From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America
14.1 (1994): 75-95.
Copyright © 1994, The Cervantes Society of America
|The Knight was right: fear and only fear made Sancho see makes the rest of us simple mortals see windmills where impudent giants stand, spewing wickedness about the world. Those mills milled bread, and of that bread men confirmed in blindness ate. Today, they no longer appear to us in the form of windmills, but in the form of locomotives, dynamos, turbines, steamships, automobiles, telegraphs with wires and without, machine guns, and instruments for performing ovariotomies, all conspiring to commit the same harm.|
|Miguel de Unamuno, Vida de don Quijote y Sancho (1928)1|
de Unamuno, Our Lord Don Quixote: The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho with
Related Essays, trans. by Anthony Kerrigan (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1967), 57-58.
n his El ingenioso hidalgo
don Quijote de la Mancha, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra makes frequent
reference to technological artifacts.2 Far
from being incidental, such references are central to both the novel and
the main character, Don Quijote. Not only do several episodes revolve around
the protagonist's confrontation with a variety of machines and technological
instruments, but also the entire book concerns Don Quijote's inability to
come to terms with a modern world increasingly characterized by technology.
Technology epitomizes the age which Don Quijote decides to call into question
and confront, and which, not coincidentally, he names the iron
In this article, I will discuss Don Quijote's various encounters with technological artifacts. I will also propose that his approach to life and epoch is determined by the development of print, which provided the reading materials and models that compelled him to adopt an anti-modern attitude. It is this bookish learning, especially from romances of chivalry, that underlies his identification with a past that has both classical and medieval elements. Indeed, the fundamental tension in this major work involves the medieval-pastoral mentality of Don Quijote, and the emergence of new values and economic activities associated with the dawn of modern age. Spain had finished the eight-centuries-long war of Reconquista in the late fifteenth century to find itself suddenly thrust into the management of a worldwide empire, with all its attendant dislocations in economics, society, and culture.3 Cervantes illustrates the depth of this transition by creating a character who stumbles into the modern world, and who seeks to impose on it the ethics of a bygone era.4
is a vast literature on Cervantes' Don Quijote, but no specific study
on the role of the novel in underscoring the significance of technology for
society and culture. See the bibliographies by Dana B. Drake, Don Quijote
(1894-1970): A Selective Annotated Bibliography, vol. 1 (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Department of Romance Languages, 1974), vol.
2 (Miami: Ediciones Universal, 1978), vol. 3 (New York and London: Garland
Publishing, 1980), and vol. 4 (Lincoln, NE: Society of Spanish and
Spanish-American Studies, 1984).
3 J. H. Eliot, Imperial Spain, 1469-1716 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1964).
4 The relationship between Cervantes' protagonist and modernity has been examined by Leo Lowenthal in Literature and the Image of Man: Sociological Studies of the European Drama and Novel, 1600-1900 (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1957), 20-56. José Ortega y Gasset in his Meditaciones del Quijote [p. 77] (Madrid: Ediciones de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1957) views Don Quijote as un Cristo gótico, macerado en angustias modernas (p. 54). Other authors have emphasized the character's conscious adoption of a new identity either in the form of defiance of reality or as a personal, independent choice. See, in particular, José Echeverría, El Quijote como figura de la vida humana (Santiago: Ediciones de la Universidad de Chile, 1965), and Juan Bautista Avalle-Arce, Don Quijote como forma de vida (Valencia: Fundación Juan March y Editorial Castalia, 1976).
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José Antonio Maravall has demonstrated
how Don Quijote's quest involves a criticism of modern society, which he
describes as characterized by the development of a centralized state
administration, the monetarization of the economy, and the creation of large
standing armies. Don Quijote seeks to revive the deeds of chivalry in order
to induce the modern world to adopt a more moral and heroic model of human
behavior. Cervantes, in Maravall's view, advanced the ideal of reforming
modern society but at the same time made it clear in his novel that the revival
of pastoral and chivalric myths represented little more than utopian evasions.
The modern world had to be understood and reformed, not undone in the name
of a mythical past.5 My own understanding
of Cervantes' aims builds on Maravall's work in order to emphasize how the
larger phenomenon of modernity is embodied in the technological artifacts
Don Quijote encounters in his sallies.
Cervantes dramatizes the tension between past and present by making use of such technologies as windmills, water-powered grain mills, fulling hammers, and firearms, among others. He associates these technologies with modernity, and uses the anachronistic Don Quijote as a vehicle for illustrating the impact of technology on human sensibility. Don Quijote wakes into a world he does not or refuses to recognize and, armed with the values of chivalry, seeks to transform it. Either through direct battle or through the attempt to translate machinery into the terms of chivalry, the battered knight demonstrates how prosaic and removed from human values technology can be. But he is an anti-modern hero who is paradoxically a product of modernity. Not only does he become Don Quijote by reading the books produced by a technological innovation, the printing press, but he also dons armor carries swords, and displays a very modern individualism. Cervantes, who had been a soldier himself and
Antonio Maravall, Utopía y contrautopía en el Quijote
(Santiago de Compostela: Editorial Pico Sacro, 1976).
who was quite familiar with the technology of his time, understood that his
character would have a most powerful effect on his cultural milieu by purposely
exaggerating the newness of the technologies around him. By making Don Quijote
mad he secured the license to cross historical periods and selectively highlight
technological developments. In this way, he could call attention to the enormous,
cumulative changes brought about by technologies that had become so familiar
as to be taken for granted.
In any event, machinery and technology in Don Quijote provide the occasion for the confrontation between two value systems, one rooted in the distant past which privileges individual valor and morality, and the other rooted in the modern present which privileges machinery and rationality. Don Quijote calls the former the golden age, and the latter the iron age. Sancho, my friend, he declares in I, 20, you may know that I was born, by Heaven's will, in this our age of iron, to revive what is known as the Golden Age (p. 146).6 He defines the golden age, which he plans to revive through the values and actions of knight-errantry, as follows:
. . . In that blessed era all things were held in common . . . All then was peace, all was concord and friendship; the crooked plowshare had not yet grievously laid open and pried into the merciful bowels of our first mother, who without any forcing on man's part yielded her spacious fertile bosom on every hand for the satisfaction, sustenance, and delight of her first sons (I, 11, pp. 81-82).
The golden age clearly belongs to the pre-technological past, before plowshares disrupted the fundamental unity of man and nature. After the introduction of agriculture, or exploitation of nature, what follows is the fall into the corruption of modernity. The drive for profit sets in. Women are no longer safe. The elderly and sick are left to their own devices. In short, the eruption of technology wreaks havoc on humanity. It was for the safety of such as these, Don Quijote declares, that the order of knights-errant was instituted, for the protection of damsels, the
the purposes of reference, I will use the widely available translation by
Samuel Putnam, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha, 2
vols. (New York: The Viking Press, 1949). To refer to episodes in chapters
without direct quotation I will use the following format: Roman numerals
indicate parts (I and II), and Arabic numerals indicate chapters (52 in the
first part, 74 in the second).
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aid of widows and orphans, and the succoring of the needy (I, 11, p.
82). The medieval knights-errant seek to restore the golden age or otherwise
alleviate the consequences of the inhuman present.
It is well known how Don Quijote arms himself, drafts peasant Sancho Panza as his squire, becomes knighted, commits himself to a maiden, Dulcinea del Toboso, and sets out to confront the iron age. His first and most significant confrontation occurs in I, 8, and involves the windmills, by which time he is totally imbued in the universe of knight-errantry. He construes some thirty windmills to be giants, who in the romances of chivalry were generally depicted as evil creatures.7 He attacks one, suffers a severe beating, but refuses to call a spade a spade. Sancho explains to him, both before and after the event, that these are windmills and even describes their purpose and workings. For Sancho, who is perfectly familiar with the increasing mechanization of agricultural activity, windmills had long become part of the rural working environment. Don Quijote concedes that these giants may indeed have become windmills, but only after a magician turned them into machines in order to spoil his demonstration of bravery.
This episode is extremely important because it illustrates the clash between the two worlds mentioned earlier. By viewing the windmills as giants, Don Quijote signals, on the one hand, that machinery is evil and, on the other, that his view of the modern world is filtered through the lens of the past. Windmills have no positive function to perform in his golden age, and are therefore pictured as unwelcome manifestations of the present. There is such conviction in Don Quijote's rejection of the windmills, and such violence in the physical encounter between himself and the sails of the windmill, that Cervantes seems to have chosen this
Braudel indicates that while windmills were not new to Europe, they certainly
were in Don Quijote's La Mancha. Hence, his reaction was quite
natural. In this, he follows Lynn White, Medieval Technology and
Social Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 88. See his
The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible, vol.
1 of Civilization and Capitalism in 15th-18th Century, 3 vols. (New
York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 359. See also Lewis Mumford, Technics
and Civilization (New York and Burlingame: Harcourt, Brace & World,
1963), pp. 115-117. On the relationship between giants and windmills, see
Augustin Redondo, Nuevo examen del episodio de los molinos de viento
(Don Quijote, I, 8) in James A. Parr, ed., On Cervantes:
Essays for L. A. Murillo (Newark, DE: Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs,
early anecdote to set the tone for his description of the clash between past
and present, and, more specifically, man and machinery. The characteristics
of Don Quijote, a knight-errant out of context and place, serves to illustrate
the momentous transition from medieval to modern times. Don Quijote's
stubbornness shows how difficult that transition can be, especially when
technological instruments are involved. Machines cannot be readily understood
from the perspective of chivalry, and any attempt to subsume them under the
categories and values of the past ends in failure. Cervantes was clearly
very much concerned about how this transition occurred, and about the human
In another episode, a somewhat alarmed Don Quijote prepares for battle after hearing the sound of measured blows, together with the rattling of iron chains, accompanied by so furious a thunder of waters as to strike terror in any other heart than that of Don Quixote (I, 20, p. 145). Although the pitch-dark night prevents him from seeing what this is, Don Quijote is determined to strike, believing such horrendous noises to be a challenge to the courage of a knight-errant. Sancho Panza contrives to keep him occupied until dawn, when the light of day reveals six fulling hammers (mazos de batán) instead of monsters or giants. Upon seeing this, Don Quijote was speechless and remained as if paralyzed from head to foot (p. 154). Unable to ascribe this event to a magician's trick, Don Quijote begins to show signs of deep distress which will ultimately undermine the very foundations of his adopted life.8
The romances of chivalry had taught Don Quijote that an entire substratum of meaning existed under the crude manifestations of reality. A clever hero in such literature could maintain his integrity and determination by decoding such manifestations in order to reveal a deeper world of meaning and reality. Don Quijote attempts to engage in such decoding, but increasingly finds himself unable to translate technological artifacts into the world of chivalry.
The light of day prevented Don Quijote from seeing the fulling hammers as something other than what they were, but there are other episodes in which he insists that objects are really
episode of the fulling hammers, especially the element of surprise in Don
Quijote's response, has been analyzed by Robert Brady in his Don Quijote's
Emotive Adventures: Fulling Hammers and Lions, Neophilologus
59 (1975), 372-381.
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what he sees in them. In I, 21, for instance, he stubbornly claims that a barber's shaving basin is Mambrino's Helmet, and refuses to accept any evidence to the contrary. In I, 35, he takes the wineskins hanging over his bed at the inn for giants, and slashes them open to the dismay of the innkeeper. Another significant delusion concerns the watermills in II, 29, which Don Quijote takes for the city, castle, or fortress where they must be holding some knight in captivity, or some sorely wronged queen, infanta, or princess, to rescue whom I am being brought here (p. 701). When Sancho protests that these are not castles, but watermills, Don Quijote again responds that they only appear to be watermills after some enchanter has transformed them. During this discussion, their boat heads towards the millwheels, which causes the mill workers to come to their rescue. Don Quijote takes them for rogues and scoundrels who seek to obstruct his deed. Despite imminent danger, he addresses them as follows:
Lowborn and ill-advised rabble, set free and restore to liberty the person whom you hold in durance vile in that fortress or prison, whether that person be of high or low degree, whatever his station or walk in life; for I am Don Quixote de la Mancha, otherwise known as the Knight of the Lions, for whom it is reserved, by order of the highest heavens, to bring this adventure to a fortunate conclusion! (p. 702).
Don Quijote and Sancho nearly drown, and their boat is destroyed, but the knight refuses to accept the reality of the watermills. Not surprisingly, the workers think that he is totally mad. So does Sancho, who is shaken to the core by their near encounter with death. What is striking about this episode is the total coherence of Don Quijote's arguments, and the correspondence between his perception of reality and his actions even in the face of self-destruction. For their part, the actions and perceptions of the workers are just as coherent. They foresee the consequences of the crash, and act accordingly to prevent it. Yet the two rationalities do not meet, and each dismisses the other. The characters are so immersed in the reality of their respective environments that they cannot accept the perspective of someone outside it. Hence the references to madness, and rogues and scoundrels. A frustrated Don Quijote concludes that this world is nothing but schemes and plots [máquinas y trazas], all working at cross-purposes. I can do no more (p. 703).
New technological environments are more than machines. They involve a host of social and economic interactions that do not fit into Don Quijote's adopted universe. One example can be seen in the case of salary, which the knight abhors as yet another instance of the wickedness of the iron age. The issue of salary appears repeatedly at Sancho's insistence, for he feels that the promise of an ínsula (governorship) should not prevent him from receiving a regular wage. It has been frequently pointed out how Don Quijote and Sancho are like the two sides of the same coin, and even how they are transformed during their journeys and come to resemble each other.9 In the novel, Sancho constantly attests to the reality of a modern world which Don Quijote is intent on dismissing. The issue of salary is perhaps the most contentious, and serves as a reminder that knight and squire really live in two different worlds. Salary means money, and money is a technology of exchange, a technique of measuring value which Don Quijote rejects strongly. On the eve of their third journey, Sancho demands a salary, prompting the following response from Don Quijote:
Look, Sancho, I should be glad to give you a fixed wage if I could find in the histories of knights-errant any instance that would afford me the slightest hint as to what their squires used to receive by the month or by the year. I have read all or most of those histories, and I cannot recall any knight who paid his squire such a wage. Rather, they all served for the favors that came to them; and when they least expected it, if things had gone well with their masters, they would find themselves rewarded with an island or something else that amounted to the same thing, or at least they would have a title and a seigniory . . . If for these hopes and inducements, Sancho . . . you choose to return to my service, well and good; but you are wasting your time if you think that I am going to violate and unhinge the ancient customs of chivalry (II, 7, p. 552).
A knight-errant who pays no salary and who himself carries little or no money? He is true to his ethics, and can cause much disturbance and confusion through his actions, but he cannot function in a modern world unless he does so at the margins of a rapidly expanding monetary economy. He certainly incurs expenses during his travels, albeit minimal, but they are often covered
Salvador de Madariaga, Don Quijote: An Introductory Essay in Psychology
(London: Oxford University Press, 1961).
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by someone else. Don Quijote is not a swindler; he simply refuses to accept
the reality of money insofar as it reflects the modernity he rejects.
While he can do without money, to a certain extent, Don Quijote cannot escape other manifestations of modernity. The ultimate of these manifestations is gunpowder. Don Quijote faces a most difficult dilemma here, for he does not question the centrality of military power and war in the society of his age. He believes that the availability of force is more important than laws, for the latter could not exist without the former. Moreover, he is by self-definition a knight, a fighter who sets out to confront giants, scoundrels and armies in order to right wrongs. He is always anxious to prove the might of his sword. But what can a sword do in front of a firearm? This is how he sees the problem:
Happy were the blessed ages that were free of those devilish instruments of artillery, whose inventor, I feel certain, is now in Hell paying the penalty for his diabolic device a device by means of which an infamous and cowardly arm may take the life of a valiant knight, without his knowing how or from where the blow fell, when amid that courage and fire that is kindled in the breasts of the brave suddenly there comes a random bullet, fired it may be by someone who fled in terror at the flash of his own accursed machine and who thus in an instant cuts off and brings to an end the projects and the life of one who deserved to live for ages to come . . . I could almost say that it grieves my soul that I should have taken up the profession of knight-errant in an age so detestable as this one in which we now live. For although no danger strikes terror in my bosom, I do fear that powder and lead may deprive me of the opportunity to make myself famous and renowned, by the might of my arm and the edge of my sword, throughout the whole of the known world (I, 38, pp. 342-43).
Don Quijote had every reason to be concerned. Just as the use of iron cannon-balls began to demolish the walls of the medieval city in the late fifteenth century, the arquebus, which dominated light artillery in the sixteenth, severely threatened his adopted profession. Don Quijote was painfully aware of this, for the valor of a knight is rendered irrelevant in the unequal confrontation between a sword and a gun. Moreover, a shot, a bullet have no face, no concrete or massive presence that can be ascribed to a magician's trickery or reduced to any other universe
of meaning. A bullet can kill without the victim knowing how or from
where the blow fell, thus adding to the terrifying effect of both the
specific technology and the larger phenomenon of modernity.
More than any other episode, the speech on firearms reveals the extent of Don Quijote's uneasiness about life in a modern world. It grieves him to live in such a detestable age when a warrior's effectiveness is no longer defined by his valor but rather by his firepower. Gunpowder forces him to conduct his deeds at the margins and to fight battles that are not exactly the decisive ones of the period. Such technologies as firearms irreverently sweep aside not just old technologies but the very attitudes based on them. The sword and lance-wielding Don Quijote is therefore widely perceived as anachronistic and mad not just on account of his obsolete weaponry, but also on account of his worldview. This anecdote exemplifies a larger point made by Cervantes concerning the clash between old and new technological environments. As the latter prevail (although not without resistance and struggle), they undermine not only the effectiveness of older technologies, but also have an effect on attitudes and perceptions.
In another illustration of the same situation, Don Quijote, who makes much of courage, finds himself scrambling for life when he and Sancho run into a militia squad, an incident develops, and the knight sees that several guns are aiming at him,
. . . he turned Rocinante's head and at the best gallop he could manage fled from their midst, meanwhile praying to God with all his heart to deliver him from this peril. He feared at every step that some [bullet]10 might pierce his back and come out through his bosom, and he was constantly drawing in his breath to make sure it had not failed him (II, 27, pp. 692-93).
Sancho, who is besides himself after being unceremoniously abandoned by Don Quijote, must now bear his lukewarm explanation: I admit that I retired, but not that I fled, claims Don Quijote, and in this I have merely followed the example of many brave men who have saved themselves for a more propitious time (p. 694). An unconvinced Sancho berates the knight and even brings up the matter of salary again. Faced with such
wrongly translates bala as arrow, just as he wrongly
translates arcabuces as muskets.
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demands, and still shaken by the incident, Don Quijote begins to give up.
During the course of his travels he has been beaten, has mortgaged much of
his patrimony, has been the target of many jokes, well-intentioned or otherwise,
and has suffered numerous disappointments. But all along he has been sustained
by his belief in the righteousness of chivalry. After the firearms incident,
his resolve begins to falter. He even begins to consider a retreat into pastoral
Don Quijote's anti-modern attitude includes two phases: one involving direct struggle with the technological expressions of modernity; the other involving pastoralism, or retreat into a pre-technological form of existence.11 Unable to adjust to the demands of the modern world, much less defeat it, he seeks refuge in a timeless Arcadia.12 While he has been aided in this search for Arcadia by his own promise to abandon knight-errantry for a year (after a fight staged by his concerned friends), pastoralism has always represented an option for Don Quijote, albeit a much less desirable one. Trying to make the best of a bad situation, the knight tells his squire,
I will purchase some sheep and all the other things that are necessary to the pastoral life, taking for myself the name of the shepherd Quixotiz, while you will be the shepherd Pancino. Together we will roam the hills, the woods, and the meadows, now singing songs and now composing elegies, drinking the crystal water of the springs or that of the clear running brooks or mighty rivers. The oaks will provide us with an abundance of their delicious fruit, the hardwood trunks of the cork trees will furnish us a seat, the willows will give us shade, the roses will lend their perfume, and the spacious meadows will spread a myriad-colored carpet for our feet; we shall breathe the clean, pure air, and despite the darkness of the night the moon and stars will afford us illumination; song will be our joy, and we shall be happy even in our laments, for Apollo will supply the inspiration for our verses and love will endow us with conceits and we shall be
Antonio Maravall has argued that Cervantes made use of literary traditions
which advanced pastoral ideals, and combined them with the literature on
chivalry, in order to illustrate the utopian character of the opposition
to modernity. See his Utopía y contrautopía, p. 172.
12 On the subject of pastoralism, see Juan Bautista Avalle-Arce, La novela pastoril española, 2nd ed. (Madrid: Ediciones Istmo, 1974). See also Américo Castro, El pensamiento de Cervantes (Madrid: Imprenta de la Librería y Casa Editorial Hernando, 1925). 187-190.
everlastingly famous not only in this age but for all time to come (II, 67, p. 949).
Purchase his way into Arcadia? Clearly, toward the end of his third
trip he has made quite a few concessions to modernity. He agrees to pay Sancho
a salary, he even reimburses some fishermen for the destruction of their
boat, and now talks about purchasing sheep! But these concessions are also
a symptom of impending moral collapse. In fact, he will not be able to carry
on much further. Ravaged in body and soul, Don Quijote returns to his household
to prepare for death.13
Death without redemption would have provided for a very depressing tale. But Cervantes concludes his novel with an intriguing description of Don Quijote's return to reason, and in the process identifies the sources of his character's madness: the romances of chivalry. Shortly before his death, Don Quijote states,
My mind now is clear, unencumbered by those misty shadows of ignorance that were cast over it by my bitter and continual reading of those hateful books of chivalry. I see through all the nonsense and fraud contained in them, and my only regret is that my disillusionment has come so late, leaving me no time to make any sort of amends by reading those that are the light of the soul (II, 74, p. 984).
This choice of ending is not casual, and shows the extent to which Cervantes was aware of the impact of that major technological innovation of early modern Europe, the printing press. For Don Quijote is, in fact, a product of the books made widely available by the printing press.
The numerous references to books in general, and romances of chivalry in particular, reveal Cervantes' awareness of the impact of technology on human sensibility. He created a character
the subject of Don Quijote's decline, see Madariaga, pp. 173-185. See also
A. J. Close, Miguel de Cervantes: Don Quijote (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1990), 81-88, and Howard Mancing, The Chivalric
World of Don Quijote: Style, Structure, and Narrative Technique
(Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1982), especially chapters
3 and 5, Knighthood Defeated, pp. 85-126, and Knighthood
Denied, pp. 167-215.
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that became paradigmatic of the transition from Reconquista to modern
times in Spain, and in the process commented on the shock of the new as
represented by the technology of print. The presence of the book is so pervasive
in Don Quijote that without it one cannot understand either the
motivations of the character, or the purpose of the
Early in the novel, Cervantes describes the encounter of Don Quijote with the romances of chivalry as follows:
. . . the aforesaid gentleman, on those occasions when he was at leisure, which was most of the year around, was in the habit of reading books of chivalry with such pleasure and devotion as to lead him almost wholly to forget the life of the hunter and even the administration of his estate. So great was his curiosity and infatuation in this regard that he even sold many acres of tillable land in order to be able to buy and read the books that he loved, and he would carry home with him as many of them as he could obtain . . . Our gentleman became so immersed in his reading that he spent whole nights from sundown to sunup and his days from dawn to dusk in poring over his books, until, finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind (I, 1, pp. 26-27).
It is based on these readings, from a library of about three hundred volumes, that Don Quijote assumes a new identity and seeks to revive the deeds of chivalry. These books constitute the entire stock of Don Quijote's considerable knowledge: he not only knows the contents of each book, but he is also able to extrapolate from their various narrations a value system, a code of behavior, and a means to translate his surroundings under the terms of chivalry. Don Quijote is perfectly coherent in what he does, but in the minds of family, friends, and anyone who encounters him, he is mad. Moreover, they find a connection between his readings and his madness.
Bautista Avalle-Arce argues that the presence of the book is central to Don
Quijote. Without the books on chivalry, Don Quijote is
unthinkable and impossible as a novel. See the prologue to his
edition of Don Quijote de la Mancha, 2 vols. (Madrid: Editorial Alhambra,
1979), p. 8. Américo Castro has also emphasized the centrality of
books for Don Quijote in his Hacia Cervantes, 3rd ed. (Madrid: Taurus,
1967), especially in the chapter entitled La palabra escrita y el
Quijote, pp. 359-408. Carlos Fuentes has emphasized the connection
between books and Don Quijote's adoption of a worldview in his Cervantes
o la crítica de la lectura (Mexico: Editorial Joaquín Mortiz,
At various parts of the novel, but especially
in II, 17, Don Quijote himself admits that his acts may be perceived as those
of a madman, but he then proceeds to explain that this is not so, that he
is a knight-errant, just like those of the books he cites as ultimate authority.
In I, 6, twenty-seven romances of chivalry are mentioned, including the classic
Amadís de Gaula, Sergas de Esplandián, Amadís de
Grecia, and Don Olivante de Laura. These books constitute the
model world against which Don Quijote's surroundings must
conform.15 In his eagerness to encounter
situations that resemble those of the romances of chivalry, he falls easy
prey to those who prefer to manipulate him rather than antagonize him. Is
it not a strange thing, a priest asks in I, 30, to see how readily
this unfortunate gentleman believes all those falsehoods and inventions,
simply because they are in the style and manner of those absurd tales?
A most telling argument on the matter of books occurs in I, 49, when the frustrated canon asks Don Quijote, Is it possible, my good sir, that those disgusting books of chivalry which your Grace has read in your idle hours have had such an effect upon you as to turn your head, causing you to believe that you are being carried away under a magic spell and other things of that sort that are as far from being true as truth itself is from falsehood? The canon admits that he finds enjoyment in some of these books, but that when he reflects on their real character he finds them deserving of the same punishment as cheats and impostors, who are beyond the pale of human nature, or as founders of new sects and new ways of life, for leading the ignorant public to believe and regard as the truth all the nonsense that they contain (pp. 437-38). An undeterred Don Quijote responds I find that it is your Grace who have had your head turned and have been bewitched . . . For to endeavor to persuade anyone that Amadís never lived, nor any of the other knightly adventurers that fill the history books, is the same as trying to make him believe that the sun does not shine, that ice
Eisenberg has written extensively on sixteenth-century romances of chivalry,
as well as on the connection between these books and Don Quijote.
In particular, see his Romances of Chivalry in the Spanish Golden Age
(Newark, DE: Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs, 1982). See also Sir Henry
Thomas, Spanish and Portuguese Romances of Chivalry (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1920), and Edwin Williamson, The Half-Way House of Fiction:
Don Quijote and Arthurian Romance (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
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is not cold, or that the earth does not bear fruit (p. 439). Furthermore,
Do you mean to tell me that those books that have been printed with a royal license and with the approval of the ones to whom they have been submitted and which are read with general enjoyment and praised by young and old alike, by rich and poor, the learned and the ignorant, the gentry and the plain people . . . do you mean to tell me that they are but lies? Do they not have every appearance of being true? Do they not tell us who the father, mother, relatives of these knights were, the name of the country from which they came, their age, the feats that they performed, point by point and day by day, and the places where all these events occurred? Your Grace had best be silent and not utter such a blasphemy (pp. 441-442).
There can be no doubt that for Don Quijote the events he seeks to relive
are true, and that in his own mind the romances of chivalry represent actual
historical events. The more intriguing question concerns Cervantes' purpose
in describing the effects of print on society and culture. How can the dawn
of the modern age create such an anachronistic character as Don Quijote?
Can books contribute to the creation of an identity as strong as that of
the would-be knight? Is there anything in the nature of print that might
so drastically change perceptions of truth and reality? Does the introduction
of new technologies so fundamentally affect human sensibility as to drive
some people to anti-technological confrontation or pastoral withdrawal?
These questions are of course interrelated. There was a virtual flood of books in Europe after the invention of print, some fifteen to twenty million copies by one reckoning, before the year 1500. Only a minority could read, but printing ensured that anyone who could and wished to read had a variety of titles available. The printing of books increased enormously during the sixteenth century, to some 150-200 million copies.16 The fact that a substantial number of these books dealt with the Middle Ages, has led one scholar to state that The sixteenth and seventeenth
Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing,
1450-1800, trans. by David Gerard and edited by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith
and David Wootton (London: NLB, 1976), p. 262. These figures are based on
average press runs of 500 copies for the period before 1500 and 1000 copies
during the sixteenth century. This brings the number of titles to 30-35 thousand
for the first period, and 150 to 200 thousand for [p.
90] the second. Febvre and Martin consider these to be conservative
figures. On the significance of the greatly increased number of copies of
books, see Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of
Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe,
vol. 1 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 169. On the reading
preferences of an expanded readership made possible by print, see J. H. Parry,
The Age of Reconaissance: Discovery, Exploration and Settlement, 1450
to 1650 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), p. 34.
centuries saw more of the Middle Ages, than had ever been available to anybody in the Middle Ages. Then it had been scattered and inaccessible and slow to read. Now it became privately portable and quick to read.17 In Spain, the romances of chivalry, many of them of Arthurian content, were particularly popular. The Amadís de Gaula and its sequels went through more than sixty editions in the sixteenth century alone.18 The abundance of books in general, and the romances of chivalry in particular, reached the far corners of Europe, including the obscure La Mancha in the heart of Spain, where Don Quijote owned a sizeable library by sixteenth and early seventeenth-century standards. He read many of these books in the privacy of his provincial home and became so captivated by the courtesy, the valor, and the loyalty of the knights-errant, that he decided to adopt these and other traits as his own. Although Cervantes presents Don Quijote's acquisition of a new identity based on chivalry rather negatively (his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind), he is above all emphasizing the importance of books in providing the basis for individualistic reading and choice of lifestyle.19 Despite his medieval armor and chivalric outlook, Don Quijote is indeed a modern character in that he seeks and promotes individual improvement regardless of one's station in life. He builds his own identity on the basis of reading, and single-mindedly seeks to impose his recently acquired values on reality.20
McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 1962), p. 142.
18 Febvre and Martin, p. 286.
19 Cervantes was not alone in perceiving the influence of print on individuals and society. His contemporary Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645) was also sensitive to the social and cultural implications of print. See Steven M. Bell, The Book of Life and Death: Quevedo and the Printing Press, Hispanic Review 5, no. 2 (Spring 1984), 7-15. For an earlier period, see Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, The Body Versus the Printing Press: Media in the Early Modern Period, Mentalities in the Reign of Castile, and Another History of Literary Forms, Poetics 14 (1985), 209-227.
20 Maravall, Utopía y contrautopía, pp. 84-85.
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What did people read before the invention of
the printing press? Manuscripts, of course, but their reading was confined
to a very small readership, usually in cloistered clerical circles. The culture
of Europe, much like the rest of the world before printing, was an oral culture.
The majority of people preserved patterns of thought in the form of proverbs,
aphorisms and poems that could be easily recollected. Or people gathered
to listen to someone who knew how to
read.21 It is in these older forms of
communication, transmission of knowledge, and entertainment that we find
another clue to Don Quijote, for the main character becomes a highly
literate man who must function in a primarily oral environment.
Cervantes scholars have in recent years emphasized the interplay of oral and written traditions as a key to understanding Don Quijote. Maxime Chevalier, for instance, convincingly argued in favor of connecting many of the novel's episodes to the rich oral tradition of Spain, including the cuentecillos, burlas, and consejas .22 Elias Rivers, who in his Quixotic Scriptures as well as in previous work, viewed the entire Hispanic literary tradition in terms of the oral/written duality, has shown how Don Quijote acquires his identity through the process of reading, seeks to act out his bookish knowledge, and is challenged by the predominant orality of his environment.23 More recently, James A. Parr has demonstrated just how central the oral/written dichotomy is for understanding not only Don Quijote, but Cervantes' purposes as well. As Parr has stated, it would appear that Cervantes as a writer of narrative, would privilege writing, and in a sense he does. We have the book itself as good evidence. And yet orality is quite literally there from the outset, informing writing, reading it aloud, invading its domain, parodying it.24 Based on these findings, it is now possible to explore the role of the
the practice of reading in early modern Europe, with some references to Don
Quixote, see Roger Chartier, Leisure and Sociability: Reading Aloud
in Early Modern Europe, trans. by Carol Mossman, in Susan Zimmerman
and Ronald F. E. Weissman, eds., Urban Life in the Renaissance (Newark:
University of Delaware Press, 1988), 103-120.
22 Maxime Chevalier, Literatura oral y ficción cervantina, Prohemio 5 (September-December 1974), 161-196.
23 Elias L. Rivers, Quixotic Scriptures: Essays on the Textuality of Hispanic Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983).
24 James A. Parr, Plato, Cervantes, Derrida: Framing Speaking and Writing in Don Quixote, in James A. Parr, ed., On Cervantes: Essays for L. A. Murillo (Newark, DE: Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs, 1991), 171-72.
printing press in exacerbating the tension between oral and written forms
of organizing perception and experience.
The contrast between oral and literate environments is personified by Don Quijote and his squire Sancho. Don Quijote is engaged in the relentless pursuit of a story line of chivalry in a richer oral context that is not based on single purposes but rather on a reservoir of old wisdom. Sancho, for his part, has his first exposure to literate culture through contact with Don Quijote. His use of countless proverbs, maxims and epithets, which sometimes exasperate Don Quijote, are indications of the predominance of orality in his language and outlook.25 Sometimes Don Quijote reverts to orality himself, and both have some hilarious verbal duels. But Don Quijote has adopted a visual, literate form of knowledge that is characteristic of print culture, and which isolates him from his still primarily oral environment. He has changed an ear for an eye, and suffers under the strain of a major shift in sensibility. In I, 9, he physically loses half an ear in his fight with the Biscayan. Other than the pain he suffers, Don Quijote does not seem to give much importance to the loss. But when he retaliates, he means far greater harm, as he thrust the point of his sword into the Biscayan's eyes (p. 74). This episode exemplifies the predominance of visual over auditory sense-experience in Don Quijote. However, his repeated complaints about pain in pp. 74, 77, 78 and 85 indicate that the transition from one to the other carries a major cost. Print, more than any other technology encountered by Don Quijote, has a profound effect on human sensibility. He sees the things he reads in books. They hold the ultimate truth in a world of many truths.26
Chevalier has indicated that some of Sancho's sayings come from literary
sources, and argues that Cervantes consciously made this choice in order
to provide complexity to the character. See his Sancho Panza y la cultura
escrita, in Dian Fox, Harry Sieber, and Robert TerHorst, eds., Studies
in Honor of Bruce W. Wardropper (Newark, DE: Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic
Monographs, 1989), 67-73.
26 The transition from oral to visual forms of perception, and the role of print in it, has been discussed by Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London and New York: Methuen, 1982); Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1971), and The Presence of the Word (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1967). See also Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, and Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, p. 132. All three authors point out that the transition [p. 93] from oral to literate was not sudden because of print. They emphasize how old forms, even auditory patterns, remained or were even enhanced by print. In the long term, however, print had a decisive influence in conforming new patterns of thought.
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As mentioned earlier, Don Quijote has endured
one defeat after another in his confrontation with modernity. But how long
can he carry on like this? Towards the end of his trek he is very vulnerable,
and a visit to a printing house in Barcelona does not help matters. There,
he meets the world created by the printing press, and faces a few unpleasant
truths about publishing. For instance, he learns that just about anything
can be published when the happy combination of printer, author, money and
market occur. A prospective author tells him I do not have books printed
to win fame in this world, for I am already well known through my works;
it is money that I seek, for without it a fine reputation is not worth a
cent (II, 62, p. 924). In addition, cheap and not very well crafted
translations are being published. But worst of all, a book on his own life
and adventures is being printed, one that he knows to be highly
inaccurate.27 He has based his own life on
chivalry books and has taken them as absolute truth. But now he learns what
really goes on at a printing house, especially its economics. Not surprisingly,
he leaves the shop with signs of considerable displeasure (p.
There is certainly more than displeasure involved in Don Quijote's attitude: he has gone so far into the logic of chivalry, to the point of re-living it, that he cannot readily accept that the contents of books might be less important than the host of other factors involved in publishing. In examining this episode, Carlos Fuentes has indicated how Don Quijote comes face to face with the very source of his identity and forever breaks the bindings of the illusion of reality . . . He visits a printing shop, he enters the very place where his adventures become an object, a legible product. Don Quixote is thus sent by Cervantes to his only reality: the reality of fiction.28
fact, a spurious second part of Don Quijote was published by Alonso
Fernández de Avellaneda (a pseudonym) in 1614. Cervantes was
understandably quite upset about the appropriation of his story. See Manuel
Durán, El Quijote de Avellaneda, in Juan Bautista
Avalle-Arce and Edward C. Riley, eds., Suma Cervantina (London: Tamesis
Books, 1973), 357-376.
28 Carlos Fuentes, Cervantes, or The Critique of Reading, in Carlos Fuentes, Myself with Others: Selected Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988), p. 63.
Indeed, the visit to the printing shop, combined
with yet another chivalric defeat in II, 64, are devastating enough to make
him suspend his quest and return home. There, he falls in a deep sleep and
wakes up to face the truth about his adopted identity. He recognizes that
all he has done, to the detriment of self, family and estate, is due to his
reading of the romances of chivalry. He lives only long enough to strongly
condemn such books in front of friends and relatives. In drawing up his will,
he forbids his niece to marry anyone who has even heard about stories of
chivalry. Aware that there are books already circulating about his life and
exploits, he asks forgiveness for having contributed to the propagation of
absurdities. His last words are reserved for a final attack on
the romances of chivalry. He then dies peacefully.
Where does Cervantes stand with regards to the pernicious effects of books? It would appear that he sides with Don Quijote in condemning the romances of chivalry. However, he clearly distances himself from the protagonist by pointing not just to the effects of specific books on a specific individual, but to the entire range of issues associated with such technological revolutions as printing. Many other characters in the novel read the romances of chivalry, along with other books. Not all react in the same way: some enjoy them and reshelve them, some abhor them, some burn them, some call for regulation under royal auspices so that some form of quality control might be established. Cervantes presents the full range of reactions, from a cross-section of society, in order to emphasize the central role of printed books in the culture of early modern Spain.
Yet, beyond emphasizing the centrality of books in the culture of the period, Cervantes does express concerns about the relationship between writing, in its printed form, and reality. Printed books can quickly disseminate a story, regardless of whether it is true, false, constructive, or deceptive. Books can create reality, or, as Don Quijote demonstrates, can thrust individuals into identities that ill-prepare them to deal with the complexities of the modern world. The potential for manipulation, either for ideological or commercial reasons, motivated Cervantes to point to the dangers of print culture. His exploration of the oral/written duality, his framing of Don Quijote in terms of the encounter and experience with books, allowed Cervantes to pose profound questions not just about the social impact of print, but also about its implications for the organization of
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experience and the perception of reality. In his perceptive discussion of
speaking and writing in Don Quijote, James A. Parr has posed all the
relevant questions in this regard: Is the immediacy of speech, the
direct discourse of dialogue, attenuated and displaced as diegesis intervenes
to compete with and indeed coopt its simulacrum of reality? Is the transcription
of diegesis and mimesis through the medium of writing a poison, a cure, a
necessary evil or all of these simultaneously? And what of
printing, a far more pernicious source of indiscriminate dissemination,
impossible for Socrates to have
foreseen?29 Cervantes advocated the
judicious use of printing, but warned his readership about its limitations
and dangers. Moreover, by fully exploring the psychological consequences
of reading and writing, he launched a comprehensive view of life in a modern
In sum, this article has tried to demonstrate that the focus on the impact of technology on human sensibility in Don Quijote provides an important interpretive key to the novel. The printing press in particular, but also the windmills, watermills and fire arms, burst into the scene and threaten to alter in fundamental ways how humans view themselves and their environments. Don Quijote shows that he cannot quite assimilate the introduction of these new technologies. He tries to understand them with the concepts of a pastoral-medieval past, but failure to do so leads him to either fight technological instruments or withdraw from modernity altogether. Until shortly before his death, he fails to see that the very pastoral-medieval identity that he has so passionately embraced has been the product of a modern innovation, the printing press. But is this not a recurring theme of modernity, as individuals struggle to comprehend a rapidly changing technological environment? Perhaps our fascination with Don Quijote, and its continued currency, has much to do with the way our concepts and ideals are constantly challenged by technological change.
|UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN, MILWAUKEE|
Plato, Cervantes, Derrida, p. 174.
||Prepared with the help of Sue Dirrim||
|Fred Jehle firstname.lastname@example.org||Publications of the CSA||HCervantes|