Thursday, December 29, 2016

To Dream the Impossible Dream...

One of the most misunderstood works of Western literature is actually a book originally written in Spanish. 

Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote was originally written in Spanish and was meant as a parody of the chivalry novels that were popular in his country during that era.  The book focuses on a man who has read so many chivalrous novels that he literally loses his mind and re-imagines himself as Don Quixote, a knight-errant, and sets forth on a quest to right the wrongs in the world.

To say this novel has had an impact in the western world is an understatement. The phrase tilting at windmills derives from this novel.  In the novel, Don Quixote imagines windmills to be giants and tilts (jousts) at them with his lance, only to be caught up by the windmill sails and thrown to the ground. The phrase has become a shorthand for people who are engaging in self-defeating or irrational behavior, particularly when challenging authority.

The term quixotic also stems from this novel, referring to Don Quixote's last name. When someone refers to someone as being quixotic they mean that they are irrational in pursuit of justice, but it also has morphed to mean anything weird, strange, or otherwise unusual.  The novel is literally embedded in our language and has changed the way we talk and think.

The novel had a Resurgence in the mid 1960s with the release of the Broadway show The Man from La Mancha. This Broadway musical further embedded the story of Don Quixote into our public consciousness with notable songs such as To Dream The Impossible Dream.

This musical came about shortly after the time of the Kennedy administration (although a television play was broadcast in 1959).  In a way it was reminiscent of an earlier musical from 1960, Camelot, which also made much of chivalry and knights of the round table.  In fact, president  Kennedy went to see the musical on Broadway at the time. The Kennedy administration was often referred to as "Camelot" as it was felt that is administration represented the type of idealism represented in the musical Camelot - and later, Don Quixote.

The story has resonated with many Americans.   Author John Steinbeck named his truck Rocinante after Don Quixote's horse, in his novel Travels With Charley (which according to some of his literary heirs is indeed a novel, as much of the narrative of his travels was apparently made-up or sensationalized).   We have seen this name adorning more than one RV or boat in our travels.   Many folks, it seems, identify with the romantic notions of Don Quixote - even if Cervantes was in fact mocking such stereotypes.

Many people, who have not who have not actually read the book but maybe have seen the musical, think that the story of Don Quixote is one of a man challenging long odds to do good deeds in the name of what is right. However, I do not believe this was Cervantes' intent. Actually, he was parodying this sort of philosophy that was prevalent in the romantic novels of his time.

Since most of us don't speak fluent Spanish (and certainly not the regional dialects and slang used in the original text) and are not from Cervantes' time, we don't realize that when he wrote this book, there were a number of chivalrous romance novels - the pulp fiction of his time - celebrating the deeds of knights of derring-do.  Cervantes was parodying these stories in his book - basically making fun of the entire concept.

Imagine if you will, someone completely unfamiliar with American culture, such as someone born in China or the Soviet Union, watching the movie Airplane! for the first time.  Not having watched the number of airline disaster movies which Hollywood had produced from the 1950s until the 1980's, they might not understand the point of the story.

Airplane! was a parody, and parodies are often juvenile and base humor.  It makes fun and mocks the stereotypes of airline disaster movies, such as Zero Hour!, Airport, Airport 1975, and Airport 77 and the like, by providing the cast of stock characters including the inevitable nun with a guitar and a sick child awaiting a kidney transplant.

If you weren't aware of these earlier movies and the entire genre of airplane disaster movies, the satirical parody Airplane! might not make much sense.  Moreover, you might be tempted to take it seriously as the movie on its own merits.  This would be akin to using the movie Airplane! as an instruction manual for flying an airliner- which would totally miss the point.

In a similar manner people took Cervantes work too seriously.  They fail to realize that he was lampooning the idea of chivalry rather than celebrating it.  However, the idea of a man tilting at windmills, fighting the unbeatable foe and whatnot, seemed to resonate, first in England, and then the United States.

And perhaps these are noble thoughts. Even if it was parody, it spoke to the American spirit. The spirit of never say die, of going against long odds to succeed - our need to root for the underdog - the phrase "it is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees."  However, I'm not sure what Cervantes would have made of all of this.  Perhaps you would have found it quite amusing, as he had quite a sense of humor.

If you decide to read Don Quixote the question is which translation do you read? After the publication of his novel, became quite popular in Europe and a number of unauthorized (and poorly written) translations were made.  In more recent years, "scholarly" translations have been made, treating the source text with perhaps a little too much reverence.  New translations are still being written even in this Century!   Each promises to be more "definitive" that the last!

The translation I read, and it was a daunting read, was one of these more scholarly versions, complete with footnotes which accompany the text on the side of the page, much as many Bibles have. This illustrates the nature of the work - how it is become a canon in literature, as well as a philosophy. People take his words as though they were handed down from God or the works of the great philosopher, rather than the work of humorous and parodist.

Of course, there are other themes in the story.  The story of Don Quixote is a play-within-a-play (a device Shakespeare liked to use) in that the actual story is of Cervantes telling the story, while imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition.

By the way, I am dictating this entry on my cell phone as I have done for some drafts of blog entries. I find it results in a lesser quality product than typing.  However it is interesting to note that both Don Quixote and quixotic were clearly understood by the voice recognition software.  This illustrates how embedded his philosophy has become our society.  If only the software would recognize ordinary words.....

Sadly, many literature classes in college campuses across the United States, as well as philosophy courses, study Cervantes in an almost religious and reverential way as promoting a particular philosophy or way of life.  However, I'm not sure he had this in mind when he wrote this piece of light comedy.

This is not to say the philosophy is flawed, only that the source is rather unexpected.  It reminds me of a scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian in which Brian makes offhand comments which were then written down by acolytes as being profound statements about spiritual life.

Maybe, if we didn't have a Don Quixote or Cervantes, we would have manufactured one, much as we sort of did with the actual goods.  We wanted Cervantes to say what we wanted him to say, and we read into his literature what we wanted to hear.

Something was lost in the translation from Spanish to English.

FOOTNOTE:  It should be noted that academia pays similar reverence to novels like The Great Gatsby or anything written by Hemingway (except in far-Left institutions, where they are deemed to be "dead white men" and are ignored).

These books are read with a critical eye, with meaning sought in every word and paragraph - deep meanings that the authors may have not intended in some instances.   Treating literature like the Bible is not a good thing, I think.   Even treating the Bible like the Bible is short-sighted.

It is possible to take these things too seriously, and to read too much into a word or phrase.  And frankly, I think that was Cervantes' point!