My first intent was to call this blog post “Schlemiel the First,” since it strikes me that Don Quixote, the mythical character created by Miguel de Cervantes (the second, and concluding, part of the novel was published in 1615, exactly four hundred years ago), is the source, the ur-text from which all subsequent schlemiels come from. But I immediately realized this, in and of itself, is a myth, by which I mean, in this case, a false premise. The Merriam-Webster definition of schlemiel is “an unlucky bungler.” Much might be said about Don Quixote, including that he is a schemer, an impostor, even a fraud. In the long and tortured—maybe “torturous”—narrative, he goes through all sorts of ordeals through which he puts his fanciful ideals to test. But one thing is certain: he is never unlucky.
In my yidishe kop I’ve always thought (call it pensée irrationnel) that “Quijotismo” in Spanish is the condition of being a schlemiel. In other words, either Don Quixote is’t a schlemiel or Merriam-Webster is wrong, or both. In my Yiddish-speaking childhood home in Mexico there were heated discussions attempting to differentiate between a schlemiel and a schlimazel. The former was seen as a fool, and Don Quixote is certainly one, whereas the latter as understood to a person prone for misfortune, which is also a description of Don Quixote. He is a mix of both, then. In the discussions, someone would frequently say that you can’t be a fool without being unlucky, although the opposite, you can’t be unlucky without being a fool, doesn’t hold true.
This conundrum—that the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance bring these two qualities together—is untenable in my eyes. To explain why I need to comment on various elements of Cervantes’s book.
It is considered the first modern novel. It is, in my estimation, the one that, almost singlehandedly, invented modernity. Cervantes was a cautious proponent of the Enlightenment in Spain. Don Quixote is courageous in idealizing the power of dreams but it doesn’t take the Holy Inquisition head on, nor does it intend to. It distills some of the ideas of Erasmus of Rotterdam’s In Praise of Folly, although, again, it isn’t critical of the Catholic Church as an institution, at least not directly. What the narrative does—illustriously, no doubt—is question the concept of truth.
Should it be written with a capital “T,” that is, might it ever be seen as absolute? Cervantes’s answer is a rotund no: as Schopenhauer and Bishop Berkley would argue later, everything we are exposed to, reality as a whole, exists only in our mind; it is subjective, meaning relative, biased, and partial. We are the architects of the world, for the only way to register it, the only way to represent it is through our independent perspective. One could call this approach a road to foolish, for, after all, if the stimulation we receive from the outside is invariably filtered by our own misconceptions, truth and falsehood are easily interchangeable.
Yet Don Quixote of La Mancha is wiser; it doesn’t fall for this easy, Manichean dichotomy. Its basic premise is that reality and our imagination are intrinsically connected and, perhaps more importantly, that reason and foolishness aren’t antonyms. This is why I love Cervantes’s novel: because it proposes to see reason also not as absolute. A fool might be quite intelligent, even reasonable. And reasonable people is often foolish.
The reader delves into the adventures of Don Quixote and his squire Sancho with the intuition that they are a study in contrasts: one is rich and the other poor, one is thin and the other fat; one is an idealist and the other a pragmatist; and one is learned and the other illiterate. More importantly, the reader enters the novel with the conviction that one is a fool and the other is not.
The narrative quickly brings down these expectations. In fact, it fulminates them. It takes almost no time to realize that Cervantes is presenting different types of knowledge: the learned man, for instance, is often impractical. Furthermore, as the episodes accumulate the reader witnesses an extraordinary feast: Don Quixote is “Sanchified” and Sancho Panza is “Quixotified”; that is, elements from one suddenly appear in the other and vice versa. That, after all, is what true friendship is about.
All this is done through laughter. The novel is a parody: it makes fun of chivalry literature; it also makes fun of itself and it even makes fun of humor. It thrives on the wretched, the ridiculous, and the pathetic, an aspect, needless to say, constant in depictions of schlemiels: we laugh at and with them.
In any case, the knight isn’t a bungler. He doesn’t habitually bungle things. He isn’t an amateur either. He is impish, clumsy, certainly inelegant, but he even often gets from people what he wants. Sancho also isn’t unlucky. Actually, as recompense he is promised, early on in the plot, the governorship of an island, which will be a way for him to be paid and, along the way, cease being poor, and toward the end of the Second Part he does get it, sort of: it is called Barataria, and after a brief tenure at its helm he realizes it is better for him not to get involved in politics. So no: the fellow is rewarded and he learns from experience not to want to be outside his own class.
Still, Don Quixote, more than Sancho, does strike me as a schlemiel, maybe even the proto-schlemiel: the fool of fools, a wise man whose façade confounds those around him. And he is a schlimazel in that, in his quest to right all wrongs, he is regularly hit by misfortune. By the way, being hit by misfortune isn’t the same as being unlucky. They are dramatically different things.
In fact, my impression is that Don Quixote of La Mancha inaugurates a space—call it “Schlemieland”—wherein the state of being a fool in constant misfortune becomes a feature of life in general. It is the space where dreams are attempted but fail to materialize, the dimension where everything we try ends up in failure. Cervantes’s character is a success in failure. Everything he attempts ends up in collapse yet his effort becomes a model, even a form of sustenance for others who, when, toward the end of the novel, he renounces his dreams and is ready to die as the hidalgo he once was, beg him—nah, they implore him—to remain the fool he always was.
There is a longstanding tradition in Jewish literature of celebrating, even emulating Don Quixote, discreetly or otherwise. Mendele Mokher Sforim’s Masoes Beniamin Hashlishi (Travels of Benjamin the Third) is the most obvious example. There are Quixotic elements in Tevye, in Isaac Babel’s Odessa stories, in Philip Roth, in Woody Allen, all of whom, to some degree, inhabit that liminal space invoked by Cervantes I’ve called Schlemieland.
The word “schlemiel” came about in the Pale of Settlement. Its birth is probably in the 17th century, although there is no data to prove it. Either way, I’m aware it is an anachronism to describe Don Quixote as a schlemiel and, furthermore, to image La Mancha and beyond, the universe in which he moves, as Schlemieland. Still, our language—any language—is made of a hefty dose of anachronisms. This is because every time a new concept emerges, people apply it not only to address the present but, unequivocally, to refer to the past. Not to go too far, think of the word “Quixotic,” which is taken to mean a dreamer, a person who is unrealistic. Not long ago, I came across a scholarly portrayal of Moses, the biblical patriarch, as Quixotic. Talk about applying the tools of one era to understand another.
Why not? If Moses is Quixotic then Don Quixote is Schlemiel the First.
Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His latest book is Quixote: The Novel and the World, just out from Norton. He wrote the introduction to the 400th anniversary edition of Don Quixote of La Mancha (Restless Books).