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).


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?)

Regarding the literary flourish

October 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

I am myself guilty of the sin.  In my former life, when I wrote frequently for a largish audience, mostly female and with interests considerably more middle-brow than my own, I was often tempted to end an essay on batiks — or Villa Farnesina, or whatnot — with a pretty sounding something on the topic of love.  It worked wonders — my readers ate it up — and I managed somehow to pretend to myself that it was not a sin.

Yet, it is a sin:  human life is a wasting asset, to waste other people’s time pretending that you are telling them something while you are just feeding them drivel is well nigh a criminal offense.  (Yes, if you do not, your readers will find other ways to waste their life, but then the sin is theirs, not yours).

It is also a professional failure:  writers are makers of texts like cobblers are makers of shoes.  For a cobbler to make a useless shoe — i.e. one which cannot be worn — would be a professional crime; for a writer to make a text which cannot be understood — because it means nothing — must also be one.  How can it not disqualify him?

The entire second half of The Island of the Day Before is just that kind of empty flourish:  once Father Caspar has sunk in his hilarious diving bell (“how can it not go wrong?” we think as we read about it), it is apparent that Eco has spent himself; and, drained of all ideas, he is stalling:  he is playing for time.  The “Romance of Ferrante” manages to keep things afloat for a while, but eventually it becomes painfully clear that there is nothing there, only repetition:  take Robert’s inordinately long meditation on possible life forms on other planets — the topic has already been treated in the duel scene, 25 chapters back; Robert’s overlong meditation adds nothing to it — nothing, that is, except words.

Likewise, Pamuk’s My Name Is Red runs out of juice after chapter 11 (when, in a brilliant formal trick, following the story told by a painted leafless tree, the hero sees the love of his life through a naked tree sparkling with sleet).  While in this case the next three-quarters of the book are probably entirely due to the publisher’s insistence that one cannot make money printing a 90-page novella, and therefore he cannot print it; Pamuk’s Black Book is in its entirety his sin alone: no part of it ever needed to be written; certainly, no part of it ever needed to be published.  The publisher — mercenary like the rest of his trade — wanted to make a buck pushing text by a famous writer; but what was the writer’s excuse?  That he had a mortgage to pay?

It isn’t clear why Eco went on and on, once he’s run out of stuff to say.  Surely, since Eco’s stature allows him to force a publisher to print Diario Minimo; he could also have forced him to print an unfinished novel (hint:  market it as “open-ended”), a mere trifling 200 pages long?  Unlike Pamuk, Eco has sold movie rights to his other work:  surely, he has enough dough, if anyone does, to spare us drivel?

Is it possible that Eco wrote the entire second half of The Island of the Day Before not realizing that he had run out of ideas and that he was extemporizing?  Or are authors like certain kinds of birds (cf. Tetrao urogallus) who so love the sound of their own voice that they can not notice when they have gone off?


Surely, Lesser does have a point in her final pages when she says that there is something special about the silence which falls at the end of a Shostakovich string quartet.  In a way, this is true about all well-structured music: each string quartet, having established a key, then modulated away, then gone through all kinds of development, eventually returns to its point of origin — often to its opening bar; the satisfying sensation of completion which this brings about can only be appreciated when the last chord has sounded (obviously); which is why the silence which falls at the end of the quartet seems so rich, so resounding, so pregnant with meaning:  it is filled with reflection; our minds are busy digesting; only now do we appreciate the enormity of what he have just heard; and it takes time to take it all in.  Thus, the ovation always comes too soon and I welcome Borodin Quartet’s innovation to leave the stage silently without taking a bow, thus leaving the audience alone with its task of reflection.

I hope I have just demonstrated above that an OK paragraph can be written on the silence which follows a Shostakovich string quartet.  Clearly, it doesn’t take a genius to think of something to say and — to say it with as few words as possible.  But it is challenging to write eleven paragraphs on the topic, perhaps impossible (music being, after all, about itself alone and nothing else, perhaps all one can do in response to a cycle of string quartets is… to write one’s own?).  Whatever the case, certainly Lesser is not the person to do it:  the last four pages of her book come across as vacuous and repetitive, a kind of…  verbal froth.

Pretty, yes, but signifying not much.  In fact, the same could be sad for the whole Epilogue:  it is too long, it has too many words in it.  Half that length, perhaps a quarter, would have sufficed.

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