Conservative Quixotes

QuixoticAll-star fucktard, Jonah Goldberg has something to say about the United Nations. You know conservatives: they don’t like the United Nations because it represents the promise of cooperation. And it goes against this ridiculous notion of American Exceptionalism. This is why conservatives get apoplectic when someone talks about using foreign legal precedents in the United States or suggests that maybe our 230 year old Constitution is not the best one ever created.

My point is: who cares what Jonah Goldberg has to say about the United Nations? I certainly don’t. But he used Don Quixote to discuss his ridiculous notion of starting a new United Nations—one that only includes the “morally and politically serious nations.” By that, he means nations that agree with his corporatocratic notions of freedom and democracy. And by that he means slavery and aristocracy. Regardless of his silly and evil ideas, I do wish he would keep Cervantes out of it—a man who appears to have been decent and who has provided much joy to the human race.

Goldberg doesn’t even get Don Quixote right. My guess is that he hasn’t read it. There are many documented cases of copies of the book bursting into flames when touched by conservatives. And by that I mean there haven’t been any, but it would make sense. Anyway, Goldberg writes:

The phrase “tilting at windmills” was inspired by the novel “Don Quixote,” and it means to fight something that doesn’t really deserve to be fought.

Really? Is that what it means? I find this surprising, because it is totally wrong. It means fighting a hopeless battle in a ridiculous manner. There is no romantic ideal here; this isn’t Battle of the Alamo.

There is, of course, another way to view the term—one that goes along with the book. Unfortunately, few have read it and so this idea doesn’t make sense anywhere but on a blog by a guy who has an unnatural affinity for the novel. It is implicit in Goldberg’s next sentence, which I’ll bet was added at the last minute by an editor who noted what I had:

Quixote mistook the windmills of the Spanish countryside for ravenous giants and set out to vanquish them.

I’ve previously written about what the word “quixotic” personally means to me. It is not what it generally means. Just the same, “tilting at windmills” to me means attacking phantoms—things that aren’t there. But there was nothing irrational about Don Quixote attacking those giants. The problem was that his perceptions were wrong because, you know, he was crazy.

In this way, Goldberg’s analogy is apt. The conservatives (like him) who want to create a United Morally and Politically Serious Nations are indeed attacking something that is only in their minds. By wanting to unite a number of like-minded nations, all they want is to create a power block. Their problem with the United Nations is that some nations don’t agree with them. I understand this. I agree with many of the things that Goldberg finds repugnant. But his solution is to get rid of the United Nations so that the stronger nations can bind together and conquer the other nations. Even apart from the fact that this in impossible given the nuclear stockpiles of “morally and politically unserious nations,” this would only takes us back to the days before the United Nations when we had, let’s see, two world wars.

Don Quixote works very well to explain conservative thought—just not in the way that Goldberg thinks. Don Quixote also works well to explain rigid ideologues on the left, although I don’t know any (they were fairly common 90 years ago). Don Quixote was the very definition of a ideologue. He was so committed to his vision of the ideal of knights errant that he could not see the world the way it actually is. Pragmatists, like the modern left do not suffer from this. Modern conservatives, however, are this way—at least the ones who aren’t just in it out of self-interest (not that the two don’t fuse together in many cases).

Raffel’s Unique Don Quixote

Burton Raffel Don QuixoteAs I read through Don Quixote, I try to mix it up in terms of translations. As readers know, my favorite translation is Putnam for various reasons, but most especially because his translation is distinctly better than previous translations and no translation since is distinctly better than his. Nonetheless, recently I’ve been reading Burton Raffel’s 1995 translation. It is the most unique translation that I’ve found.

At first, I was put off by what I thought unusual translations for the sake of being different. In particular, Sancho names Don Quixote, “Caballero de al triste figura.” This is translated by various writers as follows:

Knight of the Sorrowful Face (Grossman)
Knight of the Rueful Countenance (Ormsby)
Knight of the Mournal Countenance (Putnam)
Knight of the Sad Face (Raffel)

It was only later that I realized that Raffel was (as much as possible) translating Don Quixote like a poem. He tries to get the sound and the syntax as close as possible to the original. This is a hopeless task, of course, but he succeeds surprisingly well.

There are times when this causes him to give up on translating altogether. A particularly interesting passage is in Chapter 26, where Sancho is quoting a letter Don Quixote had written. In the original:

“Alta y sobajada senora.”

“No diria,” dijo el Barbero, “sobajada, sino sobrehumana, o soberana.”

The point is that Sancho is ignorant and confuses words. He refers to the, “Great and scrubbing lady”![1] The barber replies that it can’t be that and suggests “superhuman” and “sovereign.”

Dealing with word play of this type is difficult in translation. Putnam deals with it well, but at the expense of a close translation:

“High and sufferable lady—”

“He would not have said sufferable,” the barber corrected him; “it must have been sovereign lady or something of that sort.”

Compare this to Raffel who doesn’t even try to translate this, but simply adds editorial comments so the reader can understand the joke.[2]

“Oh much pawed-over [sobajada] lady.”

“It couldn’t say that,” said the barber. “Not ‘much pawed-over’ but ‘more than human’ [sobrehumana] or ‘sovereign’ [soberana] lady.”

One way is not necessarily better than the other. However, despite Putnam’s cleverness in translating this, the true nature of the joke comes through better with Raffel.

Because Raffel has worked so hard at recreating the experience of reading Don Quixote in Spanish, the text is a bit more stilted and less modern than Putnam’s. It is nonetheless highly readable; the pages fly by. I’ve thought a lot about why there have been so many translations of Don Quixote since Putnam. Grossman’s translation, while marginally better, doesn’t seem to be worth the effort. Raffel’s translation is distinct, and we are better off for it.


[1] “Sobajada” is not in my Spanish dictionary; Google translates it is “scrubbing.”

[2] Putnam provides an endnote on the subject:

The word play on “sobajada,” “sobrehumana” (omitted in my rendering), and “soberana” is in reality untranslatable.

Cardenio

CardenioThe first philosopher I ever read was Arthur Schopenhauer. I have no idea why. However, his thinking seems to have infected me. I keep thinking about his basic view of the futility of life. Basically: I keep doing the things I do so that I can keep doing the things that I do. I eat today so I will be alive tomorrow. And what will I do tomorrow? I will eat so I will be alive the next day. Given that the experience of life grows more and more grim as the days pass, I don’t too much see the point. When I was a child, things were nice because each day was new. That is no longer the case. What’s more, each day is filled with somewhat more physical pain and a great deal more psychic pain. So what is the point? I wish I knew.

Given this state of mind, it makes sense to take a step back and try to find some of the things that make life worth while. So I thought I would read some Don Quixote, which generally puts me in a better mood. I was going through the book, trying to find where I last stopped writing about it. I realized I was last reading about poor Cardenio. This is a story within a story. Our daring duo come upon this half-crazed man who tells us the story of his sad life: he made friends with the Duke’s son, who betrayed him with Cardenio’s fiance.

What I find interesting about this is that the basic plot sounds rather similar to a Lope de Vega play. In particular, Peribáñez y el Comendador de Ocaña. I am struck again at the revolutionary content of early 17th century Spanish fiction. Even with the constraints placed on them by the society, both Cervantes and Lope were skeptical of those in power. In their world, power did not equate to moral. This is very unlike the world of that English playwright.

Cardenio is in Chapters 23-24.

This is Not Cervantes

Jáuregui's CervantesI’ve written before about Melveena McKendrick’s exceptional biography, Cervantes. I just want to finish it off by providing a few quotations that I thought were very good.

Probably the most important thing I learned about Cervantes in this book is that the portrait of him (seen on the left), is not him.

This picture is the Juan Martínez de Jáuregui y Aguilar (Jáuregui) portrait of Miguel de Cervantes. Or so it is said. There are three major problems with the painting. First, Jáuregui would have only been 17 when he supposedly painted it. Second, he spells his name in a way he never spelled it. And third, he spells Cervantes name as it was never spelled.

The whole thing comes from the fact that in the Preface of Novelas Ejemplares (Exemplary Novels), Cervantes wrote:

The fault lies with a friend of mine… This friend might well have caused my portrait, which the famous Don Juan de Jáuregui would have given him, to be engraved and put in the first page of this book, according to custom.

According to McKendrick (p. 278):

This innocent remark, which could be taken to mean either that Cervantes had been painted by Jáuregui or that the painter could, if asked, produce such a portrait, predictably sent posterity haring off on a wild goosechase in an effort to discover the authentic likeness of the great man. But alas, there is none, and the portrait most often reproduced as being that of Cervantes, dated 1600, bearing the name Jáuregui and entitled Don Miguel de Cervantes, is not genuine… The painting is almost certainly a nineteenth-century fraud.

We do have some idea of what Cervantes looked like, from Cervantes himself in the same Preface:

This person whom you see here, with an oval visage, chestnut hair, smooth open forehead, lively eyes, a hooked but well-proportioned nose, & silvery beard that twenty years ago was golden, large moustaches, a small mouth, teeth not much to speak of, for he has but six, in bad condition and worse placed, no two of them corresponding to each other, a figure midway between the two extremes, neither tall nor short, a vivid complexion, rather fair than dark, somewhat stooped in the shoulders, and not very lightfooted…

In discussing Cervantes’ writing, I was struck by this passage about a writer’s need to balance expression and privacy (p. 102):

It also reveals [Cervantes] to be alive to the painful dichotomy that every true artist knows to exist between self-expression and self-exposure, between the need to communicate and the desire to do himself justice.

The Prologue to Part One of Don Quixote is very funny. In it, Cervantes makes fun of his own lack of erudition. It turns out, his actual target was Lope de Vega (p. 199):

But his animosity to Lope in the work does not end there. In the Prologue, which would have been written shortly before publication, he makes surreptitious fun of Lope’s attempts to hide his limited education under an inappropriate display of pedantry and ostentatious erudition, his habit of prefixing to his works a whole series of complimentary poems from famous people.

The book is also very useful in providing a look at how Don Quixote was viewed in Cervantes’ time (p. 223):

Lucid intervals or not, for Cervantes and his contemporaries, Don Quixote, whose “deeds”—that is, interference in the lives of others—do more harm than good, remained a ridiculous lunatic.

Finally, McKendrick provides a good view of Cervantes at the end of his life when he was famous and respected, but poor (p. 252):

The couple were but two among the many at court without any very visible means of support—the magistrate’s description, it will be remembered, of the female tenants of the house in Valladolid—yet there is a sad poignancy about the wretched situation of this man whose fame was already spreading in two hemispheres and whose book was giving pleasure to thousands of readers, yet who lived in poverty back home in the most lavish court in the world, ignored by Crown and noble patrons alike. And it was a poignancy that Cervantes himself did not miss, for his later writings are scattered with references to his poverty and neglect, and to the puny rewards received by writers for their labors.

I highly recommend Cervantes. It is a very lively read about a colorful man. And unlike English writers of that time, we actually know quite a lot about him.

Quixotic Justification

QuixoticThe word quixotic means “foolishly impractical especially in the pursuit of ideals.” However, when I think of Don Quixote, this is not what I think. Instead, I think of wonderfully twisted logic to justify crazy behavior.

There is no better example of this than in Chapter 21 of Don Quixote. In it, a barber is traveling to work on his mule. On top of his head, he wears his wash basin to protect his head from the rain. However, Don Quixote sees this and thinks that it is the mythical helmet of Mambrino.

He must have it so he charges the unfortunate barber. On seeing the insane man with the lance attacking him, the barber flees, leaving his “helmet” and mule behind.

This would be a perfect triumph for Don Quixote, except that Sancho insist upon injecting reality into the conversation (just like a 17th century liberal):

“What are you laughing at, Sancho?” said Don Quixote.

“I was just thinking what a big pate that pagan had who owned it, for this helmet looks exactly like a barber’s basin.”

Normally, Don Quixote fights more with Sancho. In this case, he immediately provides a justification:

“Do you know what I think, Sancho? I think that the famous piece of that enchanted helmet must by some strange accident have fallen into the hands of someone who did not know, and was incapable of estimating, its worth, and who, seeing that it was of the purest gold and not realizing what he was doing, must have melted down the other half for what he could get for it, while from the remaining portion he fashioned what appears, as you have said, to be a barber’s basin…”

This is the same line he gave in Chapter 8 after mistaking the windmills for giants. Or Chapter 18 after mistaking the sheep herds for armies. Or… Don Quixote always has a reason for why he was not wrong.

And that is the way it is in life. It is only by denying responsibility that we can continue on making the same the mistakes. If Don Quixote admitted that he has a tendency to see things that aren’t there, he would have to conclude (as he does at the end of the book) that he really needs to be cared for. But he doesn’t, and that to me, is the essences of quixotic.[1]


[1] That does not change the meaning of the word, of course. If you use “quixotic” in that way, people will either think that you are ignorant or as crazy as Don Quixote.

Isn’t it strange that the “x” is pronounced “j” in “Don Quixote” (as usual, more reasonably in Spanish where is it spelled “Don Quijote”) but “x” in “quixotic”? It’s enough to drive you crazy.

Lope and Cervantes: the Feud

Melveena McKendrick's CervantesBack in 1980, Professor Melveena McKendrick wrote a stunning biography of Miguel de Cervantes. I went through several biographies before landing on this treasure that is written in a more lively and engaging style than most modern novels. I’m no expert, so I don’t know if the research in the book is out of date. I do know that certain aspects of Cervantes’ life which have been shown to be untrue—like the contention that he started Don Quixote while in prison—are discussed and refuted here. So any inaccuracies must be small. One certainly could not pick a book that more vividly brings Cervantes and his times to life.

Spanish Theater

One especially interesting aspect of the biography is the picture it provides of the Spanish theater scene at that time. This is the same time when the English theater was dominated by Shakespeare and all those other playwrights we no longer perform. In Spain, theater was dominated by Lope de Vega—in a way Shakespeare never did in his own time. And it just sounds like a lot more fun than what was going on over at the other side of the English Channel. One particularly telling part of this is the use of women in the theater. In England, there was no law against women performing on stage.[1] Rather, the theaters kept women from performing because they feared the government would shut them down if they did so. (Also: English boys loved dressing up as women.) In Spain, women played the female parts on stage. Sometime around 1600, the government passed a law making this illegal. The Spanish theaters just ignored it and nothing happened. Viva España!

The Feud

Lope de Vega and Cervantes knew each other and there are even indications that at one point they were close. This all came to a crashing halt when Lope came to Seville in 1602 only to be publicly attacked by three sonnets, savaging him for his work and his scandalous private life. Cervantes wasn’t there at the time, but Lope believed that he had written them. First, there is the fact that the poems seem to have been written like Cervantes had written earlier in his career. And second, there is the fact that Cervantes had always been critical of Lope’s style of drama; Cervantes was more or less unable to write for the theater because of the revolution that Lope created.

Lope fired back. He wrote a sonnet that referred to Don Quixote as “trashy” and made fun of Cervante’s damaged hand. (This wasn’t as out of line as it may appear; they played rough in those days.) Around the same time, Cervantes lampooned Lope’s efforts to appear more erudite than he was in the Prologue to Don Quixote. The whole thing reached its peak around this time when Lope wrote in a letter, “Of poets, I say nothing! what an age we live in … but there is not one as bad as Cervantes, nor so stupid as to praise Don Quixote.” In the same letter he mentions Cervantes having written that Lope’s plays were “odious.”

After this, the two men seem to have called a ceasefire. There were still publicly cool to each other, but the flaming rhetoric stopped. Nonetheless, long after Cervantes’ death in 1616, Lope continued to write critical things about Cervantes. Around 1620, Lope wrote in To Love Without Knowing Whom that Don Quixote was “extravagant” and called upon God to forgive Cervantes for writing it.

There is little doubt that there was some bad blood between the two men. This is especially true on Cervantes’ part. Lope was hugely successful and Cervantes was not. Cervantes must have felt bitter and resentful. Nonetheless, this whole feud seems to have been based upon Lope’s mistaken belief that Cervantes had insulted him rather than any real slight.


[1] I know that most people say that it was against the law for women to perform on stage. However, I remember reading from an authoritative source that this is widely believed but false. I am researching it and will come back to this. However, it doesn’t change the point I’m making.

Carole Slade Saves Tobias Smollett

Carole SladeFor years, I’ve noticed these special classics published and sold by Barnes & Noble. I’ve never bought one, probably because the bindings seemed to be poor. But yesterday, over at Treehorn Books, I found a used copy of their Don Quixote for $5—only half its already low cover price of $9.95. I can rarely pass up a used copy of anything by Cervantes, so I snatched it up. The book is in pretty good shape. It looks like it has been read only once. But despite this the spine is badly bowed. This is always a problem with long books, but here it seems somewhat extreme.

This edition is based upon Tobias Smollett’s 1755 translation[1], but it is so much more. I already have The Modern Library Classics edition of Don Quixote that is also based upon the Smollett translation. Other than an introduction by Carlos Fuentes and rather meager notes by Stephanie Kirk, this edition does not offer a great deal. The Barnes & Noble edition, however, is a real gem. According to the back cover:

Barnes & Noble Classics offers readers quality editions of enduring works at affordable prices. Each edition presents new scholarship with commentaries, viewpoints, chronologies, notes, and discussion questions.

As grand as this sounds, it actually understates how good this book is. To begin with, the editor, Carole Slade, did not simply modernize the spelling of Smollett’s translation. She re-translated parts of it that she found unclear or too archaic—a common problem with all the Don Quixote translations, at least up to Putnam’s 1949 translation.

As impressed as I am that Slade retranslated parts of Smollett’s Don Quixote, the truth is that I don’t know this translation well enough to say what she did. I picked over The Modern Library version and was unable to locate any differences. What does stand out is the collection of abundant notes that Slade added to the text. What’s more, these are provided as footnotes rather than endnotes, which makes them far more useful.[2] One of these notes I found particularly interesting:

Sancho’s donkey, to which Smollett here gives a name [Dapple]; Cervantes does not name the donkey, variously referring to it as asno or jumento (ass or donkey). I have retained Smollett’s name for it from here forward.

Putnam mentioned that the traditional name for Sancho’s donkey is rucio, which means “gray.” He is discussing why he chose not to use the name “Dapple”—he found it too quaint. But I didn’t know (though I should have) that rucio was just the traditional name and not one that Cervantes applied. Also, I didn’t know that we have Smollett to thank (or blame) for “Dapple.” This is but one of many interesting notes that Slade provides in this edition.

The Barnes & Noble Classics edition also includes almost a hundred illustrations by Gustave Doré—I believe originally created for a later edition of Louis Viardot’s French translation of Don Quixote (but I’m not sure, so don’t quote me). They are not just beautiful, but historically, they are important; as much as the text itself, Doré’s illustrations define our modern conception of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

The only thing that is really bad about this edition of Don Quixote is that it is based on the Tobias Smollett translation. It simply isn’t nearly as good as Putnam (or even Charles Jervas). More than anything, Putnam provides a very modern read. For example, the first two paragraphs of Chapter 6 are not only turned into one paragraph by Smollett, they are turned into one sentence:

While the knight was asleep, his friends came, and demanded of his niece the key of the closet in which those books, the authors of his misfortune, were kept, and she delivering it with great cheerfulness, they entered together, housekeeper and all, and found upwards of a hundred volumes, great and small, extremely well bound; which were no sooner perceived by the housekeeper, than she ran out with great eagerness, and immediately returned with a porringer of holy water, and a sprig of hyssop, saying: “Here, Master Licentiate, pray take and sprinkle the library, lest some one of the many enchanters contained in these books, should exercise his art upon us, as a punishment for our burning and banishing them from the face of the earth.”

Wow! Although Cervantes too provides a whopper of a sentence for most of his first paragraph (before the dialog), he isn’t nearly as verbose. I will spare you a quote. However, I think I would be doing a disservice to you if I did not provide the same text as translated by Putnam:

As Don Quixote was still sleeping, the curate asked the niece for the keys to the room where those books responsible for all the trouble were, and she gave them to him very willingly. They all went in, the housekeeper too, and found more than a hundred large-sized volumes very well bound and a number of smaller ones. No sooner had the housekeeper laid eyes on them than she left the room, returning shortly with a basin of holy water and a sprinkling-pot.

“Here, Senor Licentiate,” she said, “take this and sprinkle well, that no enchanter of the many these books contain may remain here to cast a spell on us for wishing to banish them from the world.”

I doubt much need be said here. If you prefer the Smollett, then by all means, read him. I don’t understand you, but I’m happy for you. For most people, the Putnam translation is clearly superior. But then, Putnam had many advantages: 200 years and our modern voice. Nonetheless, the Bares & Noble Classics edition should be owned by any Don Quixote lover for Carole Slade’s notes: very informative and lots of fun.


[1] Smollett first published his translation in 1755, but he greatly revised it six years later. This edition is based upon the 1755 version.

[2] As much as I like the Putnam translation, I get annoyed having to flip to the back of the book for every note—especially given that his notes are so often really interesting.

Don Quixote and the Death of Culture

In Chapter VI of Don Quixote, the protagonist’s friends decide to burn the chivalric books that they believe were responsible for his insanity. In this chapter, roughly 32 books are specifically mentioned—books such as Adadis de Gaula and The Knight Platir. In Putnam’s translation, he provides a general note regarding this chapter:

In this chapter Cervantes gives us a critical survey of the literature of sixteenth-century Spain as represented by the romances of chivalry and the pastoral novels. See the informative and charmingly written article on “Don Quixote’s Library,” by Esther B. Sylvia, in More Books, The Bulletin of the Boston Public Library, April 1940, pp. 135-52. The works mentioned here were all more or less well known.

This description made me very excited and so I found a copy on ABE Books and purchased it for $19—postage paid. When it arrived, I was shocked by its quality. This free publication of the Boston Public Library is a substantial scholastic publication that is well printed and perfect bound.

More Books: April 1940

Don Quixote Exhibit at BPL

What’s more, the majority of this issue is taken up with an article, “Don Quijote’s Library,” by Esther B. Sylvia. It describes an exhibition of rare books related to Don Quixote that the library was displaying at that time. This was produced in April of 1940. This is a year and a half before the start of World War II.[1] What a wonderful statement this is: despite the horrible economy, we continued to care about books, history, and art—and we share our love for free to all those who are like minded.

This Depression-era exhibit contained roughly half of the books that are listed in Chapter VI of Don Quixote. The article discusses each one—often providing far more information than I have been able to find elsewhere. For example, Sylvia goes into great depth about the Adadis de Gaula and the Palmerin series of books. In addition, she deals with the pastoral novels.

The exhibition also included a number of old and rare editions of Don Quixote itself. In particular, it had the second printing of Part 1 and the first printing of Part 2. It also had the 1608 edition that was revised by the author. This is important because in Chapter 25, Sancho’s donkey, Dapple, has been stolen, but there is no mention of it. Cervantes made some changes in the second printing of Part 1 and then extensive changes in the third printing. I believe the modern translations are based upon this third printing. The exhibition also had some of the earliest illustrated editions of Don Quixote, such as the 1657 Dutch, the 1662 Spanish, and the 1824 English editions. In total, the exhibition contained roughly 100 books.

Cultural Decline

I was so taken by this issue of More Books and the fact that these people were pushing their culture forward in a time of great economic strife, I sent a check for a modest sum (for me) to the Sonoma Country Library. The very next day, the library announced that because of budget cuts, they were no longer going to be open on Mondays and they would close at 4:00 on Saturdays.[2] On hearing this, I was glad that I had sent them the money I did, but I was saddened by the state of our culture. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Boston Public Library continued receiving the funding it needed to operate and even present spectacular exhibits. In the Great Recession of 2008, we are allowing our culture to die from neglect.

My Pleasure

More Books is not copyrighted. Thus, it is my great pleasure to provide to Don Quixote lovers everywhere, a PDF of the entire April 1940 issue of More Books. Perhaps I will provide “Don Quijote’s Library” in text format at some later time, but that will be a lot of work. For now, this copy is text searchable and so should work fine for study and, of course, enjoyment.


More About Don Quixote

Want to know more about Don Quixote and matters related? Check out our ongoing project:


[1] In June of 1940, the United State government began spending money to rebuild its military infrastructure, so this was near the beginning of the end of the Depression, but it was clearly still in the Depression.

[2] I spoke to the reference librarian at BPL, and they too have had to cut back. About six months ago, their main library went from operating 9-9 on weekdays to 10-6. The Fine Arts and Music libraries have had similar cutbacks.

Don Quixote Abridged: Putnam’s Omissions

I have been reading Samuel Putnam’s The Portable Cervantes, which contains an abridged version of Don Quixote. I hadn’t thought about this until I came to the Chapters XI – XIV — “A Pastoral Interlude” — because the novel had been complete up to that point. It turns out that it is only slightly abridged, and it begs the question as to why it was cut at all: less than 100 pages were saved with over 650 pages left.

Don Quixote Translations

When last I discussed Don Quixote, I had come to dislike the character Don Quixote. There is much to dislike about him: he has a quick temper — especially when people do not pretend to accept his delusions; he has a romantic vision of knights-errant that is too real and unpleasant; he leaves a trail of innocents’ pain in his wake. It seems as though Cervantes understood that he had pushed his character to the edge of reader acceptance, because he follows it with “A Pastoral Interlude” — Chapter XI through XIV — in which Don Quixote redeems himself to some extent.

The first time through this section, I read Putnam’s abridged version with his editorial summaries and I was well pleased. If I weren’t also writing about the book, I would have left it there. In fact, I did. I became so involved with the story that I read the next 200 pages before I caught myself, went back to “A Pastoral Interlude,” and started work on this article.

I decided to use Edith Grossman’s translation to supplement my reading. To some extent, this is an arbitrary decision. Although it is only one of six translations that I own, it is the most recent. Given how popular this translation is, and how highly it is regarded, it provided an excellent opportunity to see how Putnam’s work — first published in 1949 — compared to the current state of the art.

Chapter XI

At the end of Chapter X, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were looking for lodging but ended the day without find it. They were lucky, however, to come upon a small group of goatherds. In Chapter XI, the goatherds provide our protagonists with a meal of dried goat meat and acorns. At the end of supper, the sight of the acorns in his hand throws Don Quixote into a reverie. This causes him to give a grandiose speech about the Golden Age. In the speech, he manages to cram just about every cliche regarding this mythical time. After the speech, a shepherd friend arrives and performs a ballad.

All the time that Don Quixote was pontificating and the shepherd was singing, Sancho was drinking. After the song, Don Quixote wants to hear another, but Sancho, being tired from the effects of the wine, wants to sleep. The knight is uncharacteristically astute, seeing right through his squire. Don Quixote gives him leave to go to bed, but asks that Sancho first care for his ear — the ear that was sliced half off by the Biscayan in Chapter IX. On hearing this, one of the goatherds treats his ear with rosemary, salt, and saliva, and then bandages it.

Fierabras’ Balm: Rosemary and Salt

It is hard to know how important Cervantes means for this folk medical treatment to be taken. He certainly does not spend much time on it. However, it relates to the magical Fierabras’ balm we heard about back in Chapter X, when Don Quixote told Sancho, “It is a balm the receipt[0] for which I know by heart; with it one need have no fear of death nor think of dying from any wound.”

Later, in Chapter XVII, when Don Quixote finally makes Fierabras’ balm, it seems anything but magical. In particular, its ingredients are very familiar: oil, wine, salt, and rosemary. Whether Cervantes meant to lampoon Don Quixote in this way is unclear. Regardless, after making it, he does not put it on his wounds but rather drinks it and instantly vomits it back up.[1]

The Putnam abridged version of Chapter XI includes only Don Quixote’s speech and the shepherd’s song. The main fault I find here is that he excludes the treatment that Don Quixote’s ear receives — even in the editorial summary. This is only a problem because of its relationship to Chapter XVII mentioned above, and as I implied, this may just be a case of a critic being more clever than the writer.

Chapter XII

In Chapter XII, a young man from the village arrives and tells the group that the shepherd Grisóstomo has died from his unrequited love for the shepherdess Marcela. The rest of the chapter involves the one named goatherd—Pedro—telling Don Quixote about this rich young woman who became a shepherdess, largely to avoid unwanted romantic attention. Despite the fact that she has been clear that she wants to marry no one, her beauty is so great that many young men became shepherds in an effort to win her. One such was Grisóstomo. During the telling of this story, Don Quixote shows himself to be annoying in a whole new way by constantly interrupting and correcting Pedro. Finally, Pedro explodes at him and Don Quixote stops. After the story, the knight is compelled to sleep in Pedro’s hut owing to his wound, while his squire sleeps outside, between Rocinante and Dapple, Sancho’s donkey.

Putnam skips the whole of Chapter XII, and this is a shame. Nothing in it is critical to the story, but it gives us a new aspect of Don Quixote’s character: the pedant. It is true that we could have well guessed this of our protagonist, but it is great fun to have the experience. Everyone can share with Pedro the exasperation of trying to tell a story only to have a listener constantly interrupting with trivialities. While I well understand why Putnam cut this material, it is missed.

Chapter XIII

Chapter XIII starts with the goatherds waking Don Quixote to go to the funeral, which is a quarter of a league away—about a mile. On their way, they meet up with a group of shepherds who are also heading for the funeral. With this group are two gentlemen. One of them — Vivaldo — noticing that Don Quixote is oddly dressed for battle in a peaceful land, questions him about his chosen profession of knight-errantry. Our knight, of course, is ignorant of the fact that Vivaldo is having fun with him. By the end of their conversation, even the goatherds — who had only considered him odd before — know he is crazy.

The burial is being managed by Grisóstomo’s best friend, Ambrosio. In accordance with the deceased’s wishes, Ambrosio is having all of Grisóstomo’s writing burned. Vivaldo argues that this is not a valid request by citing the disregarding of Virgil’s wish that the Aeneid be burned. He grabs some of Grisóstomo’s papers. Ambrosio allows him to keep the pages he has grabbed, but is determined to burn the rest. As the chapter ends, Vivaldo is about to read the pages, which contain the last song that Grisóstomo wrote.

Putnam includes only the conversation between Don Quixote and Vivaldo. Thus, he skips the small amount of material leading up to it, and all of the business at the funeral. This later material is missed, but it is clear why Putnam sees fit to exclude it: it has little if anything to do with Don Quixote. In addition, Sancho is not mentioned from the start of Chapter XIII through most of Chapter XIV.[2] But these cuts do not hurt the understanding or enjoyment of later adventures.

Chapter XIV

The beginning of Chapter XIV consists of the bitter, despairing song that Vivaldo reads. Shortly after this, Marcela shows up at the funeral to defend herself against the charges that she is responsible for the shepherd’s death. Although her argument is compelling, it also shows that those claiming that she has an icy heart are not far from the target. This scene is what this whole pastoral section has been leading to. Finally, we come back to Don Quixote. After Marcela leaves, he attempts to defend her:

A few—those who had felt the powerful dart of her glances and bore the wounds inflicted by her lovely eyes—were of a mind to follow her, taking no heed of the plainly worded warning they had just had from her lips; whereupon Don Quixote, seeing this and thinking to himself that here was an opportunity to display his chivalry by succoring a damsel in distress, laid his hand upon the hilt of his sword and cried out, loudly and distinctly, “Let no person of whatever state of condition he may be dare to follow the beauteous Marcela under pain of incurring my furious wrath. She has shown with clear and sufficient reasons that little or no blame for Grisóstomo’s death is to be attached to her; she has likewise shown how far she is from acceding to the desires of any of her suitors, and it is accordingly only just that in place of being hounded and persecuted she should be honored and esteemed by all good people in this world as the only woman in it who lives with such modesty and good intentions.”

As far as Don Quixote is concerned, this is yet another victory: no shepherd follows the young woman. But Cervantes cannot leave us thinking this is necessarily due to the knight’s warning. “Whether it was because of Don Quixote’s warning, or because Ambrosio said they should conclude what they owed to their good friend, none of the shepherds left…” Even if the shepherds had stayed because of Don Quixote, by this time, they all knew he was crazy and surely feared him for that reason and not because of any respect or fear of his talents as a knight.

The last quoted line was taken from the Grossman translation because it is not in Putnam’s. He excluded Grisóstomo’s song, which is understandable because it is not very entertaining and it is wholly irrelevant to the story except perhaps to highlight the distinction between the romantic delusions of Grisóstomo and Don Quixote. But after Don Quixote’s speech, Putnam ends the chapter with an editorial summary that misses two important details: Don Quixote’s probable impotence in protecting Marcela and his heading into the woods to offer his services to the woman (he’s unable to find her). These cuts are the first clear errors in Putnam’s abridgment.

Translation Comparison

The least that can be said about the translations is that Putnam is comparable to Grossman. In fact, much of the two translations are shockingly similar. Grossman says that she consulted no other translations while she worked on Part 1 of the book, and I don’t doubt her. But it is clear that Putnam and Grossman are far more similar to each other than either are to Charles Jervas’ 1742 translation.

In general, Grossman is a little more modern and natural than Putnam. But the difference is mostly pretty subtle. What’s more, there are almost as many occasions when Putnam is superior in this regard. One very obvious place where this happens is in support of dialog. For example, in Chapter XIII, Cervantes wrote:

A lo cual respondió don Quijote:

—La profesión de mi ejercicio no consiente ni permite que yo ande de otra manera.[3]

Grossman translated:

To which Don Quixote replied:

“The exercise of my profession does not allow or permit me to go about in any other manner.”

And Putnam translated:

“The calling that I profess,” replied Don Quixote, “does not permit me to do otherwise.”

This is a common occurrence. Clearly, Putnam is taking a lot of license with the text. Grossman’s translation (in this way) is closer to the original, but at the cost of offending a modern reader’s expectations.

Poetry

One area where Putnam is clearly superior to Grossman is in the translation of the poetry in Don Quixote. At first, I had a hard time believing that Grossman was a bad as she seemed. But there is no doubting it: her poetry sucks. To some extent, this is intentional. Her focus seems to be on translating as accurately as possible, without regard to meter, rhythm, rhyme, or any other poetic aspects of the language. Putnam takes much more care in this regard, even if he is not able to include Cervantes’ use of assonance and repetition.

Just to give you some idea, here are the first two stanzas of the poem “Antonio” from Chapter XI:

 Yo sé, Olalla, que me adoras,
Puesto que no me lo has dicho
Ni aun con los ojos siquiera,
Mudas lenguas de amorios.
 Porque sé que eres sabida,
En que me quieres me afirmo;
Que nunca fue dedichado
Amor que fue conocido.[4]

The Grossman translation is ugly, and hard to read:

I know, Olalla, that you adore me
though you haven’t told me so,
not even with your eyes,
in the silent language of love.
 Since I know that you are clever,
that you love me I do claim;
for love was ne’er unrequited
if it has been proclaimed.

Although the Putnam translation takes many liberties with Cervantes, it communicates the same thing in a similar manner. And most important of all, it is poetry; it is easy to read.

 I know well that thou dost love me,
My Olalla, even though
Eyes of thine have never spoken—
Love’s mute tongues — to tell me so.
 Since I know thou knowest my passion,
Of thy love I am more sure:
No love ever was unhappy
When it was both frank and pure.

This is the most thorough comparison of translations that I have made. In addition to Putnam and Grossman, I have included Jervas[5] in my studies. I stand by my original assessment that this early translation — the fourth in English, published in 1742 — is quite readable. But whether the art of translation has improved or the language has changed, the recent translations are better. However, if Grossman is today the state of the art regarding Don Quixote translations, not much has changed since 1949 when Putnam published his. It certainly makes me wonder why a new translation comes out every couple of years.


[0] An uncommon definition of “receipt” is “recipe.”

[1] This idea is not original to me. I got it from The Chivalric World of Don Quijote: Style, Structure, and Narrative Technique by the Curators of the University of Missouri. It can be found in Miguel de Cervantes (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views), edited by Harold Bloom.

[2] It is striking how this section de-emphasizes Sancho Panza. In so doing, it makes plain the function that he plays in the novel. As we saw during the first sally, Don Quixote is not very interesting by himself. He only shines when seen through the eyes of others—others who are sane. So the goatherds and shepherds serve this function here, and Sancho slips into the background.

[3] Google does a surprisingly good job of translating this, “To which Don Quixote: the exercise of my profession does not condone or allow me to walk otherwise.” However, ande (andar) means: walk, go, go around, go about, carry, hang around, live, get long, tramp, trip, and so on. So a better translation would be, “To which Don Quixote: the exercise of my profession does not condone or allow me to go about my life otherwise.”

[4] Google translates this as, “I know, Olalla, which I adore, / As I have said / Not even with his eyes even, / Silent tongues of love affairs. / Because I know you are known, / In me you love me I say; / That was never dedichado / Love was known.”

[5] Here is a video that some guy took of an 1809 printing of the Jervas translation. It is produced in two volumes, rather than the modern tradition of binding both parts into a single volume. The book only cost $90, and I am oh so jealous; but it is nice to have the video.


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Don Quixote in Pieces on the Ground

Don Quixote is roughly a half-million words long. The average modern novel is about 100,000 words. My first novel was 60,000 words. My current novel was supposed to 120,000 words, but it is becoming clear that it will have to be roughly double that length. The point is that Don Quixote is long. It is the longest novel I know of, and this presents a problem. Just yesterday morning, I pulled out my Putnam translation from my backpack, and found it in pieces. In one way, this is a good thing: I only have to carry around the half of it at a time because the book broke almost exactly in half (with some individual pages floating about). But this does not compensate for this book being destroyed. And it does not bode well. All of my copies of Don Quixote are in paperback, and I’m sure they too will fall apart when I get around to manhandling them.

I have been neglecting my discussions of Don Quixote because I have been working on a comparison of all my translations of Chapter 6. It is a daunting task. It took me some time to compare various translations of a single sentence in the book. Doing a whole chapter—and a long one at that—takes forever. For now, idling reader, we will just have to continue on with Putnam.

The Traveling Merchants

When last we encountered our hero, I compared him to Henry Bergh—finding him quite wanting. Bergh was a true hero—a great man. The Ingenious Gentleman is just a nut who, while trying to do good, does very bad things indeed. After leaving a peasant boy to be brutalized by his master, our hero rides off feeling very good about himself. Then he runs into some merchants who he will not let pass, “Unless everyone will confess that there is not in all the world a more beauteous damsel than the Empress of La Mancha, the peerless Dulcinea del Toboso.”[1] When they insist upon seeing at least some likeness of her, Don Quixote attacks. Luckily, Rocinante—Don Quixote’s old, skinny horse—falls. The merchants take the opportunity to beat up Don Quixote and then go on their way. Apparently because of the weight of his armor (and being in bad physical shape because of the beating), Don Quixote is forced to lie on the ground over night until a local farmer finds him and helps him home.

There is an interlude at this point: Chapter 6. Mostly, it is a way for Cervantes to have some fun with the chivalric books of his time—even his own. I am waiting for the compendium of all the issues from 1940 of More Books, The Bulletin of the Boston Public Library. It contains an article by Esther B. Sylvia called “Don Quixote’s Library.” Putnam does an excellent job of annotating this chapter, but I expect Sylvia’s paper to be far more enlightening. So I will not discuss this chapter, except to say that as Don Quixote sleeps, his friends burn most of his library.

On the Road Again

As soon as he is recovered, Don Quixote slips away at night. He has managed to get a local farmer named Sancho Panza to be his squire by promising to make him governor of an island—or something similar. Then we get to the windmills. It is remarkable that this section of the book is so well known, because it really doesn’t stand out. Don Quixote sees a bunch of windmills, mistakes them for giants, and attacks them. There really isn’t much to say about this episode. If you joust with a windmill, you will lose. Don Quixote lost. Sancho warns him before and chastises him afterwards:

“God help us!” exclaimed Sancho, “did I not tell your Grace to look well, that those were nothing but windmills, a fact which no one could fail to see unless he had other mills of the same sort in his head?”

“Be quiet, friend Sancho,” said Don Quixote. “Such are the fortunes of war, which more than any other are subject to constant change. What is more, when I come to think of it, I am sure that this must be the work of that magician Frestón[2], the one who robbed me of my study and my books, and who has thus changed the giants into windmills in order to deprive me of the glory of overcoming them, so great is the enmity that he bears me; but in the end his evil arts shall not prevail against this trusty sword of mine.”

The one interesting part of this episode is that it is the first indication that while Sancho is an illiterate and gullible farmer, he’s pretty smart and very grounded.

The Murderous Nut

After this fiasco, the pair meet up with a couple of friars followed by a lady in a coach accompanied by six or seven guards, it would seem. Don Quixote thinks the friars have kidnapped the lady and so attacks them. They flea for their lives. Then Don Quixote goes to the coach and tells the lady that she need not pay him for not saving her. All he wants is for her to go back to La Mancha and tell Dulcinea del Toboso about the heroic deed that he just didn’t do. One of her companions says this is ridiculous—the lady was on her way to Seville to say good-bye to her husband who had been appointed some kind of high post in India. As a result, the two begin to fight. Don Quixote gets the better of the other man and would have killed him if not for the ladies in the coach begging him to spare the man’s life.

This episode was much less enjoyable than that of the merchants, because in this case, Don Quixote got what he wanted. He attacked two friars and would have killed one of them had he not fallen off his mount. Then he would have killed another man when he was prone. There is nothing chivalric about his behavior. Later that evening, Sancho suggests that they take refuge in a church because they might be arrested. Don Quixote will have none of it; he sums up very well what it means to be a knight-errant:

“Be quiet,” said Don Quixote. “And where have you ever seen, or read of, a knight being brought to justice no matter how many homicides he might have committed?”

It is a shocking statement that jumps off the page. Up to that point, one can see all of Don Quixote as farce, but this statement is too true. In general, knights were not the good men of movies and novels; they were murdering rouges, more like Mickey Knox from Natural Born Killers than Robin Hood. So after but ten chapters, we find that our hero is nothing more than a murderous madman who talks pretty. I already know that in the end, Don Quixote dies feeling bad and embarrassed about the things that he has done. But there is a long way to go, and I find I am not enjoying the book as much as I had. Like Francois Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel I can understand and even appreciate the comedy, but it does not make me laugh. Don Quixote is serious business indeed. And it is in pieces on the ground in more ways than one.


[1] Dulcinea del Toboso is a peasant girl. She has no idea who Don Quixote is. And Sancho lies to Don Quixote when they meet. Don Quixote sees just a dirty peasant girl (which she is). But Sancho convinces him that she is really a beautiful princess and that Don Quixote must be under an evil curse by Frestón to make him unable to see this.

[2] Frestón is a magician Don Quixote’s friends made up to explain how his study (they walled over the door) and books went missing. Like so much in Don Quixote’s mind, Frestón does not exist.


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El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote De La Mancha!

Twice Told BooksYesterday, I dropped into Twice Told Books in Guerneville, California—a very cool little store that just happens to be be for sale for just $25,000. This sounds like a deal to me, and if anyone wants to loan me $15,000, I think I can make a go of it. (Or if you want to buy it, you can contact Richard Lester and John Genovese at 707-303-6358.)

The proprietor of this charming store just happened to have the 22nd edition of El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote De La Mancha :Coleccion Austral behind the counter and let me have it for just five bucks! Generally, Spanish language versions of Don Quixote are at least twenty dollars, which is kind of strange given that they don’t even require editors. This book, for example, doesn’t even have a perfunctory preface, foreword, or introduction. (Not that these are necessary—Cervantes provided more than enough of that.)

Chapter 4

When last I discussed Don Quixote, I was praising its wit and modernity. But things have changed. It all started in Chapter 3. Up to that point, Cervantes was very light and funny. But then things turned dark. This is not a mistake but rather a cultural difference. I’ve seen it with Francois Rabelais, people’s ideas of humor in the 16th century were much more coarse than ours. I’d like to look into this a little.

In Chapter 4, Don Quixote comes upon a farmer whipping a lad of fifteen who it would appear is nothing more than a slave laborer. The Don is appalled by this and forces the farmer to stop torturing the boy and to pay him what he is owed. The farmer claims that his money is at home and that he will take the boy there and pay him. The boy protests that this will not happen—that once the knight is out of sight, the farmer will renege on his promise.

“I go home with him!” cried the lad. “Never in the world! No, sir, I would not even think of it. For once he has me alone he’ll flay me like a St. Bartholomew.”

Don Quixote brushes these concerns aside. He believes that the farmer is a knight and is bound by honor. Having seen justice prevail, Don Quixote rides off.

As he said this, he put spurs to Rocinante and was off. The farmer watched him go, and when he saw that Don Quixote was out of the wood and out of sight, he turned to his servant, Andres.

“Come here, my son,” he said. “I want to pay you what I owe you as that righter of wrongs has commanded me.”

“Take my word for it,” replied Andres, “your Grace would do well to observe the command of that good knight—may he live a thousand years; for as he is valorous and a righteous judge, if you don’t pay me then, by Roque, he will come back and do just what he said!”

And I will give you my word as well,” said the farmer; “but seeing that I am so fond of you, I wish to increase the debt, that I may owe you all the more.” And with this he seized the lad’s arm and bound him to the tree again and flogged him within an inch of his life. “There, Master Andres, you may call on that righter of wrongs if you like and you will see whether or not he rights this one. I do not think I have quite finished with you yet, for I have a good mind to flay you alive as you feared.”

Don Quixote is crazy, of course. And I pitied him even through Chapter 3—where he behaved rather badly. But here, I found that I was really very angry with him. He was so caught up in the romance of knighthood, that he didn’t find it necessary to make sure that justice was done—just that he announced what justice ought to be done. And in the end, Andres was harmed even more than he would otherwise have been.

This episode contrasts very well with a true story about Henry Bergh, the founder of the ASPCA. During the Civil War, he had a diplomatic post in St. Petersburg, Russia. According to Nathan J. Winograd in his excellent book, Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America:

Finding the duties tiring and mundane, Bergh spent less time on official duties and more time taking aimless carriage rides throughout the city. When he witnessed a peasant beating his donkey on one such ride, Bergh ordered the man to stop, which the man did in deference to Bergh, who looked like a well-dressed gentleman of official position. According to legend, the experience completely transformed Henry Bergh and left him with an abiding sense of accomplishment. Bergh spent his remaining time in Russia traveling daily by carriage in search of such transgressions, which he could prevent by reason of his social class, official position and immense physical stature.

Bergh would spend the better part of the next two decades in a daily struggle for the animals in and around New York City. Turning to the event in the streets of St. Petersburg that inspired him, his first order of business was to better the plight of New York City’s much abused working draft horses … The annals of the ASPCA describe the first such encounter:

The driver of a cart laden with coal is whipping his horse. Passersby on the New York City street stop to gawk not so much at the weak, emaciated equine, but at the tall man, elegant in top hat and spats, who is explaining to the driver that it is now against the law to beat one’s animal. Thus, America first encounters “The Great Meddler.”

Henry BerghBergh spent the next twenty-two years of his life daily going about New York personally stopping animal cruelty—even arresting people and taking them to jail. If he saw a horse-pulled train that was over-crowed, he would stop it and force the riders to get off. Henry Bergh was a Victorian Don Quixote, in the sense of one man out to right wrongs, no matter what the odds.

I am reading Don Quixote very slowly. I just pick it up when I want something light. It almost always wins out over P. G. Wodehouse. And it can be read in much the same way as The World of Jeeves. It is highly episodic. All this means, however, that I don’t know where Don Quixote is going. I’d like to think that Don Quixote really becomes the knight of his foolish fantasies. I hope that his quixotic quest leads him to the nobility of Bergh’s.


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