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January 23, 2005 - Anniversaries

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Readers should note this -


A windmill I won't tilt at

Simon Jenkins, The Times (UK) - January 21, 2005
It is the 400th anniversary of Don Quixote, a more important work than all of Einstein's theories


And what is Jenkins getting at?


… This month we celebrate two anniversaries. One is of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (1905), a great work of Western civilisation. The other is Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605), also a great work of Western civilisation. The first is greeted with BBC specials, colour supplements, postage stamps and a United Nations Year of Physics. The other, at least outside Spain, is being ignored. Which merits the bigger salute?


His answer is Cervantes’s Don Quixote.


I have no quarrel with Einstein.  The mobsters of Big Science have declared him master of the Universe.  His brain was measured and his shoes embalmed.  Women wrote him letters wanting to have his babies.  His thoughts are installed in Newton’s temple and not found wanting.  Einstein is cool.


But if Einstein had not existed, physics would sooner or later have invented him.  I am sure of that.  His theory of relativity was an understanding of nature.  It lay over the cosmic horizon, awaiting discovery by the first genius to pass its way. Einstein was its Columbus.


Not so Miguel de Cervantes.  He surveyed the landscape of post-medieval Europe and asked, but where is Man?  He grasped at valour, love, loyalty, triumph and mortification and, like his contemporary, Shakespeare, compressed them in a human frame.  He told a tale like no other man.  If Cervantes had not existed, he could not have been invented.  There would be a hole in the tapestry of Europe.


Really?  Why?


The two parts of Don Quixote are as different as thesis and antithesis.  The Don of the first part is the true fantasist, sated on fusty old texts.  He sets out to re-enact the rules of chivalry, to defend justice and love in a sinful world.  He battles with windmills, sheep and innkeepers’ daughters.  In his great essay on the Don, Carlos Fuentes talks of “art giving life to what history has killed”.


Part II breaks step with the past.  The Don hears tell of his own exploits, indeed of his own book.  Already he has chastised Sancho for thinking him unaware that Dulcinea is not a great beauty.  He knows that she is a vulgar village girl, but she is the nobler for it.  “Come Sancho,” he cries, “it is enough for me to think her beautiful and virtuous… I paint her in my imagination as I desire her.”  A million Spanish women cheer.  We are no longer sure who is poking fun at whom.  Who are we to legislate between dream and reality?  We are players and audience alike in the charade.


Hence the Don leaps up from a puppet show and decapitates the model soldiers, to stop them arresting a lover and his princess as they escape to freedom.  He then richly compensates the puppeteer for this “debt of honour”.  In the last chapter comes the final synthesis.  The dying Quixote renounces the “dark shadows of ignorance” that came from reading “my detestable books on chivalry”.  He regrets only that he has no time to read “other books that can be a light to the soul”. 


I suppose what Jenkins is getting at is Cervantes’ hero is not trying to figure out how the world works, but rather, Don Quixote is trying to figure out what to do in this sorry world – the right thing, no matter how ridiculous, knowing full well when you’re fooling yourself, but doing the right thing anyway.


Or maybe it’s an epistemological thing – a graceful, but often silly, but sometimes heroic effort at differentiating between dream and reality, ideal (and idealism) and gritty reality.  The stuff we all face – made into a complex narrative for out consideration.


Most curious.


Jenkins tell us Don Quixote is the most popular novel in history – “worshipped” by Sterne, Goethe, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Kafka and Melville.  And two years ago it seems it was voted the best novel of all time by the world’s “hundred top writers” – whoever they might be.


And Jenkins ends with this -


Somehow I shall survive without Einstein.  I can drive spaceship Earth without knowing the workings of the atom.  But I cannot do without my icon.  I raise my glass to the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, Don Quixote of La Mancha, as he trots across the plain of life in search of self-fulfillment.  He knew that reason would triumph, but he also knew that reason was not enough.  Quixote’s epitaph ran: “It was his great good fortune to live a madman and die sane.”  Amen to that.




But that’s curious.  He knew reason would triumph – but reason was not enough.


Nothing is enough.  Bring on another windmill.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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