In Exile With ‘Don Quixote’

Ariel Dorfman in The New York Times:

DonIndeed, the defining experience of Cervantes’s life was the harrowing five years starting in 1575 that he spent in the dungeons of Algiers as a prisoner of the Barbary pirates. It was there, on the border of Islam and the West, that Cervantes came to appreciate the value of tolerance toward those who are radically different, and it was there he discovered that of all the goods men can aspire to, freedom is by far the greatest. While awaiting a ransom that his family could not pay, confronted with execution each time he attempted to escape, watching his fellow slaves tormented and impaled, he longed for a life without manacles. But once he returned to Spain, a crippled war veteran neglected by those who had sent him into conflict, he came to the conclusion that if we cannot heal the misfortunes that assail our bodies, we can, however, hold sway over how our soul responds to those sorrows. “Don Quixote” was born of that revelation. In the prologue to Part 1 of his novel he tells the “idle reader” that it was “begotten in a prison, where every discomfort has its place and every sad sound makes its home.” Whether that jail was in Seville or in Castro del Río, this recurring experience of incarceration forced him to revisit the Algerian ordeal and put him face to face with a dilemma that he resolved to our joy: Either succumb to the bitterness of despair or let loose the wings of the imagination. The result was a book that pushed the limits of creativity, subverting every tradition and convention. Instead of a rancorous indictment of a decaying Spain that had rejected and censored him, Cervantes invented a tour de force as playful and ironic as it was multifaceted, laying the ground for all the wild experiments the novelistic genre was to undergo.

Cervantes realized that we are all madmen constantly outpaced by history, fragile humans shackled to bodies that are doomed to eat and sleep, make love and die, made ridiculous and also glorious by the ideals we harbor. To put it bluntly, he discovered the vast psychological and social territory of the ambiguous modern condition. Captives of a harsh and unyielding reality, we are also simultaneously graced by the constant ability to surpass its battering blows.

More here.