommodating voices of various social classes in a polymorphous whole.

In 1614 Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda (possibly a pen name) published a spurious Segundo tomo del Ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha in Tarragona while Cervantes was working on his own part two, which appeared in 1615. Part one interpolates peripheral episodes into the main plot. This structural aspect was criticized in Cervantes's time and continues to be so in the present. This criticism influenced Cervantes in composing the second part, where these stories no longer appear. In his full maturity, Cervantes demonstrated a mastery of theatrical illusion which, absent from part one, achieves its proper narrative function in part two. 

Some years ago in my blog (Dyneslines, 2005) I posited some views of my own regarding the innovative character of Cervantes’ masterwork. I asked whether there might a deep affinity between Cervantes and Einstein. We may start with this proposal: in the social world Cervantes anticipated some aspects of the principles of modern physics in the natural world. Arguably the central theme of Don Quijote is the problem of illusion and reality. When the Knight sees two clouds of dust in the distance he assumes that they are two fighting armies advancing on one another for a great battle. Approaching more closely, he finds to his discomfort that they are really just two herds of sheep. Not so, says the Don. If Sancho will follow them, he will find that the armies had been merely temporarily enchanted, and will resume their former shape.

Unlike some of his Spanish contemporaries Cervantes did not flatly pronounce "la vida es sueño," life is a dream. Rather, we must accept a constant oscillation between reality and illusion, or perhaps better, between two (or more) illusions. The role of the observer, sometimes confident sometimes bewildered, is paramount. As the twentieth-century dramatist Luigi Pirandello noted, “Così è, se vi pare,” that’s the way it is, if you think so." Many have found this situation disconcerting. Yet it seems inseparable from the full embrace of the modern experience.

Perhaps the ultimate basis of the posited Cervantes-Einstein affinity is this. In megahistorical terms Don Quijote is about the clashing of two tectonic plates. These plates reflect the shift from the medieval worldview to that of modern times. However, since the medieval tales of chivalry that so influenced Cervantes’ hero had so little connection with reality, there is a second clash: between fantasy and lived experience.

Lost to most modern readers is the intertextual aspect: the interplay with the various older romances of chivalry still widely current in the early seventeenth century over against which Cervantes places his narrative. These books are of course the “cocaine” of the hidalgo’s addiction. They are generally considered pernicious—but not all: note the drastic "literary Inquisition" scene of Chapter Six in Part One where the Don’s friends decide which works to commend to the flames.  Some survived.

I am not the first to detect a similarity with certain currents of the modern scientific world view. In an influential 1948 essay on the perspectivism of Don Quijote the brilliant Austrian-American philologist Leo Spitzer detected a kind of indeterminacy in Cervantes. Spitzer starts with a basic, seemingly trivial issue: the instability of personal names in the novel. For example, sources suggest that the name of the hero may have been Quijada, Quesada, or Quijana. (And even today some write Quixote instead of Quijote.) The philologist goes on to discuss puns, hybrid word formations, different levels of speech (including argot and dialect), and the refraction of events and actions through inconclusive dialogue.

Sometimes the indeterminacy is due to nothing more than the difficulty of coordinating such a long, unwieldy story. In Part One Sancho’s donkey is stolen, and then it reappears without explanation, than disappears again, before finally reappearing once more. Apparently, Cervantes noted a discrepancy and tried to fix it, but the printer got the instructions backwards and turned the donkey into a kind of Schrödinger’s cat. However, the matter is deeper than that, as one sees when the Don concedes that what he takes to be Mambrino’s helmet may be just a barber’s basin after all-—or something else entirely (I, 25).

A fundamental uncertainty concerns the function of the author. On the one hand, the writer Miguel de Cervantes is a kind of divine figure, visibly manipulating his characters and events. On the other, he claims that for the most part he is merely transcribing and augmenting an earlier Arabic text by the mysterious Cide Hemete Benengeli. With such machinery on display, the novel Don Quijote may be classified as a reflexive work—a literary creation that comments on its own existence. As such it conforms to the principle of "foregrounding the devices" identified by the Russian Formalist literary critics. This principle ricochets through modern creativity of all sorts. An example is the presentation of "raw" concrete in Le Corbusier’s late works, a procedure that calls upon the visitor to reflect on the process of construction.

Towards the end of Part Two, the faithful sidekick observes "I am Don Quijote’s squire who is to be found also in the story and who is called Sancho Panza—-unless they have changed me in the cradle—-I mean to say at the printer’s." Here is Spitzer’s comment: "In such passages, Cervantes willingly destroys the artistic illusion: he, the puppeteer, lets us see the strings of his puppet show: 'see, reader, this is not life, but a stage, a book: art; recognize the life-giving power of the artist as a thing, distinct from life!'”  In addition, Spitzer wrote of "the general spirit of relativism which has been recognized by most critics as characteristic of the novel." While relativism and relativity (in Einstein’s sense) are not the same thing, we must reckon with such general similarities—where perception plays a large part-—in assessing relevant connections. 


Blogger Stephen said...

I recently reread Don Quixote. It sure is longer than the Satyricon or Daphis and Chloe, two earlier novels IMHO.

Claims are also made for The Tale of Genji. I know there are other Hellenistic novels (in addition to D&C, the only one I've read).

What you say about zeitgeist shifts seems plausible to me.

7:04 AM  

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