Thursday, March 22, 2012

800 Words: The ABC's of the Marriage of Figaro - B5 Part 2

B5: Cervantes and Schubert Part 2

I finally read the end of Don Quixote on Saturday. Before we go any further, I should probably clarify that ‘reading the end’ is not the same as finishing. There’s probably an entire half of the book that I’ve not read even once, there are also chapters I’ve probably read half a dozen times. Such is the life of an ADHD reader, constantly dabbling in books before another comes along to steal your attention. Perhaps the reason movies and opera appeal to me more than other genres is that there’s a guaranteed beginning and ending that simply involves you sitting in your seat and paying attention to whatever you like at whatever pace other people set.

I’m an autodidact who only earned a college degree by enrolling in a tenth-rate music program, and I’m hardly a natural bookworm. The act of getting through long books involves a methodical efficiency which I’ve always lacked. I’ve started thousands of ‘important’ books, and probably finished a few hundred at most. If I live another fifty years, I’m sure I’ll finish most of them. But for someone who keeps a blog which bloviates endlessly about intellectual topics, this is a terrifying thing to admit – no matter how many times I admit it on here. There’s an old joke which says that C-students become artists, the A-students become their critics – a different version of it is A-students in Law School become academics, B-students become judges, C-students become rich. But what happens when a D-student still demands entrance into the field?...

What I’m describing is why Don Quixote (at least what I’ve read of it) is still funny, sometimes hilariously so. Most of us (arguably all) are hopelessly stuck longing for things which we are absolutely ill-suited – be it in work, love, or the general state of our lives. There will always jobs we long for that we could never do, loves for which we pine that could only end in disaster, lives we ache to live that are completely ill-suited to who we are. We’re all hopelessly trapped, trying to make things happen for ourselves that rarely happen for anyone, and would be cataclysmic if they ever did. Life is the longing to achieve a state of Schubert, and ending up in a state of John Tesh.

As a young man, Miguel de Cervantes may or may not have fled Castille to the Spanish navy after wounding another student in a duel. He was wounded in battle himself at the age of twenty four – he demanded to fight while experiencing a fever and was shot three times, twice in the chest and once in the left hand, permanently losing use of it. At thirty-eight, he was captured by pirates and was a slave in Algiers for the next five years. During his time in Algiers, he organized atttempts to escape four times, and we can only imagine how he was punished for that. He only left Algiers when his family successfully ransomed him. After a stint in Portugal as a Spanish spy, he returned to Madrid with dreams of being a dramatist. He wrote twenty plays, every one of which is reported to have bombed. He then became a tax collector, only to be jailed twice for discrepancies in his accounting. Legend has it that it was during his second stint in jail that he began work on Don Quixote.

We have no idea how much of Cervantes’s personal experience inspired the book, though many people have alleged that the criminal ‘mastermind’: Gines de Pasamonte who keeps fooling the Don and Sancho to be a stand in for Cervantes himself. What we do know is that a quick glance at the details of the author’s personal life would indicate that he was well prepared to write a story about a person who aspires to greatness, only to fail so miserably that he could only be a figure of fun to others. Whether or not we choose to admit it, we’re all either that person or are terrified of becoming him.

Whether or not Don Quixote was crazy by force or choice, he followed the inner voice which told him how life must be lived so that it can be truly lived – and he paid dearly for it. If this book has a message, it is not that we should cower in fear against our deepest aspirations; it’s only that we’re powerless against them. Whatever our reality, we’re doomed to pursue happiness in whatever way we see fit for however long we’re capable. Even with all evidence pointing to the fact that we will never accomplish our dreams, we’re still doomed to follow them. We shall persist in our lunacies until our dying days, and everybody will think us an idiot for our troubles.

Don Quixote has been called both a wise book and a cruel book – as though the former state could exist without the latter. The reason it is wise is that Don Quixote acknowledges that truth which too many hallowed works pieces of art would never admit; cruelty can be really, really funny. Every time we laugh at Don Quixote’s good nature getting swindled, and the following mayhem in which Sancho Panza gets still more teeth knocked out, we are complicit in the violence done to them. Does this mean that we’d all be capable of laughing if we saw similarly awful things happen to strangers (or even friends) in real life? Quite possibly. Does this mean that any of us would visit the same violence on people if given the chance? Again, it’s quite possible. Laughter is not a benevolent sentiment; if it don’t hurt, it ain’t funny. Every time we laugh at an offensive joke, every time we play a prank, every time we make fun of a friend, we’re contributing to the potential damage of another person. Yet we all do it – the alternative is no fun at all, and therefore we’re probably having our fun at a more ethical person’s expense. We can either be an infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing, or we can take our share in life from others so that they’re unable to take it from us. Anyone who has ever experienced depression or addiction, even if only for a few days, would know that there is nothing a person in the throes of it would not do in order to stop it – yet it cannot be stopped. The self becomes divided by forces larger than our control, and we experience revulsion for our compulsions, even as we cannot help indulging them.
Like so many of us, Alonso Quixano became addicted to his pleasure – which was reading chivalric Romances. Was there true love in what these books made him feel, or was it simply infatuation? The romances told him of a world that exists with greater rewards, virtues, and excitements than anything that could exist for a shy retired gentleman of leisure like himself. Now fifty years old, his wits seem to atrophy, and he goes out into the world with the sole intent of being a knight-errant – playing at knightly adventure much as boys a tenth his age might pretend to be an action superhero. When kids do it, it’s supposed to indicate a healthy imagination, but when adults do it, it’s supposed to indicate insanity. Is Alonso Quixano insane?

If one can boil the power of a book so famous down to a single sentence, it would probably lie within the tension between what Don Quixote (as a standin for us all) would like the world to be against what the world really is. When Don Quixote sees a pretty farm wench, he transforms her in his mind into a princess. When he sees windmills with his eyes, he sees terrifying giants in his mind. When he sees monks accompanying a noble lady on a road, he believes them to be enchanters who have ensnared the lady – in the author's own time 'enchanters' would be equated automatically with paganism, ergo Men of God become Men of the Devil. In Don Quixote’s mind, every banal notion of what the world really is stood on its head so that the world can become a more exciting place in which the way by which a person can prove his virtue is simple.

And then there’s Sancho Panza, who is as stupid as Don Quixote is crazy. If Don Quixote is every dreamer who sees the world as something it’s not, then Sancho Panza is every hyper-realist who sees the world so close to what it truly is that he believes every single thing he’s told without thinking of whether or not it can be true. These two types need one another, there is a Quixote and a Sancho within every friendship, every partnership, every marriage, and every person. There always has to be a Quixote to tell us what the world is, and a Sancho to believe it.

Every person who’s ever made fun of another must often ask himself what it would be like to be that other person. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t feel the need to make fun of him. The reason Don Quixote is so funny is because we all dread being him – a person so out of touch with reality that we attract misery as magnets attract metal. Yet he’s so over the top in his grandiose aspirations that none of us can possibly be as awfully out of touch as he is. Yet we all fear that we’re far closer than we think we are – and how could it be any other way. We can either be mired in a Schubertian hopelessness, or we can aspire to something better. Perhaps such aspirations will make us feel more miserable in the long run, but we can’t help ourselves. The only alternative is to surrender to misery’s inevitability, and no person on earth would willingly do such a thing.

Just as one can make a comparison and say that Mozart is a better composer than Shakespeare is a writer, I can say with (not nearly) as much certainty that Cervantes was a better writer than Schubert was a composer. Schubert’s music, great as it is, seems like a dead end. Schubert’s music seems to accept the indignities of life as inevitable, and it feels as though he merely waits for death to carry him off. Cervantes may have lived a life of much misery, and he portrayed two characters who probably experienced more combined misery than any characters from ‘Great Literature’ short of a Dostoevsky novel. But both Cervantes and Don Quixote are testimony to the fact that there is a possibility that life, with all its bitter indignities and humiliations, is worth sticking around for until a ripe old age.
Cervantes also had more influence than Schubert on the history of the arts. Beethoven’s rough equivalent figure in literature – Christopher Marlowe – died when he was 29. In his absence, the idea that the author could be as important to a volume’s character and still portray characters of Shakespearean depth fell to Cervantes. Shakespeare and Cervantes lived their lives on calendars that were ten days apart, which created the illusion that they both died on the same day, April 23rd 1616, and together they make the twin poles of literature. Shakespeare, like Mozart, is virtually anonymous in his work – nobody could have much idea of either’s personality from their writing. But like Beethoven, Schubert, and Marlowe, Don Quixote is scrawled with the author’s commentary and force of personality on every page. In Shakespeare, like Mozart, the tragicomedy is in the characters. Mozart’s operas, like Shakespeare plays, teem with living, breathing characters. In Cervantes, like in Beethoven, the tragicomedy is in the author’s personality itself. Beethoven wrote one opera, Fidelio, which is more about ideals than characters. Cervantes’s novel has only two characters that matter, and the rest is simply carried along by the author’s grandiloquent personality. Shakespeare and Mozart seemed to draw characters out of thin air, but Cervantes and Beethoven couldn’t seem to create personalities outside of their own outsize ones, reflecting all their delusional aspirations. Who can doubt that when Don Quixote charged the Windmills, he was hearing the finale of Beethoven’s 5th in his head?

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