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 Key In The Wine

In one of Plato’s early dialogues, The Euthyphro, Socrates asks this perplexing question:

“Now think of this. Is what is good good because the gods approve it, or do the gods approve it because it is good?”

Later, after asking Euthyphro a series of bewildering questions, Socrates suggests the answer:

“So it is because [a thing] is good that it is loved; not is not good because it is loved.”

Euthyphro agrees, albeit reluctantly. But Socrates has asked, and answered, the pivotal question in value theory: Is something valuable because we value it or do we value it because it is valuable? Since, in Socrates’ view the latter is the case, this provides grounds for defending the objectivity of values. They are there, in the world, and we respond to them. We approve of things because in some sense we should. Our response is not the key, rather the key is what it is we are responding to, or what we should respond to if we are open-minded and discerning.

Years later, many years later, the Knight of the Mournful Countenance, Don Quixote de la Mancha, is listening to Sancho Panza who is telling him about his talent in tasting wine, a gift that has passed down in his family for years. He goes on to say he can prove it

“. . .by telling you what happened to those ancestors of mine, once upon a time. They gave them some wine from a barrel, once, and asked them what condition they thought it was in, whether it was any good, or whether it had gone bad. One of them just touched it with the tip of his tongue; the other only waved it under his nostrils. The first said there was an iron flavor; the second said it was more like leather. The owner said it was an absolutely clean barrel, and nothing had been put in the wine that could make it taste either like iron or like leather. In spite of which the two famous wine tasters insisted they were right. So after a while the wine was sold, and when they cleaned out the barrel they found a little key, hanging by a little leather strap. . . . “

The tastes of the iron and the leather were there, in the wine. I am told there are tasters in China who can differentiate among hundreds of different teas. There are cooks who can taste a bit of a dish and tell us exactly what is in the food. There are artists who can see so much more in a painting than I can. There are musicians who can hear when the third violin in the orchestra is slightly flat. I cannot. There are people who are compassionate and sympathetic and who therefore respond instantly to another’s pain or happiness. The things these people are responding to are there, despite the fact that most of us are like the owner of the wine keg: we can’t detect them. And these tastes, colors, and sounds are values. They are there, in the world and we simply need to know how to gain access to them.

The key lies in the Socratic question: do we value things because they are valuable or are they valuable because we value them? We often confuse value with valuation. Valuation is relative, subjective. We can’t all differentiate among hundreds of teas or spot the key in the wine. That is our problem, but it does not give us adequate grounds for insisting that the values themselves depend upon our ability, or lack of ability, to detect them.

When a young girl works to collect cans and bottles until she has enough money to buy 60 raffle tickets to support Joseph’s House, a place for homeless mothers and pregnant women to raise their children, and, upon winning the valuable prize donates it to Joseph’s House as well, most would agree that this is a generous act. Generosity is a value. It is there in the selfless acts of working, saving, and donating. If someone insists that these acts are stupid or a waste of time we think him a dunce. He is missing something important in the world we both share. We may even feel sorry for him. But we certainly cannot agree with him.

This is not to say that we are always right about what is and what is not valuable. It is simply to say that two people who disagree cannot both be right. It is a question that requires discussion and debate, with open minds and a willingness to admit we may be wrong. I would be interested to know why the dunce thinks the generous act was a stupid waste of time. But I bet he can’t tell us why he thinks so! The objectivity of values requires that we admit that values are there, it does not imply that you or I are always correct in our assessments of what is or what is not valuable. We are not gods. On the other hand, ironically, subjectivity does imply infallibility: we cannot be wrong if values are merely subjective, because we are talking about ourselves, not about things outside ourselves. We most assuredly can be wrong if values are objective — just as we can be wrong about the third violin being slightly flat or whether there is a key in the wine.

There is no question that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Tastes vary and opinions about what is and what is not good very often conflict. This allows us to draw no conclusions about the things being discussed, however. The act of the little girl is generous and if someone doesn’t see that then we suspect he is value-blind — much like a color blond person who cannot tell green from brown or the tone-deaf person who cannot hear subtle music changes. It’s also possible we are mistaken. We all differ in our sensibilities and capacities, our imagination and our intelligence. Our perspectives are different as well. This much is clear. But it does not provide grounds for insisting that the world is a subjective construct, that there are no objective properties in the world to which certain people respond with approval or reject with disapproval.

If we remain open and attend to what is going on “out there” and discuss with others what they see and hear we may just learn a thing or two about our world, about things that are there in front of us whether we are aware of them or not. Remember, the key with the leather strap was in the wine!

 

 

The Death of Don Quixote

The famous knight errant, Don Quixote, sallied forth three times to do battle with evil, brighten the world, and bring it new hope. At the end of each of the first two sallies he armed himself anew to do battle one more time with the evil forces that surrounded him. Before the second sally he asked the proverbial Sancho Panza to join him. While he was engaged in his adventures those back home worried about him and tried to determine how to “bring him to his senses.” It was decided that the best way was to meet him on his own terms and so the bachelor Samson Carrasco posed as a knight and challenged Don Quixote to battle. The loser would have to lay down his arms and admit that the love of his life was inferior to that of the winner. This strategy had been tried once before, without success. But the second time was successful and the Knight of the White Moon, as Carrasco called himself, was able to defeat Don Quixote who reluctantly allowed that Dulcinea was not as fair as the love of the Knight of the White Moon’s life; and he promised to give up knight-errantry.

It has been suggested that Cervantes wrote the second part of his novel involving the third sally because an imposter had written a “sequel” after the success of Cervantes’ novel. It has been said that Cervantes therefore determined to kill off his hero so there could be no sequel written by another imposter!  This theory is debatable, but it matters not because, in losing this battle, Don Quixote lost his will to live. And that is what is most important, from a literary perspective. Without a cause, without hope to once again do battle with the forces of evil, he felt his life had lost its purpose. “Thus the Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha came to an end.”

Don Antonio Moreno, who had followed Don Quixote and supported his adventures (often creating some of his own) confronted Samson Carrasco after he had defeated Don Quixote and had this to say about the terrible, even tragic, event:

“Ah, sir,” said Don Antonio, “may God forgive you for the damage you have done to the whole rest of the world in trying to cure the wittiest lunatic ever seen! Don’t you see, my dear sir, that whatever utility there might be in curing him, it would never match the pleasure he gives with his madness? But I suspect that, despite all your cleverness, sir, you cannot possibly cure a man so far gone in madness, and, if charity did not restrain me, I would say that Don Quixote ought never to be rendered sane, because if he were we would lose, . . .his witticisms . . . , any one of which has the power to turn melancholy itself into happiness.”

Throughout Cervantes’ novel we are asked to question the sanity of his hero. Is it he that is mad or is it we ourselves? Is he in fact mad, or is he a genius? Is he Christ? Is he the embodiment of all that is good in the human soul? Is he simply  one of the most imaginative and creative of persons who ever was conceived? Is he therefore an artist or a poet — or both?  Surely, he is all of these things. And his death means a terrible loss for all of us because those things have been replaced by a utilitarian, mechanized, thin, unimaginative, materialistic world that has lost much of its flavor and delight. Cervantes saw this coming long ago and it was seen clearly more recently by the great writer Fyodor Dostoevsky who wrote in his diary:

“Who was it — Heine, was it not? — who recounted how, as a boy, he had burst into tears when, reading Don Quixote, he had reached the place where the hero was conquered by the despicable and common-sense barber-surgeon [?] Samson Carrasco. In the whole world there is no deeper, no mightier literary work. That is, so far, the last and greatest expression of human thought; this is the bitterest irony which man is capable of conceiving. And if the world were to come to an end, and people were asked there, somewhere: ‘Did you understand your life on earth, and what conclusions have you drawn from it?’ — man could silently hand over Don Quixote: ‘Such is my inference from life. — Can you condemn me for it?’ “

Indeed, with very few (none?) left with the imagination, determination, and moral courage of a Don Quixote, we inherit a world in which the human imagination has shrunk along with the dimensions of the world itself; truth has been replaced by alternative facts; beauty has been replaced by utility; success is determined by one’s bank balance or how many people one can manipulate; greatness has become a mere word whose meaning is itself questioned if not rejected outright. As a result we are left with a thin, tasteless, pablum that leaves us both hungry and out of humor: our world has become for us flat and lacking in dimension. There is beauty and there is goodness but we are too busy to look and too self-absorbed to appreciate. And all the time we see around us in positions of great power men and women regarded as successful and prosperous whose souls are empty and hollow and whose words rattle about loudly like dried peas in an empty can, making noise but no sense whatever.

 

Hillary As President?

While this notion will scare the pants off many a hard-line Republican, it warms my heart to think that a woman might be elected president of this country, following on the heels of a black man. But the question is whether or not this woman would be more effective than her predecessor. Her strengths seem to be her ability to get things done. She would appear to be better able to work with a recalcitrant (entrenched) Congress than her chief Democratic rival for the office, since she knows where many of the skeletons are buried and she’s tough — and she can lean on the political savvy of her husband (which is considerable). However, she would be beholden to the corporations in whose political pocket she is buried deep, whereas her Democratic opponent realizes that the real battle in American politics is between the corporations and the people who are supposed to be the real base of power in a democracy. While Bernie Sanders would be a serious speed bump on the path the very rich in this country are taking toward a full-fledged oligarchy, Hilary would be a pebble. Her election would mean the continuance of the seemingly inevitable replacement of our democratic system by a system engineered by the very rich who are at present in the process of buying themselves a government.

Sanders is an idealist. Some would say he is a dreamer and totally out of touch with reality. It is certainly the case that he would be unable to work effectively with a Congress made up like the present one. He would be at least as ineffective as his predecessor. I imagine him as a Quixotic figure galloping full speed at windmills. And we know how that turned out! But this election year will see 47 House and Senate seats on the Republican side up for grabs and only 26 on the Democratic side. If the citizens of this country were able to hand Sanders a majority in the Senate, and perhaps even in the House, he might be able to realize some of his dreams. This assumes that those elected to the Congress have the nerve to stand with Sanders against the special interests and the very wealthy who are clear in their determination to take over the reins of government. That is a pivotal question.

For my part, I figure Sanders is a long shot and the possibility that this electorate will be wise enough to give him a Congress to work with coupled with the unlikely possibility that the Congress even then will not be in the pocket of the corporations and their bosses makes his successful presidency appear all the more unlikely. But, assuming that he could survive the race for the office and live out his term without being shot by one of the many crazies who have been encouraged to emerge from the shadows of late, it may be our last hope if we are to salvage some semblance of what the founders envisioned over 200 years ago. Hillary does not embody that hope, sad to say.

Regarding the Republicans, it is impossible to take any of them seriously. They appear to be a confederacy of dunces the leader of whom seems perfectly capable of hauling this nation to the brink of disaster without having the least idea that he is doing so. At present, they appear to be divided into a cluster of warring camps as Robert Reich recently pointed out. Their disarray should increase the probability of a Democratic win. If the country does not feel strongly that “it’s now or never” then Hillary would be the acceptable alternative, one who is best able to work within a corrupt system. But any claim that the system is not terribly flawed is naive and unworthy of serious consideration. It is now or never, even though it seems a very long shot. Can the people reject the corporate control of this country or are we so far down that road we cannot turn back? That is the question.

Funny Or Comical?

One of the things that has always intrigued me is the nature of comedy. Yes, I am strange. But the thing I find most interesting is that the word “comedy” was originally attached to events that are not necessarily funny. For example, in drama it applies simply to plays that end happily. Comedy is a broader term and can be funny — or not.

Freud has discussed comedy as has Henri Bergson. But the best discussion I have ever read about the subject was written by Arthur Koestler, author of the haunting novel Darkness at Noon. He was also a journalist and an exceptionally deep thinker. His book The Act of Creation is one of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read. He analyses the act of creation and ties it into such diverse things as music and …. comedy. He takes as his point of departure the “Eureka!” moment when Archimedes discovered how to determine whether Hiero’s crown was solid gold or a mix of gold and silver without destroying the crown itself. He was, as you may remember, stepping into the bath when he realized that in doing so he displaced a certain amount of water whose volume could be measured accurately; by analogy he could now determine the density of the crown. It was a “Eureka!” moment and he reportedly ran down the streets of Syracuse naked shouting with glee. Now, that’s funny!

Koestler thinks such creative moments result from what he calls “bisociation,” the sudden and unexpected intersection of two independent planes of thought which he calls “matrices”:

“The essential point is that at the critical moment both matrices were simultaneously present in Archimedes’ mind — though presumably on different levels of awareness. The creative stress resulting from the blocked situation [Archimedes’ inability to solve his problem] kept the problem on the agenda even while the beam of consciousness was drifting along quite another plane.”

When the two planes intersected at the moment he stepped into the bath, he had solved the problem. Eureka! That was the “creative” moment. But what has this to do with comedy, you might ask? Everything. Take the following joke.

A. I hear there was a fire at the local university yesterday.

B. Seriously?

A. Yes, it totalled the library, destroying both books.

B. Ha!

A. And only one had been colored in!!

B. Again, Ha!

So it goes. B doesn’t expect A’s response: there is the sudden intersection of two independent matrices — one telling the story of the sad fate of the library at the local college, which tends to evoke sympathy in the listener and which is suddenly intersected by another matrix that cuts across the first and results in a laugh, a sudden release of emotion that was built up by B worrying, even for a moment, that the library had been burned down. Koestler calls this an “explosion.” This particular joke has two such moments — one when A says that both books were destroyed and another when he say that only one had been colored in. Neither is expected and both evoke a sudden release of emotion, mild though it may be (a small explosion?). This is not a thigh-slapper, and if it doesn’t tickle your funny bone, perhaps Freud’s joke recounted in his essay on the comic will:

Chamfort tells the story of a Marquis at the court of Louis XIV who, on entering his wife’s boudoir and finding her in the arms of a Bishop, walked calmly to the window and went through the motions of blessing the people in the street.

‘What are you doing?’ cried the anguished wife.

‘Monseigneur is performing my functions,’ replied the Marquis, ‘so I am performing his,’

Or, if you prefer the slightly sacrilegious, there is always the priceless New Yorker cartoon where Joseph and Mary are looking heaven-ward and the caption reads: “But we wanted a girl!”

All in good fun. I leave it to the reader to find the elements of bisociation that Koestler speaks about.

All comedy, according to Koestler, has that essential creative moment. It happens when two completely independent matrices intersect and the surprise we experience results, as a rule, in a laugh.  Sometimes, folks just “don’t get it.” They weren’t paying attention, or don’t see the intersection of the two matrices. Humor is subjective (comedy is not) and, while it does involve emotion, it is surprisingly cerebral. Indeed, the emotions involved in comedy, such as they are, tend to be assertive, aggressive emotions (even sadistic, according to Freud). If the emotions become stronger and change color, as when we laugh at the chair being pulled from beneath the would-be sitter only to realize from the expression on his face that he has hurt himself, then laughter immediately stops and a rush of sympathy or empathy takes its place. But the bisociation between two independent matrices remains essentially the same, though intros case, comedy becomes tragedy. Cervantes was able to exploit this basic relationship by making Don Quixote both comical and tragic — depending on how we feel about him at the moment. In other words, precisely the same bisociations can be comic or terribly sad, according to which emotions are involved and how strong they are. The very same bisociation of independent matrices occurs, according to Koestler, when the artist suddenly realizes how to “solve” the problem of the painting she has been struggling with, picks up the piece of driftwood lying on the sand because she suddenly sees several possibilities that no one else sees, or the scientist suddenly discovers, as did Archimedes, the solution to the problem he was pondering. Creativity occurs by bisociation, Koestler insists, in both science and the fine arts. And in comedy as well.

Some things can be comical without being funny and some things like exaggeration, jokes, and caricature are both comical and funny.  But all are essentially creative. Now I find that interesting.

Great Quarterbacks and Such

In a recent interview with Andrew Luck, the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, the man modestly brushed aside the question of whether he is likely to be the “next great quarterback.” He said that he really doesn’t listen to those sorts of comments; he looks to his parents and close friends, his coaches and teammates for evaluations of his abilities as a player. It was nicely done and the man does seem to be genuinely self-effacing, determined to give credit to his teammates rather than to take it all for himself. It was a refreshing breath of fresh air in the stench coming from the NFL these days.

But the issue raises an interesting philosophical question: how does one determine greatness in sports, specifically in football? The answer usually circles around some sort of calculation — how many games the man has won, his completion percentage, the number of Super Bowls he has won, and the like. The criteria of greatness shift and change like the smoke from a campfire, which can at times get as hot as the discussions themselves. But they always seem to involve numbers. In America we have a penchant for quantifying things. And with everyone and his Aunt Tilly carrying portable computers around, everything seems to be reduced to numbers and computed quickly so comparisons can be made. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the number of times a man brushes his teeth become a factor in determining if that man is a great quarterback before long. We love numbers.

But when it comes to greatness in literature and art, we blanch. There really aren’t any numbers we can plug into our computers. It doesn’t matter how many compositions a composer has written  or the number of paintings an artist has completed, how long the performances are or how large the canvasses. What matters is quality and this is a concept we cannot manage to deal with. So we dismiss it with a wave of the hand and call it “subjective.” It’s a “matter of opinion.” But, as I have noted in previous posts, there would appear to be legitimate criteria of greatness in art and literature, and the dismissal seems intellectually lazy and just a bit sloppy. Furthermore, it closes discussion just when it ought to get interesting.

Great literature, for example, is well written, full of vivid descriptions, interesting characters, gripping situations, intriguing plots and, above all else, it is thought-provoking. It grabs and holds our attention. Moreover, it invites revisiting. And that’s the key. Great literature, like great art, rewards innumerable visits, because we always seem to find something new every time we visit. With art and literature that is created for quick perusal and mere profit the visits are usually short and sweet. Popular music, for example, remains popular for a brief time and then is replaced with something else. There’s not enough for the mind to get hold of, as one critic has said: it doesn’t engage our imagination. With great music, there is so much going on that one needs to listen closely, recall what has already occurred in the music and try to anticipate what might happen next. Popular music does not invite repeated visits or close listening, just as popular art tends to tug at the heart strings, but leaves the intellect and imagination untouched. There is more to great art and great literature than there is to popular art and literature, in a word, though there may be perfectly good reasons to enjoy and even take delight in the not-so-great in art and literature. As they say, there is no disputing taste.  But greatness, while it cannot be quantified, can most assuredly be felt and experienced at many levels — so many that one visit is never sufficient.

Someone once said he re-read Don Quixote once a year and has done so for years. That’s a bit extreme, but it makes sense. Cervantes has put so much in his novel that it is like finding buried treasure every time the novel is read. Or, perhaps, it is like a bottomless cup of coffee except that, unlike coffee, the taste is fresh and delightful every time one takes a sip. The notion that greatness in art and literature is a matter of opinion, simply, is not worth taking seriously. We may not be able to quantify it as we do with quarterbacks and infielders, but we can experience it directly and discuss it intelligently.

Remembering Quixote

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.

Quixote As Poet

Miguel Cervantes was born in a small town near Madrid, Spain in 1547 and was, among other things, a soldier. He served with great valor and was shot in the chest and arm, leaving his left arm practically useless. He later spent five years as a captive in an Algerian prison where he pondered life and its many meanings. And, oh yes, he wrote Don Quixote which garnered him fame but little financial reward. The book was so popular that a bogus sequel was written by another author and Cervantes wrote the second part of his classic in order to make sure Quixote was dead in the end and another sequel would never appear!

As a result of Cervantes having been shot he seems to have longed for the day when men fought one another face-to-face — like knights-errant. Surely, this was at least part of the inspiration for his great novel. But another part of his inspiration was the coming of not only mechanized warfare, which he detested, but also the coming of machines, which he saw as impediments to the growth of the human spirit. Hence Quixote’s famous battle with the windmills.

Don Quixote was generally regarded as a madman. He saw things differently from other people and he was therefore dismissed as mad. It’s what we do. I prefer to think of him as a poet, since poets also see things differently from the rest of us and many times make us look again and see things we had missed before. Quixote does that again and again — especially alongside his practical, down-to-earth sidekick Sancho Panza who is like the rest of us and prefers to see things as they “really are.” But one of the things Cervantes’ novel demands is that we ask  just what on earth reality is. What is real?

When Quixote sees a barber plodding along on his donkey in the distance with his basin comfortably perched on his head it is clear, to Quixote, that the barber is a knight and he is wearing the helmet of Mambrino, the famous knight whom Quixote immediately decides to engage in battle. The barber sees Quixote coming at him at full gallop (well, as full a gallop as poor old Rocinante will allow) and flees in terror, leaving the basin behind. (Sorry, leaving the helmet behind him: the spoils of war, don’t you see?)

Rocinante (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Rocinante (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Sancho, of course, insists that the helmet is really a basin and this gives rise to one of the more colorful and provocative discussions between the two men in the entire novel. It goes on for many pages and is a delight to read. Is the item a basin or is it a helmet? After considerable discussion, Quixote finally addresses Sancho as follows:

“Do you know that I think, Sancho? I think that this famous piece of that enchanted helmet must by some strange accident have fallen into the hands of someone who did not know its worth and who, seeing that it was of the purest gold and not realizing what he was doing, must have melted down the other half for what he could get for it, while from the remaining portion he fashioned what appears, as you have said, to be a barber’s basin. Be that as it may: I recognize its value and the transformation that it has undergone makes no difference to me. . .”

And as Quixote later notes,

“. . .there are always a lot of enchanters going about among us, changing things and giving them a deceitful appearance, directing them as suits their fancy, depending upon whether they wish to favor or destroy us. So, this that appears to you as a barber’s basin is for me Mambrino’s helmet. . . .”

Quixote is not mad: he knows things look different to other people. But for poets things are not as they seem. It is for us to let discursive reason and logic take a hike every now and again and engage our imaginations so we can see the world in the many colors and shades of meaning that we tend to gloss over in the hurly-burly of everyday life. The poets and artists in our world take us for a ride if, and only if, we are able to suspend our sense of what is real for a moment and in the process we learn to see things anew and engage the world more fully. The item in Quixote’s possession is both a basin and a helmet. After all, the Don puts it on his head and it saves him later on from a barrage of stones thrown by an angry shepherd whose sheep Quixote “mistakes” for an army.

Disputing Taste

David Hume said long ago that all art appreciation is a matter of taste. This has become a cliché in our day when we reduce not only art but any matter that cannot be quantified to one of personal taste. “It’s all relative,” whether it be art, ethics, or world affairs.

But the issue rewards careful thought. What does “taste” amount to? Is it “all” really relative? I think not. Taste, after all can be either refined or crass. There are people in China who can distinguish among more than six hundred teas, and there are wine connoisseurs who can tell us exactly what the properties of the wine we most prefer happen to be. The classic example in this regard is Sancho Panza in Cervantes’ Don Quixote who tells of his uncle who could taste the leather and metal in a keg of wine that later was determined to contain a key with a leather strap attached. Taste can be a pretty sophisticated sort of thing. And it’s not all about what’s going inside a person’s head.

If I go into an art gallery with my friend Ed Evans he can show me things I would never see otherwise. He has seen hundreds of paintings and he paints himself. He is the consummate artist. He knows what painting is all about. His eye for color is astonishing. After a few visits to galleries with Ed, my taste in art would improve. Of that I am certain. Conductors of symphony orchestras can tell if the person in the fifth chair in the second violin section in an orchestra of 80 people is slightly flat. These people see and hear things that anchor their rather sophisticated taste. Their sensibilities are quite simply greater than mine, and I don’t for a moment think they are making things up. In a word, taste is not all subjective, it arises from a closer examination of the thing we are tasting. There are things going on out there, features of our shared world. Those who are open and aware of those features are in some sense of that word “experts” though that word is anathema in our day. Why?

We trust the expertise of our physician (we had better!). And we trust the expertise of our auto mechanic (again!). We don’t dispute their “taste” in these matters. They know what they are talking about. Well, the tea-tasters, and the wine connoisseurs, not to mention the artists and musicians among us, are also experts and worth listening to. They can be wrong, of course. Anyone can be wrong, even your doctor or the auto mechanic.  But chances are they know what they are talking about. At times we stake our lives on it.

I don’t claim to be much of an expert myself, except perhaps in the realm of tennis — which is a form of art when played by certain players. But my taste in music, art, and literature has improved over the years, thanks to the people I have surrounded myself with during that time. When it comes to tennis, I have played, taught, and coached for many years, watched hundreds of matches, and I have a pretty good idea what makes a player a good one. When I coached I used to watch my players warm up against their opponents.  Within a few minutes I could pretty well figure who would win in many cases — barring the unexpected. I could also spot weaknesses in the opponent’s game and pass that information along to my player. In some sense of that word, I am an expert — though I am certainly not infallible. Experience does count for something.

But we don’t even have to allow that there are experts. We need only allow that some people seem to be more aware of what is going on around them. As a result, their taste doesn’t only differ from ours, it might even be better, sharper, more highly developed. To say, as we do, that it’s all a matter of taste, or “there’s no disputing taste,” is therefore simplistic. It ignores many objective properties of our shared world and closes us off to experiences that can refine our own taste and enlarge our world. When someone else has different taste from mine, it pays me to wonder what it is that anchors that person’s taste: what is it about that painting or that piece of sculpture that my friend likes? Why does she think standing up to that bully is a good thing? In the end I may not agree with her but, if I ask her I might learn something.