In Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s novel Don Quixote, a barber’s basin is, through Don Quixote’s fertile imagination, transformed into the “Helmet of Mambrino.” Don Quixote is quite concerned about the care taken with the precious helmet, and so he inquires about it to Sancho Panza. In response, Sancho says to Don Quixote:
In God’s name, Sir Knight of the Sad Countenance, I cannot endure or bear with patience some of the things your worship says; they make me think that all you tell me about chivalry, and winning kingdoms and empires and giving isles, and doing other favors and mighty deeds as knights-errant do, must be just wind and lies, and all friction or fiction, or whatever you call it; for to hear your worship say that a barber’s basin is Mambrino’s helmet and persist in that error for more than four days, what can one think? Only that a man who persists in saying things like that must be cracked in the brain. I have the basin in the bag all dented, and I am taking it home to mend it and to use if for shaving.
Don Quixote answers him:
Look you, Sancho, by the same oaths as you swore just now, I swear that you have less brains than any squire has or ever had in the world. Is it possible that all this while you have been with me and have not discovered that everything to do with knights-errant appears to be chimera, folly, and nonsense? This is not really the case, but there is a crew of enchanters always among us who change and alter all our deeds and transform them according to their pleasure, either to either favor us or to injure us. So what seems to you to be a barber’s basin seems to me to be Mambrino’s helmet, or to another as something else.
At first reading it is easy to dismiss Don Quixote’s comments about the barber basin (which Don Quixote is usually depicted wearing, as shown below) as the ramblings of a madman who is unable to see reality clearly and who rationalizes the evidence against his delusion as the work of imagined enchanters. But whether or not Don Quixote is mad, there is a deeper meaning in his words.
It is easier to see this meaning in an artistic context. Just as the romantic world of chivalry in which Don Quixote imagines himself living is the product of an enchantment placed upon him by the books he has read, so too is the world in which we live transformed by the enchantment of artists who, fortunately, are always among us.
Some may look at blocks of marble and see only chunks of stone.
But the fertile imagination of the artist can see in the block of stone the hidden beauty within. Through a process that might well be called enchantment, the artist can call forth from within the stone an image that only existed within the artist’s mind’s eye, and through this process enable us to see what previously the artist alone could imagine.
In the end the marble is transformed from a piece of rock into an image of youth and beauty. And yet, and yet, there are still people who will look at the image and say that it is still only a piece of stone, it is not a person at all, and it does not in the least resemble anyone who has ever lived.
Most of us are willingly complicit in the artist’s abstraction, and by entry into the enchantment, not only share the artist’s vision, but become enriched and even ennobled by it. We willingly participate in the abstraction, and don’t even think of the statue as a piece of stone at all. Through a kind of enchantment, the stone is transformed and we share the artist’s vision.
Nor are these enchantments limited to mere esthetic interludes. Our lives are transformed by the experience. And so a young man seeing a beautiful woman for the first time might well invoke Byron’s words and say to himself “She walks in beauty like the night/Of cloudless climes and starry skies” – and the enchantment can be so strong that he sees her the same way even after many years of marriage, and though the youthful beauty has become a more mature loveliness.
As Don Quixote acknowledges, the enchanters’ influences are not invariably good. But for those complicit in the enchantment, the ability to see the Helmet of Mambrino where others may see only a barber’s basin may be what gives ordinary circumstances their charm and savor, and indeed gives purpose to life. Because at some level, life bereft of enchantment can appear little more than a series of random and inexplicable episodes and coincidences, ending in death – a mere dented barber’s basin. But through the transforming power of enchantment, something noble, beautiful, and valuable may be discerned. May we all be so fortunate to see Mambrino’s Helmet, even when not (perhaps especially when not) apparent to others.