György Lukács 1951

Don Quixote: Preface to a New Hungarian Edition of Cervantes’ Masterpiece

Source: Communist Review, September 1951. Scanned and prepared for the MIA by Paul Flewers.

The appearance of a new Hungarian edition of Don Quixote is indeed a great event. This book was one of the most successful works of world literature. There is hardly an adult or a child who does not know and love Don Quixote, just as he knows and loves Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe. In the consciousness of humanity the hero of this novel has gained a definite personality; a perpetually living figure like Hamlet and Faust; a type accompanying men through the vicissitudes of time, giving them a better understanding of life and people.

Such a success is never accidental. And the social truth or ideological content of a work is not sufficient to achieve it. The masses, mainly the children, expect a work of literature to be deeply interesting, and, let us add, they have the right to expect it. Cervantes’ popularity through the centuries is due to the very fact that Don Quixote is an enthralling, captivating piece of reading which the reader is unable to put down, which makes him laugh or cry but never bores him; one of those books which, when we have finished them, makes us feel sorry that we have come to the end.

Cervantes builds his novel from a variety of adventures each different from the other. True, his hero commits – owing to his character – follies similar in type, but because this folly is universal, extending to every sphere of life, the continuous movement is necessary only to involve him in newer and newer adventures which, however, never fall into repetitions. Cervantes introduces us to his entire contemporary society all the way from the Prince’s Court to the galley slave, to noblemen and exploited peasants, various representatives of the intellectuals and the petty bourgeois, priests and Moors persecuted for their religion.

Yet the colourfulness of Don Quixote consists not only in that it presents to us all strata of society, of an interesting transitory period personified in beautifully drawn figures, nor in that it shows us the variety of the social conditions of that age in multi-coloured pictures. Cervantes is a really great narrator. This means, on the one hand, that he invents, in his inexhaustible imagination, newer and newer fascinating adventures, portrays the people through their actions and thinks up situations which will bring their character most captivatingly into relief. On the other hand, he is in complete command of the multi-toned scale of true epic poetry: from the sublime to the farcical, from the horrible to the ridiculous there is no action, feeling or mood that we would not meet in this novel. Don Quixote is one of the most readable books in world literature. And this quality of entertainment – in the best sense of the word – is indivisibly merged with its deep ideological content.

It is not a coincidence that Don Quixote was always a favourite book of the most progressive people. In Marx’s eyes, Cervantes and Balzac represented the peaks of novel writing. And when once Comrade Dimitrov delivered a lecture on literary policy to the anti-fascist writers in Moscow, he said: ‘Write against German fascism a satire like Don Quixote.’

And indeed, if we consider the direct aim and content of the novel, it is the most deadly literary satire ever written. The fashionable novel in the days of Cervantes, the great Spanish writer, was the romance of chivalry, the dilution of the poetry of the Middle Ages in flat, empty prose: the depicting of make-believe, a falsified world which alienated the people from the realities of their age and led their feelings, and through them, their entire attitude in an entirely false direction.

Don Quixote demonstrates the destructive effect of these novels. The hero is a kind-hearted, modest, cultured, intelligent man of refined moral sense. He was born to fill a good, useful place in society. But the reading of romances makes him go off his head. He tries to translate their ideas into actions. The novel shows how in the wake of his attempts everything becomes perverted, how the sublime changes into the ridiculous, good will into injury and noble conceptions into mere silliness.

Cervantes’ novel had a completely annihilating effect upon the romantic literature of chivalry which it mocked. True literature has never so completely destroyed sham literature. The appearance of Don Quixote (1605-15) liquidated the cult of romances of chivalry once and for all. Simultaneously it launched the bourgeois novel, the literature of critical realism, on its centuries’ march to triumph. It may be safely said that there is hardly a writer of lasting significance who has been left totally unaffected by this power avalanche. The direct effect of Don Quixote may be felt in the works of the great English critical realists, Swift, Fielding, Sterne, etc. Balzac created a whole series of royalist Don Quixotes from the period of the Restoration. But even where the effect is less direct, as in the case of Goethe, or the novels of the great Russian realists, the traces of Cervantes’ great initiative can be felt.

Taking into account the effect of this work which has lasted for centuries, and the figures created which – beyond the limits of literature – have become integral parts of humanity’s consciousness, it seems impossible that the satire should have had but the fleeting impact of annihilating the cult of romances of chivalry. (Although as a contemporary trend it was not a negligible adversary.)

This is why up to now we have spoken of the direct content of this novel. This is why we emphasised that the book also answers the requirements of the modern novel. Simultaneously with being a satirically destructive work, and inseparably from it, it is also a positive creation. How was this accomplished?

To begin with, for Cervantes, literature was the object of his satirical struggle not as literature, but as an element of life, as an ideological power actively influencing the social actions of people. Thus Cervantes not only founded the modern novel but, inseparably from this, also saw clearly the social role of the new literature. As a consequence, in his portrayal the original aim he set himself was pushed more and more into the background. He still made excellent satirical observations concerning the falseness of the romance of chivalry, but the essence of his portrayal is to show the humane attitude evolving in the hero of the novel, Don Quixote, under the influence of the romances of chivalry.

With the genius of a really great writer, Cervantes far surpassed the average. It is certain that the romances of chivalry misled many of their readers, alienated them from reality; but with the ingeniousness of a poet, Cervantes goes far beyond that – he invents a man who applies the morality of the romances of chivalry to reality, who wants to realise in everyday life the stilted mediaeval way of life, the customs and behaviour of these romances. Such a man could hardly ever have existed. Thus Cervantes discovered, even in the founding of the modern novel, and consistently pursued, the poetic methods of the really great bourgeois novel: the raising of the prose of bourgeois life to the highest poetic level by portraying an extreme case, an extreme person and his extreme actions. This is what gives this novel such a fantastic atmosphere. The prose of bourgeois life is made colourful, rich and poetic.

But how can this be reconciled with realism? According to superficial conceptions reared on the naturalism of a declining bourgeoisie, it cannot be. Those who search for photography in realism will find it just as little in Cervantes as they would in Swift’s or Saltykov-Shchedrin’s works. But for a non-formalistic, non-decadent conception, the question is simple. The truth of literature is in the truth of its social content. And from this point of view, Cervantes’ novel is not only the first realistic novel but one of the greatest realistic novels of all times.

Why is this piece of fantasy realistic and poetic? Because Cervantes depicts not just any extreme individual and not just any of his extreme actions merging with the fantastic. In Cervantes’ work the extreme is the poetic summation of the social characteristics of the given social problem in one person and his actions and adventures. The basis of the fantastic atmosphere of the novel is partly that Don Quixote is not just an ordinary dreamer but one of those rare individuals who translated all their dreams and feelings into immediate action and who advances with inflexible consistency on his road which proves continually, in its entirety and in every detail, to be the false road. And, on the other hand, those phenomena of the outer world in which these clashes between reality and ideology manifest themselves are also extreme without, however, losing for a moment their character of social reality. This social reality of the extremes is brought about partly by Don Quixote’s attitude, partly by those people – consciously or unconsciously – influencing it.

Thus Cervantes’ fantasy is but the condensed reality of a social condition. However, this condensation of the form constitutes, at the same time, also a new element of content: Cervantes reveals to us the importance of a social condition and of a human attitude not in the abstract but by portrayal of them in their final consequences.

How is it possible to heighten fantastically, within the scope of a novel of great length and through a long series of adventures, this grotesque hallucination of Don Quixote? How is it possible that Don Quixote should again and again stand blind and forlorn before the realities of his age and still remain plausible in his attitude? How is it possible that so many bitter and ridiculous experiences should not sober him?

This is where Cervantes’ depth and gift of creating types manifests itself in its entire greatness. He recognised that this is the very attitude that never sobers, its essence manifests itself in the fact that it cannot learn from reality. If the giants against whom Don Quixote takes up his lance prove to be windmills, then he is convinced that he has met with witchcraft. If the great, chivalrous love of his life – the poetic, ethereal Dulcinea – proves to be an ordinary, full-bodied peasant girl, Don Quixote, in his consciousness, again meets with witchcraft. ‘True’ reality, in Don Quixote’s eyes, are the real giants and Dulcinea’s fairy-like beauty. The idealised Middle Ages are his ‘true’ reality. And, in spite of the beatings and ridicule, the things that really exist in the social reality of his age never reach Don Quixote’s consciousness.

It was by this means that Cervantes discovered a type, constant for a long period, of the behaviour of a species of men in class society. We must remember what Marx wrote on the Mountain Party of the revolution of 1848, on the petty-bourgeois democrats who lived in the dreamland of the great bourgeois revolution as Don Quixote lived in the world of the romances of chivalry. Marx states:

At any rate, the democrat issues out of the most disgracing debacle as he entered it, innocently, with the new conviction that neither he nor his party ought to change their position, on the contrary, that circumstances have to become ripe for these changes. [1]

At the same time as Cervantes, his great contemporary Shakespeare was fighting in his powerful works against the ideology of degenerating feudalism. He shows typical characters of this degeneration, now tragic (Richard III), now comic (Falstaff). The two great poets struggled against the same enemy in the interest of progress, but their artistic methods are diametrically opposed. Shakespeare is showing everywhere the moral decay of feudalism. In Richard, depravity borders on devilry, which in Falstaff reaches comic childishness. Cervantes approaches the question from another angle, but with the same profundity and truth.

The greatest – and at one time progressive – virtues of the age of chivalry are fully alive in Don Quixote. He preserves them faithfully in his soul. In his case, the disintegration of his class does not manifest itself in the distortion of his individual traits of character, in baseness, in his becoming evil and vile. The class of society to which he belongs with every atom of his being has forever departed from the scene of history and therefore it is his positive, his very best features that become false and comical in his social actions. ‘Virtue turns into sin, good into bad’, says Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust.

Here again, Cervantes reveals a deep truth by means of great poetic generalisation, typification – the relativeness and social-historical transformations of virtues and sins, good and bad traits of character, the sublime and the ridiculous, the tragic and the comic. Every phase of social development faces those serving progress with newer and newer tasks to solve: and virtue is always that which serves progress. What is more, the allegedly ‘timeless’ aesthetical conceptions, tragedy and comedy, gain concrete sense only in this relation. Writing about the period prior to and after the French Revolution, Marx reveals the fate of the partisans of the old monarchy; how with the historical development, and as a consequence of this development, tragedy changes into comedy. This is the process depicted by Cervantes. And it is the very honesty, cleverness and bravery of his hero which throws the clearest light on this truth. It is not Don Quixote’s weakness which makes him an irresistibly ridiculous figure, but exclusively the historical situation, in which these high moral traits will unavoidably turn into the harmful, the false, the ridiculous. Cervantes perpetuates here the typical traits of the development of centuries.

To make use of an extreme example, let us take the figure of Ogeniev, created by Panfiorov. He possesses the best qualities of a civil war hero, but he retains them unchanged without re-educating himself, and thus, in the struggle for the creation of collective farms, these qualities become harmful and dangerous. Ogeniev is, on the other side, a tragic victim. It is part of the ‘production costs’ of the great social transitions that characters of human value destroy themselves, without any advantage to society and even causing it damage.

Who then, is Don Quixote? Is he a negative or a positive figure? (As to Shakespeare, this question is clear and simple.) Looking for an answer to this question, the greatest thinkers and even the greatest poets ran into insoluble contradictions. Heine, for instance, said of Cervantes’ novel that it was a satire on enthusiasm. Even a poet as great as Heine poses the question abstractly, leading thereby the quest for an answer into the wrong direction.

The target of Cervantes’ satire is not enthusiasm in general, but that of Don Quixote, an enthusiasm with a defined class content, and the satire is directed against this concrete content. Hence, the particular aspect of the whole world of this novel. The unenlightened reader will laugh at Don Quixote, at his ideology and his aims, but at the same time he experiences a profound sympathy with the moral purity of his enthusiasm.

The solution to the puzzle is to be found in the question of transition due to the formation of a new class society.

Today, in the period of transition into socialism, the relativity of virtues has an entirely different meaning. Thus, the example of Don Quixote cannot be applied to the present. (Let us remember that Panfiorov’s Ogeniev is also a local revolutionary who, however, takes the wrong road.) The character of past transitions was entirely different; progress very often contained, especially in a moral and cultural respect, elements of regression. Engels explains this very clearly in connection with the disintegration of primitive communism, and Cooper’s Leatherstocking also shows this transition.

Here again, Cervantes grasps and presents the earnest and typical question of progress. In Balzac we have also seen how the moral canaille of the royalists devours the fresh cream of capitalism on the upgrade, whereas those who really fought and suffered for the cause – however wrong and reactionary – of legitimacy, were pushed aside and plunged into misery.

We find similar transitions in Turgenev’s works too.

But if we want to get a more or less complete view of Cervantes’ entire novel we must not forget Don Quixote’s opposite, his contrast, Sancho Panza. Cervantes contrasts the peasant reasonableness of the squires with the folly of the knight not only in the individual adventures. (And here again he shows us clearly and rightly that in spite of all, Sancho Panza is a faithful partner in all of Don Quixote’s follies, that he laughs at him yet follows him unswervingly.) But the contrast goes further than that. Don Quixote fails at everything. But when, for the sake of a joke, for the sake of entertainment, the Prince’s court names Sancho Panza Governor, the sober wisdom with which Sancho Panza solves all the difficulties arising crushes every attempt to ridicule him. Here, and in the same sense as the figure of Don Quixote constitutes one of the greatest achievements of satirical comedy in world literature, we are face to face with the other extreme: we laugh at those who want to ridicule Sancho Panza.

Here again, Cervantes is the founder of the modern bourgeois realist novel: he observes and shows the mental and moral superiority of the people over the ruling classes. Cervantes is the first to strike a note which we can hear in the works of all the great representatives of critical realism from Diderot and Walter Scott to Balzac and Tolstoy.

This is too limited in scope to attempt a review of Cervantes’ world-famous work even in its outlines: it had to be restricted to giving just a few points. I believe, however, that even these suffice to show how right it was to bring out a new edition of Cervantes’ novel, so that the working people may learn to know and appreciate such works of art.


1. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte – MIA.