A review of Lectures on Don Quixote, by Vladimir Nabokov

Don Quixote is not the foremost comic masterpiece of the European spirit. It is not a "humane and humorous" book at all. In fact, it is not even funny except in a "coarse," "stupid" way. Any decent person ought to be ashamed of himself if he laughs at it. Rather, it is "one of the most bitter and barbarous books ever penned." So, at least, says the late Vladimir Nabokov in his recently published Lectures on Don Quixote (pp. 52, 24, 65, 75, and 111). Until now, Nabokov thinks, the world has been deceived by a pack of enchanters called Cervantesists (pp. 7, 52, and 55). What they proclaimed a genuine Mambrino's helmet of humanity is, in reality, a barber's basin of barbarity. The truth, however, is that it is Nabokov and not the Cervantesists who would play the enchanter here. And despite the power of the magician, the spell will not take.

Nabokov's argument goes as follows. "Both parts of Don Quixote form a veritable encyclopedia of cruelty" (p. 52). The so-called humor of the book consists throughout of the torture, both physical and mental, of a madman and his simple-minded companion. Indeed, the companion some­times "tortures" the madman, and the madman is himself guilty of being "flippant" about his madness (pp. 57, 74, 61). Nothing could be more cruel or less funny. Nabokov briefly sketches Don Quixote's adventures, emphasizing the pain such doings must have entailed for flesh and blood, commenting all the while with heavy-handed irony, "What a riot, what a panic!" and so forth (p. 53). All of this, Nabokov argues, might have seemed funny in the harsh world of the seventeenth century, but it is not at all amusing today (pp. 52 and 111).

In arguing his thesis, Nabokov deserves credit for this, that he does not shrink from the hardest test. He goes right to those passages at which readers have always laughed most heartily and flatly denies that they are funny-or suggests that readers are barbarians for laughing at them. But the reader is on firmer ground forgetting the critic and trusting to his own innocent reaction to the work. Surely few readers from Cervantes's day to this have failed to laugh aloud at the encounter of knight and squire "with certain wicked Yangueseans" and their subsequent mis­adventures with Maritornes at the Inn of Juan Palomeque the Left-Handed (Pt. 1, chaps. 15-17). Without doubt, mores have become gentler since the time of Cervantes. But we do still laugh at these episodes in which master and man take such a drubbing, just as we laugh at the misfortunes of the comic creations of Charlie Chaplin and Peter Sellers. Is all of this cruel? How are we to determine whether it is or not?

Nabokov comments that there is a difference between "all fun that comes from the devil" and "authentic humor" which "comes from the angels" (p. 65). But he never explains how these two come to have laughter in common nor how they are to be distinguished. In order to judge Nabo­kov's evaluation of Don Quixote, a brief examination of the question of humor is necessary.

What makes us laugh, in the broadest terms, seems to be a sense of incongruity, that things are not what they should be. In the humor of language, for example, we laugh at puns and malapropisms, the argot of the underclasses or the use of grand language to describe mean things. As for human behavior, what greater incongruity is there than that between what we should be and what we generally are? In every case it is this incongruity, in the form of some kind of powerlessness, imperfection, or deficiency, that makes us laugh: all kinds of deceits and misunderstandings, including those effected by disguise, and especially confusion about an indi­vidual's sex; the way our passions blind us to what is evident to others; the gap between what we want and what we get; embarrassing depar­tures from the norms of society such as the antics of a drunk, mugging, and facial grimaces. The laughter is cruel when the deficiency that occasions it results in serious harm or when the motive is simply to flatter ourselves with a sense of our own superiority at the expense of another. But an author may make us laugh at our defects in order to move us to correct them (comedy of manners); he may make individuals or ideas he thinks wicked or wrong an object of ridicule in defense of right and truth (satire); he may expose our common weaknesses, our finitude, so that by laughing at ourselves we may be reconciled to our condition (comedy of the highest form).

Now let us consider Don Quixote. No serious harm ever comes to knight and squire however fierce the blows they suffer, for the realm in which they and their assailants move, as every reader realizes, is simply not the same as that of Gloucester and Cornwall or Lady Macduff and Macbeth's hirelings. The literalness with which Nabokov treats Don Quixote's adventures is inappropriate. One need not quarrel with his plea for "Freedom from Pain" as the platform for a campaign for humanity to note that such an appeal is out of place in this context (p. 75). (Although, it must be added, this slogan does put one in mind of Brave New World, and one would like to explore its consequences before endorsing it.)

As for the intention of Cervantes, on this score above all Don Quixote is free of the taint of cruelty. Far from being, as Nabokov calls it, "one of the bitterest . . . books ever penned," it is the best antidote to bitterness that art has ever devised (p. 52). That this is its author's intention is suggested in the episode of the bandit Roque Ginart where Cervantes calls our attention to the way in which the desire for vengeance corrupts life (Pt. 2, chap. 60). Rather, what Cervantes does throughout is to make it possible for us to laugh at our misfortunes thereby drawing the bitterness out of them. He does this by creating a character who is such a mixture of intellect and folly, of generosity and delusion, that he is as hugely lovable as he is hugely comic. The Knight of the Mournful Countenance makes it possible for us to accept the idea of ourselves as ridiculous and yet admirable; as noble despite our weakness; as ultimately forgivable, because innocent of ill-intent, for the trouble we sometimes cause our­selves and others; not least, as capable of rising from every fall so long as our purpose is true, of bearing every humiliation so long as our heart is pure.

One portion of the book provides some pretext for Nabokov's interpretation, the long segment devoted to the visit of Don Quixote and Sancho with the Duke and Duchess (Pt. 2, chaps. 30-57, 69-70). "The cruelty of the book," Nabokov writes, "reaches here atrocious heights" (p. 62). At least two of the pranks played by the ducal circle are not funny but rather harmful. But is Nabokov warranted on that account in calling the book cruel? Does Cervantes invent these bad jokes to make us laugh? Does he ask us to applaud the pranksters?

In the two cases where the jest is most harmful, "Don Quixote's bell-and-cat fight" and "the troublous end of Sancho's government," Cervantes makes it plain that the jests are not intended by him to be funny (chaps. 46 and 53). He clearly conveys this by making their perpe­trators regret their actions. Moreover, following the prank played upon Sancho, Cervantes has the squire take himself out of the way of any further jests with a dignity and humanity that is one of the great moments of the book. Nabokov acknowledges the "dignity" that Sancho "reveals" in this scene (p. 72). But Cervantes gets no credit for this and is, instead, classed with the pranksters.

In another joke, Cervantes pauses in unfolding the hoax to draw an extraordinary contrast between Don Quixote and the Duke entirely to the advantage of the former (chap. 36). Don Quixote's nobility of soul is here presented in so clear a light that the Duke's mockery discredits only himself.

Finally, Cervantes delivers through the medium of three different characters a negative judgment of the ducal pair's jokes: Don Quixote remarks that there is "little glory" for those who mock one who puts his trust in them; the Duke's Major-Domo observes of one jest that, in the event, "the jesters are mocked"; Cid Hamete Benengeli, the Arabic historian of Don Quixote's deeds, comments that "the duke and duchess were not two fingers' breadth removed from being fools" (chaps. 41, 49, and 70). Of these, Nabokov notices only the last and then does not comment on its significance (p. 74). But the conclusion warranted by this passage, as well as the others I have cited, is that the only instances in the book in which there is the slightest hint of cruelty are not intended for the amusement of the reader and, instead, serve to heighten our respect for Don Quixote and Sancho to the shame of those who perpetrate the jokes.

Nabokov insists that his thesis is sustained by the very presence of cruelty in the book "with or without the author's intent or sanction" (p. 52). But what sense does it make to call cruel a book in which the author's intention is not cruel, the book's effect is to cast anything like cruelty in a poor light, and the book in reflecting "cruelty" but truthfully mirrors the world? If the intent is good, and the effect is good, and the speech is true, can the speech be bad?

But there is something more than this to the book and to Nabokov's complaint about its reputation. The comic vision ofDon Quixote has often been called Christian, to which Nabokov takes exception because of what he sees as its very un-Christian cruelty (pp. 52 and 18). Nabo­kov notes a Christian dimension to the book only in passing. He compares a number of events in the career of Don Quixote with incidents in the passion of Jesus, but without ever making anything of the comparison. In every case but one, Don Quixote's "last supper," the effect is pathetic. Any clear sense of the triumph of the resurrection is missing. But a Christianity deprived of the resurrection would, for a Christian at least, be meaningless. The teaching of Chris­tianity is that man, who is powerless to save himself, is saved by God become man, and that consequently for the man of faith, in the light of this event, no other event, whether triumph or catastrophe, whether in the history of man­kind or of an individual, is of critical signifi­cance. In this respect, Don Quixote embodies the Christian teaching.

Don Quixote is the Christian vision of man. He is really powerless to save himself or any other, save by some chance which deludes him as to his own capacity. (Compare Nabokov's lecture on "Victories and Defeats" which misses this point.) He is noble in our eyes more for his intention to do good than for any deed, though we love him also because he is tireless in his efforts to give his intentions their proper effect. Calamity after calamity befalls our hero, yet we do not weep but are invited to laugh, for no one is really harmed nor does anything serious hang in the balance. This is a world from which ultimate calamity has been banished. When Don Quixote declares that "virtue is omnipotent" and that it "will emerge triumphant from every peril and bestow light on the world as does the sun in the heavens," whatever other emotions are stirred by this speech and the scene, we are inclined both to believe that this is so and to realize that it shall never happen by the efforts of man alone (Pt. 1, chap. 47). On both counts, because it assures us that the good is secure and because it denies man the status of tragic hero, Christianity makes tragedy impossible for the Christian, unless he deliberately limits his vision to the human horizon.

If Don Quixote deserves to be called, in Thomas Mann's words, "a travesty of tragedy," it is precisely because it is, in the deepest sense, thoroughly Christian. Insofar as Nabokov shows no recognition of this Christian significance of the novel, one is free to wonder if he has sounded the depths of this work as well as some of the lesser critics he ridicules (p. 24).

Nabokov does not appear to have much liked Don Quixote. After the spring of 1952, he never repeated his lectures (p. viii). In fact, it was not his idea to lecture on the book in the first place (p. vii). Throughout he clearly conveys his judgment that this is not a book to which one returns. In the end he is only too anxious to deliver his Don Quixote from the hands of a creator and a world he deems unworthy of the knight (p. 112). It is hardly surprising then that Nabokov has so completely misunderstood the book. His Lectures do possess some merit. There are a few valuable insights, and any student of Cervantes and his masterpiece will want to read what Nabokov has to say. But for reliable guidance as to the meaning of Don Quixote, the reader is well advised to look else­where, even to the least of the Cervantesists.