Anatomy of Quixotism
If quixotes play the role of exceptionalists within fiction that allegorizes broader kinds of exceptionalist politics, how then do quixotes come to view themselves as exceptionalists in the first place? Implied here is a related question: What specific characteristics of Quixote made him such a suitable figure for reproducing in fiction the stakes of exceptionalism? Answering these questions requires an understanding of the first principles of character that launch Don Quixote into the adventures that transform him from ordinary hidalgo into literary and cultural archetype. We must get to know Quixote from the inside out. And to do this thoroughly—in light of the prominence Quixote has enjoyed in the English-speaking world—we must follow the construction of the quixote archetype as it migrates and develops from Spain to Britain to the early US. As Susan Manning argues, “Character itself needs in literary contexts to be read as a rhetorical figure,” because “literary character reveals itself in patterns of textual relationship.”1 In this brief chapter I provide a collection of patterns that accompany the formulation of quixotic characters across texts and national traditions, a collection of what Manning calls “rhetorical markers of resemblance” that articulate both the character of quixotism and the form of exceptionalism specific to quixotic characters.2
That rhetoric is so often the foundation of exceptionalism is deeply relevant to one of the Quixote’s fundamental character attributes, a background of socioeconomic advantage, at least enough advantage to spend significant time learning to read imaginatively and literarily. Quixotes exercise imagination in a way that fosters idealism. Quixote is not a wealthy man, but, unlike Sancho, his hidalgo status is enough to afford him the choice of an idle life. Also unlike Sancho, Quixote is learned enough to read beyond the literal (this is perhaps the greatest understatement in all of Quixote studies). Though critics accuse Quixote of reading too literally, what appears at first an overliteral reading of fiction is actually a strikingly imaginative reading of material reality. Quixote does not mis- or overinterpret literatures of chivalric romance in and of themselves. Rather, he accomplishes, for better or worse, the daunting task of conceptually reshaping the material world around him according to fictional representations. This is the work of rhetorical skill and a cultivated literary imagination, one that the pragmatic and unrefined Sancho does not possess. Quixote’s ability to realize this fictive world against all counterevidence is a function of Quixote’s socioeconomic background as an educated and practiced reader. As we can observe in the original Don Quixote and others in this study, this readerly or literary advantage generates not only pronounced social distinctions between high-minded quixotes and confused commoners but also recurring problems of translation and misunderstanding between quixotes and their picaresque sidekicks. Both of these mutually reinforce the quixote’s exceptionalist worldview, providing quixotes with mounting evidence that they are exceptions to those around them.
The rhetorical gap between Quixote and Sancho makes more sense when we account for the distinction between the quixotic and the picaresque. A quixote is a kind of idealist. Though, as I have suggested, idealism alone fails to account for quixotism, idealism is foundational to quixotism. Whereas the picaresque, for example, did not arise as a critique of idealistic fiction, Don Quixote did.3 Accordingly, Quixote is not merely a dreamer who wants a better life, like so many picaros in the Spanish tradition, but an imaginative figure who pursues an idealistic life through an idealistic vision of the world. The imagination—specifically the literary imagination—is what enables this kind of idealism for quixotes, as the literary imagination supplies and constructs an alternate reality of the possible. Don Quixote comes from a part of Spain that the narrator of his story chooses not to remember, and virtually everything else about Quixote’s life is plain, idle, and uninteresting (1.1.25). Without an imaginative and particularly literary outlook, employed, as we all know, in romance reading as an escape from his quotidian humdrum, Quixote could not envision a life in which he renders himself exceptional in a drab and perfidious world.
In addition to this rhetorical power arising from imaginative idealism, however, quixotes do, in some cases, wield socioeconomic advantage and mimetic appeal to gain authority or to influence others. Quixote is not just an imitator but also a figure capable of inspiring imitation. Quixote’s mimetic power is evident when others, despite knowing better, play along with his delusions, speak in the language of romance fiction to mock or humor him, and sometimes find themselves unexpectedly buying into his fantasies. In his landmark study Mimesis, Erich Auerbach observes how Sancho learns he can sometimes manipulate his liege by self-consciously imitating Quixote’s way of speaking and seeing the world. Sancho convinces Quixote at one point that the three peasant women approaching on donkeys are Dulcinea and her attendants galloping forth on white steeds.4 Even in such cases where characters understand they are taking advantage of Quixote’s foible, their speech and actions are nevertheless imitations of quixotic behavior, which quixotes read as perfectly sensible and in line with quixotic expectations. In other cases, this mimetic appeal of quixotes gets the better of otherwise sound-minded characters, as when Sansón Carrasco, at first only pretending to be a chivalric knight as part of a plot to bring Quixote to his senses, ends up taking enough blows from Quixote in the process that he becomes enmeshed in the fantasy as Quixote’s rival, the “Knight of the Spangles,” or “Knight of the Mirrors” (2.15.579–81). As Roberto González Echevarría points out, Cervantes’s description of Carrasco’s reflective armor plays on the word luna, used to describe the reflective part of the mirror but also rendering Carrasco a “Knight of the Moons,” one moved by imitation to lunacy.5
Because quixotes so often find themselves obliged and imitated in these ways, whether in earnest or in jest, real life recapitulates and reinforces the impressions quixotes obtain from chivalric romance. Though it seems counterintuitive, quixotes, in this sense, can be sound reasoners whose expectations develop not purely from delusion but from lived experience and empirical observation. When reality begins to conform plausibly to the quixote’s expectations, this reality serves only to bolster the quixote’s exceptionalist logic. If the literary imagination convinces Don Quixote that he is an exception in an unjust world, the unjust world, full of pranksters and opportunists willing to mock Quixote through imitation, serves often to affirm this quixotic mind-set.
The exceptionalist attitudes and practices of quixotes I examine in part 2 of this study are derived from a logic trick, the ability to convince oneself that circumstances are such that she or he ought to act and be treated according to a different set of rules from everyone else. If the world around is a den of iniquity, as Henry Fielding’s Parson Adams sees it, following the world’s rules is the shortest path to damnation. US leaders have applied the same exceptionalist logic to external threats like communism and terrorism to justify military action. What we sometimes take for leadership is the logic of exceptionalism in action. Though scholars of Don Quixote, understandably interested in fiction reading as a central trope, typically focus on the ways chivalric romance reading occasions Quixote’s renowned case of “turned brain,” the act of choosing to make an exception of himself within a larger social or global order is more precisely what transforms Cervantes’s Alonso Quijano into Don Quixote. Based on, and perhaps even more fundamental to, the information that Quijano absorbs both from his mundane daily life and from the chivalric romances into which he escapes, the Quixote and quixotism are born of Quijano’s unquenchable idealism about the world, and his quite literal desire to do battle with global injustice: “He decided not to wait any longer before putting his plans into action, encouraged by the need that he believed his delay was creating in the world: so great was his determination to redress grievances, right wrongs, correct injustices, rectify abuses and fulfil obligations” (1.2.30).
In this way Don Quixote is created—or rather creates himself—through exceptionalist logic. His laws of chivalry trump the laws and customs of Spain; and, to echo Nabokov’s elevation of Quixote “above the skyline of literature,” he conceives of himself as fiercely and imaginatively above the dictates of physical reality.6 The extreme nature of Quixote’s exceptionalism even bleeds into what Sancho Panza and others around him understand as the crude laws of human biology, as when Quixote aims to observe the customs of knights-errant, who, he tells Sancho, may choose “not to eat for a whole month, and if they do eat, it must be what they find readiest to hand” (1.10.81). One might understand this behavior as a kind of madness, and largely the result of the combination of Quijano’s dull and idle life and his voracious reading of implausibly exciting literature. However, the specific logic by which Don Quixote enters the world is the logic of exceptionalism, the belief in a grander purpose that justifies, quite rationally, elevating the believer above the concerns and limitations of everyone else. More than simple idealism, then, quixotic exceptionalism is founded on a sense of urgency not only to realize an ideal but also to understand oneself as the key to realizing that ideal, as the moral center of some type of reform.
Accordingly, we should note that, however we interpret him, Don Quixote conceives of himself not as a marginal figure, but as a shining exception in a world of unscrupulous and neglectful characters, murderous villains, and vulnerable Dulcineas. Like picaros—low-bred tricksters or delinquents who attempt to move upward in social rank by their wiles—conventional figures of madness or alterity tend to be marginalized and embattled in ways Don Quixote is not. In an introductory note to his 1755 translation of Don Quixote, Tobias Smollett claims he wants to avoid “debasing [Quixote] to the melancholy circumstances and unentertaining caprice of an ordinary madman,” drawing a distinction between madness in general and the quixotic madness portrayed by Cervantes.7 Fittingly, then, Smollett’s subsequent Launcelot Greaves (1760–62) provides a lucid example of this difference between the exceptionalist quixote and the mad imitator. Launcelot, accused of imitating Don Quixote, frequently behaves like a madman, but he retains enough awareness and sense of purpose to identify his mad imitator and aspiring knight-errant, Captain Crowe, as a misguided impostor.8 Even where quixotes like Launcelot are mocked and punished for their exceptionalist deviation from the norm, they do not internalize these experiences as marginalization but instead take them as further evidence of the villainy and inadequacy of the surrounding society (in some cases these quixotes are both reasonable and correct in their assessments). Edmund Gayton, author of Pleasant Notes upon Don Quixot (1654), affirmed this notion when he suggested that Quixote “did oblige the places which received him, and left his Landlords in debt to him for his acceptance of their Courtesies.”9 Where Quixote is able to avoid paying his bill at the inn by invoking the antiquated laws of chivalry, the picaresque Sancho Panza, whose station does not afford him Quixote’s chivalric privileges, finds himself harrowingly (and comically) tossed in a blanket for attempting to skip out on the bill as well (1.17.135). In this scenario Sancho participates mimetically in quixotic madness but feels the effects of marginalization as a result. Quixote, on the other hand, moves on from the inn without paying and, more importantly, moves forward with his understanding—that he is an exception to the rules that govern common men like Sancho—not only intact but reinforced by others who play along in jest or exasperation. As the following chapter demonstrates, even Quixote’s British translators, who brought Quixote to the English-speaking world, interpreted Quixote as an exceptionalist figure, a quality that made him an attractive character to rewrite and reconfigure as the instructive exception within new literary landscapes.