Philosophy and Literature 24.2 (2000) 377-386
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Game of Circles: Conversations Between Don Quixote and Sancho
Accolades accumulated during the centuries weigh heavily upon Don Quixote de la Mancha (Part 1, 1605; Part 2, 1615) making it a behemoth of a classic, not only in terms of its size and tendency on occasion to ramble, but also due to the enormous applause it has received from authors and critics the world over. More than a trail-breaking predecessor like the first picaresque novel Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) or one of its famous imitations Huckleberry Finn (1884), Cervantes's book has earned the unqualified praise of critics and writers alike. To top off the devotion of Fielding, Smollet, Sterne, Diderot, Stendhal, Flaubert, Daudet, there is Milan Kundera's assertion, "The artist need answer to no one except Cervantes." 1 All fiction is a recreation of the theme of Don Quixote, insists Lionel Trilling.
Sainte-Beuve called it "The Bible of Humanity"; one of the world's most translated books, its quick popularity inside and outside of Spain caused Franco Moretti to term it a precocious international bestseller 2 ; the home of two of literature's most famous characters, whose ability to acquire a life of their own would only be surpassed by Holmes and Watson; purveyor of terms in many languages: quixotic, tilting at windmills; a book in which hilarity and sadness, idealism and mockery blend uneasily. The French ambassador to Madrid is supposed to have said with uncharacteristic generosity, when apprised that Cervantes had died a poor man, "He left his riches to the world."
Readings from the 1940s until the relatively recent past focussed on such topics as the nature of madness, the mutability of reality, and the phenomenon of artistic self-awareness. Commendable as these viewpoints and discussions are (plurality of meaning, whether rightly or [End Page 377] wrongly, is often associated with the greatness of a text), they have obscured one of the sources of the book's long life: the loving, irascible relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho. "I cannot think," says Harold Bloom, "of a fully comparable friendship anywhere else in Western literature." 3 For although Don Quixote may not be the sagest sage that ever lived, as Melville would have had it, he was, despite his short temper, more loving, compassionate and steadfast in his treatment of Sancho than was Prince Hal to Falstaff. The day in and day out record of their friendship, which occupies ninety per cent of the novel, involves the exploration of a relationship that evokes the gamut of human relations. The two comrades deceive each other, mock each other, forgive each other, argue about the state of the world, provoke each other to extreme exasperation while each one acquires some of the characteristics of the other. It is one of the earliest well-rounded relationships in Western literature and certainly one of the most enduring.
The conversations provide the best insight into this achievement. Elias Rivers has pointed out how the novel is constructed as one long, complex dialogue between Don Quixote and Sancho, frequently interrupted by standing jokes or the intrusion of many different characters, but consistently returned to in such a way as to establish a growing closeness between the archetypal pair that expresses itself in tenderness, love, respect, discord, anger, and frequently just plain cabin fever.
Rivers has also analyzed the asymmetrical nature of their dialogue as seen in their differing social status (Don Quixote is always addressed as your grace by Sancho, and Sancho is the unadorned tú), as well as the division between literacy and illiteracy which accounts for a tension between the prolonged hypotaxis of Don Quixote's Ciceronian prose and the paratactic brevity of Sancho's proverbs. 4
But there are moments in this ongoing conversation--one of the longest in literature--when I and thou seem particularly embedded in the here and now of humanity, so that beyond the rhetoric of madness and peasant stubbornness there exists a level of personal give and take that for...