Monday, November 25, 2013

The pretension of faith, the burning of books

Capítulo V. Donde se prosigue la narración de la desgracia de nuestro caballero
Chapter Five - Wherein continues the narrative of the misfortune of our knight.

Prone on his back, unable to rise, DQ acordó de acogerse a su ordinario remedio - 'thought he would revert to his usual remedy'- que era pensar en algún paso de sus libros - 'which was to call to mind some passage from his books.' 

With his battered hero unable to get his feet under him, Cervantes takes up a couple of hot-button topics: the pretension of faith, and later in the chapter, the burning of books. 

Cervantes might have crafted a narrative that could get him into serious trouble but our novelist is too agile for the Inquisitor.

Cervantes roots DQ's present delusional mutterings not in Spain but north of the Pyrenees, in France. So, whatever follows, on the printed page, cannot be seen as a direct critique of contemporary Spanish attitudes, customs or beliefs.

What occurs to DQ, lying there in the dust, are the legends of a wounded (European - not Spanish) knight abandoned by his Liege. 

The remembered tale from one of DQ's books, is rooted in the semi-historical, hazy recollections of the reign of Charlemagne. This story is one of many sentimentalized Carolingian legends, which were sparked into existence by the nostalgic desire to recreate a lost (and never actual existent) 'Christian' Empire in celtic Europe, that is, in France and the British Isles. 

A famous epic poem, not obviously or directly influential with Cervantes, is the 12th century Song of Roland, which lauds the courageous nephew of Charlemagne, who preferred to die in battle with the Moors than call on his uncle Charlie for deliverance. With Arthur, his round table and Lancelot set to one side for the moment, Roland seems to be the ground on which the other French legends were built: "The stories of Roland and other such heroes of the Carolingian age were very popular among the warrior class of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries." (Helen Nicholson: The Knights Templar, 2010, p. 80)

But before continuing with his story of a beaten-up DQ lying in the dust, a question: 

does Cervantes anywhere have 
in mind The Poem of El Cid? 

Maybe we can answer this down the road.

The recollection by DQ of legends associated with an 8-9th century "Roman" emperor allows the incident to unfold without kindling any suspicion that Cervantes is not too impressed or happy about the social hierarchy of his contemporary Spain.

In an editorial aside, Cervantes wants his readers to believe we have before us:
historia sabida de los niños, no ignorada de los mozos, celebrada y aun creída de los viejos
'history memorized by children, not forgotten by young people, celebrated and believed by the old folks'

Triune components of faith are here proposed: 
(1) memorization 
(2) recall
(3) celebration & belief
each of which become the grounds and then the content of religious practice. Cervantes is proposing that religious faith contains elements that are not rooted in actual history, accessible by anyone with curiosity. 

No. Faith is composed of what children memorize, adults remember and old people commemorate. This analysis is not placed in the mouth or mind of any character but comes as gloss by the novelist.

In recalling the old legends, DQ acts out the three elements of faith, as Cervantes lays them out: (1) memorize (2) remember (3) venerate - by which a system of belief becomes the contents of faith. This works as well for an insane individual as it does for anyone.

Just as the reader begins to rest contentedly, savoring the formula which outlines the elements of faith, Cervantes slips in the shive between pious late-medieval ribs: 

. . . con todo esto no más verdadera que los milagros de . . . 
'. . . despite all this, no more true than the miracles of . . .' 
. . . of . . . Christ? . . . of Moses? . . . of one of the prophets or Apostles? Not a chance. 

Cervantes is not going to lead with his whiskered chin, not when Peninsular Islam is right there, recently destroyed and exiled to north Africa. Islam is all laid out, ready to become a foil and safe target, before Spanish readers. The tales of knights-errant are:
. . . no más verdadera que los milagros de Mahoma 
'. . . no more true than the miracles of  Muhammad.'

Another question: assuming that Cervantes is writing a send up of what he has garnered from writings, may we assume that if the ancient, pre-Roman Celts had left written records, Cervantes would have debunked forested, druidic gatherings, where priests conducted communal pantomimes of natural cyclic occurrences, while insisting that they and only they themselves rightly understood such mysteries?  

Having safely made his observation about the unreasoned structure of faith, Cervantes returns to the saga of DQ, who is still lying in the road, where a neighbor and peasant Pedro Alonzo comes upon him.

Pedro Alonzo is a savvy peasant - savvy precisely because a man of the laboring class must know and conform himself to the subtleties of the social hierarchy. 

This neighbor knows insanity when he sees it. Alonzo also knows, "Senor Quijana" outranks Alonzo socially.

This means that the helpless hidalgo is entitled to care and protection. Pedro Alonzo must go out of his way to return DQ to his own people and to his own house. Personal inconvenience or risk to the peasant is hardly worth a mention.

The laborer's place in the tale of don Quijote may advance the satire but without the laborer himself being made the butt, so far, of Cervantes' grand put-down of the pretensions of upper-class Spanish militarism. So far.

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