Don Quixote and the Health Professional’s Endless Quest

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April 22 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the greatest novelist who ever lived, Miguel de Cervantes. Though the day will pace unnoticed by most physicians, it is in fact one many should note. Why? Because both his life and work can serve as vital sources of inspiration and resilience for health professionals everywhere.

In a 2002 Nobel Institute survey, 100 of the world’s most highly regarded writers named his Don Quixote the greatest novel of all time, outscoring its nearest rivals –works by Dickens, Tolstoy, and Joyce – by more than 50%. Said the head judge who announced the results, “If there is one novel you should read before you die, it is Don Quixote.”

In connection with a recent performance of Richard Strauss’s tone poem, Don Quixote, by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, I was invited to give an introductory lecture on the novel that inspired the composition. The diverse makeup of the audience testified to the novel’s power – there were wealthy philanthropists and people of little means; patrons of learning and common laborers; and the ages of those gathered ranged from the far end of the golden years to high school students.

Though quite different from one another in many respects, they were all united by a desire to learn more about Miguel de Cervantes and his timeless masterpiece.

Cervantes’ own life is only marginally less remarkable than that of his famous hero. His father Rodrigo earned his living as a barber-surgeon and his mother Leonor, whose family experienced financial difficulties, was sold into marriage by her father. Miguel was born in 1547 and grew up in a poor household. When young Cervantes fell in love with a barmaid, her father forbad the marriage due to the young man’s lack of prospects.

Cervantes soon left Spain, perhaps because he injured a young man in a duel. This led him to Rome, where he studied art and literature. Upon his return to his native country he entered the Spanish navy and served at the battle of Lepanto,where the Spanish famously defeated the Ottoman fleet.  During the fighting, Cervantes sustained three gunshot wounds, one of which robbed him of the use of his left arm for the rest of his life.

After spending months recuperating from his wounds, Cervantes set sail for home. As the ship approached the coast of Spain, it was set upon by pirates, who killed many crew members and took the survivors, including Cervantes, into slavery. Cervantes spent five years in captivity, during which he attempted escape on at least four occasions before he was finally ransomed by his family. His experiences provide the inspiration for a part of Don Quixote known at the captive’s tale.

Back in Spain, Cervantes began writing, but he was unable to support himself in this capacity. He worked first as a commissary for the Spanish navy, then as a tax collector, suffering terms of imprisonment due to financial irregularities. By his own account, the idea for Don Quixote came to him in jail, and he published the first volume in 1605. Partly in response to the publication of an unauthorized sequel by another author, Cervantes released his own second part in 1615.

In Cervantes’ own day, Don Quixote was regarded as a comedy, and did not sell as well as some of his other writings. However, a copy of the first part did appear in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University within just a few years of its initial publication.  In 1610, Cervantes began receiving support from a patron, which enabled him to devote the last years of his life to writing. He continued doing so until the end. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Madrid on the same date that Shakespeare died.

Cervantes faced numerous disappointments and setbacks in life – poverty, imprisonment, slavery, serious injury, and repeated rejection. Not unlike many contemporary health professionals, he had many reasons to become discouraged and give up. Yet he found the will to carry on. Where did he find such inspiration and resilience? I believe that he found them above all in his work – not the reactions of critics or the royalties he collected, but his deep belief in his life’s mission.

That mission was Don Quixote, the story of a bachelor and petty nobleman whose inveterate reading of chivalric romances eventually drives him mad. He comes to believe that such books are literally true, and he feels divinely called to revive chivalry’s faded traditions. He outfits himself with knightly gear, adopts the name Don Quixote, dubs his tired old nag Rocinante, and identifies a peasant girl in a neighboring town as his lady love, the “peerless” DulcineadelToboso.

In his first sally, he mistakes an inn for a castle, the innkeeper for its lord, and a group of prostitutes for noble ladies. After holding vigil all night over his arms in the inn’s courtyard, he mistakes a band of muleteers for antagonists and engages them in battle. The innkeeper, seeking to be rid of his demented, non-paying guest, dubs him a knight and sends him on this way. Don Quixote then “rescues” a peasant boy suffering a beating from his master, though once he departs, the thrashing only continues with increased ferocity.

Soon Don Quixote suffers his own severe beating at the hands of some traders from Toledo who resist his demands that they praise Dulcinea’s beauty.  He awakens at home, where his family and friends have resolved to make a bonfire of the books that drove him mad. After doing so, they seal up his library, informing him it was the work of a wizard. Yet instead of abandoning his mission, Don Quixoteen lists a neighboring peasant, Sancho Panza, as his squire, promising him the governorship of an island.

Thus begins one of the most remarkable friendships in literature. Don Quixote is tall, gaunt, learned, an inveterate lover of books, and a member of the nobility. Sancho is short, round, an illiterate peasant, and always looking for a chance to profit. Yet Sancho is gradually won over by his master’s dream, and the two men, so different in so many ways, become united by the belief that the world is meant to be better than it is.

As soon as the second sally begins, they encounter their first and perhaps most famous adventure: Don Quixote spies an assembly of windmills off in the distance, which he takes to be an army of malevolent giants. Despite Sancho’s protests that they are nothing more than windmills, Don Quixote resolves to attack them.

Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them than he said to his quire, “Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich, for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from the face of the earth is a service God will bless.”

“What giants?” asked Sancho Panza.

Despite Sancho’s protests, Don Quixote takes up his lance, lowers his visor, spurs Rocinante, and charges at full tilt, with the result that he is tangled in one of the blades and knocked to the ground insensate.

Far from abandoning his quest, however, Don Quixote’s defeat at the hands of the giants only increases his determination to forge ahead. His further adventures are far too numerous and varied to recount, but they remain infused throughout with the spirits of both comedy and tragedy. In some instances they reverse the usual relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho – once when Sancho claims to see Dulcinea and her ladies in waiting, the Don sees only peasant girls.

Near the end of the second part, Don Quixote does battle with the Knight of the White Moon – actually a learned young man who exacts from the Don a pledge to go home and give up knight errantry if he is defeated. When Don Quixote falls, he dutifully obeys, taking to his bed and soon awakening from a dream cured of his madness. In one of the most moving passages in literature, Sancho tries to restore his faith, but Don Quixote condemns all books of chivalry before breathing his last.

Though the novel is filled with battles of various kinds, Don Quixote reminds contemporary health professionals that the real battle takes place within.

In giants we must kill pride and ignorance. But our greatest foes, and those we must chiefly combat, are within. Envy we must overcome by generosity and nobleness of spirit; anger, by a reposed and quiet mind; riot and drowsiness, by vigilance and temperance; lasciviousness, by our inviolable fidelity to the mistresses of our thoughts; and sloth, by our indefatigable peregrinations through the universe. . . . This, Sancho, is the road to lasting fame and good and honorable renown.

There is a venerable Spanish saying: “You read Don Quixote three times in your life. The first time it makes you laugh. The second time it makes you think. And the third time it makes you cry.” While individual reactions to the book may vary, those who know it best would certainly concur with the recommendation to read Cervantes’ masterpiece at least three times. There is perhaps no better literary source of inspiration and resilience for today’s health professionals.

Some would say that to continue to find meaning and vitality in contemporary healthcare is a quixotic quest, a denial of harsh realities that should discourage rather than lift up the hearts of health professionals. Perhaps they are right, but I believe we need to understand the true meaning of quixotic, which is to persist in spite of all obstacles in the pursuit of something beautiful and good, knowing that simply doing so is far more important than any outcome.

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4 replies »

  1. John:
    I think I understand what Peter is saying. I wonder whether his use of “professional” distracted from his point. But, what war are you referring to that ended a generation ago?

    Though perhaps an unproductive or counterproductive point to make, I do think that the dedicated, hard working physician that has been always focussed on the patient in front of him/her while never giving do attention to the health of the profession must bear a sizable portion of the responsibility for the current deplorable state of our health care system. This, for me, is such a clear given.

    I must add though that this very same physician and his/her profession are perfectly positioned to heal/fix the mess.

    Remarkable it is that the PNHP calvalry rode into the ColoradoCare effort with only 2000 MDs in tow. The PNHP leadership and those 2000 are the wise, farsighted, courageous and very much not quixotic members of the MD profession.

    And what recognition do they get? Get from within their own profession?


    American MDs, if they care at all about the state of the profession should be throwing money at PNHP since, afterall, they PNHP is the only group fighting the fight that must be fought to defend the profession.

  2. Would have loved to have been at the performance!

    Thanks for this posting. More than enjoyable.

    In regards to the bottom line of the piece, very romantic. I fear that health care professionals have enjoyed living a too-perfect professional life for never having to stand and defend the profession, it might be too late. Of course, being a bit of a romantic myself, it ain’t over till it’s over.

  3. Your “point” is that “professionals” aren’t professionals?

    You’re fighting the last war, it ended a generation ago

  4. “which is to persist in spite of all obstacles in the pursuit of something beautiful and good, knowing that simply doing so is far more important than any outcome.”

    Oh the long suffering health care professional and the salaries they command while the rest of us real “Quixotes” struggle to keep up with premiums, co-pays, deductibles, and finding the right “professional” who really knows what’s wrong with us.