Pages remaining in journey: 364


“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.)

Reading notes

☙ The program with which I was planning to reread several Vonnegut novels didn’t work out for me, but I am rereading Cat’s Cradle, anyway, and finishing the Shields’ bio.

☙ The topic of the Catherine Project‘s spring seminar is Joyce’s “The Dead,” a story which grows more beautifully profound with each rereading.

☙ The University of Chicago Graham School course on Moby Dick concluded today.

☙ The APS Together reading of The Betrothed has arrived at Day Seventeen, Chapter 11.

☙ Both Birnam Wood and I Have Some Questions for You are among my recent acquisitions. I am having some trouble putting Questions down. (Reviews here and here.)


“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.”

“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)

“Hast seen the White Whale?”


My November 2013 image of the sperm whale sculpture by Preston Jackson.

Chapter 104: The Fossil Whale
One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.

Chapter 113: The Forge
“Well, well; no more. Thy shrunk voice sounds too calmly, sanely woeful to me. In no Paradise myself, I am impatient of all misery in others that is not mad. Thou should’st go mad, blacksmith; say, why dost thou not go mad? How can’st thou endure without being mad? Do the heavens yet hate thee, that thou can’st not go mad?—What wert thou making there?”

Chapter 115: The Pequod Meets the Bachelor
“Hast seen the White Whale?” gritted Ahab in reply.

“No; only heard of him; but don’t believe in him at all,” said the other good-humoredly. “Come aboard!”

“Thou art too damned jolly. Sail on. Hast lost any men?”

“Not enough to speak of — two islanders, that’s all; — but come aboard, old hearty, come along. I’ll soon take that black from your brow. Come along, will ye (merry’s the play); a full ship and homeward-bound.”

“How wondrous familiar is a fool!” muttered Ahab….

Chapter 135: The Chase
“Cherries? I only wish that we were where they grow. Oh, Stubb, I hope my poor mother’s drawn my part-pay ere this; if not, few coppers will now come to her, for the voyage is up.”