Here’s the story: two half-wits (one delusional, the other just plain stupid with moments of remarkable clarity) set off on a quest in the service of a beautiful, unwitting woman. Along the way, both characters are repeatedly ridiculed by those around them, although their own idiocy insulates them from the effects of this scorn. They are physically abused, often by each other. Copious hilarity ensues time and again as the result of disgusting bodily functions.
That’s pretty much what happens in my all-time favorite moronic comedy, Dumb and Dumber. It also happens to fit the plot of Don Quixote quite nicely.
Anyone who is intimidated by Cervantes’ 900+ page tome because it’s too “high-brow” should probably consider the following episode. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza have camped in an inky black wood for the evening, terrified by a rhythmic, clanging noise. The fearless Don Quixote wants to go off exploring, but the rather cowardly Sancho convinces him to stay by stealthily handicapping Don Quixote’s horse and proclaiming it the will of God that Don Quixote not leave until the morning’s light. Sometime during the evening, the following happens:
…because Sancho had eaten something laxative for supper, or because it was in the natural order of things…he felt the urge and desire to do what no one else could do for him…He lifted his shirt the best he could and stuck out both buttocks, which were not very small. Having done this – which he thought was all he had to do to escape that terrible difficulty and anguish – he was overcome by an even greater distress, which was it seemed to him he could not relieve himself without making some noise and sound, and he began to clench his teeth and hunch his shoulders, holding his breath as much as he could, but despite all his efforts, he was so unfortunate that he finally made a little noise quite different from the one that had caused him so much fear. Don Quixote heard it and said: “What sound is that, Sancho?”
This scene is hilarious – the image Cervantes paints of poor Sancho, grimacing and clenching while trying to quietly go about his business, is pure comic genius. It’s also, quite literally, potty humor that any twelve-year-old boy could appreciate.
Scenes like this occur over and over throughout the book – Don Quixote wearing a barbers basin on his head because he believes it to be a mythical helmet; Sancho Panza violently vomiting after drinking a concoction Don Quixote claims will heal any illness; Don Quixote, sans pants, turning cartwheels while Sancho Panza hastily runs off so as not to see “certain things.” These particular scenes are not funny because of subtle, nuanced wordplay. They rely on outrageous, gross-out humor, the same kind that makes Lloyd and Harry’s misadventures so hilarious in Dumb and Dumber.
My point being this: Cervantes, through Don Quixote, certainly seems to be, according to Milan Kundera, the “founder of the Modern Era.” The ‘highbrow’ is certainly there for those that want to look for it – they can discuss literary techniques, thematic elements, “cosmological scope” (as put by the very verbose, and very pretentious Harold Bloom). These are crucial elements of the story which support its status as one of the greatest novels ever written.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that Cervantes (like Shakespeare) wrote for the masses. The term ‘literary fiction’ didn’t exist in Cervantes’ day, but, if it did, it wouldn’t apply to Don Quixote. It was a popular book for the people. That’s an important reminder for readers today, myself included, who slip into snobbishness in our attitudes towards what we read.
Finally, Don Quixote also reminds us that projectile vomiting, diarrhea, inappropriate nudity, and cartoon violence can be very, very funny.