In a day in which reading books is rapidly becoming a lost art, it is refreshing to read one great author praising another. I have referred from time to time to Don Quixote, but Joseph Conrad’s tribute is by far the most eloquent I have ever read. It appeared in Conrad’s “Personal Record” of his life.
“. . .Indulgence — as someone said — is the most intelligent of all virtues. I venture to think that it is one of the least common, if not the most uncommon of all. I would not imply by this that men are foolish — or even most men. Far from it. The barber and the priest, backed by the whole opinion of the village, condemned justly the conduct of the ingenuous hidalgo who, sallying forth from his native place, broke the head of the muleteer, put to death a flock of inoffensive sheep, and went through very doleful experiences at a certain stable. God forbid that an unworthy charl should escape merited censure by hanging on to the stirrup-leather of the sublime caballero. His was a very noble, a very unselfish fantasy, fit for nothing except to raise the envy of the baser mortals. But there is more than one aspect to the charm of that exalted and dangerous figure. He, too, had his frailties. After reading so many romances he desired naively to escape with his very body from the intolerable reality of things. He wished to meet eye to eye the valorous giant Brandabarbaran, Lord of Arabia, whose armor is made of the skin of a dragon, and whose shield, strapped to his arm, is the fate of a fortified city. Oh, amiable and natural weakness! Oh, blessed simplicity of a gentle heart without guile! Who would not succumb to such consoling temptation? Nevertheless, it was a form of self-indulgence, and the ingenious hidalgo of La Mancha was not a good citizen. The priest and the barber were not unreasonable in their strictures. Without going so far as the old King Louis Phillipe, who used to say in his exile, ‘The people are never at fault’ — one may admit that there must be some righteousness in the assent of the whole village. Mad! Mad! He who kept in pious meditation the ritual vigil-of-arms by the well of an inn and knelt reverently to be knighted at daybreak by the fat, sly rogue of a landlord, has come very near perfection. He rides forth, his head encircled by a halo — the patron saint of all lives spoiled or saved by the irresistible grace of imagination. But he was not a good citizen.”
Socrates once said a person cannot be a good citizen and a good person. Jesus said we cannot worship two masters, God and Mammon. I wonder. So, apparently, does Conrad. In J.D. Salinger’s tales of Franny and Zooey, Franny quits college because she hasn’t heard anyone talk about wisdom. She would have done well to have read Cervantes. Or George Eliot. Or the early Platonic dialogues. Or the New Testament. Franny must have been receiving very poor advice: she missed all the really important stuff! It saddens me to think that fewer and fewer people will read the adventures of the mad, holy knight of La Mancha — as it does to think that fewer and fewer will read anything at all. Conrad’s tribute, written by a man using his second (or third) language, gives us a sense of what they are missing.