don quixote: melancholy of make believe

Miguel de Cervantes, like his hero, stood with one foot in the dark declining Spain of his adult years and one in the glorious chivalric land of his youth…

…Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are inseparable: they are the joint heroes of the book, and Cervantes book owes its character to this constant duality. But it is not a crude duality. It may begin as such, but little by little, as we read on, we find that it becomes increasingly subtle. For the contrast is not really between the knight and his squire, it is in them both. Don Quixote may be mad  when conversation is of knights and ladies, dwarfs and enchanters, but in other matters he has remarkable good sense, which breaks disconcertingly through his follies. Sancho Panza may be, at bottom, a hardheaded prosaic peasant, but periodically he too is carried away into  the world of fantasy, fitting himself into his master’s world and imagining himself rewarded with the government of an island. To the firm overtones there are always subtle undertones: the whole world of Miguel Cervantes is schizophrenic, and the men in his novel merely participate, in differing degrees, in both the reality and the make-believe.

Gustave Dore, Don Quixote. click image for source...

Gustave Dore, Don Quixote. click image for source…

Consider their attitude toward the books of chivalry, the clearly convicted source of all the make believe. At first it seems that Don Quixote alone takes seriously what other men regard merely as foolish novelettes. But soon we realize that this is not so. Everyone must agree that these “lying histories” are pernicious works which have made the poor knight mad; but everyone, it transpires, is as deep in them as he, and perhaps just as affected by them, though in other ways.

When Don Quixote has set off on his adventures, there is dismay in his home, and his housekeeper and his niece, together with the barber and the curate, as pillars of sanity, resolve to burn all the wicked books that have disordered his mind. But what is the result? As each book is identified, they all remember it, discuss its merits, argue about its fate; and half of them are ultimately saved from the burning. ( to be continued)


(see link at end)…Mimetic melancholy

As regards melancholy it can be said, without further ado, that Don Quixote was conceived out of melancholy and for melancholy . It was conceived out of Cervantes’ melancholy, according to the existential dialectic of Cervantes-Don Quixote . As Cervantes writes in the Prologue, many times he tried to write it and many times he left off, thinking about what he would say, “with the paper in front of me, the quill behind me ear, my elbow on the desk and my hand on my cheek” –a pose highly symbolic of melancholy. On catching him like this one day, a friend asked him the reason for his “imaginative” state. Cervantes offered him a selection: what the masses would say after so many years in the “silence of oblivion” (it was indeed twenty since he had published a book), the weight of the years (nearly seventy) on his shoulders, not to mention a series of literary shortcomings he attributed to himself. On the other hand, the author reveals in the Prologue that the primary purpose of the work is “for the melancholy reader to shake with laughter”. Indeed, in his defence of books about knights-errant, Don Quixote recommends us to “read these books and you will see how they will banish any melancholy you may feel and raise your spirits should they be depressed” (I, 50).

The melancholy of Cervantes is more a question of ‘the soul of Spain in the Golden Age’  than of a supposed bodily constitution or cognitive dysfunction. Don Quixote himself describes Spain in the time of Cervantes “this world is all machinations and schemes at cross purposes one with the other” (II, 29). Indeed, “encountered temptations push in the society of Quixote’s period in opposite directions, a society marked by the grand enterprise of putting discipline into beliefs and behaviours at the same time as by the ever more numerous spaces of liberty it affords; by the fascination brought about by the traditional models and by the questioning of them; by the reassertion of a strong society and by the constant formulation of doubts that pertain to it” (Vincent, 2004, pp. 306-7).

Melancholy seems to be in everyone and everything (and not just in Cervantes). Thus, ‘sad and melancholy’ went a poor galley slave in chains (I, 22), ‘melancholy’ was the princess Micomicona (I, 29), Rocinante himself appeared ‘melancholy and dejected’ (

3), ‘melancholy’ are some governments (II, 13), the Guadiana ‘wherever it goes, shows its sadness and melancholy’ (II, 23), the sound of music is sometimes ‘extremely sad and melancholy’ (II, 36), while omens pour forth ‘melancholy from the heart’ (II, 58). As far as Don Quixote is concerned, we should not forget that he is the Knight of the Sad Countenance, as dubbed by Sancho (I, 19).

What is important to bear in mind is that this image of the Knight of the Sad Countenance follows models already given , and in any case forms part of the canon of melancholy as constructed by the Baroque . Indeed, this consideration of melancholy as a cultural category  is central to the approach taken here. In this perspective, humoural explanations would form part of the cultural elaboration of melancholy, rather than being its supposed cause. This in no way implies that the melancholy is gratuitous (without cause), nor that it is not a real fact (quite another thing is how it has become real in each era). Read More:

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