El Ingenioso Hidalgo (3)
Previous episodes of our Don Quijote miniseries concluded with the severing of an ear and two possible responses thereto, either thigh-slapping or alarm and unease; and then with an attempt to connect these divergent responses to divergent reading practices, the first a kind of picaresque reading where each jolly episode stands more or less on its own, and the second a more character-focused reading that requires a larger structure. We closed with the portentous observation that Don Quijote might stand midway between these modes.
Moving on, we reach at the duke and duchess in the second part of the book. I know it’s a critical commonplace to figure actions within a book as acts of reading, where the characters “interpret the text of their surroundings” and so on; that said, Part II of Don Quijote really is asking for it. The duke and duchess have already read Part I. When they run across Don Quijote and Sancho in a meadow, they go into ecstasies at having met the genuine articles; they promptly spirit them home to their castle and, with the help of their servants, concoct a whole series of sham situations out of courtly romances for the sheer glee of deceiving our heroes.
Knowing Nabokov’s criticism as we do, it should be no surprise that he considers these episodes to be execrable acts of mental cruelty, possibly worse than the physical cruelties of Part I. The duke and duchess are two smiling tigers; the castle is a torture chamber whose turrets and cornices are claws and fangs. If at first these figurations seem excessively harsh, after a couple hundred pages of these anticsamong other indignities, the two are convinced to sit on a “magical” wooden horse packed with explosives, and Sancho is directed to whip his own bare ass three thousand timesone starts to see Nabokov’s point.
To make explicit an obvious correspondence, the duke and duchess are like the author of Part I, engineering a series of situations for Don Quijote and Sancho’s standard deluded-chivalric shtick. They are also like the reader of Part I, at least the picaresque readerthey want Don Quijote and Sancho to be reliably amusing automata, and their oft-mentioned smiles and glee at these episodes are a laugh track prompting the reader to join in the fun. Perhaps. What is worth note is that Cervantes does not always allow his characters to play along. Sancho has gotten smarter since his adventures began, and when the duke and duchess pretend to give him the governorship that Don Quijote has been promising him all along, not only does he run his territory better than anyone expects, he also very quickly reaches the sensible conclusion that jobs in civic administration are for suckers. And when one of the female servants decides to get a laugh out of pretending to be in love with Don Quijote, he responds with one of his most affecting moments.
Sancho is off governing his island and Don Quijote goes to bed alone, sad and old, mourning his poverty, his wrecked body, his torn clothes. In the midst of these sorry meditations the damsel Altisidora carts a harp beneath his window and commences to declare her love for him in song.
Aquí dio fin el canto de la malferida Altisidora, y comenzó el asombro del requerido don Quijote; el cual, dando un gran suspiro, dijo entre sí:
¡Que tengo der ser tan desdichado andante, que no ha de haber doncella que me mire que de mí no se enamore...! ¡Que tenga de ser tan corta la ventura la sin par Dulcinea del Toboso, que no la han de dejar a solas gozar de la incomparable firmeza mía! ¿Qué la queréis, reinas? ¿A qué la perseguís, emperatrices? ¿Para qué la acosáis, doncellas de a catorce a quince años?
[Ormsby translates] Here the lay of the heart-stricken Altisidora came to an end, while the warmly wooed Don Quixote began to feel alarm; and with a deep sigh he said to himself, “O that I should be such an unlucky knight that no damsel can set his eyes on me but falls in love with me! O that the peerless Dulcinea should be so unfortunate that they cannot let her enjpy my incomparable constancy in peace! What would ye with her, ye queens? Why do ye persecute her, ye empresses? Why do ye pursue her, ye virgins of from fourteen to fifteen?”
The obvious joke, encouraged by this slightly clunky lament, is to laugh at Don Quijote’s delusion in thinking that everyone is in love with him; and yet coming on the heels of his other laments, it’s not much of a joke. It’s hard to laugh along with this particular laugh track, and our unease increases the next night, when Quijote decides to respond in kind. Accompanying himself on guitar, he sings a song of his own composition out the window in order to dissuade the besotted maid from her passion. The song’s message might not be anything special, but it’s touchingly executed, and all the more so in context. In a castle full of overgrown and somewhat mean-spirited children, Don Quijote is the only person acting out of ethical considerations. This reversal isn’t exactly the same as Sancho’s island, where they expect him to screw up and he instead acquits himself nobly. Rather, Quijote is behaving exactly as we expect, staying true to his self-imposed chivalric code, and yet he’s found room within it to be more than a joke; as a moral agent, he easily trounces anyone around him. But this strange and transcendent moment is not permitted to last.
Aquí llegaba don Quijote de su canto, a quien estaban escuchando el duque y la duquesa, Altisidora y casi toda la gente del castillo, cuando de improviso, desde encima de un corredor que sobre la reja de don Quijote a plomo caía, descolgaron un cordel donde venían más de cien cencerros asidos, y luego, tras ellos, derramaron un gran saco de gatos, que asimismo traían cencerros menores atados a las colas. Fue tan grande el ruido de los cencerros y el mayar de los gatos, que aunque los daques habían sido inventores de la burla, todavía les sobresaltó; y, temeroso don Quijote, quedó pasmado. Y quiso la suerte que dos o tres gatos se entraron por la reja de su estancia, y dando de un parte a otra, parecía que una región de diablos andaba en ella. Apagaron las velas que en el aposento ardían, y andaban buscando por do escaparse. El descolgar y subir del cordel de los grandes cencerros no cesaba; la mayor parte de la gente del castillo, que no sabía la verdad del caso, estaba suspensa y admirada.
Levantóse don Quijote en pie, y poniendo mano a la espada comenzó a tirar estocadas por la reja y a decir a grandes voces:
¡Afuera, malignos encantadores! ¡Afuera, canalla hechiceresca; que yo so don Quijote de la Mancha, contra quien no valen ni tienen fuerza vuestras malas intenciones!
[Ormsby translates] Don Quixote had got so far with his song, to which the duke, the duchess, Altisidora, and nearly the whole household of the castle were listening, when all of a sudden from a gallery above that was exactly over his window they let down a cord with more than a hundred bells attached to it, and immediately after that discharged a great sack full of cats, which also had bells of smaller size tied to their tails. Such was the din of the bells and the squalling of the cats, that though the duke and duchess were the contrivers of the joke they were startled by it, while Don Quixote stood paralysed with fear; and as luck would have it, two or three of the cats made their way in through the grating of his chamber, and flying from one side to the other, made it seem as if there was a legion of devils at large in it. They extinguished the candles that were burning in the room, and rushed about seeking some way of escape; the cord with the large bells never ceased rising and falling; and most of the people of the castle, not knowing what was really the matter, were at their wits’ end with astonishment. Don Quixote sprang to his feet, and drawing his sword, began making passes at the grating, shouting out, “Avaunt, malignant enchanters! avaunt, ye witchcraft-working rabble! I am Don Quixote of La Mancha, against whom your evil machinations avail not nor have any power.”
From here the predictable happens. Don Quijote swings his sword at the cats, shouting imprecations, the cats claw his face, and we’re back in the slapstick of Part I. As with the ear, this scene is presented as wildly comic, and yet coming after one of our knight’s noblest moments, it leaves us sad and uneasy. Don Quijote indeed inhabits a world unworthy of him, but this world is not only a contemporary Spain that has no use for knights-errant. It’s also a comic novel whose structure demands that he continue to be put through these degrading paces.
[some kind of wrap-up to follow]
Ray Davis writes:
I hope this doesn't blow your punchline, but "Avaunt, malignant enchanters! avaunt, ye witchcraft-working rabble! I am Don Quixote of La Mancha, against whom your evil machinations avail not nor have any power." actually seems like a fairly acute summing up of the situation.
It's true; there are enchanters, and then there are enchanters. (I don't have a punchline yet, so no worries on that score.)