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  • What Don Quixote Means (Today)
  • Robert Bayliss

[H]e who has had the luck to be born a character can laugh even at death. He cannot die. The man, the writer, the instrument of the creation will die, but his creation will not die.

—Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author

What does the figure of Don Quixote represent today? What cultural value and function are assigned to the novel Don Quixote today? As we look back upon the 2005 "Quixote World Tour" of conferences, symposia, and special issues of scholarly periodicals commemorating the four-hundredth anniversary of the publication of the novel's first installment, the answers to these two different but equally pertinent questions remain dynamic and in play. Definitive answers elude us, but considering the two questions in tandem may help us better understand the cultural afterlife of both the novel and its title character. More specifically, the different ways in which the figure of Don Quixote has been (and continues to be) appropriated in various modes of cultural discourse may be explained in terms of Cervantes's method of making the interpretation of his work problematical, or of resisting a definitive or facile answer to "what Don Quixote means." At the extra-textual level, the novel has taken on a cultural value, both as a commodity for mass consumption and as a symbol for political appropriation, that further reflects on the open-endedness of Cervantes's original text. As we reflect on the presence and function of both Don Quixote and Don Quixote in our own postmodern culture (itself a quixotically daunting enterprise), we would do well to consider the degree to which Cervantes himself is responsible—if not for what his literary creation means today, then for how it has been capable of acquiring so many different meanings in such disparate contexts. [End Page 382]

Without doubt, Don Quixote's life has continued long since Cervantes's death in 1616 and is still to this day the object of both interpretation and adaptation, reincarnated on the printed page and the artist's canvas, as a national monument, on the stages of both classical ballet and Broadway musical, and as the subject of both popular song and cinema—and now, as I explain below, as the namesake of an extraterrestrial venture. And yet, the Don Quixote that results from each reinterpretation appears to be altogether different from its predecessors, serving altogether different aesthetic, cultural, and ideological ends. Don Quixote has survived independently of Cervantes and has been reenlisted through the centuries, each time to fight new and very different battles. Through a re-casting of his glorious acts of heroism (or his comic misadventures), such as battling enchanted giants and entire armies (or windmills and flocks of sheep), he has been employed both as a Romantic hero and as a foolish, anachronistic madman, for the purposes of representing either high idealism or utter insanity, and sometimes both. He has battled both Spanish fascism and American imperialism; he has defended and shaped national identities and cultures on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, the paradox of Don Quixote at four hundred years old is that despite his supposedly anachronistic nature (a seventeenth-century character who aims to revive medieval institutions of chivalry), he has proven to be truly protean and adaptable to modern and postmodern circumstances.

One recent reincarnation of the (mock-)heroic knight demonstrates how his cultural ubiquity extends well beyond the realm of artistic expression: the European Space Agency (ESA) announced in September 2005 the development of a "Near Earth Object deflecting mission," a new program for targeting asteroids that threaten our planet. The project's name is Don Quijote, and it will involve a pair of unmanned spacecraft. The first, named Sancho, would approach the targeted object and collect data on its size, orbit, and trajectory. The second, named Hidalgo, would then collide with the object at high speed in an effort to alter the giant/object's trajectory, whereupon Sancho would record and transmit any changes to its structure or orbit. The press release announcing the program on the ESA's website presents its narrative with headings such as "Don Quijote...


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