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Purgatories of Broken Dreams: Bob Dylan´s and Don Quixote´s Desolation Row

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(The following is a guest post by Hernán S. M. De Pinillos, Associate Professor, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, University of Maryland.)

The American filmmaker Martin Scorsese wrote recently in his autobiography, “Scorsese on Scorsese, “I read ‘Don Quixote’ just before starting ‘Gangs of New York,’ and discovered that everything you might want to do with style, Cervantes did first: time shifts, answering his critics of the first volume in the second, all the new wave tricks. … I found out that Cervantes did it all, even before Joyce and Melville …” (p. 248)

Cervantina from the Library's Rare Book Collections displayed in the Rosenwald Room.
Cervantina from the Library’s Rare Book Collections displayed in the Rosenwald Room.

What literary critic Harry Levin labeled “The Quixotic Principle” — “the tragicomic irony of the conflict between real life and the romantic imagination” — has been, generation after generation, a guiding principle of the finest novels. From Henry Fielding´s “Joseph Andrews” (1742), to Melville’s “Moby Dick” (1851), to the novels of William Faulkner in the previous century, all owe a debt to their reading of “Don Quixote.”

Goethe’s declaration about Calderón´s tragedy “El Príncipe constant” (The Constant Prince) — if all poetry were to vanish from the earth, it could be recovered with “El Príncipe constant” — applies admirably to “Don Quixote,” which contains and revolutionizes all previous forms of narrative and dramatic fiction, even as it serves as a prelude to all forms of literature to come.

Influential far beyond the realm of literary endeavor, instances of Don Quixote’s effect on great political and intellectual thinkers are legion. George Washington owned several copies, in both Spanish and English. He bought his first copy on the very day that the delegates at the Constitutional Convention signed the US Constitution. Thomas Jefferson, who read Quixote minutely, might have been interpreting “Cada uno es hijo de sus obras,” (“Don Quixote” I, 4) (“Every person is the child of his own works”) in the statement “all men are created equal.” The closing words of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address — “With malice towards none, with charity for all” — echo those of Don Quixote’s defense of his life’s purpose: “Mis intenciones siempre las enderezo a buenos fines, que son hacer bien a todos y mal a ninguno….” (“My intention I always direct to a worthy aim, namely, to do good unto all men, and harm to no creature”). And in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, one might easily hear echoes of Quixote’s “Golden Age” speech (“Don Quixote” I, 11).

Visitors enjoying a look at some of the Library's rare books related to Cervantes.
Visitors enjoying a look at some of the Library’s rare books related to Cervantes.

“Don Quixote” is not only the world’s most influential work of fiction, it is also a rich and varied songbook with poems in different meters and rhythms of love and despair. The poems have appeared in many musical adaptations, some recent and splendid, such as Espliego’s “Nunca Fuera Caballero” (2011) (Never Was a Knight) by Luis Pastor, Joaquin Diaz, and Maite Dono Amancio Prada. “Don Quixote” has inspired many operas and musicians: Georg Philipp Telemann´s “Don Quichotte” orchestral suite (1767); Richard Strauss´ “Don Quixote,” Op. 35 (1897); Manuel de Falla´s puppet-opera “El retablo de maese Pedro” (1923) (Master Peter’s Puppet Show); the American musical “Man of La Mancha” (1966) by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, based on a book by Dale Wasserman; Canadian Gordon Lightfoot´s album “Don Quixote” (1972), and Neil Diamond´s song “The Last Picasso” (“Serenade,” 1974). But sometimes the inspiration is indirect. The episode of Don Quixote´s dream-within-a-dream story in Montesinos’s Cave contains the essential elements of the lyrics in Bob Dylan´s iconic 1965 songDesolation Row,” the closing track on his sixth studio album, “Highway 61 Revisited.

In the second half of Cervantes’ novel, Don Quixote falls asleep in a cave and wakes up to a mysterious encounter with Montesinos, a faded aristocrat from the age of heroes as described in the Carolingian ballads. Don Quixote learns that for five hundred years, Merlin the Enchanter has held hostage a number of characters from chivalric novels. Montesinos, for whom the cave is named, welcomes Don Quixote and guides his guest through the eerie surroundings, introducing him to mythic and heroic characters, now aged and decrepit.

Within the Cave of Montesinos episode, Cervantes anticipates surrealism by hundreds of years, using literary devices that often sound more modern and natural than the Shakespearean monologues. The episode also pushes the boundaries of standard storytelling, mixing dreams and reality and playing with the passage of time and history. The characters in the Cave of Montesinos have become grotesque distortions of their previous heroic selves, leading strange, absurd lives, trapped in another dimension of space and time. According to Don Quixote, he was in the cave for three days, but for his sidekick Sancho Panza waiting outside, only an hour has passed. Although there are many examples of heroes descending to the underworld in the classic literature of Homer, Virgil, and Dante, Cervantes did something new. In the sinister cave of Don Quixote’s invention, the reader enters a new reality and is offered a glimpse of the hero’s psychological anguish. Nothing similar to Cervantes´s vision of a degraded past, transformed into an underworld, can be found in earlier literature.

Reference Librarian Juan Manuel Perez shows 17th century publications to visitors and staff.
Reference Librarian Juan Manuel Perez shows 17th century publications to visitors and staff.

Later novels though, such as Franz Kafka´s “Metamorphosis” (1915) and Joyce´s “Ulysses” (1922), continued Cervantes’ technique of putting mythical characters in everyday settings, allowing them to age and live in real time. Bob Dylan, recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, used similar devices to revolutionize the American song tradition.

In Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” the singer is, like Don Quixote, in a dreamlike state, as he weaves characters from history, fiction, the Bible and his own invention into a series of surreal vignettes that suggest decline, disorder, and urban chaos. As music critic Andy Gill says, the song is “an 11-minute epic of entropy, which takes the form of a Fellini-esque parade of grotesques and oddities featuring a huge cast of iconic characters, some historical, some biblical, some literary…” (“Classic Bob Dylan: My Back Pages,” p. 89).

Within “Desolation Row,” Cain and Abel, Robin Hood, Casanova, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera, Cinderella, Romeo, and Ophelia unite with Belerma, Durandarte, Montesinos and Dulcinea. They are all phantoms of their former selves, lost souls living in a poetic limbo, waiting for the hero who, free from mundane illusions, will redeem them from the horrors of history, from the horrors of time.

Works Cited

Cervantes, Miguel de. “Don Quixote.” Translated by John Rutherford. London: Penguin Classics, 2003.
—. “The Adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha.” Translated by Tobias Smollett. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986.
Dylan, Bob. “Desolation Row.” “Highway 61 Revisited.” New York: Columbia Studio A, 1965.
El Saffar, Ruth Anthony and Diana de Armas Wilson. “Quixotic Desire: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Cervantes.” Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1993.
Gill, Andy. “Classic Bob Dylan: My Back Pages.” London: Carlton, 1998.
Levin, Harry. “The Quixotic Principle: Cervantes and Other Novelists.” Harvard English Studies 1 (1970): 45-66.
Rosenbach, A. S. W. “The Libraries of the Presidents of the United States.” American Antiquarian Society 44 (October 1934): 337-364.
Scorsese, Martin. “Scorsese on Scorsese.” Rev. ed. Edited by Ian Christie and David Thompson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.
Williams, Stanley T. “The Spanish Background of American Literature.” 2 vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1955.
Woods, Sara F. “Quixotic Fictions of the USA, 1792-1815,” Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.


  1. great post

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