Ilan Stavans and William P. Childers
If any writer rivals Shakespeare as the quintessential American literary classic, it is Miguel de Cervantes. This is especially true if we acknowledge that “American” refers not only to the United States, but by rights to the Americas in the plural, a mostly Spanish-speaking part of the world. The neglect of Don Quixote’s impact on the literatures of our hemisphere parallels the English-only mentality which denies the pervasive infiltration of Latin American culture into Anglo America. Symbolically, no gesture expresses this better than Ilan Stavans’s translation of the first chapter of Don Quixote into Spanglish. As William P. Childers has written, “When I first saw it, I thought, ‘Yes! That’s exactly what we need! A Spanglish Quixote!’ It seemed to capture so perfectly the transnational whirl in which we read Cervantes’s masterpiece in the contemporary United States” (Transnational Cervantes, University of Toronto Press, 2006, p. 234). The dialogue between these two Cervantes enthusiasts took place in conjunction with the Frances Haidt Memorial Lecture, delivered at Tanger Auditorium by Ilan Stavans at Brooklyn College, Tuesday, April 1, 2014.
William P. Childers: In 2005, when Don Quixote turned 400, there were celebrations all over the world: colloquia, symposia, all sorts of commemorative events. A lot of the praise heaped on the book appeared aimed at encouraging reading in general, as if all the librarians and high school English teachers were leaping at the chance to say: Here’s a great classic, go read it! Or at least read something! Because reading is supposed to be good for you, like vitamins. This was even a theme of the PEN tribute at the New York Public Library with Salman Rushdie, Assia Djebar, Paul Auster, Margaret Atwood, and others. And so, ironically, the most famous fictional character to be driven insane by reading gets pressed into service as a mascot for reading. To talk about Don Quixote in the twenty-first century is surely to raise the question of whether and why this classic will continue to find readers.
Ilan Stavans: Is reading good for you? Well, not according to Don Quixote. Cervantes’s novel, as Carlos Fuentes emphasizes, is a critique of reading. But let’s reflect together on the definition of a classic. I have a few offerings for you. Mark Twain said that classics are books everyone knows but no one reads, which, as you just mentioned, is true of Don Quixote. Everyone knows who Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, and Dulcinea del Toboso are. They are also familiar with the episode of the windmills in Part I, Chapter VIII. This knowledge comes in popular culture through osmosis. Another definition states that classics are books we don’t read but reread, that is, their durability only starts after we close them for the first time. One more definition suggests that classics are books in which we meet other readers present, past, and future: in other words, a book that accumulates layers of interpretation, to the point where the interpretations might supersede, in length, the book’s actual size. A classic is also a book that chooses its readers and not the other way around, an eternal book. Yet the definition of classic I like the most states that a classic is a book capable of building a nation, maybe even a civilization. Again, it isn’t the nation that selects the book but the book that chooses the nation. Think of the Bible and the shaping of the people of Israel and, ultimately, of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim world. Think, in equal measure, of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Think of Leaves of Grass. Think of The Gaucho Martín Fierro. And, fittingly, think of Don Quixote. If it wasn’t for it, I don’t believe there would be a Hispanic Civilization, at least not the one built on the premises of the dialectic between hope and fatalism, of idealism and materialism.
WPC: The U.S., too, is a quixotic nation, right from its founding as an independent country. George Washington purchased a Quixote in Philadelphia on the very day he signed the Constitution. It was one of Jefferson’s favorites, as many references in his letters attest. Franklin owned a five-volume Spanish edition he prized as an outstanding example of the typographer’s art. It influenced most of our major writers, notably Irving, Melville, Twain, and Faulkner.
What particularly associates Don Quixote with the U.S.A. is that it came to be seen as a founding text of individualism. For the first time, the protagonist is an ordinary guy who imagines himself a hero, nostalgically identifying with the warriors of medieval romance. Through Alonso Quijano’s anachronistic attempt at reviving something old, Cervantes created a new literary type, the anti-hero who in his own mind, but only in his own mind, is a crusader knight on a quest, capable of changing the world by the force of his will. He left us with the conundrum of whether to laugh at or admire him.
A wide range of twentieth-century fictions in the U.S. explore this very contradiction. James Gatz’s reading of rags-to-riches dime novels leads him to transform himself into the enamored Jay Gatsby. His parties function like a knight’s heroic deeds; through them he hopes to win back Daisy, his Dulcinea. In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac’s Japhy Ryder is a counter-culture Quixote who dreams of a “rucksack revolution” that will replace postwar consumerism with an oppositional self fusing New England Transcendentalism and Zen Buddhism. Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog, a Jewish-American existentialist on a quest for authentic selfhood, insists that he is no Quixote, for this is the “post-quixotic U.S.A.” But Bellow seems to view this declaration ironically. Whether getting beyond Quixotism is desirable or not, it may not be possible.
IS: A classic is also a book on which everyone disagrees. Again, Don Quixote is the perfect example. There are close to twenty-five full-length translations of the novel into English. This is the first language into which it was rendered. Thomas Shelton rendered Part I into King James’s English shortly after the original was published in 1605, although he didn’t publish his version until 1612, three years before Cervantes released Part II. Each of these translations is a new interpretation, from the Elizabethans to the Victorians, from the Modernists to the post-Modernists. The narrative is a playing field of possibilities. It might be read as a parody of chivalric literature or as a psychiatric treatise. The Soviet Union championed it as an announcement of the triumph of the proletariat. Flaubert modeled Madame Bovary after it and Dostoyevsky used it as inspiration in The Idiot. Kafka thought Sancho begat Don Quixote and Nabokov argues it has a clumsy, astonishingly cruel plot.
The enthusiasm Don Quixote has received in the United States is inexhaustible, as you suggest. Mark Twain rewrote it in Huckleberry Finn. As you might remember, early on in the novel Tom Sawyer and his clan discuss it in the cave and want to model themselves after the knight and his squire. Faulkner claimed to reread it every year, “as some do the Bible,” which might be seen as a provocation to his fellow Mississippians. Individualism is the reason, yes, and so is exceptionalism, but people are also fascinated by what Broadway branded “the impossible dream.” After all, this is a nation, perhaps more than any other, of dreamers. I don’t believe the U.S. will ever become post-Quixotic, nor will the rest of the world. We’ll also always live with Cervantes’s novel, not before or after. I see a number of reasons. Among them is the fact that individualism and exceptionalism aren’t likely to be replaced by another set of values in this nation because they are too ingrained, too intrinsic to who we are. Also, the growing Latino demographic in the U.S. is Hispanicizing the country and Don Quixote, as I suggested before, is the banner, the constitution of Hispanic Civilization.
To return to Faulkner’s comparison with the Bible, Saint-Beauve believed Cervantes’s novel to be “the true Bible of humankind,” by which, in my view, he meant a kind of secular holy scripture, if such contradiction is conceivable.
WPC: Yes, in the U.S. Latinos’ privileged relation to Don Quixote converges with the impact of Cervantes on Anglo-American writers, adding another layer to its significance in this country. Initially, Chicano writers took Don Quixote as a symbol of resistance to Anglo cultural hegemony. I am thinking here of Daniel Venegas’s Adventures of Don Chipote or Ron Arias’s The Road to Tamazunchale. More recent Latino novelists have moved into the mainstream, and their approach to Don Quixote accordingly triangulates with U.S. classics. Ernesto Quiñonez in Bodega Dreams offers a more humorous, more overtly quixotic take on The Great Gatsby. Junot Díaz’s Oscar Wao is a ghetto nerd whose head is as full of Tolkein, sci fi graphic novels, and anime as Alonso Quijano’s was of chivalric romances. His posture toward women is chivalrous, but his obesity and introversion associate him unmistakably with another quixotic figure, Ignatius J. Reilly, of A Confederacy of Dunces. The language of Quiñonez’s and Díaz’s novels—colloquial English heavily laden with Spanish words and phrases—figuratively represents this convergence between Latin American and Anglo American recyclings of Don Quixote. Their Quixotes, like yours, speak Spanglish.
This is part of a larger pattern, which Timothy Reiss isolates as a “Quijote” paradigm. Reiss sees Spanish writers like Azorín and Unamuno using Don Quixote’s quest, deeply embedded as it is in the local landscape, as a way of comically distancing themselves from the failures of the past in order to start anew. What is so brilliant about Reiss’s essay, “Caribbean Knights,” is that he transposes this entire configuration to the Caribbean, using it to read the work of novelists across the region, writing in English, French, and Spanish (Against Autonomy, Stanford, 2002, pp. 360-404). Independently of Reiss, Montserrat Ginés showed how Southern writers’ appropriations of Cervantes followed a similar pattern, ironically evoking the Lost Cause of the Antebellum South (The Southern Inheritors of Don Quixote, Baton Rouge, 2000).
I see a Quixote paradigm playing out in various ethnic literatures in the U.S. To take another example, Jewish American literature’s roots in both Yiddish nineteenth-century fiction and Russian literature gave it a rich tradition of writing profoundly influenced by Cervantes, and that imprint can be felt in Singer’s stories of the shtetl. Don Quixote was one of the most popular books on the Lower East Side of Manhattan around 1900! Then Bellow transformed the schlemiel of Travels of Benjamin the Third and Dostoyevsky’s holy fool Myshkin into quintessentially North American characters like Augie March and Moses Herzog, creating a mainstream type of Jewish American literature that jettisoned the baggage of the Eastern European past. The literary space he opened up allowed Philip Roth to become a chronicler of life in the U.S. in last decades of the twentieth-century, an American writer whose Jewishness in no way separates him from the cultural mainstream.
IS: I thank you for the connection you’ve made with Jewish literature, and particularly with Yiddish. Sh. Y. Abramovitch, the acknowledged “grandfather” of Yiddish novels who in the nineteenth century consciously switched from Hebrew into Yiddish to reach a larger audience, was a confessed Don Quixote fan. Proof of it is Travels of Benjamin the Third, a rewriting of Cervantes’s novel in the context of Eastern European lumpen Jewish life. His colleague Sholem Aleichem, a humorist known as the Mark Twain of Yiddish, talked of Cervantes as an influence in the making of Tevye the Dairyman, on which the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof is based. Tevye is an all-time favorite character for American Jews, meaning that through him they celebrated Don Quxiote’s resilience. But in my eyes the most Quixotic of all types in Yiddish literature is Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Gimpel, the protagonist of the story “Gimpel the Fool,” translated into English by Saul Bellow. His translation, published in Partisan Review, became a benchmark in Jewish-American literature, introducing Singer as a link between New York and “the world that is no more” because of the Nazis. Gimpel is bullied by everyone in his shtetl, especially his wife, yet his integrity remains intact. He isn’t only a dreamer but a moralist, as is Don Quixote.
As for Jewish-American letters per se, aside from the comment you made to Bellow’s Herzog, I would add the folks created by Bernard Malamud, dreamers who are constantly tasting failure in their quest to assimilate to the American Dream. There is also something Quixotic in Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep: the boy that serves as center of gravity in the narrative is . . . what? Naïve, idealistic, even foolish? As an aside, I would say that Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is Cervantean in its carnivalesque style.
WPC: There’s even a Chinese-American Quixote, which functions in much the same way as the Latino and Jewish-American ones. Maxine Hong Kingston’s 1989 novel Tripmaster Monkey uses a quixotic reader-creator named Wittman Ah Sing to fuse the Chinese and American traditions, integrating the great folk classic Journey to the West with Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac.
Cervantes serves as a broker in negotiations of cultural identity partly because his novel is shared by so many literary traditions, but also because thematically it seems to be about the forging of a new identity based on the impossibility, in a modernizing society, of hanging onto a traditional, agrarian set of values. Don Quixote himself does not see that in attempting to revive chivalry by virtue of his own will as an individual he is really acting as a modern person, in accordance with an emerging set of values entirely antithetical to feudalism. In this sense, I would say that Don Quixote is not so much a universal classic as a situational one, capable of adapting its meaning to any community’s transition from traditionalism to modern individualism.
The Spanglish Quixote is only the beginning. We need to conceptualize a polyglot one, a figure for a new understanding of the melting pot, in which groups adopt U.S. individualism, while still bearing the traces of their distinct heritage, “where they came from.”
IS: I find fitting the way Quixotic is used in almost every language. There are, mind you, very few characters whose name has been turned into an adjective: Oedipal is one but there aren’t many. Thinking of Shakespeare, we don’t say Hamletian or Shylockian, although Falstaffian does exist. Of course, the reverse happens with author’s names: Cervantean and Shakespearean are only the first of a long list that includes Kafkaesque, Borgesian, Nabokovian, and so on. Google Quixotic and you’ll see the adjective attached to the most disparate people: Jack Kevorkian, aka Doctor Death, Steve Jobs, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, et al. In the United States, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin are seen as Quixotic and so are Ralph Nader and Barack Obama. Lewis and Clark were Quixotic too, Alexander Graham Bell, Christopher McCandless, the author of Into the Wild, maybe even Lance Armstrong. And, perhaps above all, is Abraham Lincoln. How else could he have accomplished his task of abolishing slavery if not by being a dreamer? We could put together a gallery of political cartoons of American presidents. My guess is that at some point just about every one has been depicted as Quixotic. That is, if a Spaniard had not written the novel, I’m sure an American would have, such is its chemistry.
I mentioned earlier the English translations available. Up until the mid-twentieth century, they were all by British men. In my view, Samuel Putnam’s is among the best. Edith Grossman’s 2003 rendition is amazingly hip because it dresses Don Quixote in contemporary attire. As you know, there are two strategies available when translating a classic. In the case of Cervantes’s novel, either you bring it from the seventeenth century to the present, as Grossman does, or you bring today’s reader to 1615. My friend Andrew Hurley once produced a version of Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas’s A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies without inserting a single English word incorporated into the language after 1552, when the original appeared.
There is plenty of plagiarizing going on among Cervantes’s translators. In a cultural history of Don Quixote I’m completing, I compare the episode of the lions (Part II, Chapter XVII) in several English translations. You would be surprised by the similarities as well as by the differences. Curiously, among the most polemical of all English translations of Don Quixote is the one produced by the British novelist Tobias Smollett (Adventures of Roderick Random), published in 1755. It is considered a hoax because, by all accounts, Smollett didn’t speak a word of Spanish. One of the legends is that, with his approval, his publisher hired an army of translators, then released a collated manuscript under his name in order to capitalize on his fame.
WPC: It’s been shown pretty conclusively that he plagiarized Jarvis’s translation as his starting point. But that hoax is just part and parcel of the competition among publishers looking to corner the market. Haven’t you noticed that translations tend to appear in batches of three or four? This latest batch is the biggest yet, six complete translations in the last twenty years by my count, though it is getting hard to keep track. It looks like Grossman’s has won. This success is due at least in part to her reputation as a translator of García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and Álvaro Mutis, which is very interesting, a testament to the role of the Latin American Boom in renewing interest in Spanish classics among English-language readers. Her Quixote avoids anglicizing Spanish names and keeps in a lot of terms like maravedí, arroba, and fanega. It’s mildly Spanglish, like Quiñonez’s and Díaz’s prose.
IS: Intriguingly, Vargas Llosa, who as a critic delves into almost everything and is a devoted reader of Amadís de Gaula, seldom talks about Don Quixote. García Márquez, who became a writer in large part thanks to The Arabian Nights, hardly talked about Cervantes’s novel and neither did Mutis. Cortázar is another example of this—what? Apathy? Of course, Borges’s obsession—and ours—for the novel more than compensates this ninguneo. There is “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” of course, but also the essay ”Partial Magic of the Quixote,” his poems on Cervantes and Don Quixote, his meticulous study of the book’s first line as well as of the last chapter, his countless references to the narrative in lectures, conversations, and interviews, and so on. Paul Groussac, who was also director of Argentina’s Biblioteca Nacional between 1885 and 1929—significant years, by the way—, instilled in Borges this devotion.
I find it intriguing how Shakespeare’s English has developed over the last four hundred years in contrast with Cervantes’s Spanish. Needless to say, they were contemporaries. They even died the same year, 1616, and for a while it was thought it was the exact same day, but Cervantes died on April 22 (born in 1547) and Shakespeare (born in 1564) on April 23.
WPC: In fact, their deaths were about ten days apart; it would have been May 3 or so in Spain when Shakespeare died. England was still using the Julian calendar then, while Spain had adopted the Gregorian one. Shakespeare’s birthday is celebrated on April 23, though the exact date of his birth is unknown. April 23 is commemorated now as “the day of the book” for both of them, though neither really died nor was born on that day according to the calendar we use now. The U.N. website explains “World Book and Copyright Day” in these terms: “23 April is a symbolic date for world literature. It is on this date in 1616 that Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega all died. It is also the date of birth or death of other prominent authors, such as Maurice Druon, Haldor K. Laxness, Vladimir Nabokov, Josep Pla, and Manuel Mejía Vallejo.” Ironically, Russia was still on the Julian calendar when Nabokov was born there on April 10, 1899. As he explains in Speak, Memory, that was really April 22 in Western Europe, but he preferred April 23 so he could share a birthday with Shakespeare and Shirley Temple!
IS: Ay, the arbitrariness of dates. In any case, it is harder for an English-language native to read Shakespeare today than it is for a Spanish-language native to read Cervantes. In other words, English appears to have changed more drastically, even though the two languages are still fairly recognizable.
Why does one language change faster than another? Because the social circumstances are different. Hebrew almost didn’t change from the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE until the early twentieth century, when Zionism embraced it as a nationalistic conduit. Today Hebrew is almost as flexible as English. Spanish has changed enormously, among other reasons because it was the language of empire. The fact that 450 million people use it every day in the Americas is mind-boggling. Even more mesmerizing is the way each of the national Spanishes on this side of the Atlantic incorporates countless localisms, yet we still use the same language across Hispanic civilization. George Bernard Shaw believed that England and the United States are separated by a common language. The same might be said of Spain and its former colonies. In contrast, English was also a language of empire, except that, unlike Spanish, it is now the lingua franca of business, advertising, and education, which puts added pressure on it.
Here is yet another definition of a classic: a book capable of freezing language. Thanks to The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last play, we are able to see the way Elizabethans used the tongue. Likewise with Don Quixote, which showcases how Spanish was used during the reign of Philip II.
WPC: Yes, and this freezing effect is part of the basis for its current accessibility. Don Quixote was a widely-read text during the period when a standardized Spanish was being consolidated. But it was a condition of possibility for that function that Cervantes’s prose, though elegant, is straightforward and plain-sounding compared to overtly baroque writers like Quevedo and Gracián. So it remains relatively accessible to Hispanophone readers today.
IS: I’m not sure Don Quixote is always elegant. But you’re right. Somehow Cervantes was simultaneously a baroque writer and an incredibly accessible one, at least in his magnum opus.
The same might be said of the varieties of Spanish today. Compare Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers, with its gorgeous Cuban Spanish, to Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral, with the Peruvian Spanish of the Odría period. Imagine, then, a Mexican Quixote today, as well as an Argentine. Our Spanish language is plentiful and so is English when used by Indians, Australians, Canadians, Americans, and non-native English speakers in say Shanghai, Jakarta, and Bangladesh. You talked earlier of Don Quixote not as universal book but as a situational one. I’m not sure these two terms aren’t synonymous: to achieve universality, you need to be emphatically local. The Spanish language we employ now is at once universal and particular, i.e., situational.
Let’s take this even further. Could we imagine an adaptation of Don Quixote into Mexican Spanish, say the one used in the barrio of Tepito? Or how about an adaptation into Lunfardo or Cocoliche?
WPC: Adaptation takes place whenever the text Cervantes wrote is read, especially when passages are read out loud; and when it is cannibalized in local storytelling practice. Each Latin American country or region has its own literature, written in the variety of Spanish they have created, but Don Quixote is a unifying factor belonging equally to all. In “El buscapié,” his preface to Chapters Cervantes Forgot (1895), Juan Montalvo discusses at length the outrageous errors in nineteenth-century Spanish Peninsular prose. It’s a kind of linguistic “Declaration of Independence,” proclaiming Spain unworthy of preserving the Cervantean tradition, which Montalvo claims has a worthier home in Latin America. When I asked novelist-cum-psychology professor Genaro González about the title for The Quixote Cult, his novel of the Chicano movement in Texas, he said he was going to call it The Quixotic Cult but chose “Quixote” because “it sounds Mexican.” He was obviously thinking of all the words ending in -ote that come from Nahuatl and originally ended with –tl: guajolote, papalote, elote, etc. That “Quixote” has this ending is just a coincidence, but González’s comment is indicative of an intimate feeling about Cervantes’s masterpiece; it’s a classic that Mexicans feel is Mexican. We could never say the same about Shakespeare, his language is too “foreign” to the American ear. We make him our own less by adapting his language than by staging his plays in new settings: the Old West, a Wall Street brokerage firm, etc.
IS: Classics, for sure, can be felt personal. But I’m going further. The Spanish of Tepito is to such extent idiosyncratic (some novelists of the 1960s attempted to capture it) that it would require a translation into standard Spanish. And Cocoliche is even more removed from standard Spanish. In any case, isn’t it intriguing that Shakespeare is regularly “translated” into contemporary English, whatever the word contemporary might mean, whereas Don Quixote is seldom modernized in the same fashion? My explanation is that the Hispanic world tends to be far more reverential toward its classics than its English counterpart.
I rendered the first chapter of Don Quixote into Spanglish because I dreamed of Latinos having our own version. After all, every translation is an appropriation, a way of situating—to use your terminology—the classic in a particular time and space. I’ve recounted the origin of that translation a thousand times. Let me only say now that at first it was meant for a handful of friends. But I did give it to an editor of La Vanguardia in Barcelona to publish it. As you know, the reaction was . . . well, fast and furious: for some I am a villain, for others a hero. That happened a decade ago. Now I’ve finished Part I and am in the final stretch of Part II.
WPC: Wait a minute . . . you are really translating the whole thing? I have to admit I always considered the Spanglish “translation” you did of the first chapter as a brilliant joke, a provocation to the language purists. An ingenious publicity stunt in favor of the “new American language” you advocate. I never thought you would follow through and translate the whole thing!
IS: I myself had doubts. I did it when I realized my epitaph might be in Spanglish, so I might as well go all the way through.
WPC: It’s a pioneering effort, attempting to endow Spanglish with expressive possibilities it does not yet have, making up neologisms and borrowings no one has ever used in the almost exclusively oral practice of Spanglish. In that sense it could be compared to Boscan’s 1534 translation of Il Cortegiano, credited with greatly amplifying the range of meanings that could be articulated in Spanish prose. I am looking forward to seeing it in print! I can’t imagine anyone reading it cover-to-cover instead of the Spanish original or an English translation, but a lot of people, myself included, will leaf through it, checking to see how you rendered some of their favorite parts.
IS: That alone is flattering! Remember Twain’s dictum: a classic is a book everyone knows but no one reads.
WPC: I don’t personally expect Spanglish to ever become a language in the full sense. The circumstances are so different now than when Yiddish evolved, or the new languages created by colonialism, like Haitian Creole. Now there is compulsory public education in standard versions of established languages, and which languages can be used for instruction is regulated by national and local governments. I tend to think that this institutional reality, supported by both State power and by the economic interests of parents who want to ensure their children learn the dominant version of English (and hopefully Spanish as well), will prevent Spanglish from becoming more than a practice of what Assia Djebbar calls the entre-deux-langues, the in-between of two languages. It’s a colonial situation, really, and I suppose it’s for that reason, despite how impractical it seems, that I have always applauded your advocacy of Spanglish. But if I am right about its prospects, that would leave your effort stranded, a quixotic project in its own right.
IS: In spite of the countless questions I get from journalists, I’ve always been careful not to predict the future. Just like everyone else, I don’t know where Spanglish is going, just as I don’t know how Spanish, English, and Hebrew—to stick to the three languages I’ve been meditating on—are likely to shape. History is ruled by serendipity and so is language. Think of Eliezer ben Yehuda, who helped bring Hebrew back from the dead, turning it into a modern language in Israel. Was he crazy? No doubt. Or better, he was Quixotic. He succeeded by putting together a lexicon, a pedagogical campaign that had teachers as evangelizers, and a newspaper. Spanglish, needless to say, is far from Hebrew. For one thing, it doesn’t have an ideology to push it forward, at least not yet. In any event, I didn’t translate Don Quixote into Spanglish for the future, I translated it for the present. When reporters ask me if Spanglish will define the future, my response is always the same: it already defines the present.
WPC: What worries me more than the status of Spanglish is the position of Spanish as a written language in the United States. Its future as a spoken language seems assured, but I abhor the fact that so many children of immigrants grow up here speaking Spanish without receiving instruction in how to read and write it. In my view, literacy in one’s native language should be considered a basic human right, guaranteed as part of the cultural rights in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of 1948. That’s one of the reasons I defend Don Quixote as a U.S. classic on a par with Shakespeare: to promote Spanish as a literary language with the same prestige value as English. Among the white middle class in the U.S. there is a disgraceful preconception of Spanish (and Spanglish, alas!) as a language for talking to underlings: nannies, busboys, and other service workers, both here and in Cancún or Punta Cana. And this is reinforced by the media, to a shameful degree. I think it is vitally important to insist on the high cultural value of the Spanish language, the beauty of its poetry, the importance of its original contributions to thought and creative expression. I suppose I too am trying to use Don Quixote as a sort of mascot.
IS: Good luck! I know the drill . . .
WPC: Well, as people read less in general—and it’s hard to deny there is a decline in reading—the status of works like Don Quixote may actually be augmented. I notice this attitude already among students and non-academic friends: if they are going to read a book, they want it to be important, influential, a book referred to by a lot of other books. So in a diminishing pool of readers, the classics not only retain their cultural capital, but actually increase their market share.
IS: Reading, in spite of the grandiose dreams of democracy and capitalism, has always been an exclusive, elitist affair. It is for the few, not for the many. Plus, people are not really reading less today. Actually, it’s the other way around.
WPC: Just differently?
IS: Texts, Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, the Internet. . . . Yes, people aren’t reading what you want, but why should they? (By the way, I wrote reading but might as well spelled it readying and re-dying.)
Truth is, we’re at a crossroads, moving from an alphabetic culture to an iconic one, that is, from letters to icons. And the book, as a conduit to transmit information, is dying, replaced by graphic narratives, from movies to video games. Is this mutation inevitable? Sure. Do I like this mutation? No one cares. Change, we know, is the only constant in the universe. The important thing is to adapt. Don Quixote will survive among a small cadre of readers. Meanwhile, most people will go on ignoring it, getting its essence from popular culture. This, by the way, isn’t too different from our current situation. Frankly, do I want everyone to read Don Quixote? No, I don’t. As I suggested before, a classic selects its own readers.
WPC: Oh, I definitely want everyone to read Don Quixote! In a consumer culture, where we are defined by which breakfast cereal we eat, those who don’t read Don Quixote are doomed to be Don Quixote, with a ridiculously exaggerated feeling of their own significance. You know, the new Common Core State Standards only specify one author all high school students in the U.S. must read: Shakespeare, of course. You bet I would put Cervantes right up there alongside the Bard, though it’s such a long book, few will read it in its entirety. At least everyone should read the first two hundred pages or so, up the Sierra Morena chapters.
IS: There is nothing inevitable in its size. Do people not read the whole Bible? The Hebrew Bible has five major books plus numerous others about prophets, as well as the Book of Ecclesiastes, the Book of Job, the Book of Esther, and so on. As for the New Testament, aside from the four gospels there are numerous epistles, the Acts of the Apostles, the Book of Revelation, etc. Does anyone look at how long it is?
You will certainly say that the Bible is a religious engine. But isn’t there something religious in Don Quixote as well? Think of Quixotism, the philosophy used by Spanish thinkers to deny the Spanish loss of empire. At its core is faith, or lack of it.
Every other year, I teach a course on Don Quixote. The entire semester is devoted to a Talmudic reading of the novel: word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, chapter by chapter. Everyone has to read the entire novel. Furthermore, to get a grade each of the students—I generally have around twenty-five—must memorize two complete pages and recite them in class. Along the way, the class gets all sorts of tools to enter it: we discuss the Bible, the Odyssey, the Divine Comedy, Hamlet, The Metamorphosis, Lolita, and “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” In other words, I agree with Isaac Babel: to be serious, one must not only read everything but remember it, too.
WPC: So once they sign up for your class, they’re a captive audience—you force them read it all! They must know what they are getting into, though.
IS: It’s a tragedy to assign—that is, to compel—them to read it. We suck the air out of it! Pleasure never comes from compulsion.
WPC: Plenty of students confess on Twitter that they are killing time when they are supposed to be reading Don Quixote or some other classic. They should enjoy it, it’s a funny book! But treating it as a sacred cow has a deadening effect. Even so, assigning them to read it is the lesser of two evils, because unless they are compelled, most just won’t. When Philip Roth retired from writing in 2012, he said people aren’t going to read novels in the future; the battle with the screens has been lost. I hope he’s wrong. In fact, it’s our job as professors to ensure that doesn’t happen.
IS: No, Bill: our job as professor is not to ensure that novels are read. Our role is simply to find pleasure in them, even—and especially—if the number of readers is a small cabal. Maybe the pleasure will be contagious.
WPC: Of course, for everyone else, there will continue to be TV and film versions of Don Quixote for large and small screens, and graphic novels. Tilting at windmills is a constant reference point on Facebook. Any shape made of any material can find its way into an Instagram with the caption “Don Quixote” if it vaguely resembling a man on horseback—the other day I saw one made of foil chocolate wrappers. Cervantes was the first to recognize this iconicity of his characters, with moments of ekphrasis describing imaginary illustrations in Cide Hamete’s manuscript of “Sancho Zancas” and the fight with the Basque (Part I, Chapter 9). He wouldn’t object to the fact that people come to it now indirectly, through adaptations in movies, television, comic-book versions, etc.
IS: It’s time we got over our foolish idea of purity in culture. Cervantes is the father of impurity.
WPC: Yet these popular adaptations are distortions. One of the most popular “quotes” from Cervantes on the internet is, “Too much sanity may be madness—and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be.” But that’s from Dale Wasserman’s Man of La Mancha! His adaptation to the stage sacrifices too much of the ambiguity of the original, promoting Romantic idealism with too little irony—even to the point of endorsing the very chivalry Cervantes “smiled away” in the original. In the end, Wasserman regretted having come up with the phrase “the impossible dream.”
IS: The original is always distorted, even when we are exposed to it directly.
WPC: OK, sure. It was James M. Cain who said, when asked what he thought of what Hollywood had done with Double Indemnity, “They haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf. They paid me and that’s the end of it.” And the pay-off for Cervantes is that every re-cycling and re-hashing of his book just adds to its prestige, extending the long shadow of the knight and his squire across our cultural landscape. For anyone who wants to read it, Don Quixote is still there.
IS: Cervantes’s novel is itself a re-hash, a copy of a copy. We must thank Fernández de Avellaneda, who published a spurious Second Part (I think of him, in Borgesian terms, as “el impostor inverosímil”), for pushing him to finally complete his task shortly before death
WPC: As compared with reading, though, other forms of spectatorship don’t develop interiority to the same extent as processing a sustained verbal narrative. Proportionally fewer people are habitual readers now than in the Golden Age of reading in the late nineteenth century, when compulsory education was raising literacy levels, radio and cinema had not been invented, and more people read novels than at any time before or since. The fact that people get more of their culture from TV, movies, radio, internet blogs, social media, etc. has consequences. I don’t care if they read them on screens or pages, but it matters that young people experience a few serious novels before they finish college. It’s the genre that gave us our sense of the modern subjectivity—which is neither innate nor God-given, and can’t be arrived at by deciding hundreds of times per day what to “like” on Facebook. Hand-wringing aside, I can’t entirely agree that it doesn’t matter whether people read books, by which I specifically mean novels. It’s true that it’s not enough just to assign them. We have to motivate our students to want to read them.
IS: Again, literature, whether we want it or not, is for a small club.
WPC: I can’t settle for that, Ilan. You were right earlier, when you said individualism is too deeply ingrained in this society to be dislodged. But reading Don Quixote or any of the other novels we’ve talked about exposes the fact that a nation of individuals is an oxymoron. If the one shared element of our social world is to be the high value we place on each unique person, we had better cultivate that individuality, not let it shrivel down to the choice of which brand of deodorant to buy. I’m concerned about the impact of consumerism and social media on subjectivity, that story we tell ourselves inside our heads about who we are and the shape of our lives. If the unexamined life is not worth living, then not providing the tools for self examination condemns a lot of people’s lives. But constructing a coherent narrative and a stable identity has gotten harder—maybe it’s not even the goal anymore. So in the end I am in the librarians’ camp after all!
IS: Does Cervantes really keep a coherent narrative? The arc of his storyline is straightforward but the anecdotes multiply to exhaustion. And the style is frequently careless, not to say verbose. And then come all the typos and careless mistakes, such as the mysterious disappearance of Sancho’s donkey, which Cervantes foolishly tries to explain in Part II. Needless to say, classics aren’t perfect. Do you know how many colors Flaubert uses to describe Emma Bovary’s eyes? My own opinion is that One Hundred Years of Solitude, the other quintessential Spanish-language novel, is superior. If Don Quixote is the first modern novel, García Márquez’s is the best.
WPC: Cervantes lets his pen go; it’s true he multiplies subplots and minor incidents and refuses to worry about consistency. This is even more exaggerated in the posthumous Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda, by the way, which due to shortening attention spans might find a new readership in the twenty-first century. Though subjectivity has a different rhythm now, the isolated individual is still quixotic. If anything, people are more seduced than ever by delusions of grandeur, fantasies of being rich and famous. There is a need for ironic distance from the sense of self-importance, and I will go out on a limb and say fiction provides the fullest debunking of the solipsistic tendency endemic to modern subjectivity. Of course, reading Cervantes does not save us from having a little Quixote inside us, hyperbolically magnifying our daily struggles. But it gives us the leverage of irony. At least we are aware of it, and can laugh at that part of ourselves. “The unexamined life is not worth laughing at” could be the motto for twenty-first-century readers of Cervantes.
IS: A life not laughed at isn’t worth living.