In May 2016, I picked up a book that, unbeknownst to me, would become one of the formative tomes in my life philosophy.
I had ordered it off the Internet on an inspired whim, after reading an archived New York Times essay from twenty years ago that had heaped lavish praise on the now-forgotten book.
Finding this particular book was no easy task. It lay untouched in the backlog of Amazon, gathering dust without any ratings or reviews. When it arrived in the mail several weeks after I bought it, I slid my knife into the cardboard packaging with the perverse glee of a kid opening a long-awaited Christmas present. The tome that I now held there in my hands was thick, old, aging. It looked like an antique, and when I buried my nose into the binding, the thin, oiled pages smelled like ancient Egypt.
For the next four weeks I buried myself in the hypnotic perusal of its pages, which enraptured me with its story and subsequent essays, sitting cross-legged on a bench under the blaring sun at school, or nestled quietly with my dog at night. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could’ve pulled me away from it.
That book was Our Lord Don Quixote, by Miguel de Unamuno.
To understand this book, one must first know that it’s author, Unamuno, was not the original creator of his subject.
By the time he published his version of the Quixote in 1913 (and it is only a version, a reinterpretation, a reworking), the “Knight of La Mancha” had already existed for over three centuries.
Don Quixote was, first and foremost, the brainchild of Miguel de Cervantes, a wrinkling Spanish soldier who, down on his luck after a life of mediocre hack writing, inadvertently penned a masterpiece of Western literature: the tale of a bored, middle-aged dilettante who, infatuated with his obsessive readings of knights and chivalry, decides to abandon his former life and become a knight himself, traveling all throughout Spain to make things right, battle evil and protect justice.
This original work, The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho, has stimulated endless generations of criticism and commentary, and it’s titular hero is a cornerstone of Spanish literature and identity.
But over the centuries, an increasing number of critics noticed a depressing flaw in the book: the noble knight painted by Cervantes’ pen was not treated so nobly in the original work.
Cervantes hadn’t actually intended to write a noble story of a knight (or let alone a work of “literature”), but rather, a cheap satire aimed at poking fun at the then-popular genre of chivalric romances (the very kind that Don Quixote became obsessed with). As such, Cervantes- as skilled as he may have been at spinning the Spanish language- spends most of his book making fun of our hero, depicting him as a delusional crackpot who sets out on doomed adventures and does little more than pester people with his insanity.
Vladimir Nabokov had once taught a course at Harvard on Don Quixote, though he stopped doing so after several years. When asked why, he answered sorrowfully that re-reading too often the story of the knight, and his brutal beating by Cervantes, depressed him.
Cervantes, in the eyes of many, was a bully who coincidentally had a knack for storytelling, a mere mortal who failed to do justice to the magnificence of his creation; it was Don Quixote who was inspired, sublime, authentic. Cervantes was but a fumbling typist, documenting only the factual turns of the story, while failing to capture the greatness of spirit that imbued every one of Don Quixote’s actions. Cervantes may have written the original book, but it is Quixote who is our true guide.
It was Miguel Unamuno who came around three centuries later to reverse the tainted legacy of the knight, who had failed to receive due recognition for his exploits.
Miguel de Unamuno, a Basque poet-philosopher and iconoclastic intellectual, seemed destined himself to rewrite the story of the noble knight, almost as if the two were on a parallel crash course in history that would culminate finally in the 1905 publication of Our Lord. Like Quixote, he was forever challenging authority in his native Spain, criticizing both the government and the church in the name of his own philosophy of universal humanism. So unfiltered were his criticisms that he was first exiled by the regime of Primavera in 1924, and later placed under house arrest by the Fascists during the civil war, when he finally died.
Unamuno was to take the plot of Cervantes and, in a grand work of his own, completely reinterpret the legend of the knight, finally casting him in his true, deserved light of greatness.
Unamuno begins at the same starting point of Cervantes; he follows the original plot in its entirety- save a few episodes which he deemed unnecessary- for his purpose here in the book is not to rewrite history, but to explain why the Knight of La Mancha, in all his wild eccentricities, is amongst the highest crust of humanity.
Don Quixote was not born a Knight: perhaps that is the first message Unamuno wishes to communicate to us. You aren’t a hero by being born one, but by deciding that you will become one. We are not created by something else- we alone define ourselves, deciding how we want to be remembered and who we will ultimately be.
Before he was a Knight, he is known as Alonso Quijano, an aging, unremarkable countryman with an affinity for hunting and reading books of chivalry. So intense is his passion for these antiquated stories of adventures, with their heroic protagonists battling the forces of evil, that he exhausts much of his monetary estate to fill his library with more and more books of adventure. In Cervantes’ work, this overly rich literary diet fries him into insanity, irrevocably separating his brain from reality; in the eyes of Unamuno, this insanity is desirable, for it allows us to break free from the crowd and see life in its truest perspective- the insanity frees us from arbitrary social constructs so that we may become exemplary human beings. As he says “(Quixote) lost his wits for our sake, for our benefit, so as to leave us an eternal example of spiritual generosity.”
On his long wanderings through the fields on afternoon hunting trips, the impoverished hero looks to the sky and contemplates how he will wander the world one day, of how his name will forever go down in history for wondrous deeds.
Unamuno notes that it is only through leisurely poverty, or an independence from material needs, that allows us to enjoy life, that makes life worth living. And he notes that Don Quixote was a contemplative man, for only those who think deeply and ponder will be able to achieve great things in life.
After twelve years of wandering the fields, or buried in his study with the stories of his heroes, Alonso Quijano, following his heart, takes an unexpected leap of faith: he decides that he himself will set out to become a knight. He promptly renames himself as Don Quixote.
That day, he mounts his horse, Rocinante, dons his fighting gear, summons his servant Pancho, and embarks on his first journey to go and fight for peace in the world.
Those around him are not amused by the sudden turn his life has taken. His friends regard him with a stunned, worrisome apprehension, and his own daughter deems that he must have gone mad.
But that does not matter- after all, Unamuno reminds us, what the crowd says, no matter how large the crowd is, never matters so long as you act and speak in the spirit of God. Which is exactly what our brave knight does. For remainder of his life, Don Quixote would be engaged in the adventures of being a Knight.
For the next few months they traverse the Iberian peninsula, engaging in a series of magnificent follies and adventures. Through it all, Unamuno is there with his pen to meditate on what it means to live a heroic life.
Early in their adventures, Don Quixote and Sancho happen upon a group of uneducated goatherds wandering through the desert.
That night, by the light of the campfire, our hero lectures with great eloquence to the poor herders about the nobility of his peripatetic life and the necessity to live in accordance with God- which is ironic, for the dull goatherds could only comprehend a few of the intricacies of what he says. But it didn’t matter. He still enraptured them with his speech, leaving them “open-mouthed and fascinated with his words.” They didn’t understand the intellectual details of what he was saying, perhaps, but through the passion that poured forth from his lips, they did hear what he said– the message, the meaning. “If the people do not understand,” Unamuno says, “they never less feel an itch to do so, and soon break out into song.”
Several days later, Don Quixote stops and, overwhelmed with emotion, declaims what is the pivotal epiphany of any human life: “I know who I am!”
He had the courage to trust his intuition, to break forth from the masses to become who he was meant to be, to live an authentic life without being disemboweled by the vulgar bullying or sneer remarks of all the sorry people who couldn’t do the same for themselves. Through heroism, our brave Knight discovered himself. And by finding that higher version of himself- which for him, is a noble warrior- he discovered something that only he and God can know. The rest of humanity can make fun of him all they want- they scarcely even know “either who they themselves are- for they do not really desire to be anything- nor do they know who the hero is.”
Don Quixote’s every action is imbued with his hopeless dream to be immortal. He recognizes the physical ridiculousness of such a hope: we are all ultimately destined to perish with our bodies. But he creates a compromise: if he can’t live forever, then he will live in such a way that should be remembered forever- to live heroically, accomplishing great deeds that deserve their chapters in the annals of history. Such is the philosophy of Don Quixote. Even if you can’t be immortal, you still should live as if you deserve to be.
Like anyone else who dares to do something with their life, Don Quixote inevitably has his enemies. They come in the form of neighbors back home, who conspire endlessly to stop him from what they blindly perceive as nothing more than a series of painfully pointless escapades.
They attempt twice to pull him from his divine profession as a Knight, but each time, after luring him back home, his spirit recuperates and he mounts himself once again on his horse, setting out into the world for more adventures with his horse and faithful servant Sancho.
I won’t bother to reveal any intricacies of the plot, but on their third attempt, the mean-spirited neighbors (most prominent of whom, Samson Carrasco, is a snotty university graduate) succeed in bringing down the noble knight. And like life itself, all good and beautiful things, including Don Quixote, have to come to an end.
In the tragic final pages of the story, Don Quixote lies dying in his bed, with Sancho and his daughter lying by his side. He has now fallen victim to the cunning intrigues of his lowly neighbors, who sought for so long to detract him from his greatness: he now believes, sadly, that his life as a Knight was wasted.
Sancho, who followed his master for so long, who approached him cautiously at first, and who later became infected with his philosophy of living heroically and of existing on a higher, divine plane of humanity- it was Sancho who became the greatest immediate legacy of the Knight of La Mancha. While Don Quixote died sadly in his final moments, Sancho carried on his legacy, riding out on old Rocinante and setting out on his own adventures to bring justice to the world, now himself as the new Knight errant.
Meanwhile, the cruel neighbor Samson Carrasco, who had failed to make anything of his own life, tries to mock his hapless victim by constructing for him a gravestone, unaware that his own epitaph for the man would long outlive himself or any of the other bullies in town, for it brought out accurately the heroic essence of Don Quixote:
Here lies the stern knight, who was so ineffably brave
That his life gave death no right, and he triumphed over the grave.
“Death is our immortalizer,” writes Unamuno in the moving last passages of our heroes tragic death.
It is only through death that we can understand who we truly were during our lives; it is only in the face of death that we can live authentically and truly; it is only through death that we become immortalized in the pages of history as who we truly are.
The death of Unamuno, like Quixote, was equally tragic. As an old man, he watched his beloved country become engulfed in a vicious civil war, the university where he was rector overrun with Franco’s fascist troops. At the University, he had a public quarrel with the nationalist general Millan Astray, suggesting acidly that the battle cry of the Fascist Elite Forces (Long live death!) was odious and that Astray wanted to cripple Spain. A profound act of moral courage, Unamuno was only saved from a prompt execution by the last-minute intervention of Franco’s wife; he was then exiled from his University, placed on house arrest interminably. He died in his sleep ten weeks later, victim of a broken heart.
Fate seemed to have proved that Don Quixote and Unamuno were destined to cross paths in history; the fictional Quixote as a gleaming exemplar of the noblest of human ideals, and his kindred spirit Unamuno, who centuries later would salvage the heroic spirit of the Knight from disrepute.
Their collision, in Unamuno’s Our Lord, forms a monumental work of philosophy that changes Quixotic from merely an insult to a high ideal to which the greatest of us should strive. It is a clarion challenge to heroic mystic action, an intuitive guide on how to reach our deepest potential as human beings.
Even if we may not be immortal in the end, we should nonetheless live as if we deserve to be.
In the tragic last pages when our heroic knight dies, Unamuno gives consolation in the ultimate fact that Quixote lived a life worth living, providing us with a poem with which I will leave you, reader, to finish off this piece:
The true life is on high
beyond the earthly lie.
Until this life does die
its full savor is not nigh. Death from me do not fly!
I live meanwhile and sigh
Dying because I do not die.