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Miguel de Unamuno : For what did Don Quixote fight ?

Don Quixote et Sancho Panza

Honoré Daumier, 1866

Extract from :

Miguel de Unamuno

Tragic Sense of Life



This mortal Don Quixote died and descended into hell, which he entered lance on rest, and freed all the condemned, as he had freed the galley slaves, and he shut the gates of hell, and tore down the scroll that Dante saw there and replaced it by one on which was written "Long live hope !" and escorted by those whom he had freed, and they laughing at him, he went to heaven. And God laughed paternally at him, and this divine laughter filled his soul with eternal happiness.

And the other Don Quixote remained here amongst us, fighting with desperation. And does he not fight out of despair? How is it that among the words that English has borrowed from our language, such as siesta, camarilla, guerrilla, there is to be found this word desperdo ? Is not this inward Don Quixote that I spoke of, conscious of his own tragic comicness, a man of despair (desesperado). A desperado — yes, like Pizarro and like Loyola. But "despair is the master of impossibilities," as we learn from Salazar y Torres (Elegir al enemigo, Act I.), and it is despair and despair alone that begets heroic hope, absurd hope, mad hope. Spero quia absurdum, it ought to have been said, rather than credo.

And Don Quixote, who lived in solitude, sought more solitude still; he sought the solitudes of the Peña Pobre, in order that there, alone, without witnesses, he might give himself up to greater follies with which to assuage his soul. But he was not quite alone, for Sancho accompanied him — Sancho the good, Sancho the believing, Sancho the simple. If, as some say, in Spain Don Quixote is dead and Sancho lives, then we are saved, for Sancho, his master dead, will become a knight-errant himself. And at any rate he is waiting for some other mad knight to follow again.

And there is also a tragedy of Sancho. The other Sancho, the Sancho who journeyed with the mortal Don Quixote — it is not certain that he died, although some think that he died hopelessly mad, calling for his lance and believing in the truth of all those things which his dying and converted master had denounced and abominated as lies. But neither is it certain that the bachelor Sansón Carrasco, or the curate, or the barber, or the dukes and canons are dead, and it is with these that the heroical Sancho has to contend.

Don Quixote journeyed alone, alone with Sancho, alone with his solitude. And shall we not also journey alone, we his lovers, creating for ourselves a Quixotesque Spain which only exists in our imagination ?

And again we shall be asked : What has Don Quixote bequeathed to Kultur ? I answer: Quixotism, and that is no little thing ! It is a whole method, a whole epistemology, a whole esthetic, a whole logic, a whole ethic — above all, a whole religion — that is to say, a whole economy of things eternal and things divine, a whole hope in what is rationally absurd.

For what did Don Quixote fight ? For Dulcinea, for glory, for life, for survival. Not for Iseult, who is the eternal flesh; not for Beatrice, who is theology; not for Margaret, who is the people; not for Helen, who is culture. He fought for Dulcinea, and he won her, for he lives.

And the greatest thing about him was his having been mocked and vanquished, for it was in being overcome that he overcame; he overcame the world by giving the world cause to laugh at him.

And to-day ? To-day he feels his own comicness and the vanity of his endeavours so far as their temporal results are concerned; he sees himself from without — culture has taught him to objectify himself, to alienate himself from himself instead of entering into himself — and in seeing himself from without he laughs at himself, but with a bitter laughter. Perhaps the most tragic character would be that of a Margutte of the inner man, who, like the Margutte of Pulci, should die of laughter, but of laughter at himself. E riderá in eterno, he will laugh for all eternity, said the Angel Gabriel of Margutte. Do you not hear the laughter of God ?

The mortal Don Quixote, in dying, realized his own comicness and bewept his sins; but the immortal Quixote, realizing his own comicness, superimposes himself upon it and triumphs over it without renouncing it.

Honoré Daumier - Don Quichotte et Sancho Pansa

And Don Quixote does not surrender, because he is not a pessimist, and he fights on. He is not a pessimist, because pessimism is begotten by vanity, it is a matter of fashion, pure intellectual snobbism, and Don Quixote is neither vain nor modern with any sort of modernity (still less is he a modernist), and he does not understand the meaning of the word "snob" unless it be explained to him in old Christian Spanish.

Don Quixote is not a pessimist, for since he does not understand what is meant by the joie de vivre he does not understand its opposite. Neither does he understand futurist fooleries. In spite of Clavileño, he has not got as far as the aeroplane, which seems to tend to put not a few fools at a still greater distance from heaven. Don Quixote has not arrived at the age of the tedium of life, a condition that not infrequently takes the form of that topophobia so characteristic of many modern spirits, who pass their lives running at top speed from one place to another, not from any love of the place to which they are going, but from hatred of the place they are leaving behind, and so flying from all places : which is one of the forms of despair.

But Don Quixote hears his own laughter, he hears the divine laughter, and since he is not a pessimist, since he believes in life eternal, he has to fight, attacking the modern, scientific, inquisitorial orthodoxy in order to bring in a new and impossible Middle Age, dualistic, contradictory, passionate.

Like a new Savonarola, an Italian Quixote of the end of the fifteenth century, he fights against this Modern Age that began with Machiavelli and that will end comically. He fights against the rationalism inherited from the eighteenth century. Peace of mind, reconciliation between reason and faith — this, thanks to the providence of God, is no longer possible. The world must be as Don Quixote wishes it to be, and inns must be castles, and he will fight with it and will, to all appearances, be vanquished, but he will triumph by making himself ridiculous. And he will triumph by laughing at himself and making himself the object of his own laughter.

"Reason speaks and feeling bites" said Petrarch; but reason also bites and bites in the inmost heart. And more light does not make more warmth. "Light, light, more light !" they tell us that the dying Goethe cried. No, warmth, warmth, more warmth ! for we die of cold and not of darkness. It is not the night that kills, but the frost. We must liberate the enchanted princess and destroy the stage of Master Peter.

But God ! may there not be pedantry too in thinking ourselves the objects of mockery and in making Don Quixotes of ourselves ? Kierkegaard said that the regenerate (Opvakte) desire that the wicked world should mock at them for the better assurance of their own regeneracy, for the enjoyment of being able to bemoan the wickedness of the world.

The question is, how to avoid the one or the other pedantry, or the one or the other affectation, if the natural man is only a myth and we are all artificial.

Romanticism ! Yes, perhaps that is partly the word. And there is an advantage in its very lack of precision. Against romanticism the forces of rationalist and classicist pedantry, especially in France, have latterly been unchained. Romanticism itself is merely another form of pedantry, the pedantry of sentiment ? Perhaps. In this world a man of culture is either a dilettante or a pedant: you have to take your choice. Yes, René and Adolphe and Obermann and Lara, perhaps they were all pedants.... The question is to seek consolation in disconsolation.

The philosophy of Bergson, which is a spiritualist restoration, essentially mystical, medieval, Quixotesque, has been called a demi-mondaine philosophy. Leave out the demi; call it mondaine, mundane. Mundane — yes, a philosophy for the world and not for philosophers, just as chemistry ought to be not for chemists alone. The world desires illusion (mundus vult decipi) — either the illusion antecedent to reason, which is poetry, or the illusion subsequent to reason, which is religion. And Machiavelli has said that whosoever wishes to delude will always find someone willing to be deluded. Blessed are they who are easily befooled ! A Frenchman, Jules de Gaultier, said that it was the privilege of his countrymen n'être pas dupe — not to be taken in. A sorry privilege !

Daumier - Don Quixote reading, 1867

Science does not give Don Quixote what he demands of it. "Then let him not make the demand," it will be said, "let him resign himself, let him accept life and truth as they are." But he does not accept them as they are, and he asks for signs, urged thereto by Sancho, who stands by his side. And it is not that Don Quixote does not understand what those understand who talk thus to him, those who succeed in resigning themselves and accepting rational life and rational truth. No, it is that the needs of his heart are greater. Pedantry ? Who knows ! ...

And in this critical century, Don Quixote, who has also contaminated himself with criticism, has to attack his own self, the victim of intellectualism and of sentimentalism, and when he wishes to be most spontaneous he appears to be most affected. And he wishes, unhappy man, to rationalize the irrational and irrationalize the rational. And he sinks into the despair of the critical century whose two greatest victims were Nietzsche and Tolstoi. And through this despair he reaches the heroic fury of which Giordano Bruno spoke — that intellectual Don Quixote who escaped from the cloister — and becomes an awakener of sleeping souls (dormitantium animorum excubitor), as the ex-Dominican said of himself — he who wrote :

"Heroic love is the property of those superior natures who are called insane (insano) not because they do not know (no sanno), but because they over-know (soprasanno)."

But Bruno believed in the triumph of his doctrines; at any rate the inscription at the foot of his statue in the Campo dei Fiori, opposite the Vatican, states that it has been dedicated to him by the age which he had foretold (il secolo da lui divinato). But our Don Quixote, the inward, the immortal Don Quixote, conscious of his own comicness, does not believe that his doctrines will triumph in this world, because they are not of it. And it is better that they should not triumph. And if the world wished to make Don Quixote king, he would retire alone to the mountain, fleeing from the king-making and king-killing crowds, as Christ retired alone to the mountain when, after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, they sought to proclaim him king. He left the title of king for the inscription written over the Cross.

What, then, is the new mission of Don Quixote, to-day, in this world ? To cry aloud, to cry aloud in the wilderness. But though men hear not, the wilderness hears, and one day it will be transformed into a resounding forest, and this solitary voice that goes scattering over the wilderness like seed, will fructify into a gigantic cedar, which with its hundred thousand tongues will sing an eternal hosanna to the Lord of life and of death.

And now to you, the younger generation, bachelor Carrascos of a Europeanizing regenerationism, you who are working after the best European fashion, with scientific method and criticism, to you I say: Create wealth, create nationality, create art, create science, create ethics, above all create — or rather, translate — Kultur, and thus kill in yourselves both life and death. Little will it all last you!...

And with this I conclude — high time that I did ! — for the present at any rate, these essays on the tragic sense of life in men and in peoples, or at least in myself — who am a man — and in the soul of my people as it is reflected in mine.

I hope, reader, that some time while our tragedy is still playing, in some interval between the acts, we shall meet again. And we shall recognize one another. And forgive me if I have troubled you more than was needful and inevitable, more than I intended to do when I took up my pen proposing to distract you for a while from your distractions. And may God deny you peace, but give you glory !

SALAMANCA, In the year of grace 1912.

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