It is always fascinating observing people’s reactions when I explain the subject of my Masters’ thesis. Most people have at least heard of Cervantes’ Quixote (even if they object to the odd Oxonian spelling and pronunciation, preferring the more widespread Quijote), or at the very least have used the word quixotic before. What does that word actually mean? Let’s take a look at the Oxford English Dictionary:
- Of an action, attribute, idea, etc.: characteristic of or appropriate to Don Quixote; demonstrating or motivated by exaggerated notions of chivalry and romanticism; naively idealistic; unrealistic, impracticable; (also) unpredictable, capricious, whimsical.
- Of a person: resembling Don Quixote; visionary; enthusiastically chivalrous or romantic; naively idealistic; impractical, capricious.
It’s really interesting that the word quixotic has come to mean this: it means that we also associate Don Quixote as a character with these traits. Most people I speak to know of the famous knight: idealistic; a little hopeless; utterly impractical by virtue of his commitment to his principles, which he champions to a fault in the face of a cynical, prosaic and unrelenting world. (Is this beginning to sound at all familiar?) The curious part in all this is that’s not how Don Quixote was necessarily written by Cervantes. As modern readers, many of whom are familiar with the famous literary hero through his mythic status (more on that in a second) rather than through actually reading Cervantes’ novel, we assume Don Quixote was motivated to go on all his weird and wonderful adventures purely and singularly by his deep commitment to the ideals of chivalry, when that isn’t exactly the case. Of course, it is implied at various points throughout Cervantes’ novel that the protagonist is moved by his need to defend the ideals described in the chivalric romances he is so obsessed with, but it’s also suggested at other points that love, madness, and even a desire for eternal fame and renown play a part. It’s also important to remember that, at the time of the novel’s publication (1605 for Part One, 1615 for Part Two), Don Quixote definitely wasn’t seen by the Spanish public as a lofty and noble symbol of pure idealism, but as a comic figure of fun, whose status in popular culture was roughly akin to those recurring memes that we see about, say, Joanne the Scammer, or the dog from the “This is fine” comic: easily referenced and highly recognisable, sure, but certainly not romantic or a reference point for heroic chivalry!
So Don Quixote wasn’t originally the single-minded champion of ~ideals~ that we now understand him to be. How did that change happen? Well, it’s a really great way of demonstrating that a text doesn’t just belong to its author, but that it can be changed in some major ways by its readers. In this case, Cervantes’ novel became very popular with some German Romantic writers, including the Schlegel brothers and Ludwig Tieck, who translated the Quixote into German: these writers, for a variety of reasons, saw the novel as the perfect work of fiction in its blend of irony and idealism, of comedy and tragedy, and saw Don Quixote himself less as a man obsessed with recreating literary fantasies, but as a man obsessed with ideals that happened to be found in books of chivalry. Thus the novel began to be read as a passionate ode to hopeless idealism in the face of a cruel, pragmatic world, and the hero as a poetic, Romantic enthusiast, which allowed for later writers like Dostoevsky to paint Don Quixote as a Christ-like figure, and led to the conception of Don Quixote that we have today. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that: I’m not sure that Cervantes would have particularly minded that his creation, perhaps originally intended to mock a dying literary genre and warn the Spanish public against reading too obsessively, has now come to represent a tireless if impossible commitment to bright ideals. In a way, I wonder whether this transformation of the character happened because the world’s popular imagination needed a symbol of this idealism. After all, the German Romantics were, in part, acting and writing against the cultural impact of the Enlightenment, which in some cases had come to represent the very cynicism and prosaic practicality that they saw Don Quixote as fighting against: maybe it was ripe time for an inspirational figure who swept up those around him into his mad adventures that seemed so incompatible with the world around him. In my work, I term a figure like this, that has transcended its original context and taken on a symbolic function, mythic.
It’s this figure that writers have tapped into over the last four centuries, even in unexpected times and places like post-World War Two West Germany. Paul Schallück, who isn’t very well-known but was friends with slightly more famous figures like Günter Grass, who wrote The Tin Drum (1959), was one such writer, and his novel Don Quixote in Cologne (1967), which I wrote about this year for my dissertation, engages with the modern conception of Don Quixote in its own political and social context. It’s the late Sixties, the student movement is beginning to take off, nuclear armament is happening in a big way, public intellectuals are getting pretty concerned that Germany has forgotten its crimes of two decades ago, the world seems to be growing ever more consumerist, capitalist, cynical. In Cologne, a man called Anton Schmitz wakes up one morning and decides to cycle around the city, righting wrongs and putting those political ideals into practice that he has previously only preached over the radio. He is referred to as the Don Quixote of Cologne not only in the title, but also throughout the novel, and so we see that the narrator and the characters in question are all aware of Cervantes’ work, and of the parallel between Anton and the idealistic, unpredictable knight errant. Schallück chooses to adapt this particular canonical text, the Quixote, in his own writing because of the symbolic clout that Don Quixote carries. He is harnessing the modern, mythic Don Quixote in order to present his character Anton in a similar way: inherently symbolic, representative of pure yet hopeless ideals in an unresponsive world, which in Schallück’s view was turning its back on history and memory, and embracing military aggression once again. And so Anton comes in and, with his toy megaphone and his bicycle, attempts to right the wrongs that he sees in the world.
There’s a really wonderful moment in the book where Anton has led an anti-nuclear war demonstration, all on bicycles, to a public square in Cologne, and despite being roundly mocked by many, many members of the public, despite being misrepresented by journalists hungry for a scoop, despite being laughed at and denied credibility, rejected for being too idealistic and too impractical, too at odds with the modern world, the Don Quixote of Cologne succeeds in electrifying his audience. Those listening to Anton speak at the rally find themselves transfixed, moved to sing and scream when instructed to, suddenly captivated by the magic of this man, who, for his part, wishes to speak to and animate the “sons and daughters” of the nation, whom he sees as Germany’s only hope for the future. These sons and daughters across the nation, on their bicycles and in their homes, express and thrive on the same energy and enthusiasm that Anton is moved by. He gathers them up into his movement, his excitement, and for that single moment, the future is bright and anything is possible.
Again, I ask: is this sounding at all familiar? When I read this passage in the book, I was electrified in turn: I felt the exact same way when I watched a certain politician at a Libertines gig last month. He wasn’t, and isn’t, a natural speaker: his shouts into the microphone were unchoreographed, but drowned out in turn by the chants of the energised crowd, and I thought of Anton Schmitz invoking “MITmenschen!” (“FELLOWpeople!”, Quichotte 258) as a kind of battle cry. I felt that way when I saw the photograph of the rainbow behind the same politician at a rally in Birmingham. Throughout this last month, I haven’t been able to get the images of the mythic knight or of Anton at the rally out of my head: the simultaneous frisson of intense hope and intense despair, of knowing that this is a movement, where something is happening, but knowing that it will be rejected as incompatible with the coldness of the world we now live in. The sons and daughters are out in force, but we won’t be enough, because we are never enough. They are so rare, these moments of belief and love for an ideal, and the constant failure of these promises of a better world are why we still, even after four centuries, turn to the figure of a man who (as we now read him) did his best to fight for ideals, refusing to compromise even in a world that tried to force him into normality, thrusting his real name and social role at him even as he turned his face away, towards his next adventure: even though Cervantes’ protagonist must relinquish his guise of knight errant at the very close of the novel, we are still drawn to reincarnations of this mythic, larger-than-life figure at every turn. Is it our function, as sons and daughters of the nation, to be continually frustrated and disappointed? Will our choice only ever be between well-oiled, well-spoken politicians in the truest sense of the word, who pay lip service to our lives and hopes and dreams, and an enthusiast who dares to flout his uncompromising commitment to that old-fashioned thing, idealism, in the face of the cynics, who is dismissed as mad, impractical, even dangerous, who inspires and excites and moves, but who will ultimately lose out to a well-ordered, well-regulated world that has no time or patience for such frivolity? Must we grow up to be resigned?
I don’t know. I’d like to live in a world where ideals aren’t hopeless, where enthusiasm is a prerequisite of politics. Quixotic, in a way, is a self-fulfilling and ultimately damning epithet: it acknowledges high and pure ideals, but simultaneously charges them with impossibility. On the final night of this election, then, which began as I rode a train back to Oxford to begin my final term, and so became inextricably entwined with my dissertation, my work on bridging these texts separated by a language, geographical distance, the passage of centuries, that I cannot now see Alonso Quijano’s face as anything but hollow-cheeked, thoughtfully lined, white-haired, white-bearded, sardonic and ironic, it is appropriate to see the very final word of this article vindicating my mental parallels. Quixotic, indeed.
 I totally don’t blame you for not having read the novel: it’s 1000 pages long! If you did want to read it, though, I really recommend John Rutherford’s translation for Penguin, which is excellent.
 It’s helpful to look at the very first chapter of Part One of the novel, which describes in detail the knight’s descent into madness and desire for ‘eterno nombre y fama’ (DQ, I.1: 44). The edition I’m using is Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quijote de La Mancha: Edición del Instituto Cervantes, 1605-2005, ed. by Francisco Rico and Joaquín Forradellas (Barcelona: Centro para la edición de los clásicos españoles, 2004).
 Depictions of Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza started appearing at festivals and parades in both Spain and the New World as early as 1607, and began to serve as material for political caricatures of Philip IV and the Duke of Olivares in 1641. Carnival and the Carnivalesque: The Fool, the Reformer, the Wildman, and Others in Early Modern Theatre, ed. by Konrad Eisenbichler, (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999), p. 201. See also Anthony Close, A Companion to Don Quixote, (Woodbridge: Tamesis, 2008), p. 4.
 Eric Jozef Ziolkowski’s The Sanctification of Don Quixote: From Hidalgo to Priest (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991) provides an excellent summary of this entire process.
 Paul Schallück, Don Quichotte in Köln (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1967), p. 92.
Photo credit: Isabel of @packt_sardines on Twitter.