The 400th anniversary of Don Quixote - Spain in the age of Cervantes - Part Two

Every ruling class entertains the same illusions about itself. In their imaginations they are conquering heroes, when in reality they are involved in the most sordid and dirty business. Cervantes reflects the breaking down of the old feudal society and a transition towards a capitalist society and morality, based on money not rank.

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A period of transition

He [Marx] ranked Cervantes and Balzac above all other novelists. In Don Quixote he saw the epic of dying-out chivalry whose virtues were ridiculed and scoffed at in the emerging bourgeois world.” (Paul Lafargue, Reminiscences of Marx)

Every ruling class entertains the same illusions about itself. In their imaginations they are conquering heroes, when in reality they are involved in the most sordid and dirty business. Marx, who greatly admired the Quixote, wrote:

“This much, however, is clear, that the Middle Ages could not live on Catholicism, nor the ancient world on politics. On the contrary, it is the mode in which they gained a livelihood that explains why here politics, and there Catholicism, played the chief part. For the rest, it requires but a slight acquaintance with the history of the Roman republic, for example, to be aware that its secret history is the history of its landed property. On the other hand, Don Quixote long ago paid the penalty for wrongly imagining that knight errantry was compatible with all economic forms of society.”

Whereas in Lope de Vega the old feudal idea of honour is treated with deadly seriousness, in Quixote it is turned into a subject for humour. Cervantes is looking forward, while Lope is looking backwards. Cervantes represents a transition towards a capitalist society and morality, based on money not rank, while Lope looks back longingly to the moral certainties of a vanishing world where every man knew his place and society was held together by a strong cement of honour and mutual obligations. Yet Lope’s works already give the game away: they are a tacit admission that these values have collapsed with the old society that produced them.

The essence of the humour of Don Quixote is precisely the contradictions generated by the transition from feudalism to capitalism, from a society based upon the concept of feudal service, honour and loyalty, to an entirely different society based exclusively on money relations. Don Quixote’s knight errantry conflicts with the existing social and economic reality, in the same way that dreams conflict with everyday life. It is a literary expression of the bankrupt Spanish aristocracy, which cloaked its poverty in an aura of gentile noblesse. It is the irony of a social class that does not understand that it is doomed and that the old ways no longer have any part to play.

This contradiction strikes us as absurd and therefore comical. The poor and supposedly ignorant people understand the true state of affairs and rightly attribute the knights’ behaviour to madness. It is indeed a kind of madness, but it is not an individual madness but that of an entire social class that has outlived its usefulness yet remains unreconciled to the fact, and indeed oblivious to it.

As a matter of fact, Spain at the time was full of men with great names and impressive titles who did not have two pennies to rub together. There were even great landowners who were little more than beggars. In chapter one, we already have a description of Quixote as a member of a nobility that is a mere shadow of itself, reduced to semi-poverty, and paying scant attention to the mundane business of agricultural production:

“You must know then, that when our gentleman had nothing to do (which was almost all the year round), he passed his time in reading books of knight-errantry; which he did with that application and delight, that at last he in manner wholly left off his country sports, and even the care of his.”

Don Quixote has no conception of money. He exclaims indignantly: “Has he any precedent that a knight errant ever paid taxes, subsidy, poll tax, or so much as fare or ferry? What tailor ever had money for his clothes? Or what constable ever made him a reckoning for lodging in his castle?” He is outside the money economy altogether – at least in his mind. If it were left to Quixotic economics, society would soon go bust, since, at the time nobody had ever heard of credit, and even the proud holder of a credit card sooner or later faces the unpleasant necessity of settling his bills.

In the episode of the inn in chapter three, Don Quixote had to receive a lesson on modern economics from the innkeeper who enquired if he had any money with him, to which Don Quixote replied, “Not a cross, [for] I never read in any history of chivalry that any knight-errand ever carried money about him.’ ‘You are mistaken,’ cried the innkeeper, ‘for admit the histories are silent in this matter, the authors thinking it needless to mention things so evidently necessary as money and clean shirts, yet there is no reason to believe the knights went without either; and you may rest assured that all the knights-errant, of whom so many histories are full, had their purses well lined to supply themselves with necessaries, and carried also with them some shirts, and a small box of salves to heal their wounds.’”

The lesson was well learned. On setting out on his second round of adventures, Don Quixote made sure that he was well supplied with the coin of the realm, getting into a lot of debt as a result. We are informed in chapter seven that: “Don Quixote next set about getting some money; and selling one thing and pawning another, and making a bad bargain in every case, he got together a fair sum.” This was the story of the entire Spanish aristocracy and of Spain itself.

Sancho Panza

Pablo Picasso's black on
white drawing of Don Quixote

In Quixote there are two protagonists, not one. Alongside the tall, skinny knight mounted on a broken down old horse there is a short, fat peasant astride a mule. Here is one of the great duos of world literature, as inseparable as salt and pepper. What are we to make of the other protagonist of the novel? Sancho Panza is a poor farm labourer, a neighbour of Don Quixote, “an honest man (if indeed that title can be given to him who is poor), but with very little wit in his pate.” Sancho’s lack of wit is presumably what led him to follow his half-crazy master. Yet at every step it is the uneducated farm labourer who understands the real situation and attempts to demonstrate it to his master, who naturally refuses to believe it.

There are philosophical implications here also. The prevailing philosophy of the Spain of Cervantes had not advanced further than the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages, a vulgarised version of Aristotle mixed up with Plato’s idealism. The only real advances of philosophy in the Middle Ages were made by the Islamic philosophers and scientists of al-Andalus, but since Christian Spain had only just emerged from a long war of conquest of the south from the Moors, these ideas were anathema to it. The Church exercised a stranglehold over philosophy, as over all other aspects of intellectual life except for literature.

The Christian Scholastic philosophers spent an inordinate amount of time debating such questions as the sex of angels and how many angels could dance on the end of a pin. Cervantes parodies the university disputations in the hilarious controversy of Mambrino’s helmet. Nevertheless, Don Quixote himself is a philosophical idealist. In chapter ten he delivers one of his customary speech about the principles of knight- errantry, in which he proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that travelling knights (and by implication their squires) do not need to eat:

“How little thou knowest about it,” answered Don Quixote; “I would have thee to know, Sancho, that it is the glory of knights-errant to go without eating for a month, and even when they do eat, that it should be of what comes first to hand; and this would have been clear to thee hadst thou read as many histories as I have, for, though they are very many, among them all I have found no mention made of knights-errant eating, unless by accident or at some sumptuous banquets prepared for them, and the rest of the time they passed in dalliance. And though it is plain they could not do without eating and performing all the other natural functions, because, in fact, they were men like ourselves, it is plain too that, wandering as they did the most part of their lives through woods and wilds and without a cook, their most usual fare would be rustic viands such as those thou now offer me; so that, friend Sancho, let not that distress thee which pleases me, and do not seek to make a new world or pervert knight-errantry.”

However, Sancho Panza is a convinced philosophical materialist and will not hear a word of it:

“Great thanks,” said Sancho, “but I may tell your worship that provided I have enough to eat, I can eat it as well, or better, standing, and by myself, than seated alongside of an emperor. And indeed, if the truth is to be told, what I eat in my corner without form or fuss has much more relish for me, even though it be bread and onions, than the turkeys of those other tables where I am forced to chew slowly, drink little, wipe my mouth every minute, and cannot sneeze or cough if I want or do other things that are the privileges of liberty and solitude. So, senor, as for these honours which your worship would put upon me as a servant and follower of knight-errantry, exchange them for other things which may be of more use and advantage to me; for these, though I fully acknowledge them as received, I renounce from this moment to the end of the world.”

Sancho Panza, it turns out, is not so ignorant after all. His sayings contain the earthy common sense of the masses. He has his feet firmly set on the ground. He lives in the real world, from which Don Quixote has long departed. He eats, drinks, sneezes, sleeps and performs all the other bodily functions that his idealist master holds in contempt. Indeed, Sancho was mainly concerned with his belly (Panza actually means “belly” in Spanish). At one point he asks his master about the going wage-rates for the squires of knights errant. Elsewhere Don Quixote says: “for I might, by experience, have remembered that the word of a peasant is regulated not by honour but by profit.”

The Church

In the XV and XVI centuries Catholic Spain was in the vanguard of European reaction. This was the age of the Reformation – and the Counter-reformation. The Holy Roman Church stood at the centre of the established order and fought ferociously to defend its power and privileges against the spirit of the new age. In this bloody battle for the souls of men, the weapons used were not mere speeches but sword and fire. They took very seriously the words of the Bible: “I am come not to bring Peace but a Sword”.

The Roman Catholic Church was all-powerful in Spain – a fact emphasized by the fact that Cardinal Cisneros was made regent after the death of Fernando. Only after two years in government did he name Charles, the grandson of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella as king. Charles commenced a centralising policy, as part of which Madrid was made capital. He ordered the construction of El Escorial in the Sierra and even occasionally took part in overseeing the work on it.

This was a priest-ridden society. It led to the establishment of the Inquisition and the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), founded by the Basque fanatic San Ignacio de Loyola as the militant shock troops of the Counter-Reformation. Phillip II was so dominated and obsessed by religion that he was unable to take even the smallest political decision without first consulting with his priests.

Madrid and other Spanish cities were full of religious institutions, churches, monasteries and convents for holy orders like the Dezcalzas, or Barefoot nuns who mortified themselves in the way suggested by their name. In the newly built Plaza Mayor in Madrid there were all sorts of games and spectacles for the entertainment and edification of the public – including the most spectacular event of all: the auto da fe.

Religion impregnated every pore of Spanish society without producing any noticeable effect on public morals. The lower orders, while outwardly devout, were obsessed with superstitious fetishism that did nothing to instil a sense of moderation into their conduct. Thousands would gather in the Plaza de la Cebada to listen to the ranting of some half-crazy friar. The obsession with idolatry induced them to scrape plaster from the walls of churches to keep as a relic.

However, the prevailing mood of religious fanaticism did nothing to prevent the general epidemic of robbery, rape, murder, feuding and duelling that was on the order of the day. From the reign of the narrow-minded religious fanatic Phillip II to that of the dissolute Phillip IV, immorality reached its most spectacular nadir. The church itself reflected the general morals of the times. There were cases of friars involved in robbery, rape and murder. Duels took place by the dozen every day. At nights the streets were virtually impassable, the city’s illumination being limited to those lamps that flickered before the images of virgins and saints on the outer walls of houses.

The church, which was supposed to act as the guardian of public morals, was in fact a hotbed of political intrigue. Its fanatical insistence on upholding by any means the supposed doctrinal purity of the church was in reality a means of strengthening the church’s control over every aspect of life and human behaviour. This spiritual dictatorship, backed up by the Inquisition – the Gestapo of the Middle Ages – was just another manifestation of the bureaucratic state that ran Spain and presided over its ruin.

Intolerance and fanaticism were on the order of the day. After the conquest of Grenada the Moslems were forced to convert or leave Spain. Many converted in order to remain in their homeland, but they were subjected to all manner of vexatious restrictions and controls under the eagle eye of the Inquisition. They went to the extent of compelling every Moorish family to keep a ham hanging in the kitchen and even set up a “ham police” who inspected the aforementioned items at regular intervals to ensure that they were being consumed. Yet in the Quixote Cervantes dares to speak sympathetically about the Moriscos.

When Quixote utters the famous words to Sancho: “Con la Iglesia hemos tropezado, Sancho” (“We are up against the Church here, Sancho”) he created an expression that has become almost a proverb in Spanish. While Don Quixote was quite prepared to charge against windmills, he had to think twice about tackling the Church. Of course, in an age in which the Inquisition burned men and women for the most trivial offences, Cervantes had to tread with care, and he took care to cover his back with protestations of his faith. But it is very clear that his attitude at least to organized religion was critical, if not openly hostile. If one reads Quixote carefully, it becomes immediately evident that criticism of the Church runs like a red thread through the whole book. In chapter five, Quixote’s niece says:

“But I take all the blame upon myself for never having told your worships of my uncle’s vagaries, that you might put a stop to them before things had come to this pass, and burn all these accursed books – for he has a great number – that richly deserve to be burned like heretics.” This was duly carried out in the next chapter, when one by one all Don Quixote’s books are consigned to the flames:

“That night the housekeeper burned to ashes all the books that were in the yard and in the whole house; and some must have been consumed that deserved preservation in everlasting archives, but their fate and the laziness of the inquisitor did not permit it, and so in them was verified the proverb that the innocent suffer for the guilty.”

This is very clearly a parody on the autos da fe of the Inquisition that filled the central squares of Spanish towns with the stench of burning flesh. In these brutal ceremonies all too often it was the innocent that were made to suffer, while the guilty presided over the entertainment. On other occasions, too, Don Quixote speaks with withering contempt about the Church. In an age when the Holy Inquisition held absolute power over life and death, this was a very courageous, even reckless, stand to take. In Chapter XIII somebody says that Carthusian monks also live austere lives as well as knights errant. “As austere it may perhaps be,” replied our Don Quixote, “but so necessary for the world I am very much inclined to doubt.”

A rebellious spirit

Reading between the lines it is possible to detect elements of social criticism in almost every page of Quixote. The spirit of rebellion is present even from the very beginning. In the author’s preface we read:

“Thou art neither its kinsman nor its friend, thy soul is thine own and thy will as free as any man’s, whate'er he be, thou art in thine own house and master of it as much as the king of his taxes and thou knowest the common saying, ‘Under my cloak I kill the king;’ all which exempts and frees thee from every consideration and obligation, and thou canst say what thou wilt of the story without fear of being abused for any ill or rewarded for any good thou mayest say of it.”

Don Quixote is also an instinctive communist. In a speech to some incredulous goatherds, he speaks about a long past age of gold when all things were held in common:

“Happy the age, happy the time, to which the ancients gave the name of golden, not because in that fortunate age the gold so coveted in this our iron one was gained without toil, but because they that lived in it knew not the two words “mine” and “thine”! In that blessed age all things were in common; to win the daily food no labour was required of any save to stretch forth his hand and gather it from the sturdy oaks that stood generously inviting him with their sweet ripe fruit.”

He contrasts this golden age when all things were held in common with the present age when money and greed determine every aspect of life and thought:

“But now in this hateful age of ours not one is safe, not though some new labyrinth like that of Crete conceal and surround her; even there the pestilence of gallantry will make its way to them through chinks or on the air by the zeal of its accursed importunity, and, despite of all seclusion, lead them to ruin. In defence of these, as time advanced and wickedness increased, the order of knights-errant was instituted, to defend maidens, to protect widows and to succour the orphans and the needy. To this order I belong, brother goatherds, to whom I return thanks for the hospitality and kindly welcome ye offer me and my squire; for though by natural law all living are bound to show favour to knights-errant, yet, seeing that without knowing this obligation ye have welcomed and feasted me, it is right that with all the good-will in my power I should thank you for yours.” (XII)

It was a masterstroke of Cervantes to put what would be very daring social criticism in the mouth of a madman. Every revolutionary in history has been regarded as mad by his contemporaries. To most people it is rational to accept the status quo, and whoever does not accept the existing order is irrational – crazy – by definition.

Hegel wrote: “All that is real is rational; and all that is rational is real.” And that statement has been taken to be an absolute justification of the status quo. But Engels explains that for Hegel not everything that exists is also real, without further qualification. For Hegel the attribute of reality belongs only to that which at the same time is necessary: “In the course of its development reality proves to be necessity.”

That which is necessary proves itself in the last resort to be also rational.

It goes without saying for a Marxist that everything that exists does so from some necessity. But things constantly change, evolve, become modified and engender internal contradictions that eventually bring about their destruction. They therefore lose the quality of necessity and enter into contradiction with it. The ground begins to shake under the feet of the established order. Those people who considered themselves to be the supreme realists now turn out to be the worst kind of reactionary utopians, whereas those who were seen as dreamers and madmen turn out to be the only sane people in a world that has itself gone mad.

In an historical period when an outmoded socio-economic system is in decline, the ideology, morality, values and religion that were previously the glue that held society together, lose their power of attraction. Old ideas and values become the object of ridicule. The people who cling to them become figures of fun, like Don Quixote. The historically relative nature of morality becomes evident. What was bad becomes good, what was good becomes bad.

The long ignominious decline of Spain

The discovery of America, which at first enriched and elevated Spain, was subsequently directed against it. The great routes of commerce were diverted from- the Iberian peninsula. Holland, which had grown rich, broke away from Spain. Following Holland, England rose to great heights over Europe, and for a long time. Beginning with the second half of the sixteenth century, Spain had already begun to decline. With the destruction of the Great Armada (1588), this decline assumed, so to speak, an official character. The condition which Marx called ‘inglorious and slow, decay’ settled down upon feudal-bourgeois Spain.” (Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution, 1931.)

Underneath all the brilliance of Spain’s achievements, the foundations of this imposing edifice were already crumbling. The whole fabric of society was rotten. Despite the perilous state of Spain’s finances, it was decided to renew the war with Holland. In order to raise an army of mercenaries in Spain and Germany the treasury issued false coinage in the shape of the vellon, a step that led inevitably to an explosion of inflation. The final collapse came about slowly and ignominiously.

It was not only the currency that was devalued. The monarchy was utterly debauched and the court nothing but a cesspool of immorality and vice. In the reign of Phillip IV the immorality of the Spanish court reached scandalous extremes. The monarch himself, when he was not busy hunting in El Pardo, El Escorial and Aranjuez, passed the time in numerous amorous affairs and was consequently surrounded by a veritable army of mistresses, lovers and illegitimate children. He was father to numerous illegitimate children, of which the most famous was Don Juan Jose of Austria, whom he fathered on the comic actress known as La Caldonera. The queen, for her part, made no secret of her lover – the count of Villamedina.

As the leading power of the Counter-Reformation, Spain was looking back, attempting to stem the flow of history. It was pursuing a quixotic policy. And like Don Quixote, it did not succeed in stopping the clock, but only in condemning itself to decline, defeat and decay at all levels. Spain was already a giant with feet of clay, and its military adventures in the Low Countries were to knock the last nail into its coffin. In a very short space of time, Holland had freed herself from the deadly embrace of Spain, which was soon to find itself the victim of foreign military aggression, humiliated and crushed by nations that previously had been its inferiors.

The Inquisition now became all-powerful, presiding over a reign of terror, based on the usual methods of torture and burnings. In 1680 the Plaza Mayor was the scene of a spectacular auto da fe. The stench of burning flesh poisoned the soul and warped the mind of Spain. Obscurantism penetrated to the highest levels of the state. This prevailing mood was reflected in the art of the period, an art that, with a few noteworthy exceptions was impregnated with a spirit of narrow and mindless fanaticism.

The decline of Spain is a graphic illustration of how a society that is unable to develop the productive forces can fall victim to its own success. “Pride comes before a fall” as the proverb tells us. The arrogance of Imperial Spain has a modern counterpart in the arrogance of the USA today. Just as Spain was the most powerful and wealthiest nation on earth in the 16th century, so the USA is today. Just as Spain was the nerve centre of world counterrevolution then, so the USA is now. And just as Spain overreached itself in foreign military adventures that sapped its strength and drained its coffers, so the USA is overreaching itself on a world scale.

The parallels are obvious and extend to the sphere of ideology and religion. George W. Bush is a narrow-minded religious bigot, just like Philip II, and every bit as determined to establish absolute world domination. These parallels are no accident. We are living in a period of great historical change – a period of transition, similar to that of the 16th century. But whereas at that time the world was witnessing the breakdown of feudalism and an irresistible movement towards capitalism, now we are seeing the death-throes of capitalism and an equally irresistible movement towards a new society that we call socialism.

Those who have the courage to say what is are called utopians, dreamers and madmen. We share that honour with Don Quixote. We find ourselves as little at home in the world of capitalism as our illustrious forbear. But unlike him we do not seek to turn the clock back or to return to a golden age that never existed. On the contrary, we fervently desire to go forward to a new and qualitatively higher phase of human development.

We have no need of dreams and illusions, but prefer to keep our feet firmly on the ground. In that regard, at least, we are more in the tradition of that big-hearted and commonsensical proletarian Sancho Panza. But we share with the knight of La Mancha a fierce hatred of injustice in all its forms. We share his ability to rise above the narrow pettiness of the bourgeois philistine, to desire a better world than the one we live in, and the courage to fight to change it.