Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

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The Maligned Genius

Ever since the Quixote has been annotated, every editor has pointed out that the book is filled with inconsistencies, contradictions, and errors. And it is absolutely true. You will soon see that when something—anything—is stated, sooner or later it will be contradicted. This has led footnote writers since the erudite and vituperative Clemencín in the 1830s, to proclaim that this master­work of world litera­ture was written by an extremely careless author who must have written at full speed without ever going over his work, and that he included hundreds of contradic­tions without ever realizing his terrible mistakes. That there are hundreds of inconsistencies is undeniable, but that Cervantes was a careless writer is very far from the truth.

Since there are no wholesale contradictions in his other works, the obvious conclusion has to be that Cervantes put them in the Quixote on purpose. But why? The answer is very simple. Cervantes’ advertised objective in writing Don Quixote was to imitate and make so much fun of the ancient romances of chivalry—books that told tales of roaming knights in armor—that no further ones would be written. Cervantes was quite successful, since no new romances were written in Spanish after the Quixote came out.

In order to imitate the romances fully, Cervantes satirized not only their content but also imitated their careless style. It’s as simple as that. In fact, this intent is clearly stated in the Progue to Part I. There you’ll see that the author’s unnamed friend who advises him about a number of things, says: “You only have to imitate the style of what you’re writing [i.e., the romances of chivalry]—the more perfect the imitation is, the better your writing will be.” Far from being a defect in the book, these contradictions are really an integral part of the art of the book. No one can convince me that Cervantes, whose erudition and memory were so vast that he was able to cite, in this book alone, 104 mythological, legendary, and biblical characters; 131 chivalresque, pastoral, and poetic characters; 227 historical persons or lineages; 21 famous animals; 93 well-known books; 261 geographical locations; 210 proverbs; and who created 371 characters (230 of whom have speaking roles),3 could possibly forget from one paragraph to the next the name of Sancho Panza’s wife (yet she is called Juana Gutiérrez in Part I, Chap. 7, and Mari Gutiérrez four lines later. And she is also called Juana Panza, Teresa Panza, and Teresa Cascajo).

So, Cervantes imitated the careless style of these romances by, in a very carefully planned way, making mistakes on purpose about practically everything, and he made sure that whatever was said was eventually contradicted.

In Part I, Chap. 4, when don Quixote makes an error in math and says that seven times nine is seventy three, some editors and translators think that the typesetter has made a mistake—after all, there’s only one letter different between setenta (60) and sesenta (70) in Spanish. But it’s not a typesetter’s mistake, this is don Quixote’s error.

On another occasion, don Quixote makes a mistake when he says that the biblical Samson removed the doors of the temple. It was really the gates of the city of Gaza that Samson tore off. Cervantes inserted this error on purpose, either to show that don Quixote’s biblical knowledge was faulty, or to show that in the heat of excitement one’s memory is not as acute as it should be. To state, as Clemencín does, that this is “another proof of Cervantes’ lack of attention and of his carelessness in quotations” (p. 1170 of Clemencín’s Castilla edition) is ludicrous. Many, many errors that the characters make are attributed to Cervantes. The characters are capable of making their own mistakes all by themselves, and when they make them we should realize that they belong to the characters and not to the author.

Cervantes, as a rule, simply does not make mistakes and he’s not careless either. Indeed he had to be particularly keen and creative in order to make sure everything was contradicted. Every contradiction, every mistake, every careless turn of phrase is there because Cervantes wanted it exactly that way.4

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