Quixote and Galileo: On Being Humbled Yet Again

For context, this is the version of Don Quixote my son and I are working through (hard to be sure, looks like the cover). The more we read it, out loud, with some amount of performance for each voice, Sancho, Quixote, and the narrator, the more we like it. I have to alter some portions as they’re not meant for ten-year-old ears. Readers familiar with the novel will understand, I think.

Shelton’s translation is interesting in that I read a deep affection for Cervantes, a certain need to interpret with accuracy and meet the needs of the language and audience of his time, which is thrilling to think about in a historical sense, as we know translation must be sensitive to time.

In a section yesterday, where Sancho prevents Quixote from riding off for a new adventure, proclaimed by Quixote as tremendously dangerous, and, not wanting to let him out of his sights and troubled by nearby hammering booms, Sancho, feeling the urge, unbelts, drops his pants, and relieves himself just steps away from his “Lord.” Quixote, of course, has a nose.

I found this amazing, as the language elevated the comedic and scatological scene to carefully crafted “appropriateness,” given the situation. Kundera’s Book of Laughter came to mind then. And something else more trivial: that Cervantes, several times, takes the time to propel the human body into the fiction in a manner that is, indeed, appropriate at the human scale. As a naif, I’d ask why don’t films film the hero’s or his company’s bodies out there on the plain, the desert or in the village. The answer’s obvious: because to those stories, it matters not. For Cervantes, Quixote’s teeth, cheeks, and body matter as a matter of his condition, world, and being. Sancho’s too. It matters that a couple of human beings are out making fools of themselves (amongst other fools).

As a reader, I keep going back to Cervantes and his time and modern conceptions of fiction’s history: the Quixotic, the windmills (which are trivial in the novel, but still cool), the wine bottles (inside joke). My conclusion is this: I get it now: the fascination of Nabokov, Trilling, and Kundera. That here we have something new, a break from powerful conventions that may be interpreted purely as blinders to what’s possible given human experience at the human scale: not the scale of Hamlet. I read Cervantes and say: here’s something similar to discoveries by Galileo and Kepler (which are more human than fantasy) but from a different lens and aimed at the obvious crowds we stand beside and of which we’re members (and we should never forget that). This goes beyond Shakespeare: here’s an author who conceives of a savagery and love in different mode than Boccaccio, Chaucer, or Cao Xueqin. Cervantes punches in Don Quixote with very little reluctance or inhibition. Grand mode, shocking stuff. And now I feel even smaller than I did in the face of Mark Twain. Amazing. Wonderful.