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Posts tagged ‘Don Quixote’

Don Quixote 4: the mirror

“It was a great misadventure for me to run across a man who is seeking adventures.” – a young bachelor of the church injured by Don Quixote

I recently saw a man wearing a t-shirt that read “Smart has the brains, but stupid has the balls.” Which seemed applicable as a description for Don Quixote’s adventuring. In our latest episode, he has stopped a funeral procession of ‘timorous and unarmed’ young men hurrying to an inn far away as the day is getting late, “Halt, O knights, or whomsoever you might be, and give an account of yourselves.”

“We’re in a hurry” comes the reply. So the fearless knight errant of La Mancha, looking to take revenge on behalf of the dead knight he imagines to be carried in the litter behind the group, attacks them with his lance and breaks a man’s leg. “No doubt about it,” says Sancho, “this master of mine is as brave and courageous as he says.”

One of Cervantes’ most enjoyable literary games is the self-referential exchanges between narrator and character; he plays with Don Quixote’s self-perception and the narrative reality of the story: asking Sancho Panza why it was that he chose to describe him as The Knight of the Sorrowful Face, Don Quixote corrects Sancho’s assertion that it is because of “your grace having the sorriest-looking face I have seen,” and instead asserts: “rather the wise man whose task it will be to write the history of my deeds must have thought it a good idea if I took some appellative title as did the knights of the past.” At once ridiculous and insightful, Don Quixote shows a literary self awareness which bears no relation to reality and yet lends to his credibility as a character who bridges the divide between fiction and reality both in personality and in a strange brand of meta-wisdom that can only exist because of the gap between reader, narrator and character, a gap which Cervantes exploits adroitly to turn a ludicrous character into a compelling and occasionally insightful one.

And perhaps one of the greatest gifts of the novel is the reflexive nature of Don Quixote’s delusional self-belief:

“I am, I repeat, he who is to revive the Knights of the Round Table, the Twelve Peers of France, the Nine Worthies, he who is to make the world forget the Platirs, Tablants, Olivants, and Tirants, the Phoebuses and Belianises, and the entire horde of famous knights errant of a bygone age”.

Shortly after this vaunting speech, and in order to prevent his master setting out on his “incomparable and most fearsome adventure” in the middle of the night, Sancho “very quietly and cunningly tied Rocinante’s forelegs together with his donkey’s halter” thus preventing Don Quixote’s departure until morning. Perhaps we all need a Sancho Panza in our lives, to lash our donkey’s legs together when our ambitions begin to overreach our reality.

The Editors

Don Quixote 3: the beautiful shepherdess

The genius of the Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha, Sñr Don Quixote, lies partly in the juxtaposition of his lunacy against absurd social norms. Cervantes splits open the idiocy of social conventions by the non-conformity of his ludicrous knight ‘errant’. Don Quixote does not fit within the social constructs of his day and the characters he meets regularly depart from his company in discussion of his madness: “they left him and continued their journey, during which they had much to talk about, from the history of Marcela and Grisóstomo, to the madness of Don Quixote.”

But in the episode preceding this passage, Cervantes’ caustic irony splits open the normative chauvinism of the group of male shepherds who consider Don Quixote to be mad. Cervantes portrays them in their ignorance, despite their apparently acceptable views, by leaving reason to be defended by a woman (albeit a beautiful one) and a madman.

Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and the shepherds, who are at this point travelling together, come across the funeral procession of the young shepherd Grisóstomo. Telling the tale, Ambrosio, one of the funeral party, says: “He loved deeply and was rejected; he adored and was scorned; he pleaded with a wild beast, importuned a piece of marble, pursued the wind, shouted in the desert, served ingratitude and his reward was to fall victim to death in the middle of his life, which was ended by a shepherdess whom he attempted to immortalise so that she would live on in memory.” The shrill cry of a masculine group, forming around their lost companion. The tone is clichéd and anti-intellectual, it shows no appreciation that the poignancy of love is bound as much to the imminency of loss as to the strength of feeling of the lover. It says only, he loved, was unrequited and this is somehow an offence of the subject of his love.

A short while later the group, now travelling together, comes upon Marcela, the shepherdess in question. Ambrosio, in his ludicrous almost camp manner, accuses her of several ridiculous things including coming “in your arrogance, to tread on this unfortunate corpse”, a string of accusations which prompt an exceptional response from the beautiful shepherdess.

“The lover of the beautiful thing might be ugly and since ugliness is worthy of being avoided, it is absurd to say: “I love you because you are beautiful; you must love me even though I am ugly”… According to what I have heard, true love is not divided and must be voluntary, not forced. If this is true, as I believe it is, why do you want to force me to surrender my will, obliged to do so simply because you say you love me? But if this is not true, then tell me: if the heaven that made me beautiful made me ugly instead, would it be fair for me to complain that none of you loved me?… if chastity is one of the virtues that most adorn and beautify both the body and soul, why should a woman, loved for being beautiful, lose that virtue in order to satisfy the desire of a man who, for the sake of his pleasure, attempts with all his might and main to have her lose it?… it is correct to say that his obstinacy, not my cruelty, is what killed him. 

… I am free and do not care to submit to another… The limits of my desires are these mountains, and if they go beyond here, it is to contemplate the beauty of heaven and the steps whereby the soul travels to its first home.” 

After her astounding and excellent soliloquy she departs into a dense thicket of forest, intending not to be followed. “And some – those who were pierced by the powerful arrow of the light of her beautiful eyes – gave indications of wishing to follow her, disregarding the patent discouragement they had heard.” But Don Quixote refuses to allow them: “Let no person, whatever his circumstance or condition, dare to follow the beautiful Marcela lest he fall victim to my fury and outrage.”

The truth in Cervantes, it seems, is like a paste-board knight, riding on a lean old donkey, frail, regularly beaten but determined in the face of ignorance, convention and stupidity. Don Quixote forever challenges accepted convention with his naive honesty, is dubbed mad and ignoble as a result and pays no attention to his critics. For that, we can only salute him.

The Editors

Don Quixote 2: courage and identity

“I know who I am,” said Don Quixote, “and I know I can be not only those I have mentioned, but the Twelve Peers of France as well, and even all the nine paragons of Fame, for my deeds will surpass all those they performed, together or singly.” 

Don Quixote’s journey out of La Mancha is a journey out of himself. While Don Quixote sleeps off the injuries incurred in his first three days of adventuring, the priest and the barber examine the library from which Don Quixote’s very lucid and seemingly preposterous ideas appear to emanate. They do not recognise the exertion by which imagination is churned by work into life. “The housekeeper agreed, so great was the desire of the two women to see the death of those innocents; but the priest was not in favour of doing so without even reading the titles first.”

Don Quixote’s treatment by his niece and his neighbours is paralleled by the treatment of his books – arbitrary and inconsistent: “The author of that book,” said the priest, “was the same one who composed Garden of Flowers, and the truth is I can’t decide which of the two is more true, or I should say, less false; all I can say is that this one goes to the corral, because it is silly and arrogant.” 

“This book,” said the barber, opening another one, “is the The Ten Books of Fortune in Love, composed by Antonio de Lofraso, a Sardinian poet.” “By the orders I received,” said the priest, “since Apollo was Apollo, and the muses muses, and poets poets, no book as amusing or nonsensical has ever been written, and since, in its way, it is the best and most unusual book of its kind that has seen the light of day, anyone who has not read it can assume that he has never read anything entertaining. Give it to me, friend, for I value finding it more than if I were given a cassock of rich Florentine cloth.”

In Don Quixote, Cervantes creates a problem for the reader; to laugh at Don Quixote’s idiocy or admire his courage? The boundary between idiocy and courage is exposed to be very fine; infinitessimal. Don Quixote sets out on a journey which is a well researched (for who has read over 100 volumes on any subject without being well versed in it) imitation of the chivalric tales in his library. Don Quixote’s journey is one away from accepted social norms, away from the norms of chivalry but exposing, at the same time, the gulf between reality and imagination. What difference is it to be knighted by a king or a publican? What difference is it to be beaten by a knight or a mule driver, to be fed by a prostitute or a princess?

Indeed it is against social norms that Don Quixote wins the greatest victories. Don Quixote interprets the world he finds on his journey through the chivalric tales he has read and learned about. This is the narrative by which he explains the world around him, as others choose to refer themselves to a god or philosophy or a religion – Don Quixote says he is a knight errant – even Cervantes use of the word errant for itinerant carrying it’s double meaning of wayward, erroneous as well as wandering reflects a double edge of satire and accuracy – even as Cervantes satirises Don Quixote so he satirises the reader who sees Don Quixote only as an idiot to be laughed at – (and in the library: The Mirror of Chivalry).

All this by way of saying: Don Quixote lying pulped and motionless on the donkey of his neighbour having been beaten by a passing mule driver says “I know who I am”  and in subtext: ‘this is my choice and I have made it freely’ and that is a courage it is not so easy to satirise.

The Editors

Don Quixote 1: Context

Picasso 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.”

The Editors