Quixote: How to Use

“How the devil can we take revenge,” replied Sancho, “when there are more than twenty of them, and we are only two -- or perhaps no more than one and a half?”

“I am equal to a hundred,” answered Don Quixote. The without further discussion he drew his sword and attacked the Yanguesans; and Sancho was spurred on by his master’s example to do the same.
(Part One, Chapter XV)

In the culture of planned obsolescence where no work avoids seeming dated within weeks of its introduction Quixote occupies a curious place. It ought surprise us that he has been revised and rewritten more than any other figure in modern literature; because this cannot simply indicate some profound universality. Innumerable less sparkling versions hand us a new mediation: the superficial literal figure denuded in revealing ways; the pathetic old man whose delusion we with pretension deign to enjoy. As with all spectacles his real misadventure begs the question of our false adventures. Feeling a lack we take his story for jolly wordplay and station ourselves above it like the fatuous adult who takes vacations and on occasion envies the child.

The condescending words of one translator indicate this. “ …and even in his most preposterous battles… ” says that dunce of a doorman, “…(he) always has our loving sympathy.” It should be the other way around. Quixote is free and we are the slaves; we are the ones who deserve pity and sympathy. But Cervantes is too wily for that, and in order to escape the necessary conclusions we construct ourselves as tough realists who bear the weight on our shoulders; the banality of everyday life, the misery of our submission. Thus it is that we see in Quixote the brief respite of comic relief. His message is infinitely more dangerous but we are given grace because he could not control his revisionists.

Quixote is taken as the standard to which all other futilities must be must be compared and found wanting. This in itself ought to give the perceptive a moment’s pause; but we are wrong to continue in our simplicity about it. Treating him as something like the greatest or most abject of losers is just another attractive inaccuracy in our attempt to sidestep the issue.

They key, of course, is that he is never abject. Later in the story above, Quixote and Sancho are both roundly trounced; but Quixote at least is not sorry. (Sancho’s repentance is necessary. He is not really a squire but a reflection of the ideal reader: an understandably reluctant apprentice.) I am reminded of an event in my own life: once when offered an early morning beer a friend of mine considered and then rejected the offer, saying, “No, when you drink in the morning it is a sign of problems.” And what can we say when this is the only reason to refuse? Here is the abject. The greatest thing about Quixote is that he never learns his lesson. It should hardly need be added that this is a double boon: he is also spared the learning of the wrong lessons.

The difference between Quixote and Sisyphus gives us more clues. Start with the given conditions and it is clear that Sisyphus’ story was meant (at least in Camus’ mediation) to be a point by point real life analogue. The sickly melodrama, the pall, tell us that its sculptor well those passions read which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things. He believed it, took it seriously; the very force of the supereminent abstractions to which Sisyphus is condemned tell us that Camus was trying to argue his way past a door that he didn’t know wasn’t locked. No fundamentals are called into question and the real breakdown of reductionism is never even approached. Thus trapped by self imposed bars he had to create Sisyphus as triumphant though arrogance. “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” This is true for the situation but ultimately unnecessary. Scorn will always be overcompensation.

The other vital distinction is that while Sisyphus is self-conscious, Quixote is not. (At least for now this must be left imprecise; suffice to say that he does not share the awareness of himself as vain struggler that marks the follower of Sisyphus.) This lack of self consciousness is not only explained by suggesting that the parodic framework would be compromised and not only dissolved by seeing that the character Quixote would be paralyzed. It is because the Sisyphus model is fundamentally in error that his self consciousness becomes necessary. This is not meant to deny the role of reflexivity but to maintain that the differing forms are mutually exclusive and that the one, namely that found in Sisyphus, is false. A way out of the wilderness can only be indicated here since my maps are not complete: Quixote, though ostensibly a direct parody, was not; and thus he was never a direct character either. “I know who I am,” replied Don Quixote, “and I know, too, that I am capable of being not only the characters I have named, but all the Twelve Peers of France and all the Nine Worthies as well… ”

Now what? We must remake our lives; and not only because we cannot avoid doing so. The bars being as often as not on the inside it is time to follow the knight’s example and place emphasis on the other end of the ancient libratory formula: “Look before you leap; he who hesitates is lost.” “It is quite clear,” replied Don Quixote, “that you are not experienced in this matter of adventures. They are giants, and if you are afraid, go away and say your prayers… ”

“I have done, am doing, and shall do the most famous deeds of chivalry that the world has ever seen, can see or will see.” In the end we are all Quixote; what we forget too often is that we are also Cervantes.


“Come, my friends, ’tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and setting well in order smite the sounding furrows; for my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars… ”

Ulysses (Tennyson)

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