A Tantalus of letters

From Miguel de Cervantes’ Novel of the Glass Lawyer (Novela del licenciado Vidriera):

In the crowded circle of people who, as we have said, were always listening to him, was an acquaintance of his in a lawyer’s cassock and cloak whom someone called Señor Licentiate. And since Vidriera knew that the man did not even have a bachelor’s degree, he said to him:

“Be careful, compadre, that the friars who redeem captives don’t find your diploma, because they’ll take it from you as common property.”

To which his friend responded:

“Let us treat each other nicely, Señor Vidriera, for you already know I am a man of high and profound letters.”

Vidriera replied:

“I know you are a Tantalus of letters, because some get away from you because they are too high and you cannot reach the profound ones.”


En la rueda de la mucha gente que, como se ha dicho, siempre le estaba oyendo, estaba un conocido suyo en hábito de letrado, al cual otro le llamóSeñor Licenciado; y, sabiendo Vidriera que el tal a quien llamaron licenciado no tenía ni aun título de bachiller, le dijo:

-Guardaos, compadre, no encuentren con vuestro título los frailes de la redempción de cautivos, que os le llevarán por mostrenco.

A lo cual dijo el amigo:

-Tratémonos bien, señor Vidriera, pues ya sabéis vos que soy hombre de altas y de profundas letras.

Respondióle Vidriera:

-Ya yo sé que sois un Tántalo en ellas, porque se os van por altas y no las alcanzáis de profundas.

His style is a model of simplicity but only when he forgets all about it

From Salvador de Madariaga‘s Don Quixote: An Introductory Essay in Psychology, a book that has sadly been out of print (in English, at least) since 1948. It is better known for the concluding chapters on how Don Quixote and Sancho reciprocally reshape each other over the course of the novel, but the portions on the tensions underlying Cervantes’ creative style are almost as rich. First a summary statement (pg. 12)

It is well to remember that in Cervantes, as in almost every other Spanish genius, there is as pronounced lack of harmony between the critical and the creative faculties. As a creator, Cervantes is one of the freest men of genius in the world of art. As a critic, his mind is both guided and fettered by classical and academic ideas which merge into hard literary dogmas, as it were, without warning. The two tendencies appear almost inextricably mixed in his attitude towards Books of Chivalry.

and here a more fully explored version of the same (pg. 46-48):

[Cervantes] had in him a royal measure of natural creative spirit; he had also a strong critical prepossession and rather fancied his scholarship, as witness the somewhat naive remarks on translations which he puts in the mouth of Don Quixote when the Knight is visiting the Printing Works in Barcelona. He was endowed with at least the usual amount of sensitiveness to criticism; lastly he worked, as it were, under the eyes of a host of rivals eager to find a flaw. His natural self-consciousness was therefore exacerbated by the conditions under which he was working. And the point is important, for the main effect of self-consciousness in creative work is that it hinders the fusion of the elements which enter into the composition and prevents their blending into an harmonious unity.

Hence the complexity of Don Quixote as a literary work, for in it the diverse currents of influence which acted upon Cervantes at the time of writing appear flowing, as it were, side by side, and may be traced to their different sources. The most important of all, that which gives the work its immortal value, is the creative spirit of the race, as manifest in Cervantes’ predecessors, and particularly in La Celestina. When Cervantes is in this vein he is at his best. Then his observation is so acute, his style so terse and clear, that the work is as reality itself to us. It is the vein of most of the dialogue scenes between Don Quixote and Sancho. Cervantes is here the unprejudiced and spontaneous creator, the impartial observer and lover of men, whatever their condition, rank, virtue; the born writer who never sets down a word that is not living; the free artist who knows nothing but reality seen through emotion; the ideal poet, in whom the ever romantic imagination is instinctively guided and tempered by the ever classic common sense.

And now and then the learned gentleman with literary ambitions puts in a word. Then Cervantes tries to vie with the wits of Italy; He seeks the strange plot; he tries his hand at daintily twisted phrases; he courts the elusive metaphor. When this will-o-the-wisp gets hold of his fancy it is the curious paradox of this most wonderful book that Cervantes seems to forget the very principles of classical order which he so admirably applies when under a spontaneous creative inspiration. Left to itself, his creative imagination, though romantic by nature, is classical in its sobriety, in the economy of its means, in the admirable restraint of its conception and expression. Hustled by his pseudo-classical conceits, this imagination which we saw so true and clearsighted, seems to lose touch with the earth and indulge in extravagant and fanciful evolutions; matter and style become elaborate and needlessly complicated, and Cervantes is then as extravagantly romantic as he was severely classic when writing under the influence of his classical prepossessions.

In writing his Don Quixote, Cervantes meant to break a lance in the cause of simplicity. And, in fact, his style is a model of simplicity but only when he forgets all about it…

The manure that has fallen on the barren soil of my dry wits

From chapter 12 of the second part of Don Quixote:

“That’s a fine comparison,” said Sancho, “though not so new that I haven’t heard it many times before, like the one about chess: as long as the game lasts, each piece has its particular rank and position, but when the game’s over they’re mixed and jumbled and thrown together in a bag, just the way life is tossed into the grave.”

“Every day, Sancho,” said Don Quixote, “you are becoming less simple and more intelligent.”

“Yes, some of your grace’s intelligence has to stick to me,” responded Sancho, “for lands that are barren and dry on their own can produce good fruits if you spread manure on them and till them; I mean to say that your grace’s conversation has been the manure that has fallen on the barren soil of my dry wits; the time I have served you and talked to you has been the tilling; and so I hope to produce fruits that are a blessing and do not go to seed or stray from the paths of good cultivation that your grace has made in my parched understanding.”


— ¡Brava comparación! —dijo Sancho—, aunque no tan nueva que yo no la haya oído muchas y diversas veces, como aquella del juego del ajedrez, que, mientras dura el juego, cada pieza tiene su particular oficio; y, en acabándose el juego, todas se mezclan, juntan y barajan, y dan con ellas en una bolsa, que es como dar con la vida en la sepultura.

— Cada día, Sancho —dijo don Quijote—, te vas haciendo menos simple y más discreto.

— Sí, que algo se me ha de pegar de la discreción de vuestra merced — respondió Sancho—; que las tierras que de suyo son estériles y secas, estercolándolas y cultivándolas, vienen a dar buenos frutos: quiero decir que la conversación de vuestra merced ha sido el estiércol que sobre la estéril tierra de mi seco ingenio ha caído; la cultivación, el tiempo que ha que le sirvo y comunico; y con esto espero de dar frutos de mí que sean de bendición, tales, que no desdigan ni deslicen de los senderos de la buena crianza que vuesa merced ha hecho en el agostado entendimiento mío.

Some nonsense

From ch 25 of part 1 of Don Quixote:

“Well, Sancho, by the same oath you swore before, I swear to you,” said Don Quixote, “that you have the dimmest wits that any squire in the world has or ever had. Is it possible that in all the time you have traveled with me you have not yet noticed that all things having to do with knights errant appear to be chimerical, foolish, senseless, and turned inside out? And not because they really are, but because hordes of enchanters always walk among us and alter and change everything and turn things into whatever they please, according to whether they wish to favor us or destroy us; and so, what seems to you a barber’s basin seems to me the helmet of Mambrino, and will seem another thing to someone else.

My Borgesian imagining of the day – a reading where Quixote’s claim here is taken seriously. We cease understanding the novel as satirical work by Cervantes and view it instead as the mocking product of enchanters determined to warp a true romance of the knight’s deeds. In order to restore events to their true form the reader must inhabit Quixote’s perspective – since the great cruelty of the enchanters was in leaving him able to see and speak the truth while altering everything around him. In essence, we must quixotize ourselves through the novel just as Quixote had transformed himself through his own reading. Only when we too take the flocks of sheep in ch.19 as the armies of Alifanfaron and Pentapolin have we escaped their spell and restored the text.

This may also tread somewhat into the spirit of Unamuno’s Life of Don Quixote and Sancho.

Because myth is at the beginning of literature and also at its end

From Borges’ El Hacedor / The Maker:

Parable of Cervantes and Don Quixote
Weary of his Spanish homeland, an aging soldier of the king’s army sought comfort in Ariosto’s vast geographies, in the lunar valley where lies the time that dreams squander away, and in the golden idol of Mohammed stolen by Montalban.

Gently mocking himself, he thought up an impressionable man who, unbalanced from reading fantastic tales, went forth to find feats of arms and enchantments in ordinary places with names like El Toboso and Montiel.

Defeated by reality – by Spain – Don Quixote died in his native village around 1614. Miguel de Cervantes briefly outlived him.

For both the dreamer and the man he dreamed, the story was about the clash of opposing worlds: the unreal world of chivalric fiction and the average, everyday world of the seventeenth century.

Neither imagined that with the passage of years the strife would diminish, nor did they imagine that La Mancha and Montiel and the knight’s scrawny physique would be no less poetic in the future than the adventures of Sinbad or Ariosto’s vast geographies.

Because myth is at the beginning of literature and also at its end.

Devoto Clinic, January 1955.


Parábola de Cervantes y de Quijote
Harto de su tierra de España, un viejo soldado del rey buscó solaz en las vastas geografías de Ariosto, en aquel valle de la luna donde está el tiempo que malgastan los sueños y en el ídolo de oro de Mahoma que robó Montalbán.

En mansa burla de sí mismo, ideó un hombre crédulo que, perturbado por la lectura de maravillas, dio en buscar proezas y encantamientos en lugares prosaicos que se llamaban El Toboso o Montiel.

Vencido por la realidad, por España, don Quijote murió en su aldea natal hacia 1614. Poco tiempo lo sobrevivió Miguel de Cervantes.

Para los dos, para el soñador y el soñado, toda esa trama fue la oposición de dos mundos: el mundo irreal de los libros de caballerías, el mundo cotidiano y común del siglo XVII.

No sospecharon que los años acabarían por limar la discordia, no sospecharon que la Mancha y Montiel y la magra figura del caballero serían, para el porvenir, no menos poéticas que las etapas de Simbad o que las vastas geografías de Ariosto.

Porque en el principio de la literatura está el mito, y asimismo en el fin.

Clínica Devoto, enero de 1955.

If truth be told, what I eat … tastes much better to me in my corner without fancy or respectful manners

From ch 11 in Part 1 of Don Quixote, Edith Grossman’s translation. My adult self finds in Sancho here an image of anyone ineffectually resisting an unsought promotion.

“So that you may see, Sancho, the virtue contained in knight errantry, and how those who practice any portion of it always tend to be honored and esteemed in the world, I want you to sit here at my side and in the company of these good people, and be the same as I, who am your natural lord and master; eat from my plate and drink where I drink, for one may say of knight errantry what is said of love: it makes all things equal.”

“You’re too kind!” said Sancho. “But I can tell your grace that as long as I have something good to eat, I’ll eat it just as well or better standing and all alone as sitting at the height of an emperor. Besides, if truth be told, what I eat, even if it’s bread and onion, tastes much better to me in my corner without fancy or respectful manners, than a turkey would at other tables where I have to chew slowly, not drink too much, wipe my mouth a lot, not sneeze or cough if I feel like it, or do other things that come with solitude and freedom. And so, Señor, these honors that your grace wants to grant me for being a servant and follower of knight errantry, which I am, being your grace’s squire, you should turn into other things that will be of greater comfort and benefit to me; these, though I am grateful for them, I renounce now and forever.”

“Despite all that, you will sit down, for God exalts the man who humbles himself.”

And seizing him by the arm, he obliged Sancho to sit next to him.