Idealism can be plenty foolish. But idealism for things that simply make no sense does not help the world.

Idealism can be plenty foolish. But idealism for things that simply make no sense does not help the world.

People who care about literature and western culture are supposed to care about Don Quixote. Scholars regard it as not only one of the first novels ever written, but also one of the greatest novels ever written: pretty impressive for a first go!

In western traditions, Spain glows in bright, creative sunlight. Music, painting, sculpture, architecture, mathematics, literature: Spain offers riches. Somehow, some way, Cervantes’s errant knight on his noble donkey has come to be part of that pantheon. But while I’m sure The Don was well intended, as a character he doesn’t make me lean in to the tale. I can’t deny, however, that Señor Quixote holds unique pride of place in the literary canon. Everyone should, therefore, at least know the basics, regardless of how you feel about the book. If you’re hiding in the back of the class, still unsure, I promise not to point you you. Here’s the wispy limn:

A middle aged nobleman reads widely and imagines vividly. As a result, he determines himself to be a knight and sets out to right wrongs and fight injustices, with plans of restoring a measure of virtue and morality to an otherwise corrupt world.

It’s a good premise in my humble opinion. Filled with allegorical power and the potential for comic flights to convey vital ideas, our hidalgo hero sets out on his quest. Unfortunately that’s where my own private exasperation sets in. Rather than calling foul on untenable circumstances, he sets his sights on forces that are not, actually….anything important at all. Most famously, he challenges windmills.

I’m no literalist. I understand the metaphor here, and the sublime satire, and even the narrative messages of fighting against impossible odds. But it’s one thing for a group of flower carrying children to oppose a ferocious army on the field of literary battle. It’s quite another to have a deluded man stand up for idealized values and virtue and essentially oppose meaninglessness. That’s a character waiting for a better world rather than trying to move a mountain. That’s a character waiting for Godot.

In leveling his lance at windmills we see that The Don is deluded. That’s okay. There’s a great history of literary fools who present important messages to surrounding characters and, more importantly, us readers. To be foolish is to make erroneous judgements. A lack of intellectual capability is not the province of literary clowns, nor would that lack of smarts even be a fair or legitimate target for literary poking. Fools are about doing dumb things in the face of reality. In Quixote’s case, he’s presented as a man with a need to do important things, virtuous things, constructive things, but he can’t tell what they are. He doesn’t really perceive what’s real in the real world. What’s more, his fantasy world isn’t representative of the real one. His efforts are wasted, and to me that’s not only tragic, it’s disempowering. In a world where there are seemingly endless wrongs to right and endless injustices to correct, one would hope that a children’s army or a humble hobbit with hairy feet would stand up and at least try, even if there were no chance at success at all. Hollow efforts to declare that windmills are dragons spends the character’s precious life not on morality or values, but on deluded self indulgence. (Don’t even get me started on Dulcinea!) With real wrongs to be righted, he’s more interested in being the guy to do it, all the while doing nothing at all. He’s not the ultimate idealist. He’s the cranky guy telling you to stay off the grass.

Filmmaking itself is ultimately a quixotic enterprise. (The utility of that eponymous word in a contemporary sense does not certify the merits of its etymology.) The forces aligned against any filmmaker, especially newly minted ones, are enormous. If one gives it very much thought, in fact, filmmaking is a practically insurmountable task. That said, people do it anyway and sometimes they do it very well. What is an artist, after all, if not idealistic? The creative people of the world— the dreamers of the world—are all ultimately idealistic in some form. Don Quixote, we are taught to believe, should be our standard-bearer. How ironic, then, that the thing this false knight ultimately champions is the least tangible thing of all, namely a need for idealism in the first place. The problem is not that he fails, or approaches his quests with absurd strategies. The problem is that in his idealism he fails to see what’s right in front of his eyes. This speaks to an abdication of responsibility, a license for narcissism rather than idealism. The fact that he fails to see what’s right in front of him and instead favors his own private obsessions emphasizes his fatal flaw.

I realize I’m in a minuscule minority here; everybody who knows anything about literature regards Quixiote as a giant, to say nothing of being a slayer of giants, as he puts it so many times in the novel. I realize this book is the cornerstone of Western literature. Its tropes repeat over and over; its characters refract as seminal archetypes. Endless pages of analysis and critique and review and consideration about this singular work have contributed mightily to philosophy and literary thought and cultural mores. Perhaps the real value of Don Quixote is not in the book, per se,  but in the scintillation of cultural and intellectual and ethical considerations that orbit it’s unusual gravity well.

Come to think of it, that might ultimately be an idea which could become the backbone of a genuinely interesting tale, namely one where a cultural collective undertook fascinating, even important intellectual explorations based on a questionable map made from a cartographer who only imagined the places he’d been.

@michaelstarobin      or    

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