- Smiles and Laughter in Don Quixote
William Faulkner used to read Don Quixote de la Mancha every year; Carlos Fuentes rereads it every spring. Don Quixote is the book that people as diverse as Saint-Évremond, Walker Percy, and E. L. Doctorow would each most like to have written, the book that Subcomandante Marcos has at his bedside in Chiapas. It was Don Quixote that led Sigmund Freud to teach himself Spanish so that he could read it in the original. In the judgment of writers of fiction working today, Don Quixote is the greatest single work of fiction ever produced.1
At a time when literary theorists are reminding us how different our individual versions of any text are, when the history of interpretation and, in fact, the text of Don Quixote itself demonstrates exactly that point, must we not wonder why this book is universally admired and how it still provokes smiles and laughter throughout the world? Don Quixote is one of the great masterpieces of linguistic nuance, and much of the book's original humor depends upon untranslatable ambiguities and stylistic mixes and clashes, yet the book has been known to most of its admirers only in translation, where much of this richness simply disappears.
The problems raised by the humor in Don Quixote have intrigued me throughout the forty years that I have read, taught, and lived with Cervantes's masterpiece, since long before today's preeminence of textual relativity. The two volumes of Don Quixote: Hero or Fool? that I wrote a generation or two ago constituted an attempt to understand and account for the varying and often mutually exclusive interpretations of this novel, an effort to explain how the book generates such a diversity of reactions among its readers.2 I did not take up in that study the question of the universal appeal of Cervantes's humor, but I did argue then that Cervantes carefully presented situations [End Page 515] that might well have elicited compassion or sympathy in a way that legitimized the readers' good-natured laughter. What follows is, in this sense, an extension of my previous investigation.
What interests me is not why Don Quixote was funny when it was written, when Peter Russell and Anthony Close and Dan Eisenberg tell us it was a "funny book," but why it is still humorous today, given the perishability of humor, its intimate relationship with the reader's basic value system, and its apparent cultural specificity. Clearly no one now cares about the books of chivalry that Don Quixote spoofs. What does the question of a particular "interpretive community" mean, we might ask Stanley Fish, when the appeal of this book covers all nations across four centuries? Why is the book not limited by José Antonio Maravall's variable "mentalidades," Michel Foucault's "discursive formations" and social "disciplining," or Anthony Close's historically conditioned "collective comic mentality or mind-set"? If, as Laura Gorfkle has asserted, "humor is . . . insightful. It is an epistemology," then Cervantes's universal appeal must depend upon an epistemology widely shared.3 The fact that we all love Don Quixote seems much more important to me than the fact that we all talk about it differently. It seems to me that we need to appreciate and contemplate this sort of phenomenon more these days, perhaps, than ever before.
This inquiry is not some scholarly quibble, then. It is an attempt to explore and perhaps understand a bit this book's broad appeal to something fundamental in our common humanity, something that transcends national, cultural, and chronological boundaries, an appeal that gives the lie to some currently fashionable theories of textual indeterminacy and cultural relativity.
It is refreshing, I think, to recognize at the outset that some people are fundamentally wrong about Don Quixote. When Paul Julian Smith quotes approvingly another critic's claim that "there may come a time when the Criticón is valued as highly as the Quixote," because "the modern bias toward photographic realism is as conventional as the seventeenth century's mistrust of what it takes to be a purely superficial depiction of the world," they are both simply wrong, wrong...