Clarity in Quixotism

February 8, 2020

Madness curiously captures a hybridity of imagination and reality. However, if this hybridity helps mad people overcome critical obstacles more so than in ordinary people, is “madness” a sufficient characterization? Joan of Arc epitomizes this paradox because her revelatory visions, which were considered mad by many of her contemporaries, helped her successfully lead French troops against the English alongside Charles, the dauphin and later king. Surprisingly, Miguel de Cervantes’ celebrated character Don Quixote in Don Quixote embodies this similar quixotic quality. His vivid, outlandish imagination transports his own contemporaries into a fabricated Medieval world which allows him to defeat fictionally contrived enemies and overcome evil. Ultimately, Joan and Quixote demonstrate the polysemy of madness by exposing its historically false reception in order to reveal its advantages.

Joan of Arc’s remarkable successes as a young female political leader originated from her divine visions which all seemed unbelievable during her lifetime. After all, she was simply a “little peasant girl” in Medieval France with limited connections to political power (Pernoud 17). Still, a voice often “revealed itself to her” as “a source of advice who told her what to do” and it encouraged her to support Charles VII and rescue France during the Hundred Years’ War (27-28). Furthermore, these voices helped her predict “four things that would happen” regarding this vocation and “[t]hey did indeed happen thereafter” (29). While many of her contemporaries accepted this divine inspiration because of her altruistic disposition during the arduous times of France, others certainly rejected its inconceivability. She experienced “interminable interrogations” by those who refused to believe that she was selected by God, as a young peasant woman, to defeat the English who naturally opposed the possibility of their Lord inciting their ultimate failure in the war (41). Yet what perplexes historians and theorists today is the precise accuracy of her predictions, despite their origin, and how they were ultimately fulfilled rather quickly. Thus, Joan’s madness emerges from two differing perspectives: the first distinguishes her madness as counter-cultural because she arose as a successful, female political leader in a male-dominated social realm; the second distinguishes her madness as illogical insofar as she accurately prophesied critical and unlikely French political events. Altogether, her alleged madness seems to arise from society’s apprehension in believing that she, a young pious woman, could become so politically influential.

Similarly, Don Quixote discovers his own idiosyncratic vocation which too registers as rather implausible among his contemporaries. After reading dozens of chivalric novels, “he was seized with the strangest whim that ever entered the brain of a madman” (Smollett 14). Consequently, he was fully persuaded to “profess knight-errantry and ride through the world in arms, to seek adventures” (14). In fact, to him these novels typify his own “Holy Scripture” since they inspire his mission so profoundly that it appears divine (13). Like Joan, Quixote defies many social and political limits in order to fulfill his fictitious Medieval, chivalric mission. Despite being a gentleman, he chooses to become a knight and overcome the socioeconomic structure of Spain. Additionally, his sensational ideology propels him into chivalric experiences that no longer relate to his contemporary society, the Spanish Golden Age, which immediately follows the Middle Ages, including his battle with monstrous giants, which are windmills in reality, and his quest to save Dulcinea, who is not a princess, but rather, a prostitute. Furthermore, while he certainly engages in various successful experiences, most of his encounters involve interpersonal diagnoses of him as a lunatic, madman, or mentally ill person because he neither visually nor intellectually perceives the world like they do.

In a deep discernment of the figures’ resembling uncanny imaginations, many contemporary scholars reframe their madness as genius because of their respective countries’ dire need for political and socioeconomic transform. Anne Llewellyn Barstow in her article, “Joan of Arc and Female Mysticism,” deconstructs the absurdity of Joan’s prophetic experiences by attributing negative public perceptions of her to the European medieval patriarchy. She suggests that Joan of Arc’s visionary experiences “led her into the central places of masculine power,” serving “as both a catalyst and instigator in the political life of her era” (Barstow 29). Without the persistence of God’s guidance that ultimately induced her political prophesies and successes, the likelihood of her having the ability to insert herself in the masculine political arena was low. Furthermore, she also overcame various “handicaps of poverty, class and gender” while becoming “one of France’s chief heroes” (31). In doing so, she represented more than divine prophecy; she represented divinely inspired social change, for “God’s choosing a woman to save France was a sign of special grace” (40). Thus, Joan of Arc might appear crazy now for even fewer reasons. First, her voices seem crazy only because of their precise accuracy, for they “ordered her to go to the Dauphin Charles, the uncrowned king of France, and recognize him in a crowd, to put on male clothing, to find a sword hidden behind an altar, to announce a French defeat on the day it occurred… to drive the English out of France” (32). Additionally, they seem crazy because they opposed European cultural standards. While people, “[r]ich and poor alike were prepared to accept one divinely-led person as the answer to their crisis,” others condemned her as a “heretic and witch” because of the common “late-medieval fear of power in women” (41). In this, madness embodies a different meaning: countercultural. Perhaps those who opposed her altruistic motives actually opposed her gender, more so than the former, insofar as all dominant Medieval influential people before her were men. Barstow’s reinterpretation of her insanity, then, appears contemporarily feminist. It characterizes Joan of Arc as a religious and progressive cultural transformer, rather than a demonic madwoman, who was simply ahead of her time. Ultimately, her story demonstrates how harsh the penalty for an assertive woman can be in addition to how a woman’s inner experience can establish authority in the patriarchy.

Dyan Elliott advances Barstow’s supposition that Joan of Arc represents political mobilization in Medieval Europe by suggesting that future security of France demanded it. She describes how other historians justified Joan’s prophetic mission by “articulating how God, no longer able to rely on corrupt men, had actually turned to frail women as vessels for the divine word” (Elliott 32). This primarily contradicted cultural norms because the misogynistic tradition sufficiently “undermined the validity of female spirituality” since most were “judged by the inquisitional standard hitherto reserved for church criminals [and] heretics” (51). Here, Elliott furthers the feminist interpretation of Joan’s motives because God determined that Europe needed it. She indicates that “it could well be that France’s own sinfulness that [demanded] God’s goodness” (47). Therefore, Joan’s insanity seems to diminish as Medieval France’s intensifies. Furthermore, she concludes that the “lost possibility of Joan’s authentic and uncorrupted spirituality coincides with the first stages of a more pervasive effacement of Europe’s faith in positive female spirituality” (54). Indeed, the surprise of Joan’s political achievements centers around her femininity, more so than her age or spirituality. Yet her femininity still influences the latter two which implies that she, having successfully challenged multiple social boundaries, achieved more than a French victory. She developed an “extraordinary perception… in France and beyond” by achieving a preliminary and historical victory for women as religious followers, political leaders, and cultural transformers (Pernoud 70). Therefore, the theses of Barstowe and Elliott alike demonstrate the power of Joan’s success a woman, thereby rejecting her insanity through the lens of twenty-first-century female historians. In their opinion, she was not mad, but rather, she was a woman who was the first to successfully pursue similar endeavors to men.

Like Joan, Quixote supersedes cultural boundaries and arises as a madman by truly challenging socially conventional limits of imagination. Cesáreo Bandera, in his book “Don Quixote’s Madness and Modernity,” suggests that madness usually transforms an individual from ordinariness into extraordinariness. In fact, Bandera characterizes Quixote’s erratic behavior as what most scholars deem “sacrificial” because of its momentary departure from social standards that actually represents the plight of a particular community (Bandera 87). It appears that fools and madmen possess “a particularly penetrating kind of knowledge, even prophetic powers” that keep them “at the center of political and social power” as they perceive worldly corruption unlike anyone else (88). Bandera slightly alters this interpretation by suggesting that Cervantes’ portrayal of old madness registers differently today, signifying instead as “strictly human,” rather than supernatural, insofar as it “echoes the collective, undifferentiated voice of the victimizing crowd” (89, 95). Thus, Quixote and Joan alike vocalize a marginalized collective unconscious. While Joan represents women more generally, Quixote represents the potential liberation of imagination that exists in everyone. His imagination appears to unify “falsity and folly” yet these very qualities elicit “satisfaction and entertainment, not only of Spain, but also of every foreign nation to which the fame of his adventures hath been conveyed” (Cervantes 886, 891). So, Quixote actually earns admiration for his madness because it helps him and his followers see through the constructed illusions of society. He reveals a transcendent quality of the humanity in which others can partake which ultimately reforms their very own reality.

Elena García Martín typifies the liberative aspect of Quixote’s imagination not only within a community, but within the construction of the self. She describes how Quixote demonstrates a defamiliarizing vision of the power of imagination, reason and social convention because of how “imagination can yield truths as valid as those of logic or tradition” which consequently helps him explore and construct his identity (García Martín 27). In fact, he actually seems to expose how imagination creates the “illusory grasp of reality” that elicits the authority of tradition (27). Thus, what liberates Quixote from social conventions is imagination, which caused the conventions in the first place. Cervantes sees in the madman “an anticipation, an individual sample, of what can easily spread, like a public scandal to the entire community and threaten its very existence” (Bandera 94). Therefore, he divulges the duality of imagination as an equally oppressive and liberating force in society. He challenges his imagination against others’, specifically those who have established and enforced a rigid hierarchy of social roles and obligations and he only appears mad because his imagination threatens theirs’. And like Joan, he acquires respect and even fame for this taboo inversion of power.

Despite the figures’ popularity and influence, they still exemplify madness among their ideological adversaries. While Joan was celebrated by various communities in France, she was eventually “convicted of heresy in an inquisitional court and burned at the stake” (Pernoud 42). Naturally, the English who rejected the possibility that Joan, through God, desired their absolute national failure. In this contextual nuance, her madness actually threatened the prosperity of their country and their violent rejection of her, in spite of her femininity and political power, reflects their own political anxiety. Still, madness manifests sympathetically as it simply arises as a defense mechanism. To them, she was not mad because she was a woman; rather, she was mad because she endeavored to, quite successfully, defeat England in an unmatched, decisive political victory. Nevertheless, her legacy continues and her vindicated death advances the legitimacy and validity of her liberative imagination; imagination fosters freedom and corruption simultaneously.

And while Quixote also transforms the signature efficacy of madness, he continues to retain the original form of madness that still permeates the novel. Indeed, he is referred to as “crazy,” or a resembling denotative cognate, hundreds of times. Furthermore, he himself denounces his “foolishness, and the danger” into which he had “been precipitated by reading” absurd chivalric literature (Cervantes 887). Like when his friends first learned that his mind had transformed, he in the end reacts indignantly and skeptically to his own imagined experiences. Moreover, abridged synopses of the story shared today likely exacerbate the polysemy of his madness as audiences and literary critics alike discern it all differently, especially as contemporary culture changes too. Thus, the very extraordinary legacy of Don Quixote and his ambiguous madness actually perpetuates its indefiniteness through the imaginations of readers. So while an early interpretation of madness continues, innovative approaches to literary comprehension also arise and become influenced by newer generations. After all, quixotism today signifies the improbable pursuit of ideals undoubtedly because of Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

Ultimately, Joan and Quixote demonstrate how madness, and the effects it elicits, can successfully challenge and overcome traditional ideologies. Their madness, or imagination, allows them to transform reality through language, and its incessant any ambiguities, in order to transform it. Their stories also epitomize how imagination functions as the governing force of civilization, thereby becoming the only force that can modify civilization too. And the surprising similarities of Joan of Arc and Don Quixote typify the fluidity of linguistic meaning and their esteemed legacy has immortalized their revolutionary imaginative insight for centuries.

Work Cited

Bandera, Cesáreo. The Humble Story of Don Quixote: Reflections on the Birth of the Modern Novel. Catholic University of America Press, 2006.

Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. “Joan of Arc and Female Mysticism.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 1, no. 2, 1985, pp. 29–42. JSTOR,

Cervantes, M. D. Don Quixote. Translated by John Rutherford, New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2011.

Elliott, Dyan. “Seeing double: John Gerson, the discernment of spirits, and Joan of Arc.” American Historical Review, vol. 107, no. 1, 2002, pp. 26-54. Doi: 10.1086/ahr/107.1.26.

García Martín, Elena. “Cognition, Imagination, and Subject Construction in Don Quijote.” Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Literatures, vol. 60, no. 1, 2006, pp. 27-39. EBSCOhost, &site=ehostlive&scope=site.

Pernoud, Régine, and Marie-Véronique Clin. Joan of Arc: Her Story. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.