Perhaps, I am being generous in my 4-star rating. Don Quixote could have been half the length. Still, most of the stories were entertaining, and our knight and his squire were pretty compelling characters. The brilliance of this work is in its narrative style. Don Quixote is a story within a story within a story. Cervantes published the first part years before the second part. Between the publication of the two parts, Cervantes was imprisoned. The story of Don Quixote was continued by Avellaneda without Cervantes’ permission. The narrator as well as the characters in the real story ridicule Avellaneda’s account. The narrator insists that the only true story about Don Quixote is the one we are reading. It was translated from the Arabic by the Moor Cide Hamete Benengeli. And of course there is Don Quixote himself who tries to imitate the knights errant described in popular Spanish courtly romances. To deceive Don Quixote, the other characters have to play into our knight’s delusions.
Don Quixote is a satire on Renaissance Spain. The speeches of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are almost literally lifted from the writings of the Renaissance humanists. Despite Don Quixote’s insanity, his speeches are often quite moving. Sancho Panza loves stringing proverbs together, but he often cites them out of context. While this is certainly an entertaining work, it is also somewhat tragic. People take advantage of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza to serve their own selfish ends. But who can help Don Quixote? Most tragically, Sancho Panza believes in some of his master’s hallucinations and promises. Don Quixote means well, but he resembles a cult leader. Courtly romance and hagiography were two popular literary traditions in Renaissance Spain. By exploring the theme of heroism in both tradition, Don Quixote addresses the purpose of historiography.
Because this work is as much about the writing of Don Quixote as the story of Don Quixote itself, I cannot ignore the role Edith Grossman played in translating it from the Spanish. This is an astounding accomplishment. Based on the quality of the footnotes it is clear that Grossman spent a lot of time researching the literary and historical references in Don Quixote. My edition included an interview with the translator as well as an introduction by the literary critic Harold Bloom.
I do wish Don Quixote was shorter, but I know that I won’t forget Don Quixote or Sancho Panza anytime soon. With its commentary on truth vs. falsehood and wisdom vs. folly, the work feels particularly relevant to our social media age.
“In short, our gentleman became so caught up in reading that he spent his nights reading from dusk till dawn and his days reading from sunrise to sunset, and so with too little sleep and too much reading his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind.”
What was it about?
At the start of the 16th century, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam writes an encomium on folly from the perspective of Folly herself. Inspired by the satires of Lucian whom Erasmus translated with his friend Thomas More, Praise of Folly is a critique of late medieval society and religion. School theologians concern themselves with nonsensical questions and parish priests are barely literate. Popes and princes go to war. Mendicants are known for their wealth, arrogance, and greed. The satire begins with the genealogy of Folly before moving to a description of her role in the ancient world. Folly argues that humanity is indebted to her. Although philosophers generally condemn folly, life would be unbearable without some foolishness. In fact, folly holds a special place in the Christian tradition. Praise of Folly (trans. Betty Radice) is both a social satire and a commentary on true wisdom.
What did I think of it?
I read Praise of Folly at the right time. Last semester I took a course on medieval philosophy, and I am currently reading Don Quixote. Therefore, late medieval theology and Renaissance/early modern aesthetics are all I think of these days. There’s nothing like reading Praise of Folly after a semester-long course on the scholastics! Reading this book was therefore quite rewarding.
The narrative voice changes throughout the work. The first part is clearly from Folly’s perspective. She is not beyond ridiculing 16th century humanists for their learning. But the voice changes mid-way through the work. Folly’s criticism of the Church is clearly Erasmus’. It no longer reads as a satire but as a diatribe. I wish Erasmus’ had maintained Folly’s perspective throughout the work. I wonder what she would have said. The final part is on the place of folly in Christianity. Here, Erasmus shares his philosophical and social views with the reader.
My Penguin edition came with a good introduction and thorough footnotes. Because Praise of Folly is a highly intellectual satire, the footnotes are indispensable. Thanks to the editor, it is quite accessible to the non-specialist. Erasmus’ Colloquies are (in my opinion) superior to Praise of Folly, but Praise of Folly was more influential. It voiced the criticisms of countless intellectuals on the eve of the Reformation. Erasmus never wrote for the lay person, but his writings inspired educational and religious reforms in 16th century Europe. I am glad I read it when I did.
Once I finish and review Don Quixote, I hope to make at least one post comparing it to Praise of Folly.
Favorite Quote (!)
“Nothing is so foolish as mistimed wisdom, and nothing less sensible than misplaced sense. A man’s conduct is misplaced if he doesn’t adapt himself to things as they are, has no eye for the main chance, won’t even remember that convivial maxim ‘Drink and depart’, and asks for the play to stop being a play. On the other hand, it’s a true sign of prudence not to want wisdom which extends beyond your share as an ordinary mortal, to be willing to overlook things along with the rest of the world and wear your illusions with a good grace. People say that this is really a sign of folly, and I’m not setting out to deny it – so long as they’ll admit on their side that this is the way to play the comedy of life.”
What was it about?
The Fifteen Joys of Marriage (Les Quinze joies de mariage) is a 15th century satirical work on the joys of married life. The 15 “joys” are, in truth, miseries that men willingly accept out of love for their wives. Women are constantly demanding the impossible from their husbands and can’t keep their hands off other men, but the husbands ultimately convince themselves that marriage is a joyous establishment. The misogyny is blatant like most satirical works of the Middle Ages, but the anonymous author acknowledges at the end of the book that his work is very one-sided and that some men can commit even greater evils than women.
What did I think of it?
I usually read most French works written after 1350 either in the original dialect or in modern French, but I was lazy this time and decided to read Les Quinze joies de mariage in English (translated by Elisabeth Abbott). I found the book at my university’s research library and basically read it in one sitting. This edition contained cartoonish illustrations that complemented the subject matter. However, I would not want to own that edition because some of the illustrations were quite crude and explicit. I find Medieval literature fascinating because the humor and assumptions of 14th/15th century Europeans was so different from what we are used to. The Fifteen Joys of Marriage is written in the tradition of the fabliaux, so the humor is sexual, scatological (not so much in this book), and sexist. I call them the three Ss.
In the book, when a man wants sex, it’s the wife’s fault if she doesn’t cooperate. But when the woman wants sex, she is depicted as an animal with an insatiable lust. Women are blamed for their pregnancies, and the man is always the one with the heaviest burden. Husbands beating their wives is commonplace and evidently acceptable. But the conclusion of the book suggests that the author realizes how misogynistic his work is, and that this may be a part of the satire. The author writes from the perspective of a priest who only knows marriage secondhand. He may be ridiculing the one-sided criticisms he often gets from men. The husband in the 15 chapters is referred to as the “goodman”, while the woman is a “wench” and her friends “gossips”. Elsewhere, the author writes: “And know that men do the contrary to what is said here: for whatsoever women they have, they generally think them better than all other women. Now and then the rule fails, but that is in the case of desperate and beastly knaves who lack understanding. Thus one gladly sees many husbands praise their wives, recounting their good virtues; and in their opinion there are none to equal them nor any where they could find such virtues, such delights or such good appetite.” I sense a good bit of sarcasm in this passage because all the criticisms in the book come from a man’s perspective. We never get the woman’s perspective on the affair. There aren’t many reasonably-priced editions available online, but if you have access to a research library you may want to check it out.
“Nonetheless, the lady has not such travail as the goodman, who has labored to keep her at ease and in the estate which she has ever had fair and with great possessions.”