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Thursday, May 7, 2015

Intrepid We Are Still and Tilting at Windmills

In short, our gentleman became so caught up in reading that he spent his nights reading from dusk till dawn and his days reading from sunrise to sunset, and with too little sleep and too much reading his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind. -      Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
Our intrepid Ulysses group met at the home of our Fearless Leader the other evening for the first time this season to discuss the first 400 pages of Cervantes’ masterpiece. Our FL had persuaded us last winter that we could cover the work in only three sessions rather than four, biting off almost half at our first meeting, since “we’ll have all winter to read it.” Well, intrepid we may be, but most of us did not join Don Quixote and Sancho Panza for their adventures until well into April, and most found 400 pages daunting. The book is funny, pace a quick tempo, the many stories in it amusing – and yet, as one group member said, “there are too many words.” Too many pages. The writer rambled on and on far too long.

I defended Cervantes. He had, after all, written much of the book in prison, and what else did he have to do? Another group member strengthened the defense: Since another writer had published what purported to be a continuation of Don Quixote, the true author was no doubt at pains to bring his version to the public as expeditiously as possible, putting editing very low on his list of priorities.

This morning I’m rethinking the whole business of the book’s length. For those with leisure to read in the early seventeenth century, it is probable that no book could be too long. At this time in history, didn’t people pay “visits” to one another that lasted for months or even years? That, anyway, is something for me to ponder further; meanwhile, a couple group members have settled the question by giving themselves permission to read some bits and skip other bits. That way, they can enjoy the writing and the characters without turning the reading into a chore.
The truth is that when his mind was completely gone, 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 honor and as a service to the nation, to become a knight errant and travel the world with his armor and his horse to seek adventures and engage in everything he had read that knights errant engaged in, righting all manner of wrongs and, by seizing the opportunity and placing himself in danger and ending those wrongs, winning eternal renown and everlasting fame.
A word of truth from my own life: Until beginning the reading of this book (we are reading the Edith Grossman translation, by the way), my only acquaintance of the character of Don Quixote came from cartoon depictions, the phrase “tilting at windmills,” and that song “The Impossible Dream” from the musical version of the story, “Man of La Mancha.” And I never saw or heard or read the musical libretto, either, so my acquaintance of the stage character comes only from the song.

Thus I was taken aback by Don Quixote’s desire for fame, as if public acclaim were the only reason to go about righting wrongs. He has quite a temper, too. Even when not enraged, he can be surprisingly irritable. That is, I was surprised at this trait in his character. Sancho Panza’s motive is more common. He agrees to be the squire of the Knight of the Sorrowful Face in hopes of becoming wealthy, and he endures many beatings and other indignities with this end always in mind.

Sancho is not, however, a complete patsy. One of my favorite parts of the story so far came in Chapter XXV, where he protests against the embargo Don Quixote put on his speech. Deciding that the relationship had become more familiar than was proper, Don Quixote had forbidden Sancho to talk, and for a while the squire held his peace, but finally the restriction was too much for him.
“Señor Don Quixote, our grace should give me your blessing and let me leave, because now I want to go back to my house and my wife and children, for with them, at least, I’ll talk and speak all I want; your grace wanting me to go with you through these deserted places by day and by night without talking whenever I feel like it is like burying me alive....”
His master relents, and the two return to familiarity, shared delusion, and occasional verbal abuse of one another when things go wrong.

One important feature of this work of literature is its stories-within-stories structure. The main narrative tells the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, but other characters they encounter along the way have stories of their own to tell, and the main narrative is set aside time after time, often for several chapters, while a secondary character’s story is recounted. At first it seems that both the adventures and the secondary stories will simply follow one another in an endless, unrelated series. Mercifully, such is not the case. Characters from earlier adventures and stories reappear in later chapters, joining the main narrative as the two adventurers collect more and more fellow travelers. Fellow travelers but not fellow believers. Except for Sancho, the others are so far from buying into the knight’s vision that they have plotted together to return him safely home.

And there we left them last night, with a little over half the book to read and two more meetings in which to discuss the story, the author, and how to read this work and others.

David and I watched a documentary recently about a man attempting to right what he saw as the world’s most dangerous wrong. “The Island President” is a movie I recommend, both for its central figure and for the fight he waged. P.S. 5/9: At the end of the movie, we learn that the president resigned. I wanted to know what he did and what happened to him after his presidency, and here is the answer I found. 

I’m not nearly as convinced by the Texas blogger who claims that her cause is the defense of free speech. From what little I’ve heard of the story, her way of mounting a “defense” was clearly inflammatory. Was it also a bid for public attention, attention more for her than for her avowed cause? I’ll have to look into this further, but right now I’m just sorry that lives were put at risk and that simple respect and good manners have come to be seen by too many around the world as enemies of free speech. It doesn’t have to be this way. That I truly believe.

At the same time, it's spring, and the woodland wildflowers are in bloom, and they are beautiful. But can I help it if reading Don Quixote has influenced even how I see the flowers?


Dawn said...

My only exposure to the story is the musical...a few different productions, but still, only the musical. I agree that it's hard to read long books. I've been thinking lately it's hard to read any book. I seem to fall asleep as soon as I sit down.

P. J. Grath said...

You might remember, Dawn, that our reading group initially got together because one friend who had never read ULYSSES said she wanted to read it but needed a "support group" to get through the novel. Another friend and I who had read it were eager to read it again. Someone else liked the idea. And that's how we started. Most of the books we have read together are ones we felt we would never tackle alone, though that wasn't the case for me with Jane Austen or Tolstoy, and I know it was not the case with the Shakespeare plays for our Fearless Leader. Still, we get a lot more out of the reading when we discuss it together. And peer pressure can be a powerful incentive to tackle a long and/or difficult book!