Don Quixote. An Authoritarian’s Nightmare.

“Authoritarians” according to the Oxford and Webster dictionaries demand submission, are not receptive to opinions differing from theirs, and reject ideas that question or challenge their power. They see the world simplistically and oppose self-expression; different opinions are dangerous, threatening, challenging and potentially subversive**.

**Other related terms that fall under this broad
umbrella of “authoritarian” are: fanatic, extremist,
fundamentalist, censor, dogmatist, ideologue etc.,
words that have a particular resonance nowadays.

How can the comical adventures of Don Quixote, a mad knight-errant, and Sancho Panza, his garrulous peasant squire, both from the downtrodden region of La Mancha, be an authoritarian’s nightmare? 

Briefly, the book is essentially a never ending questioning of all forms of authority, much of it veiled under the laughter provoked by Don Quixote and Sancho Panza or conveyed through the interaction of the many characters in the book.

The world they live in is complex, multilayered, ambiguous, contradictory, ever changing, and always challenging. Things are not what they seem to be or they are perceived differently by different people. There are many voices, opinions and points of view creating ambiguity and uncertainty unacceptable to authoritarianism.

For authoritarians there is only one voice, one truth and that is theirs! Cervantes rejects this, not only in Don Quixote, but throughout his work. As a result, there is no Truth in Cervantes’s works, only truths, i.e. opinions**.

**This is perhaps is why Cervantes never wrote a picaresque novel, hugely popular in Spain at the beginning of the 17th century, following the publication of Mateo Aleman’s lengthy  Guzmán de Alfarache, Part I in 1599, Part II in 1604. One of the characteristics attributed to the picaresque novel is its autobiographical form, which means that everything –all dialogue for example— is filtered through the optics of the first-person narrator. Indeed, Cervantes probably had in mind the shortcomings of the autobiographical fiction of Guzmán (at the time a “best seller”) when he penned his short story, El coloquio de los perros (The Dialogue of the Dogs). The two dogs, Cipión and Berganza, astonished at finding themselves able to speak, agree to tell each other the story of their lives. We hear only Berganza’s life story, beginning in Seville (where Guzmán was born).  The scene is now set for the critique.  As Berganza narrates, Cipión constantly interrupts, questioning, keeping his companion from digressing (digressions are endless in Guzmán), giving his own opinion and commenting on what he has just heard. Cipión’s voice is the critical “other” voice that autobiography (i.e. Berganza’s self-story) lacks. What Cervantes has done here is set the picaresque autobiography ironically within the framework of a dialogue to demonstrate the deficiencies of first person narrative.

In this post we’ll look at the challenges offered to authority figures in two ways: 1) opinions as challenge, and 2) challenge by inference. In later pages, we’ll examine the challenge posed to the authority of our senses, to literary or textual authority, and to religious authority.

Opinion as Challenge.
There is a huge number and variety of characters in Don Quixote, ranging from the peasant world of Sancho to the courtly surroundings of nobility. The roads travelled by Don Quixote and Sancho are full of authority figures (e.g. parents, priests, guardians, military officers, bandits, landowners, nobles), but the most obvious one is Don Quixote himself. 

He is an hidalgo (a minor noble) and Sancho’s master.  In the traditional world of chivalry which Don Quixote hopes to revive, squires were silent, everything that Sancho is not. While he acknowledges his master’s superiority in matters of chivalry, he is quick to voice his opinion about the world around him. We see this in the first and most iconic adventure that befalls them: the episode of the windmills (Part I, 8).

We know that Don Quixote sees giants and not windmills; Sancho quickly asserts that they are windmills, and even insists –after his battered master has literally come down to earth– that only those who had windmills on their brains could argue otherwise. Don Quixote demands silence: Calla, amigo Sancho (“Be quiet, Sancho my friend”), but as we know Sancho cannot keep quiet. From this moment on, his comments and opinions are constant challenges to Don Quixote’s chivalric world.

A second example doesn’t directly involve Don Quixote and Sancho. In Part I, 11-14, the orphaned Marcela refuses numerous suitors despite her uncle’s entreaties, and flees to the countryside to become a shepherdess. 

Fiercely criticised by male friends of the love stricken Grisóstomo for having caused his suicide, Marcela defends herself passionately, affirming: “I was born free… I am free by nature and I have no wish to be tied down.”  She rejects the authority of male dominance in defence of her freedom. She is a rebel and voices her opinion publicly and forcefully.

There are many similar instances, but we’ll take just one.  In Part I, 32, a number of figures are gathered at an inn. A discussion ensues about romances (i.e. novels) of chivalry in which in which the innkeeper confesses to be a fan of them on account of “those furious and terrible blows that knights errant deal each other, I [even] get the urge to do the same myself.” The maid, Maritornes –from whom we might expect respectful silence before her master’s views— interrupts, declaring that she loves the tales for another kind of “fight”: “when there is some lady or other embracing her knight under some orange trees while her envious lady-in-waiting is keeping guard.” 

The innkeeper’s daughter is then asked for her opinion, and offers something different.  Drawing attention to her father’s view, she says: “I don’t like those blows that please my father so much, but the sighs of knights when they are away from their ladies.”  Her mother scolds her, telling her to “be quiet,” to which the daughter replies that since she was asked her opinion, she has given it. Both servant and daughter, then, give opinions that differ from the authority figures in their group; they are not submissive.

Challenge through Inference.
The Duke and Duchess (Part II, 30-57, 69-70) are the most powerful characters to appear in Don Quixote. Having read Part I, they are well aware of Don Quixote’s obsession with knight-errantry and of Sancho’s dream of becoming a governor.  They organise a number of very complicated practical jokes (burlas) on Don Quixote and Sancho solely for their own amusement.

However, the ongoing tricks played on Don Quixote and Sancho expose the conduct of the Duke and Duchess as shallow, frivolous and ridiculous, and it is these authority figures who end up looking foolish by their own words and deeds.

Their need to amuse themselves at the expense of others is so obsessive that it is a form of madness. Indeed, so obsessed are they with their elaborate jokes that the Duke even borrows money from a wealthy farmer (labrador) from one of his villages (Pt. II, 48). Even Cide Hamete Benengeli, the “author” of Don Quixote is moved to comment on the Duke and Duchess’s conduct: “He considered … the Duke and Duchess within a hair’s breadth of looking like fools since they made such efforts to play tricks on two fools” (Pt. II,70).

This courtly world of the Duke and Duchess is revealed as sterile, empty, self-absorbed and decadent. Compare, for example, the attitude of Sancho and the Duke regarding the duties of governing. When Sancho is granted his governorship by the Duke, he demonstrates (Pt. II, 45, 47, 49, 51, 53) that he is a far superior ruler than the Duke, his social superior. 

For the Duke, governorship is no more than the exercise of power. “Once you taste it, Sancho,” the duke observes, “you’ll just love governing, because it’s the sweetest thing ordering and being obeyed” Pt. II, 42). The Duke condemns himself with his own words, and Sancho’s subsequent discretion, care and concern when he takes command of his island only throw into relief the Duke’s shallowness.

Such is the sterility of this high society, and so different is it from true chivalric activity that Don Quixote becomes totally disillusioned.  Significantly, when he and Sancho finally leave the palace, his first words are in praise of freedom, and the Duke and Duchess’s palace, despite “its luxury and abundance … its highly spiced banquets and snow-cooled drinks” have left him “hungry“. 

The hunger here is metaphorically spiritual hunger, especially we recall that when knight and squire arrived at the palace (Pt. II, 30) they were given what at first appeared to be a genuinely respectful welcome.  “That was,” we are informed, “the first day that he (Don Quixote) was convinced that he was a true knight errant and not some phantom, seeing himself treated in the same way as he had read that knights were treated in the past” (Pt. II, 31). Of course, it becomes quickly apparent that Don Quixote is not treated like a knight-errant but abused, all for amusement.

This long episode is a scathing criticism of the ethos of the ruling class. By inference the moral authority of both Duke and Duchess is challenged and revealed to be a sham. They retain their political power, but by their own actions and words they show that they are not morally fit to rule.

[Cervantes was not alone in questioning the values or portraying the decay and ineptitude of Spanish high society.  The art of governing and statecraft (for which the Duke showed no aptitude) was widely discussed at this time as rulers were recognised as fallible, subject to the same errors as ordinary human beings and in need of guidance.]
On a wider scale, Don Quixote not only challenged but parodied and brought down to earth chivalric romance, which echoed the voice of the rich and powerful, i.e. the nobility. The concerns of knights-errant differed in detail but not in substance (i.e. they fought for good against evil, and always sought their ladies’ approval). 

Likewise, the world they all inhabited existed in the distant past and was essentially the same: forests, cross roads, caves, seashore, castles, courts, but not towns.  As products or representations of the mentality of the nobility romances of chivalry spoke, as it were, with one voice, and that voice was of the dominant ruling class which was dismissive of the lower classes. In that world, the voice of the commoner, the low born is so far on the edge as to be virtually out of sight.

In Don Quixote, the authority of this single, aristocratic voice or viewpoint is fragmented as ordinary people have now moved into the mainstream of prose fiction. Characters now speak their own language and talk of multiple concerns, and the world they inhabit is the here and now whether an inn or a duke’s palace. It is furthermore a complex world, ambiguous and unstable, its concerns going far beyond battles between knights and evildoers, or the amorous sufferings of rejected lovers**
** Two earlier works La Celestina (1499) and Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) had already taken significant steps in the direction that Cervantes was to exploit so successfully. La Celestina parodied the sentimental world of courtly love, while Lazarillo seized on a defining characteristic of both chivalric and aristocratic life and brought it down to street level.

Gies, David T ed.  The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature Cambridge 2009
Johnson, Carroll B Don Quixote: The Quest for Modern Fiction Boston 1990
Riley, E.C. Don Quixote London, Boston 1986 (See Chapter 13 for a particularly good examination of “points of view.”
Robbins, Jeremy  The Challenges of Uncertainty: An Introduction to Seventeenth-Century Spanish Literature  New York 1998

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