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Tilting, Gently: On Don Quixote
This brief essay is adapted from a longer paper I wrote on the subject.
As I go through a learning journey, I find myself looking below the surface — indeed I am obliged to do so in order to do a decent job in the program — as I read works for more than just “the story.” It greatly deepens the engagement, although I find myself periodically reaching for fiction and non-fiction where I can just go along for the ride (on Rocinante, perhaps) and not have to think very much!
I recently read Don Quixote in full for the first time, in the wonderful Edith Grossman translation. It can be read — as I did as a child, reading an abridged version — as a rollicking pasquinade. But beneath the hilarity lie perceptive critiques of prevailing social norms and institutions. Many of these institutions, such as the Church, permeated the ordering of everyday life in ways that do not hold today. Authors such as Cervantes could not avoid these topics and found ways to comment, no doubt observable by those who cared to look.
At one point Sancho — the voice of down-to-earth no-BS tell-it-like-it-is pragmatism throughout — says that “with the approval and permission of our Holy Mother Church, they also have lamps, candles, shrouds, crutches, paintings, wigs, eyes and legs, and with these they deepen devotion and increase their Christian fame.” There is no attack here; rather there is subtle satire in the list of potential future relics laid out in this fashion, and in the reference to the “approval” of the Church.
Such muted critiques of the Church can be found sprinkled across Don Quixote. Is Cervantes, with a nod and a wink to the reader, suggesting that we are all in on the truth, and the truth is that the men and women of the Church are not paragons of virtue? Possibly, but we also find signs of something else in Don Quixote that is perhaps surprising when set against these barbs — a sense of affection.
The Church ransomed Cervantes after his years of captivity; this, among other things, must have engendered gratefulness to go with the irony. The village priest, or “Señor Licentiate Pero Perez” as we learn from the one time he is named, is one of Quixote’s oldest friends from the village. We might view him in our time as rather close-minded given his fondness for book burning (although it is noteworthy that he preserves many of the books). Yet in the end, it is this priest who is present to hear Quixote’s confession on his deathbed and this same priest who is one of the two executors of Quixote’s will. Cervantes retained an affection for the figure of the parish priest, a shepherd of his flock.
What can be made of these threads is this: the Church is not absent from Don Quixote, but the reader has to be attentive for complex meanings — which I sure as heck wasn’t when I read it as a child. The 17th century Church in Spain inherited a grimness from the time of the Reconquista that became, over the centuries, a pervasive force of control and fear. The Inquisition must have had a chilling effect on the direct questioning of religious doctrine or Church hierarchy; the punishment for heresy was to be burned at the stake. Nevertheless Cervantes found ways to make his case, for and against, while avoiding a forceful satirical strike on the Church or its servants.
It is more work to read this way, after a lifetime of “reading for pleasure”, but it is a far deeper way to read literature and I am grateful that I occasionally get to do it.