That modern Europeans do not understand Don Quixote

August 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Modern Europeans do not understand Don Quixote.  I wrote this once only to provoke angry demands to know what it was I fancied my readers did not understand.

I demurred.  The matter would have been too grave, too personal, and too revealing to discuss in public; and there seemed nothing to gain by explaining.  But here it is again: Wendy Lesser’s otherwise delightful essay in Nothing Remains The Same discussing all kinds of ways in which Don Quixote ‘makes her think’ (as proponents of modern art like to say) — but none of them is the one which, by rights, ought to be most obvious.

It is obvious to me because I was reared in the spirit of chivalry; not on books of knights errant; but as code of conduct; chivalry as a set of moral precepts.   My descent, my grandmother said, was not a right, but an obligation:  to live up to the name, to act chivalrously.  To speak the truth, to honor promises, to oppose injustice, to have no fear, to yield to the weak, etc.  — no matter what the cost.

As was Cervantes de Saavedra , and many, perhaps most of his intended readers.  All would have understood that to act chivalrously is beautiful and — foolish.  That as beautiful as it is, it results in all sorts of horrible things, it has horrendous costs, it ends in defeat.  For them, the sadness of the final chapter (“In last year’s nests there are no birds this year.  I was mad, and now I am sane; I was Don Quixote of la Mancha, and now I am, as I have said, Alonso Quijano the Good.”) would not have been the sadness of having outgrown the tales of knight-errantry, but something a lot more profound and a lot more tragic:  the realization that their code of conduct will either lead them to defeat or — to its own renunciation, which is, of course, an even greater defeat.  (What would a man gain if he gained the world but lost his honor?)



January 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

A discussion of Wymyk, an acclaimed (and promising) new Polish film, on PR2 sports an interesting exchange; one commentator, a woman, comments about a hero’s cowardly behavior:  “Honor does not grow back.”  She then recalls a quote from Lord Jim:  “Honor really does exist.”

With this, another commentator, a man, disagrees; it is not clear what the nature of his disagreement is — I suspect that if one probed him, he would, like the readers of my other blog, avoid the issue; but we are put on notice that in his view honor is not above dispute.

It is not surprising:  a woman, especially a woman of some age and authority, can speak openly about qualitative aspects of manhood: for a woman to speak about manhood is a kind of daydream, a love-wish, it is like men speaking of their ideal female beauty.  But men do not speak lightly of manhood:  if they do, they open themselves to a challenge, and not many are prepared to meet it.  Better object.

The honor-blind will tell you that honor is a relic of the past; that it is not modern.  But another explanation is that honor is a mutation:  those born with it have it, sense it, value it, and defend it; those without it are blind to it like the color-blind are to red or the deaf to high C.  This notion gives another meaning to the term “to be honorably born”.

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