Wendy Lesser on rereading (Don Quixote, Middlemarch, Dostoevski)

August 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

Notes on Nothing remains the same (1).

1.  From the introduction:  I was touched by the image of a fifty year old man rereading a book which he had read at the age of 11 or 12; remembering himself reading it; himself, as he then was; seeing that boy in his mind’s eye; and — speaking to him.  What would he say?  Would he speak words of advice?  What would those words be?  (I am reminded of some novels of Unamuno — this would film beautifully as a closing scene).

2.  Lesser has all kinds of interesting remarks about Don Quixote, but, like everyone else, misses what is to me its central point:  while the author and various figures in the book keep harping on about the bad bad bad books of knight-errantry and how the novel is supposed to be an attack on them, the truth is that the topic of the book is not romances of chivalry but chivalry itself; and that all those characters criticizing the romances of chivalry must in fact be understood the way anyone criticizing anything must usually be understood — as in fact attacking something else altogether, something to attack which directly would be unseemly; and therefore attacking it indirectly, tarring it, as it were, by association;  they are all in fact criticizing the notion of chivalry.

My grandmother understood chivalry the way Digby did:

Chivalry is only a name for that general spirit or state of mind which disposes men to heroic actions, and keeps them conversant with all that is beautiful and sublime in the intellectual and moral world.

And this is how she passed it on to me.  To her, and therefore to me, chivalry has been a living, breathing philosophy of life.  To Lesser, like to everyone else today, it is little more than an archival curio; something akin to the Eleusinian Mysteries, perhaps; but worse:  unlike the Mysteries, chivalry is rendered preposterous by its association with the bad old political system of the past.  (Droit de seigneur and all that).  Political commitments require Lesser and everyone else to ridicule it.  Her understanding of Don Quixote it inevitable; she learned it in school, in Civics 101 at the age of 12 or 14.

Lesser does note that “chivalry has costs” — but in her mind they are costs to others; she fails to see that the person most damaged by it is in fact the knight himself — which seems to have been de Saavedra’s central point.  A beautiful ideal which it is unwise to adopt; and wiser still — though sad — to give up.

2.  Lesser’s remarks on Middlemarch are as interesting in what she does observe (that thirty years on she dislikes the young heroine and takes more interest in the men, including the sort that used to bore her in her youth) as in what she… does observe but, as it were, does not notice:  that the plot and the heroes appear unnatural — that they are in fact constructed to fit a certain argument; contrived; that they are a mystification; a lie; a work of propaganda.  It does not occur to Lesser that this may be the case with all fiction.  That all fiction may be what its name openly says it is:  a fabrication.  Not a study of life and character, as it is usually accepted to be, but a study of imposture and invention.  And thus of very suspect value as a means to understanding ourselves.

3.  In discussing Dostoevski, Lesser points to all the things that irritate her in his novels:  such as that they are all about some sort of a nasty, unopposed injustice; or that they are an endless processions of characters throwing tantrums to tell others all sorts of nasty things about themselves and others.  This is of course why I invariably throw them away in disgust — but why Lesser, it turns out… likes them!  She openly confesses to liking the feeling of irritation!  So, here we have it:  the mystery of Distoevski’s popularity has been solved.  It’s not that his lovers don’t see what I see; it is that they see it and — like it!  (I wonder… do they like crumbs in their bed?  Stinging nettle?  Scabies?)

Lesser does not say what to me seems the most obvious reason to dislike Dostoevski:  that all his characters also appear to be sick, depraved, twisted, perverted — which to me has always been proof that there is something rotten with the “deep” Russian soul; and a way to understand the mysterious fact that one can’t ever seem able to have a respectful and polite relationship with a Russian — all attempted friendships with Russians always end up in some sort of horrendous humiliation.

But Lesser’s omission is very meaningful here:  that she does not notice suggests that to her these characters appear… normal.  Which might be understood to mean that they are similar enough to people she knows.  Which seems odd — I don’t know many such people.  But perhaps I do not because a) I am careful to avoid such people once I have identified them; and b) I am willing to not notice signs of mental disease in people I know slightly and am not obliged to learn better — in fact, to put lipstick on the pig.

Lesser’s acceptance of Dostoevski’s heroes as ordinary men allows me to understand better why I have chosen to live unnoticed, in internal exile, away from men.

It also explains why the lessons of Civics 101 would be so eagerly embraced (see pt. 2 above) and chivalry so openly ridiculed and despised.  Every morally twisted person will be delighted to be given a reason to refuse a moral code which demands of him or her to be better than he can ever hope to be.  If Dostoevski’s right, the code of chivalry can expect to have a lot of enemies.  (It’s no accident The Idiot references Don Quixote).

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