Governor of Barataria

The Telescope is a 1963 oil on canvas painting by René Magritte.
The painting depicts a window through which a partly clouded blue sky can be seen. However, the right side of the window is partially open, revealing a black background where the viewer would expect to see a continuation of the clouds and sky – there could hardly be a better symbol of pessimism.

Ewa Maria Slaska

What I really like in Don Quixote, is, as all my attentive readers know, the story of how Sancho Panza, a simple, unlearned peasant, becomes governor and turns out to be a good and just ruler. Throughout all their journey together, the lord and his squire kept talking about how it would be when Sancho Panza’s faithful services were rewarded with the governorship of some island. The Duke’s mischievous joke makes the fiction come true. Sancho is appointed governor. For the next two chapters, Don Quixote instructs him on what to do to perform his duties well. Interestingly, the pessimistic Don Quixote, a fantast detached from reality, turns out to be a good, practical and pragmatic teacher. Sancho Panza’s reign ends with the lost war and his voluntary decision to resign as governor.

The author analysing this in his book on pessimism writes, that what we learn from it is not how to bring order and justice to the world in any permanent way, but that the attempt to do so is worthwhile. It is what should always count: our efforts are never in vain, they are always worthwhile.

(…) The episode of Sancho’s governorship suggests that he got from being with Don Quixote a surprisingly useful political education. When he takes up his post as governor of Barataria and is confronted with liars and tricksters, Sancho sees through them. When legal cases are brought before him, he is a shrewd judge of the motives and wiles of others. Several of these cases involve, essentially, two lowlifes who accuse one another of having cheated them. Sancho always finds a way to punish both while doing justice to both. The townspeople, who both present and observe these cases, have not been let in on the Duke’s joke and come to have great admiration for Sancho: “In a word, he made so many good rules that to this day they are preserved there, and are called “The ordinances of the great governor Sancho Panza”. Since, up to this point, the reader has been told repeatedly of Sancho’s intellectual shortcomings, this is a remarkable transformation. On Sancho’s part, while he first sought a governorship in order to get rich, he later has cause to boast that “without a cent I came into this government, and without a cent I go out of it”. Once his common sense has been unburdened of greed and ambitions, it is more than adequate to the task at hand. The justice that Quixote is repeatedly unable to effect by force, Sancho brings about through a sensible administration inspired by Quixote’s ideals and Sancho’s embrace of his own humble background. One of Sancho’s “advisers” (planted by the Duke to observe and report on what are expected to be hilarious blunders), is amazed at what he has seen and reports, “Every day we see something new in this world; jokes become realities, and the jokers find the tables turned on them”. But the lesson is not just that the Duke’s mildly sadistic plan has backfired. Quixote’s quest for justice, which everyone considers mad and impossible, has shown itself to bear fruit indirectly and in the most unlikely of places. In Don Quixote, quixotism is a joke; in Sancho, it becomes real.

Why is Sancho more successful than Quixote? Perhaps because he knows himself better than Quixote. Quixote claims to continue the personality of the Nine Worthies, but Sancho knows himself only as Sancho, Quixote’s squire. Without Quixote’s example, he would, perhaps, never have been able to see the value of this. While at the start, Sancho wanted nothing else than to be a governor, by the time he actually takes on the role, he has changed. The Duke suggests that he pick out a new wardrobe when assuming office, but he replies, “Let them dress me as they like. However I’m dressed I’ll be Sancho Panza”. Sancho reassures Quixote that the position will not distort him by saying, “I’d rather go to heaven as Sancho than to hell as a governor.” And this draws a rare compliment out of Quixote: “For those last words you uttered alone, I consider you deserve to be governor of a thousand islands”. In learning from Quixote, Sancho has not become another Quixote, but the first and only Sancho Panza. Following a knight with delusions of grandeur, Sancho has lost his own delusions and become who he is. What success he has in politics stems from this. Sancho’s policies are not, perhaps, what we might expect from a pessimist, but the entire episode may perhaps be taken to indicate that the best governor is one with a pessimistic education. Having dismantled his extravagant plans for the future, Sancho is better at seeing each case that comes before him for what it is. In knowing himself, he also knows what justice is. But the success that Sancho meets with is limited, in more ways than one. First of all, there is the inability of Sancho’s state to withstand a violent attack staged by the Duke who put him in power. More importantly, despite Sancho’s fitness to govern, he finds the process itself agonizing. An “advisor” concerned with his health refuses to let him eat anything and this symbolizes the lack of reward involved in governing: “I am dying of discouragement, because when I thought I was coming to this government to get hot food and cold drinks, and take my ease between holland sheets on feather beds, I find I have come to do penance as if I was a hermit”. Sancho has forsworn the acceptance of bribes or any such similar material rewards, so his post is no more rewarding financially than nutritionally. It might be expected, though, that his successful government might give him some feeling of satisfaction. It does not. Sancho, in coming to know himself, learns that the task of government is more than he can bear, nor does Cervantes suggest that another would find it any easier. Sancho leaves his governorship even more hastily than he accepted it. Finally, Cervantes warns us, in his usual comic fashion, not to become too enamored of Sancho’s new-found “wisdom.” When Quixote remarks on his improvement, Sancho replies, “It must be that some of your worship’s discretion sticks to me. Land that, of itself, is barren and dry, will yield good fruit if you fertilize it and till it. What I mean is that your worship’s conversation is the fertilizer that has fallen on the barren soil of my dry wit, and the time I have spent in your service and company has been the tillage”. This way of putting things sets them in proper perspective. Though Sancho has improved, he has not improved much. At best, he repeats garbled versions of old maxims whose meaning he only half-understands. In imitating Quixote, he has unlearned a few of his worst habits and acquired some better ones. If Sancho is successful at governing, it is as much because an honest half-wit is already a great improvement on the greedy, corrupt, and conniving men who ordinarily hold such posts. Quixote had suggested to Sancho that knowing who he is would be enough for him to govern, and, as Cervantes lets the events unfold, this turns out to be the case. At some level, the joke, which appeared to become real, remains a joke-what more, Cervantes seems to say, could one expect from a chaotic world such as this one? But this attitude too is perfectly consonant with a pessimistic perspective. What we learn from Sancho’s government is not how to bring order and justice to the world in any permanent way, but that the attempt to do so is worthwhile.

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