“To each his Dulcinea,
Though she’s naught but flame and air.”
— “Man of La Mancha”
I’ve heard it said that everybody ought to read Don Quixote three times in his or her life: in youth, in middle age, and in the ripeness of one’s elder years. I’ve already followed two-thirds of this advice.
I read Cervantes’s masterpiece first at age 11, the summer before seventh grade. I reread it when I was 40. I was at the time beginning to study Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition of the Middle Ages, which had its flowering in medieval Christian Spain. Spain and the great literature it produced–the Zohar (the seminal text of Kabbalah) at the end of the 13th century, Don Quixote 300 years later–were much on my mind. Also, my father had just died. It’s a time when you turn to the great books, like the Zohar or the Quixote, that may have something to say about what life means for us.
Now maybe it’s time for the third reading. I’ve just turned 65. And this past Monday I had the immense pleasure of participating, through the wonders of Skype, in Professor Michael Joy’s honors seminar at Northern Michigan University. (Photo at the bottom of this post.) Michael, a professor of Spanish literature, teaches his honors course about Don Quixote and its towering influence on literature and film. This year he selected three books as examples of that influence. Goethe, Sorrows of Young Werther. Flaubert, Madame Bovary. And my own Journal of a UFO Investigator.
In a so far unpublished paper, Michael has called attention to some intriguing parallels between my novel and Don Quixote. There’s the overarching concern with imagination vs. reality. There’s the pivotal role played by books–Quixote’s books of knight-errantry, Danny Shapiro’s books of UFOlogy. And there’s the enigmatic descent of Cervantes’s knight into the magical “Cave of Montesinos” in the second part of Don Quixote (chapter 23), where, for the only time that I can recall, Don Quixote meets his yearned-for Lady Dulcinea face to face. (Danny also makes a descent, in the course of which he too encounters an unearthly female.)
When I visited Michael’s class–and on Skype, it really did feel like I was visiting, like the thousand miles between us had miraculously disappeared–I asked him and his students: Does Don Quixote ever have any relations with a real woman? The consensus was that he doesn’t. There’s his niece; there’s his housekeeper; there’s a countess who, in Part II, toys with him and Sancho Panza for her and her husband’s amusement. But Dulcinea? Either she doesn’t exist at all–this seems to be her status in Part II–or she’s a real woman whom Quixote barely knows, barely visible beneath the idealized fantasies he’s projected onto her.
“Near the Place where he lived, dwelt a good likely Country Lass, for whom he had formerly had a sort of an Inclination, though ’tis believ’d, she never heard of it, nor regarded it in the least. Her name was Aldonza Lorenzo, and this was she whom he thought he might entitle to the Sovereignty of his Heart: Upon which he studied to find her out a new Name, that might have some Affinity with her old one, and yet at the same time sound somewhat like that of a Princess, or Lady of Quality: So at last he resolved to call her Dulcinea, with the Addition of del Toboso, from the Place where she was born; a Name, in his Opinion, sweet, harmonious, extraordinary, and no less significative than the others which he had devis’d.”
(I’m quoting the 18th-century Motteux-Ozell translation, published by the Modern Library with the magnificently grisly engravings of Gustave Dore. This was the version that I found on my parents’ bookshelves when I was 11; it’s the one that for me will always be the real Don Quixote.)
“A good likely Country Lass.” Not an embittered prostitute. This may come as a surprise to those who know Don Quixote only via “Man of La Mancha.” This wonderful musical has Quixote and Sancho meet Aldonza Lorenzo at a country inn–which, of course, Quixote perceives as a castle–and puts the collision between his dreamy chivalry and her brutal realism at the center of the drama. The original Quixote has none of this. Aldonza never comes, so to speak, on stage. Cervantes gives us no erotic tension to balance his buddy saga of knight and squire.
I remember, at age 11, finding Aldonza/Dulcinea’s absence acutely frustrating. I wanted badly to “see” her, in the way that the magic of literature makes us feel we’re “seeing” the characters. After all, she’d been a central character in a TV adaptation of Don Quixote which I’d seen not long before, and which inspired me to pull the book down from the shelf and start reading. I don’t remember much about the TV version except that, as “Man of La Mancha” was to do, it brought the knight and his not-so-ladylike lady into direct confrontation. (Also that the actress who played Aldonza was very, very sexy.)
In Cervantes, this happens only once–in the eerie, enigmatic, dreamlike Cave of Montesinos. Let Don Quixote tell the story:
“But what will you think when I tell you, among many wonderful things, that I saw three Country-Wenches leaping and skipping about these pleasant Fields like so many wild Goats; and at first Sight knew one of them to be the Peerless Dulcinea …
“[W]ho should come to me but one of the unfortunate Dulcinea’s Companions, and before I was aware, with a faint and doleful Voice, Sir, said she, my Lady Dulcinea del Toboso gives her Service to you, and desires to know how you do; and being a little short of Money at present, she desires you of all Love and Kindness, to lend her six Reals upon this New-Fustian-Petticoat, or more or less as you can spare it, Sir, and she’ll take care to redeem it very honestly in a little time.”
Quixote is glad to oblige. Unfortunately he has only four reals with him.
“All this and more you owe my Mistress, said the Damsel; and then, having got the four Reals, instead of dropping me a Curtsey, she cut a Caper in the Air two Yards high.”
Thus the Cave-of-Montesinos adventure ends, leaving the reader wondering what is going on (or not going on), and Sancho, when he hears the story, declaring that his master’s “Whimsies … have so wretchedly crack’d that rare Head-piece of yours.” And Lady Dulcinea vanished forever into the air.
Yet she’s left behind her an epitaph, in which the earthy “Country Lass” on whom Quixote had his staggering, hopeless crush peeks out from behind her Dulcinea mask. Cervantes “quotes” it at the end of Part I. It’s haunted me since I read it, as an 11-year-old boy who was soon to know a thing or two about hopeless crushes. I expect it’ll be part of me to the day I die.
“Here Dulcinea lies,
Once brawny, plump and lusty;
But now to Death a Prize,
And somewhat lean and musty.
For her the Country-Fry,
Like Quixote, long stood steady.
Well might she carry’t high;
Far less has made a Lady.”
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