The one incident in Cervantes’s huge novel that has become American folklore is Don Quixote’s adventure with the windmills. As it happens, it contains, almost incidentally, the Don’s own statement of the crux of his life, the credo that makes his world one of high adventure. He is moved by his knight errant’s sense of duty to attack a band of thirty windmills which he sees as just so many monstrous giants. Thrusting his lance through one of the sails, he is dragged off his nag Rocinante and badly bruised. Sancho Panza trots up on his ass ready with his “I told you so”; it was always plain to him that these were nothing but windmills. But Don Quixote’s world is not to be so easily disenchanted. Not so, he explains: An old enemy, a sorcerer wise in the black arts, wishing to cheat the Don of his glory, has turned the giants into windmills. It is Sancho Panza’s prose, not Don Quixote’s poetry, that is deluded.
The point, implicit but crucial, is that it is our mundane soulless world of flour-grinding windmills that is under a spell, a reverse or disenchanting spell cast by the enemies of glory. This spell is the common condition that Santayana calls the “normal madness;” it is the pervasive notion that the ordinary is the actual. Break it, and the monsters and marvels re-appear. The quixotic windmill-giants are the emblem of the restorative disenchantment that the imagination can work on the ordinary world when it reverses the spell of the prosaic. From the perspective of the unregenerate, spell-bound world the real windmills are actually the ghosts, for “ghosts are the ambassadors of a landscape into geographic space.” The imagination allows that landscape to reappear. That is its knight-errantry. Put less fancifully: The imagination turns space into place insofar as it is equally a propensity for projecting human feeling into space and a readiness to be affected by its local presences. — The World of the Imagination: Sum and Substance
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The featured image is Feodor Chaliapin as Don Quichotte (1916) by Alexandre Jacovleff, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.