In A New Theory of Vision (1704), author George Berkeley posits that the brain interprets things by associating the signals received by the sense organs with things the brain already knows. Don Quixote, his mind so saturated with reading, sees a simple inn and interprets it as a castle, sees a windmill and interprets it as a giant, sees a common wench and interprets her as a princess.

Chapter Six we read as reason to believe that Don Quixote has not gone mad. Surely he is mad about tales of chivalry, as one might be Mad About Books. We do not believe he has lost his wits.

“Here, master licentiate, pray take and sprinkle the closet, lest some one of the many enchanters contained in these books, should exercise his art upon us, as a punishment for our burning, and banishing them from the face of the earth.”

Cervantes is making fun of people like the curate and the barber and Don Quixote’s niece, who all believe that books may disorder our brains. Yet even in their disposal of the vile romances, the curate and barber find numerous titles they decide must be spared immolation, and even a few titles which they, too, own. They have read some of these same books, and yet consider themselves as absolutely sane. Don Quixote, they aver, is not.

Romances of chivalry are not the only books judged guilty of so much mischief. At the appearance of numerous volumes of poetry,

“Pray, sir, said the niece, be so good as to order these to be burnt with the rest; for my uncle will no sooner be cured of his knight-errantry, than, by reading these, he will turn shepherd, and wander about the groves and meadows piping and singing. Nay, what is worse, perhaps turn poet, which, they say, is an infectious and incurable distemper.”

God forbid, not a poet! We laugh at their folly, and yet at the beginning of the book, when we are told that the same thing has happened to Don Quixote, we accept it.

If we accept personal responsibility, we deny that a man never would have comitted murder if he had not read about the crime in William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Jack Sheppard. We all choose our actions. Perhaps Don Quixote is the inner child in all of us, acting out the things he has read. Perhaps he seeks these adventures out of pure interest, or to make of himself someone important enough to write about. He chooses his folly and takes it seriously. And still, who can say that he does not yet have his wits about him, and the others missing theirs? Lest we be made fun of as well, we must not accept that his books have infected him with madness.

Advertisements