Great Books Written in Prison: Essays on Classic Works from Plato to Martin Luther King, Jr. (2015)

A Prisoner of Circumstance: Cervantes, Don Quixote and Literary Self-Authorship in the Early Modern Period

Sean Eve


Unlike many of the authors in this book, Cervantes’ prison experiences were not related to his political activity. Rather, they were a result of war and economics. By midlife he had led a hard existence as a soldier of fortune, spent a significant time in captivity (as a prisoner of war and a pawn in Spain’s political infighting), and was professionally disappointed. His literary output—first poetry, then theater, and finally prose works such as Don Quixote—was produced over three periods of writing, separated by many years “on the road.” The story Cervantes tells in Don Quixote is reflective of his life in both Algiers and Spain. Like Jean Genet, Cervantes incorporated his prison experiences directly into his work, weaving them into the lives of his characters—characters who, like the novel itself, live on several intersecting plains of reality and fantasy.—J.W.R.

The Trouble with History

History is a war against time, its evolution representing the slow and steady collapse of physical and mental distances within imagination and life. The journey is so easy for us now that we forget the inventions that made such travel possible, taking as a given the ways language and form translate another’s reality into our own. We forget that the individuals who developed these forms of relation did so at great cost to themselves, reconfiguring meaning and communication in societies that were at best ambivalent to the new horizons opening up. The experience of the colonial adventurer and the historian may be different, but both seek out, in a world suddenly too small for existing cosmologies, a reality large enough to contain what they have seen, to find within and without a situation that more closely accords with the mental landscapes they have made for themselves. Such is the challenge to the newly forming conditions of power that resistance must start as internal journey, a private set of investigations, shrouded in fantasy, in the camouflage of invention.

We don’t think of Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616) as a historian. Despite the abundance of lived experience in his plays and the narrator’s insistence that Don Quixote is a historical account, the novel’s stylistics mark it as fiction, designed to capture the mind, not the body. This distinction protects the author and us from the subversion it contains, insulating the book from the law. That said, the interpenetration of history and fiction is at the center of the novel and the historiographic concerns of his time, a period marked by exposure to new societies, the emergence of widespread literacy and the recognition of the book as a distinct agent within the political sphere. Don Quixote represents a successful integration of all these forces into a text which establishes the author, not his characters, as the hero of the enterprise, and establishes the book as a distinct place of inhabitation, as real in its circumstance and consequences as any other course of action within his society. As exemplified by its title character’s decision to realize his fantasies, the imaginative in Cervantes proves not only a means for its author to escape the marginalization of his birth and the violence that characterized his years of imprisonment, both in Spain and Algiers, but also ushers in a new space of transformation for us as individuals and social participants. The book becomes a field of action where self-awareness and societal critique challenge conquest as one of the primary drivers of change within a rapidly expanding world.

The Invisible Man

Behind the Miseracordia Hospital, in the heart of the old Jewish quarter, is a house with a certain elegance and charm, its patio graced by a fig tree…. It is there, they say, that the most illustrious of the sons of Alcala, the author of Don Quixote, was born. But this stage set is unfortunately only an illusion. The house where Cervantes was actually born, unknown to historians for a long time, was defaced over the centuries by its successive owners. Identified in 1941 … it nevertheless fell to the demolisher’s pick, and in its place stands a reconstruction built in perfect conformity with the architectural norms of the sixteenth century but incompatible with the modest origins of the great writer [14].

This passage from Jean Canavaggio’s biography speaks to the difficulties faced by anyone looking for Cervantes amid the remnants left to us. He achieved fame only after Don Quixote was published in 1605, at which point the author was already fifty seven. Making matters worse, Cervantes chose to share very little about his life in Spain, concentrating his autobiographical efforts on the years he spent as a soldier and captive in Algiers from 1575 to 1580. The Spaniard’s renown since the publication of his great novel has led to generations of scholars combing through the debris of a life lived largely in the shadows, and as a result we have the outlines of Cervantes’ literary, military, and private activities. It’s important to recognize, however, that sources from the period were created in an environment where even minor deviations from political and religious orthodoxy could lead to imprisonment, exile, or death. Personal narratives were governed by hagiography, accounts of those individuals who had lived abroad in particular marked by exaggerations and propagandistic rhetoric designed to justify Spanish military and colonial aggression. Cervantes’ life, as it has come down to us, is a story of empire and corruption, of a soldier’s sacrifice and a veteran’s disappointments, a story every bit as entwined with the fictions and realities of his time as that of “The Knight of the Woeful Countenance.”

The first record of Miguel de Cervantes is his baptism at Santa Maria Mayor in Alcala de Henares on October 9th, 1547, a year that saw the first index of prohibited seditious books issued and conversos barred from ecclesiastical office. His death will come in the same year as the final expulsion of remaining conversos from Spain, under Phillip III in 1616. The synchroneities are striking given the possibilty of Cervantes’ Jewish ancestry, a link scholars base on the prominence of religious converts in his writing, the author’s difficulties capitalizing on his years as a war hero and captive, and parallels between Don Quixote and certain Jewish texts. As Michael McGaha remarks: “It will probably never be possible to prove that Cervantes was a cristiano nuevo, but the circumstantial evidence seems compelling” (173). The Instrucción written by Fernán Díaz de Toledo in the Fifteen Century includes the Cervantes family among those of conversos origin. McGaha also notes that Cervantes’ ancestors were in the cloth trade and his father was a barber-surgeon, “occupations almost exclusively in the hands of Jews and conversos” (173). Whatever his family’s origins, the economic hardships of Cervantes’ upbringing placed him at his society’s margins.

First the Pen, Then the Sword

Poetry and the theatre provided an escape, at least temporarily, from the constraints of finance and family. By 1567, Miguel had begun to make a name for himself in literary circles in Madrid. A poem of his is included in decorations celebrating the birth of the Infanta Catalina. This, and four poems produced in 1568 and later published in the Relacion of the funeral of Elizabeth de Valois, the wife of Philip II, mark the first time we meet Cervantes as an author. His early work, with its idealization of the monarchy, captures an element of his politics that resurfaces throughout the Spaniard’s life, a deep respect for the secular and religious traditions of the society, even as his later writings criticize the country’s bureaucrats and citizens for failing to uphold the moral objectives he sees these traditions as embodying. Our author is no revolutionary. Instead, the image we get is of a man committed to upholding his good name whatever the cost, and someone who held his society to the same high moral standards he expected of himself.

It would be nice to be more definitive about his life, but Cervantes rarely offers more than oblique references to his past. The frequent problem for the author and for many of his characters is, the truth is simply too dangerous to reveal. In order to take a post under the future Cardinal Acquaviva In Rome, Cervantes needed a certificate of proof of blood. Thus, in December of 1569, Rodrigo de Cervantes “certified that Miguel was not a bastard and that there are no Moors, Jews, converts … among his ancestors” (Canavaggio 49). As evidenced earlier, this was almost certainly a lie. But like the lies Miguel’s mother would tell to protect her family from destitution and those she would offer to get funds to free Cervantes when he was being held for ransom in Algiers, like the lies Cervantes would tell while attempting to escape captivity, or that the author, narrator, title character, inn keepers, and even the village priest tell on more than one occasion in Don Quixote, such transparent lies were the very currency of Spain. As Leo Strauss reminds us:

Persecution … gives rise to a peculiar technique of writing … in which the truth about all crucial things is presented exclusively between the lines…. It has all the advantages of public communication without having its greatest disadvantage—capital punishment for the author [25].

It is in just this communicative condition that Cervantes is raised, and just this institutional environment, vis-à-vis language, out of which his sense of humor, playfulness with form, and commitment to interiority will develop.

The biographer’s loss is the artist’s gain. For language is not a prison for Cervantes’ but the means of his escape, or rather the condition of his deliverance into a literary world in which the circumstances of power are inverted, the implicit becoming miraculous. As Don Quixote responds when challenged to present the incomparable beauty, Dulcinea, “If I were to show her to you … what merit would ye have in confessing a truth so manifest? The essential point is that without seeing her ye must believe, confess, affirm, swear, and defend it” (44). The reference here is to the Inquisition’s legal demand that Spain’s citizenry assert in writing and in public its acquiescence to the religious authorities. The reference here is also to the Madonna, and by extension all veiled embodiments of the truth. In this way the conflation of the religious and secular offers Cervantes the opportunity to use religious ethics to expose social injustice. Authority and its subversion work through identical mechanisms, theatrical self-awareness pointing not just to implicit meaning as an ideological cipher, but focusing attention on the interior experience shared by the speaker and listener, or in Cervantes’ case the writer and his audience.

Donald McCrory in his study of Cervantes notes he “was keen to show that in literature truth was what an audience can be persuaded to believe” (202). And the connection with that reader, “did not miraculously appear out of the void,” but was based on having “read the major texts, theoretical as well as secular,” and keeping up with “literary fashion and tastes” (203). I would add to this literary awareness, the social and legal conditions of meaning in Cervantes’ time. His Spain is essentially a theatrical world, one which not only spawned a vibrant stagecraft and a poetic tradition of intricate implicit citation, but which carried its theatrical nature into the streets, the marketplace, the home. Cervantes democratizes irony, acknowledging the extent to which the rules of public assertion were understood and circumvented throughout his society, the real relegated to silence, the internal and external in an unstable and often antithetical relation to one another. Language manages this relationship, the subtleties of its application not just the purview of poets, but indicative of a common reality.

The “real” in Don Quixote is manifest both in the places where his story takes place—streets, inns, and roadways rather than palaces, monasteries and courts—and in the conspiracy his text presumes with the reader, a conceit represented in everything from the book’s fictional Moorish author, Cide Hamet Benegeli, to the supposed madness of its title character, Quixote. The work’s power rests on his ability to make both the outside and the inside equally real. The Old Hidalgo’s madness is not simply the heroic attempt of a man to escape the drudgery of real life through living what he imagines, it challenges his society through the historical and cultural conditions of reference he appropriates. As Quixote says when threatened with arrest by a group of officers “in the service of the King and of the Holy Brotherhood” (360):

Come now, base, ill-born brood … do you name it highway robbery to give freedom to those in bondage, to release captives, to succor the miserable, to raise up the fallen, to relieve the needy? … Tell me what ignoramus signed a warrant off arrest against such a knight as I? Who was unaware that Knights-errant are independent of all jurisdictions, that their law is their sword, their charter their prowess, and their edict their wills? … What Knight-errant ever paid poll-tax, duty, queen’s pin-money, kings dues, toll or ferry? What tailor ever took payment of him…. What warden … ever made him pay his bill? [360–61].

In speaking outwardly about the contradictions between the moral foundations of the church and crown and the realities of the state, Quixote is inducing a crisis, held at bay elsewhere in the society through a strict separation of the interior and literary from the sphere of political action. Surrounded as he is by soldiers, only a mad man would say such things; thinking them is a different matter. This collision of the internal moral compass of the Counter-Reformation and its literary manifestations with the political and economic realities of Spain was something Cervantes and his contemporaries confronted on a daily basis. Hypocrisy wasn’t just tolerated, but institutionalized.

From immanent philosophy to mannerist poetry, the internalization of such contradictions is everywhere in the society. In terms of literary precedent, however, it is the theatre where we see this conflict break through to the surface. Lope de Vega’s comedies, or the historical dramas and tragedies of Shakespeare, who died within weeks of Cervantes, depend upon identifiable contradictions as the basis for their action. The implications of the language and many of the components of plot rely on what is concealed by or from the characters. The contradictions may be internal or situational, ideally both, and are sustained for as long as possible, often until the narrative’s conclusion, which coincides with the revelation of what the audience has already recognized.

This performed dissonance becomes the foundation for Cervantes’ mature work, the book rather than the stage, mind rather than character, the ultimate site of realized subversion. Madness, feigned as in Hamlet, real as in Lear, shows up in Cervantes’ fiction as a way to convert the internal and the poetic from reflective behaviors to components of the action itself. Unsurprisingly, it is in his own theatrical writings, on which Cervantes spent several years in the 1580s, that the interior world and its externalization are initially explored. In the Prologue to his Eight Interludes, published in 1615, he claims, “I was the first to portray on stage the imaginings and secret thoughts of the soul by bringing allegorical figures into the theatre” (4). It is also in his plays that Cervantes’ disaffection begins to surface. The Bagnios of Algiers and The Commerce of Algiers preview how Cervantes will use his lived experience and the traumas and disappointments of captivity as a catalyst for his work.

What begins as observed contradiction becomes theatrical performance, and evolves into playing out the possibilities of political and personal subversion in the language and physical circumstances of the novel. The relocation of his theatricalized and reconfigured autobiography to the “fictions” of Don Quixote, provides the author with both a context in which his thoughts can be actualized and a physical document, the book, through which his ideals and literary actions can find a tangible agent. Chock full of comedy and costume, poetic masques and soliloquy, mock battles and metaphysical argument, his novelistic space is one of enacted dissimulation. Legal hazard turns to dramatic irony, lies to license. This protects the author from prosecution, even as the book, which bears the same name as its principle character, is able to head out into the world and correct injustice. The “madness” that protects the Old Hidalgo and enables him to escape the consequences of his actions also becomes in the book’s focus on mind, on the fictional and imaginative remaking of his society, the means through which Cervantes can challenge his society’s institutions and misplaced authoritarianism.

The power of reading to effect change and the linkages between Cervantes’ novel and dramatic precedent are discussed in the book itself, when late in Part 1, the Canon and Priest speak about literary works that have had an adverse effect on the title character and his larger society. The Priest complains that “drama … should be the mirror of human life, the model of manners, and the image of truth” but “those which are presented nowadays are mirrors of nonsense, models of folly, and images of lewdness” (377). He then goes on to outline such a play: “what greater absurdity can there be than putting before us an old man as a swashbuckler … a page giving sage advice … a princess who is a kitchen maid” (377). That this is precisely the book we have just been reading, points to the degree to which Cervantes is happy for the text to be recognized as a type of theatrics, not so much a story, as a staged experience. That we are privy to the shared thoughts of two men commenting on what we have just read, speaks to the role literary community serves in the text. This is a book about books, about reading, and the private discussions and secret thoughts that result from exposure to literary reality.

By the beginning of the 17th century books had become as important on the political stage as living individuals. Cervantes’ transfer of theatrical form to written accounts mirrors changes in the way the Inquisition used public spectacle to exert political control. Dale Shuger, in his study of the Inquisition’s strategies, points to how a decline in revenues and shift from a focus on “eradicating the Jewish and conversos population from Spain” to “disciplining the old Christian population for minor transgressions” (407), led to mid-sixteenth century changes in the style and frequency of public executions by burning. While the last Auto-de-fe held in the Capital wasn’t until 1680, Shuger outlines a steady move during Cervantes’ time away from actual performances to their replacement by Relacions, which recorded the story of the events in printed form (408–09). The shift is from a “theatre of terror” located in the town square to one within the reader’s mind, now as significant a territory of political conflict as the contested seas of the Mediterranean.

To Hell and Back

If the mechanisms that underpin Cervantes’ mature work rest on a series of societal and formal dislocations, his motivations for such a critical attitude towards his society can be found in his life. As young man, the Spaniard exhibits none of ambivalence that will define him later. In 1571 he is fighting in the Battle of Lepanto, the most famous naval victory in Spain’s war with the Turks. Though earlier that day he had been confined below decks due to illness, Cervantes insists on being allowed to participate in the combat. Badly injured, he will permanently lose the use of his left hand. He continues in military service for a few years, until it becomes obvious physical limitations preclude his promotion. He is going home when his ship is captured by Barbary pirates. Held for ransom in Algiers from 1575 to 1580, his time in captivity is equally dramatic. Cervantes repeatedly attempts to escapes. He is tortured and threatened with death repeatedly. Starved, bound in chains, confined to the deepest of dungeons for months, he is sentenced to die only to be miraculously saved. When questioned with a sword hanging over his head or a knife at his throat, the Spaniard always refuses to give up his accomplices.

Ultimately, Cervantes will spend the next twenty years travelling the roads of Spain, as a requisitions officer for the Armada and a tax collector, poorly paid positions that carried considerable personal risk. This was hardly the future he had imagined when sacrificing his youth and health to empire.

Cervantes’ disappointments need to be seen in light of the unique circumstances he experienced during his captivity in North Africa. As a result of some letters of recommendation by Don Juan of Austria found on his person when captured, Cervantes was assumed to be important. His new position made Cervantes eligible to lead, and placed him in a shared struggle for survival with some of the very architects of empire. How frustrating then to find on his return home that all he had done, seen, risked, was forgotten.

Passed over for government appointments, Cervantes was briefly excommunicated and then imprisoned in Castro del Rio, in connection with his commerical service to the Crown, finally ending up confined for seven months to the Royal Prison in Seville in 1597 and 1598. Described as “a true picture of hell on earth” by a contemporary, Cristobal de Chaves (Canavaggio 175), it’s here that Cervantes is assumed to have begun Don Quixote, and here also that the youthful optimist seems finally to have given way to the world weary veteran. Cervantes had done everything his society asked of him and had nothing to show for it.

And So It Begins

To characterize his dissolution as a sudden, startling epiphany, would ignore the complications of his youth, the strangeness of his experience living in Algiers, and the religious and literary models of action we see both in Cervantes’ work and his life as described by others. To live in an era of profound change is to exist where things move at different speeds. This divergence of perspectives can become increasingly difficult to manage, particularly for those like Cervantes who had served in a number of institutional settings, and who found himself by accident at the vanguard of his society. As Voigt remarks, “Early modern representations and uses of captivity … point to epistemological … transformations that predate and prefigure those associated with what would come to be known as the Scientific Revolution” (1–2). But this “privileging of experiential authority” (Voigt 2) came up against a legal system that demanded witnesses to verify one’s testimony, a communicative environment that presumed concealment over honesty, and the wide-spread corruption of Spain’s officialdom. Don Quixote is in many ways an attempt to bring the divergent elements of Cervantes’ experience into a single, coherent framework. Idealities, the quotidian, the alien, all have a place in the book, the patois of Algiers playing out in the literary modeling of a consciousness that recognizes in its own contradictions both the violence and the opportunities of cosmopolitanism.

There is a parallel here between the diversities the individual has to accommodate and the divergence of perspectives that are present, but often silenced, in the public sphere. Cervantes is not simply building a space in which he can bring together the conflicting aspects of his own experience, he gives voice to his society’s. The political resonance of exile in this era make it hardly surprising that Cervantes’ time in Algiers and his periods of incarceration are particularly generative. He writes steadily for serveral years after his captivity and then slows for two decades. Likewise his months in the Royal Prison in Seville trigger a return to writing, perhaps as Maria Garces suggests, as a way to cope with trauma. She describes his writing as “haunted by images of captivity” (2), even going as far as asking “whether Cervantes could have become the great creative writer that he was without had he not suffered the traumatic experience of his Algerian Captivity” (2). Jonathan Shay’s concept of moral injury (Achilles in Vietnam) may have the answer, Cervantes’ position as a veteran, a survivor of prison, and a religious idealist pitting the moral dictates of each of these worlds against the other, and pushing him into a crisis that could only be resolved through the broad variety of perspectives and structural positions the novel accommodates. Cervantes himself tells us early in the Prologue to Don Quixote that the book is “just what might be begotten in prison” (9). The book is both a response to his captors, an act of defiant self-assertion; and a roadmap for those living with the fear and internal moral conflicts the author has had to face. It is a guide to how, in the most restricted circumstances, one can still achieve a measure of freedom.

The novel’s storyline re-enacts the author’s escape attempts. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, who acts as his assistant in these adventures, leave home for the excitement of the open road. Though Quixote is at risk of recapture a number of times in Part 1, it is only at its end that he is returned home. Panza, promised the governorship of an island, something Cervantes had hoped to attain for his services to the Crown, returns also, largely empty handed, but full of memories and stories. He doesn’t regret the adventure; “it is a fine thing to be on the look out for what may happen, crossing mountains … putting up at inns, all free” (402). Sancho’s is a sentiment with which any armchair traveller or would-be pilgrim can identify.

The second part of the novel is more complex in terms of freedom. The men decide to escape home again, encouraged by the fact that they have become famous as a result of the book written about them. Sancho gets his island, at least for a short while, but does so as a consequence of exile. Quixote finds himself at last in the palace of a duke and duchess, but he is trapped there temporarily, a victim of his own delusions. Again, the two men are dragged home, this time with Quixote in a cage. Despite the ability of the men to elude authorities, the short-term realization of their dreams, and the principle achievement of the book’s title character, which is to bring to life what he has only previously experienced in his imagination through reading, escape themselves any number of times from authorities, the book ends ultimately with Quixote’s escape through Quixote’s death, a reminder in this fallen word that only through divine consolation can sacrifice and suffering achieved the promised reward denied in life.

What is telling here is the way Cervantes has transposed his own dramatic experiences onto the more familiar landscape of Spain and of domestic dissatisfaction. His youthful ambitions are clearly on display here, but as the adventures are undertaken by an old man, and one who finds in books inspiration for his journey, it is also the mature writer we see in front of us, the distinctions on which memoir is based collapsed through the reinventions of fiction. As well as shifts and conflations of place and time, Don Quixote exploits transformations in tone. Among the numerous incidents of entrapment in the book, the title character’s experience after the Captive’s Tale section of Part 1 is particularly revealing. The Captive’s Tale itself is one of the more sustained instances of autobiographical reference in the novel. In Don Quixote, the title character is left hanging by his wrist from a noose, after being tricked by a pair of women at an inn. Though the scene begins as a harmless prank, Quixote ends up in “such agony that he believed either his wrist would be cut through or his arm torn off” (348). The reference here is in part to Cervantes’ injury at Lepanto. It continues:

He struggled and stretched himself as much as he could to gain a footing, like those undergoing the torture of the strappado … who aggravate their own suffering by their violent efforts to stretch themselves, deceived by the hope … that with a little more effort they will touch the ground [348].

The mention of pain and reference to the strappado, a torture often used by the Inquisition, gives this passage a stark, visceral realism. At the same time, it is only “like” the strappado, in that Quixote is tied by one hand not two and will be released relatively unhurt just a moment later. As charged as this image is, it pales in comparison to another hanging figure in Cervantes’ past, a Christian gardener named Juan who helped Cervantes attempt from Algiers, and when caught Juan was “hung from his foot and tortured in the presence of the fugitives, until he died choking in his own blood” (Garces 47).

Through his plays and novels, Cervantes attempts to draw a more complex human picture of the relation between Spain and its outcasts, one that acknowledges the impact of the internalization of social violence on a wide range of individuals across the society. Rather than celebrate Christian authority, he focuses on conversos, rather than side with soldiers or priests, he favors madmen and criminals, such as Ginesillo de Parapilla, a self-declared author who has also written an autobiography in prison, and whom Quixote frees along with other galley slaves in Part 1 (151–59). Sensitive to the injustices on both sides, Cervantes work offers, as one theatre director put it, “an impassioned song of tolerance” (Garces 130).

At the center of his attempts to articulate his years as a captive is a story of love, thwarted love, between Moor and Christian, convert and soldier. He returns to this frequently. If we look at the role of the woman in this pairing, and how the character’s position changes in this sequence of stories, we can chart the evolution of Cervantes’ attitude towards his society’s human cost. The Commerce of Algiers, written shortly after Cervantes’ return to Spain, centers on a secret love between two Christian slaves, Silvia and Aurelio, who are tormented by the unwanted affections of their Moorish masters, Ysuf and Zahara. This Zahara, sometimes translated as Zara, will reappear in The Bagnios of Algiers, written a few years later, now recast as a Moorish woman who has secretly converted to Christianity in childhood and who helps a group of Spanish captives to escape. Though one of the young men, Lope, is in love with her, her desire to leave Algiers is driven more by a wish for religious freedom than romantic entanglement. “It is not good for Christian lips to be sullied by Moorish women,” she protests, when Lope attempts to kiss her, “I am all yours, not for you, but for Christ” (86). By the time we get to the Captive’s Tale portion of Don Quixote, Zahara has become Zoraida. The couple is firmly in love, though it is still unconsummated, and the story now comes to us after the couple’s arrival in Spain, the events of their escape and the struggle against her father much the same as in earlier versions, but the joy of their arrival in the promised land tempered by the young man’s concerns for his beloved’s future. “The happiness I feel in seeing myself hers, and her mine, is disturbed and marred by not knowing whether I shall find any corner to shelter her in my own country” (334). The young man’s concerns are focused both on his own status, as a returned captive who needs to find “anyone who knows me” (334) to vouch for him, and Zoraida’s, as a Moorish convert in a world that no longer sees her chosen faith as legitimate.

Scholarship has identified Zoraida as loosely based on the daughter of Hajji Murad, a prominent figure in Algiers who saved Cervantes life. Cervantes’ work is full of such young lovers, pulled apart not just by religious differences, but by class distinction, sexism, parental hubris. In the same section of Quixote, in the same inn, Clara and her suitor, Don Luis, who appears dressed as a muleteer, emphasizing their economic differences, are struggling to come together despite their fathers’ shared disapproval. In an echo of the annunciation and other moments of visionary religious experience, we first meet Don Luis singing outside Clara’s window. His voice is so beautiful that Clara’s friend wakes her, the sound of his voice causing Clara to tremble all over. “Love resolute,” he sings, “Knows not the word impossibility, / And though my suit / beset by endless obstacles I see, / Yet no despair / shall hold me bound to earth when heaven is there” (342). This verse, equating human love with divine providence, and spoken by lovers who are kept apart by social norms, repeats a set of parallels Cervantes will use throughout the pastoral elements of Don Quixote. The author’s insistence on the transformative power of spiritual faith, and his recognition of its ability to lead us both to moral insight and socially transformative action, firmly place Cervantes within the tradition of Counter Reformation thinking, and its trajectory from Thomas Aquinas to Ignacius de Loyola.

Cervantes’ own story, and that of Don Quixote, bear a striking resemblance to elements of Loyola’s. The founder of the Society of Jesus was, like Cervantes, a soldier turned writer. Badly injured during a battle, Loyola entertained himself while recovering by reading courtly romances and imagining his ideal love. After a few weeks, he realized how little consolation these entertainments offered and decided to write a more serious work, his Spiritual Exercises (1548), one of the best know religious pamphlets of Cervantes’ time. The text, with its daily readings, demand for self-examination, and promise of personal redemption through faith, anticipates aspects of Cervantes’ own philosophy. Its commitment to immanence mirrors our author’s focus on interior space, and the acknowledgement of presence of the divine within the world represents a challenge to act with justice in life. Clearly an influence, Loyola is in both the storyline and underlying premises of Cervantes’ masterwork; the echoes of Loyola’s life on Cervantes’ prefigure the ways the novel’s namesake reflects and refracts its author.

Fortunately for us, Cervantes is not Loyola, and neither is Quixote. Cervantes shares some of the objectives of counter-reformation thinkers, but his ideas go beyond the somber tones and overt religiosity of Loyola’s attempts, to craft a pluralistic version that includes religious imagery, the pageant of theatre, the joys of poetry, and the seductions of narrative as mechanisms for self-redefinition. Cervantes’ novel uses consciousness and the complex and varied ways it mediates experience through language, to transform everything around him, offering us a landscape which is familiar and realistic for the most part, but has been subsumed by imaginative transfiguration.

This is a literary move. The world is peopled by characters from daily life and from literature, sharing a reality. He introduces the writer’s experience of writing and ours of reading into the novel, bringing together many layers and dimensions of immediate, remembered, and vicariously experienced reality in an equivalent immediacy that mirrors how they appear in our thoughts, particularly when we read and write. By drawing on different states of consciousness and the variety of meanings within the words he chooses, he mobilizes our affective relations to the world. Sadness gives way to laughter, seriousness to awareness of the little we can change beyond ourselves. Cervantes uses the mechanisms of transpersonal identification and the fluidities of language to invert his relations, and ours, to the given conditions he finds around him, those conditions remain as they are, but how they impact us becomes a function of our attitude towards them. Subjectivity, as mobilized by language, becomes the ultimate agent of transformation.

Free at Last

Quixote, the character, represents a sustained exploration of the relation between language and self-construction. “‘Who knows,’” he says in Book 1, “‘whether in time to come, when the … history of my famous deeds is made known, the sage who writes it … may not do it after this fashion?’” (30). He narrates his own story, in an archaic, overly poetic language, to be sure, but for him this is the language that grants him self-authorship. He speaks of “Rubicund Apollo,” “little birds of painted plumage,” ”the coming of the rosy Dawn” (30), the very ridiculousness of the language showing us a man who is no great writer finding ways to become exceptional by drawing on the old stories he is familiar with. Through this, Cervantes exposes us to the power of traditional ideas, the ways the past can inform and transform the present.

Later Quixote uses his prior reading to push past his own inertia. “Finding that in fact he could not move, he thought of having recourse to his usual remedy, which was to think of some passages in his books” (44). This is literary agency writ large; not only do we have Quixote thinking of himself in terms of written posterity, he employs past readings as a way forward. “ I know who I am,” the character says a few pages later, “and I know that I may not only be those I am named, but all the twelve Peers of France and even all the Nine Worthies” (46). The archaic formulations underlie his ideals show his limits. This distance, however, enables us to see the place of story, of reading, within our framework of conscious awareness, and to acknowledge the discrete limits of literary experience within our own rational counter-perspective. Going forward, Quixote will use his experiences as a reader and the moral compass he has obtained from them, to free prisoners, defend unjustly threatened lovers, and on his death bed, in the final moments of the novel come to understand reading itself as a means to spiritual fulfillment. What he changes is not only the present, but himself.

My reason is now free … rid of the dark shadows of ignorance that … chivalry cast over it…. It only grieves me that this revelation came so late that it leaves me no time to make amends by reading other books that might be a light to my soul [826].

The joke here, is that Quixote is still reliant on the books he has read. He fails to see that he has already become a man whose life is worthy of admiration. He does not need to read about saints; he has become one, his sanctity that of literature not sermon, his ambitions realized by force of his imagination and by leveraging that imagination into actionable will. The character’s failure to understand that he has already become a book, even when he embarks on this volume of the novel out of the discovery of that very fact, points to the ways we misunderstand reading, or shy away from its more radical possibilities. The book precedes the character and comes after him, just as his reading lead him to actions which transform his present and the social status quo. It doesn’t matter that there is historical distance between us and them. What matters is that we understand the power of ourselves and of our consciousness at the moment, that we recognize the book as a vehicle for insight, reading the first step in a course of action that will help us correct the injustices of our world, if only, like Quixote, we allow it to do so.

It is through the multiple ways we experience the text that we can inhabit it, the combination of conditions of relation, granting us a present akin to lived, perceptual experience. The novel’s prologue is both a playful commentary on prologues and an enactment of the writing of a prologue, action and reaction intertwined in ways that speak to ways we embody and transform conventions within our society in the same moment. This recognition also points to how can achieve dominion over them and thus self-authorship. For our experience of the various mock dedications, bogus authors, and breaks in narrative continuity and form, to build a space for the reader that is relational, but not deterministic, and through language, a range of experiences that in their combination, and in what remains implicit, enact consciousness.

If “[e]very specific situation is historical” (Bakhtin 33), then this is as true of every kind of discourse as it is for each individual perspective. It is only through proliferation and “the co-habitation of languages working side by side” (x), to borrow a phrase from Barthes, that these perspectives become interilluminative. “One Language can,” Bakhtin reminds us, “see itself only in the light of another language” (12), a relation to language that the novel is uniquely positioned to take advantage of because, “of all the major genres only the novel is younger than writing and the book, it alone is organically receptive to new forms of mute perception, that is, to reading” (3). Language is the vehicle, but it is perception, and our awareness of the conditions of our reception that make the literary work habitable, offering “a living contact with unfinished, still evolving contemporary reality (the open-ended present)” (7).

In The Voyage to Parnassus, where Cervantes criticizes his literary contemporaries, the ship carrying him to the muses is literally made of language: “From keel to the round top, O Extraordinary / The ship with verse was wholly fabricated. Its country of origin is not a country at all, but poetry: The flags which trembled in the yielding air, / Of sundry rimes … composed” (8–9). There is no place beyond language: it is the primordial material of creation. Moreover, it offers a place to view the world at a distance, thus master it, occupying it as will and fancy dictate. It offers an epistemological location that may come in already familiar ways, but we reassemble on our own terms, and thus re-signify, the act not simply one of abstract realization, but the replacement of one condition of lived reality by another. This is why Spain is necessary for the book’s setting, and why its realism and discussion of topics of immediate relevance to his audience is so important. For the things being changed as we read Don Quixote, which the novel and its characters and author are teaching us to reconfigure, are the same things that are already all around us, the powers that are challenged are those that govern us.

Cervantes is like the ironically positioned Ricote, a Moorish convert whom Sancho Panzo meets in exile in Book II of Quixote and who tells us, “‘now I know by experience the meaning of the saying ‘sweet is the love of one’s country’” (726). Alternatively, the reference is to nostalgia, memory, to a place we are subject to but cannot possess. Indeed, the passage that leads to this line speaks of the Barbary Coast, of those exiled from Spain, and the reception they receive in their new home. He says, “It is there they insult and ill-treat us most” (725). The exile is trapped between worlds, at home in none. If we understand Ricote as speaking of his present, however, and the choice of tense here emphasizes this, then the country of which he speaks is where he stands at that moment, a place outside of Spain, beyond Algiers, a place he is forced to by circumstance, but which as a no-man’s-land, unclaimed and un-claimable, offers him the consolations of self-possession, the space within.

It is this Cervantes has given us, a home of our own, ourselves.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. Print.

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975. Print.

Canavaggio, Jean. Cervantes. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990. Print.

Cervantes, Miguel de. The Bagnios of Algeirs” and The Great Sultana. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. Print.

_____. Don Quixote. New York: W. W. Norton, 1981. Print.

_____. Eight Interludes. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1996. Print.

_____. The Voyage to Parnassus: Numantia, Tragedy, The Commerce of Algiers. London: Alex, Murray, and Son, 1870. Print.

Garces, Maria Antonia. Cervantes in Algiers. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2002. Print.

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McGaha, Michael. “Is There a Hidden Jewish Meaning in Don Quixote?” Cervantes, Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 21.1 (2004):173–88. Print.

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Strauss, Leo. Persecution and the Art of Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. Print.

Voigt, Lisa. Writing Captivity in the Early Modern Atlantic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. Print.