“Not as they were, but as they should have been”

In what is perhaps best described as an embarrassment of riches, I am, in addition to a Catherine Project tutorial on Don Quixote and both University of Chicago Graham School and Night School Bar courses on Moby-Dick, enrolled in a short course on The Odyssey with the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. It may not surprise you, then, to learn that I have begun to discern not only the debt Melville owes Cervantes but the debt both authors owe the oral tradition that yielded the Homeric epics. In the Don Quixote reading over the last three weeks, I encountered many narrative forms (e.g., “found” history, ballad, verses, confessions, autobiography, diary, letter), as well as a diverse cast of narrators. Although their mastery of the craft varies widely, these storytellers generally receive from their audiences the time and space needed to share their tales in full (or, in the case of the Knight of the Sorrowful Face, to expound on the virtues and vicissitudes of knight errantry). Might these plot-advancing soliloquys be the kin of the poets’ songs to the guests of kings, of Nestor’s rueful recollections of Odysseus and Agamemnon, and of Odysseus’ calculated retelling of the (mis)adventures that befell him following the sack of Troy? Not long after making this tentative connection, I encountered the following passage, in which Don Quixote is, once again, schooling Sancho Panza on the chivalric code:

I say, too, that when a painter wishes to win fame in his art, he attempts to copy the original works of the most talented painters he knows; this same rule applies to all the important occupations and professions that serve to embellish nations, and it must be, and is, followed when the man who wishes to be known as prudent and long-suffering imitates Ulysses [Odysseus], in whose person and hardships Homer painted a living portrait of prudence and forbearance; Virgil, too, in the person of Aeneas, portrayed for us the valor of a devoted son and the sagacity of a valiant and experienced captain; they were depicted and described not as they were, but as they should have been, to serve as examples of virtue to men who came after them. (Chapter XXV, p. 193)

Prudence and forbearance? Perhaps Don Quixote and I have not read the same translations of The Odyssey.Where the crafty, cunning Odysseus repeatedly shape-shifts through his layered lies stories, Don Quixote commits unswervingly to the code of conduct espoused by chivalric romances: “‘I thank you for your good intentions, friend Sancho,’” responded Don Quixote, ‘but I want you to realize that all the things I am doing are not jokes but very real; otherwise, I would be contravening the rules of chivalry that command us never to lie….’” Although the knight better exemplifies virtue, suffering, and forbearance than does adroitly deceptive Odysseus, the mad knight and the many-minded Greek do seem to share a need (compulsion?) to “rewrite” the world to conform to their own stories. That said, while Odysseus ostensibly achieves his goal (with Athena’s considerable intervention), Don Quixote seems destined to endure beating after beating. 

I made three other notes about this week’s reading: 

(1) The (apparently) temporary madness of the tattered Knight of the Sierra and the unrelenting madness of Don Quixote. I moved no further along that line of inquiry than a sentence fragment and the idea that if I fronted it with the word “discuss” (i.e., “Discuss the (apparently) temporary madness….”), it would make an infuriating essay question.

(2) Don Quixote’s antics in Chapter XXVI reminded me both of Edgar disguised as “poor Tom” and Lear on the heath. These two old men – Lear and Quixote – seem like psychological brothers. I revisited Bloom’s introduction to the Grossman translation, and he seems to list toward Hamlet.

(3) “And to conclude, I imagine that everything I say is true, no more and no less….” (p. 201) While it may be a fool’s quest, I remain fascinated by the uses and definitions of “true” and “truth” in this work. In the comments last week, Jeanne suggested that Cervantes is “foregrounding something about the perspective of the storytellers in relation to what we commonly think of as truth.” Similarly, Mcanultymaccom observed, “Since its naming/defining is so allusive, perhaps we need better terms: framing devices, constructions, peculiar assertions, etc. All of which foreground the actor/framer vs any claim to ‘truth’ with all its classical undertones.”

The annex

Last weekend, we traveled to Michigan to visit our daughters. We also added one more bookcase to the annex, resulting in what my older daughter has dubbed, a “book-sort-cation” — that is, shifting, dusting, and reorganizing the library to make the best use of the space. So, yes, I did fall a wee bit behind on my reading schedule, but I am now completely caught up. (The courses and groups are listed in the sidebar.)

The recommended text for “Reading the Odyssey” (which begins this week) is the Emily Wilson translation. Others have already praised it (here, here, here), but allow me to add my voice to the chorus: What a lucid and riveting rendition.

“Truths so appealing and entertaining…”

Because I am also studying Moby-Dick this semester, I appreciated Harold Bloom’s assertion (see introduction to the Edith Grossman translation) that “Melville blended Don Quixote and Hamlet in Captain Ahab (with a touch of Milton’s Satan added for seasoning).” Returning to a book again and again (and again), as I have Moby-Dick, creates a familiar, well-creased mental map. With this, a reader can travel along the accustomed channels or more easily attempt new routes (meanings, metaphors, implications, associations, links to other works, etc.). On my current voyage through Moby-Dick, for example, I have been navigating ideas about how Melville (perhaps as Ishmael, perhaps as the story’s creator) shapes the narrative and what, precisely, we readers are meant to understand as truth in that narrative. Oh, how I wish I had something even approaching that level of familiarity with Don Quixote because Cervantes is also clearly experimenting (perhaps we can even say, playing?) with narrative structure and truth, but I have only the barest outline of a mental map by which to chart my course through this vast novel.

In last week’s tutorial meeting, we discussed Cervantes’ (playful? deceptive? ironic?) intent in the prologue and dedication and touched on the idea of the novel as a “found” history. In Chapters XI through XXI of Part I, readers encounter a number of other approaches to storytelling, including Quixote’s “long harangue” to the goatherds; Antonio’s ballad; Pedro’s account of Grisóstomo and Marcela; the verses of the deceased shepherd; Sancho Panza’s deceptive explanation of his and Don Quixote’s injuries; a reference to the history of the deeds of Don Quixote penned by “the wise man whose task it will be to write” it; Sancho’s “best of all stories” (which, “[a]s finished as his mother,” ends abruptly); the confessions of the prisoners; and the pawned autobiography of Ginés (a narrative of “truths so appealing and entertaining that no lies can equal them”). This variety surely represents more than simple diversion; what is its meaning and purpose?

I wonder, too, if, as with Melville’s sprawling novel (which also employs a variety of narrative forms, from sermon to soliloquy to taxonomy to stage play to sailor’s yarn and more), the varied structure is related to an underlying assertion about the role of truth in storytelling; or do I have that inverted? Is it, rather, an indication that storytelling undergirds truth? In the Grossman translation, I am struck by the repetition of the words “truth” (at least twenty-one in this week’s reading) and “true” (at least nineteen). In fact, Bloom’s introduction opens with the query, “What is the true object of Don Quixote’s quest?” I might parry, What is Don Quixote’s truth? Alternately, What do “true” and “truth” mean to the Knight of the Sorrowful Face? (I have, as I reread Moby-Dick, similarly asked, What is Ahab’s truth? How does it differ from Ishmael’s, the crew’s, and the author’s?) When I concluded this week’s Don Quixote chapters, I affixed two questions like pins to my as-yet faint mental map: Why do the novel’s assorted storytellers insist on the veracity of each narrative? More philosophically, why, when we storytelling animals narrate, do we claim to have proffered the truth?

Four passages particularly speak to the ideas above:

“Since everything I’ve told you is the absolute truth, I take it for granted that what our lad said about what people were saying about the reason for Grisóstomo’s death is also true.” (p. 85)

“I didn’t know her,” responded Sancho. “But the man who told me this story said it was so true and correct that I certainly could, when I told it to somebody else, affirm and swear I had seen it all….” (p. 145)

“… [W]asn’t it laughable how frightened we were, and wouldn’t it make a good story? At least, how frightened I was, for I already know that your grace doesn’t know what fright is or understand the meaning of fear or terror.”

“I do not deny,” responded Don Quixote, “that what happened to us is deserving of laughter, but it does not deserve to be told, for not all persons are wise enough to put things in their proper place.” (p. 151)

“It’s so good,” responded Ginés, “that it’s too bad for Lazarillo de Tormes and all the other books of that genre that have been or will be written. What I can tell your grace is that it deals with truths, and they are truths so appealing and entertaining that no lies can equal them.” (p. 169)

Stolen?

My husband’s image of detail from Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Novel Reader” (1888).

Over the winter break, my husband and daughters visited the wonderful Detroit Institute of Arts for the “Van Gogh in America” exhibition. Naturally, this morning’s news attracted our attention: “Van Gogh painting on display at Detroit Institute of Art is stolen, lawsuit claims” (The Guardian, January 13).

Sun

Weather and our schedules require that, this week and next, we take our long walk in the mid-morning. Sun on our faces — wan, incomplete, fast-fading but sun — was the one of the gifts of our last three outings.