[H]e who has had the luck to be born a character can laugh even at death. He cannot die. The man, the writer, the instrument of the creation will die, but his creation will not die.
— Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author
When I was twelve, I read Don Quixote for the first time; and to date, it remains the funniest book I’ve ever read. In my own defense, Cervantes did not write it without comedic effect in mind: after all, a book about a man who has read so many books on medieval chivalry that he goes mad and thinks himself a knight is surely comedic in premise alone. The eponymous hidalgo tilts at windmills which might be giants, charges headlong a herd of sheep he mistakes for a rebel army, and wears a brazen washbasin upon his head thinking it the enchanted helmet of a mythical Moorish king. Yes, Don Quixote is the funniest book I have ever read – and yet the saddest.
A friend of mine once joked that there are only two kinds of people who unironically read Don Quixote; foolish young men trying to build the future, and foolish old men trying to rebuild the past. She refused to read it as anything more than an entertaining cautionary tale about reading too much into things – nothing more than a curious story about one old man’s humorous and sometimes pathetic descent into utter madness. She called me antiquated and melodramatic for thinking otherwise.
But anachronistic or overblown as my notions may be, I still stand by the conviction that there’s something more to it than a comedy of madness. No; to me, Don Quixote is the part of me that saw what was coming in the future, and was terrified; the part of me that grew up only to realize that all those dreams I had would never happen; the part of me that feared the obsoletion of a mediocre life, of indecision, of paralysis in the face of uncertainty.
Don Quixote is about an age that disregards the fantastic and the fanciful for the serious and progressive, forgetting that not everything in all those dusty tomes of chivalry should have been discarded and torched. It is a parable of the age of reason, a modern fairy tale for a modern world – a world in which there are answers to everything, and those who think otherwise are fools. To the inquisitors and priests, only God mattered, only the Church: doctrines and edicts lain out in the language of ancient ecclesiastical orders and esoteric theologies, rules to live by – and die by, if your faith was wrong. To the scientists and politicians, only the real mattered, only the tangible: your next paycheck, the war overseas, the ground beneath you and the sky to catch your fall.
And that, perhaps, is the part that gets me the most every time. Because the world Don Quixote rides through in his idyllic hallucination – the ‘real’ world – is an uncaring and unsympathetic place. Most of its inhabitants are so jaded and apathetic that they treat him with utter indifference; and the few people that help him along the way do so only out of fear of what others will think of them rather than genuine concern for the man. And then there are some, like the royal court, who are so bored with their lives that the aging knight becomes nothing more than a plaything, an object to humiliate and discard.
In the end, the venerable madman loses to the world. Don Quixote regains his sanity, and it is the worst thing that could happen to him. He dies in his bed a broken man – horrifically, horrifically sane.
The best thing we can wish for, then, is to never, ever be sane, if sanity spells the requiem of hope.
So let us tilt at windmills and joust with phantoms, if it means preserving that wonder which once we felt but since abandoned us. And let us chase after Dulcineas and rend our hearts over love too good to be real, if only to say that in the end, we tried. And let us set forth on sallies against every decision and revision to revive the dreams we once had when we were children but in the darkness of adolescence snuffed out. And let us set sail against ever-diminishing horizons and pursue impossible dreams if it leads to the wonder, that ever-unattainable wonder, which ever we sought and strove for, but never yielded to – if only to remain hopeful, and defiant in the name of impossible fate.