Don Quixote, who cannot tell the difference between illusion and reality, is a story for our times

Don Quixote about to attack windmills which he believes are giants

I’ve been reading Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Acclaimed by many as the world’s first novel and one of the world’s top 100 works of literature, the first part was published in 1605, the second in 1615.

As well as being enormously entertaining, it expresses a richly fertile imagination, skilful storytelling, comparable to Shakespeare (a contemporary) and is full of sharply observed insights about human character, foibles and idiosyncrasies. 

The book is centred around the adventures of a small town ‘gentleman’, living in straightened circumstances in rural Spain. Don Quixote has, through his library of ‘fantasy’ books become obsessed with the fictitious world of knight errantry, to the extent of believing that the characters in the books are real, as are their codes of chivalry, their deeds of derring-do to defend the oppressed and undo wrongs, mission to protect and rescue maidens, and their battles to defeat their mortal enemies, including a host of evil malefactors, necromancers, enchanters, sorcerers, giants and hobgoblins. For Don Quixote the world imagined and described in these books (including the Arthurian legends) is completely real. He believes in them completely and utterly.

Don Quixote is convinced his books about knights errant are true and real and that he is surrounded by giants, evil characters and princesses in need of rescue. Image by Gustave Doré – Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote – Part 1 – Chapter 1

Everyone else, including his niece and housekeeper, the local priest and barber – as well as those he meets on his adventures – see Don Quixote as mad. His honourable intentions, his chivalrous manner and his innate kindness and even wisdom, make him likeable, charming and sometimes respected. But then his fantastical obsessions lead him to acts of unspeakable stupidity and violence against people or objects (the most famous being the windmills that Don Quixote attacks, convinced they are giants). Most of these actions result in disaster, usually for Don Quixote and his squire, Sancho Panza, and often for the objects of his delusional obsession. For example, he wakes up in the attic of an inn and believes the large wineskins on shelves surrounding him are giants conspiring to kill him. He rises, grasps his sword and slashes the wineskins, destroying them and covering himself in what he believes is blood, but is of course the innkeeper’s store of red wine.  When confronted by the furious innkeeper with what he has done, Don Quixote defends the absurdity of his actions (as he does for most of his disastrous adventures) with the delusional argument that he has been cast under a spell by some evil enchanter to deliberately frustrate his mission.

Cervantes’ immensely funny and astutely observed satire of knights errant and the power of fantasy books of his time has much to say about our own times. In Don Quixote, we have an innocent, well-meaning person who has become sucked into an imaginary world, to such an extent that he cannot and will not believe the reality in front of him and who resolutely defends his delusional beliefs against any attempt to unmask the illusion.

There are, it seems to me, significant parallels with those around the world today (often genuine, well-meaning people) who become sucked into an imaginary world that they then defend to the hilt, frequently with disastrous consequences for themselves or those near them. Cervantes would doubtless say that in Don Quixote’s case, the true malefactors are not the imagined giants and enchanters but the authors of the endless number of fantasy books that preyed on the minds of good people looking for meaning in life, perpetrators of evil and a supposedly better world.

Today, the malefactors are to be found in the digital sphere, propagating, and promoting a fantasy world in which the agents of evil are conspiring to steal and abuse children, take away people’s freedom, control and repress their lives, inject them with devilish substances etc. All of which begs the question – what is it in human nature that makes us susceptible to this kind of gullibility and brainwashing?

To return to Cervantes, a literary appraisal of Don Quixote puts forward an intriguing thesis.

In an article for the Hudson Review in 2015, titled ‘Don Quixote or the Art of Becoming’, Antonio Muñoz Molina writes:

“In the century that had roughly elapsed between the invention of printing and the mature years of Miguel de Cervantes, the number of books available had grown exponentially, as well as the number of readers and the privacy and intensity of the act of reading. In Don Quixote, the first modern novel, Cervantes addresses this most modern of conun­drums. What is the influence of fiction not only over the conscience, but also on the life of readers? With so many books being available for more or less educated readers, how can one pick out the good from the bad? Written words, set in printed letters, exert an almost instant authority: Is there a safe way to find out which stories are true and which are false; in other words, how can solitary readers be certain about the right attitude to be taken toward a particular book? The reader is in constant danger of misreading as long as he or she doesn’t grasp the exact nature of the book. Cervantes was acutely aware of this problem, having been himself as much in love with chivalric and pastoral novels as Don Quixote. Mistaking a novel for a book of history is no less a catastrophe than mistaking windmills for giants or peasant women for princesses. Printed fiction was still so new a medium of representing the world at the time of Cervantes that many people had not yet fully developed accurate skills to decode it.”

In relative terms, the availability of books was as novel a means of acquiring knowledge and information in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries as the internet and social media are today. Similarly, it seems to me that many people have not developed the skills to decode what passes for fact on the internet. The problems and dangers in our world are massively and exponentially increased by the speed with which material can be posted and consumed in the digital sphere, and by the disruptive, manipulative, ill-intentioned and self-serving motives of those propagating misleading or false narratives.

To make matters more complicated, consumers of the narratives being promulgated are, like Don Quixote, avid and willing believers. They want the dark stories of powerful elites plotting control and subjugation, the conspiracies about purported evil-doers to be true. They want to believe in secret cabals, nefarious plans, hidden agendas. But why?

I am not a psychologist or indeed a scientist, although I have spent much of my life making television programs that communicate scientific and technological discoveries and theories to the general public.

I have in the process of reading widely and researching content for these shows come across multiple examples of human beings wanting to believe in supernatural or hidden plans, good and bad, and being willingly complicit in patching together all manner of unsubstantiated, unconnected, imagined, fantastical thoughts, ideas, reports, hearsay as evidence. At a fundamental level, it fits with our need to make sense of the world, a world that for most of our species’ time has appeared randomly organised and mysterious.

Scientific observation aided by technology has in recent centuries given us a deeper insight into the inner connectedness of life on earth and the cosmos, although we are still far from understanding the complexity of existence or to formulate a ‘grand theory of everything’.

That leaves an awful lot of space (literal and figurative) to be filled with our imagined theories, fears and suspicions.

The current wave of conspiracy theories seems dangerously widespread and growing, but is it in fact that unusual? I don’t think so.

Wind the clock back a quarter of a century to when I was making documentaries for what was then The Learning Channel, prior to the internet/social media phenomenon, and what then fascinated and obsessed thousands, possibly millions of people was Area 51 in the Nevada desert.  

Entering Area 51 Sign On A Fence At The Military Base In The Nevada Desert At Sunset. Courtesy of unsplash

A top-secret intelligence, military and defence site, it was the focus for rumours and stories of UFOs, aliens and a massive government cover-up. Area 51 along with the name Roswell, site of a supposed alien spaceship crash, became the centre of a conspiracy among alien fans and ufologists that there were underground bunkers and labs, government research into aliens and possibly captured aliens themselves. The stories were inflated by conspiracists who made up bizarre details about aliens being held and fed abducted children and mutilated cattle.

Two old-style UFO hover over a desert landscape at night, probing the ground with bright lights. Miniature photography. Courtesy of unsplash

All this excited widespread speculation, people camped as close to the off-limits Area 51 as they could in the hope of sighting strange lights, coming and goings. No matter how many denials and refutations there were by government people or scientists (they would, wouldn’t they?), the believers believed, because they wanted to.

To some extent it undoubtedly suited the Defence and Intelligence services to have people believe in UFOs as that distracted them from what was really going on as far back as the 1950s and 60s – the testing and flying of top-secret aircraft such as the SR-71 “Blackbird” spy plane which first flew in 1964 but was only revealed to the public twenty years later.

The US government had every reason to want to keep the SR-71 secret – at the height of the cold war, the Blackbird cruised at more than three times the speed of sound, more than 3220 kilometres per hour—at altitudes between 75,000 and 85,000 feet, too high and too fast to be shot down by an enemy fighter or a surface-to-air missile.

Author with SR-71 at airshow in US in 1990s

So, yes there are secret activities in this world, but not the fantastical and paranoia-inducing sort promoted by conspiracy theorists.

But that isn’t what many people want to think or believe, any more than they wanted to accept that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating President John F. Kennedy. The same with the death of Princess Diana, who organised the 9/11 attacks, the ‘fake’ moon landings, the death of Pope John Paul 1, Elvis Presley still being alive, the Illuminati, the New World Order, world domination by the Bilderberg group, shape-shifting lizard people, that the Holocaust didn’t happen, that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays and so on.

Sometimes the conspiracy theories are just entertaining, and they make a lot of money for people who push them, via books, documentaries, films, radio shows and podcasts.  Other times, they turn deadly.

Witch-hunting in Europe and England in the 16th and 17th centuries is a potent and terrifying example.

Witches presenting wax dolls to the devil, featured in The History of Witches and Wizards (1720) —  Wellcome Library

An estimated 35,000 to 50,000 people, mostly women over the age of 40, were executed, after being tortured. Fuelled by religious hysteria, this cruel practice reached a peak from 1580 to 1630 during the Counter-Reformation and the European wars of religion, including the Thirty Years war.

Protestant Christianity in particular associated witchcraft with Satanic ritual parties in which there was naked dancing and cannibalistic infanticide.

Witches dancing with devils, featured in The History of Witches and Wizards (1720) — Wellcome Library
Witches feasting, featured in The History of Witches and Wizards (1720) — Wellcome Library

In England, witchcraft became illegal in 1563.  

Although not as widespread or pursued as fanatically as in Europe, professional witch finders were encouraged by local shires that paid them to find witches. Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled ‘Witchfinder General’ claimed to be officially commissioned by Parliament with the brief to uncover and prosecute witches. Between the years 1644 and 1646, Hopkins and his associates are believed to have been responsible for the deaths of 300 women. It is estimated that Hopkins may have collected fees of around £1000 for his gruesome services.

Frontispiece to Matthew Hopkins’ Discovery of Witches (1648) showing two witches calling out the names of their demons while Hopkins watches above — British Library

So-called proof of being a witch could be a third nipple, an unusual mark on the skin, the ‘devil’s mark’, or possessing a cat, dog or toad, a ‘witch’s familiar’.

Witch pictured feeding her familiars with blood, in A Rehearsall both Straung and True, of Hainous and Horrible Actes Committed by Elizabeth Stile (1579) — British Library.

Confessions were often extracted under torture. Suspects had their hands and feet bound and were thrown into water. Those who sank and drowned were deemed innocent, those that floated were assumed to be guilty and executed.

The mania soon crossed the Atlantic. Between 1692 and 1693, America witnessed the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts. Up to 180 people were accused of practicing witchcraft. At least 55 of the accused were tortured or terrified into admitting guilt and 19 were executed. Eventually, the colony admitted the trials were a mistake and compensated the families of those convicted.

There have been several theories about what gave rise to the European witch-hunts from climate and food pressures caused by the Little Ice Age to a more recent analysis by two economists proposing that it was due to competing rivalry between the Protestant and Catholic churches.

A 2018 Guardian article reported:

Economists Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ of George Mason University in Virginia argue that the trials reflected “non-price competition between the Catholic and Protestant churches for religious market share”.

As competing Catholic and Protestant churches vied to win over or retain their followers, they needed to make an impact – and witch trials were the battleground they chose. Or, as the two academics put it in their paper, to be published in the new edition of the Economic Journal: “Leveraging popular belief in witchcraft, witch-prosecutors advertised their confessional brands’ commitment and power to protect citizens from worldly manifestations of Satan’s evil.”

This was the ‘red meat’ stuff of the day, drawing on fears of Satanic rituals, killing of children and use of their blood and magic spells and curses.

As the Guardian writer, Jamie Doward suggests, there are echoes of such fears and exploitations in contemporary US politics.

“The new analysis suggests that the witch craze was most intense where Catholic-Protestant rivalry was strongest. Churches picked key regional battlegrounds, they say, much like the Democrat and Republican parties in the US now focus on key states during the presidential election.

This explains why Germany, ground zero for the Reformation, laid claim to nearly 40% of all witchcraft prosecutions in Europe. Scotland, where different strains of Protestantism were in competition, saw the second highest level of witch-hunts, with a total of 3,563 people tried.”

The economists’ conclusions drew on analyses of new data covering more than 43,000 people tried for witchcraft in 21 European countries.

The manipulation of conspiracies for political and religious sectarian gain has clear contemporary relevance.

It sheds revealing light on bizarre conspiracy theories that have circulated in the US such as Pizzagate and by QAnon followers and adherents about a child sex ring, paedophilia and human trafficking linked to Democrat figures like Hilary Clinton, including claims of sacrifices and blood drinking.

These grotesque and preposterous allegations that are demonstrably untrue have nevertheless captured the minds and imaginations of tens of thousands, possibly millions. They seem designed to tap into similar fears and conspiracy theories promulgated in medieval Europe.

Back then, a “blood accusation” or ritual murder libel was levelled at Jews, in which Jews were falsely accused of murdering Christian boys at Passover to obtain blood for unleavened bread. Echoing ancient myths of secret cult practices in prehistoric societies, these unfounded and demonising allegations became a major theme in the persecution of Jews in Europe. In the 1930s the blood libel became part of Nazi propaganda.

The fear of infanticide was not just directed at Jews, however.

Franciscan preacher Bernadino of Siena (1380–1444) preached about his concerns not just with spells and enchantments but much more serious crimes, namely murder and infanticide. In his sermon of 1427, he said of women charged with witchcraft:

One of them told and confessed, without any pressure, that she had killed thirty children by bleeding them … [and] she confessed more, saying she had killed her own son …”

And in 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a Papal bull authorizing the “correcting, imprisoning, punishing and chastising” of devil-worshippers who have “slain infants”, among other crimes.

By 1486, witch trials had begun in France, prompted in large part by a book by two Dominican friars, called Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Evil-doers) which was virtually a handbook for witch-hunters. Under torture, supposed heretics confessed to having been initiated into sects at ceremonies at which a devil figure presided, noxious food or drink was consumed, often containing human remains and a promiscuous orgy was held.

Title page to Malleus Maleficarum — Wellcome Library.

Such recurring themes across the ages suggest that human beings have always been susceptible to macabre stories, however far-fetched. These incite fear and suspicion and ignite sectarian tribalism, fertile ground for conspiracy theories.

But why are we so prone to believing these outlandish and delusory stories?

I think it’s largely due to two fundamental human characteristics which make us who we are, which are associated but which can collide with dire repercussions.

Our species has a powerful imagination. We have always created intensely imaginative stories, myths, legends and belief systems to enrich our lives. Throughout our history, we have populated the landscape, the heavens and our minds with hordes of complex imagined characters. Whether as gods, devils or heroes, these characters often assume supernatural powers, exaggerated or grotesque behaviour, exhibiting extreme manifestations of good and bad human actions and emotions. It is our way of posing ‘what if…’ questions about ourselves. As the Greeks explored through drama, it’s the value of catharsis as a ‘cleansing purgative’, a means for the audience to unburden their fear and pity through a powerful but fictional story.

We are also, I believe, hard-wired for storytelling. It’s how we have made sense of the world around us for thousands of years. Looking for patterns, joining dots, creating plausible narratives we seek to explain the observed or the inexplicable in the real world. In doing so we search for meaning, for reasons why things happen in a particular way, how and why that affects us; and we do so, seeking re-assurance that what we see reconciles with what we believe, with who we are. In other words, we look for answers, stories, patterns that conform with our concept of self, our life-experience, our beliefs, with what we fear and what we love.

Therein lies the danger, the trap into which Don Quixote has fallen, where the line between reality and the imagination becomes blurred. Despite knowing he has imbibed the stories of knight errantry from his extensive library, despite the reality that he continually bumps into and of which his ‘squire’, Sancho Panza is a perpetual reminder, he believes and “lives” in a reality that reflects how he sees himself. As a knight errant, he can entertain his desire to live in a romanticised world populated by kings, castles, princesses, heroic knights, giants, demons and enchanters. There, he can play out his role of chivalrous knight, have adventures, fight battles, rescue maidens and right wrongs. When he saddles up his steed Rocinante, he rides into a fictional universe in which he believes he can achieve glory and success. Such a life is noble and worthy, and has purpose, unlike the tedious and banal reality of being a bucolic low-born gentleman of limited means.  

The tragedy is that in this imaginary world, Don Quixote is largely a failure, a tragi-comic figure who misunderstands and misinterprets almost everything, causing disaster wherever he goes. Cervantes is sympathetic to Don Quixote, but nevertheless makes him a figure of fun. We understand his desire for a more romantic, exciting, mysterious world full of magic and enchantments, but we know it’s not real. The author’s genius is in sharing with us both the illusion and the delusion. We are in on the joke. We are being shown how important it is to tell the difference between real life and true stories on the one hand and utter fiction or conspiracy theories on the other. It’s a lesson we should heed well.

The sail shivered his weapon in pieces, dragging the horse and his rider with it. Image by Gustave Doré – Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote – Part 1 – Chapter 8

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