Chapter 11 of “Don Quixote” features one of the knight’s most famous speeches, his “harangue” about the “Golden Age.” Whenever anyone speaks of restoring a glorious past, it’s time to sit up and pay attention to the ways you are being manipulated, whether it’s a MAGA-like attempt to retrieve American past glory or Martin Heidegger’s critique of technology and lament for the craftsman culture.
Quixote’s speech, on first glance, sounds very appealing and there is some utopian value to the ideals expressed here, whether they are indicative of an actual past or not. But the speech is also highly contradictory — it is designed to be a defense of and explanation for his knight errant quests, but more often is in direct contradiction of his actions. I’m going to go through it bit by bit:
After Don Quixote had satisfied his stomach, he picked up a handful of acorns, and, regarding them attentively, he began to speak these words: “Fortunate the age and fortunate the times called golden by the ancients, and not because gold, which in this our age of iron is so highly esteemed, could be found then with no effort, but because those who lived in that time did not know the two words thine and mine.
This is the first contradiction/note of irony in Quixote’s speech because everything that he does in his quest is about his personal glory and elevation of his divine Dulcinea. It’s all about the thine and mine.
In that blessed age all things were owned in common; no one, for his daily sustenance, needed to do more than lift his hand and pluck it from the sturdy oaks that so liberally invited him to share their sweet and flavorsome fruit. The clear fountains and rushing rivers offered delicious, transparent waters in magnificent abundance. In the fissures of rocks and the hollows of trees diligent and clever bees established their colonies, freely offering to any hand the fertile harvest of their sweet labor. Noble cork trees, moved only by their own courtesy, shed the wide, light bark with which houses, supported on rough posts, were covered as a protection, but only against the rain that fell from heaven. In that time all was peace, friendship, and harmony; the heavy curve of the plowshare had not yet dared to open or violate the merciful womb of our first mother, for she, without being forced, offered up, everywhere across her broad and fertile bosom, whatever would satisfy, sustain, and delight the children who then possessed her.
Quixote is making this idealistic call for people to share the earth without coveting or forming attachments. And yet, his quest is not about leaving people in peace to go about their lives, it is all about disruption of order, forcing them to pay homage to his Dulcinea or challenging them to make amends for injuries to his steed. And, of course, Hobbes would laugh at this description of a human utopia by noting how these primative lives were nasty, brutish and short. We see today just how much nature is out to kill us and Quixote’s naive wish to return to such simplicity is nothing more than an adult’s attempt to retreat to the womb. Speaking of the womb, Quixote now makes a curious pitch for a time when women could live more freely, without fear:
In that time simple and beautiful shepherdesses could wander from valley to valley and hill to hill, their hair hanging loose or in braids, wearing only the clothes needed to modestly cover that which modesty demands, and has always demanded, be covered, and their adornments were not those used now, enveloping the one who wears them in the purple dyes of Tyre, and silk martyrized in countless ways, but a few green burdock leaves and ivy vines entwined, and in these they perhaps looked as grand and elegant as our ladies of the court do now in the rare and strange designs which idle curiosity has taught them.
This vision sets up the section that immediately follows, about the shepherdess Marcela and her desire to live an unattached life free of annoying, demanding suitors. The irony comes in contrast to Quixote’s Dulcinea, who was created as a romantic symbol much like Marcela. So while Quixote can boast of his desire for a woman’s freedom to avoid the suffocating attention of suitors, he feels obliged to be such a suitor, even if his target is fictional.
In that time amorous concepts were recited from the soul simply and directly, in the same way and manner that the soul conceived them, without looking for artificial and devious words to enclose them. There was no fraud, deceit, or malice mixed in with honesty and truth. Justice stood on her own ground, and favor or interest did not dare disturb or offend her as they so often do now, defaming, confusing, and persecuting her. Arbitrary opinions formed outside the law had not yet found a place in the mind of the judge, for there was nothing to judge, and no one to be judged. Maidens in their modesty wandered, as I have said, wherever they wished, alone and mistresses of themselves, without fear that another’s boldness or lascivious intent would dishonor them, and if they fell it was through their own desire and will.
This is, of course, pure nonsense. There was no time in human history that existed prior to manipulation and language games, unless we want to consider a time before human consciousness and I don’t think that’s what Quixote had in mind by a golden age. If we are to assume some Garden of Eden state prior to humans being corrupted, it is interesting how Quixote turns that fable on its head by making women the victim of the fall rather than the perpetrators. There is a germ of feminism to the story, but also some infantilization of women, that they are incapable of handling themselves in the face of deceit and manipulation. That leads us to Quixote’s next section:
But now, in these our detestable times, no maiden is safe, even if she is hidden and enclosed in another labyrinth like the one in Crete; because even there, through chinks in the wall, or carried by the air itself, with the zealousness of accursed solicitation the amorous pestilence finds its way in and, despite all their seclusion, maidens are brought to ruin. It was for their protection, as time passed and wickedness spread, that the order of knights errant was instituted: to defend maidens, protect widows, and come to the aid of orphans and those in need.
And yet, Quixote does all of this in service of a fictional woman. Carl Jung would argue that Quixote isn’t doing this in service of a woman at all, he’s serving his anima, which is just another part of his personality. Viewed in this context, the order of the knights errant is nothing more than an Anima Cult that sprung up to let men fuse their psyches and give them an excuse to ride around on horseback and start trouble among people just trying to go about their lives. Quixote then thanked the goat herders for listening to his tale, leading Cervantes to note:
This long harangue—which could very easily have been omitted—was declaimed by our knight because the acorns served to him brought to mind the Golden Age, and with it the desire to make that foolish speech to the goatherds, who, stupefied and perplexed, listened without saying a word. Sancho too was silent, and ate acorns, and made frequent trips to the second wineskin, which had been hung from a cork tree to cool the wine.
Cervantes immediately creates distance between the speech and his own thoughts about it. The speech is designed to show the foolishness of Quixote, but it’s really there to make a commentary on the rationale for knight errantry and to allow Cervantes another opportunity to point out just how ridiculous and contradictory Quixote’s quests are.
I think the speech has value because, at first reading, it can seem very moving. As a rhetorician, I understand the power of ideal past visions that need to be upheld or restored. We usually recognize this dangerous method when politicians sell it, but they are not alone. Companies have golden ages, as do non-profits and schools. For how long has Apple clung to the Golden Age of Steve Jobs and built a cult around him?
We’re all susceptible to seduction like this and Cervantes does us a huge favor by pointing it out early in his story before we get carried away with Quixote’s supposed nobility. The truth is that Quixote’s quest is personal and selfish, and we should never forget it.