Quixote’s Death Revisited

I posted a while ago about the death of Don Quixote, which I thought worthy of thought. Interestingly enough those who read and commented on the post tended to focus on Quixote’s life. In that regard, I struck out, though I can understand that Quixote’s life was wonderful and worth pondering in itself. The notion of Don Quixote, a middle-aged man garbed in make-shift armor riding through the Spanish countryside on a sway-back nag alongside the indomitable Sancho Panza — the idealist alongside the man of practical good sense — is fascinating, as are the adventures they encounter along the way.

The novel is interesting for so many reasons, and has so many possibilities, that it allows for a great many interpretations and has spoken to countless generations since its first appearance in the 17th century. But one thing seems assured, and that is that Cervantes was saying a sad good-bye to an age in which chivalry was alive, men worried about glory and honor, factories were aborning (though technically the first factory, a water-powered silk mill in Derby didn’t start up until a century after Cervantes’ death), and warfare was becoming mechanized. This last fact was a strong motivator for the novel, most critics insist, as Cervantes, while a soldier, was wounded in the arm by a bullet, an injury that rendered his arm nearly useless for the rest of his life. He seemed to prefer the notion that, as a soldier, the wounding and killing ought to be done man-to-man — not at distance. What would he think of the drones that are controlled thousands of miles away and kill hundreds of “enemies,” including innocent people, while the operator eats a Big Mac and an order of fries in his comfortable chair in Kansas somewhere manipulating joy sticks as he looks at a television screen?

In any event, the death of the idealist is the interesting thing I was asking my readers to ponder. What does it mean to the rest of us?

The Knight of the White Moon (Samson Carrasco) and Don Quixote agreed at the outset that the winner of a joust between the two of them would mean the the loser must acknowledge the greater beauty of the winner’s beloved. They also agreed that Don Quixote would give up the life of the knight errant for a year “or until whatever intervening date I may direct.” Upon being hurled from his nag by the Knight of the White Moon’s superior horse, Don Quixote refused to allow that Dulcinea was not the most beautiful women in the world and his victor allowed that concession because the real point was to make sure Don Quixote went home and settled down, leave off knight-hooding, as it were. This Quixote agreed to do. It is this sad event that is significant, which drew comments both within the novel and from people like Heine and Dostoevsky many years later.

The idealism of youth must always, it seems, give way to the common sense of middle-age and the cynicism of old age.  Don Quixote steps aside in the Third Sally and watches as Sancho Panza, the embodiment of commonsense, governs his “island” — a small village he is sent to “govern” by the wealthy Don Antonio Morena as a joke.  In doing this, Sancho exhibits the wisdom of Solomon and the good sense that Quixote obviously lacks. Sancho is becoming more like Quixote and vice versa. In any event, the idealism of Don Quixote affects those around him and when he is defeated the light goes out in the eyes of those who saw him as funny, to be sure, but also heroic in his blind determination to do the right thing.

Today’s heroes wear camouflage and go off to battle for the corporations, or they wear padding and smash heads with one another on a football field. They seldom exhibit the idealism that motivated Don Quixote in their determination to simply follow orders or struggle to increase their already obscene incomes. It is the death of idealism, the death of the joy the man finds in the world around him, the death of the imagination that can see in a barber’s basin the helmet of  Mambrino, the death of a courage that stems from an adoration of beauty and goodness, it is these deaths that folks like Heine and Dostoevsky lament. It is the death of Don Quixote that should make us take stock and think again about what is and what is not truly important.

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The Relevance of Thomas Paine

I have been reading Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” about which Wikipedia has this to tell us:

Thomas Paine has a claim to the title The Father of the American Revolution,which rests on his pamphlets, especially “Common Sense,” which crystallized sentiment for independence in 1776. It was published in Philadelphia on January 10, 1776 and signed anonymously “by an Englishman.” It became an immediate success, quickly spreading 100,000 copies in three months to the two million residents of the 13 colonies. In all about 500,000 copies total including unauthorized editions were sold during the course of the Revolution.

The pamphlet came into circulation in January 1776, after the Revolution had started. It was passed around, and often read aloud in taverns, contributing significantly to spreading the idea of republicanism, bolstering enthusiasm for separation from Britain, and encouraging recruitment for the Continental Army. Paine provided a new and convincing argument for independence by advocating a complete break with history. Common Sense is oriented to the future in a way that compels the reader to make an immediate choice. It offers a solution for Americans disgusted with and alarmed at the threat of tyranny.

Paine was determined to get the colonies to unite and especially to write a constitution. He felt that as long as the colonies were “lawless” they were subject to usurpation by a despot who would be king. As he himself says:

A government of our own is our natural right: And when a man seriously reflected on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced that it is infinitely wiser and safer to form a constitution of our own in a cool and deliberate manner, while we have it in our power, than to trust such an interesting event to time and chance. If we omit it now some [opportunist] may hereafter arise who, laying hold of popular disquietudes, may collect together the desperate and the discontented, and by assuming to themselves the powers of government, may sweep away the liberties of the continent like a deluge.

Now, while the minions who blindly follow today’s popular would-be-despot can hardly be described as merely “desperate and discontented,” they are certainly ready to follow the man who would be king. I would describe the minions in stronger terms than did Paine, but we get the picture. When men and women are “desperate and discontented” they are subject to the lure and promises of anyone who presents himself as the one WITH THE ANSWERS, who knows all, and who will sweep away the corruption he sees all around him and RESTORE this country to greatness — the greatness that followed upon the American Revolution, perhaps.

But, as Paine was careful to point out, the only king this country could possibly allow and remain free is the constitution, a body of laws that would make it possible for the citizens to protect their property and retain their freedom. They never looked to one man to deliver them from England and protect their property and freedoms, though they held George Washington in very high regard. He himself realized the dangers of allowing the executive in the new constitution to have too much power and he was, by all reports, a very restrained president.

The irony of the parallel I seek to draw here is that the man who would be king appears to be ignorant of the constitution (one of his first acts as president, he says, would be to jail “corrupt Hillary”) and to place himself in the place of that constitution as a law unto himself. But the truly sad thing is that his minions actually appear to believe that he can do just that and they are ready to support him and follow him wherever he leads. They desperately need to read history and take a course in civics to see how things are supposed to work in a republic defined by the balance of power.

This country is founded on the principle that no one person will have the power to determine the course of the country. The constitution is law and it rules in place of a king. The coming election will see this principle sorely tested and my hope is that we are the people that the founders hoped would make this country strong enough to reject tyranny and despotism no matter what form it might take.