September 29, 1547 – Miguel de Cervantes
“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.”
“Tilting at Windmills” is an English idiom that means attacking imaginary enemies. I thought of it today while I consider how Liddle Donny Moscow is lashing out at fanciful persecutors as he is mired in deep shit of his own creation. “Tilting at Windmills” is derived from Don Quixote, and the word “tilt” in this context comes from jousting. In the novel, Don Quixote mistakes a windmill as a five-handed giant and attacks it. Losing badly.
We call it simply “Don Quixote”, but the title is The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha). It is a Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes, published in two parts, in 1605 and 1615. Don Quixote is the most influential work of fiction in Spanish literature. It is often labeled the first modern novel and is considered by many to be the best literary work ever written.
Don Quixote is about the nutty adventures of a nobleman from La Mancha named Alonso Quixano, who reads so many romantic books about chivalry, the medieval knightly system with its religious, moral, and social code, that he loses his mind and decides to become a knight and serve Spain under the name Don Quixote de la Mancha. He recruits a simple farmer, Sancho Panza, as his squire. Sancho uses his unique, earthy wit in dealing with Don Quixote’s speeches on knighthood, already considered old-fashioned at the time. Don Quixote does not see the world for what it is and prefers to imagine that he is living out his knightly story.
The novel is directly referenced in Alexandre Dumas‘s The Three Musketeers (1844), Mark Twain‘s Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and Edmond Rostand‘s Cyrano de Bergerac (1897). It also gave us the words “Quixotic”, meaning dreamily impractical, and “Lothario”- a man who obsessively seduces females.
Don Quixote has been translated into over 140 languages; it is, after The Bible, the most-translated book in the world. Cervantes’ influence on the Spanish language has been so great that the language is often called la Lengua de Cervantes (“the language of Cervantes”).
The famed Spanish writer has become a symbol of Spanish immigrant culture in the USA, and, in my humble opinion, the character Don Quixote should be considered an ultimate LGBTQ Icon.
Forced into exile in 1569, Cervantes moved to Rome, where he worked as chamber assistant of a cardinal. Then he enlisted as a soldier in a Spanish Navy infantry regiment and continued his military life until 1575, when he was captured by pirates. After five years of captivity, his parents and a Catholic religious order paid his ransom and he returned to Madrid.
In 1590, Cervantes applied to immigrate to America. He was already a war veteran, having lost the use of his left hand, and he was poor. He wanted to get out of Spain. This was 15 years before Don Quixote was published. Had the Spanish monarchy not turned down his request to serve as a governor in Mexico, Cervantes would probably never have written his famous work.
For Spanish-speaking people in the USA, Cervantes and Don Quixote became symbols of their immigrant identity starting in the late 19th century. Both the writer and the character personified the spirit of adventure, courage, and heroic values that is characteristic of most immigrants. Spanish-speaking people in America could see their ordinary errant lives transformed into knightly adventures via the power of Don Quixote’s wild imagination.
I also see the errant knight and his sidekick as icons of queer identity: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza riding on horseback into the sunset together. Their quest became a symbol of the long, arduous journey and the legal obstacles that LGBTQ people must overcome to defend their love and identity.
Cervantes and his characters also reflect the values of the American LGBTQ community in the United States. Don Quixote and Sancho make a good metaphor for gay identity. There is a tension between the two characters that show how queer folks are always negotiating their identity with themselves and their communities. Cervantes’ characters are excellent role models for how you can flow between different cultures, languages and experiences to sort out your identity.
The idea that life is a quest is not new, but the misadventures of Don Quixote and Sancho cut close for many of the LGBTQ community. Don Quixote dramatizes the struggle to survive in a world full of adversities: windmills become monsters, and inns are transformed into castles. But as the characters go farther on their journey, each obstacle forces them to dig deeper into their dreams and emotions to figure out who they are. For the LGBTQ community, Don Quixote and Sancho exemplify the courage and determination that is needed to explore identity, especially when society opposes them.
Don Quixote’s quest for understanding and companionship can also unite the LGBTQ community with Latin immigrants because they share a common plight: looking for a space where they could fully be themselves.
Immigration reform and LGBTQ activists agree that when you are not protected by law, it creates barriers of discrimination. There is a higher burden for us to live by example, because our opponents are looking for any reason to say that we are unworthy of life of happiness.
Cervantes shows that the best way to overcome discrimination is to humanize the experience of those who are marginalized. In Don Quixote, the errant knight approaches a chain gang to hear their stories. Each captive makes up a story to justify his criminal action. Don Quixote realizes that they are being held against their will and he attacks the officers on horseback to set the prisoners free. While the knight’s actions are misguided, Cervantes gives each prisoner a voice.
LGBTQ and immigration reform activists should find solidarity in Cervantes’ message of the universality of love. Cervantes writes that love and compassion are heroic. Through this quixotic perspective, we understand that in spite of our individual differences, everyone has a right to justice and democracy. Cervantes:
“When equity could and should be upheld. Do not apply the rigor of the law on the accused; the reputation of a rigorous judge is no better than a compassionate one.”
Cervantes started his writing career late in life, but he was prolific, publishing novels, plays, and poems. Don Quixote has inspired a variety of works in other fields of art, including ballets, operas, orchestral and choral works, visual art, films, and a popular Broadway musical Man Of La Mancha (1965), with a book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, and music by Mitch Leigh.
The original 1965 Broadway production of Man Of La Mancha ran for 2,328 performances and won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The musical has been revived four times on Broadway. Richard Kiley won for his performance as Cervantes/Quixote and it made Kiley a big fat Broadway star. Kiley was replaced in the original Broadway run by first Jose Ferrer on Broadway and in the 1966 National Tour. The original cast also included Irving Jacobson (Sancho), Ray Middleton (Innkeeper), Robert Rounseville (The Padre), and Joan Diener (Aldonza). John Cullum, Hal Holbrook, and Lloyd Bridges also played the lead role during the Broadway run.
The musical had productions in French (translation by Jacques Brel), German, Dutch, Hebrew, Irish, Japanese, Korean, Bengali, Gujarati, Uzbek, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Serbian, Slovenian, Swahili, Finnish, Chinese, Ukrainian, Turkish and nine distinctly different dialects of the Spanish language.
There is a very shaky 1972 film version of Man Of La Mancha (1972), with Peter O’Toole, James Coco was Sancho, and Sophia Loren was Aldonza.
The big song from the show, The Impossible Dream, became a standard. I counted at least 100 cover versions with artists as varied as Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, Jim Nabors, Cher, Elvis Presley, Jennifer Hudson, Luther Vandross,Liberace, and Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Martin Sheen performs it on Netflix’s Grace And Frankie, season five, when his character, Robert, stars in a gay theatre group’s production of Man Of La Mancha.
In Man Of La Mancha, the Don Quixote story is enacted by prisoners in a dungeon during the Spanish Inquisition. Because male and female prisoners would have been jailed separately, as a youth I fantasized a production with an all-male cast with me was the female lead Aldonza, a whore. Performing her big number in front of a mirror, I was convinced this production must happen, even if I had to bankroll the whole thing myself. In real life, I always wanted to play Sancho, but never found a production to audition for.
There are film version of Don Quixote from 1908, 1923, 1933, 1947 and 1963 (Spanish), 1957 (Russian), 1973 (Ballet), 2000, 2007 (Italian), 2010 (Chinese), 2015 (Australian); plus Lost in La Mancha (2002), a documentary bout the making of Terry Gilliam‘s first try at making his The Man Who Killed Don Quixote and Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, finally released last year.
Miguel de Cervantes died on April 23, 1616. William Shakespeare died the same day. April 23 is now designated as World Book Day.