by Chris Moses
Eight hundred pages is a significant investment in a book. Hours carved from busy days, bleary-eyed moments before bedtime, the intoxication of a story like no other—over the course of a few weeks this spring I had the great pleasure of reading Cervantes’ monumental contribution to world literature.
You can imagine, then, I was not the least bit consternated when a mere hundred or so pages from the end I lost the will to continue. Not boredom, nor exhaustion or frustration—something much deeper. For days I stared at the crinkled spine. I pondered my bookmark, a mere sliver of pages from the end. But the cover stayed shut.
My own life has been quixotic in its own way for the past few years and so meeting the man eponymous with my experience offered a settling catharsis. As a satire of gallantry and heraldic literature, the book’s absurd escapades and surreal enchantments make less for irony than a convincing portrait of what’s real. Or more exactly, it provides a testament to the abiding energy needed to sustain the normalcy of everyday life—how that energy, free in more fantastic adventures, leads to deep emotional travails, to the extremes of self-doubt and noble confidence, to an exhaustion and exhilaration of feeling. Quixote’s knight errantry requires a devotion and purpose unsustainable within the confines of typical routine.
As is often the case with classical literature that has become popularized through its most notable episodes (like battling with windmills), the full story came with numerous surprises. I still shudder at its casual violence and the serious injury that befalls Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and their combatants.
However humorous, whatever the folly—injury and pain underwrite much of the action and play a defining role in the narrative. Stark physical suffering lends authenticity to emotional upheaval that might otherwise seem mere exaggeration or hyperbole. Like it or not, you’re hit over the head. Over and over again, just like Don Quixote, you’re banged by feeling, surprised by your empathy with the absurd, made protective of his stupidest ambitions. Intertwined feelings of mind and body, the contours of emotive readership—this is Cervantes’ novelty and with it the art of modern fiction.
My paralysis had a great deal to do with this sort of hyper-stimulated compassion. As much as I couldn’t let go, I also realized how much I had already lost in the intervening hundred or so chapters.
More than anything, Don Quixote’s quest is one of love. Love for honesty, love for adventure, love for setting wrongs right and lending strength to the weak—but above all, love for princess Dulcinea who he seeks to woo and honor and immortalize.
With each path taken and each page turned, I had lost myself to Quixote’s love and felt my own only as a mere remainder. Would I ever feel such a depth of commitment? Could I match this dedication beyond sanity?
Love is hard. Bizarrely, we expect it just to happen—at first sight, eyes aflutter, arms lusting to embrace. Yet what about all that energy and effort? All those painful adventures that go awry?
But to be so concentrated and deliberate and reflective—how unQuixote: his purposefulness comes not from rational determination and moderated understanding. He can’t see beyond the delusion at the end of his lance. All or nothing, all or nothing—and all the while we know it’s nothing.
Dulcinea isn’t real, and if she was, Don Quixote wouldn’t be Don Quixote. And where would we be? Eight hundred pages in, and nowhere to go.
I don’t have an answer, and can’t give away the ending. Though I do remain with a lasting sense that love—whether my own, or the sort of love required by feminism—needs expansion, confusion and constant recreation.
For political battles over personal freedoms, the rational, analytical and hard-hitting honesty we espouse offers a secure and necessary defense against intolerant and regressive ideals (like macho men and ever-pregnant married mammas). So too this posture challenges the ‘hysterical woman’ hurdle just as we hope that, if we concentrate enough, if we challenge enough stereotypes and so forth, body-image issues and the insecurities of sexual preference and performance will abate, if not dissolve before us.
Yet what about the mystery, the magic, the pain and peril and intoxication of love? Sometimes I worry I’m not ready (or ever will be). Still I’m confident that doubt can be as productive for my own experience as it can be for feminist thought, without ceding ground or forgoing opportunity, adventure and enjoyment.
Indeed rather than doing away with that doubt, I think it should be nourished as an integral part of feminist practice: not debilitating, but empowering us against strong-headed, self-denying repressive obstinacy so often masked as ‘natural’ or the stuff of ‘traditional values.’
In the end I managed to finish Don Quixote. I closed the back cover with a sense of mournful conclusion—and remnants of joyful hope. Love let me begin, love let me continue, and love leaves Don Quixote, and all of us, ever able to search for Dulcinea.