The novel of all novels, Don Quixote of La Mancha (Part 1), appeared in 1605 and was a huge hit. Miguel de Cervantes, who was a collector of back taxes and thus a cog in the wheel of the lumbering Spanish bureaucratic state, had finally made it as a writer. He had tried the theater, poetry, and even a pastoral novel, but by 1605 he hadn’t published anything in twenty years and was well on his way to literary oblivion. Ironically, his success grew out of an outdated, though still popular, genre: the chivalric romance. An easy target for satire by Cervantes’s time, the books of chivalry were filled with astonishing occurrences, enchantments, romance, and interwoven stories, all for the glory of adventure and love. Cervantes transforms this material by using enchantment as a disruptor in order to produce not only seeming wonderment but also the delusions, forms of self-deception, and projections of desire that are the other face of enchantment. Interruptions and disturbances suspend and startle narrative and characters alike, placing them (and us) in a clouded petri dish of unpredictability.

In one sense, it is not surprising that Cervantes chose this form to lampoon. Clerics and other spokesmen for society’s moral values traditionally viewed narrative fabrications such as the romance of chivalry as pernicious instruments of an excessive imagination, purveyors of untruth, or a waste of time. Some were more ambivalent and attempted to build an aesthetic defense of fiction by reconciling the marvelous and the verisimilar. Thus the canon from Toledo in Chapter 47 says (following the Edith Grossman translation) that “fictional tales must engage the minds of those who read them, and by restraining exaggeration and moderating impossibility, they enthrall the spirit and thereby astonish, captivate, delight, and entertain, allowing wonder and joy to move together at the same pace; none of these things can be accomplished by fleeing verisimilitude and mimesis.”

This decisive passage is the frame to the entire book, and one that I want to emphasize, starting with “wonder and joy.” We tend to think of Don Quixote, the first modern novel, as firmly planted in reality, skeptical of foolish fancies. Cervantes’s book, however, is not simply a critique of chivalric romance; it is the last and greatest romance of chivalry ever written, but set in a different universe and in a different key from traditional romance. In this universe, wonder and joy seem to issue from verisimilitude and mimesis, from the appearance of the real, at least according to the canon. Yet that doesn’t fully explain why Don Quixote continues to captivate readers. Because even as Cervantes deflates his protagonist’s delusions with a dose of reality, he sneaks them in again through the back door. Enchantments are stripped bare only to acquire new raiment, bedecked with Don Quixote’s exuberant imagination.

Don Quixote’s overflowing capacity to create visible life from the phantoms of his mind is irrepressible, bubbling over like the lake of boiling pitch that he envisions in Chapter 50:

Is there any greater joy than seeing, before our very eyes, you might say, a great lake of boiling pitch, and in it, swimming and writhing about, there are many snakes, serpents, lizards, and many other kinds of fierce and fearsome creatures, and from the middle of the lake there comes an extremely sad voice, saying: “Thou, O knight, whosoever thou mayest be, who looketh upon this fearful lake, if thou wishest to grasp the treasure hidden beneath these ebon waters, display the valor of thy mighty heart and throw thyself into the midst of its black and burning liquid, for if thou wilt not, thou canst not be worthy of gazing upon the wondrous marvels contained and enclosed within the seven castles of the seven enchantresses which lieth beneath this blackness.”

Is there anything sillier? Or more filled with wonder and joy?

Don Quixote has been arguing with the canon, trying to convince him that the books of chivalry are worthy of the cleric’s time and a pleasure to read. First, he asks, how can books with the official stamp of approval, a royal license no less, be lies? No answer is forthcoming because the unstated answer is obvious: of course books can lie, especially those submitted to government censors. Then he immediately launches into an extended fanciful scenario, of which I have cited only a part. For Don Quixote, the ultimate proof of the value of chivalric romances has less to do with the state’s imprimatur or with bearing “so close a resemblance to the truth” and more to do with the extraordinary effect of the imagination on readers (including Don Quixote himself). Even as Cervantes undercuts with comic irony his protagonist’s delusions, he illuminates where enchantment is to be found in this scene (and elsewhere). The real enchantment lies beneath, as in the depths of a great lake of boiling pitch, where the imagination begins, accumulating “the treasure hidden beneath these ebon waters” and fabricating its “seven castles of the seven enchantresses.” Wonder and joy indeed.

But what has happened to verisimilitude and mimesis in this passage? Here, it seems to me, is an instance where Cervantes and his narrator are nearly as beguiled as Don Quixote, saved only by irony and comic implausibility from being dragged into the lake as well. Cervantes shows us that in so-called ordinary life enchantment lies beneath the surface, in the forms of the imagination, which, disturbingly, also embrace delusion, obsession, and madness. In this manner, Don Quixote’s madness finds echoes in Anselmo’s obsessive behavior in the interpolated tale “The Man Who Was Recklessly Curious” (to which I will return) and evokes similarly driven characters such as Hamlet, Faust, and perhaps even Proust’s narrator. Mimesis, or the representation of the real world in literature and art, has not disappeared; it has simply become enchanted.

Another way to express what Cervantes achieves is this: by metaphorically hurling himself into the “black and burning liquid” of the great lake, Don Quixote shatters the surface of ordinary life, the routine habitations of the mind to which we cling. In “What Are Master-Pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them?,” Gertrude Stein puts it this way: “to know what one knows is frightening to live what one lives is soothing and though everybody likes to be frightened what they really have to have is soothing.” What we really want, she says, is the habitual, the soothing. Cervantes turns things upside down and delivers a different truth: that life is strange and unruly despite all our efforts to tame and cage it. Recall how many times characters find Don Quixote to be an unsettling, even astonishing figure. The barber calls him an “apparition,” and the shirted men in Chapter 19 say he is “a devil from hell,” while the canon marvels “at the strangeness of his profound madness.” Don Quixote’s adventures are comic and absurd but also off-kilter and errant, as he interrupts the lives of others. He turns life into a series of interruptions and misrecognitions not simply to upend the familiar but also to suggest that maybe the familiar never was that familiar, and maybe we’re not in Kansas anymore.

In a classic essay, the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky writes: “Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. . . . The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult . . . Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.” Enchantment in Cervantes’s novel works in a similar way. In both instances, a kind of disturbance is experienced. The act (or the art) of disturbance is the equivalent of the two somewhat vague and tenuous figures reflected in a mirror that Diego Velázquez included in his painting Las meninas or The Ladies-in-Waiting (1656). Much ink has been spilled on their role in the picture, but what is undeniable is their effect as spectral presences that interrupt the presumed transparency and perspective of the painting by creating a distinct and peripheral point of view.

Diego Velázquez, Las meninas, 1656 (Museo del Prado / Wikimedia Commons)
Diego Velázquez, Las meninas, 1656 (Museo del Prado / Wikimedia Commons)

The same could be said of the figure that appears in the background, grasping a curtain to one side of the door, in the moment of entering the room. Or is he about to close the door and is merely waiting an instant before leaving in order to contemplate the scene? Foucault speaks of an eruption into The Ladies-in-Waiting. No effort to decode it can provide a definitive, single explanation of the scene, because it is the interruption itself that creates much of the mystery and uncertainty in the painting, by defamiliarizing the spectator’s gaze. Nor does the rupture disappear; it remains suspended in the air, as with the figure of the queen’s chamberlain standing next to the door. Like the royals in the mirror, the figure is the rupture. Two things have come together in the picture: the gaze of the painter and that of the viewer, crisscrossing in multiple ways, inside and outside the painting. Perhaps the ideal location for the viewer (or the reader, in the case of Don Quixote) is the unsettling space of those figures of Velázquez who are already spectators, situated as they are between an outside and an inside, that is, in a state of estrangement in the face of what is already strange: the painted object itself.

If you think about it, enchantment leaves you suspended in time and space, like Velázquez’s figure in the doorway. Enchantment presses pause on disbelief and reality alike; so, following Don Quixote’s logic, all things are possible when enchanters are at work. But storytelling can do the same thing. At the end of Chapter 8, we find Cervantes’s protagonist and the Basque about to engage in deadly combat, just as the narrator says, “at this very point and juncture, the author of the history leaves the battle pending.” He takes up the suspended narration in the next chapter, observing, “in part one of this history, we left the brave Basque and the famous Don Quixote with their swords raised and unsheathed, about to deliver two downstrokes so furious that if they had entirely hit the mark, the combatants would have been cut and split in half from top to bottom and opened like pomegranates; and at that extremely uncertain point, the delectable history stopped and was interrupted, without the author giving us any information as to where the missing parts could be found.”

This is narrative enchantment at its best. Cervantes takes an old storytelling trick to whet the reader’s appetite and literally gives it a form with the two figures frozen in midair. In an ingenious move, he then embeds them in another narration, the discovery of the missing pages among some old papers written in Arabic. “In the first notebook,” the narrator tells us, “there was a very realistic depiction of the battle of Don Quixote with the Basque, both in the postures recounted in the history, their swords raised, one covered by his round shield, the other by his pillow.” He goes on to describe in more detail the various elements of what turns out to be an illustrated account of the episode. The use of ekphrasis, or the verbal recreation of visual art, is also a kind of preserved narration here, though it would be hard to say which version of the story came first in this metanarrative. The interruption has generated an additional tale that in less than no time unfreezes the two combatants, setting them in motion to complete the storyline. The thing to remember, though, is the disturbance created by introducing the interruption in the first place.

The book is full of such disturbances and interruptions, plot mimicking life. Most are comic, some tragic as in “The Man Who Was Recklessly Curious,” but nearly all come in the guise of enchantments variously experienced and understood. As Don Quixote himself declares: “there are many forms of enchantment, and it well may be that in the course of time one sort has replaced another, and perhaps in the kinds they use nowadays those who have been enchanted do everything I do, although they did not do so before.” This observation is meant in part to account for the presence of change itself, but also to explain the vagaries of enchantment, especially when things do not go well during an adventure. Thus, enchantment as a kind of disturbance works just as well in seeing life, the experience of life as something unpredictable and disquieting, expressed as, among other things, interruptions and disturbances. But also joy and wonder! These are all commotions of the heart. Cervantes knew of such vicissitudes. He had been in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, lost the use of his left hand, was held captive for five years in Algiers, thrown in jail for presumed irregularities in his impecunious position as tax collector, and no doubt felt the delight and misery of love.

The uses of enchantment in Cervantes’s novel illuminate both fiction and life, making us see how enchantment is a part of life. But that’s not all he does. By disguising human desires and behavior as well as ordinary life and things in forms of ensorcellment, he doesn’t just defamiliarize them. He disturbs them by removing them from the customary. What’s more, he tells us they’re breakable and the world they inhabit is as fragile as glass and uncertain as truth. Take, for example, the iconic episode of the windmills. Don Quixote says they’re giants. When Sancho Panza doesn’t see it this way, the knight tells him that he is “not well versed in the matter of adventures.” Don Quixote’s belief system overpowers facts. In turn, facts beat him over the head. Charging into the great sails, he breaks his lance, and the wind tosses both knight and horse to the ground.

Even then, he cannot see what his squire sees. Or rather, he acknowledges that these really are windmills, but only because Frestón the enchanter has converted the giants into windmills in a kind of reverse transformation. “Matters of war, more than any others,” Don Quixote also observes, “are subject to continual change.” By this reasoning, reality is conveniently pliable, contingent on the strength of our beliefs. It has been said that Cervantes’s novel is a watershed moment in marking the modern disconnect between words and things. But for Don Quixote both the giants and the windmills are real to the degree that both are subject to change. Moreover, he does not apparently distinguish between the supposed perceptible reality of an imaginary being and the concrete one of a physical object, as they occupy the same territory and are, to all appearances, of equal value.

It seems to me that Cervantes’s character undermines words and things alike, with only the knight’s delusions holding the two together. By the same token, belief is fragile and can be shattered, with devastating consequences, as in “The Man Who Was Recklessly Curious.” All of this suggests that enchantment in Don Quixote’s universe is dependent on belief, and belief, in turn, only functions if it can make claims to truth. Thus, the knight declares near the end of the volume, “I know and believe that I am enchanted,” but he goes on to say, “and that suffices to make my conscience easy, for it would weigh heavily on me if I thought I was not enchanted.”

Cervantes’s protagonist has introduced the seeds of doubt and uncertainty in this statement, complicating our understanding of his belief system. For one thing, Don Quixote is a Christian knight, but he also believes in his chivalric quest and in the enchanted Dulcinea. This he takes on faith, like his belief in God. For this reason, too, he tells a traveling merchant, dubious of the incomparable beauty of Dulcinea without having seen her, “if I were to show her to you, where would the virtue be in your confessing so obvious a truth? The significance lies in not seeing her and believing, confessing, affirming, swearing, and defending that truth.” But when he believes that windmills are giants, that statement cannot be taken on faith and must be tested. Fiducia (trust) and fidelitas (faithfulness) inform belief in. One believes in a divine entity or in the goodness of a beloved person. Believing that an assertion is true turns not only faith but all manner of things into something verifiable (or not), in need of certainty. This change in mindset is characteristic of the Enlightenment, of which Cervantes’s book is a harbinger.

A similar process is at work in the adventure of the advancing armies. In the earlier episode, Don Quixote himself recasts the windmills into something unfamiliar, but here the narrator does the initial recasting, telling us what the knight sees: “a large, thick cloud of dust coming toward them along the road they were traveling.” What Don Quixote thinks is an army is actually a flock of sheep, the thick cloud of dust literally camouflaging ordinary country life. His imagination takes over and populates what he says are two converging armies of knights, giants, and diverse peoples. He defamiliarizes reality by replacing it altogether. After the shepherds sling stones at him, Cervantes’s protagonist is forced to admit these are sheep. But as with the windmills, he doubles down on enchantment. His nemesis, he claims, “has turned the contending armies into flocks of sheep.”

To convince Sancho of this truth, he urges him to secretly follow them. “When they have moved a certain distance away,” he says, “they resume their original form and are no longer sheep but real, complete men, just as I first described them to you. . . . But do not go now, for I have need of your help and assistance.” Truth is a matter of the proper perspective, of a certain distance, in the same way the knight sees “what he did not see,” namely the composition of the two armies, from the top of a hill. Seen from far enough away, anything is possible, and belief is untouched. At the same time, Don Quixote keeps Sancho by his side, and in this manner he avoids testing his assertion, just as he wisely decides earlier not to court failure by subjecting his pasteboard helmet to further quality control experiments after it falls apart the first time. The grounds for his belief remain unchallenged because otherwise they would collapse.

One of the most remarkable episodes in this vein appears in Chapter 20. Fumbling in the dark and thirsty, Don Quixote and Sancho are hoping to find a brook or spring. Here, in abbreviated form, is what happens next: “they had not gone two hundred paces when a sound of crashing reached their ears, as if water were hurtling over large, high cliffs. . . . they suddenly heard another exceedingly loud noise that watered down their joy at finding water . . . I say that they heard the sound of rhythmic pounding, along with a certain clanking of irons and chains that, accompanied by the clamorous fury of the water, would have put terror in any heart other than Don Quixote’s.” The narrator underscores their “panic and consternation, especially when they saw that the pounding did not stop, the wind did not cease, and morning did not come; added to this was their not knowing where they were.”

This vividly realized moment, when we hear what they hear without understanding what is being heard, puts readers in the same disoriented position as the characters. Unlike the windmills and the sheep, the source of this mysterious pounding is never, strictly speaking, subjected to enchantment, and we later learn, in an especially humiliating moment for the knight, that six wooden fulling hammers, used for cleansing wool cloth, are responsible for the loud, frightening noise. The anticipated adventure turns out to be a dud. What’s more, in the clear light of day, Don Quixote knows these are fulling hammers and not giants or other imaginary creatures, despite a lame attempt to have his squire pretend otherwise. In this instance, his belief system is not tested, most likely because the knight cannot initially put a name to the formless thing he hears. What enchantment there is in this episode comes from the narrator’s transmuting, in a defamiliarizing move, the fulling hammers into something unrecognizable for characters and readers alike.

Moreover, as in other instances, a literal and astonishing disturbance acts as an unexpected interruption to the story, even as it generates a further narrative: Sancho’s comic tale of the goatherd and his goats being ferried one by one across the water. The squire’s fear of the strange pounding, coupled with the desire to keep his master from wandering off in the night, is motive enough to produce a wonderful Scheherazade moment in the novel, putting off misfortune, if not death as in the fabled storyteller’s case, with words. (In the Arabian Nights, Scheherazade interrupts her stories midway to delay death, while delivering one tale after another.)

In a very funny twist of the classic narration, Don Quixote and Sancho bicker over the proper way to tell a story. Too many repetitions, says the knight. “If you tell your story this way, Sancho,” says Don Quixote, “repeating everything you say two times, you will not finish in two days; tell it in a continuous way.” The effect of his critique is to produce yet another interruption, breaking the narrative flow. Then Sancho himself doubles down on repetition, saying: “Your grace has to keep count of the goats the fisherman ferries across, because if you miss one the story will be over and it won’t be possible to say another word.”

In the end, the story stops in midstream, so to speak, an occurrence so curious that Don Quixote thinks the tale “one of the strangest” he has ever heard. “This manner of telling it and then stopping it,” he says, “is something I shall never see.” So what is Cervantes saying here? On one level, as narrative strategy, too many details can get you bogged down until you lose the point of the story. Sancho’s interrupted story also anticipates Cardenio’s in the Sierra Morena. “If, Señores, you wish me to tell you briefly,” Cardenio says, “about the immensity of my misfortunes, you must promise not to interrupt the thread of my sad history with any question, or with anything else, because the moment you interrupt will be the moment my narration ends.” Don Quixote immediately thinks of Sancho’s aborted storytelling.

Like the squire, Cardenio appears anxious to preserve narrative coherence, a matter of far more consequence than keeping track of goats, as this is a personal life history and not an idle tale. When Don Quixote interjects his own commentary, Cardenio falls silent, “for a fit of his madness had come over him and he was in no condition to go on with his story.” The disruption in narrative coherence is symptomatic of a psychic break in the character. This is disturbance of the most profound sort. Both stories, one comical and the other painful, point to something else. We expect and want order not only in our storytelling but in our lives. One goat should follow the next one, and the next one after that. And Don Quixote should keep track of each one, so that no part of the narration is lost or told in the wrong order, or, it is implied, told incorrectly. What if two or more goats tried to squeeze into the tiny boat? Why, it would capsize or, worse, sink. And so would the story. The conduct of goats should be predictable, as should that of men and women. This is the implicit understanding of all such narratives, but in neither case is it true.

On the contrary, interruptions, like enchantments, which also suspend characters and narration and produce disruption, suggest how fragile is the edifice that we construct out of words and conduct. (We see this in Hamlet as well.) For Sancho, his master’s criticisms are a distraction. He forgets the rest of the story, and so the goats never get fully counted. Cardenio, on the other hand, appears to deliberately pick a quarrel with Don Quixote over the virtue of Queen Madásima, a character in the chivalric romance the Amadís of Gaul. But he does so, first, because Don Quixote has interrupted his story. This, in turn, is the catalyst for a violent reaction from Cardenio, who proceeds to pummel the knight, his squire, and even the goatherd.

His act of violence may seem like just one more in a book filled with beatings and physical humiliations, but what is notable here is how unpredictable it appears. No doubt on a deeper, psychological level, there are reasons for Cardenio’s explosive fits of madness, but that, too, is the point. An interruption has fueled an unsettling disturbance—wild, unruly conduct—that ruffles the comic surface of this great novel. Don Quixote’s brittle bones and his helmet are not the only breakable things in Cervantes’s fictional universe, and this invites further reflection on the generative possibilities of disorder and breakdown alike.

Comic interludes of enchantments and disruptions such as the windmills and the flocks of sheep may seem, at first blush, unrelated to the somber intercalated tale “The Man Who Was Recklessly Curious.” Yet embedded tales are, to begin with, interruptions themselves to the main narrative, at the same time as they are often integrated into the storyline through parallels, juxtapositions, and the intertwining of characters, themes, and situations. This story certainly can stand alone, reminding us that Cervantes also wrote superb novelas ejemplares, or exemplary novels, called novellas in the Italian manner of Boccaccio and Bandello, or, later, Marguerite de Navarre. By contrast, Don Quixote of La Mancha is called a history, or historia (meaning both history and story), never a novel. Aside from the novella genre, which was very popular in seventeenth-century Spain, Cervantes also drew from the immensely well-liked honor plays of Spanish Golden Age theater. Reputation, honor, madness, and flawed human nature all figure in “The Man Who Was Recklessly Curious,” just as they do in the novel as a whole.

As with another embedded tale, that of Cardenio, Fernando, and Luscinda, the core of this one is a double betrayal, ending in the wreckage of both love and friendship. Anselmo and Lotario are famously known as the “two friends,” appearing deeply attached and in harmony with each other’s desires, but Anselmo’s marriage to Camila places a strain on the friendship, as Lotario curtails his visits out of concern for his friend’s honor. Anselmo, in turn, tells Lotario of an obsession he has with his wife’s virtue and asks for his help in testing it, which will bring his friend back to frequenting his home—no doubt an unspoken motive for involving Lotario in the first place. The emphasis on the two friends situates the story within an Aristotelian frame in considering friendship as a virtue. “Perfect friendship,” the philosopher observes in the Nicomachean Ethics, “is the friendship of people who are good and alike in virtue; for they are alike in wishing each other’s good, inasmuch as they are good and good in themselves.”

But what is the good in this story? If Lotario tries to tempt Camila’s virtue, as his friend desires, he risks staining the honor of both. In the end, he agrees to the proposition, with disastrous results. In endeavoring to be faithful to friendship, Lotario betrays it, as does Anselmo, in using his friend for something ignoble. Cervantes is deeply aware that we sometimes do things for friends that we know are wrong, but we do them anyway. We convince ourselves that we do these things precisely because we believe in friendship, thereby ignoring moral clarity and overestimating the ability to navigate our own weakness. The double disloyalty in “The Man Who Was Recklessly Curious” is ultimately a betrayal of the good.

What follows is a series of deceptions and self-deceptions on the part of all three characters, which starts with a form of madness and ends in death, paralleling, though with differences, the fate of Don Quixote. What is this madness that so afflicts Anselmo? “I am,” he says, “the most desperate and discontented man in the entire world, because for some days now I have been troubled and pursued by a desire so strange and out of the ordinary that I am amazed at myself, and blame and reprimand myself, and attempt to silence it and hide it away from my thoughts.” And then he reveals his madness to Lotario: “the desire that plagues me is my wondering if Camila, my wife, is as good and perfect as I think she is, and I cannot learn the truth except by testing her.” Lotario rightfully considers his friend’s request that he be “the instrument that will effect this plan born of my desire” as “an act of patent madness” and “characteristic of rash minds bereft of reason.” Nothing, he says, compels Anselmo to follow this course of action, so why do it? The same could be asked of Don Quixote.

Lotario is wrong. Something is indeed forcing his friend to pursue his obsession, an idée fixe like the one that motivates Don Quixote. The knight is clearly delusional when it comes to chivalric ideals (though often sensible in other matters), but can we say the same of Anselmo? Cervantes calls his madness a kind of desire. “Why be grateful when a woman is good,” Anselmo says, “if no one urges her to be bad?” Once her virtue is proven, he can rest easy. “I shall be able to say that the cup of my desires is filled to overflowing.” But it is the nature of desire never to be satisfied. Anselmo’s self-deception, his blindness to what is behind his actions, works in ways similar to Don Quixote’s conduct because both issue from the power of the imagination to mold and defy reality.

Anselmo’s insistence on testing Camila’s virtue is an unstated admission of lack of trust because he does not know his own wife. He wants certainty, at any cost. The desire for certainty and, further, to know reality as he thinks it should be is a kind of delusion when based on desire alone. We could extend this argument to the notion of enchantment itself as a projection of desire, explicit in the knight’s universe but implicit in Anselmo’s. In this sense, enchantment is another way of talking about our desires, our longings, while masking them in other forms. Enchantment is the practice of self-deception, the darker side of wonder and joy.

But where is enchantment to be found in what is, after all, a tale of marital infidelity? Consider the priest’s criticisms after the guests at the inn have finished listening to the story. “This novel seems fine,” says the priest, “but I cannot persuade myself that it is true; if it is invented, the author invented badly, because no one can imagine any husband foolish enough to conduct the costly experiment that Anselmo did. If this occurred between a lover and his lady, it might be plausible, but between a husband and his wife it seems impossible.” In other words, to his mind, “The Man Who Was Recklessly Curious” is recklessly narrated because it lacks verisimilitude, anticipating the canon from Toledo’s commentary in Chapter 47 about how fiction should engage readers. His remarks suggest that there is something fantastical about the story because it runs counter to social and marital expectations.

Yet its most profound truth resides in the human heart and strikes at the very core of who we are: How deep does love lie? And how far would we go to find out? There is nothing more real or true than that. Anselmo pushes that point to the limit in the same way that Don Quixote cannot settle for half measures in his chivalric quest. And like the knight, he carries out his mission with such single-mindedness that it pushes the boundaries of verisimilitude. This obsession is what approximates his conduct to Don Quixote’s delusional perception of reality and makes them both enchanted figures, suspended in desire. Anselmo admits that he is “fleeing the good and going after the bad” with his proposition. He goes on to say: “you must consider that I suffer now from the disease that afflicts some women, filling them with the desire to eat earth, plaster, charcoal, and other things that are even worse, and sickening to look at, let alone to eat.” Cure me, he begs Lotario.

On the one hand, all this is too simple, an easy way out of confessing that his desires are destructive. It’s a form of self-justification, by pleading indisposition as an excuse. On the other, his malady is described as a compulsion (akin to the eating disorder known as pica), this urge to know how much his wife loves him by testing her virtue. The repugnant nature of such desire (“sickening to look at”), displaced onto a different affliction, discloses feelings of self-loathing and ambivalence because he knows what he seeks is not the good. And yet he persists, just as Lotario gives in to his friend’s wishes, knowing at heart that it is wrong to do so.

Overconfident in their abilities to avoid moral catastrophe, both fail to see how deluded they are until it is too late. (The same is true of Camila, characterized as “confident of her virtue.”) Lotario believes he can maintain control by pretending to woo Camila and thus safeguard everyone’s name, while ignoring the temptation of increased intimacy under a blanket of deceit; and Anselmo thinks his plan involves little risk to Lotario’s honor, as though one could preserve virtue while simultaneously chipping away at it. Cervantes translates his acute understanding of human weakness into a kind of psychological realism in the narrative, but on a different level, moral blindness and desire turn both characters away from reality, with the abandonment of reason and the subsequent embrace of enchantment. Lotario is overpowered by his passion for Camila, or, as the narrator says, “Lotario looked at her when he should have been speaking to her,” enraptured by her beauty. And Anselmo, as we know, has allowed his madness to destroy what he already has: a good wife and a good friend.

In “The Man Who Was Recklessly Curious,” the strands of enchantment and mimesis are impossible to disentangle, based as they are on self-deception. Fueled by unsatisfied desire to know, Anselmo designs a test that is doomed to fail, no matter how it ends, because it arises, first, out of not respecting the limitations of human nature and because, second, it is not founded on the good. Can virtue be tested through non-virtuous means or actions? Should it be tested? Does Anselmo have the right to test his wife’s virtue? In seventeenth-century Spanish society, a woman’s chastity or faithfulness embodied a man’s honor, and both were subject to public opinion. Cervantes, I believe, questions that husbandly right in this story in suggesting the foolishness of tempting fate or, worse, producing the very thing one wishes to avoid: shame and dishonor.

To test, in these circumstances, is to admit the various and the unpredictable and the longing for certainty. Testing is a constant in Don Quixote’s universe, starting with the first chapter, when he discovers the dubious sturdiness of his pasteboard helmet by striking it. In Chapter 21, the knight errant tells his squire that “it is necessary to wander the world as a kind of test, seeking adventures, so that by concluding some of them, the knight acquires a reputation and fame.” In a word, everything and anything can be a test in Cervantes’s novel. But that means Don Quixote’s belief in an enchanted world and the chivalric ideal will also be challenged, by other characters and by reality itself. The shock of reality can also act as a disturbance, provoking equivocations from the knight, as when he suggests that not everything is enchanted at the inn or that there are many forms of enchantment.

The testing of one’s beliefs in such circumstances implies an underlying reality or truth that is not completely known and must be ascertained by subjecting it to different points of view, hence the dialogic nature of Cervantes’s book. Don Quixote of La Mancha invites such openness while at the same time warning readers of the risks in opening too many doors or the wrong door, as with Anselmo. Does Anselmo believe in his wife’s virtue, or does he want to believe that his wife is virtuous? I think it’s clearly the latter, and this is what leads to his disastrous plan. It is an assertion that must be tested against reality rather than taken on faith, and this is something we have also seen in Don Quixote. There is no trust or faithfulness where relationships must be tested; there is only doubt and uncertainty. Viewed another way, Anselmo wants to know too much, a predicament he shares with Adam and Eve in the Bible (and in Milton), with Faust, and with much of humankind. At bottom, we are not content, just as Anselmo laments that he is “the most desperate and discontented man in the entire world.”

Discontent is the great enchanter insofar as it engenders interruptions and disturbances in our lives, which can act in both good and bad ways as engines of desire. Discontent prompts Don Quixote to leave his home and go out into the world, even as it drives Anselmo to turn his stable life upside down. If you carry out your idea, warns Lotario, “you will not be more content,” but Anselmo pays no heed. Testing provides the instrument for self-induced temptation. Even when temptation is not before us, we create it. Thus Anselmo remarks: “Why be grateful when a woman is good if no one urges her to be bad?” If we cannot compel virtue, should we therefore compel sin?

The answer is clearly no, on both counts. By the same token, would you smash a diamond with a hammer, asks Lotario, just to prove it is authentic? Camila, he says, is that diamond, and “there is no reason to put her at risk of shattering.” He advances the argument by alluding to the age-old, stereotyped image of feminine fragility in matters of virtue. “The chaste woman,” he remarks, “is like a mirror of clear, shining glass,” and he drives home the point with some verses: “Woman is made of fragile glass; / but do not put her to the test / to see if she will break . . . She is too apt to shatter.” Lotario declares that “woman is an imperfect creature,” but then so are the men in this story. All three characters are utterly shattered in the end.

It is worth mentioning that Cervantes also wrote an exemplary novel titled El licenciado Vidriera, or The Glass Lawyer, in which Tomás, the protagonist, under the enchantment of a love potion gone wrong, believes he is made entirely of glass and will fracture at the slightest touch. Like Tomás, all these characters are made of glass, and they are breakable not simply because of moral failings but because their self-deceptions are as much a form of enchantment as Tomás’s supposed suspension in glass or Don Quixote’s adventures in an imaginary world, and they are equally subject to the disturbances of reality in the very moments they most disrupt it. As with Velázquez’s figures in the painting, they are the interruption. Like Don Quixote’s behavior, Anselmo’s test unsettles readers precisely because it is so unexpected. It is implausible, as the priest complained, but then so is life as Cervantes imagines it. No doubt these are darker enchantments than Don Quixote’s windmills or flocks of sheep, but they emerge from the same blackness that covers the surface of the great lake; they are what lies beneath our quiet, ordinary lives.