Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Secret of Cervantes’ Success

Featuring Henry Edward Watts

Previously on Cervantes' "Don Quixote" Reforms Literature. And now Henry Edward Watts

Time: 1605
Place: Spain

The adventure was one reserved for his single arm; and it was achieved with a completeness of success such as must have astonished our hero himself, as we know by many signs that it disgusted and irritated many of his literary rivals. The true nature of the service performed, as well as Cervantes' motive in undertaking it, has been greatly misrepresented. Nothing can be more certain than that his aim in Don Quixote was, primarily, to correct the prevailing false taste in literature. What moral and social results followed were the necessary consequences of the employment of his rare wit and humor on such a work. There is no reason to believe that Cervantes, at first, had any more serious intention than that which he avowed, namely, to give "a pastime to melancholy souls"[19] in destroying "the authority and influence which the books of chivalries have in the world and over the vulgar." That he was not impelled to this work by any antipathy to knightly romances as such--still less by any ambition to repress the spirit of chivalry, or to purge the commonwealth of social and political abuses--is abundantly proved by the whole tenor of his book, if not by the evidence of his life. His own tastes strongly inclined him to books of romance. Perhaps no one in that age had read more of those books, or was so deeply imbued with their spirit.

The opinion of an acute Spanish writer, Don Vicente de Salva, on this point we hold to be a very sensible one--"Cervantes did not intend to satirize the substance and essence of books of chivalries, but only to purge away their follies and impossibilities." What is Don Quixote itself, it is shrewdly added, but a romance of chivalry, "which has ruined the fortunes of its predecessors by being so immensely in advance of them"?[20] What was Cervantes' own last book, as we shall presently show, but in some kind a romance of chivalry--not free, alas! from some of the very errors he had himself burlesqued? Nay, what was Cervantes' own life but a romance of chivalry?

That, after all, the overthrow of the books of chivalries was but a small part of the good work which Cervantes performed in Don Quixote is only to say that, like all great writers, he "builded better than he knew." The pen of the genius, as Heine says, is ever greater than the man himself. Rejecting all the many subtle and ingenious theories as to what was Cervantes' object in writing his book; that it was a crusade against enthusiasm, as even Heine seems to suspect; that it was a missionary tract, intended to destroy popery and throw down antichrist, as some, even bearded men, have dared to suggest; that it was a program of advanced liberalism artfully veiled under a mask of levity, and, indeed, the forerunner of that gospel of sentimental cosmopolitanism since preached by other eminent persons supposed to resemble Cervantes in their characters or Don Quixote in their careers--I hold that the author wrote but out of the fulness of his own heart, giving us, by a happy impulse, a fable in which are transparently figured his own character, his own experiences, and his own sufferings. What is the key but this to the mystery which makes this book, on a purely local subject of passing interest, the book of humanity for all time--as popular out of Spain as among Spaniards? A mere burlesque would have died with the books which it killed. A satire survives only so long as the person or the thing satirized is remembered. But Don Quixote lives, and, by a miracle of genius, keeps Amadis and Palmerin alive.

The invention is the most simple, as it is the most original, in literature. From Don Quixote dates an epoch in the art of fiction. For once Cervantes was happy in his opportunity. And what is the secret of his success? It is that this "child of his sterile, ill-cultured wit" is no creature of pure fancy, but fashioned in the very likeness of its parent, drawn out of his life, shaped after his pattern--an image of its creator. How could Cervantes' romance fail of holding the field against all the romances? It was his own life from which he drew--that life which had been a true knight-errantry. The hero himself, the enthusiast, nursed on visions of chivalry, who is ever mocked by fortune; the reviver of the old knighthood, who is buffeted by clowns and made sport of by the baser sort; who, in spite of the frequent blows, jeers, reverses, and indignities he receives, never ceases to command our love and sympathy--who is he but the man of Lepanto himself, whose life is a romance at least as various, eventful, and arduous; as full of hardships, troubles, and sadness; as prolific of surprising adventures and strange accidents, as the immortal story he has written? This is the key to Don Quixote, which, unless we use, we shall not reach to the heart of the mystery.


[19] See the Viaje del Parnaso, chapter iv:

"Y he dado en Don Quixote pasatiempo
Al pecho melancolico y mohino
En cualquiera sazon, en todo tiempo."

("And I am he in Quixote who has given
A pastime for the melancholy soul
In every age, and all time and season.")

Why cannot we believe the author, when he thus plainly and candidly avows his purpose?

[20] See the essay of Salva's in Ochoa, Apuntes para una Biblioteca, vol. ii, pp. 723-740. I know one great Spanish scholar who has never forgiven Cervantes for destroying the books of chivalries. But his anger is rather that of the bibliographer than of the critic or patriot. He has the best collection of those evil books in Europe.

The End

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