- Don Quixote Among the Saracens: A Clash of Civilizations and Literary Genres by Frederick A. de Armas
In this study, author Frederick de Armas interprets Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Part I, as though it were an esoteric book, or a book of secrets—with secret lessons, cast in secret codes, understood only by readers schooled in secret knowledge. What is more, he recommends that we read Cervantes’s masterpiece as a narrative driven by “ghostly appearances” that “defy disclosure” (21). In this he follows Tzvetan Todorov, who recommends in his The Poetics of Prose (1977) that we read tales of the supernatural by Henry James as narratives driven by an “absolute cause” that discloses the “ghost,” or the “essential presence,” of a “core absence” (20).
Thus over the course of his study’s ten chapters, de Armas schools us in the esoterica—bookish allusions, buried clues, core absences—that allow us to read Cervantes’s comic work at the same time as a serious, didactic allegory. In particular, our critic argues that the story about Cervantes’s mad hidalgo who seeks to restore the Golden Age, while battling enemy “enchanters,” represents the history of Habsburg monarchs Charles V and Philip II who seek to establish a Christian empire, while battling enemy “Saracens.” He argues, too, that Cervantes enlists parody in his allegory to ridicule the “chivalric” quest of empire, thereby promoting a new, novelistic quest for both racial and religious diversity, for an acceptance of “Otherness,” and “for tolerance . . . that acknowledges and makes room for different cultures and civilizations, for different expressions of the self” (xi).
De Armas finds clues that link Cervantes’s protagonist to Habsburg father and son in the very first paragraph of the fiction. There we learn from the narrator that, according to historical authorities, possible surnames for our hero include Quijada, Quesada, and Quijana. In the first choice, Quijada (jaw), de Armas discovers an allusion to the enormous Habsburg jaw, made famous by Titian’s paintings of Charles V (35). Other clues in the fictional “history,” for de Armas, confirm this discovery. He points out that Titian often set the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in a “golden light” to hide the sovereign’s “yellowed constitution,” assumed in the period to result from “deep melancholy” (9–10). According to our critic, Cervantes mirrors this image in the “yellow constitution” and melancholy of a hero who aspires to become the exemplary Christian Emperor of Trebizond (10, 39–40). And de Armas informs us that fictional and historical “emperors” share a fondness for the chivalric romance Belianís de Grecia, with its battles between Christians and infidels that recall “battles between Charles V and later Philip II against the Ottoman Empire” (34).
Further, de Armas explains the parallel adventures, the parallel journeys, of both our hero and his historical counterparts. All these adventures find inspiration in the code and the literature of chivalry (3). The lunatic hidalgo fancies himself the knight “don Quijote,” as well as future emperor. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles [End Page 177] presents his son Philip to the courts of Europe in 1548, calling him “Perfect Christian Knight” as well as “Valiant Knight of Christendom” (3). Even so, both inside and outside the fictional mirror, a quest for empire proves ultimately “elusive”; in the root sense, “Quixotic” (3). Don Quixote’s return to his village after his absurd quest recalls the return of Charles V to the Monastery at Yuste after abdication of his throne (169). The reign of Charles V ends; the reign of Philip II begins and it “promises much.” Cervantes therefore ends Part I with a “promise” of Part II (179).
Along similar lines, the Habsburg motto Plus ultra (go beyond) signals the imperial project of conquering lands and peoples beyond even the most perilous limits of the earth, beyond the two promontories of a “Christian Gibraltar” and an “African Atlas” that form the “Pillars of Hercules” (41, 2–3). In de Armas’s esoteric reading, to reflect this imperial...