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Its admirers call it “the Quixote,” as if to say “the masterpiece” or even “the universe.”

Cervantes’s novel, completed exactly four hundred years ago, established him as one of the greatest writers in world literature. In his recent book, Quixote: The Novel and the World, Ilan Stavans is even “convinced that the Spanish language exists in order for this magisterial novel to inhabit it.”1 Some praise has been even more extravagant.

Ivan Turgenev, otherwise a skeptic to the core, detected a mystical significance in the apparent coincidence that the first part of Don Quixote appeared (he supposed) in the same year as Hamlet. What’s more, Turgenev noted, Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same day—actually the same date, but England and Spain used different calendars—as if some angel had arranged to link them. In what is arguably the most famous essay in Russian literature, “Hamlet and Don Quixote,” Turgenev described these two masterpieces as representing opposite extremes of human nature, if not of nature itself. Together they define “the fundamental forces of all that exists. They explain the growth of flowers to us, and they even enable us to comprehend the development of the most powerful nations.”

In this reading, Hamlet incarnates inertia, Don Quixote progress. Shakespeare’s brooding hero proves relentlessly ironic, rational, and perceptive, but cannot act. Believing in nothing but his own judgment, he grows completely self-absorbed and unable to love. Don Quixote is just the reverse, all will and no sense. The man of faith, he credulously accepts an ideal of goodness without suspecting he mistakes desire for fact. To his own detriment, he lives entirely selflessly, “inherently incapable of betraying his convictions or transferring them from one object to another.” In Russian terms, Hamlet represented the aristocratic “superfluous man,” who was cultivated but lethargic, while Don Quixote recalled the idealist revolutionary, believing foolishly in an impossible, if noble, ideal.

Don Quixote has prompted imitations and responses by countless writers, from Melville and Flaubert to Kafka and Borges. It inspired both Che Guevara and Dostoevsky. The Russian realists were obsessed with it.

So many writers and artists have taken Cervantes’s book to heart that for most readers it comes pre-read. Everyone has seen some image of the gaunt knight and his paunchy squire, Sancho Panza, and most people know a version of the story, usually sentimentalized as in the 1964 musical Man of La Mancha. In its most famous song, the idealistic, absurd hero dedicates himself to “the impossible dream” and swears to follow his star “no matter how hopeless, no matter how far.” He is “willing to march into Hell/ For a heavenly cause.” No wonder the musical appealed to the generation of the 1960s. I can’t help it: the song still thrills me.

But however moving this version of the story, it is not true to the book Cervantes wrote. And however great the book’s reputation, it is far from flawless. It shows its writer, who never wrote anything else remotely comparable, constantly surprised by an idea he can barely handle. The Quixote begins with an apparently simple goal, to parody tales of knight-errantry by imagining someone who takes them literally. Having read so many chivalric epics that his brains have “dried up,” the hero decides that he has been called to revive chivalry and restore the Golden Age in this Age of Iron. But as the book proceeded, Cervantes realized that he had hit on something much more profound than a simple parody. The story kept raising ultimate questions about faith, belief, evidence, and utopian ideals. When do we need caution and when risk? Should we seek to transform reality or the way we perceive it? Do good intentions or good results define moral actions? And what is the proper role of literature itself?

As Don Quixote veers from adventure to adventure, the author struggles to catch up and, in the process, happens upon ever subtler ideas. Part of the book’s amazing charm comes from our sense that the author resembles his hero. He has written a sort of novel-errant, battered no less than its hero by tasks beyond its strength, but somehow all the better for the effort.

The book exhibits all sorts of obvious flaws, from plot lines that contradict each other to the insertion of long, tedious tales told by the characters. Oddly enough, these pastoral and moralistic stories are just what we would expect the author to make fun of. Critics, of course, have tried to justify them, but their very critical ingenuity tacitly admits why it is needed. In the second part of the novel, written ten years after the unexpected success of the first, Cervantes admits all these errors. And as if anticipating the pedantic glosses on his book, he parodies pedantry too. “A wise friend of mine,” Don Quixote explains, “was of the opinion that no one should weary himself by writing glosses and the reason, he used to say, was that the gloss could never come near the text” and is usually “far from the intention and theme to be glossed.” Is that wise friend Cervantes himself? A few pages later, when knight and squire encounter a pedantic author, whose pointless scholarly discoveries Sancho can easily copy, the squire explains that “it’s just a matter of asking idiotic questions and giving silly replies.” “You have said more than you know,” agrees Don Quixote, “for there are some people who tire themselves out learning and proving things that, once learned and proved, don’t matter a straw.”

The book starts out describing the hero’s peculiar, literary madness, his decrepit armor and pasteboard helmet, and the beaten-down old horse he grandiloquently names Rosinante, in imitation of the steeds in chivalric epic. It is as if naming by itself can transform reality, as, indeed, it sometimes does. A series of famous adventures are narrated both as Don Quixote sees them and as they are in reality. To no avail his squire cautions that those are windmills, not giants; sheep, not soldiers; and a barber’s basin, not “the helmet of Mambrino.”

One might think that when windmills batter him and people stone him, Don Quixote will at last doubt his vision, but he resists all contrary evidence. Like so many systems with which we are distressingly familiar, his mania precludes any possible disconfirmation. If capitalism does not collapse as Marxists predicted, they just call the present “late capitalism.” From the beginning, psychoanalysis has discounted objections as so much “resistance,” and therefore positive proof of the theory’s correctness. As Freud’s critic Karl Kraus once observed, “I tell the psychoanalysts to kiss my ass and they tell me I have an anal obsession.”

Don Quixote attributes his failures to the schemes of evil enchanters. If the knight’s peerless lady, Dulcinea of El Toboso, appears to be a hairy, smelly peasant girl, that is because she has been enchanted. “All the adventures of a knight-errant appear to be illusions, follies, and dreams, and turn out to be the reverse,” he tells Sancho, “because in our midst, there is a host of enchanters, forever changing, disguising our affairs.” And that will always be so, because “enchanters persecute me and will persecute me until they sink me and my exalted chivalries in the deepest abyss of oblivion.” Empiricist philosophers tell us that the senses are the bedrock of knowledge, but for Don Quixote they are what is least trustworthy. “Who do you believe,” asked Groucho Marx, “me or your lying eyes?” Senses prove mistaken, but a good theory never does.

Here we verge on the “postmodern” Don Quixote. A truism of our age teaches that everything is equally a “fiction,” even if some fictions should prove temporarily more useful than others. As Cervantes’s novel gains steam, more and more people start constructing fictional worlds as they get the idea of humoring the madman. They pretend to be knights-errant or evil enchanters and construct elaborate tableaux within tableaux. In Part Two, almost everyone Don Quixote meets has read Part One and knows all about him. Amusingly, Sancho can’t figure out how their chronicler managed to learn about things Sancho did when no one was there to see him. Is the book’s narrator some sort of evil enchanter himself?

Some of the jokes these readers play on the heroes are so elaborate, and require so many participants, that one begins to ask whether it takes a fool to expend so much effort gulling a pair of fools. In the postmodern critical reading, all this play within play indicates that we live in a hall of infinite mirrors with no exit to “reality.” But in joining the hero in a world of pure make-believe, aren’t these critics imitating the folly of the readers in the book?

Some authors have taken such reflections not nihilistically, like the postmodernists, but religiously, as a sign of our inevitably fallen state. Without divine revelation, we are shut out from the truth. In Nikolai Gogol’s hilarious version of Cervantes’s tale, The Inspector-General, a town’s corrupt officials, learning that a government inspector is coming, resolve to con him. Impressed with their own cleverness, they decide that a scapegrace staying at the local inn must be the inspector in disguise. As with Don Quixote, counter-evidence becomes evidence: the less the scapegrace resembles a government official, the better they think the official’s disguise, and the better the disguise, the more certain he must be the official! In fact, he is just a spendthrift idiot who is delighted to accept their bribes. So the officials wind up conning themselves, as perhaps we all do. Just as readers are about to conclude that everything in the world is counterfeit, the real inspector general shows up, not at all in disguise, but like God at the Last Judgment, arriving when least expected.

At times, Don Quixote differs from earlier knights-errant because, unlike them, he knows that he is copying models. In one amusing sequence, he decides to imitate heroes who, like Amadis of Gaul or Orlando Furioso, go mad when they discover their lady’s falsity. Don Quixote pretends to be mad like them, because, as he explains to his squire, that is what knights-errant do. So he goes into the wilderness, strips naked, and utters insane ravings he wants reported to Dulcinea. When Sancho Panza reminds him that Dulcinea has not been false, Don Quixote answers: “That is just where the subtleness of my plan comes in. A knight-errant who goes mad for a good reason deserves no thanks or gratitude; the whole point consists in going crazy without cause.”

By the same logic, he demands at lance-point, like any good knight, that passers-by acknowledge Dulcinea’s unsurpassed beauty. When one of them protests he has never seen her, Don Quixote replies: “If I were to show her to you, what merit would there be in acknowledging a truth so manifest to all? The important point is that you should believe, confess, swear, and defend it without setting eyes on her.”

People do not believe because they see, they see because they already believe. Dostoevsky, ever questing after faith, viewed the novel as an allegory about the sources of belief. Are people ever convinced to accept an antagonistic world view? Imagine that the chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, a sort of smug atheist like Richard Dawkins today, should be confronted with an indubitable miracle. Devils lift him three feet in the air and leave him there against all the laws of physics. Would Mendeleev admit he might have been wrong? Never: he would insist it was all a trick and, if it came down to it, “would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact.” With such reasoning, atheists might as well resort to evil enchanters.

In one article, “A Lie Is Saved by a Lie,” Dostoevsky speculates on a scene from Don Quixote he (mis)remembers. Once upon a time, the knight of the doleful countenance was suddenly struck by a puzzle. The books of chivalry describe knights who encounter armies of a hundred thousand conjured up by evil sorcerers, and annihilate them to the last man. But how could this be?, he asks. If you do the math, there isn’t enough time to kill a hundred thousand people in a single battle. Could the books be mere fantasies? In short, Dostoevsky explains, Don Quixote “began yearning for realism!”

If the chivalric epics contain one lie, then they are all lies, so how can they be saved? At last Don Quixote hits on the solution: these men had bodies like slugs or mollusks and so a single sword stroke could kill several at once! To save one fantasy, he comes up with another, “twice, thrice as fantastic as the first one.” And thus, “realism is satisfied, truth is saved, and it is possible to believe in the first and most important dream with no more doubts.”

Now ask yourselves, hasn’t the same thing happened to you, perhaps a hundred times? “Say you’ve come to cherish a certain dream, an idea, a theory, a conviction,” or a person you love. If there is something you have exaggerated and distorted because of your passion, you will be aware of it in the depths of your being, doubt will tease you, and you will be unable to live at peace with your dream. Admit it, Dostoevsky writes: “don’t you then invent a new dream, a new lie, even a terribly crude one, perhaps, but one that you were quick to embrace lovingly only because it resolved your initial doubt?”

Since the romantic period, and especially today, the Quixote has been read as a celebration of idealism. No matter how unrealistic the dream of peace and justice may be, isn’t it better to believe in it and strive for it? “You see things that are and ask ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were, and I ask ‘Why not?’ ”: we have all heard this line, once attributed to Bernard Shaw and now to Robert F. Kennedy. RFK also supposedly said: “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” Failure itself does not discredit but ennobles the idealistic striver. But to attribute such sentimentality to Cervantes is to be almost as foolish as his hero.

Time and again, Cervantes shows the terrible cost of pursuing ideals without attention to real people in actual situations. If the cost is counted, Nabokov noted, then “the implication of its [this book’s] humor is brutal and grim.” When Don Quixote frees some galley slaves, they immediately pelt him with stones and soon after become highwaymen plundering the countryside. Reproached with the consequences of his chivalrous deed, Don Quixote declares irately: “It is not the duty of knights-errant to find out whether the afflicted, enslaved, and the oppressed whom they encounter on the roads are in evil plight and anguish because of their crimes or because of their good actions. Their concern is simply to relieve them, having regard to their sufferings and not to their knaveries. . . . As for the rest, I am not concerned.” On another occasion, Don Quixote has rescued a young man being whipped by his employer, but, the moment the doleful knight left, the employer whipped the boy all the harder. “He again tied me to the same tree,” the young man reports, and, while making fun of the rescue, “gave me so many lashes that left me flayed like Saint Bartholomew.” And so, the young man implores, even if you see me being cut to pieces, do not come to my aid, because no matter how great my misfortunes may be, “they will not be as great as those that spring from your help, and may God lay a curse on you and all the knights-errant that were ever born in the world.”

I thought of these passages recently when Joseph Epstein reminded me of how some leftists justify their past defense of Stalin. They concede that they turned out to be wrong but maintain that in their hearts they were right, while their critics, who turned out to be right, have no hearts at all. Or as the late Michael Bernstein used to say, being an idealist means never having to say you are sorry. Good intentions excuse any outcome. But don’t good intentions include learning that good intentions are not enough?

When I arrived at Oxford as a graduate student, I told my tutor that I had just traveled around Europe carrying only a change of clothes, a bottle of Woolite, and a copy of Don Quixote, which I imagined especially applicable to my own role as a scholar-errant. “Everybody imagines that this book was written precisely for himself,” he replied. “It justifies everything and everyone.”

Ilan Stavans’s study catalogues the many writers, critics, and artists who have adored this novel. Americans and Russians, as well as Spaniards and Latin Americans, have deemed it particularly applicable to their national experience. It has been endlessly translated and retranslated, appropriately enough since even the original purports to be a translation from the Arabic! At one point, when the supposed Muslim author “swears like a Catholic Christian,” the supposed translator into Spanish assures us that that means he swears with perfect truthfulness. No matter who the readers may be, they discover a compliment to themselves.

For Stavans, this book is no mere novel. If it were, he wouldn’t like it, since, as he boasts, “I really don’t like reading long novels. I lose patience, my mind wanders. I particularly dislike psychological novels because of the way they defy logic (Crime and Punishment, ouch!).” “Ouch” is about the level of argument in some parts of this study. Confusing the “eschatological” (what pertains to the end of the world) with the “scatological” (what pertains to excrement), Stavans tells us: “This surely isn’t a dirty novel. Eschatology is kept in check. Sex is nonexistent.” He repeatedly calls Don Quixote an “imposter,” apparently unaware that for there to be an imposter, there must be someone real that one pretends to be. If I imagine that I am the present king of France, or an enchanted unicorn, I may be many things, but I am not an imposter. When Stavans informs us that one wordsmith was not a consistent lexicographer “like Samuel Johnson was,” one also winces at his grammar.

Surely Stavans intends this study as a quixotic prank? As Cervantes inserts tedious tales, Stavans seems to be filling as many pages as possible. For no discernible reason, he spends pages praising the beauties of Spanglish. Citations from various writers extend far beyond what is needed. At one point he reproduces a dozen translations of the same paragraph, thereby filling six pages, in order to show us that the English language has changed over the centuries and that interpretations of a text may differ.

So much does he love the Quixote that we learn it contains 2,059,005 letters, 381,104 words, 40,165 commas, and 20,050 semicolons. The word “que” (“what” or “who”) “shows up 20,617 times; that is, it constitutes 5.41 percent of the complete text.” Could this be a sly allusion to the novel’s parody of needless pedantry? I hope so. Evidently, the book is Stavans’s childhood friend and current nostalgia, an object of reverence he cannot talk about enough. It is his cherished ideal, his Platonic love, his Dulcinea of El Toboso.

As Stavans reminds us, perhaps no one loved this novel more than Dostoevsky, who pronounced it “the final and the greatest expression of human thought, the bitterest irony that a human is capable of expressing, and if the world were to come to an end and people were asked somewhere there: ‘Well, did you understand anything from your life on earth and draw any conclusion from it?’ a person could silently hand over Don Quixote: ‘Here is my conclusion about life; can you condemn me for it?’ ”

To be sure, Dostoevsky immediately qualified this statement: “I don’t claim that this judgment about life on earth would be right, but still . . . ” Like Ivan Karamazov, he knew that even “the bitterest irony” could turn into a sort of reverse sentimentality. For intellectuals especially, the celebration of well-intentioned disaster tempts us with its own self-indulgent consolation.

1 Quixote: The Novel and the World, by Ilan Stavans; W. W. Norton, 260 pages, $26.95.