25 September 2013

The End of An Era: Don Quijote and the End of an Era

For years now, I’ve contemplated writing a paper on Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quijote. Whenever I come into contact with musicals, movies, and documentaries attempting the great work, I find myself gritting my teeth (there are exceptions, of course). Sad but true, Don Quijote has lost much in translation; a masterpiece that many have loved—perhaps too much.  The quest for the unattainable, the image of a gaunt knight tilting at windmills, the faithful sidekick, the rustic setting has made the book fodder for romantics everywhere.  To understand the Quijote, really understand it, the reader must snap out of it. Dream the impossible dream?  I can hear don Miguel laughing—and no doubt he would take great pleasure in breaking wind for added measure. In fact, he did as much—in two hefty volumes—in which we are treated to a narrative of Spain and her subjects diminishing place in the world.
Before we sally forth, I insist on a brief digression.  Since the theme of the month is “The End of an Era,” it is appropriate to point out that the Quijote is an epochal work.  To satisfy historians (who, at times, enjoy squabbling over origins), Cervantes has been credited (in a miserly fashion) with introducing the first Renaissance novel to Spain.  A more generous assessment would categorize the Quijote as the first European novel. Spain had long been one of the gateways to Europe, despite its later reputation as repressive and insular; the country was no stranger to innovation.  Indeed, the reactionary politics of its Renaissance rulers were a response to former days, when Spain was not a unified country, but a plurality of kingdoms—and cultures:  Roman, Moorish, Jewish and Christian.

Cervantes was born fifty-five years after 1492.  In Spanish hagiography, 1492 is referred to as the Year of Miracles.  Isabel I and Fernando II of Castile and Aragón brought down the last of the Moorish kingdoms in the south with the fall of Granada—ending an era that had endured some eight hundred years. In 1492, the humanist scholar Antonio de Nebrija finished compiling the first Spanish grammar. He persuaded the queen that his work should be known the world over—for if Spain were to become a great empire, its occupied territories had to be united under one language:  Castilian.  It is said that Columbus, who set sail in 1492, in an attempt to discover a faster route to the East, would take Nebrija’s grammar with him.  Columbus, as we know, never made it to the Indies: instead he made his first landing on an island in the Bahamas he named San Salvador.

After the deaths of Isabel and Fernando, the crown eventually passed to Charles V.  He was the son of Philip the Fair, Archduke of Burgundy and Juana of Castile (also known as “la Loca”).  As the heir of three of Europe's leading dynasties (the Hapsburg Monarchy, the Archdukes of Burgundy, and the crowns of Castile, Aragon, and Leon), he was one of the most powerful figures of his times. In 1519, Charles became Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria, as well as the first king of Spain. From that point forward, a substantial part of Europe and Spain’s American and Asian colonies came under his rule.

During Cervantes’s early years, the country had gone through a series of upheavals. Charles’s new subjects refused to accept a foreign monarch—one who knew not a word of their native language—as their ruler. The emperor did what he could to appease the rebellious Spaniards, including providing a Spanish heir.  Still, the country teetered on disaster. A vigorous campaigner against the Protestant Reformation, Charles had all but managed to crush Spain financially.  The colonies in the Americas made Spain richer, but its new-found wealth resulted in staggering inflation. To make matters worse, much of the treasure that flowed into the peninsula from the west went to maintaining Charles’s military campaigns.  When he ran out of money, he sought loans.  Spain suffered under the dual curse of debt and inflation—a situation that would only grow worse when Charles’s son, Philip II, took over the throne.  Like his father, Philip vigorously defended the Catholic cause and entangled himself in numerous European conflicts.  Despite Spain’s mounting debts, he continued to expend large sums of money on the famed Spanish Armada, a venture that led to disaster when the fleet was defeated by the English in 1588.

For Cervantes, who had fought (many say, heroically, as he was seriously wounded) against the Ottomans at the Battle of Lepanto, Philip II’s inability to govern Spain effectively was a bitter pill. Philip built himself an impressive palace and was a patron of the arts; he also plied the old trick of trying to unite the country by scapegoating conversos, and the Moors in particular.  His desire to be an absolute monarch caused him to remain aloof from his subjects. Consequently, Spain became poor, somber, backwards, and superstitious.

Philip’s repressive Catholicism, fueled by the Reformation on the continent and England, ran counter to Cervantes’s values. In the Quijote, as in other works, the author sends up heroic images of Spain, the jewel of Europe, and the last strong-hold of Catholic idealism. A student of Erasmus—who argued for religious toleration, free will, and was a strong proponent of reason—the author of the Quijote could not stand by and watch his beloved Spain rot under the rule of Rotterdam. He sought to do away with the puppet show, and gave us a masterwork in which the reader is given a choice between religious dogma and reason. Theology and satire are not necessarily enemies, as the Quijote reminds us—and certainly it is in the ability to command both spheres that Cervantes’s genius proves itself to be as profound as it is enduring.   

Kathryn A.Kopple is the author of Little Velásquez, a novel set in 15th century Spain.