Have you ever wondered if the world you see around you is actually real? What if you and everyone you know are just characters in someone else’s book or movie, and you have no idea? How can you be sure that what you think you are seeing and feeling is actually real? We know from physics and chemistry that our bodies and minds are really just a bunch of atoms and molecules that undergo chemical reactions. So do you, as a person with your own thoughts and feelings and ideas, really exist?
One of the first people to play with these questions of what is real was Miguel Cervantes. In 1605, he published his most famous work Don Quixote de la Mancha.
Previously, books generally told a story, and that was it. Everyone knew they were stories and nothing more. But, Miguel Cervantes changed that.
Don Quixote begins with a narrator telling the reader that he is about to tell a story gathered from other authors and historical documents—so he’s not really the author. Right away, the story makes us question what is real. Is this all just a story? Or is the narrator telling us something that happened in history? Furthermore, how can we know whether the story the narrator tells matches what “actually” happened? Or if the multiple historical documents agree with each other? And where does that leave Cervantes in all of this?
To make things even more complicated, Don Quixote, the main character in the book, often mixes up what is real and what is in his mind. His imagination can get the best of him, leading to many misunderstandings between him and the other characters.
RadioLab, a podcast produced by WNYC studios in the United States, explored these questions in an episode about “The Real Don Quixote.” Listen to their conversations to have your mind blown by the literary genius that was Miguel Cervantes and to gain some insight into why Don Quixote, published at the start of the 17th century, remains so popular today.