Don Quixote: Eternity and Death

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that “the madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”1 In Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes presents a plethora of madmen of nearly every vocation and class, from priests and dukes to barbers and shepherds. All of these characters live in a world where the ordinary reigns supreme. In this ordinary world of the utterly realistic, time becomes a source of decay and death, an ever-present reminder of impending doom. The one sane man in the novel is Don Quixote, regarded by all of the others as a madman, who, through his embrace of the mystery of the world around him, is able to transform time from a sequence of events and inevitabilities into an eternal present which creates a self-renewing repository of surprise.

Don Quixote is separated from his contemporaries by his epistemology and his historiography, two elements of his worldview which are quite closely connected and which form the foundation for the rest. For Don Quixote, history is no mere reliquary filled with dry, old bones. It is, instead, a living reality. The stories of chivalry, courtly love, and knightly adventure are not records of a distant past, but invitations into a fuller experience of the present.

Before beginning his adventures, Don Quixote takes out his great-great-grandfather’s old suit of armor, which, “being mouldy and rust-eaten, had lain by, many long years, forgotten in a corner.”2 He cleans and restores this, preparing it for use as his own armor. In this action, Don Quixote takes an initial step toward redeeming the past from the decay brought on by ordinary time. In this act of redemption and transcendence, Don Quixote has brought two periods of time into confluence and thereby brought time and eternity closer together. In his Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains that “God has no history. He is too completely and utterly real to have one. For, of course, to have a history means losing part of your reality (because it has already slipped away into the past) and not yet having another part (because it is still in the future).”3 God, according to Lewis, experiences time as an eternal now. Don Quixote, in salvaging the armor of his ancestor, has moved closer to a God’s-eye view of the cosmos and therefore closer to reality.

Don Quixote’s choice to adopt this God’s-eye view of time is also exhibited in his choice to become a knight-errant, a knight who travels about searching for adventure. This wandering life is a perfect embodiment of Don Quixote’s perception of time. For him, time is not linear but, in a sense, simultaneous. A pictographic representation of time for Don Quixote would not be a straight line but a scribble in which the line intersects itself at nearly every point.

This historiography leads Don Quixote to adopt an epistemology which refuses to accept the merely directly empirical as the sum total. For Don Quixote, there is always a deeper reality behind that which can be immediately observed. One of Don Quixote’s earliest adventures, for instance, pits him against a troop of giants disguised as windmills. Sancho, Don Quixote’s simpleminded squire, is unable to see past the immediately observable and peer deeper into the secrets hidden behind the apparent. For Sancho, the windmills are simply windmills. Don Quixote, however, is able to see past the apparent and stand in a world where the enormity of an other can still evoke awe. As an exasperated Don Quixote flippantly informs Sancho, “one may easily see … that you are not versed in the business of adventures.”4

Throughout the novel, Don Quixote is able to consistently maintain his devotion to his special insights about time and the world in spite of the persistent attempts of the novel’s many characters to drag him back into the ordinary through reason, deception, and mockery. Though Don Quixote is frequently shown to by his enemies and their schemes to be a less than entirely perfect knight, his resistance to their frequent assaults on his worldview is proof of his true heroism. A famous saying attributed to St. Anthony the Great, one of the founders of Christian monasticism, is the claim that “a time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.’”5 Grace M. Jantzen’s explanation of this saying is illuminating:

If sanity is defined by the conventions and expectations of a society preoccupied with defeating mortality first by securing their own welfare in food and material possessions and then by procreation and establishing households and families that would continue after they were gone, then those who defied these conventions – despised greed, renounced violence, defied death – were mad.6

In his preface to his English translation of Don Quixote, John Ormsby identifies the vocation of a knight-errant as “to right wrongs, redress injuries, and succour the distressed.”7 To put such a vocation into practice, says Ormsby, the knight-errant must “cast fear aside.” In other words, Don Quixote has chosen to defy conventions, to despise greed, to renounce violence (that is, the use of force against others for one’s own gain), and to defy death. Significantly, Ormsby asserts of Don Quixote that “it is his madness [which] makes him virtuous.”8

It is only when he is finally defeated by the Knight of the White Moon and must renounce the life of a knight-errant that he begins to lose faith in his insight. At first, he attempts to hang on to his view of time as an eternal now. He proposes that he and Sancho adopt the pastoral life, telling his squire, “we will range the mountains, the woods and meadows, singing here, and complaining there.”9 Through their exploits as shepherds, Don Quixote assures Sancho, “we shall make ourselves famous and immortal, not only in the present, but in future ages.”10 This tenuous grasp on eternity, however, inevitably slips away and Don Quixote plunges headlong into the ordinary.

In the ordinary, Don Quixote’s immediate experience is like that of the young Siddhartha Gautama on his famous journey outside of his pleasure-palace. Don Quixote falls sick, experiences the decay of old age, and, finally, dies. The difference between Don Quixote and the Buddha, however, highlights what makes Don Quixote significant. Siddhartha’s timelessness was an attempt to rise above time by hiding from it, a project doomed to failure. Don Quixote’s timelessness, however, was an embrace of time. By gathering all of time into one embrace, Don Quixote had transcended time by entering into all of it simultaneously. He, like God, had no particular location in time because he was present in all of it at once. In other words, the difference between Siddhartha’s timelessness and Don Quixote’s timelessness is synonymous with the difference between the Buddhist idea of eternity as perpetual stagnation and the Christian belief in an eternity that is dynamic in its continual growth, newness, and surprise. To fall from this dynamic eternality into the ordinary is to fall into the inevitability of death as a final end rather than death as the great commencement of a new beginning.

1 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane Company, 1908), 32.
2 Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part 1, Chapter 1.
3 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001), 169-170.
4 Cervantes, Part I, Chapter 8.
5 Anthony the Great, quoted in Grace M. Jantzen, “Touching (in) the Desert: Who Goes There?,” in Yvonne Sherwood and Kevin Hart, eds., Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments (New York: Routledge, 2005), 387.
6 Jantzen, 387.
7 John Ormsby, “Don Quixote – Ormsby; English Translation,” http://cervantes.tamu.edu/english/ctxt/DonQ-JohnOrmsby/DonQ-JohnOrmsby.html (accessed 5 November 2013).
8 Ibid.
9 Cervantes, Part II, Chapter 67.
10 Ibid.