A love letter to Miguel de Cervantes
Dear Miguel de Cervantes,
As the brain behind Don Quixote, you and your man of La Mancha are so intertwined that you’ve become one and the same. Readers associate your name with windmills and comedy, damsels and chivalry. Your literary masterpiece exists as an extension of your being, preserving your wit and social commentary for posterity.
But the difference between you and your novel lies in your own mortality. Words are permanent and indestructible, whereas humanity, by definition, is destined for death. You passed away on this day in 1616, a year after you published Part II of Don Quixote. You had killed off your illustrious knight, and perhaps the most urgent, willful part of you disappeared when you no longer had him to guide you to a purpose with his ever-optimistic bent.
After your death, you were lost, shrouded in mystery. This wasn’t the first time you disappeared; a Turkish fleet kidnapped you in life when you served as a solider for the Spanish military, and you only returned to Spain after five years of captivity and enslavement. Even so, your most recent exodus lasted much longer. You hid for nearly 400 years, and no one could find you — not through carbon dating or any other sophisticated archeological technique.
That is, until earlier this year, when a team headed by Francisco Etxeberria verified your remains in the crypt of Madrid’s Trinitarias Church.
Welcome back to the world, Miguel. You were missed, and we could use your spunk and humor in the 21st century. We need someone to remind us to laugh at ourselves, to celebrate idiosyncrasy, and to foolishly believe in something so much that we’ll take a risk to see it succeed.
Laughter is the thread that unites Don Quixote. We, as readers, chuckle at Sancho and his boss as they ride from village to village, searching for adventures. But though we’re more than willing to mock a nostalgic, antiquated knight who joins his profession a few centuries too late, we’ve forgotten how to giggle at our own mistakes. Every one of our missteps seems like the beginning of the apocalypse. Nevertheless, if Don Quixote can spend days in the mountains waiting patiently for a reply from his love, Dulcinea, we can probably make a faux pas that might set us back a few hours. And if he can rush with gusto towards zooming windmills and not seem noticeably embarrassed when they prove stronger than he is, we can overcome nearly anything if we realize that we survived it so it must not have been too bad. If we’re able to turn our blunder into a story — a chapter of a novel or a dinnertime anecdote — then all the better.
But even if we learn to laugh at our own faults, Don Quixote’s are undeniably different. The man is so taken by tales of knighthood that he believes utopia can be achieved if he serves justice to the masses. Because of his opinions and actions, he’s ridiculed by jokesters who assume they’re cleverer than he is. They might be right, but I don’t think so. I have a theory that Don Quixote is always acutely aware that his objective is mad, and so he must adopt a big persona to fulfill his cause. However, we still assume we’re cleverer than he is when we pick up your book, Cervantes. We still view him as the class clown, eager and delusional. Somehow, we miss his genius, or perhaps we ignore it to feel better about ourselves and our apathy.
What Don Quixote embodies is a passion that drives him to go to the end of the earth to achieve his goal. He’s on a “mission to civilize,” as The Newsroom puts it, trying to make his Spain a better place by showing that, in the 17th century, chivalry wasn’t dead. His values have nothing to do with radicalism, and if his actions hurt people, it’s typically through a few bruises as the brunt of a joke. We could allege that he’s careless, but he’s too harmless to cause any crises. Still, we must admire his devotion. Who in the 21st century has his kind of love for goodness? For righting the wrongs of society? How many times has the advocate who does have the audacity to fight for justice been laughed at and called soft or phony?
Yes, Miguel, I’m glad you’re back despite your adultery and scandal, because with you you bring some of Don Quixote, and Sancho Panza, and Rocinante. You give us three characters who are willing to be laughed at by cynics to help those in need. They’ll brandish a fake sword and wear a homemade helmet if it means serving the general public — minorities and majorities, oppressed and underprivileged.
So Miguel, I hope your knight’s energetic fervor and enthusiasm for life come back with you. Right now, in our world fraught with its own brutality and inequality, we could all use some inspiration to stand up for what we believe is right.
With love and appreciation,
(Image via Shutterstock)