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ArribaAbajoTurns of Enchantment: Imagining the Real in Don Quixote

Inés Azar

George Washington University

En este trabajo cuestiono el binarismo con el que solemos oponer, como incompatibles, la «poesía» del proyecto quijotesco y la «prosa» del mundo. El laborioso proceso de creación del nombre Rocinante constituye la formulación más temprana y explícita de la práctica poética de Don Quijote. Esa práctica revela una suerte de chapucería mágica en la que la construcción caballeresca no excluye la prosa de lo real sino que, al contrario, la incorpora como su punto de partida y su materia prima. La empresa quijotesca consiste precisamente en la tarea de trocar todo lo que ya está dado en el mundo en algo hecho, construido. Para Don Quijote, cada cosa, cada persona que encuentra en el camino es una aventura «congelada», en espera de que él llegue, la deshiele, y la eche a andar. Vista de este modo, la empresa de Don Quijote resulta extrañamente idéntica al proyecto novelístico de Cervantes, que descubre en cada objeto imaginable un tesoro de posibilidades narrativas. Don Quijote es, convencionalmente, la gran figura de la disyunción entre realidad e imaginación. Pero aquí propongo que lo veamos como la figura dinámica, performativa, de la relación —más fluida e incierta que nuestras acostumbradas dicotomías— entre lo imaginado y lo real.

Y así, del poco dormir y del mucho leer se le secó el celebro, de manera que vino a perder el juicio. Llenósele la fantasía de todo aquello que leía en los libros, así de encantamentos como de pendencias, batallas, desafíos, heridas, requiebros, amores, tormentas y disparates imposibles; y asentósele de tal modo en la imaginación que era verdad toda aquella máquina de aquellas sonadas soñadas invenciones que leía, que para él no había otra historia más cierta en el mundo.

(Quijote, I, i, 73)                

«Llenósele la fantasía», «asentósele en la imaginación» obviously point to the mental domain in which Don Quixote and his undertaking are born. More important still, the two expressions also point to one of the inescapable dimensions of our thought. Imagining the real is nothing that belongs exclusively to fiction writers or to incorrigible «daydreamers» like Don Quixote. We all spend a good part of our lives literally imagining the real, as it is or was, as it could have been, as we would like it to be. The difference between the «mad» ways of the old hidalgo and our reputedly «saner» ones cannot then simply be that he imagines the real and we don't. He does, and we do. But while we seem to know, at least on some occasions, how to bring our imagined realities into actual existence, the conventional view of Don Quixote makes him the most perfect embodiment of the clash, the inevitable divorce, between reality and imagination. So, at   —15→   the start, I want to conjure up the familiar image of Don Quixote fighting hopelessly against those unyielding windmills that should be giants, but aren't. And I want to ask simply: Should they? Should the windmills really be giants? Isn't it fine for them to be just windmills? Is it so clear, so much beyond doubt that the chivalric undertaking of Don Quixote demands only giants, castles, and damsels, and that it necessarily excludes windmills, inns, and «mochachas del partido»?

These and other questions about Don Quixote that I will be discussing here have their remote origin in Bakhtin's remarks on the workings of chance and, more generally, on the function of time and space in the novel. I have found some of his ideas suggestive, but I am not «applying» them to Cervantes's text; instead, I make them «talk» with the novel in ways that are exclusively mine, for which Bakhtin should not be blamed.

In his long essay on the chronotope (84-258), Bakhtin proposes that each distinct narrative genre -particularly the ancient ones (Greek romance, adventure novel of everyday life, love idyll) and their early modern sequels (books of chivalry, picaresque and pastoral novels)- is a closed system of relations of time and space. In all these forms, the particular system that defines each genre determines the nature of protagonists and events, the selection of places where the action unfolds, the relations among characters, and the form and direction of their stories. Bakhtin's reflections on the structure of space and time in Greek romance (86-110) are the point of departure for my own reflections on the real and the imagined in Don Quixote.

A Greek romance is essentially a tale of adventures that befall a beautiful girl and a handsome boy who are secretly in love and are constantly wandering, often without any explicit reason, through land and sea far away from home. The return to their native land, even the announcement that such return is near, is the mark that the narrative is drawing to a close. The story ends with the happy union of the protagonists in marriage, which anchors them again within the known rhythms and familiar events of everyday life. So, the entire romance is the story of their journeying in a distant and alien world. In that world, the heroes are exposed to every imaginable form of danger, near-destruction, or impending death, from which they are saved at the very last minute just «by chance». The books of chivalry are in many ways an early modern sequel to Greek romance. The knight-hero, Amadís for instance, is also exposed to all forms of danger, near-destruction, and impending death. The difference with Greek romance, however, is that chance brings about only   —16→   the beginning of a chivalric adventure; what saves the knight-hero, even at the very last minute, is invariably his inexhaustible courage and strength.

In spite of this difference, Bakhtin sees chance as the absolute force that organizes and controls the worlds of Greek romance and of books of chivalry. In both genres, events are random and unexpected; everything that happens happens «suddenly» or «at just that moment»:

«Suddenly» and «at just that moment» best characterize this type of time, for this time usually has its origin and comes into its own in just those places where the normal, pragmatic and premeditated course of events is interrupted -and provides an opening for sheer chance, which has its own specific logic. This logic is one of random contingency, which is to say, chance simultaneity [meetings] and chance rupture [non-meetings], that is, a logic of random disjunctions in time as well. In this random contingency, «earlier» and «later» are crucially, even decisively, significant. Should something happen a minute earlier or a minute later, that is, should there be no chance simultaneity or chance disjunctions in time, there would be no plot at all, and nothing to write a novel about.


It is hard to imagine a world so rigorously alien that nothing in it is predictable or habitual except chance and its inscrutable workings. Neither Greek romance nor the books of chivalry work out all the logical consequences of a strictly random contingency; no human discourse probably could. And for that reason, it is worth looking into the concrete shapes that chance actually takes in these two narrative forms.

In the books of chivalry, the knight-hero is on the road and, all of a sudden, he hears some faint cries, so he looks for a «menesteroso o menesterosa», as Don Quixote would have it, and finds him or her, and thus an adventure begins; or he is crossing a bridge, and at just that moment he is detained by another knight who challenges him to combat, so he fights. In turn, in Greek romance, if it so happens that everything is quiet, then a storm suddenly gathers on the horizon, or a mutiny breaks out aboard the ship, or pirates raid and ransack the shore, take the boy and the girl prisoners, and sell them to different slave owners, and so forth and so on. Human intentions and motivated actions, as we understand them, play no role in determining what happens: characters meet or miss each other or undergo one form or other of experience simply because they happen to be or not to be in a certain place at a certain time. These   —17→   haphazard coincidences or disjunctions require a highly abstract space, a thoroughly unfamiliar world which doesn't have a «normal» and therefore predictable course of events (Bakhtin, 101). In a world where chance is the only organizing force, events must of necessity be thoroughly and inscrutably unpredictable. And so they are. The heroes of Greek romance experience these unpredictable events as unwelcome trials and ordeals. Amadís and the heroes of chivalry books welcome them as occasions for their prowess. In both cases, adventures are isolated and self-sufficient events that bear no relation to whatever happens before or after. In fact, adventures take place in a gap that lies outside of any chronological or measurable time (Bakhtin, 89-90).

Time ticks inside each adventure but not in the sequence into which adventures are tied. So, in the world of either form of romance, nothing adds up to anything (Bakhtin, 90). Whatever lies between the beginning and the ending of a romance is a delay, a detour, which changes nothing and produces nothing except deferment itself. In this context, everything is at once contingent and atemporal: characters and places are easily exchangeable, and the sequence of events is perfectly reversible.

Now, one extraordinary thing Bakhtin does as he examines the world of Greek romance is to discover the workings of chance not only in the dynamic arrangement of actions and events but in the internal structure of some definitely static objects (cities, buildings, vases, talismans). These objects always appear as unusual, strange, wondrous, even supernatural. They are described in painstaking detail, as if every one of their features were essential to the story or significant for the fate of the heroes, except that they are never related to anything else. These wondrous objects bear no connection to other objects, or to the particular place where they are found, or to any event, or to any agent; they are self-sufficient items, as the adventures are self-sufficient events; they are made of the same material as the adventures. They are, in Bakhtin's words, «congealed 'suddenlys', adventures turned into things, offsprings of the same chance» (102). This description may offer us some language and critical tools to interpret many of the objects on which Don Quixote exerts his imagination, especially the richest ones, like the sounds of the unseen fulling mills, or Mambrino's helmet, or Montesinos's cave. Even more, the notion of «frozen adventures», of «adventures turned into things» is, in my view, essential to understanding Don Quixote's project and the nature and shape of his experience.

Like the world of Greek romance, the world that Don Quixote envisions for his undertaking seems to be, initially at least, a world   —18→   of chance encounters and of events that happen «suddenly» or «at just that moment», a world of abstract space and timelessness. And like the heroes of chivalry, Don Quixote expects the unexpected and welcomes it as the occasion for his heroic deeds. But unlike either form of romance, Cervantes's novel places the old hidalgo in his native land, in a context of familiar places and predictable events. We already know how much we can make of the perverse way in which Cervantes mismatches the chivalric expectations of the hero and the everyday reality of his world. Yet this mismatch alone cannot fully explain Don Quixote's initial project or account for the changing shape of his undertaking. For his own trajectory stands at the end of another one, which we can now trace: a remarkable trajectory of radically different forms of chance and orders of experience running from Greek romance, through the books of chivalry, to Cervantes's novel itself.

In Greek romance, chance is the name for the haphazard quality of the alien world the characters are thrown into; it represents the fact that no one in that world should know what to expect, because nothing in it is familiar or predictable, even in trivial ways. The world of chivalry is neither alien nor familiar, but it is an order, and chance works in it as the deceptive mask of necessity. Amadís may not know what he should expect to find at every turn of the road, but he can rest assured that his world will exclude anything that is not an occasion for some kind of chivalric adventure. The world of Don Quixote, as Cervantes defines it, is the historical, empirical order of «the real». In this «reality», with the due quotations marks around it, chance acquires the meaning and values we are all familiar with: it names all that is possible without being necessary, everything that might happen outside our control and without our consent or intentional agency. That the creatures, objects, and events of chivalry should not exist in the «real» world of the hidalgo is not a matter of essential incompatibility. His world could have included a good number of things chivalric, if Cervantes had so decided. But he didn't. And his choice translates itself into the contingent shape of Don Quixote's world, which just so happens not to include, as naturally given, any of those things. This weak form of exclusion, more akin to absence than to sheer contradiction, is not without consequences. For the heroes of chivalry are born, as it were, ready-made: noble, courageous, and destined to glory and fame; they are what they are, from beginning to end, and chivalric adventures are thoroughly found in a world that exists only as their occasion and inexhaustible source. But Don Quixote lives in a world in which nothing chivalric is to be found anywhere. And so he is -he can't but be- a   —19→   child of desire, of making and becoming, and his adventures are not given or naturally found, but made in some essential ways.

The questions that this difference raises are worth asking. What form of chance, what kind of world should this new child of making and becoming expect or need? Should the «alien, miraculous world» of found adventures do for him? Are windmills, actually, impediments to his undertaking? Will giants make matters any easier for him, any more pliable to his intent? Is his intent as simple as we often think it is? The novel gives no explicit answer to these questions. It says nothing, for instance, about how Don Quixote expects that the world will look or behave when he sallies forth. The narrative voices of the novel invite us, however, to infer some things from the way Don Quixote acts; they insist in reminding us that he treats his immediate, everyday reality as if it were a «miraculous and alien» world. And in our inferences we often forget about the «as if», or we markedly remember only that he mistakes flocks of sheep for armies, or merchants for knights-errant or, indeed, inns for castles, but we make little or nothing of his taking his neighbor Sancho, the farmer, for his neighbor Sancho, the farmer, or the fulling mills for fulling mills, or the galley slaves for galley slaves. We admit to an increasing dose of «reality» getting into Don Quixote's conception of his own undertaking in the second part of the novel, but we fall too easily, I think, for a narrow view of the first part as one where the chivalric project of the hidalgo can only exclude or clash with the familiar world in which he lives.

Yet the relation between everyday reality and the world of chivalry is present and explicitly invoked by the hidalgo when he tries to find a suitable name for his horse. And what he envisions then is neither an exclusion nor a clash:

Cuatro días se le pasaron en imaginar qué nombre le pondría; porque -según se decía él a sí mesmo- no era razón que caballo de caballero tan famoso, y tan bueno él por sí, estuviese sin nombre conocido; y ansí, procuraba acomodársele de manera que declarase quién había sido antes que fuese de caballero andante, y lo que era entonces...; y así, después de muchos nombres que formó, borró y quitó, añadió, deshizo y tornó a hacer en su memoria e imaginación, al fin le vino a llamar Rocinante, nombre, a su parecer, alto, sonoro y significativo de lo que había sido cuando fue rocín, antes de lo que ahora era, que era antes y primero de todos los rocines.

(Quijote, I, 76)                

This passage spells out with precision, in detail, and not without irony, the poetic method of the hidalgo -«formó, borró, quitó,   —20→   añadió, deshizo y tornó a hacer»- as well as the way in which he conceives of the appropriate relation between a chivalric name and its bearer. In his imagination, the hidalgo has refashioned his old nag into the first and best of horses; and now the perfect name for this transmuted old new horse -new old horse?- should be one that inscribes forever his transformation, one that keeps memory of what he used to be and bears testimony to what he has now become.

The semantic make-up of Rocinante includes the three essential components of any story: an agent (rocín), time (ante) and space (ante, again). The internal structure of the name Rocinante works as a perfect analog of the process it represents: the old nag is still the old nag, as the meaning of rocín, in isolation, is univocally «bad, poor horse», or «carroña de caballo», as Corominas would have it (V: 46-47, s.v. rocín.); ante, however, in its double duty as a marker of space and time, establishes a before and an after and places the horse in a context where he is both unchanged (still a rocín) and radically altered (the very first and foremost). Time enters into the very texture of the word Rocinante, which tells, in the most condensed way possible, the story of the making of the horse it names: before a nag, and now the first among horses. But time is represented only at the price of being misrepresented, dislocated: the word that means «before» (ante) is placed after rocín. And in order for the name to yield its double temporality, it must be read both forwards (rocín - ante) and backwards (ante - rocín).

The making of Rocinante, horse and name, is the earliest and perhaps most explicit formulation of Don Quixote's poetic practice. It is, no doubt, the best description of the way in which he goes about making the world and himself anew. The process takes patience, some imagination, and quite a bit of trying (composing, erasing, taking out, adding, undoing, remaking, going forwards and backwards). It is rather messy, obviously time-consuming, and often uncertain about its direction, like the «rastrillado, torcido y aspado hilo» of the story itself. It reveals, however, a remarkable philosophy of «make-do», an all-inclusive jerry-rigging in which the prose of the real is not denied or eliminated or simply replaced by a chivalric construction but grafted into that very construction as its point of departure and raw material.

This philosophy of «make-do» is not the answer to all my questions. But it suggests at least some things. First, that most of our handy pairs of opposites (illusion vs. reality; fiction vs. history or truth; engaño vs. desengaño, knowledge vs. imagination) will no longer do, that exclusions and disjunctions will not help us here.   —21→   Second, that the relation of Don Quixote to the familiar, everyday prose of the world is as messy and uncertain about its direction, as composed, decomposed, and recomposed throughout the novel, as are his laborious acts of naming and the names that his labor gives birth to. Third and last, that Don Quixote's enterprise is marked from the very beginning by an irreducible ambiguity of purpose and design; that the new paradigm he himself has created calls at once for a world of giants and for a world of windmills; that both worlds, like the old hidalgo and the novel knight he has turned himself into, are equally necessary for his undertaking; that his undertaking is precisely the «turning» of whatever is given or found «into» something fashioned or made.

As with Rocinante's name, in the world of the novel, windmills (the real) and giants (the imagined) distribute themselves into a «before» and an «after». Thus, sequential, historical time enters the world of Don Quixote not as an unwanted guest, imposed by his unsympathetic author, but as an essential dimension of his enterprise as he defines it. And it is worth noting that Don Quixote makes himself and his adventures by inverting the temporal direction that, according to Bakhtin, makes the wondrous objects of Greek romance come into being. Those objects are «frozen adventures», temporal events turned into static things. For Don Quixote, in turn, anything or anyone he encounters on the road is, or should be, a «frozen» adventure that is patiently waiting for him to defrost it and make it unfold. Like a good teller of tales, Don Quixote believes that having a story is a necessary condition for being in the world, that narratives are packed, as it were, into everything that is (people, animals, objects, light, darkness, sound). His undertaking is precisely to make visible and audible the concealed poetry of the world, the adventures that lie captive inside names, objects, other people, himself.

Viewed this way, Don Quixote's enterprise becomes strangely one with Cervantes's own novelistic project to make all imaginable persons and things yield up their «stories», the hidden music of their narrative possibilities. It is not hard to see, in Don Quixote's art of naming and making, a playful displacement of Cervantes's own art and practice in the novel. After all, the collective efforts of the «autores que deste caso escriben» leave the name and identity of the hidalgo no less undone and recomposed than that of Rocinante, although vastly more uncertain. And the inclusiveness of Cervantes's own monumental jerry-rigging leaves nothing out, and certainly not the «traídos y llevados» books of chivalry: they enter the world of the novel in the same way empirical reality enters the   —22→   project of its hero. For both Cervantes and Don Quixote, the real, which is also imagined, and the imaginary domain of chivalry inevitably evoke each other -they are each other's other half, even though their marriage may not have been made in heaven.

The hypothesis I have just outlined bespeaks a certain distrust, if not of oppositions, at least of the disjunctive, exclusive way in which we often handle them. It proposes that such disjunctions come to an end somewhere, that they are not necessary or even useful in every context. It calls attention, instead, to the fact that every opposition not only invites us to play one of its terms against the other but also points to the fact that they are, indeed, related. In this sense, Don Quixote may be seen -as he usually is- as a figure of disjunction and discontinuity between the real and the imagined, but I am proposing that we see him as the figure of their relation, as their performative link. I have not yet explored the precise nature of that link or all its possible shapes and incarnations. But seeing Don Quixote as a poet who works with whatever raw materials reality happens to offer him, as a jerry-rigger who goes around linking everything to everything else, even when he does not mean it, has radically changed the ways in which I remember (also the ways in which I forget) the text of the novel.

To give an example. We all know what Don Quixote often does when one of his would-be chivalric adventures turns out to be an irretrievable misadventure or an outright defeat. When the imagined giants behave like plain windmills or the armies of Christian and pagan knights like flocks of sheep and goats, Don Quixote explains such ostensible behavior as a false and misleading appearance brought about by the sage Frestón or the malevolent lot of unnamed enchanters who want to take away from him the glory of his triumphs. After years of reading and rereading the novel, I got to believe that I knew, with unshakable certainty, how Don Quixote sees his imagined enchanters: as a bunch of exclusively inimical and vile evildoers, as the ones to blame for everything that goes wrong. Yet, seeing the enchanters this way is to forget completely, or to remember in a strangely selective way, passages like the following one, in which Don Quixote explains to Sancho the mysteries of Mambrino's helmet:

¿Que es posible que en cuanto ha que andas conmigo no has echado de ver que todas las cosas de los caballeros andantes parecen quimeras, necedades y desatinos, y que son todas hechas al revés? Y no porque sea ello ansí, sino porque anda entre nosotros siempre una caterva de encantadores que todas nuestras cosas mudan y truecan, y les vuelven según su gusto, y según tienen la   —23→   gana de favorecernos o destruirnos; y así, eso que a ti te parece bacía de barbero, me parece a mí el yelmo de Mambrino, y a otro le parecerá otra cosa. Y fue rara providencia del sabio que es de mi parte hacer que parezca bacía a todos lo que real y verdaderamente es yelmo de Mambrino, a causa que, siendo él de tanta estima, todo el mundo me perseguirá por quitármele; pero como ven que no es más que un bacín de barbero, no se curan de procuralle, como se mostró muy bien en el que quiso rompelle y le dejó en el suelo sin llevarle; que a fe que si le conociera, que nunca él le dejara.

(I, xxv, 306-307)                

Since I no longer see the novel in terms of oppositions or exclusions, only now can this passage remind me that not all the enchanters invoked by Don Quixote are evil ones, nor are the evil ones alone responsible for the world of windmills and barber's basins; that windmills and barber's basins are not always, or necessarily, hostile to Don Quixote's undertaking or incompatible with his intent to restore the myth of chivalry; finally, that here the fact that Mambrino's helmet looks so desperately like a barber's basin is not deplored but hailed by Don Quixote as the unequivocal sign of a beneficial and supernatural providence. And with this, what I know of the novel has become less mechanical, certainly less impeccable, but also more precise and, for that reason, more uncertain.

I mentioned at the beginning my debt to Bakhtin. Yet, my largest debt by far, and the one most difficult to acknowledge, is to Wittgenstein's reflection on language. In the «rastrillado, torcido y aspado hilo» of his Philosophical Investigations, I discovered that questions quixotically followed where they may take us, composed, undone, remade, may well be all that we have going for us in the critical disciplines we call the Humanities. From Wittgenstein I have also learned that the uncertain may be a richer place to inhabit than some of our consoling but limiting dichotomies.

Lulled by dichotomies and oppositions, we attribute, for instance, poetic desire only to Don Quixote, and we see his desire as necessarily barring the prose of the real, which in turn becomes the exclusive concern of his «antagonists», from the curate and the barber all the way to Cervantes himself. We play the real against the imagined, the inglorious events of everyday life against the poetic paradigm that Don Quixote tries to impose on them. We locate all the difficulties, all the tensions and quandaries with which Cervantes puzzles and delights us in the relation between the undertaking of Don Quixote and the hostile context in which he lives. But Don Quixote's poetics of «turning» and «make do» suggest that   —24→   those difficulties, tensions, and quandaries are in fact inscribed inside his undertaking, where the real and the imagined appear, from the very beginning, tied together. Finally, whenever we talk about the novel as a «comic book», we play Cervantes's intent against Don Quixote's loftier aims. But if what we mean by comic is something slightly richer, slightly deeper than plain funny, then the novel is a comic book, among other things, because Don Quixote's project is, in significant ways, a comic one. His aim is to reconcile dichotomies and contradictions into a higher order of experience in which prose is happily turned into poetry, the familiar into the extraordinary, the real into the imagined. In the process, individual identities are transmuted, but not lost, and their diversity is not simply kept intact, but multiplied. We may all agree that Don Quixote does not quite succeed in this «comic» enterprise. But does he fail?

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Michael M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist, transl. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.

Cervantes, Miguel de. El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha. Ed. Luis A. Murillo. Madrid: Editorial Castalia, 1978.

Corominas, Joan and José A. Pascual. Diccionario crítico etimológico castellano e hispánico. Madrid: Gredos, 1983.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Ed. and transl. G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958.