Disillusioned

In 30s of the last century a great many liberals, including folk song icon Pete Seeger, flirted seriously with Communism.  Indeed, Seeger was a member of the Communist Party, as were a great many liberal thinkers at the time. For one thing, the ideals of Communism resembled in a great many ways the ideals of Christianity with which many in the West were familiar– if not enamored. It espoused strong communities, the eradication of exploitation of the poor by the wealthy, and the equal distribution of all property, including wealth. It also embraced the notion that we should all care about our fellow humans. In any event, as I noted, a great many liberals embraced the ideals of Communism though most of them later became disenchanted when the reality of Communism began to stare them in the face. At the time it seemed an obvious alternative to hated Fascism and some, like George Orwell went so far as to join the anarchists on the side of Communism in Spain fighting against Franco and Fascism. The term “anarchist” denotes the confusion on the Spanish left as it included both socialists and Communists all in the name of “Nationalism.” But they were united in their hatred of Fascism.

Orwell, author of the recently best-selling 1984 (thanks to the election Donald Trump in America) wrote a journal describing the gradual awakening to the horrors of Communism that took place on the part of a young, idealistic reporter who went to Spain to write about the war and ended up joining the anarchists. His journal is titled Homage To Catalonia and it describes in painful detail the story of a young idealist waking up to the harsh reality that those in power, even those one admires and who seemingly embrace the same ideals as oneself, succumb to the temptations of power and wealth and behave just as badly as those against whom you are risking your life — perhaps worse, since they join hypocrisy to their other flaws.. Orwell was seriously wounded in battle against Fascism and nearly lost his life. He spent the rest of his days fighting a verbal game against the totalitarianism he saw up close.

Lionel Trilling wrote a paper in 1952 extolling the virtues of a virtuous man, as he considered Orwell. Not a great man, but a virtuous man, one who embraced the Victorian notion of “my station and its duties.” This was a man who walked the walk and who had no patience whatever with closet liberals who talk the talk but become lost in abstractions and find themselves lame when it comes to standing up to the sort of reality he saw up close. He was, above all else, honest to a fault. He was an advocate of democratic socialism though he saw clearly that democracy is also flawed; it has

“. . .told us that genius is available to anyone, that the grace of ultimate prestige may be had by anyone, that we may all be princes and potentates, or saints and visionaries and holy martyrs, of the heart and mind. “

In a word, it tends toward mediocrity, a leveling down of human aspirations to the gathering of wealth and the having of as much as our neighbor, the refusal to allow that there is greatness in the world, that some are actually better persons than others, that failure can be an important lesson learned. So says, Lionel Trilling. But he echoes the convictions of George Orwell who embraced democracy for all its faults — perhaps because, as Winston Churchill said, it is the worst form of government except for all the others. Heaven knows, Orwell saw the “others” up close — at least in their twentieth century guise. And he saw that the best government is the one that empowers the greatest number of people and in socialism he saw that restrictions were necessary to prevent the accumulation of great wealth in the hands of the few who have no idea how to manage the power it delivers to them. These things Orwell saw up close and in person. It almost cost him his life, but he lived to warn us all to be suspicious and not fall for the empty promises of ideologues and the pretty speeches of politicians whose only interest is their own welfare. And above all else, he urged us to become engaged in the world in order to preserve our precious human freedom.

Homage to Catalonia is well worth reading if only to see how painful it was for this one man to have his eyes opened to the realities of a world gone mad, a world in which even those who seemingly embrace the highest ideals also easily succumb to the temptations of power and the desire for great wealth. He worried above all else that we would be lulled to sleep by mindless diversions and political apathy

“…sleeping the deep, deep sleep . . ., from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake until we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.”

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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.