About St. John’s College
Santa Fe Office of the Dean
Opening Lecture, Fall 2008
Con Buen Hambre No Hay Mal Pan:
Why We Should Thank Cervantes For Introducing Us to the Famous Sancho Panza
Victoria Mora, Dean
St. John’s College, Santa Fe
August 29, 2008
I would like to begin tonight’s lecture with a Prologue of sorts, and in so doing, address myself especially to the freshmen, to whom this lecture is dedicated on the occasion of this their first foray into the St. John’s Program and the liberal arts education that it embodies. This Prologue must begin with an apology—of sorts. For what follows is a lecture that takes as its topic a character in a book with which you freshmen (and for that matter, you sophomores) may not be acquainted. The character is Sancho Panza, an illiterate farmer turned squire, and the book is Miguel de Cervantes’Don Quixote. A good deal of my lecture will be spent introducing you to Sancho Panza, at least as I have come to know him, and for that I make no apology. But I do apologize for the fact that in making my introduction, I may assume too much about the book and about your familiarity with it. Should my attempts to the contrary fail, I will let you in on a little secret that may render my failing to your advantage. If my lecture is explicitly about Sancho Panza, it is implicitly about books, imagination, and the possibility of our being educated toward our own freedom. Or, to put it another way, the modern novel Don Quixote turns out to be, in a very significant way, about liberal arts education. If you listen carefully, but especially imaginatively, you may find yourselves in the following pages even as you make the acquaintance of the famous Sancho Panza. But first, let me introduce you to Cervantes and to his Prologue to Don Quixote.
Miguel de Cervantes is one of the most self-conscious authors we encounter on our program. His self-consciousness appears immediately in the Prologue to Don Quixote, in which he apologizes for the fact that the book, “the child of [his] understanding”, turns out to be not “the most beautiful, the most brilliant, and most discreet that anyone could imagine”, but rather the history of a child who is “dry, withered, capricious, and filled with inconstant thoughts never imagined by anyone else, which is just what one would expect of a person begotten in a prison...” Cervantes goes on to disclose more than his concern that in his own imprisonment and state of impoverishment he has sired an ugly and graceless child, whose history reflects the short-comings of the father. The Prologue itself is revealed by Cervantes to have been even more difficult to compose than the entire book. Cervantes resolves this difficulty by distancing himself from the Prologue, turning it into a stepchild by attributing it to a friend, even as he declares himself the stepfather of the entire “history” of Don Quixote, attributed as it is throughout to Cide Hamete Benengeli, whose status as an historian is complicated by the fact that he comes from a nation of liars.
Given the device of distancing himself from his writing employed by Cervantes in the Prologue, (and indeed throughout the book), it is doubly intriguing that Cervantes writes in such a way that we are left with no room for distance in our capacity as readers. In fact, Cervantes might even be charged with stirring up our self-consciousness in that regard. The entire Prologue is addressed, in the first person, to an “Idle reader”, whose indulgence Cervantes makes clear he will not solicit, despite the shortcomings of what the reader must encounter in the pages that follow. On the contrary, Cervantes acknowledges his reader’s will and sovereignty in determining what to do with the faults of Cervantes’ offspring, even as he “exempts and excuses” the reader in advance from all “respect and obligation” when it comes to judging his work.
And yet, after stirring up our self-consciousness as readers and emphasizing the liberty we may enjoy in that capacity, Cervantes attempts to circumscribe our response with regard to one thing and one thing only. He does this in his own voice rather than through the words of his friend, which are quoted at length by Cervantes and constitute a good portion of the Prologue. Cervantes wants to make sure that we are grateful for having been introduced to one of the numerous characters we meet in his very large book. His choice of characters, however, should whet our appetite to find out more; for it is not his main character, Don Quixote, whom Cervantes singles out for his readers. Cervantes writes,
I do not want to charge you too much for the service I have performed in introducing you to so noble and honorable a knight; but I do want you to thank me for allowing you to make the acquaintance of the famous Sancho Panza, his squire, in whom, in my opinion, I have summarized for you all the squirely wit and charm scattered throughout the great mass of inane books of chivalry.
It is very difficult to say any one thing about Cervantes’ character Sancho Panza, except, perhaps, that at his worst and at his best he is a delight to accompany through the pages of Don Quixote. He is, no pun intended, a true character in the round. He is base in his habits and often cowardly in the face of danger. His appetite distracts him from higher things and his complaining is quick to follow any misfortune that he suffers. He talks too much, and not always to the point. Yet he is also a loyal and dedicated servant, and even friend, to Don Quixote. He learns to defend himself from others and even stands up to his master on important occasions. He dares to dream along with his master and sees in Don Quixote’s madness an intimation of something higher for himself and for his family. In spite of his complaining, he is always game for the next adventure. And if we listen closely to him, his words carry with them as much wisdom as wit.
Sancho Panza’s complimentary and contrary characteristics are enough to keep Cervantes’ idle reader laughing out loud throughout the novel, and I suppose that it is possible that in drawing our attention to Sancho Panza, Cervantes is simply putting us on notice that he has accepted one bit of advice offered by his friend in the Prologue, namely, to write in such a way that his readers will be moved from melancholy to laughter. On this reading, we owe Cervantes thanks for the mirth we enjoy through the character of Sancho Panza, and indeed there is ample evidence in the text to support this. One of the characters in the Second Part, Don Antonio, even harkens back to the Prologue when he says that Sancho’s words and actions could cheer melancholy itself, and those who spend time with Sancho (both as characters in the book and as readers of the book) know this to be true. Yet this reader cannot help but be intrigued that so self-conscious a writer bookends his Prologue first by conjuring his reader into existence and then by requesting thanks from his reader for having made the acquaintance of this good squire.
Why, then, might we as readers thank Cervantes for introducing us to Sancho Panza, whose illiteracy is highlighted on at least half a dozen different occasions in the book? Perhaps Panza’s name gives us a clue, as well as a reason to spend our evening thinking about him as we welcome the freshmen to the beginning of their adventure at St. John’s. For “Panza” means “belly” and Sancho’s hunger turns out to be key in what I believe is the most noteworthy transformation in a book filled with transformations: the transformation of Sancho Panza. This transformation is possible because of Panza’s appetite for the world of adventure that Don Quixote’s “inane books of chivalry” open up to him. This world, apparently anachronistic and fantastic, enables Sancho to come into his own, to become both more himself and more than himself. From this standpoint, this illiterate character, in a book that makes us self-conscious about ourselves as readers, may just turn out to be a guide for us in the art of openness to books and to the ideas that hold out the possibility for our transformation. If so, Sancho Panza’s importance for us as readers may very well go beyond his squirely wit and charm.
To summarize the whole of Don Quixote would of course be too much for tonight’s lecture. But in order to appreciate the role that Sancho Panza plays in the novel, it is important to highlight at least a few things about how he figures into its plot. We meet Sancho Panza through Don Quixote, who prior to so dubbing himself was a typical Spanish gentleman of his time named Quexana or Quixada or Quexada or Quijana, our narrator never determines which. This gentleman was in no way extraordinary except insofar as he could not stop reading books of chivalry, which he read “with so much devotion and enthusiasm” that he forgot almost completely about everything pertaining to the life of a gentleman. “In short,” the narrator of his history tells us, “our gentleman became so caught up in reading that he spent his nights reading from dusk till dawn and his days reading from sunrise to sunset, and so with too little sleep and too much reading his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind.”
The evidence for Don Quixote’s madness lies in his commitment to a thought inspired by the books that have gripped his imagination. This thought is that he should “become a knight errant and travel the world with his armor and his horse to seek adventures and engage in everything he had read that knights errant engaged in, righting all manner of wrongs and, by seizing the opportunity and placing himself in danger and ending those wrongs, winning eternal renown and everlasting fame.” To effect this, our gentleman has to assume all of the trappings of knight errantry: he takes the title Don Quixote of La Mancha appropriate to a knight, christens his horse Rocinante in the name of his nag’s newfound dignity, and commits himself to “a very attractive peasant girl with whom he had once been in love”, transforming her from Aldonza Lorenzo into “the lady of his thoughts,” Dulcinea of Toboso. After assuming these trappings, our knight is ready to transform the world in the image of the books that have inspired him.
Don Quixote is alone in his first sally into the world as a knight errant; and unfortunately for him, (but perhaps fortunately for Sancho Panza), this first sally is pretty much a disaster all the way around, in addition to being short-lived. In its course Don Quixote is sorely wounded, though this time more in body than in spirit, and his thoughts upon returning home are only of eating and sleeping, in that order. Further, the result of this sally is destructive of others: The young man, Andrés, whom Don Quixote attempts to help, is beaten to within inches of his life for Don Quixote’s intervention, even as most of Don Quixote’s precious books pay the price of his acquaintance with them by being committed to the flames at the hands of the village priest and the village barber, who believe that Don Quixote’s madness has the greatest chance of being cured if its source is purged.
Yet in order to appease him when he goes to look for his library, which has been sealed off, and for the books that it once contained but no longer, Don Quixote’s friends along with his niece and his housekeeper collude in his madness by telling him that a great enchanter has carried off the library along with the books. Don Quixote accepts this, surmising that heaven has ordained his enmity with this great enchanter. “Who can doubt it?” his niece replies. “But, Señor Uncle, who has involved your grace in those disputes? Wouldn’t it be better to stay peacefully in your house and not wander around the world searching for bread made from something better than wheat, never stopping to think that many people go looking for wool and come back shorn?”
Now it is worth noting that Don Quixote, who as we know came home from his first sally hungry, responds to the second metaphor entailed in his niece’s question, but not to the first. And it is in fact within the immediate context of this unanswered metaphor about a search for “bread made from something better than wheat” that we are introduced to Sancho Panza, for after making clear that he has no intention of being shorn, Don Quixote spends two very quiet weeks at home during which he approaches his neighbor, who is a farmer, with the intention of making him his squire. In the course of our introduction to Panza, we learn from Cervantes that he agrees to go with Don Quixote and serve as his squire because, among other things, “it might happen that one day he would have an adventure that would gain him, in the blink of an eye, an ínsula, and he would make him its governor.”
Apparently Don Quixote whets Panza’s appetite with promises of an ínsula (or “island”) and a governorship. Indeed, when they first set out on Don Quixote’s second sally, our narrator remarks that “Sancho Panza rode on his donkey like a patriarch, with his saddlebags and his wineskin, and a great desire to see himself governor of the ínsula his master had promised him.” But in only a few short pages, we are disabused of the thought that Panza’s appetite is only for material gain and power, though we should not fault him for desiring a patriarchy better than his family might have expected before his association with Don Quixote. Appropriately for a man named Panza, this shift in our squire’s appetite occurs the first time among many that we see Sancho eat.
We are told that as master and squire make their way along the road following the adventure in which Don Quixote has mistaken windmills for giants, Don Quixote, who is battered and bruised, and Sancho, who is full of advice and good care, converse about whether and to what extent it is appropriate for knights errant and their squires to complain of their pains. In spite of his condition, Don Quixote is in good spirits and his squire’s reflections on the topic at hand make him laugh. It is in this moment that Sancho asserts that it is time to eat. Our narrator writes:
His master replied that he felt no need of food at the moment but that Sancho could eat whenever he wished. With this permission, Sancho made himself as comfortable as he could on his donkey, and after taking out of the saddlebags what he had put into them, he rode behind his master at a leisurely pace, eating and, from time to time, tilting back the wineskin with so much gusto that the most self-indulgent tavern-keeper in Málaga might have envied him. And as he rode along in that manner, taking frequent drinks, he did not think about any promises his master had made to him, and he did not consider it work but sheer pleasure to go around seeking adventures, no matter how dangerous they might be.
It is interesting that Cervantes does not tell us here what exactly Sancho Panza takes out of his saddlebags, for the subject of what goes into our squire’s belly becomes a recurring motif, and more than a mean source of amusement, throughout the book. But this first time that we witness Sancho eating, it is something hidden from us. Perhaps it is even hidden from Sancho at this stage in his journey, as is the fact that he is a character in a book. All we know is that what satisfies Sancho’s hunger is something that he himself has provided, with wine making a good accompaniment, and with the effect that his hunger for what his master had promised is somehow satisfied now, replaced with the pleasure of seeking adventures.
What has Sancho provided that both satisfies him and pleases him at the prospect of more adventures, especially when this one has ended so badly even as many more will? Might Cervantes have refused to name Sancho’s food because it is something better, and therefore other, than bread made from wheat? The Spanish that is used by Don Quixote’s niece and that is translated “bread made from something better than wheat” is “pan de trástrigo”. It is an expression that refers to stretching beyond one’s abilities, involving one in undertakings that are too lofty or too difficult. Isn’t this precisely what Sancho has had a taste of in his first adventure with Don Quixote?
True, it is Don Quixote who has introduced Sancho to a world whose meaning is not simply evident. This world has its source in books whose ideas challenge Sancho, through the tutelage of Don Quixote, to lofty and difficult considerations about the nature of reality and its relationship to deception and to action. And in fact as Sancho helps Don Quixote to his feet, Don Quixote is filling Sancho with stories that explain his attack on the windmills even as they explain the windmills away, stories that enchant Sancho even as the wine that is named in the passage I just read might intoxicate him as he rides along. But what Sancho adds to Don Quixote’s enchantment—for which intoxication is surely an apt image—may be something that goes unnamed yet asserts itself as an essential entrée to the wine poured out metaphorically by Don Quixote.
I propose that what Sancho provides, and what sustains him, is the imagination to greet Don Quixote’s madness with more than the impulse to explain it away. For what is imagination in its most basic sense if not the faculty in us that stretches toward lofty and difficult things, an invisible form of sustenance that allows us to reach beyond what is immediate and apparent toward what is removed and perhaps hidden? Sancho may make his master laugh for his simplicity, but he is also imaginative enough to become a true companion to Don Quixote without simply sharing in his madness. This is in stark contrast to that very madness, which may itself be a kind of failure of imagination insofar at it is a feature of Don Quixote’s too thin attempt to graft the ideals of one world onto the manifestations of another. Sancho doesn’t accept these crude operations that so often leave Don Quixote suffering and in pain. Instead, he takes what his master offers, while always asking questions along the way, and incorporates it into his own vision of the world, of which he never loses sight, though it does change thanks to his imagination.
Sancho’s imagination ripens over the course of the book. Two examples of this merit our close attention tonight. For they show clearly not only the way in which the imagination does its work, but also the way in which it does its work in what will turn out to be Sancho Panza’s transformation. The first example is Sancho’s so-called “enchantment” of Dulcinea. While it is certainly a kind of lie, and built upon an outright and prior lie at that, this should not prevent us from seeing it for the imaginative act that it is. For in the enchantment of Dulcinea, Sancho makes the very best of his acquaintance with Don Quixote, who has offered Sancho the chance to go beyond his own experiences toward a world of ideas that both challenges those experiences and renders more deeply their place in Sancho’s evolving vision of the world. That this opening up of Sancho’s imagination plays out to brilliant comic effect in no way minimizes its significance: through Don Quixote’s tutelage, Sancho’s powers of imagination are expanded.
In order to understand the enchantment of Dulcinea, we need to understand the first lie that Sancho tells, the one he means to cover up with the enchantment. As I mentioned earlier, Dulcinea is in fact a peasant girl by the name of Aldonza Lorenzo. Sancho has seen this girl, and Cervantes makes it a point to tell us so even as he leaves us unclear as to whether Don Quixote has ever seen her. Having been asked by his master during the second sally to deliver a letter from Don Quixote to his lady, Sancho’s lie is that he has done so. It is precisely his experience of Aldonza Lorenzo that Sancho draws upon in the course of this lie, so that even though he means to describe to his master the paragon of courtly beauty that Don Quixote expects him to have found when he ostensibly delivered Don Quixote’s letter to Dulcinea, Sancho instead reports to his master that he has found Dulcinea doing the things that peasant girls do and looking and smelling the way that peasant girls would. In short, she is winnowing buckwheat, loading sacks of wheat onto a donkey, standing tall and strong, and smelling rather “mannish” for her labors.
A delightful bit of comedy ensues from Sancho’s conversation with Don Quixote about Dulcinea. Its force comes from the clash between the experiences that each brings to the conversation, as well as from the reference to those experiences in Sancho’s attempt to craft the lie and Don Quixote’s attempt to understand it. For Sancho holds on to the particulars of his experience with Aldonza Lorenzo, no matter how incongruous they are with the lie he means to tell and the conditions under which he might be successful in telling it. But in the end, what Don Quixote expects Sancho to have seen is what he believes Sancho to have seen, and so when in their third sally Don Quixote announces that he wishes Sancho to take him to Dulcinea, Sancho finds himself with a problem. If it is not a lofty problem, it is at least difficult: his lie has been a success, and his master now wishes to see Dulcinea for himself.
Sancho needs to find a way to satisfy his master’s desire to see Dulcinea in all of her ladylike splendor, in spite of the fact that Aldonza Lorenzo is not exactly Dulcinea of Toboso, and she is certainly not possessed of anything resembling ladylike splendor! As he goes ahead to Toboso, with his master waiting anxiously for his return and his guidance toward Dulcinea’s “castle”, Sancho performs a “soliloquy” with himself that includes what at first glance is merely one of those amusing things that Sancho is wont to say. But since it is related to the theme of food and drink, we will take it seriously even as we chuckle at its inanity. Interrogating himself, Sancho asks:
“Now Sancho, my brother, let’s find out where your grace is going. Are you going to look for some donkey that’s been lost?” “No, of course not.” “Well, what are you going to look for?” “I’m going to look for a princess—like that was an easy thing to do—who is the sun of beauty and the rest of heaven, too.” “And where do you think you’ll find all that, Sancho?” “Where? In the great city of Toboso.” “All right, for whose sake are you going to look for her?” “For the sake of the famous knight Don Quixote of La Mancha, who rights wrongs, and gives food to the thirsty, and drink to the hungry.”
What insight might we get into the maturation of Sancho’s imagination from this apparently inane claim that Don Quixote is the knight who “gives food to the thirsty, and drink to the hungry”? Might the meaning of this claim go beyond its immediate comedic effect toward revealing what in fact Don Quixote has provided Sancho in his journey toward a freer imagination and the transformation that it brings?
As we saw earlier, or imagined we saw, Don Quixote has provided a kind of metaphorical drink to accompany Panza’s hunger by offering him the kind of enchantment, or intoxication, that comes from a life of adventure. True, Sancho joins Don Quixote on his journey prepared to satisfy his own hunger with the kind of food that sustains him in his reach for lofty and difficult things, what I have referred to as imagination. However, throughout the second sally, Don Quixote whets Panza’s appetite, providing the vision that transforms mundane experiences into adventures. Don Quixote’s vision accompanies and enhances Sancho’s imagination, so that giving drink to the hungry really is something Don Quixote has done for Sancho Panza, and to no mean end. Does Don Quixote also manage to provide food to the thirsty? In his moment of despair and soliloquy, Sancho Panza is certainly thirsting after an adventure that might get him out of the bind in which his lie has put him. But the thing that makes possible such an adventure, the enchantment of Dulcinea, is the food that only Don Quixote can provide, namely, the contents of his imagination, inspired wholly by books of chivalry, which always make Don Quixote willing to see what is not there and willing not to see what is there. Sancho’s imaginative triumph is to see this for himself. He puts it together this way:
Well now…I’ve seen a thousand signs in this master of mine that he’s crazy enough to be tied up, and I’m not far behind, I’m as much a fool as he is because I follow and serve him, if that old saying is true: ‘Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are,’ and that other one that says, ‘Birds of a feather flock together.’ Then, being crazy, which is what he is, with the kind of craziness that most of the time takes one thing for another, and thinks white is black and black is white, like the time he said that the windmills were giants…and many other things of this nature, it won’t be very hard to make him believe that a peasant girl, the first one I run into here, is the lady Dulcinea; and if he doesn’t believe it, I’ll swear it’s true; and if he swears it isn’t, I’ll swear again that it is; and if he insists, I’ll insist more; and so I’ll always have the last word, no matter what. Maybe I’ll be so stubborn he won’t send me out again carrying his messages, seeing the bad answers I bring back, or maybe he’ll believe, which is what I think will happen, that one of those evil enchanters he says are his enemies changed her appearance to hurt him and do him harm.
The enchantment of Dulcinea turns out to be no mere lie. Rather, it is the elaborate solution to a problem that Sancho is able to arrive at by making an important turn in his thinking about his master’s madness. Panza, however, does not accomplish this through anything like a logical deduction, which surely comes from a condition closer to satiety than to hunger. Rather, he arrives at the solution to his problem by being at a loss, by being hungry for a solution. It is in embracing his lack that Sancho is able to shift freely from one perspective to another, first seeing himself through the prism of Don Quixote’s madness, and then seeing Don Quixote’s madness through the prism of his own immediate necessity. This shift in perspective belongs to Sancho and has the full status of an act of imagination. However, it has been made possible by Don Quixote, whose own way of seeing Dulcinea has provided the substance to replace the stubborn details of Sancho’s experience with Aldonza Lorenzo that had constituted his lie to Don Quixote in the first place.
It is through this reversal in what Don Quixote provides for Sancho Panza—from the drink that satisfies his hunger, to the food that quenches his thirst—that we readers find ourselves positioned to appreciate the second example of Sancho’s imaginative development. For if Don Quixote first provides the accompaniment to Sancho’s imagination that brings it out of Sancho’s saddlebags and into the light of day, and then provides the substance through which Sancho’s thirst for an adventure to enchant Dulcinea is satisfied, Sancho does finally reach a moment in which his imagination comes out and is nurtured by his experience alone: this during the flight of Clavileño.
The adventure in which Sancho’s imagination takes flight on the wooden horse Clavileño is made possible by the duke and duchess, who have read the First Part of Don Quixote’s history, and whom knight and squire chance upon later in their third sally. More than a little mad themselves, if not cruel and unusual, the duke and duchess draw Don Quixote and Sancho into their snares by orchestrating and participating in all manner of adventures appropriate to the world of knight errantry. These adventures are usually at the expense of our knight and his squire.
Among their tricks, the duke and duchess choreograph an adventure in which Don Quixote and Sancho Panza must ride the wooden horse Clavileño in order to satisfy the wrath of an enchanter, the giant Malambruno. The gist of the duke’s and duchess’s trick is to convince Don Quixote and Sancho, who are blindfolded, that Clavileño has flown them into the highest heavens, while they themselves enjoy the amusement afforded by Don Quixote’s and Sancho’s gullibility as well as by the bruising they sustain when, the horse’s belly filled with fireworks, they are thrown literally into the air as the horse’s tail is lit on fire.
Sancho’s account of what happens on his flight is certainly not true to what literally happens. But the interesting point here is that neither is the account finally beholden to the orchestration of the duke and duchess. Maybe more importantly, it is not beholden to Don Quixote’s stories of knight errantry and the enchantments that hold them together. It is true that Sancho reports to the duchess that while he was on the back of Clavileño, he felt as though he and Don Quixote were flying through the region of fire. This much Sancho gets from the duke’s and duchess’s staging and from his master’s account of the various regions of the celestial sphere. But then Sancho reports that though his master told him not to move his blindfold to have a look, he did move it. And when he moved his blindfold, he looked down upon the earth, which to him appeared no larger than a mustard seed, with men walking on it who were no larger than hazelnuts. Undeterred by the duchess’ analysis that if the men were the size of hazelnuts and the earth the size of a mustard seed Sancho could not have seen the earth but only the men, Sancho continues, saying that at just the moment he lifted his blindfold, he and his master were passing by the constellation of the Pleiades. Having been a goatherd as a boy, Sancho was filled with a pressing desire to spend a little time with the “nanny goats” that make up that constellation, and so unbeknownst to anyone, not even his master, he dismounted Clavileño and played with the nanny goats, two of which were green, two red, two blue, and one a mix.
Now Don Quixote and Sancho have, of course, never left the ground. And we have no indication whether Sancho did or did not stop shaking long enough to reach up and remove his blindfold! But Sancho’s imagination is at play here, and once again its mode of operation is a shift in perspective—two shifts in perspective, actually. The first is one that we should have seen coming when Sancho got the upper hand on Don Quixote in the enchantment of Dulcinea; for there, a reversal in the master-servant relationship was already taking place, though to be sure it was within the context of a servant trying to avoid the wrath of his master. But Sancho is not yet comfortable with this reversal. In discussing the enchantment of Dulcinea with the duchess, prior to the flight on Clavileño, he feels a need to hide, and when pressed on why he serves a master who is clearly mad, he defends his place as the servant of such a man with a true expression of loyalty and a powerful expression of how meaningfully his and Don Quixote’s lives are connected: he and Don Quixote are from the same village, he has eaten Don Quixote’s bread, he loves Don Quixote dearly, Don Quixote is grateful for his service, and after all, Don Quixote has given him his donkeys.
But after the flight on Clavileño, Sancho is ready to embrace the reversal that began when he enchanted Dulcinea. Sancho reports frankly, in front of his master and everyone else, that he has disobeyed Don Quixote. This suggests that Sancho’s flight of imagination has made possible not only his becoming his own master, as captured in that seemingly small gesture of lifting his blindfold against the wishes of Don Quixote; it has also made possible his being at home with himself in this newfound role. For in going on with his story about walking away from Clavileño to play with the nanny goats, Sancho is reminding his listeners not only that he has walked away from his master, Don Quixote; he has also walked away from the vehicle of the duke’s and duchess’s deception. In the latter, we have a foreshadowing of Sancho’s autonomy in walking away from the governorship that the duke and duchess bestow; in the former, we have a foreshadowing of Sancho’s being the one standing on his own two feet at the end of the novel, even as Don Quixote returns home a broken man, barely able to sit up on his horse and unable to carry the armor that once defined him and that now sits astride Sancho’s donkey. These fruits of Sancho’s imagination all follow upon that one act of imaginative liberation, the lifting of his blindfold to take a peek at the stars. In making that gesture, Sancho goes from blindness to sight, an allusion to the divine possibilities that follow from the ripening of his imagination. He also goes from being a servant to Don Quixote and a player in the duke’s and duchess’s deceptions to being his own master and perhaps even the “writer” of his own story.
On the face of it, Sancho’s second shift in perspective is merely spatial. He imagines the earth from above and at a great distance, and so the earth and its inhabitants become very small to him, like the nuts and seeds he has surely stooped to pick up and to plant in his farming. His experience with the night sky as a goat herd also finds a place in his imaginings, and this experience too is transformed through a change in perspective, with the stars now close and looming large even as the earth and the men that inhabit it are far and very small. This spatial shift in perspective is impressive as an imaginative feat insofar as it is wholly Sancho’s own, relying only on the particulars of his personal experience and on his own sense of what an adventure might be. Sancho has graduated to providing drink for his own hunger and food for his own thirst. But he has yet to demonstrate that he can transcend the particulars of his own experience. Such transcendence may be one of the highest achievements of the imagination, and one necessary if we are to master ourselves, let alone govern others.
In fact it turns out that Sancho’s shift in perspective is only apparently spatial because through it he reaches heights that are not finally earthbound as Clavileño turns out to be. We might call these heights in perspective “philosophical”, for even as he has gained distance from the earth in the vision he achieves imaginatively, so too does he gain distance from human beings and the affairs that before loomed so large to this humble squire. Our preview of this, in his subtle transcendence of the duke’s and duchess’s machinations, is carried through in Sancho’s response to the duke’s offer of a governorship. Though he does accept it in the end, Sancho shows clearly that his newfound perspective has transcended the spatial even as it has transcended the servile; Panza’s appetite has grown for his imagination, and vice versa. What might have satisfied him before, conventionally impressive though it may have been, can no longer. Sancho says to the duke,
After I came down from the sky, and after I looked at the earth from that great height and saw how small it was, the burning desire I had to be a governor cooled a little; where’s the greatness in ruling a mustard seed, or the dignity or pride in governing half a dozen men the size of hazel nuts? It seemed to me that this was all there was on the whole earth. If your lordship would be kind enough to give me just a tiny part of the sky, something no bigger than half a league, I’d be happier to take that than the best ínsula in the world.”
The possibilities that Sancho Panza sees include not only what he wishes to acquire, but the reasons for acquiring it as well. After the duke tells him that he cannot give any part of the sky, but only an ínsula, Panza responds “Well then…Let’s have the ínsula, and I’ll do my best to be so good a governor that in spite of rogues and rascals I’ll go to heaven; it isn’t greed that makes me want to leave my hut or rise to better things, but a desire I have to try it and see what it tastes like to be a governor.”
Both in his request for a piece of the sky and in his reasoning for accepting the governorship of the ínsula, Panza’s sights and tastes are now for something higher than they had been before—and he knows it. Sancho is hungering for something loftier than the earthly goods of power and wealth. But if the duke can see this only through the eyes of one whose appetite for reading is confined to idle amusement—and Sancho certainly does manage to entertain with his combination of insight and inanity—we readers whose taste buds have been piqued by Cervantes’ Prologue can see it for the transformation that it is. For we know, even as the duke might were he to read Sancho more carefully, that to begin with it was a form of greed that made Sancho want to leave his hut and rise to better things! He wasn’t yearning for a taste of what it might be like to be a governor, a taste of what it might be like to reach toward things beyond his grasp. He was thinking about the goods that would flow from that, about the marriage opportunities it would open up for his daughter Sanchica, the titles it would afford his family, and the riches that would allow him not to have to work and that would cause others to envy his wife as she rode in carriages through the streets. Sancho’s desire to “try it and see what it tastes like to be governor” is a result of his having come to hunger after more than earthly bread, and this hunger, as we have said, has been enhanced through his acquaintance with Don Quixote and the adventures that he seems to find everywhere he goes.
With the ripening of Sancho Panza’s imagination, Sancho’s greed has been replaced by a taste for even more than the adventures that Don Quixote’s books of knight errantry can provide. It has been replaced by a taste for what it might be like to actually be a governor. “Señor,” Sancho says to the duke, “I imagine that it’s good to command, even if it’s only a herd of cattle.” Panza’s satisfaction in this regard, like his imagination, can only come from Sancho himself, and the dignity that he achieves as governor will turn out to be in no way diminished by the fact that the duke’s and duchess’s deceptions create the conditions for his governorship. Cervantes does not leave to our imaginations the connection between the liberation of Sancho’s imagination on Clavileño and his readiness to govern. He writes explicitly that “the next day, which was the one following the flight of Clavileño, the duke told Sancho to prepare and ready himself to leave and be a governor…”
The governorship of Sancho Panza deserves a lecture of its own, but it is almost time for me to stop talking and for you to start asking questions. And though I’m sure you’ve put it together for yourselves by now, I have yet to make explicit why our thanks are in order for having been introduced to Sancho Panza. Suffice it to say that Sancho’s imagination is in full force as he rules upon the various cases that come to him, allowing him to see beyond the particulars of each case into what is hidden from view and to shift from one perspective to another with the greatest freedom and to excellent effect. The most powerful example of this is in the last judgment that Sancho renders in his capacity as governor. We will make this the last particular in Cervantes’ novel to which we will address ourselves, for in it Sancho’s hunger and the effects of Don Quixote’s tutelage come together in the exercise of Sancho’s imagination, leaving us with an image of an individual who has come fully into his own.
Interestingly given that we have been focusing on Sancho’s imagination, the final case before Governor Panza involves a logical conundrum. There is a lord whose lands are divided by a great river. Stretching over that river is a bridge, and at the end of the bridge is a gallows and a tribunal for the purpose of upholding the law, which states: “If anyone crosses this bridge from one side to the other, he must first take an oath as to where he is going and why; and if he swears the truth, let him pass; and if he tells a lie, let him die by hanging on the gallows displayed there, with no chance of pardon.” The case that Sancho must decide is one in which a man stood at the bridge and swore to only one thing, namely, that “because of the oath he was going to die on the gallows.” The judges in the case are at a loss as to how to proceed, for they rightly conclude that if they allow the man to pass freely, he has lied in his oath and according to the law must be hanged. But if they hang him, his oath then would have been true, and according to the law he must to go free.
Sancho sees the logical impossibility of the case clearly enough. However, through an act of pure imagination harkening back to his reliance on Don Quixote in the enchantment of Dulcinea, and to his shift in perspectives in his flight on Clavileño, he renders judgment by rising above the logical impossibility of the case to a more lofty perspective on the matter.
This traveler you’ve described, either I’m a fool or there’s as much reason for him to die as to live and cross over the bridge, because just as the truth saves him, the lie condemns him; if this is so, and it is, it’s my opinion that you should tell those gentlemen who sent you to me that since the reasons for condemning him or sparing him are balanced perfectly, they should let him pass freely, for doing good is always more praiseworthy than doing evil, and I’d sign my own name if I knew how to write, and in this case I haven’t said my own idea but a precept that came to my mind, one of the many that was given to me by my master, Don Quixote, the night before I came to be governor of this ínsula, and it was that when the law is in doubt, I should favor and embrace mercy; it was God’s will that I remembered it now, since it fits this case exactly.
Sancho has proven that he is no fool. He has arrived at a judgment that requires the kind of philosophical distance he has achieved through the fortification of his imagination. This shift in perspective frees him from the logical impossibility of the case that has stumped its first judges, allowing him to approach the problem from a different starting point. In so doing, Sancho transcends the particulars of the case even as he comprehends them in his judgment, consequently coming to a vision of the divine and demonstrating the way in which it can make itself present in the workings of the imagination. This he acknowledges to have been possible because of his master’s tutelage, though the sense in which Don Quixote is his master must ring differently for us now that Sancho has become governor.
But there is still one element in Sancho Panza’s judgment unaccounted for. In his inimitably imaginative way, Panza has strung along a seemingly insignificant detail in the decision he renders. He draws our attention to his illiteracy. This illiteracy, along with his forthright willingness to acknowledge it, surely presents an image of hunger that finally greets every occasion as an opportunity for satisfaction. In some sense, what Panza does not know is what allows his imagination to sustain him; Sancho is open to Don Quixote’s teachings, and by association to his books and their ideas, in whatever form they might appear. This openness may be why Sancho is not crushed when he finds out the unimaginable, that he is a character in a book! For this possibility is no more daunting to this imaginative squire than the world of adventure to which Don Quixote has already introduced him, the one which even in the First Part led Sancho to observe, after the frightful adventure with the fulling hammers, that his and Don Quixote’s experience would make for a fine story.
And so Sancho’s hunger does more than make him open. It also allows him to find his own way, to become his own person. Sancho is right to take exception to his depiction as a glutton in the spurious Second Part of Don Quixote of La Mancha. For Panza’s hunger is not such that he swallows whole what his master dishes out. Rather, Panza takes the time to digest his pan de trástrigo, to exercise his imagination in the service of determining what is worth retaining and what is worth letting go. This insight may ennoble Sancho Panza in the eyes of a reader who is willing to be more than idle, perhaps even in what is arguably our squire’s most vulgar moment in the history, when he answers the call of nature, or as Cervantes puts it, satisfies “the urge and desire to do what no one else could do for him” during the adventure with the fulling hammers to which I just alluded. For in that unforgettable scene, we surely have an image of Sancho’s significance as the one who digests what his belly hungers after, even as we have throughout the book an image of Don Quixote as a very thin man who during his adventures is almost never hungry, who does not eat anything with enough substance to digest let alone…well, in the words of Don Quixote on the occasion of Sancho’s breech in scatological decorum, “the less said the better.”
It is time, in any case, to step back from the particular that is Sancho Panza and to ask what perspective we have gained through our hunger to know why Cervantes bookends his Prologue by first calling attention to our status as readers and then invoking thanks for our having been introduced to Sancho Panza. This perspective ends up being especially important for our freshmen, who are just now embarking on a liberal arts education that will surely require them to become more than idle readers if it is to fulfill its promise of transformation and the freedom that such transformation entails. For after seeing for ourselves beyond Sancho’s comic effect, perfectly satisfying though it might be to the idle reader to whom Cervantes addresses himself in the Prologue, we come to realize that our reluctant author, through indirection, drew our attention to the importance of imagination from the very beginning. Do you remember?
Idle Reader: Without my swearing to it, you can believe that I would like this book, the child of my understanding, to be the most beautiful, the most brilliant, and the most discreet that anyone could imagine. But I have not been able to contravene the natural order; in it, like begets like. And so what could my barren and poorly cultivated wits beget but the history of a child who is dry, withered, capricious, and filled with inconstant thoughts never imagined by anyone else, which is just what one would expect of a person begotten in a prison, where every discomfort has its place and every mournful sound makes its home?
If we are to become more than idle readers, perhaps the “illustrious” ones rather than the “plebeian” ones addressed in the “Prologue to the Reader” in the Second Part of Don Quixote, perhaps we must have come to recognize that Cervantes’ apology for his own imagination as a writer is an invitation to our imaginations as readers; and his apology for Don Quixote’s imagination is an invitation for us to recognize the imagination of his squire, Sancho Panza, whom Don Quixote goes from calling “neighbor” at the beginning of the book to “friend” and then “brother” and finally “son.” For if Cervantes has had some fun by refusing to acknowledge his paternity in the business of writing his Prologue to the First Part of Don Quixote, and indeed the entire “history,” he has also given seed to our imaginations, which hold out the possibility of transforming us from idle readers into readers of substance—especially as we grasp the significance of Sancho’s transformation for the Second Part of Cervantes’ novel, standing as it does in stark contrast to the decline of Sancho’s spiritual father, Don Quixote.
The potential held out by our imaginations to transform us cannot be overestimated. For there is no liberation through authors, or the books they write, or the tutors who guide us in understanding them unless we ourselves bring the hunger to taste what is lofty and difficult, to digest what we encounter with full acknowledgment of what we lack and therefore stand to gain. This takes imagination. And as Panza’s name and experience suggest, imagining is no merely intellectual act, no disembodied thought experiment, if what we mean to achieve is a genuine transformation. Imagination is all about incorporating ideas into our lives and governing ourselves differently in the world for having done so, maybe even helping others through our good judgment and the effect it has, even if it is only within our small ínsula or sphere of action. In short, imagination is all about freedom, or better yet, freedom is all about imagination.
To achieve this freedom we, like Sancho Panza, must be open to the tutelage of those more literate than we are, be they books or the masters who introduce them to us. But we must also be courageous enough to give flight to our imaginations and to lift the blindfolds that keep us from seeing where we might find ourselves with respect to the nature of reality and its relation to deception and to action. Only then do we find ourselves poised for transformation, the sort that in the end we ourselves must author, the sort that gives us courage to live even as others fade away when they cannot stomach the disappointment of their ideals in the world. Like Sancho, we are likely to find ourselves to be “characters in the round,” perhaps never fully finished let alone fully perfected. But we might discover, too, that in cultivating our imaginations we have become transformed toward our own freedom; we might discover that we, too, can find our way out of the cave with the help of those who introduce us to things lofty and difficult.
Transformation is what a liberal arts education is all about, and it is impossible even for the most erudite and intellectual among us if we are not hungry, if we don’t have a taste for going beyond ourselves and what we already know or think we know. This going beyond ourselves may require a shift in perspective that acknowledges importance in the most mundane details, dignity in the most humble of characters, even serious consideration of images and ideas that on first encounter seem inane or vulgar or perhaps even heretical. And we cannot merely take the ideas we encounter and graft them onto reality as we know it, for there may very well be a fine line between imagination and madness that comes down to the difference between incorporating ideas into ourselves and merely entertaining them in our heads; or, as one of Cervantes’ characters puts it from his cell at the madhouse in Seville, “all our madness” may come “from having our stomachs empty and our heads full of air.” There is also a fine line between imagination and deception, and this line too has to do with how we allow our imaginations to develop and how we digest its fruits. In the end, it is the quality of our hunger that will determine the worth of the bread that we eat. And Sancho Panza has taught us that with the right sort of hunger, there is no bad bread. “Con buen hambre no hay mal pan.” I wish for our freshmen just such a hunger.