Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616) is widely considered to be the finest writer in the Spanish language. Many deem his Don Quixote (pt 1, 1605, pt 2, 1615) the first and greatest modern novel. Forced to leave Madrid after wounding a man in a duel, he moved to Rome to serve under Card. Giulio Aquaviva. He was seriously wounded while commanding a skiff in the Battle of Lepanto and ended up spending five years in captivity when taken hostage by Ottoman corsairs. After regaining his freedom, for years he struggled to make a living. A writer of plays and poetry, he is best remembered for his novels and short stories: La Galatea, Exemplary Stories, The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda, but above all, The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha.
In this interview, Prof. Michael J. McGrath will explain his pick of the best books on Cervantes and his work, and whether there is more spiritual depth than meets the eye to the escapades and musings of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
Michael J. McGrath is a Professor of Spanish at Georgia Southern University and a corresponding fellow of the San Quirce Royal Academy of History and Art in Segovia, Spain. His research focuses on early modern Spanish life and literature, with special emphasis on cultural studies, the comedia, Don Quixote, and intellectual history. He is the author of more than seventy publications, including Don Quixote and Catholicism: Rereading Cervantine Spiritualityand the first English translation of Spanish priest Ruy López's chess treatise from 1561 titled The Art of the Game of Chess.
What would you add to the preceding biographical sketch of Cervantes? For years, his Catholic faith has been discounted by many scholars. While they recognise it, they attribute his religious beliefs more to Christian humanism than traditional Catholicism. That is something I discuss in Don Quixote and Catholicism. I began to think more about Cervantes’s Catholicism when I was studying to be a permanent deacon. During the five-year formation program, one area of concentration was Ignatian spirituality. The life of St. Ignatius inspired me to rethink my understanding of Cervantes’s masterpiece.
As you have already mentioned, there is a certain theological and spiritual content to Cervantes's work. While he is not a preacher, but a writer, is there a deliberate theological or spiritual impetus? I think so, and that has been, for the most part, overlooked. Don Quixote is a satire. Cervantes's faith, however, is also prevalent throughout the novel. Américo Castro, one of Spain’s most influential literary critics, describes Cervantes as a skilled dissembler. In other words, the reader needs to read beyond the words and contemplate what Cervantes says between the lines. To appreciate Cervantes’s Catholicism, it is also necessary to learn about Cervantes’s life and understand how his upbringing and life experiences inform how he portrays his religious beliefs in his literature. This biographical information, for example, supports my contention that Cervantes was a devoted Catholic.
Cervantes, according to witnesses, lived “as a good Christian, zealous for God's good name, confessing and taking communion when Christians customarily do so; and if he occasionally had dealings with Moors and renegades, he always defended the Holy Catholic Faith, and he strengthened and inspired many not to become Moors or renegades."
By some accounts, Don Quixote is the most widely translated book after the Bible. Furthermore, many consider it to be not only the first but also the greatest modern novel. Would you agree with that assessment? Most definitely. Regardless of the class I teach, be it a first semester Spanish class or a graduate level class, I talk about Don Quixote. I ask the students, “Why is a book from early seventeenth-century Spain, published in two parts, in 1605 and 1615, the most widely translated book in the history of literature, apart from the Bible? Why are we talking about it here in the twenty-first century?” I want my students to discover why Don Quixote is a blueprint for humanity.
The first book you have chosen is Eric J. Ziolkowski’s The Sanctification of Don Quixote: From Hidalgo to Priest. Ziolkowski argues that a number of subsequent authors have drawn inspiration from Don Quixote and see him as embodying the condition of religious belief in modernity. Leading a religious life in modernity is a quixotic pursuit because one takes for granted that which society deems illusory. Ziolkowski analyses three novels that interpret and reelaborate Don Quixote in this way: Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, and Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote. What else can you tell us about this book? This is one of the first studies to examine the lineage of the character of Don Quixote. Ziolkowski lists several characteristics that Jesus Christ shares with the knight. For example, Christ “was alleged to be the blood of David”; Don Quixote “claimed to be descended from a king”. Christ “was called the ‘Galilean’ after his region’s name”; Don Quixote, “the Knight of La Mancha”. Jesus Christ “was born in a humble village which his birth raised from obscurity”; Don Quixote too “was of a humble village, which, through his name lives in the world's memory.” He makes this comparison, but he also points out that there are more than 160 quotations and paraphrases of the Old and New Testaments in the novel. Cervantes never denies God or his institutions, which is consistent with what Américo Castro wrote: Cervantes is a skilled dissembler who professed allegiance to Catholicism.
Ziolkowski also describes Don Quixote as a kenotic figure. St. Paul's description of the Incarnation in Philippians 2:7 talks about it as an emptying event. Christ is the suffering servant. Ziolkowski compares this kenotic figure to Don Quixote, whose many adventures humble the knight throughout the novel and culminate with his deathbed conversion.
Ziolkowski also notes the irony that many scholars interpret as Cervantes’s subversion of Catholicism. For example, in Chapter 6 of Part One, the priest and the barber decide whether the books in Don Quixote’s library are harmful to his mental state. The books they deem harmful are burned. Many scholars read this scene as a satire of the Inquisition’s burning of heretics. In another episode, Sancho places the same garb that the Inquisition’s convicts wear on his donkey. Ziolkowski notes that Cervantes does not criticise the Church or its dogma. If anything, he criticises its vehicles, such as the Inquisition.
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