The remarkable life of Miguel de Cervantes and how it shaped his timeless tale, 'Don Quixote'

Johns Hopkins' William Egginton recently authored a book about Cervantes titled 'The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered in the Modern World'

William Egginton

Image caption: William Egginton

Don Quixote mistook windmills for giants and attacked them with his lance. This episode in Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, first published in 1605, is the most comically iconic scene in the novel and often the only thing that springs to mind when thinking about it. The expression "tilting at windmills" has become colloquial shorthand for attacking imaginary enemies.

William Egginton, professor in Johns Hopkins University's Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures, tackles this most infamous adventure early on in his book The Man Who Invented Fiction (Bloomsbury), which was published earlier this year, the quadricentennial of Cervantes' death. Instead of focusing on the absurd action, Egginton zeroes in on the response of Sancho Panza, Quixote's traveling companion, who recognizes the extent of Quixote's delusions, and accepts him nonetheless.

Egginton notes:

In the space of a few pages, what started as an exercise in comic ridicule and, as the narrator insists on several occasions, a satirical send-up of the tales of chivalry, has taken on an entirely different dimension; it has begun to transform itself into the story of a relationship between two characters whose incompatible takes on the world are bridged by friendship, loyalty, and eventually love.

Egginton identifies Cervantes' ability to allow his readers inside his character's heads, to provide them with a sense of empathy, as Don Quixote's literary innovation, laying the philosophical groundwork for our relationship to the novel in the centuries that followed. Subtitled How Cervantes Ushered in the Modern World, Egginton's book engagingly delivers a critical examination of this literary milestone alongside a biographical chronicle of the arduous life of Cervantes, who was born northeast of Madrid on Sept. 29, 1547, 469 years ago today.

The Hub caught up with Egginton to talk about Cervantes' empathy, fiction's role in the creation of reality, and how Cervantes' life provided him with the experiences he needed to explore a different kind of truth in fiction.

From reading the book, you've obviously studied both Cervantes and Quixote a great deal, but it's also clear to me that you genuinely like both Cervantes and Quixote. Could talk a bit about how you developed this deep, human interest in Cervantes and his novel?

That was a long-term project over, I would say, close to 20 years of reading and teaching Cervantes, beginning with the great classic itself, Don Quixote, which I read in college. Honestly, I think that's the appropriate time to read it. I think you have to be a pretty precocious reader to read Don Quixote well at any time, but to read it even with a modicum of understanding, it's still extremely important to read it in the context of a good humanities class.

The humanities, I think, are so fundamental as an observation of art and literature, especially as you get distance and time from fundamental texts—it's not self-evident what the importance of great texts or great works of art are. You can read Quixote for entertainment, and its approachability as a funny text, I think, often obscures the philosophical monumentality of what's actually happening.

That's what I was trying to get across with this book. It was a long process of discovery of the layers of world historical importance that exist in this book mashed with a growing frustration as to how little, especially the U.S. and English-reading public necessarily know about that. So often still today, when you mention Don Quixote, it's tilting at windmills, he's reduced to this one act. And yet as I make the case at the beginning of the book, Quixote is a book that literati of the 20th century have identified in unparalleled numbers as the most significant work of literature in history.

"[Cervantes has] this extraordinary, fluid ability to move the reader outside of one character's perspective and into another character's perspective ... and to occupy that place and feel all of the incumbent desires and wishes that come along with that."
William Egginton, JHU professor

So how do you square that? How do you get across to a broader public why they should be introduced to it? In that process, I wanted to ask myself tough questions that went beyond what is the meaning or value of this work to, if it does have such a great meaning or value or impact, why was this particular man at this particular moment in history the one who managed to pull this off?

That became then the next big question and, as it turns out, that became the bridge into a non-scholarly audience at the same time. It meant becoming not only a different kind of reader but a different kind of writer as well, because I'm not a natural biographer. I don't have the tendency to elevate the human subject to the point that I think that a biographer almost necessarily needs to. I had to teach myself to pay that little extra attention to the details of a person's life. This book is not a traditional biography by any means. I'm telling the story of his life and I'm talking about his works, but the point of talking about his works is really not to illuminate the life. I'm turning to the life to help illuminate the answer to that question: How could he do something like this?

I want to come back to that in a second because I wanted to ask you about your own human relationship with Cervantes and Quixote. One of the interesting observations you make is that it's Cervantes'—for lack of a better word—empathy, his ability to see the world through other people's perspectives, that is one of the key elements of Quixote that makes it a different kind of storytelling. What made that perspective, his ability to see the world through these other characters' perspectives, so radically different from other narratives during his time period?

That's right. The case that I'm making is that fiction in the broadest sense, which is untrue stories that we know to be untrue, clearly was not invented in 1605. There were many, many, many before that and always have been. We could speculate that the practice of telling untrue stories that others know are untrue in one form or another is coterminous with human coexistence in some way.

That's not the point. The point is that we moderns, when we read fiction, we expect something else or something more from it. What we expect, and that's why we use modifiers like three-dimensional or believable, we want stories that engulf us in some way, that allow us to play this game that we play so fluently with fiction, which is both to know that it's not true and yet to treat it for a time as if it were true—the willing suspension of disbelief.

This was not a common reading practice. You can argue that it really wasn't an available option in the middle ages or in the classical period. There were different relationships to text. One could also argue there were relationships that we don't have anymore, ritualistic relationships to text. Text could perform magic on their readers that, probably in the modern industrialized west, they are no longer capable of performing.

What was developing during the period of the 16th and into the 17th century was this ability for readers or viewers of a spectacle to divide themselves in this way, to be both critically aware of what's going on and to shut off that critical awareness at the same time and to take a portion of one's empathetic ability and place it onto or along with another character, which created a very rich space for interacting on an imaginary level. That's what I argue is really happening for the first combined and all-purpose way in Cervantes' work. He even makes attempts at it earlier in his life. It really comes together for him when he publishes Don Quixote in 1605, which we know has bits and pieces of text that he's been working on probably for some 20 years.

Prior forms of writing, even novels from the middle of the 16th century, from the picaresque to pastoral romances, had all sorts of aspects that Cervantes ends up throwing into Don Quixote. What they didn't have was this playing on the horizons of what one can know, one being a character, and that allows Cervantes to have this extraordinary, fluid ability to move the reader outside of one character's perspective and into another character's perspective—including that person's blindness, including that person's lack of power—and to occupy that place and feel all of the incumbent desires and wishes that come along with that. That, to me, was the introduction of this literary empathy into the novel form.

OK, why this man and this time period? I ask because, one takeaway from your book is that Cervantes read and wrote a great deal, so he was a learned man, but it was his life experiences that gave him access to a different kind of knowledge. There was book truth, and then there was his life experiences that added a deeper resonance of truth to that. Throughout your book you note that Cervantes had a pretty hard life—wars; battles; imprisonment; all these really, really horrible things—and yet when he finally starts writing later in life, he's laughing. He has a comic awareness of the human condition. To what can you attribute this guy, living in this time period, given this really difficult life, being able to bring this sense of empathy and comedy to his writing?

There's no question that we lucked out in a way—he was exactly the right man at exactly the right moment in history, he was put into exactly the right situations, many of them life-threatening, and thank god we didn't lose him at any point of the many points that we could have along that way, to finally become a late middle-aged man who sat down and started writing what he wrote.

Illustration of someone holding phone, playing Pokémon Go

Image credit: iStock/MagicVectorCreation

A person a generation prior to what Cervantes had been born into, the world that his father had been born in, would have been itinerant to a certain degree, but nothing like what Cervantes was allowed from the 1560s to the 1570s. He was permitted by history to become the worldly, traveled man that he became, and certainly under very, very difficult circumstances. He didn't choose to leave Madrid at 19. He got himself into a mess with the law for wounding another man when it was clearly illegal to be dueling, and he had to make a run for it. And that run happened at precisely that moment when the Spanish empire was expanding outside of its geographical boundaries in Spain, when the Mediterranean was opening up as a theater of warfare.

This allowed Cervantes, who a few years earlier probably would have just gone somewhere else in Spain to hide, to be out in the theater of the world. And having fought in the Mediterranean, after having almost died in battles against the Turkish empire, after having been imprisoned by an enemy culture in North Africa for five years and surviving it and making it back to Spain—he still considered things like moving to the other side of the world to work for the Spanish government in the Indies. We're talking about an exploding expanse of horizons for people.

That was a major, major factor, but at the same time, this exploding expanse of horizons being experienced by Cervantes was also being experienced in a particular way. He had a world of information coming to him through the printing press, through the theaters, and a society and a government that largely succeeded in painting a picture of what the world under the Spanish empire was really like. And it didn't correspond at all to what Cervantes was finding out about the world. There was this fundamental disconnect between what his experience as a newly roving man were telling him and what was being told to him about how the world was supposed to be. He was hearing things about what the infidel was like, but then he went and landed in the infidel's lap and had a completely different experience. They weren't positive necessarily, but they were human. They weren't caricatures. What he ended up doing was spending his writing life skewering caricatures, and by skewering caricatures, he was creating characters.

Those characters were suddenly people who could have an imagination about how things were and get it wrong, and that believing something and getting it wrong becomes the fundamental common theme of everything that he writes. He has a good sense of humor about it. It's extremely funny, but at the same time that it's funny, it's also human. In a way that's more palpable and real and convincing than anything that had been written beforehand.

You mentioned the theater, and you devote a chapter in your book to the relationship between Cervantes and Spanish theater, but could you speak a little more about the Spanish theater during his time and the reality it created? I ask because the relationship between staged narratives and what we call reality has and hasn't changed all that much with our own understanding of what is real as it is produced by theater, cinema, or television today.

Many years ago, I wrote an article called "Reality is Bleeding, a Brief History of Cinema Since the 16th Century." It's an intentionally funny title—cinema was invented at the very end of the 19th century. How could we possibly be talking about the 16th century?

That the preconditions for us encountering a story in the way that we encounter it today, namely images cast up on a screen when we sit in a dark box looking at them, the preconditions for this were created 400 years ago during the rise of what I call the theatrical industry during the 16th century, and this is in cultural terms the most important change that took place at the time. First it was the printing press a little bit earlier, but then it was the rise of the theater for all the reasons that I talk about in what was my first book, How the World Became a Stage.

The world became a stage in a very serious sense, in a very physical and architectural sense, even, for Cervantes. I don't think that he could have imported those techniques that we now recognize, need, and expect when we read fiction into his writing if he hadn't been someone who not only deeply appreciated the theater but even wrote for the theater. That was one of his great desires when he came back from captivity. He thought, "I'm going to make it as a playwright."

He had a certain amount of success at the time, according to his own telling—we don't know how exaggerated it was. He claims authorship of a number of comedias, comedies, that we can't find any more, but there's no reason to doubt that he actually wrote them. That would be common for the time to have written things that then got lost in history.

His own tongue-in-cheek assessment of their success was that he didn't have rotten tomatoes and cucumbers thrown at him all the time. He clearly didn't have the natural talent for it that others at the time did—most spectacularly Lope de Vega, who went on to write by some counts over a thousand during his lifetime. What we do see is that his skill that he built during years and years of practicing writing characters for a medium that is dedicated to making characters stand out on the stage, I believe, really impacted his ability to write in the narrative form as well. His characters come alive precisely because they obtain some of the structural characteristics of theater characters.

In this book and other pieces that you've written, you use episodes from Quixote to illustrate a point or things that you're analyzing and discussing. The novel, of course, is overstuffed with such episodes. Are there any that favorites for you that you haven't used yet or that didn't really need an intellectual survey to unpack them?

I surprised myself by the number that I didn't use in the end. I think it's precisely for what you were talking about. For example, the Cave of Montesinos is one of the most famous episodes in the book. At the end of the book, I looked and I said, "You know what, I never wrote about this," and it's an extraordinary episode. Quixote comes upon a hole in the ground, and he says, "Sancho, this is the famous Cave of Montesinos," and Sancho says, "Really, I've never heard of that." And Quixote says, "Well, this is a moment for a great adventure. You're going to hold this rope, and you're going to help me down into it." Sancho lowers him down, the rope goes loose, and Sancho thinks, "I've lost him." Then the rope goes tight again and, a few minutes later, Quixote comes back out.

And he tells this story. He says, "I've been down there for days and days on end, and this happened and that happened," and it was absolutely wonderful and marvelous—again, all falling into much of the pattern that we know about this complete rupture between lived experience and perceived experience that Cervantes is always playing with. But, no, it didn't make it into the final version as many, many episodes did.