May 2, 2022

The Spanish novel, written by Miguel de Cervantes, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha, is often credited as the first modern novel in Western literature.  Literally translated to English, the title reads “The Ingenious Low-Born Nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha.” 

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The inclusion of “ingenious” describing the title character is a curious choice, given that Don Quixote is, in fact, a crazy old man named Alonso Quixano that imagines himself a gallant knight.  He mounts his trusty steed (a skinny nag) and dons his shining armor (with a shaving basin for a helmet) in order to fight giants (that are, in reality, windmills), while his trustworthy squire (his short, fat, yet profoundly loyal servant named Sancho Panza) supports his quest to win the hand of his Dulcinea del Toboso (a chaste maiden that he invents in his mind). 

In short, Alonso Quixano is delusional, and, in throes of his madness, he is bent on imposing his own self-perception upon the world around him.  So, how is it that he could be “ingenious?” 

Particularly later in the novel, “the narrator and several characters observe” that he is “remarkably intelligent and knowledgeable.”  But Rivka Galchen, writing in the New York Times, suggests that Don Quixote may not be so much crazy as he is calculated, and deviously self-serving:

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I didn’t, on that first reading [of the novel], pay much attention to the way that Don Quixote’s delusions often made others suffer.  Thirsty mules can’t drink from their trough because Don Quixote insists it’s a baptismal font; Sancho Panza is roughed up after Quixote doesn’t pay his hotel bill; and on and on. …

At a later moment, the book seemed to me to be about what a power move it is to be “eccentric” and how that eccentricity coerces others into serving your fantasy.  I found Quixotism in the world to be at times irritating, and at times cruel, and at times I saw the heroism of Don Quixote’s friends and neighbors, the “normal” people. [emphasis added]

Any madman can act out a preferred fantasy, either for attention or for self-gratification.  Getting others to go along with that fantasy requires some guile and forethought.  Getting an entire culture to accept this fantasy in the place of reality requires something more.  It requires a society that is chock-full of sympathetic enablers who are willing to accept as fact what is obviously a fantasy. 

As Galchen observes, Quixote’s self-indulgence in the fantasy isn’t the point.  Rather, the imposition of his fantasy upon others is the point — a “power move” of “eccentricity” which forces those around him to take part in the charade. 

In many ways, Quixotism and the hypermodern notion of transgenderism are quite the same. 

Both are conceived as a reflection of traditional societal touchstones, for example.  Alonso Quixano imagines himself to be the wealthy and revered Don Quixote, and he makes efforts to look, dress, speak, and act in a manner that the society around him would recognize as authentic.