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  • The Broken ThreadCervantes, Don Quijote, and War Trauma
  • Martha J. Reineke (bio)

Miguel de Cervantes was taken captive in Algiers after the Battle of Lepanto and spent 5 years in prison (1575–1580).1 In his writings thereafter, recurring images and references to humans in captivity—cages, bondage, beatings—suggest that Cervantes remained haunted by his imprisonment. As Maria Antonia Garcés argues in Cervantes in Algiers: A Captive's Tale, Cervantes's writings allude to an "afterlife of trauma" that should be part of any analysis of his writings, including Don Quijote.2 Indeed, Garcés contends that, three centuries before Freud, Don Quijote offers a profound reflection on the psychological legacy of trauma.3 Equally important, even as Cervantes navigates between sanity and madness, reality and fantasy, retracing his steps along the catastrophic border separating his captivity in Algiers from its afterlife, Garcés reminds us that Cervantes's journey also is transformative.4 Cervantes tells his story in order to survive; he survives because he tells his story.5

Garcés employs a metaphor Cervantes applied to his own life—the broken thread (el hilo roto)—to describe the nature of the trauma Cervantes experienced, as well as his allusions to restorative survival.6 Noting that British psychoanalyst Donald W Winnicott describes trauma as a "'snapping in the [End Page 65] thread of continuity of life,'" Garcés suggests that because Cervantes's extended confinement provoked strong death anxiety, the trauma of imprisonment permanently shattered Cervantes's "lifeline."7 Cervantes alludes to his circumstances in The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda, when he describes a writer who sets out to "tie up this broken thread."8 As the writer describes that task to a student, seemingly Cervantes's younger self, Cervantes deploys the metaphor of the broken thread in a manner that also registers hope, pointing to a connection between a life course severed by trauma and his literary creation. Even though the undoing of Cervantes's life thread can never be undone, the broken thread eventually promises to join "the thread of his sweet life" (el hilo de su dulce vida).9 In Cervantes's last work, at the apex of "traumatic reenactments and fantastic inventions" that have comprised his corpus, Cervantes is portrayed standing on a bridge, metaphorically attesting to a completed crossing in the future: "A time may come perhaps, when I shall tie up this broken thread and say what I failed to say here."10

Garcés's assertion that Don Quijote attests to the transformative powers of literature links her approach to the novel with that of René Girard. Girard writes extensively about Don Quijote in Deceit, Desire and the Novel, the work that launched Girard's career as a scholar of mimetic theory. Drawing on the example of Don Quijote, Girard advances the thesis that great works of literature are reflective and revelatory of their authors' experiences. On the first pages of Deceit, Desire and the Novel, Girard lays out his argument, addressing anticipated skepticism from readers he perceives will challenge his efforts to align the experiences of the novel's protagonist with Cervantes: "One might object that Amadis is a fictitious person—and this we must admit, but Don Quixote is not the author of this fiction."11 Girard asserts that behind the hero stands "the inventor of Amadis." Moreover, Girard acknowledges, as has Garcés, that Cervantes reflects on troubling features of humans' interactions with each other: "Cervantes's work is a long meditation on the baleful influence that the most lucid minds can exercise upon one another."12

Late in Deceit, Desire and the Novel, Garcés and Girard's observations align again when Girard considers the powerful consequences of Cervantes's reflections. Arguing that authors are transformed in the act of writing, Girard offers as key testimony Proust's evocation of Don Quijote in the essay "Filial Sentiments of a Parricide." Published in Le Figaro in 1907, the essay describes a young man, Henri Van Blarenberghe, who kills himself after murdering his mother.13 Taking into his purview other filial relationships, Proust muses about sons who, previously oblivious to their disrespectful treatment of their mothers...


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