“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.”

Don’t be afraid, my butter-boxes

6DF9F86D-56B3-4B72-85C0-C1126DE8AE83Chapter 81: The Pequod Meets the Virgin
:: “Don’t be afraid, my butter-boxes,” cried Stubb, casting a passing glance upon them as he shot by; “ye’ll be picked up presently—all right—I saw some sharks astern—St. Bernard’s dogs, you know—relieve distressed travellers….”

:: For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.

Chapter 85: The Fountain
Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world, unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living. Oh! happy that the world is such an excellent listener!

Chapter 86: The Tail
It never wriggles. In man or fish, wriggling is a sign of inferiority.

Chapter 93: The Castaway
So soon as he recovered himself, the poor little negro was assailed by yells and execrations from the crew. Tranquilly permitting these irregular cursings to evaporate, Stubb then in a plain, business-like, but still half humorous manner, cursed Pip officially; and that done, unofficially gave him much wholesome advice. The substance was, Never jump from a boat, Pip, except — but all the rest was indefinite, as the soundest advice ever is. Now, in general, Stick to the boat, is your true motto in whaling; but cases will sometimes happen when Leap from the boat, is still better. Moreover, as if perceiving at last that if he should give undiluted conscientious advice to Pip, he would be leaving him too wide a margin to jump in for the future; Stubb suddenly dropped all advice, and concluded with a peremptory command, “Stick to the boat, Pip, or by the Lord, I won’t pick you up if you jump; mind that. We can’t afford to lose whales by the likes of you; a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip, in Alabama. Bear that in mind, and don’t jump any more.” Hereby perhaps Stubb indirectly hinted, that though man loved his fellow, yet man is a money-making animal, which propensity too often interferes with his benevolence.

The subterranean miner that works in us all

4F260CD5-53F7-44FB-BFCD-682A59A152BDChapter 41: Moby Dick
:: All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled up on the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

:: Here, then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job’s whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals—morally enfeebled also, by the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness in Starbuck, the invulnerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask. Such a crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him to his monomaniac revenge. How it was that they so aboundingly responded to the old man’s ire—by what evil magic their souls were possessed, that at times his hate seemed almost theirs; the White Whale as much their insufferable foe as his; how all this came to be—what the White Whale was to them, or how to their unconscious understandings, also, in some dim, unsuspected way, he might have seemed the gliding great demon of the seas of life,—all this to explain, would be to dive deeper than Ishmael can go. The subterranean miner that works in us all, how can one tell whither leads his shaft by the ever shifting, muffled sound of his pick? Who does not feel the irresistible arm drag? What skiff in tow of a seventy-four can stand still? For one, I gave myself up to the abandonment of the time and the place; but while yet all a-rush to encounter the whale, could see naught in that brute but the deadliest ill.

Chapter 49: The Hyena
There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke. There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regarded this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object.