In Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the titular character embarks on a journey to enact knight errantry, transfiguring the quotidian Spanish countryside into a world of his own making—one modeled after the many chivalric romances he has read and an alternate reality in which the knight-errant Don Quixote, and not the aging hidalgo Alonso Quixano, acts and exists. Armed with a horse, a squire, and resolute conviction in the truth and sanctity of his own ideals, Don Quixote’s attempt to subvert objective reality in favor of fantasy is only flawed by the unwelcome intrusion of nature. The foundations of his idealism and intellectualism begin to corrode as his adventures and travails inevitably lead Don Quixote to feel fatigue, hunger, lust, and other reminders of his own physicality which he wishes to deny. It is pain, in particular, that appears as Don Quixote’s primary obstacle, as his illusions are shattered by the various acts of violence that punctuate the plot. Like Michel de Montaigne in his essay, “On Experience,” Cervantes presents pain as an exemplar of human existence and a source of illumination. Ultimately, while Don Quixote and Montaigne’s respective attitudes towards pain differ, it is through physical suffering in both Don Quixote and “On Experience” that both are able to gain self-knowledge and reconcile the complex relationship between mind and body.
Don Quixote’s initial encounters with the hostile forces of the outside world end in defeat and injury. His provocations display his complete lack of self-consciousness in relation to his own body; seemingly unaware or otherwise undeterred by his frail and rundown physical state, the “scrawny” and “gaunt” Don Quixote enters into battle by himself, clearly outnumbered and under-equipped (Cervantes 19). Psychologically and emotionally detached from the physical side of his nature, he considers his pain a mere externality and assumes no personal responsibility for his injuries: “still he considered himself fortunate, for it seemed to him that this was the kind of mishap that befell knights errant, and he attributed it all to his horse’s misstep, but his body was so bruised and beaten it was not possible for him to stand” (Cervantes 41). In the aftermath of his beating, it is both ironic and appropriate that Don Quixote – as someone who places the needs of the mind above the body – immediately tries to resume standing, only to be let down by the severity of his bodily wounds. Don Quixote does not seem to experience nor react to pain as normal humans do, a phenomenon exemplified by his refusal to talk about it: “and if I do not complain about the pain, it is because it is not the custom of knights errant to complain about any wound, even if their innards are spilling out because of it” (Cervantes 60). Unlike Montaigne, who “considers nothing to be useful that is not painful,” Don Quixote refuses either to address or confront the reality of his pain, and is thus rendered unable to conceive of his physical suffering in terms of a useful and potentially beneficial quality (Montaigne 370).
Following this first disastrous sally, Don Quixote continually persists in positioning himself in similarly precarious and dangerous situations, culminating in the definitively futile struggle that he wages against the windmills. His stubborn refusal to learn from his pain and his inability to evaluate and perceive his pain as an essential aspect of his experience, places him among those who “lack the wit to examine and apply the events that happen before [their] eyes, or want the judgement to estimate their value as examples” (Montaigne 364). By his willingness to incite violence upon himself and his subsequent denial of self-knowledge and the importance of pain, Don Quixote distinguishes himself from Montaigne. Montaigne writes: “I am grateful to fortune for attacking me so often with the same kind of weapons. She adopts me and trains me to resist them by use; she inures and habituates me to them. I now know more or less what it will cost me to be rid of them” (Montaigne 377-378). For Montaigne, the pain that he experiences is far from being the one-dimensional and wholly destructive force that Don Quixote considers it to be – while Don Quixote continues to make the same tactical mistakes so that his injuries accumulate and escalate in scale and magnitude, Montaigne’s illness allows him to gain greater insight into the workings of his own body and to demystify the roots of his pain.
While Montaigne’s knowledge emerges from the practical experience he has gained, Don Quixote tries instead to apply the false information that he has acquired from reading chivalric romances onto real-life scenarios. Contrary to Montaigne, who urges for those suffering to learn from nature, which “understands her business better than we, ” Don Quixote turns instead to the very source of the fantasies which have led him to his state of delusion and denial: “seeing, then, that in fact he could not move, he took refuge in his usual remedy, which was to think about some situation from his books” (Montaigne 373, Cervantes 41). Don Quixote is again revealed to be exemplary of the very people that Montaigne decries, someone who “accept[s] no evidence that is not in print, who [does] not believe a man except from a book” (Montaigne 374). In “On Experience,” Montaigne provides insight into Don Quixote’s seemingly inexplicable actions, explaining that “It is easier to follow art than nature but it is also much less noble and commendable. The soul’s greatness consists not so much in climbing high and pressing forward as in knowing how to adapt and limit itself. It takes all that is merely sufficient as great, and shows its distinction by preferring what is moderate to what is outstanding. There is nothing so fine as to play the man well and fittingly, and there is nothing so difficult to learn as how to live this life well and naturally” (Montaigne 399-400).
In turning to imagination rather than experience as a guide and teacher, Don Quixote refuses Sancho’s practical suggestion of “lint” and “salve” as a cure for his injuries, opting instead for “a flask of the balm of Fierabras, for just one drop saves both time and medicines” (Cervantes 71, 72). His rejection of commonly-used, reliable and effective techniques in favor of an imaginary healing potion reveals the extent of his supposed madness and his detachment from physical reality. The potion illustrates his desire to circumvent the limitations of human medicine and his own weakened body:
“Don Quixote himself wanted to test the virtue of what he imagined to be the precious balm, and so he drank it down… as soon as he finished drinking it, he began to vomit until nothing was left in his stomach, and with the nausea and agitation of vomiting, he broke into a copious sweat, for which reason he ordered them to wrap him up well and leave him alone. This they did, and he slept for more than three hours, and when he woke his body felt much relieved and so much better after his beating that he considered himself cured; he truly believed he had found the balm of Fierabras, and that with this remedy he could from now on, and with no fear whatsoever, engage in any combat, battle, or contest no matter how perilous it might be” (Cervantes 119).
Instead of learning from the pain that the potion has wreaked on his body, Don Quixote willingly misinterprets the situation and attributes the improvement of his health to the fantastical fictional balm rather than to sleep. For Don Quixote, mundane human activities such as sleeping and eating (in an earlier scene, he denounces food in favor of living on “sweet memories”) have no place in his reality in which the intellectual and spiritual take precedence over the physical (Cervantes 61). His worldview and distorted perception of his own physical body ignore and violate the essential truth that “we must quietly put up with the laws of our condition. We have to grow old, to become weak and to be ill, in spite of all medicine” (Montaigne 373).
In the second part of Don Quixote, Don Quixote’s reaction to pain changes from one of denial to one of grudging acknowledgement. His transformation takes place slowly, as he not only grows to recognize and reclaim his original identity but also to gradually realize and reconcile with his mortality. No longer able to steadfastly maintain his beliefs in the face of so much contrary evidence, Don Quixote has gained a certain degree of self-awareness and his perception of pain has now become internalized; as Sancho declares, “though he returns conquered by another, returns the conqueror of himself; and, as he has told me, that is the greatest conquest anyone can desire” (Cervantes 928). The final moments of pain that he experiences in his fever are characterized by his acceptance of the finality and significance of such physical suffering; when he awakens from his sleep, what awaits the once fearless Don Quixote is “Death […] more inglorious, more lingering, and painful in a bed than in battle” (Montaigne 383). Although Don Quixote dies at the novel’s end, his death is not the end but the culmination of his experiences, for he has finally learned from his pain and accepted his body as his own. It is in his last dying moments that he finally realizes that “Our duty is to compose our character, not to compose books, to win not battles and provinces but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live properly” (Montaigne 397).