Don Quixote 1: Context
For some time I have been experiencing the most vivid recurring daydreams. I am not a natural dreamer in my sleep and those dreams that I do have I rarely remember. More often than not I wake to a vague recollection diffused amongst the shadows of my memory. But in spite of that I am a daydreamer and my daydreams can be so vivid as to require almost physical exertion to restrain them.
I work on the 24th floor of a large office building in London. The view around it is currently without significant interruption and the view makes London seem like a vast train set rolling out below. The windows of the building are many and sealed and the overall impression of the place, after a great many hours spent in it, is of a giant and iconic bell jar.
It is whilst walking the floors of this place that I have experienced this recurring daydream, a vivid visualisation of escape from a non-existent window – parachuting safely to the ground. In the dream, which is most vivid when walking along a corridor, I am sometimes caught by a safety net and sometimes I parachute to the ground. If the parachute does not open I turn away and the dream ends there.
Perhaps this dream is one of several reasons that I recently resigned from my job, without any fixed or certain professional destination only a quiet whisper in my heart, like the wind in the leaves at the end of Summer, which said “move on”. Perhaps the dream is only that, a dream which I should have ignored. Perhaps it is not.
Either way, it is in this strange context that I have found myself opening the early chapters of Don Quixote with a view to his companionship on my next adventure – outside the bell jar – wherever that may lead. In my mind, not having ever read the book in its entirety, Don Quixote represents the spirit of amateurism that sometimes seems lost in a world pushing ever harder to professionalise. When I think of amateurs, I think of some of the greatest explorers and thinkers of history across the broadest possible range of adventures, inventions and achievements: Shackleton, Einstein, Saint-Exupery, Sir James Dyson, Sir Ranulph Fiennes or almost every writer that has ever written a first novel or a poem. Those figures seem a world away from the binary, American characterisation of amateur and professional that seems to prevail today over older meanings of the two states.
One of my favourite amateurs is the now almost forgotten, Sir George Cayley. His many inventions ranged from a type of fountain pen to a seat belt, the tension spoke wheel now common to most bicycles, a continuous [caterpillar] track which he called the ‘universal railway’ as well as an understanding of the four elements of heavier-than-air flight; a discovery which paved the way for modern aeronautics. He was a passionate amateur, which is to say his life was his work and not the other way around – inventions required to improve his life or that of others around him, made with an eye for nuance and a love of improvement and invention as well and not only financial advancement.
The first two chapters of Don Quixote offer some comic and delightful lessons in amateurism: “he had the strangest thought any lunatic in the world ever had, which was that it seemed reasonable and necessary to him, both for the sake of his honour and as a service to the nation, to become a knight errant and to travel the world with his armour and his horse.”
But it is the passage below which seems really to embody the spirit of the passionate amateur – impervious to disheartening crashes and derailings, a joke to some, a model to others – with tenacity in the face of incompetence, Don Quixote is powered on by effort and self-delusion. Don Quixote is comic, not because of what he does, or the spirit in which he does it, but because of how badly he does it – his failing as an amateur is not to have tried and failed, but to have tried and not to have accepted his failure.
“He did the best he could to clean and repair it, but he saw that it had a great defect, which was that instead of a full sallet helmet with an attached neck guard, there was only a simple headpiece; but he compensated for this with his industry, and out of pasteboard he fashioned a kind of half-helmet that, when attached to the half-headpiece, took on the appearance of a full sallet. It is true that that in order to test if it was strong and could withstand a blow, he took out his sword and struck it twice, and with the first blow he undid in a moment what it had taken him a week to create; he could not help being disappointed at the ease with which he had hacked it to pieces, and to protect against that danger, he made another one, placing strips of iron on the inside so that he was satisfied with its strength; and not wanting to put it to the test again, he designated and accepted it as an extremely fine sallet.”