Is our fascination with blurring the boundaries of reality a new thing? Or has it always been there?
Let’s go back in time to Spain. The year, 1605.
‘In a certain village in La Mancha, which I do not wish to name…’
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes is insane, strikingly modern and a masterpiece. It’s a story within a story that beat the majority of contemporary works by more than 400 years. In fact, it’s considered by many as the world’s first ‘modern’ novel.
The insanity starts from the very beginning when the narrator says:
‘I am going to tell you a story which I actually gathered from other authors, books, manuscripts, etc. I am not really the author here, some books say this, others say that…’ which makes him a very unreliable narrator.
Then proceeds to tell the story of a very unreliable if not completely crazy character… Don Quixote.
Don Quixote by Salvador Dalí. (V&A Museum)
Don Quixote tells the story of a middle-aged man, obsessed with tales of chivalry, who reimagines himself as a knight, riding out into the world in pursuit of adventure.
His own version of reality makes him see windmills as giants, herds of sheep as armies and so on and on. At the same time, he also has his savvy assistant, Sancho Panza, who seems to know what is really going on and they are constantly arguing about what is real and what is not.
At the end of chapter 8, something really strange happens. Don Quixote decides to defy a new adversary, the Biscayan, and when the battle reaches its climax with both swords in mid-swing… the narrator stops and says:
‘I don’t know where to go from there, I ran out of material”
And the chapter ends.
Just remember, this was written in 1605.
Turn the page and you are now in a new chapter. The narrator starts telling you how he found a manuscript in a market in Toledo with a picture of Don Quixote. The manuscript is about how the battle in the previous chapter unfolded but… the text is written in Arabic. The narrator finds a local ‘morisco’ (a Christianised Moor) to translate the Arabic text and he starts to insert commentary about the quality of the translation such as:
‘well, my Arab friend says this… but we all know that Arabs can’t be trusted so… you know, take that for what that’s worth’.
What did the people of the time make about a book that didn’t seem to have any author but an author upon author upon author?
Don Quixote was a worldwide best seller, translated into English, French, Italian and widely distributed in the colonies (Americas).
10 years later, Cervantes writes the sequel and in this Part II, the narrative’s weirdness reaches a whole new level. Cervantes introduces a new character, Sansón Carrasco, who visits Don Quixote and Sancho to tell them that Part I exists and it has become a best seller. In the first chapters of Part II, all the characters know who Don Quixote is because they read Part I.
The story now gets even stranger. During the 10 years that took Cervantes to publish the second book, another writer under the pseudonym of Avellaneda, published an unofficial second part of Don Quixote before Cervantes could publish his. In response, Cervantes includes characters from this fake Part II into his own book and Don Quixote confronts these characters in order to claim his authenticity making some of them swear that this is the authentic Part II of Don Quixote. Basically, Cervantes crashes Avellaneda in the novel itself!
Right now, we are dealing with a story about a story that someone invented, including false characters coming from another book… so… what is even real?
Cervantes is inventing the metanarrative that has become so popular today.
Up until this point, most stories report to be what they are. ‘I am telling you a story.’ But Don Quixote pretends to be something other than what it is. It really is the start of modernity, our modern sense of the world.
For the first time in history, the action takes second place. Previous literature was about facts, triumphs, myths but for the first time in history, in the Quixote, the character becomes relevant. The character transforms the action and not the action transforms the character.
Metanarratives were not very popular during the 18th and 19th Centuries but they made a come back in the 1900s. Recent examples are; The Matrix, The Princess Bride, Adaptation, Inception. Even Seinfeld, where Jerry Seinfeld is making a show, within a show.
and… why is this happening again?
According to Bruce Burningham, both moments in history are moments of intellectual crisis. Back in Cervantes’ time, The world is just coming out of the Renaissance where you have all this new scientific knowledge calling into question the foundation of what everybody was building their lives on. The Earth is not the centre of the Universe, etc. The traditional worldview could no longer be sustained.
As for us, we have Darwinism, relativity, quantum physics, etc. Cognitive sciences are telling us that we have no free will because they observe the chemical reactions happening in our brains milliseconds before we take decisions.
Something keeps telling us that the world that we see is probably not the world that it is, so people start asking:
– If what I see is not real, what is?
– Who am I?
Humans have a fascination with infinite regressions and embeddedness.
So meta-narratives could be the result of a reaction in moments of intellectual crisis.
The question at the heart of Don Quijote realising that he is a character in a novel is… Who stands above you?
The author stands above you, so that author has this kind of God-like relationship to you which makes you question… so who stands above the author? and if we start asking that question it goes on forever in every direction…
Infinite Regress, Source: Wikipedia
Quixote and Film
There are a few adaptations of Quixote to the big screen but in my opinion, none of them is worth the vast potential of the novel. Critics agree that the best version out there is the 1957 Soviet film Don Kikhot, by Grigori Kozintsev, although it misses the whole metanarrative style of the original novel.
There have been 2 mega-projects by true visionaries to take Quixote to the big screen but both failed and a final cut was never released;
– Orson Welles’ Don Quixote and,
– Terry Gilliam’s attempt in the early 2000s
There was something very quixotic about Gilliam’s fiasco. A documentary crew was shooting the ‘making of’ the film which in the end never got made, but… the documentary itself, ‘Lost in La Mancha’, it’s a great piece of film. My top Quixote movie at the moment. And, quixotic enough, it’s a story within a story 😉
‘I’ve been obsessed about Quijote for many years because all my stuff has been about reality, fantasy, madness, sanity and Quijote encompasses all of those’ – Terry Gilliam
Would a longer format suit Quixote’s complexity better?
HBO? Netflix? Are you listening?
‘Don Quixote would understand golf. It is the impossible dream.’
Terry Gilliam is currently working on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote – Fingers crossed!
PS: using Quixote instead of Quijote for SEO purposes 😉
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