This post is inspired by reading Alfredo Moro Martín’s excellent volume Transformaciones del Quijote en la novela inglesa y alemana (U. Alcalá de Henares, 2106), which is based on his doctoral dissertation. His research follows, as he acknowledges, from Pedro Javier Pardo García’s essential study La tradición cervantina en la novela inglesa del s. XVIII (U Salamanca, 1997). What is original in Alfredo’s case is that he adds to the ground covered by his predecessor (Henry Fielding and company), an examination of German author Christoph Martin Wieland’s Cervantine credentials, and a quite intriguing section on Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) as a Quixotic text.
When I met Alfredo last year (he works at the University of Cantabria and had invited me to lecture on Frankenstein and current science fiction), we exchanged some comments on how masculinity is an important, though under-researched, issue in El Quijote. Regretfully, we had no time to pursue the conversation. With apologies for having taken so long to read the book he gave me then, here are some thoughts on the matter.
As a specialist in the fantastic (Gothic, science fiction, fantasy), I return again and again to El Quijote as the text that problematized the consumption of this narrative mode. Its publication in 1605 (part II, 1615) acts as kind of primal scene in a chronology of events of which I have not made complete sense. Alfredo’s monograph does clarify the turning points at which a succession of translations made Cervantes’s proto-novel available to English and German speakers, but I’m still mystified by the time lag. Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) was a contemporary of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). The novel by Henry Fielding (1707-1754) which transformed the understanding of El Quijote in English Literature, The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and His Friend, Mr. Abraham Adams, was published in 1742. I should not be surprised by this type of long-ranging connections, since, after all, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996), re-formulated heterosexual femininity by adapting and re-writing Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1816). Yet, what baffles me is that while Austen and Fielding (Helen) work essentially within the same novelistic tradition, Cervantes and Fielding (Henry) belong to two extremely different narrative paradigms.
Or perhaps not, because if something characterizes the approach of these two authors is how they use masculinity as a foundation for their absurdist humour, which centres on a naïve, idealistic, chaste man. I’m getting in this way closer to what interests me here: chivalry, and its fictional expression, the romance.
This is where things get confusing because even though all readers understand that Cervantes is mocking the genre of the chivalric romance through Alonso Quijano’s addiction, hardly any of us is familiar with its texts. We may have heard of Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s quintessential Amadís de Gaula (written approx. 1304, earliest surviving print copy 1508); or, if you’re a young Catalan-speaking person, you may have been forced to ‘enjoy’ Tirant lo Blanch (Joanot Martorell and Martí Joan de Galba, 1490) in secondary school. In fact, the list of chivalric romances is quite extensive and the works hardly touched upon by Spanish Literature scholars (see https://www.cervantesvirtual.com/obra-visor/libros-de-caballerias-castellanos-textos-y-contextos/html/6220ef90-a0f6-11e1-b1fb-00163ebf5e63_3.html ). What we vaguely know is that Quijano, a fifty-year-old impoverished ‘hidalgo’, loses the ability to distinguish between the fiction of the chivalric romance and reality. I have no room here to unpack the amazingly charged word ‘hidalgo’ (= ‘somebody’s son’) for it means at the same time a nobleman man of the lowest rank and a man of chivalrous behaviour. Technically, Quijano is a knight –no wonder, then, he is confused.
A major source of his and our confusion has to do with the fact that knights did and did not exist –if this sounds like quantum physics, then maybe this is how we need to approach the matter. Working last year on an essay about Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Jedi Knights (see Foundation, 48.1, #132, 2019, 37-53), which connect in many ways with the Knights Templar, I came across a very singular text: Walter Scott’s “Essay on Chivalry” (1816). This is the man who wrote Ivanhoe (1819), the novel (or is it romance?) which re-invented both chivalric romance and the knight for the 19th century. I expected Scott to enthuse about the original Medieval knights but what I found instead was this (in reference, as you will get, to Courtly Love): “Extremes of every kind border on each other; and as the [religious] devotion of the knights of Chivalry degenerated into superstition, the Platonic refinements and subtleties of amorous passion which they professed, were sometimes compatible with very coarse and gross debauchery” (40). Scott goes on in this vein to express a fundamental idea: chivalry is, as Judith Butler would put it, a gendered performance, which aristocratic men engaged in to disguise the less savoury aspects of patriarchal masculinity. Since it was a fiction even in real life, chivalry had no problem to move into the heart of the romance and thus offer men (and women) and idealized version of patriarchal masculinity.
El Quijote does not deal, then, just with the conflicted experience of a man who cannot separate romance from reality but with the mental short-circuit he suffers as the last social descendant of the men who invented the ideal. Let me stress this: Cervantes is targeting not only a literary issue but also a gendered issue, deeply embedded in the construction of patriarchal masculinity.
Let’s see if I can clarify what I mean. Take Superman (created in 1938) and all the superhero comic book tradition, and try to imagine a man who very much enjoys it, while being perfectly aware that characters like these are ideals that have nothing to do with reality (but wouldn’t it be nice to have some superheroes around…?). Now take this man, today in 2019, mightily annoyed by the way the endless stream of superhero movies is perverting (in his opinion) the comic-book legacy. Next, suppose he writes a comic book series in which a guy believes himself to be a superhero and all kinds of ridiculous things happen to him… This comic-book writer would be apparently criticizing all superheroes, but he would be actually expressing a distaste with how the figure is handled in the worst-written stories.
This might well be how Cervantes was situated. Alfredo quotes American scholar Ruth El Saffar, according to whom “Romances obviously gave [Cervantes] pleasure”, though “His problem was to find a literary form that would preserve that pleasure in the fact of an active critical intelligence”. Yes and no. Whereas most obviously superheroes have no social equivalent and do not seem to generate any wish among men of actually acting like them (beyond wearing silly superhero outfits in fan conventions), Cervantes’s knight Alonso Quijano is indeed socially connected with the noblemen that inspired the invention of chivalry. He produces the same shock and hilarity that a man trying to behave like Superman would inspire, for everyone knows that knights and superheroes are invented –presumably, so does Quijano until he forgets. Yet, the difference is that while no Superman imitator comes from the stars, El Quijote does connect the with aristocratic classes.
What I’m arguing, then, is similar to what many others have argued –Quijano wants to regulate his behaviour by a chivalric code no longer extant in the Spain of his time– yet it is very different. Quijano breaks mentally down because the chivalric romances he consumes have provided him with an idealised model of patriarchal masculinity that he values highly but that he cannot realistically perform. This is not just his fault: his society apparently venerates the same chivalric ideal, though embodied by the ‘caballero’ (the gentleman) rather than the ‘caballero’ (the knight). Since, however, the transition to the ‘caballero’ was still incomplete in the Spain of his time, Quijano is befuddled, hence his madness. In a similar vein, a man behaving today as a ‘caballero’ to a woman (as Darcy behaves towards Elizabeth in the last part of the novel) would appear to be a Quixotic throwback. For which I’m personally very sorry.
I’m then displacing the narrative tension from the generic fictional models (romance vs. the novel) to the patriarchal idealization of masculinity (the Medieval knight vs. the modern gentle/man). Let me add two more ingredients to this heady mixture: class and age. Most obviously, if the foolish Quijano elicits our sympathy this is because of his class background. Even though, later on, the dangers of reading romances were connected with the uneducated, this still meant in the upper classes (women, and young men). In a sense, his passion for reading chivalric romances unmans Quijano, which is why he must re-masculinize himself by playing knight errant. But I digress: being too poor, Sancho is not a reader and, so, he has no chivalric masculine ideal to fulfil. Regarding age, although Fielding and all subsequent authors would turn their Quixotic characters into youths, Quijano is, as I have noted, a mature fifty-year-old. This is perhaps closer to seventy in contemporary terms but let me note that R.L. Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll is also split in two at the same age, thus showing that the tensions between inner and outer ways of understanding and performing masculinity take longer than we assume to manifest themselves.
The best proof I can offer that Cervantes deals in El Quijote essentially with the problematic performance of idealized patriarchal masculinity is that Charlotte Lennox called her very funny own version The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella (1752). Not the English Quixote, or the young Quixote but the female Quixote, thus implicitly showing that the Spanish one is, above all, the male one. This may seem far-fetched because we are used to reading everything concerning men as lacking any gender marks, but this is a perspective that needs to be altered. Now that we are seeing women’s football attracting big crowds, it’s about time to call the other kind men’s football. Same with Literature: El Quijote is a central work in men’s Literature and in the construction in fiction and in society of patriarchal masculinity.
On second thoughts, although the knight is a quintessential patriarchal figure (he always puts himself above those he aids), perhaps Quijano is at heart a dissident. By this I mean that by attempting to implement the outmoded, fictional chivalric code Quijano highlights the shortcomings of men’s actual behaviour. Just think of the contrast between the ideal, gentlemanly characters that James Stewart used to play, and the reality of President Donald Trump and you will get my drift. A man who insisted on behaving in real life like Stewart in the films would be both Quixotic and, indeed, radically anti-patriarchal in his own singular way. Wouldn’t Cervantes be surprised to read this?
Do enjoy Alfredo Moro Martín’s Transformaciones del Quijote en la novela inglesa y alemana and, of course, Cervantes’ most clever take on the masculinity of his time. Please read too Lennox’s delicious Female Quixote.
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