‘Don Quijote’: A Fierce Defense of Human Freedom

Don Quijote (Amor al conocimiento)
The truly beautiful aspect of Cervantes’s masterpiece is its indefatigable defense of freedom. (Amor al conocimiento)

EspañolBy Eric Clifford Graf

I predate e-books. I must sound odd to my students when I tell them that if I get chosen for that one-way trip to Mars that I keep applying for, my only request will be that I be allowed to take with me a single physical book: El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha.

Don Quijote is without a doubt the magnum opus of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, not to say the Spanish Golden Age, and arguably the entire history of narrative fiction. Few texts express that sadness, that tragedy, that combative angst provoked by an era increasingly devoid of heroism.

At the same time, Don Quijote can make its readers laugh in sublime anticipation of some of the most modern modes of humor, such as the sophisticated criticism of oneself that prevails among stand-up comedians, or the grotesque absurdity driving the brutal satire of today’s cartoons.

This combination is hard to find in any other author. Shakespeare? He’s not particularly funny. Montaigne? Perhaps, but a tad selfish. Dostoevsky? Too dark. Nabokov? Almost.

Don Quijote not only transcends all other great books, it foregrounds its perverse potential for radically different readings. It’s a truism to say that a young reader won’t have the same impression of the novel as a middle-aged one, let alone an old man like me. This owes to Cervantes’s “mixed” or “tragicomic” strategy and his insistent combination of folkloric and elite styles.

In philosophical terms, Don Quijote is the culmination of both humanism and late scholasticism. In terms of the history of creative literature, it exemplifies the complex aesthetics of the Spanish Baroque, with its endless paradoxes and subversions, its relentless linguistic, logical, and even political ironies.

The novel is a true window on antiquity, offering access to the wisdom of classical Greece and Rome via allusions to authors like Homer, Euclid, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Plutarch, Apuleius, and Augustine. It also echoes the Middle Ages via episodes fashioned after Petrarch, Dante, Boccaccio, Alfonso X, Juan Manuel, and Juan de Mena.

Of course, Don Quijote also anticipates all subsequent masterpieces. Certain aspects of Cervantes’s art, like those of other classic works, will be improved by future rivals. Still, any modern novelist is by definition caught in a fiercely agonistic struggle with the true inventor of the form. Cervantes anticipated every conceivable literary period or movement (the Enlightenment, romanticism, realism, modernism, neo-realism, post-colonialism, and postmodernism) as well as their styles, attitudes, and techniques.

We have clear testimonies of unavoidable deference to “The Prince of Wits” penned by Turgenev, Borges, Fuentes, and Kundera. The literary innovations of Zayas, Lafayette, Voltaire, Swift, Defoe, Goethe, Poe, Flaubert, Brontë, Twain, and Cortázar are all difficult to imagine without a certain soldier turned slave turned writer named Cervantes.

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When Unamuno confronts a character with his own fictional status; when García Márquez populates an interconnected world with figures who appear and reappear throughout his novels and short stories; when Stephen King forges an historical allegory in the horror experienced by a nuclear family trapped in a giant inn in Colorado; each walks in the footsteps of the master.

But Don Quijote is more than a matter of literary influences. The problems that beset us today — our cultural, ethnic, political and economic conflicts, our obsessions with sexuality, psychology, pharmacology, education, and technology — are all found in that text, and expressed in sardonic, yes, but not necessarily insincere and, occasionally, even in rather grave terms.

Is there a more soulless racist than Sancho the slaver? A more nefarious Luddite than that hidalgo attacking our windmills? A more disturbing sign of the uncontrollable dissemination of information than a hero contemplating his paginated self in a print shop?

Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer, the German inventors of the field of comparative literature, were surely wrong when they insisted that Cervantes was up to little more than lighthearted entertainment. Romantics of that same nation — Heine, Schelling, and Nietzsche — were surely correct when they spied the modern philosopher in the “One-Armed Man of Lepanto.”

Don Quijote has other advantages, perhaps more prosaic but no less important. For example, as an American Hispanist, I often fret about North-South relations in this hemisphere. I find solace in the fact that Cervantes influenced, both directly and indirectly, American founders like Franklin, Madison, and most of all Jefferson.

Accordingly, Don Quijote represents an excellent opportunity to highlight crucial cultural values that Anglos inherited from Hispanics. In the 21st century, Cervantes’s great novel still delineates one of the fittest arenas for cultural and ideological encounters among the peoples of the New World. In this text we will recognize thoughts and concepts that we used to imagine as if they were “ours” alone, but which, in reality, are, just as they always have been, universal.

And more than any other piece of creative fiction, Don Quijote facilitates conversations that can help us to avoid many of the serious economic, social, and political errors of the past. Moreover, as Cervantes himself was fond of pointing out, no life should be entirely mired in serious matters like business, religion, or technical training. It is important to partake in leisureliness, to laugh, if only for the sheer sake of it. Besides, Don Quijote teaches best precisely when it’s most entertaining.

But the truly beautiful aspect of Cervantes’s masterpiece is its indefatigable defense of freedom: religious, personal, political, and even economic. According to a current trend of literary criticism, Cervantes is a founding figure of classical liberalism.

In the quadricentennial edition of Don Quijote (Barcelona: Crítica, 2005), Mario Vargas Llosa argued that the great attraction of Cervantes’s novel has always been its notion of freedom as “the sovereignty of an individual to decide his life without pressures or conditions, exclusively as a function of his intelligence and will.”

More recently, David Hart informed me that none other than Frédéric Bastiat wrote an essay about Sancho Panza’s governorship of the Isle of Barataria. I myself have indicated the deep intellectual connections between Cervantes and Juan de Mariana, perhaps the most irascible theorist of the so-called School of Salamanca.

So at least two of the major precursors of what is today known as the Austrian School of Economics display strong ties to the first modern novel. And it should come as no surprise that Locke, Hume, and Burke, three of the most important defenders of freedom in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, were avid readers of Don Quijote.

For my part, I would argue that, given its core values, reading Don Quijote, aloud and/or alone, will always be a delightful way to improve the human condition.

Translated by Daniel Raisbeck.

Eric Graf is a professor of literature at the Francisco Marroquín University in Guatemala. He is currently teaching a freely accessible online course on Don Quijote: donquijote.ufm.edu.

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