- Don Quixote as Inspiration for Anti-Nazi Resistance:Introduction to A. J. Greimas’s “Cervantes and His Don Quixote” (1943)
The following essay, “Cervantes and His Don Quixote,” makes available to English speakers the first text that A. J. Greimas (1917-92) published, in 1943, at the height of World War II.1 Developed in 16 monographs and some 150 scholarly articles, the research that Greimas produced in French on language, cultural theory, and semiotics earned him international recognition as of the 1960s. He collaborated closely with other prominent intellectuals of his day, including Roland Barthes, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roman Jakobson, Paul Ricoeur, Michel de Certeau, and Jurij Lotman. For two decades, his seminar at the prestigious École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris annually attracted over a hundred colleagues and students from around the world, including several who went on to become renowned scholars, such as Gérard Genette, Fredric Jameson, Julia Kristeva, Christian Metz, and Tzvetan Todorov.
Yet in spite of the author’s brilliant career, his first article has never been republished, nor translated in any language. The neglect stems at least in part from the language in which it was written, Lithuanian, the native language of Algirdas J. Greimas, an ethnic Lithuanian who lived most of his first thirty years in his homeland. “Servantesas ir jo Don Kichotas” celebrates the 1942 publication of the first complete [End Page 159] Lithuanian version of El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, with illustrations by Gustave Doré. Greimas’s friend Aleksys Churginas had collaborated on the project and would go on to produce authoritative translations of Horace, Dante, Shakespeare, Molière, and Goethe. Greimas himself had studied law, earned an undergraduate degree in French philology and medieval studies in Grenoble, and taught Lithuanian literature and French in gymnasium (high school). In 1943, twenty-six-year-old Greimas held a government job in the capital, Kaunas, working as a library expert in the Department of Cultural Affairs.
Rather than reviewing or analyzing Don Quixote, the 1943 article steps back to reflect on Cervantes and his hero, on their relation to history, and on what they mean for contemporary Lithuanians. The essay reflects, at times explicitly and at times obliquely, on both the connections and the incommensurability between the writer, his work, and his era, the meditation often resembling a dialogue between the determinism of Hippolyte Taine and the Romantics’ conception of genius. “Cervantes and His Don Quixote” situates author, hero, and readers in their historical and ideological contexts, but also emphasizes that the actions of all three instances can seem to defy logic and causality.
Greimas’s essay articulates a humanism which brings together nations and emphasizes their commonality. The first paragraph also observes that Don Quixote possesses specific signification for Lithuanians thanks to the geopolitical situation in which they find themselves in 1943: “The noble hidalgo […]. comes at a time when we require his assistance and advice perhaps the most. In the terrible collision of the giants of this world, our small and dear country desperately needs just such naïve belief in its human cultural mission.” Like all East Central Europeans, Lithuanians stood between two deadly titans in particular: Stalin’s USSR, which had absorbed Lithuania in 1940, and Hitler’s Third Reich, which had invaded and occupied the land in 1941. In early 1942, Greimas joined one of his country’s main anti-Nazi resistance organizations, the Lithuanian Freedom Fighters Alliance (Lietuvos Laisvės Kovotojų Sąjunga), collaborating on its underground newspaper Freedom Fighter (Laisvės Kovotojas). In February 1943, the Third Reich ordered Lithuania to provide a hundred thousand laborers and [End Page 160] to create an SS Legion (Gaidis 167-173; Bubnys 162-170). Combatting these and subsequent similar initiatives became the primary focus of Greimas’s underground activities, including his writings.
“Servantesas ir jo Don Kichotas” came out not in a clandestine publication but in an almanac which Greimas helped establish in Šiauliai, a city far enough away from the capital and Vilnius that the German censors approved the project (Jankauskas 15). Beyond the particular significance that Greimas avowedly assigns the hidalgo, much of...