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The psychology of the absurd in Don Quixote 
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Post The psychology of the absurd in Don Quixote
The psychology of the absurd in Don Quixote

Don Quixote is an absurd literary character. With this magnificent creation, Cervantes is a pioneer in the modern disjunction between observation and cognition. Absurdity emerges in his fictional satire of traditional values.

Cervantes created Quixote with close attention to the opportunity afforded for a study of the psychology of madness. The source of Quixote’s insanity is said to be his love of chivalry, and chivalric literature, and his resulting desire to live the noble life of a knight errant. The picture painted is of a madman fantasizing about armed service to defend the needy in a land at peace. The military knight in arms was a throwback to the medieval time and the Dark Ages of the Gothic conquest of Spain. However, what is the subtext?

Spain had conquered South America in consort with Portugal a century before Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, through force of arms and disease. So, the picture of a man at arms in Spain was not as anachronistic as Cervantes paints, but merely displaced across the Atlantic Ocean. The adventures of Quixote and his trusty servant Sancho Panza bear comparison with the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs and the Incas. The tradition of chivalry seemed irrelevant from the civil society perspective of mercantile Spain, but at that very time, military leaders steeped in a chivalric tradition, but willing to employ any means for conquest and plunder, were expanding the Spanish Empire on behalf of the Crown and people of Spain. Military conquest on such large scale requires a touch of the madness seen in Don Quixote.

Many stories from chivalry inform Don Quixote. One is The Madness of Sir Lancelot. A motif borrowed by Cervantes from this tale is the knight wearing only a ragged shirt who is lost by himself in the wilderness for love of a beautiful woman. Don Quixote copies this and other actions of Lancelot, going above and beyond the legacy of the father of the grail knight by performing several somersaults while in his state of melancholy undress, as part of his quest to typify knighthood.

The absurdity inherent in maintaining chivalrous values in a world of modern machines is captured by the famous story of Don Quixote tilting at a windmill, breaking his lance and being tossed from his horse by the turning blade. Using absurdity to mock chivalry is a method that inspired an illustrious modern tradition of satire. The British comedians Monty Python borrow from Cervantes in important respects in the movie The Quest for the Holy Grail. Python King Arthur’s lines are modeled on Quixote’s formal mode of address, and the Black Knight copies Quixote in seeking to prevent the passage of innocent travelers by threatening death by sword and collapsing into madness and absurdity.

The Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote, sets his own rational but groundless imagination against the power of observation by the senses, achieving a hallucinatory faith that his waking dreams are real. His power to convince himself that flocks of sheep are armies and windmills are giants mocks all imaginative stories that conflict with evidence. Cervantes is decisively modern in his assertion that evidence is a stronger guide than authority, a suggestion strongly at odds with church dogma.

Robert Tulip
28 March 2010

Sun Mar 28, 2010 8:34 am
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Post Re: The psychology of the absurd in Don Quixote
The key to the psychology of the absurd in Don Quixote is the satirical lampooning of the circular reasoning of belief.

Ordinary people do not believe things for which they have no evidence, except where that evidence takes the form of dogmatic authority. For example "the virgin birth must be true because many people believe it" is a clear example of taking authority as evidence, and then using this authority as the basis for assent to a claim. People respect their community leaders and cannot imagine they would wilfully promote claims that are false. Sadly leaders often do find it expedient to promote fantasies as a way to maintain power.

Proof by authority is a pernicious and corrupt logical fallacy which was the key target of attack for all modern thought. We see it now in the throwback medievalism of religious fundamentalism.

Much of Don Quixote mocks this religious form of reasoning. For example, the famous knight errant is convinced that an inn is a medieval castle, with moat, drawbridge, damsels in distress, etc. When people point out to him that the inn is not a castle, he argues they are under the spell of an evil enchanter, and only he can see the real truth. Hence his circular reasoning is entirely self-consistent, by systematically excluding observation as a factor in coming to conclusions.

I think this case study must have been informative for Descartes' strange argument that the universe might not exist because an enchanter could have deluded us.

Last edited by Robert Tulip on Fri Apr 09, 2010 4:43 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Post Re: The psychology of the absurd in Don Quixote

I'm just starting Don Quixote but I have been thinking about your comments above about absurdity and madness in the context of evolving modern thought. Perhaps absurdity and the tension it creates, the tension between the expected "normal" and the actual observed behaviour, which appears not normal, creates the opportunity for change in thought?

And I like your monty python reference. The scene in the Holy Grail with Lancelot and his companion, sweet Concorde, as Concorde has been struck down by an arrow but has survivied and Lancelot insists on romanticizing Concorde's misfortune as he Lancelot bravely goes on with their quest without Concorde while in effect he is really just deserting his friend to die is a great example of monty python comic absurdity and lampooning.

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Robert Tulip
Mon Apr 12, 2010 11:49 pm
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