Reflections on “Don Quixote” and its relevance today


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When Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra wrote “Don Quixote” (in two parts, 1605 and 1615), the literary vogue was for exaggerated and romanticised tales of chivalry where knights indulged in acts of derring-do in order to impress and win over fair maidens.

Cervantes states quite clearly in his preface his desire and intent to produce a satire of these stories of knights-errant. He wished to undermine, mock and destroy the very basis of these tales and this he did by creating a hero so absorbed in chivalric myth and perception that he sees everything brighter, better, idealised and heroic. In short, he confuses reality with this embellished and glamorised chivalric world. So immersed has he become in chivalric lore and thought that his very perception of the world he sees around him has been affected and skewed to fit his chivalric expectations. Objective reality ceases to function for him – only his distorted perception and interpretation based on chivalrous precepts feed his understanding.

Cervantes seeks to ensure that this chivalric version of literature is revealed as a modified, exaggerated and worthless copy of life in the early seventeenth century where acts of so-called courage and derring-do might end in brutal death or painful and life-changing loss of limbs (Cervantes lost his left hand in the battle of Lepanto in 1571), where “castles” are in fact run-down and unclean inns managed by petty thieves out to fleece their customers, and where “damsels in distress” are more akin to prostitutes out to make a quick buck. In other words, reality may bear little resemblance to Quixote’s gallant image of the world.

Of course, another way of regarding his confusedly noble acts is to consider the possibility that he recognises that his actions may, in the end, be futile, but he considers that the principles on which they are based are nonetheless worthy and admirable. He may be out of kilter with the sad and cynical world around him but his mindset and actions may be the result of seeing base conduct and low moral standards and wishing to introduce and act upon more worthy mentality and conduct which may evoke admiration and aspiration. It may be that he chooses to perceive the world in a better light. Comedy and drama derive from the distance and conflict between these two worlds and approaches.

Thinking beyond the book’s 17th century targets, it might be worth considering the possibility of parallels in today’s society and the distinct possibility that Cervantes failed in his valiant attempt to warn us of the dangers of pursuing fame, honour and glory at the expense of reason, sanity and perhaps dignity to the point of delusion and self-deceit.

Is it possible to identify a curiously Quixotic attitude among those who dupe themselves into believing that spending excessive amounts of time focusing on reality TV, computer games and devotion to celebrity are worthwhile activities?

Many choose to pursue a somewhat skewed view of the world and see or attribute worth to artificially created dramas or situations (claiming to be “real”) which indulge emotional response and reaction. Worse, many aspire to emulate or become part of this artificially cultivated culture and respond emotionally to the least provocation whether in real life or on social media, following examples set in the media by cynical, ambitious and manipulative producers. While this is clearly far removed from the world of chivalry Quixote seeks to emulate, the pattern of becoming immersed in and seeking to copy a style of behaviour falsely established as admirable remains the same.

Many love the concept of being a hero and computer games allow their players to feel like heroes, committing acts of courage and daring without even leaving their seats and the comfort of their own homes. Such games offer an alternative universe without “real” discipline, commitment or consideration but gratify the players’ desire to act out feats of daring and courage and allowing them to feel a certain satisfaction, albeit in a virtual reality. Quixote was equally enamoured of the concept of heroism, though he loses himself in his own virtual reality.

Cervantes railed against the absurd and baseless admiration of heroes as laid out in the tales of chivalry read by Quixote – details of their acts and quotations of their “wisdom” are discussed and held up for adulation. Is this very different from the cult of celebrity which underpins and reinforces our modern mindset? Actions, attitudes and utterances gain instant approval and glorification simply because they come from one who has become well known, even if such instances are without particular merit in themselves. Surely this is an example of the attitude Cervantes criticised in his book, though with the development of communication and the media, many different types of “hero” are now held up for admiration and receive unqualified adulation.

Of course, modern writers go to great lengths to present their characters as human and flawed and they may overcome challenges through positive qualities such as courage, determination and intelligence. However, it appears there will always be an obsessive section of the public whose desire to find and follow a hero means that they are willing to hold up virtually every aspect of the character of their hero as admirable and worthy of emulation without critical consideration or challenge. This can fairly be called Quixotic.

Cervantes’ book entertainingly captures the universal and enduring qualities of man’s apparent need to believe in something (or someone) greater than himself, and his capacity for self-delusion, cleverly combined with mankind’s worthy aspiration to lead a principled and laudable life. Although it was written in the early 1600s, it would appear Cervantes managed to encompass various aspects of modern society, an achievement of which he could be proud, though it begs a number of questions about the evolution of society through the years ……

My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

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