This, for me, is a perfect little book—part science-fiction, part philosophy, and all wit.
I confess that I have always been somewhat lukewarm towards the more famous Candide, perhaps because that book pokes fun at an idea that I have never believed nor even taken seriously—namely, that we live in the best of all possible worlds. But this book explores an idea which I have often contemplated: the smallness of our species in the universe.
In a way, the idea is not very sensible, since size is a relative term, and in any case physical size has nothing to do with importance. Nevertheless, when you look out of a plane window or down a skyscraper, and marvel at the almost comical smallness of buildings, cars, and people, it is an irresistible thought—that all of the things we concern ourselves with are ultimately without consequence.
One can perhaps see this book as a farcical precursor to Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, which uses science rather than wit to emphasis our littleness. Both books come to the same point: we do not know far more than we know, we cover our ignorance with myths and theories, and we fight and kill one another for absolute trivialities. As one of the book’s philosopher says, “Did you know, for example, that as I am speaking with you, there are 100,000 madmen of our species wearing hats, killing 100,00 other animals wearing turbans, or being massacred by them, and that we have used almost the whole surface of the Earth for this purpose since time immemorial?”
The final message of the book is rather bleak and even nihilistic, if lightened by Voltaire’s humor: that humanity is vanishingly unimportant. This is not exactly good philosophy, nor is it even necessarily good moralizing, since if nothing means anything we might as well do what we want. However, this “cosmic” perspective can, I think, be used to moderate ourselves: as a timely reminder of our ultimate ignorance and of our ultimate insignificance. It can at least help us to take ourselves a little less seriously. And, as Betrand Russell observed of Spinoza’s cosmic philosophy:
There are even times when it is comforting to reflect that human life, with all that it contains of evil and suffering, is an infinitesimal part of the life of the universe. Such reflections may not suffice to constitute a religion, but in a painful world they are a help towards sanity and an antidote to the paralysis of utter despair.
If we must have fables, for heaven’s sake let them at least be emblems of truth.
Here are two more tales of Voltaire, one written before and one after the famous Candide. All three center on a young man in love with a beautiful girl, whose love is thwarted as he is tossed about by fortune. Yet in content and tone the three are fairly divergent.
Zadig, the earliest of the tales, is set in the orient of the Arabian Nights. The titular hero is excellent in every way; he is wise, he is dexterous, he is honorable, and he even practices the art of deduction as well as Sherlock Holmes. Yet no matter what he does, misfortune follows close at his heals.
So far the tale more or less resembles Candide. However, Voltaire ends the story on an unexpected note. Zadig’s misfortunes eventually lead him to marry the woman he loves and become king; and the moral is that, as Pope said, all partial evil leads to universal good. In other words, one must trust fate and not presume to denounce bad luck. This is striking because it is the exact moral that Voltaire so mercilessly parodies in Candide. It appears the younger Voltaire was more optimistic.
The last tale, L’Ingénu (or “The Child of Nature” as the translator renders it) is about an American native who ends up in Breton and tries to integrate. This tale is more pointedly satirical than Zadig, as Voltaire goes out of his way to mock the hypocrisy of French catholics. In tone this tale is not nearly so lighthearted; indeed, in style it is more novelistic than joyfully silly. The final message is that French society is deeply corrupt and that many misfortunes are simply the result of human wickedness. And as the last sentence of the book tells us: “Misfortune is no use at all!”
Optimistic or pessimistic, these two tales are gems of wit from a humane thinker and a sharp writer. Everything I read of the French imp increases my admiration for him.
I have been a bad athlete for as long as I can remember. Apart from a brief and embarrassing stint on a soccer team in elementary school (all I can recall is spending an entire game crying my eyes out), I have avoided team sports all my life. And they have avoided me. In gym class I was always one of the last to be picked for a team. For all of middle school and high school I was tall, overweight, and consequently I had all the gawkiness and sluggishness of both conditions. True, I did spend a few years taking taekwondo classes in high school, and I was not so bad at it. But my unpromising career as a martial artist came to an abrupt end when all the stretching and kicking made it necessary to go to physical therapy for my aching, cracking knees.
Of all of the sports that I have failed at, the most conspicuous is running. Every year I dreaded the day in gym class when we would be made to run a mile. I always began with the hope that, this time, I would be able to run the whole thing without stopping. After all, nearly everyone else could. But inevitably, less than halfway through, I would run out of breath and have to walk; and I spent the rest of the time alternating between a wheezing run and a panting walk. Not once did I manage to run a mile in less than ten minutes. Just as bad was the PACER test, when we had to run from one end of the gym to the other within progressively shorter intervals, signalled by an ominous beep. The real studs were able to get to level nine, while I gave up far before that—defeated by the high-pitched tone.
This long and undistinguished experience taught me that I would never be a runner. My knee problems only added to this belief. So, after high school, I never tried. I was pragmatically and philosophically committed to a life of inactivity, with the sole exception of walking (a true intellectual’s sport). But then something happened to break my conviction that I could not run.
Last year, I got into the habit of leaving my apartment at the exact minute needed to catch the bus. Sometimes I left a little late, however, and this put me in a dilemma: walk and miss the bus (and this would mean arriving late to work), or run and catch it. My fear of being fired overcame my combined fears of looking foolish, getting my clothes sweaty, and dying of suffocation. So I ran. It started with only a half of a block, just a short sprint to catch the light. Then it became the whole block, and eventually two blocks—sprinting for the light, stopping, sprinting for the next light, stopping again—until I would run almost the whole way to the bus. And the strangest part is that I did not hate it.
Still, nothing changed. I did not participate in my school’s “Race Against Hunger,” a charity race that we do every year. Instead, I sat by the sidelines feeling bored and useless. I did not even own a pair of sneakers. Nevertheless, circumstances were quietly conspiring to make running a reality. Aside from my bus sprints, living in Europe had left a mark. On all my travels I had tried to walk as much as possible, mostly to avoid paying for taxis and buses and trains; and this had made me a resolute trekker, capable of walking miles under the hottest suns.
All of this unintended athletic experience culminated in a growing curiosity: Could I, finally, after a decade of not running, run a mile without stopping? Sure, I was no athlete; but I was skinnier and in better shape than I was in high school. That adolescent experience had left within me the iron conviction that a mile was an impossibly long distance for me, and that my body was simply unable to do it. Yet in the spirit of science I wanted to test this conviction.
So, one cold February day, I went to a sportswear store with my brother. I could not have felt any more out of place as I looked at sweatpants, recovery gels, and headbands than if I had wandered into an Aztec ritual sacrifice. This was not my world. But I managed to buy myself tights, sneakers, and an armband for my phone, feeling absolutely ridiculous all the while.
That same day I carried my purchases home and prepared for my trial. The tights were, well, tight; the armband was awkward to use. When I walked out into the street, I felt acutely embarrassed, as if everyone was staring at me. I had not worn athletic wear since… actually, I don’t know. What was I doing? Long before I began to run, my body became flushed with adrenaline. I was certain that I was about to make a fool of myself.
The walk to the park, where I would begin my run, seemed endless. But finally I arrived. This was the fateful moment. I opened the app, Runkeeper, and started the tracking function. Then, I fumbled in getting it into the armband holder, and then fumbled again in putting it on my arm. Now the run began—slowly. The first steps felt strange. Retiro Park seemed to bounce up and down. I remember finding it odd that I could enjoy the beauty of the trees while running; I had assumed that I would not be able to think about or appreciate anything.
Sure enough, the tightness in my lungs soon came, that horrible feeling of suffocating. But it was never powerful enough to make me want to stop. I kept going until I got to the artificial lake, and then I turned left and then left again, to complete the circuit. The ground was mostly flat but there was a slight hill near the end, and I thought my chest would explode as I crawled to the top of it. Finally, and unbelievably, I made it back to where I had started. And I had run the entire time. I checked the app—1.12 miles, at a pace of 9:39 per mile. For the first time in my life, at the age of 27, I ran a whole mile.
The months that followed were full of constant surprise. The biggest was that I actually enjoyed running. I did not necessarily enjoy the physical sensation of running; the mythical runner’s high eluded me, and I felt mostly pain and exhaustion. But I did enjoy improving; and I improved with every run—running longer distances at faster paces. Unlike writing or playing music, running can be measured objectively, in simple, cold figures. There can be no dispute over which runner is better or worse. This makes progress very easy to see and, consequently, very satisfying.
I chatted about it incessantly, even getting mildly obsessed with the subject. It felt genuinely surreal to be spending so much time thinking about an athletic activity: this was not me. More important, it felt liberating to see myself as someone who could actually do something physical. My carefully constructed self-image as a delicate intellectual had cracked and crumbled. I felt as if a new continent of experience was now available for exploration.
Eventually, my coworker, Holden, suggested that I do the half-marathon. He had signed up for the marathon and had been preparing for months. At first I dismissed the idea as absurd. The longest I had run at that point was six miles, at a very sluggish pace, and it nearly killed me. Yet, the idea was implanted in my head. I thought of the feeling of triumph, of surpassing even my most ambitious running goals. And, of course, I imagined how much weight I would lose in the process of training (it wasn’t much). So, I paid my 40€ (somewhat indignantly) and signed myself up. Now the serious training would begin.
This consisted of one long run a week, in which I tried to increase my maximum distance by one mile, and several shorter runs wherein I worked on my speed. This regime got me to 13 miles two weeks before the day of the half-marathon, April 27 (it had been moved up a day because of the elections on April 28). On my long runs, I would end up going so slowly that I struggled to pass old ladies with canes. But at least I knew that I could go the distance.
Finally there was only one week until race day. I was nervous. Somehow, I was certain that I was going to do badly and disappoint myself. It did not matter what time I got, of course, but I had decided that I was to run the race in less than two hours—not an easy thing for a beginning runner. I followed all the typical advice, taking a break in the days before the race and stuffing myself with platefuls of pasta. By the time Saturday came around I was well-rested, well-fed, and as prepared as I could have been. Would it be enough?
Two day before the race I picked up my bib (the little paper with your number on it, and a chip so they can track your movement). Annoyingly, they put the pick-up location all the way out in Feria de Madrid, a large complex of expo centers on the outskirts of the city. It took some time just to get there; and then it took some time just to walk through the mammoth buildings to the proper hall. There, a series of volunteers in booths gave me a bib, a t-shirt, and a drawstring bag. The rest of the space was full of other booths offering running-related products and services—energy gels, massages, protein powders. Probably many had free samples; but it was late and I wanted to go home.
The next night, I attached the bib to my sleeveless running shirt with safety pins. I was officially ready.
I woke up, ate toast and peanuts, drank water and coffee, and headed out the door. I had been told that it’s best to warm-up a bit before the race, so I jogged about ten minutes to the train station. When I walked out of the train, I was surrounded by thousands of men and women in colorful sports clothes. I did not realize it was such a massive undertaking. Stalls were set up for clothing drop off; hundreds of port-a-potties lined the streets (all without toilet paper); rock music blared from enormous speakers. The closer I got to the running corrals, the more I was awed at the sheer size of the event. 35,000 people were running that day—the 10k, the half-marathon, and the full marathon. William the Conqueror had conquered England with fewer.
I waited, warmed up again, and waited some more. Finally it was time to get into my corral. It was like being in a nightclub—a packed mass of bodies. How could I run through this? Rock music blared. The announcer counted down. Athletic-looking people were dancing (motivationally?) on elevated platforms in the middle of the track. They had spent a lot of money on this thing.
Finally the signal was given. I tensed for the exertion; but it was a bit anticlimactic, since the whole mass of people had to walk to the starting line before they actually began running. There were people holding big blue balloons with times on them; they were professional pacers, and would run the race at exactly the time indicated on their balloon. I struggled to find the 2 hour balloon: it was several hundred meters ahead, and had started before me. Finally I crossed the starting line and found myself jogging in a loose formation.
“Hey man,” I heard a voice say. I turned to see David, a friend I had made in my masters program. He had helped me work on my speed in preparation for the marathon, as I struggled to keep up with him on our weekly runs around Retiro Park. (This is something I discovered during training: running with better runners makes it easier to push your limits.) Soon it was apparent that he was still faster than me, as he pulled away through the crowd of runners. Besides David, I knew four other people running that day, but did not see a single familiar face during the whole race, even though our finishing times were mere minutes apart.
Peter Sagal said that anyone could run the first mile of a marathon, since it gives you the sensation of running with a mob. Unfortunately I did not feel the same way. Most people were fairly quiet, just focused on the long trail ahead; nobody burst forward in a mad dash. Our route took us straight north from the starting line, up towards the four skyscrapers near Chamartín station. The organizers had planned the route well, since these first 5 kilometers was the only stretch that was consistently uphill. After we turned the corner to go back south, it was smooth sailing.
Without the reference of the balloon, I did not know if I was going fast enough. I tried to keep a constant pace, not pushing too hard but not going easy. The presence of so many other people was surprisingly motivating. I felt as if I were being urged ahead by a social force, and all I had to do was to follow the wave. For the most part there were not many onlookers—just a few scattered people cheering us on. I appreciated it. There are few sports more boring to watch than long-distance running.
Fifty minutes in we passed our first water station, and I felt like a real professional as I drank my bottle on the move. I also took this opportunity to have some of the energy gel that Holden had given me. This is a cocktail of vitamins, sugar, and caffeine that tastes horrible but it has a satisfying effect. Suddenly I felt optimistic—even chipper. The exhaustion lifted and I felt my stride grow longer. Was this the elusive runner’s high? Probably it was just a caffeine rush, but it felt great nonetheless. As I reached a downhill area in the neighborhood of Salamanca, I began passing some runners ahead of me—which is strange for me. Also strange, I began to talk to myself in almost ecstatically encouraging tones: praising myself and egging myself on. Caffeine is an amazing drug.
As is often the case in Madrid, it was a perfect day to run: a clear blue sky, no wind, no humidity, and not too hot. I am not sure that I ever saw so much of Madrid in a single day, and the city looked beautiful in the sunlight. This is one of the great benefits of running: it makes you feel a part of the community. I had already experienced this during my practice runs in Retiro Park and Madrid Río. Because you are outside, covering plenty of ground, surrounded by others, you feel that you are really getting to know a place and to belong in it. That day, I felt like I belonged in Madrid.
Just as we reached the end of the hill, we passed through a small tunnel. There were people cheering on the road above. But the real noise came from the runners, who shouted and whooped as soon as they passed underground, making the space reverberate with a kind of barbaric din—a war cry for amateur athletes. I added my own feeble contribution to the chorus of adrenaline, and felt for a moment as part of something bigger than myself, as just one pulsating cell of an enormous beast. This feeling, I thought, is why people run these ridiculous races.
This sensation soon passed, as did the euphoric effect of the caffeine, and the usual pain and strain came back. Luckily, I soon reached another water station, and then swallowed the rest of my energy gel, which gave me another boost. But I could tell that my reserves were running low.
This particular marathon was a “rock ‘n’ roll” race, which meant that there were stages set up periodically along the course where local rock bands were playing. I must admit that I did not find the music particularly animating, partially because I was able to hear so little of it as I ran by. The cheering of the crowd was somewhat more uplifting, especially when I noticed my friend Monica calling my name. But by far the most motivating factor were the other runners, sweeping me up into a constant forward motion.
Partially because the race was a “rock ‘n’ roll” marathon, I decided to run it without headphones. This was the first time I had ever done a long run without my trusty audiobooks keeping me company, and I was afraid that I would get bored. But it turned out to be a good choice. Free from the distraction, I was able to focus my energy on keeping myself going at a steady pace. Indeed, the extended focus on my breath and my moving limbs made the experience at times rather meditative; I was completely absorbed in the experience of the race. Another advantage to not using headphones is that I did not have my running app telling me how much distance I had covered. This was a very strategic sort of ignorance, since it allowed me to keep pushing without fear of burning out too early.
I started to enter more familiar neighborhoods, and I knew that I was in the final stretch. The more I ran, the more impressed I became at the scale of the marathon: they had to shut down half the city for us. Now I knew why I had paid 40€ to run. Still, city life tried to go on—in particular the life of the elderly, who refused to stop for any sweaty army. More times than could possibly be a coincidence I had to stop or swerve to avoid an octogenarian slowly crossing the race course, cane or walker in hand. They were either very brave or quite blind.
Soon I passed several men and women shouting directions at us: those running the full marathon had to turn left, while us half-marathoners continued straight. I knew from the map that this meant that we were in the final stretch. I did my best to push myself to go faster, but my whole body was achy and unresponsive. So I compromised by trying not to slow down. A small woman with a very loud voice started yelling what she meant to be encouraging slogans to us, most of which were about the beer waiting for us at the end. This failed to motivate me, I am afraid, since the thought of drinking beer after getting so dehydrated filled me with disgust.
It was around this time that the thought finally crossed my mind that I would very much like to stop. I had been running for almost two hours by then, and I was tired and even bored, and the finish line was failing to materialize. Luckily the course started taking us downhill, past Retiro Park on the way towards Atocha. At this point I spotted Rebe, to whom I had delegated the task of taking photos of the race for this blog. She was busy at work—so busy, in fact, that she did not notice me until I was right about to kiss her.
Now it was truly the final stretch. We got to the bottom of the hill, into the Plaza del Emperador Carlos V, and then began up the Paseo del Prado. The finish line finally came into view. I was afraid to look at it, since I thought it would be too discouraging to see how slowly it came nearer; so I looked at the ground. The loud-voiced woman started shouting even more loudly and insistently. The crowd around us started to roar. I could hear music.
Before the race, I had imagined that the sight of the finish line would fill me with a final burst of energy, and I would be able to spring the last few hundred meters. But when I tried to speed up my body rebelled; it hurt too much; so I contented myself with, once again, keeping an even pace.
When I was within 100 meters I looked up and beheld the goal. Again, I tried sprinting, but it was impossible. So I jogged under the gateway and across the finish line, weakly raising my arms in tired triumph. I was done. Again, I had assumed that I would immediately feel transports of joy and accomplishment, but I was too exhausted to feel or to think anything—except, of course, at how exhausted I felt.
After the finish line volunteers were distributing medals, water bottles, and little bags full of food: a banana, an apple, a chocolate croissant, and a bottle of Powerade—for which I was extremely grateful. I started gulping down the water as I limped out of the race area and into the Plaza de Cibeles. Somehow, Rebe immediately found me, and we sat down nearby while I slowly recovered the ability to speak. My face was marked with salty-white streaks of dried sweat, my clothes were completely soaked, and I walked with an awkward limp. But I felt fantastic, and only felt better as the day progressed. Indeed, the sense of accomplishment, blended with complete bodily relaxation, creating one of the most pleasant days I can remember.
My final time was 2:05, which is five minutes above my goal time, but still easily the best I had ever run. I felt completely at peace—with myself and with the world. And I finally discovered the most valuable benefit of running: not losing weight, nor being healthy, nor even the sense of accomplishment, but just feeling good. And I felt good.
This is my first book by Lawrence, and I am greatly impressed. These short stories were published near the beginning of his writing career; yet they show a mature writer with a fully developed voice. Several qualities are immediately apparent. The first is Lawrence’s exquisite sensitivity to nature. The best prose in this volume is to be found in the many passages of natural description:
The air was too scented, it gave no breath. All the lush green-stuff seemed to be issuing its sap, till the air was deathly, sickly with the smell of greenness. There was the perfume of clover, like pure honey and bees. Then there grew a faint acrid tang—they were near the beeches; and then a queer clattering noise, and a suffocating, hideous smell: they were passing a flock of sheep, a shepherd in a black smock, holding his hook.
Lawrence’s primary subject is the rural poor. He is totally convincing in his depiction of the harried mother waiting for her drunkard husband to stumble home, or the sick widow trying to take care of her adult son. Unlike Hemingway, Lawrence has the rare talent of being able to write about people entirely unlike himself. His most memorable characters are consistently women, who normally show themselves to be superior in personality and intelligence to their male counterparts.
Insofar as these stories contain the germ of a philosophy, it is that passionate, sexual relationships allow people to be truly themselves. Thus, in “The Thorn in the Flesh,” the consummation of a relationship gives the couple a strange superiority over their circumstances; and in “Daughters of the Vicar,” the unhappy daughter who settled for a loveless marriage is contrasted with the self-assured daughter who marries for love.
But it would be wrong to call Lawrence a didactic writer, at least in this volume. The stories, for the most part, have no moral. They are concerned with the basic stuff of all prose literature: relationships—with oneself, with others, or with the rest of society. And as Melvyn Bragg says in the introduction, the stories are free of the traditional plot mechanics that are used to propel stories to pre-determined ends; instead Lawrence’s stories develop seamlessly, organically, without any noticeable push from the writer. I am looking forward to reading Lawrence’s novels.
Once again, the December puente was coming around: a long weekend, the first one of the school year. I was exhausted from the last few months of Global Classrooms. I wanted to go somewhere quiet and cheap—somewhere that was not much of a tourist destination and did not have much to see. Thus, after some false starts, I settled on Ourense, one of the most overlooked cities in Galicia.
Galicia has become my favorite corner of Spain. The people are friendly, the landscape is beautiful, the tourists are scanty, the food is delicious, and the cost is low. My plan was, in essence, to go to Ourense with my girlfriend and—apart from stuffing my face with the harty local cuisine—to do as little as possible. In one major respect my plan failed. After eating dozens of unwashed grapes (long story), I got food poisoning during our excursion to Santiago de Compostela, which made eating difficult.
I also failed in my attempt to pick a city without anything to see. Spain is so dense with history that it pervades even its remotest corners. You can’t walk a mile without tripping over a ruin. And, of course, Ourense is not remote; it is the third-largest city in the region, larger than Santiago de Compostela; and its history stretches back to Roman times. This was a fortunate mistake for someone with a travel blog.
As I soon discovered upon leaving our Airbnb, Ourense has maintained an impressive medieval center. The streets are narrow and meandering; and the buildings are appropriately grey and granite, with arcades running underneath. We soon passed by the Igrexa de la Santísima Trindade, or the Church of the Holy Trinity, which is an impressive, almost castle-like gothic church with an enclosed courtyard. In minutes we were in the Plaza Mayor, which had been decorated for Christmas with a giant tree-shaped light.
Right next to the plaza is the city’s cathedral, its most important historic site. From the outside it has none of the towering grandeur of the cathedral in Santiago. Indeed, the cathedral presents a heavy, fortified look, like the above-mentioned church. The inside is far more attractive. Apart from the impressive gothic nave and the beautiful central lantern, letting in light from eight sides, the cathedral is full of splendid decoration. The main altar, which sides under the octagonal lantern, is an explosion of flamboyant gothic, somewhat reminiscent of the enormous altar in Seville. In the center is a panel depicting St. Martin of Tours, to whom the cathedral is dedicated.
By far the most arresting chapel is the Capilla del Santo Cristo. One moves from the stark simplicity of gothic to the extravagant flourish of the Baroque. As befitting that era’s horror of empty space, every inch of the chapel is covered in decoration—shadowy paintings surrounded by delicately carved and gilded wood. In the center a realistic Christ with long flowing hair hangs from the cross. The chapel also contains the Renaissance choir stalls which once stood in the main nave. The final effect is one of extravagance. I am not sure that it is beautiful, but it is certainly impressive.
Yet the most famous work of art in the cathedral is the Pórtico del Paraíso. This is an elaborately carved tripartite doorway, which once served as the main entrance to the cathedral (but has since been engulfed by the growing cathedral). It was designed by students of the legendary Master Matteo, who is responsible for the more famous Pórtico da Gloria in Santiago. According to the audio guide the two cities, Ourense and Santiago, had something of a rivalry; and this doorway was an attempt to keep up with the neighboring city. Having seen both doorways, I can confidently say that Matteo’s is the superior. Even so, the Pórtico del Paraíso is an extremely fine piece of sculpture, which has been well preserved (or restored). The pigments of the paint still shine invitingly, filling the entire ensemble with a joyful glow.
I should not neglect to mention the cathedral museum, which is included in the ticket. There relics, treasures, paintings, altars, sculptures, and illuminated manuscripts on display, as well as a few Roman ruins unearthed during excavations and repairs.
Two large churches stand quite near the cathedral. One is the Igrexa de Santa Eufemia, a monumental Baroque church with a concave façade. The other is the Igrexa de Santa María Nai, another fine Baroque church which now stands, it is believed, on the foundation of the original cathedral. However, I mention these churches, not for their beauty, but because I always find it amusing that large churches are placed so close to each other, within a five minute walk of the city’s cathedral. Being a church artisan was a good career in those days; the demand was endless.
After ascending a staircase up to the hill overlooking the cathedral, I came to my favorite part of the city: the Cemetery of San Francisco. This cemetery goes back to the gothic period, and maintains many beautiful tombs and mausoleums. As usual, I felt a deep sense of calm as I walked through the cemetery, a repose from the temporary and trivial concerns that usual occupy my attention. (Rebe, on the other hand, found it creepy.) The hill also provided an excellent view of the city, the cathedral, and the countryside beyond.
The cemetery used to be attached to an eponymous monastery, which has long since been confiscated and shut down. (For two centuries it was used as a nursery.) However, some artwork from the monastery is on display in a free gallery. And right next-door is the old cloister, the Claustro de San Francisco—now detached and homeless. This is without a doubt one of the great sights in Ourense: the cloister is decorated in the finest gothic fashion, a delicate and harmonious space that transmits the meditative peace of monastic life.
Now it was time to cross the river Miño, which runs through the center of the city. The most convenient walking bridge is the iconic Ponte Vella, or old bridge. The origins of this bridge go back to Roman times, though little remains but some foundation stones from that epoch. The current form of the bridge is medieval. It is an elegant construction, resting on a series of arches that stretches 208 meters (almost 700 feet) from end to end, and rises 33 meters (100 feet) over the water. The bridge has proven so important in the history of Ourense that it is featured on the city’s coat of arms.
Yet this is not the only attractive bridge in Ourense. Also lovely is the Ponte do Milenio, a strikingly modern construction distinguished by the floating metal outline of a ship, which hangs suspended from the two slanted support beams. This is actually a walkway, on which you can dip down below the main section of the bridge to get closer to the water, or ascend to the top for a view of the river valley. Normally I am not very keen on modern design; but I was very much taken by this bridge, which combines functionality with an unconventional use, while maintaining an attractive overall form.
I have come all this way but I have yet to mention the greatest attraction in Ourense: the thermal baths. Ourense is highly geothermically active; thus the city is filled with steaming pools of water, many of which are free to visit. I admit that I am unclear on the science of this heating; though since Ourense is not volcanically active, I suppose that the water gets heated by the decay of radioactive elements deep underground. The water, however, is perfectly safe; and it reaches the surface at pleasant temperatures—warm, but not dangerous. This, by the way, is why the bath-loving Romans came to Ourense.
Most of the baths are situated outside of the city center, alongside the river Miño. However, one important bath sits right in the heart of Ourense: As Burgas. This bath has been used since Roman times, and it was believed to have both religious and curative properties. The baths were maintained into the Christian epoch, in part because it provided a welcome comfort to weary pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. Also, according to what I can find, the heat was harnessed by artisans and bakers (though I can’t imagine how).
However, I felt uncomfortable at the prospect of taking a bath right in the center of the city, with pedestrians passing by on every side. So, we headed toward the river to visit the baths of A Chavasqueira. The walk there led us across the Ponte Vella to a path alongside the Miño. The place seems designed as a peaceful escape. There are no crowds and no cars, just the quiet murmuring of the river. Still, I felt apprehensive. I had never been to a thermal bath, and I did not much like the idea of sharing a hot tub with strangers. But, I have a blog to write, and this means I have to experience the typical attractions.
A Chavasqueira, like the other thermal baths, is public and completely free. The baths consisted of four medium sized, shallow pools, rimmed with stone; and each bath is a different temperature. When we arrived, at mid-day, they were moderately full. Now, when it comes to public nudity, Spain is relatively conservative as far as European countries go; you will never encounter naked sunbathers on a stroll around Madrid’s Retiro Park, for example, as you might while exploring Berlin’s Tiergarten. However, they are still less conservative than prudish Americans. It is acceptable for women to be topless; and most people change with a towel rather than retreating to the public bathrooms, as I did. My natural timidity immediately flared up: I felt uncomfortable.
Still, I had come this far, and could not turn back now. Before going into the baths, it is customary to rinse off with the nearby shower. Seldom do I feel more pathetic and exposed than when I am being doused with cold water out in the open. This done, I lowered myself into the least populated pool. The water was quite warm but not scalding. Nearby an older bald man with a potbelly was determinately soaking, his face a serene grimace. I waited to be suffused with the blissful calm of hot mineral water, but felt… quite normal. In fact, I felt a strange combination of anxiety and boredom. The heat made my heart beat more quickly, and I felt my veins flood with adrenaline. What was I doing here? I could be taking a nice hot shower in the comfort and privacy of my own home.
Meanwhile, Rebe was splashing around quite contentedly, seeming to be properly relaxed. I tried to relax, to wait, to adjust. But I felt silly. What was I supposed to be doing, just sitting in water? After ten minutes I gave up, got out, and changed back into my clothes. Rebe wanted to stay longer, so I took a walk further down the Miño. Now, this was relaxing: solitude, cool air, movement, and nature. After thirty minutes I felt properly calmed after enduring the trauma of the hot springs.
After this all-to-typical failure to enjoy myself, I tried the hot springs again on the following day, and had a moderately better experience. Still, I admit that I do not see the appeal and do not find it especially relaxing. Clearly, I am not made for spa life.
But do not let my experience dissuade you. The vast majority of human beings seem to love thermal baths. And, in any case, Ourense is a charming city. Despite my food poisoning, I even managed to stuff myself with delicious Galician food. That is a successful vacation.
It was 2018, and my Easter break was fast approaching. Leaving the country during Holy Week is always expensive; and, besides, I had already booked two pricey trips—to Prague and to Paris—so I didn’t want to spend more than the bare minimum. Luckily, Spain has one travel option that requires almost no planning and little expenditure: the Camino de Santiago.
Two years had already gone by since my first and last camino, five days from Lugo to Santiago de Compostela. This time I wanted to start up where I had left off, in Santiago itself, in order to walk to the coast. The Romans may have made this pilgrimage before Christ or Christianity; they named the long granite cape that extends into the Atlantic “Finis Terrae,” or the End of the World, because they believed that this was the westernmost extension of the land. Unfortunately they were wrong in two respects: first, they underestimated the world by several continents; and second, Finisterre (as it is now known) is not even the westernmost point of the Iberian peninsula.
The cape has nevertheless continued to attract travelers. After pilgrims began to flock to Santiago during the Middle Ages, many of them decided, after reaching their goal, to keep going to the coast. This may be why the scallop shell became the symbol of the camino: many people wanted a souvenir from the end of the earth. This was my goal, too: to start in Santiago and keep going until the land ran out. I would walk 88 km (or 55 miles) in four days, giving me enough time to be back in Madrid for my birthday.
The best part of this plan was that almost no preparation was necessary. I did not need to book accomodations or even to buy gear, since I already had it. But I did need to obtain a pilgrim’s passport, or I wouldn’t be allowed to use the camino hostels (called “albergues”). This was easy enough. In the Plaza de Santiago in Madrid, at the Parish Church of Santiago and San Juan Bautista, they hand out passports for free (though a donation is recommended). If you go this route, be aware that the hours of availability are a little strange: 10:00 am to 1:00 pm, and then 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm. The other option is to go to the Association of the Friends of the Camino, but they are only open Tuesday through Thursday.
My passport in hand, my flight to Santiago booked, I was ready for my walk to the end of the world.
The plane descended through the thick fog until the ground suddenly appeared out the window, moments before landing. With a jolt we had reached the earth. I was sleep-deprived and panicky. Even in the best of times flying makes me nervous; but lack of sleep throws my chemical balance off, and I am consequently much more prone to worry. I thus spent the flight alternating between fear and delirium. Though I had woken up at 4:45 that morning to catch the horridly early (but cheap) flight, I could not sleep a wink on the plane. I was wretched.
It was a wretched day in Galicia, too, and I was happy to be there. A short bus ride brought me to the center of the city, where I had breakfast with some friends who were also doing the camino (but a different route). After some aimless wandering, I made my way to the albergue. I had reserved a room in the Seminario Menor. This is a massive building on a hill across from the cathedral, not to be confused with the Seminario Mayor, which is right next to the cathedral. If the building had indeed been a seminary, it had been a major one: the albergue was large enough to house hundreds of pilgrims, and also had room for a primary school.
Though I had vague ideas of seeing more of Santiago, the bed proved irresistible. I collapsed into a feverish nap. By the time I awoke, hours later, I found that the city was suffering under the wrath of a terrible rainstorm. The water came down in sheets, turning the streets into streams and the sidewalks into puddles of mud. I was glad to be indoors. But if I ran into weather like this on my camino, I would be in for a bad time. The only rain equipment I had brought was a poncho. My shoes were not waterproof, nor was my backpack. The thought of simply going back to Madrid flitted through my head. A tempting idea.
But I had something to accomplish on this camino. My renewal deadline was coming up: I had to decide whether I was going to stay in Spain another year, or finally go back to New York to recommence by suspended adulthood. There were weighty factors on both sides. On the New York side I had my family and friends, and the prospect of a career as a public school teacher—quite a good profession in Westchester. Meanwhile, I was in a long-term relationship with a Spaniard, and had gotten accepted into a masters program for the coming year. I felt torn. The prospect of being away from home yet another year frightened me, especially since I had lately been prone to fits of homesickness. On the other hand, the thought of leaving Spain struck me as tragic: the end of an adventure, the end of a relationship, the beginning of a more conventional life. This seemed like the perfect problem to mull over on a pilgrimage.
When the rain died down, I went out to have dinner and buy some final supplies. That night I went to sleep early. I would need the rest.
Day 1: Santiago to Negreira
I set out as the sun was just beginning to rise. Though I am no enthusiast of the morning, it is advisable to begin walking the camino early: you avoid the hottest part of the day, and reduce the chance that the albergues will fill up. The route out of the city took my past the cathedral for one final look, and soon I was again in the Galician countryside.
The day was overcast and a little cold. As usual, I found the mossy green of the landscape to be enchanting. I love Madrid, but its sandy soil can leave me longing for the verdant foliage of wetter climates. Coming to Galicia satisfies this yearning. After an hour of walking I looked over my shoulder to see the two spires of the cathedral in the far distance. I was on my way. I passed suburban homes and granite farms. Horses nibbled idly in a grassy field. The sky alternated between shades of grey occasionally broken by blue. Rain fell periodically, mostly in a drizzle. Two hours into the walk a magnificent rainbow appeared up ahead. It looked like it came to an end right in front of me: a good omen.
Before both of my caminos, I had imagined that I would do a lot of thinking as I walked. But this was far from true. Instead, I found myself in a kind of dreamy stupor, merely observing the slowly shifting landscape and the villages that I passed through—a rhythmic repetition of trees, clouds, hills, farms, fences, and fields. Scarcely an articulate thought broke my awareness. At times I feared that I was not properly savoring the moment, and so I attempted a walking meditation, focusing all my attention on my breath. This did little to change my state of mind, however, and soon I began listening to an audiobook (a history of 18th century Europe).
The camino has a tendency to lull one into a blissful calm. No thinking is required; every turn is marked with a big yellow arrow, and all one has to do is put one foot in front of the other. It did not take a philosophical mind to compare this with my present life conundrum. While I followed this path which so many had walked before, I was trying to make a decision which many had made before: to stay abroad or to go home. Yet a wrong turn on the camino can be easily detected and corrected; but an unwise choice cannot be so easily mended, as time marches steadily forward.
The decisions we make in life are often compared to turns in a road. Yet life, unlike the camino, has no obvious right or wrong turns. Indeed, the whole concept of right and wrong breaks down when it comes to major decisions. Two turns in a road can be easily compared, since one leads to the desired destination and the other does not (or at the very least one is faster). But in life, the question is often not how to get to the final destination, but which destination to choose. Different answers cannot easily be compared.
What is better, to be a doctor or a painter? This depends on your own values, of course. But what are your values? Though we often think of ourselves as defined by what we deem important, it can be difficult to know what is truly important to us. We cannot simply introspect and encounter our values, since our priorities are revealed in actions over the long term. One may, for example, think that one has a passion for playing the piano; but after a year of practicing and giving recitals, this passion may fade into boredom. In any case, even if we could easily find out what is deeply important to us now, this would not necessarily solve the problem, since values change over time.
Most perplexingly, our values change in response to the decisions we make. So when we make a major decision, we are in the paradoxical position of choosing ourselves. Rather than choose something based on our values, we are choosing our values themselves. But then what can we base our decisions on? In other words, we are trying to choose something in the present which will satisfy us in the future—without knowing exactly what we are choosing will be like, or how the choice will change our own preferences. This seems like an intractable problem. If only life had big yellow arrows directing us in the right direction.
As you can tell, I do not like making major life decisions. No approach seems intellectually satisfactory. No criteria or value suffices. As a result, no matter how much I weigh the pros and cons, I always end up feeling as though I were following a kind of gut instinct. An existentialist would say that this proves that I am free; but personally I do not feel free when I am forced to choose something based on non-rational factors, merely following impulse and whim.
I am writing this now, but I did not think any of this as I trekked the first twenty kilometers of the journey. I merely walked and occasionally worried. The day passed uneventfully. I crossed the Ponte Maceira in Ames, a beautiful medieval stone bridge. The weather was mostly overcast, threatening rain and occasionally delivering. About four hours into the walk it started to rain seriously. I tried to put up with it, but eventually I gave up, rummaged through my backpack for my poncho, and then put it on. The thing wouldn’t fit over my coat, so I had to take off my coat and tie it to my backpack while I wore the blue plastic covering. And, of course, fifteen minutes after going through the trouble, the rain stopped and the skies cleared. This was the last time I used the poncho.
I arrived at Negreira at around one in the afternoon, cold to the bone. After dropping off my bag I went into a restaurant with a menu del día. This is one of the great parts of the camino. Most stopping points have restaurants offering cheap set meals—normally under ten euros—to pilgrims, most of them consisting of plentiful, hardy food. This was no different. I ordered wine, and they gave me a whole bottle, of which I drank more than I should have. It cost me 7.50€. Then I limped and stumbled back to the hostel for a nap.
The host met me at the front desk. He was an older man, with a paunch and a mustache, who was remarkably talkative. I’ll call him Maligno. Normally I do not like to chit chat while I travel, but I was feeling a little lonely just then, so I was glad for the conversation. His mouth rattled on like a freight train, his gravelly voice following the dramatic, sing-song accent common to the region. I got him on the subject of Galicia, on which he was loquacious. He started googling some of the sights to show me: attractive coastal towns, old Celtic ruins, and even a Roman gold mine.
Somehow the subject got changed to people who speak ugly languages. This quickly led him to tell the old joke about how Spanish is for talking to God, Italian for talking to women, and German for talking to horses. He then went on:
“Once I saw this girl, beautiful, just beautiful, I mean everything was perfect. And then she opened her mouth, and it was like—eck! Just the foulest, ugliest language you ever heard. What a shame, I thought. What a shame.”
With this, I excused myself and went to my bunk bed, where I promptly passed out. When I awoke, I decided to do something productive, and I made a pro and con chart of staying in Spain. It didn’t solve anything, of course, but it did occupy some time. After that I wrote a very bad poem, had a light dinner, and went to sleep.
Day 2: Negreira to Olveiroa
This was to be my hardest day—the longest that I had ever walked in my life: 33.6 km, or 21 miles. I had to get going early.
I began before sunrise. The mist was still heavy upon the land. The moon shone out from behind the clouds, and a light breeze blew through the trees. It was almost completely quiet. I felt a keen anxiety grip me as I began walking into the countryside. It was so dark that I was afraid I would get lost. But soon I found the familiar yellow arrows, pointing the way.
The sun gradually rose and I found myself, once again, in the mossy green countryside of Galicia. The walk that day was especially beautiful, mostly avoiding major roads. As the sun rose I could once again see the farmhouses and the fallow fields. A cow peeked its nose from out a barn window, while two dogs snuggled in the road. Once again I saw a rainbow, and once again it seemed to land right in front of me. I felt that I was on the right track.
It was a much sunnier day than the last, and the heat did not make the long walk any easier. I stopped several times—beside a wooden fence, by a stone church, near a running brook—to rest and eat a little. I had bought pretzels in Santiago, an uncommon snack in Spain, and savored a few handfuls on the way. At one point I stopped at a roadside cafe for a chocolate pastry and a coffee. The exhaustion crept up on me slowly; my feet began to hurt, my legs to tire. But the human body is made to walk. It is one of the hidden benefits of bipedalism: aside from freeing up our hands to carry things, walking on two legs allowed us to be more energy efficient. At least that is the theory.
When it was well past lunch time, the path led into an open field and up a large hill. A plaque informed me that this moderate eminence was the highest point in the county. And in ancient times this had been the site of a fortified settlement (though I could find no traces of it). But the view was valuable enough. The beautiful Galician countryside rolled out in front of me, almost painfully pretty in the sun, with its fields of farmland dotted with patches of pine trees. The grass shone intoxicatingly green in the sunshine, filling me with energy that carried me the remaining distance.
By the time I arrived it was four in the afternoon. Olveiroa is hardly big enough to even be called a village; it mainly exists as a stopping point on the camino. The biggest building in the place is the albergue, where everyone seemed to be concentrated. When I arrived it was absolutely packed, which made me nervous about finding a spot. But it turns out that the vast majority of the people eating in the restaurant where on a kind of bus tour, where they hike different segments of the camino each day and then get bused to back to a hotel. It struck me as a strange concept. In any case, I ordered a gigantic plate of food and ate it with ravenous delight.
The rest of the day was spent in my bunk. My feet were blistered and my knees ached. I limped outside around sundown to see the sky, but quickly gave up and hobbled back to my mattress to read. Very few people were staying at the albergue. Among them was a young German couple, probably around my age. They spent the whole time hugging and whispering to each other. I found it very annoying. Whispering, to me, is far more unpleasant to listen to than speaking, since a whisper conserves only the harsh consonant sounds—the hissing and popping.
Maybe I was feeling cranky, since the more I observed the cuddling couple the more irritated I became. At one point I felt inspired by my distaste of the amorous Germans to write a poem in my journal, which I include here:
Why do humans form pairs, Like socks or testicles? We arrange ourselves with mates Kiss, embrace, quarrel, separate. The world deems successful The couples that last until death. A strange prejudice! Separation is separation, In the grave or in the courts; And an amicable divorce may be A better way to say goodbye Than a heart attack. Monogamy has the worst track record Of any human institution, Except for all the other ones. We relieve ourselves with: Fantasies, flings, fights, Affairs, breakups, divorce... Or just the iron patience Of the ignored wife or the henpecked husband Waiting, waiting, waiting, For the end.
And with this bit of free-verse bile, I went to bed.
Day 3: Olveiroa to Cee
The next morning I fell out of bed, and quickly found myself ascending the steep hills nearby. Again, I got going before before dawn. The landscape was shrouded in morning mist. As I walked up the path I began to feel extremely isolated. Panicky thoughts began to pass through my brain. If a pilgrim-hating murderer was hiding behind one of these rocks, they could kill me and get away with it. My eyes began darting left and right, my body tense.
But the beauty of the surroundings, revealed by dawn, eventually calmed my nerves. It was marvelous. The fog opened up below me to reveal a river flowing through the valley. The rising sun cracked through the grey sky, splitting the horizon with yellow light; and in so doing revealed the silhouettes of wind turbines, so common here, immobile on the hilltops. At the time I was reading Don Quixote, and I imagined the old knight making a charge for one of these modern monsters. These power-generating machines are one of our century’s great inventions; their sleek forms make no attempt to counterfeit nature, and yet they blend in so harmoniously with the landscape.
Eventually I reached a fork in the road, where the camino diverges. You see, there are two options for the pilgrimage to Finisterre: the first goes direct, while the second takes a detour to Muxía, another beautiful coastal town somewhat to the north. The second path is considerably more taxing, since there are three days in a row of 30+ km. I chose the first, since I did not have an extra day to spend; but, of course, every road not taken leaves a little residue of regret. Further on, while crossing another field, I caught my first glance of the sea. It was a dreary grey day, and so all the greens and blues looked muted under the brooding sky. But I could smell the ocean, that salty, fresh savor in the air.
I reached Cee by one in the afternoon, a modest coastal town of about 8,000 inhabitants. I found a mostly-empty albergue, dropped off my bags, and then set out to have some lunch. The sight of the ocean put me in the mood for seafood, so I decided to find some of the justly famous pulpo gallego, or Galician octopus. This is one of the finest dishes in Spain. The octopus is extremely tender, without a trace of rubberiness; and the combination of sea salt, olive oil, and the spicy local paprika make it addictively savory.
After a short walk around town I retired to the albergue. The host was another talkative Galician fellow. He was a youngish man, in his mid thirties I guess, and had the air of a tired hippie. He told me that he had gotten addicted to the camino at a young age, when his mother took him for a week on the trail. Eventually he opened up his own albergue, and met his future wife a few years later—a Russian woman who was passing through. She came in the door a few moments later, with their two little lap dogs in tow. It seemed like a happy family. I had a beer while flipping through some of the extensive National Geographic guide books that were shelved in the salon.
The only other pilgrims in the albergue were two Frenchmen. I guessed they were father and son, since the younger one looked like he was in his teens. Neither of them spoke much English, though it was not for lack of trying on the teenager’s part. He struggled through a ten minute conversation with me, using plentiful hand gestures to make up for the gaps in his vocabulary. From this mime show I gathered that he had been on the camino for quite three months, having started in Seville. I admit that I find it difficult to imagine spending such a long time on the road, simply walking. Surely one would see many beautiful things. But I am afraid my brain would atrophy from the lack of variety. It had only been three days and I was already looking forward to returning to Madrid.
Day 4: Cee to Finisterre
My final day. I woke up a bit later, knowing that it was going to be a short walk. The path took me through stone alley up into the surrounding hills. The sky was overcast yet again, though the bits of clover covering the ground still glowed with a powerful green. My route followed the coastline towards the peninsula, which jutted out into the sea like a moored ship. As I looked down from the pine-shaded hilltop to the granite shore below, I wished, yet again, that I could properly savor the moment, that I could nestle inside the feeling of being alone in nature and just stay there, hold onto it, and take some piece of the feeling with me. But again the sights came and went, and I was left none the better.
Eventually I walked down the hills onto a long beach. A man was playing with his dog on the sand, some hundred meters away. I snapped a photo. Minutes later, as I sat on a bench re-tying my shoes, he approached me, and asked me if I could email the photo to him. Sadly, I have forgotten to do it—until writing this post. We shall see if he replies.
From there I made my way to the town of Fisterra (the Galician name for Finisterre). Like so many places in Galicia, it is dominated by the camino. Half the people walking through the town sported the typical gear of the modern pilgrim: waterproof coat, nylon backpack, collapsible walking stick. Advertisements for albergues were everywhere. Many of the faces I recognized from the past three days; a few recognized me, and we exchanged a wave. I was tempted to stop, but I wanted to see the end of the road first.
The path to the end of the peninsula brought me once again above the Galician shore. Halfway to the end I passed a statue of a windblow pilgrim, dressed in the traditional medieval costume; and I could not help comparing the modern pilgrims (myself included), with their bright neon clothes, unfavorably to this more simply apparelled traveler. After what seemed like an interminably long time, the end came into view.
I admit that I was a little deflated, if only because there were so many people about. I wanted to feel alone on the edge of the world; but instead I felt like I was at a moderately popular tourist attraction—which, of course, I was. There was a stone cross on a boulder, where many were gathered. More gratifying, for me, was to see the final trail marker: 0.00 km. Seeing the constant and yet slow diminution of the remaining distance is one of the more satisfying and yet maddening aspects of the camino; so I felt a great surge of relief at finally seeing a zero. I was officially finished.
Further on, I came to the lighthouse. Next to it was one of those signs that shows the direction and distance to several major cities. One of the signs, pointing directly across the sea, was for New York: 5,235 km away. My home was right beyond the horizon. Or was it still my home? Did I belong on this side of the Atlantic, or that one? I still had not made a decision for next year. The camino had not resolved my dilemma.
I passed the lighthouse and went down to the rocky tip of the peninsula, where it descends into the sea. The base of a red metal tower had been covered in stickers and paraphernalia—pilgrims wishing to leave their mark. Nearby was a metal statue of a single boot, a trademark camino marker. It seemed to be the perfect memorial for the trail—an anonymous testament to the blisters and bliss of untold walkers. I sat next to it and stared into the ocean, turning over my problem in my head. And I decided, then, that unless something unexpected happened, I would go back to New York to pick up my interrupted life.
And in that moment I felt sad to have to leave such a beautiful place that had given me so much; and I felt relieved at having chosen a path. But mostly, I just felt exhausted and hungry. Little did I know that, just two weeks later, my brother would decide to move to Spain, which would change my calculations completely. And so I now find myself, a year later, writing this long tale of failed self-discovery and unsuccessful soul-searching from Madrid.
I picked myself up and dragged myself back into town, where I found a nice albergue and paid extra to have my own room. The rest of the day was spent in walking idly around the port, eating delicious chipirones (squid sauteed with garlic), and writing in my diary. “Will I ever see this shore again?” I asked myself. “It’s very possible I won’t.” (I would.) My brain was eerily silent. The usual little voices which pop in and out of our heads, telling us things to fret about, were almost entirely gone. I felt empty and free.
The next day I walked to the bus station with a Russian man who was staying in my albergue, and who told me that he had begun his camino by taking ayahuasca in Portugal. The bus left me in Santiago de Compostela, and then a train brought me to Madrid. In five days I had been to the edge of the world and back, and was none the wiser for it.
Food for powder, food for powder. They’ll fill a pit as well as better.
This is undoubtedly one of Shakespeare’s strongest plays. In tone and atmosphere it is far more varied and naturalistic than its predecessor, Richard II. The scenes with Hal amid the low-life of London are fetching, and do much to alleviate the stiff and stuffy courtly atmosphere of some of Shakespeare’s histories. The comedy also helps; and this play contains some of Shakespeare’s highest and lowest comedy, both of which are embodied in the corpulent Falstaff.
Most readers will, I suspect, concur with Harold Bloom in deeming Falstaff one of the bard’s great creations—though we may not go so far as to put him on a level with Hamlet. Bloom is correct, however, in seeing one’s opinion of Falstaff as a defining fact in one’s interpretation of the play. There are those who see in Falstaff the spirit of carnival—the ecstatic embrace of all the pleasures of life and the total rejection of all the hypocrisies of society Others see Falstaff as a corrupter and a lout—a lazy and selfish fool.
For my part I vacillate between these two attitudes. There is no denying Falstaff’s wit; and his soliloquy on the futility of honor is wonderfully refreshing, puncturing through all of the political nonsense that motivates the bloody clashes. Still, I cannot help thinking that, if the Falstaffian attitude were embraced too widely, society itself would be impossible. Some social restraint on our pleasure-loving instincts is necessary if we are not to end up fat drunken thieves. On the other hand, a generous dose of the Falstaffian attitude can be a great antidote to the self-righteous nonsense that leads us into war.
In any case, Falstaff is not the only great character in this play. Hotspur is a mass of furious energy, an electrifying presence every time he is on stage. Prince Hal, though less charismatic, is more complex. From the start, he already has an ambivalent relationship with Falstaff, a kind of icy affection or warm disregard. Indeed, Hal holds everyone at a distance, and one senses a skeptical intelligence that is wary of committing until the circumstances are just right. It is hard to read his character’s evolution as that of a wayward youth who learns to embrace his identity. His actions seem far too deliberate, his timing too perfect. Was he hoping to learn something by keeping company with Falstaff and his lot?
Compared with Part 1, this sequel is significantly weaker as a stand-alone play. There is no antagonist to compare with Hotspur. Falstaff wanders about in pointless merrymaking, mostly separated from Hal; and unfortunately his wit is not nearly so sharp outside of his young companion’s company. The same can be said for Hal, whose youthful liveliness fades into a chilling uprightness. And the plot can be frustratingly meandering and abrupt.
The main drama of this play is the progression of Hal from prodigal son to the ideal young king. This transformation is apt to cause some misgivings. On the one hand, I found it genuinely admirable when Hal commends the Justice and bids him to do his work. And even if one loves Falstaff, it is difficult to wish that the King of England would keep such a lawless fellow around, much less lend him influence. On the other hand, the newly-ascended king’s rejection of his former friend and mentor is deeply sad. Perhaps he should have turned Falstaff away, but it need not have been with such cold scorn.
Again, there is a moral conflict here. Falstaff may best be described as amoral: uninhibited, pleasure-loving, devoid of both cruelty and rectitude. He feels no scruples whatsoever at dishonesty and robbery, and acknowledges no ideal as worth pursuing or even respecting. Hal, by contrast, is a moral creature: he wishes to uphold the moral order, but for him this may mean murder or bloody conquest. So one must ask: Which is better, to be a drunken pickpocket or to lead your country on an invasion? Neither the socially subversive nor the socially upstanding can be fully embraced, which is why Hal’s rejection of Falstaff causes such complex reactions.