“As for your grace’s valor, courtesy, deeds, and undertakings,” Sancho continued, “there are different opinions. Some say, ‘Crazy, but amusing’; others, ‘Brave, but unfortunate’; and others, ‘Courteous, but insolent’; and they go on and on so much in this vein that they don’t leave an untouched bone in your grace’s body or mine” (p. 472).
It sounds as if Sancho has overheard a few book discussions, doesn’t it?
Earlier this week, one of my reading groups finished Crime and Punishment. Despite ten weeks of engaged reading and discussion, we failed to build consensus around any single idea about the philosophy and/or psychology of Raskolnikov. Might he be a psychopath or, at the very least, disturbed? Did the extremities of hunger and poverty inform his disordered thinking? Do his thought patterns simply underscore the limits of nihilism? Some combination of all of this? None of this? In our eighth meeting, I posited that the compulsion to pin a character to a specimen tray and label each of his acts (or, as Sancho might say, bones) might represent a contemporary tendency, one fueled by popular psychology, legal dramas, and the assumption that everything we do can be ascribed a concrete motive and, by extension, a value judgment: He did [insert act] because [insert motive], and that is [insert moral value]. After all, I suggested, sometimes thoughts and acts follow no discernible logic. Shakespeare gives us a fabulous example of this in The Winter’s Tale. Leontes’ jealous rage occurs in one short speech after his departing friend acquiesces to the queen’s entreaties that he, the friend, remain — for her husband’s sake! Leontes’ inexplicable madness results in the deaths of his son and a courtier, as well as the apparent deaths of his newborn and his wife. In a move that can confound readers, audiences, actors, and directors, Shakespeare provides no explanation for Leontes’ unbridled jealousy. Nothing in the text points to a motive. Rather, the writer seems to say, Some people are like this; here is a story about one. And it works! Why? Because more often than anyone would like to admit, what we say, do, and believe defies both logic and diagnosis.
I reread The Winter’s Tale following that meeting and was struck again by how inessential Leontes’ motive is to the plot. In Shakespeare’s blend of tragedy (the first three acts, the fall of the king), comedy (the fourth act, the pastoral involving the shepherdess and the prince), and history (the fifth act, the kingdom in need of an heir), the why of Leontes’ behavior proves far less critical to the play than the fallout of that behavior. Similarly, the why of Raskolnikov’s behavior – in this reader’s opinion, anyway – proves far less critical to Crime and Punishment than the fallout of that behavior. Like Shakespeare, Dostoevsky refrains from defining a motive for the main character’s action. Yes, he draws readers into Raskolnikov’s head; in fact, many early paragraphs read like soliloquies; but the novel seems rooted in the effects of Raskolnikov’s act, on him and on the characters with whom he interacts. It is not, then, a story about why Raskolnikov kills, any more than The Winter’s Tale is a story about why Leontes spirals out of control. Crime and Punishment concerns what occurs in the aftermath of a brutal act.
Of course, because I am also reading Don Quixote, I have found myself wondering about the Knight of the Sorrowful Face. “[T]he common people think your grace is a madman, and that I’m just as great a simpleton” (p. 471), Sancho informs Don Quixote. The gentry suggest he has overstepped his bounds, and other knights want nothing to do with him. Crazy, amusing; brave, unfortunate; courteous, insolent. Maybe the compulsion to pin a character to a specimen tray and label each of his bones is not as contemporary as I thought, eh? Increasingly, however, I find myself drawn to the idea that we need to keep this character far, far away from tray and pins.
A participant in the tutorial has noted that some of us have been “cheating” on Don Quixote and wondered how that has affected our experience of other novels. I loved the use of “cheating” because I often refer to myself as a recklessly and unapologetically promiscuous reader, one who will leave books partially read to pursue others, only to return to books begun well before any of those, all with the cologne of new books clinging to my sweater. Seriously, though, it is not so much that I have been cheating on Don Quixote but rather that I have added Cervantes to a conversation occurring in one of the rooms of my imagination. While participating in the tutorial, I have also completed two courses on one of my favorite works of fiction, Moby-Dick, a short course on The Odyssey, and the reading group for Crime and Punishment. That puts Melville, Homer, Cervantes, Dostoevsky, and Shakespeare in the same mental living room; imagine my delight! Although I am still working out Dostoevsky’s relationship to the other writers, it is clear that Melville is indebted to both Cervantes and Shakespeare, and that these three have a running tab with the oral tradition that yielded the Homeric epics. In anticipation of another course, I began rereading Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which begins, “Call me Jonah.” With that nod to Melville, Vonnegut entered the living room. (Speaking of Melville and specimen trays, has anyone yet satisfactorily explained Ahab? Of course not, although CLR James makes some insightful, if dated, points about who Ahab may have become to the collective American imagination.) These authors have a lot to talk about, and I am listening.
The other books I am reading have not been enveloped by Don Quixote; nor the reverse. Rather, each of the books amplifies the others.
“…I give you a Don Quixote who is, at the end, dead and buried, so that no one will dare tell more tales about him, for the ones told in the past are enough…” (p. 458).
Spoiler alert, right? Since January 2022, I have participated in one discussion group and two courses on Moby- Dick, and in each, participants were upset when the conclusion was referenced. And our Crime and Punishment group agreed to avoid spoilers, although privately I argued that the title is as much a spoiler as this quote from Don Quixote.
“…I only devote myself to making the world understand its error in not restoring that happiest of times when the order of knight errantry was in flower” (p. 464).
Don Quixote has a vision board.
“It seems to me,” said Don Quixote, “there is no human history in the world that does not have its ups and downs, especially those that deal with chivalry; they cannot be filled with nothing but successful exploits” (p. 476).
Given my reflection above, you will understand how the idea of Don Quixote saying this to Leontes or Ahab simply cracked me up.
“To say witty things and to write cleverly requires great intelligence: the most perceptive character in a play is the fool, because the man who wishes to seem simple cannot possibly be a simpleton. History is like a sacred thing; it must be truthful, and wherever truth is, there God is; but despite this, there are some who write and toss off books as if they were fritters” (p. 478).
Elsewhere, while discussing Moby-Dick, I observed the parallels between Pip and Lear’s fool, which, naturally, ensured I added King Lear to my to-be-(re)read stack, but arriving at this passage, I wondered, Does Don Quixote have a fool? If so, is it Sancho? Or is the Knight of the Sorrowful Face the author’s fool? (And, yes, there is truth, my readerly kryptonite.)