Cervantes’ preface to Don Quixote is a caustic satire of academic writing, just as valid today as it was four hundred and five years ago. Full of delicious irony, Cervantes brags with the deepest humility. He points out the flaws in the book are its qualities.
Cervantes writes that he will not beseech the reader “almost as it were with tears in my eyes, as others do, dearest reader, to pardon or dissemble the faults you shall discover in this my child” (15) and yet he goes on to point out things lacking in the preface and faults of the book as a whole: “with a legend as dry as a kex, empty of invention, the style flat, the conceits poor, and void of learning and erudition; without quotations in the margin, or annotations at the end of book; seeing that other books, though fabulous and profane, are so full of sentences of Aristotle, of Plato and of all the tribe of philosophers, that the readers are in admiration, and take the authors of them for men of great reading, learning, and eloquence” (16).
The irony of course is that Cervantes, although he appears to be apologizing for what is lacking, is in fact boasting of the merits of his book: the legend, or story-line, is far from dry, the book is full of delightful invention, the style is simple but far from flat, and the conceits (elaborate literary technique) are as rich as any reader could hope. In the first chapter, the narrator uses the very word “conceit” to describe the crux of the novel: “In fine, having lost his wits, he fell into one of the strangest conceits that ever entered the head of any madman” (23).
Of learning and erudition, Cervantes writes, “All this my book is likely to want; for I have nothing to quote in the margin, nor to make notes on at the end; nor do I know what authors I have followed in it, to put them at the beginning, as all others do, by the letter A, B, C, beginning with Aristotle, and ending at Xenophon, Zoilus, or Zeuxis” (16). In fact he claims to be “naturally too idle and lazy to hunt after authors” and states that he can “say what I can say as well without them” (16).
A friend of his, almost certainly fictitious, responds, “‘As to citing in the margin the books and authors from whom you collected the sentences and sayings you have interspersed in your history, there is not more to do but to contrive it so, that some sentences and phrases may fall in pat, which you have by heart, or at least which will cost you very little trouble to find” (17). For each subject that might come up in the book, liberty or slavery, the power of death, friendship and loving our enemies, instability of friends, his friend has a ready quote that can be stuck in, “And then in the margin cite Horace, or whoever said it. . . . And so with these scraps of Latin and the like, it is odds but people will take you for a great grammarian, which is a matter of no small honour and advantage in these days'” (18).
In spite of the satire of this kind of literary quotation, the narrator mentions Aristotle in the first chapter, but in an unusual way, for Don Quixote takes on a task of interpretation that even Aristotle would fail at: “With this kind of language the poor gentleman lost his wits, and distracted himself to comprehend and unravel their meaning; which was more than Aristotle himself could do, were he to rise again from the dead for that purpose alone” (22). And in fact in this chapter and others, we get long lists of books of chivalry, so it is clear that Cervantes himself was well-read in the genre he is condemning.
Regarding the annotations at the end, his friend advises that if he includes a giant he should call him Goliath then offer he citation: “as it is related in the book Kings, in the chapter wherein you shall find it” (18). In fact all Cervantes has to do, he says, is to borrow the bibliography from another book: “find a book that has them all, from A down to Z, as you say, and then transcribe that very alphabet into your work; and suppose the falsehood be so apparent, from the little need you have to make use of them, it signifies nothing; and perhaps some will be so foolish as to believe you had occasion for them all in your simple and sincere history. But though it served for nothing else, that long catalogue of authors will, however, at the first plush, give some authority to the book. And who will go about to disprove, whether you followed them or no, seeing they can get nothing by it?” (19).
Cervantes is also concerned that his book will lack introductory sonnets by “dukes, marquesses, earls, bishops, ladies, or celebrated poets” (16), and so he says he is resolved to leave Don Quixote buried in the records of La Mancha, “until heaven sends somebody to supply him with such ornaments as he wants” (16). His friend advises that the lack of sonnets, epigrams and eulogies by grave personages and people of quality “‘may be remedied by taking some pains yourself to make them, and then baptizing them, giving them what names you please, fathering them on Prester John of the Indies, or on the Emperor of Trapisonda; of whom I have certain intelligence that they are both famous poets” (17).
Prester John was a legendary patriarch and king who supposedly ruled over a lost kingdom in the Middle East or Orient. Since the Emperor of Trapisonda is equally fictitious, no one can challenge the authorship of the introductory sonnets and eulogies. His friend says, “and though some pedants and bachelors should backbite you, and murmur at this truth, value them not two farthings; for, though they should convict you of a lie, they cannot cut off the hand that wrote it” (17).
Don Quixote does not need these ornaments anyway, his friend suggests, “‘Nor does the relation of its fabulous extravagances fall under the punctuality and preciseness of truth” (19). He writes that the book has nothing to do with observations of astronomy, or the dimensions of geometry, or the rhetorical arguments of logic, or any concern with preaching, “mixing the human with the divine, a kind of mixture which no Christian judgement should meddle with.
All it has to do is, to copy nature: imitation is the business, and how much the more perfect that is, so much the better what is written will be” (19). Since the purpose of the book is to destroy the authority the books of chivalry have in the world, he doesn’t need all those quotes from philosophers, holy writ, poetical fable, rhetorical orations or miracles of saints, “but only to endeavour, with plainness, and significant, decent, and well-ordered words, to give your periods a pleasing and harmonious turn, expressing the design in all you advance, and as much as possible making your conceptions clearly understood, without being intricate or obscure” (20). Instead, he will endeavor to make the melancholy laugh and to heighten the gay humor, so that “the judicious may admire the invention, the grave not undervalue it, nor the wise forbear commending it” (20).
So, the apologies of Cervantes become a form of bragging that says, look here this is what makes my book so good!
(Read much more about Don Quixote and writing conventions in my book Narrrative Madness, available at narrativemadness.com and on Amazon and my posts “In the Name of the Book, In the Name of Cervantes, Amen”, “Who Wrote Don Quixote?”, “Ronosaurus and I Present ‘Borges and I'”, and “Chaucer: A Bad Poet and a Didactic Bore.”)
Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quixote. Trans. Charles Jarvis. Ed. E. C. Riley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
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For more on Don Quixote see my post Don Quijote: The Impossible Truth.