Review: Don Quixote

Review: Don Quixote

Don Quijote de la Mancha: puesto en castellano actual íntegra y fielmente por Andrés TrapielloDon Quijote de la Mancha: puesto en castellano actual íntegra y fielmente por Andrés Trapiello by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I know who I am,” replied don Quijote, “and I know who I can be…”

I bought this book under the sway of a caprice which, if it were not too hackneyed to say so, I would call quixotic. This was two years ago. I was in the royal palace in La Granja de San Ildefonso, near Segovia. I had just toured the palace—one of the finest in Spain—and was about to explore the French gardens, modeled after those in Versailles, when I encountered the gift shop. Normally I do not buy anything in gift shops, since half of it is rubbish and all of it is overpriced. But this book, this particular volume, called out to me and I obeyed.

It was a foolish purchase—not only because I paid gift-shop prices, but because my Spanish was not anywhere near the level I needed to read it. And at the time, I had no idea I would be staying in Spain for so long. There was a very good chance, in other words, that I would never be able to tackle this overpriced brick with Bible-thin pages. At least I left myself some hope. For this is not the original El ingenioso caballero don Quijote de la Mancha—written in Spanish contemporaneous with Shakespeare’s English—but a bastardization: its style diligently modernized by the writer Andrés Trapiello. Even with this crutch, and even with an additional two years of living in Spain, this book was a serious challenge.

Before charging headlong into the thickets of criticism, I want to say a word in praise of Trapiello’s edition. Cervantes’s Spanish is not as difficult as Shakespeare’s English, but it still foreign enough to prove an obstacle even to native speakers. I know many Spaniards, even well-read ones, who have never successfully made it through El Quijote for this very reason (or so they allege). Trapiello has done the Spanish-speaking world a great service, then, since he has successfully made El Quijote as accessible as it would have been to its first readers, while preserving the instantly recognizable Cervantine style. And while I can see why purists would object to this defacement of hallowed beauty, I would counter that, if ever there were a book to painlessly enjoy, it is El Quijote.

To get a taste of the change, here is Trapiello’s opening lines:

En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, vivía no hace mucho un hidalgo de los de lanza ya olvidada, escudo antiguo, rocín flaco y galgo corredor. Consumían tres partes de su hacienda una olla con algo más de vaca que carnero, ropa vieja casi todas las noches, huevos con torreznos los sábados, lentejas los viernes y algún palomino de añadidura los domingos.

And here is the original:

En un lugar de la Mancha, du cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor. Una olla de algo más vaca que carnero, salpicón las más noches, duelos y quebrantos los sábados, lentejas los viernes, algún palomino de añadidura los domingos, consumían tres partes de su hacienda.

Now, undeniably something is lost in the transition. Cervantes’s “duelos y quebrantos” (lit. “aches and pains”), for example, is undeniably more evocative than Trapiello’s “huevos con torreznos” (eggs with bacon); but without Trapiello I would have no idea what Cervantes meant. It is also worth noting how similar the two are; Trapiello has taken care to change only what he must.

Onward to the book itself. But I hesitate. The more I contemplate this book, the more I think that a critic must be as daft as the don and as simple as his squire to think he can get to the bottom of it. Cervantes was either extremely muddle-headed or fantastically subtle, since this book resists any definite conclusions you may try to wring from its pages. Perhaps, like many great books, it simply got out of the author’s control. Just as Tolstoy set out to write the parable of a fallen woman and gave us Anna Karenina, and as Mark Twain set out to write a boys’ book and invented American literature, it seems Cervantes set out to write a satire of chivalric romances and produced one of the great works of universal art. It is as if a New Yorker cartoonist accidentally doodled Guernica.

The key to the book’s enduring beauty, I think, is Cervantes’s special brand of irony. He is the only author I know who can produce scorn and admiration in the same sentence. He is able to ruthlessly make fun of everything under the sun, while in the same moment praising them to the heavens. The book itself embodies this paradox: for it is at once the greatest rejection of chivalric romance and its greatest embodiment—an adventure tale that laughs at adventure tales. There is no question that Cervantes finds the old don ridiculous, and he makes us agree with him; yet by the end, Quijote is more heroic than Sir Galahad himself.

The central question the books asks is whether idealism is noble or silly. There is no question that the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance is a hilarious figure. But do we laugh at his expense, or at our own? Is his idealism pathetic, or is it our realism? The book resists both horns of this dilemma, until finally we must conclude that we are all—dreamers and realists alike—equally ridiculous. For we all reside in a social world whose rules only exist in our beliefs and in our actions, a world which we create but do not design. It is only Quijote who seems to realize (however unconsciously) that, by changing the script, we can recreate the world. And he does. By the time we get to Part Two, everyone is playing along with Quijote.

Even so, I am not able to go so far as Miguel de Unamuno, and consider Quijote a sort of messiah. I do not think Cervantes’s irony permits this. For Quijote truly is out of touch, and frequently gets pummeled for it. And even when his fantasy inspires others to play along, and to help him create his new world, they never do so for disinterested reasons. Some, including Sancho, play along for gain; others do so to control or to help Quijote; and most do it just to have some fun at his expense. This is the dilemma faced by all revolutionaries: they have the vision to see a better world, the courage to usher it in with their actions, and the charisma to inspire others to follow them; but most worldlings chose to play along for ulterior motives, not for ideals; and so the new world becomes as corrupt as the old one. To put this another way, Quijote’s problem is not that he is out of touch with the social order, but that he is out of touch with the human heart.

Much of the greatness of this book lays in the relationship between the don and his squire. Few friendships in literature are so heartwarming. Sancho, in his simplicity, is the only one who can even partially meet Quijote in his new world—as a genuine participant in Quijote’s make-believe. Of course, Sancho is not free from ulterior motives, either. There is the island he is to rule over. But the longer the story goes on, the more Sancho believes in his master, and the less he pursues material gain. We are relieved to see that, when finally offered his island, the squire comes running back to the don in a matter of days. As the only two inhabitants of their new world, as the only two actors in their play, they are homeless without one another.

It is useful to compare Shakespeare’s and Cervantes’s method of characterization. As Harold Bloom points out, Shakespeare’s characters are most truly themselves when they are alone, soliloquizing. When together, on the other hand, even close friends and lovers never seem to communicate perfectly, but talk past each other, or talk for their own benefit, or simply show off. But don Quijote and Sancho Panza are most truly themselves when they are with each other; they draw one another out and spur one another on; they ceaselessly bicker while remaining absolutely loyal; they quibble and squabble while understanding one another perfectly. When they are separated during Sancho’s sojourn on the island, the reader feels that each has lost more than half of himself. For my part, though I am not sure it is more “realistic,” I find Cervantes’s friendship more heartening than the bard’s. Though they begin as polar opposites, the squire and the knight influence one another as the story progresses, eventually coming to resemble one another. This beats Romeo and Juliet by a league.

What strikes most contemporary readers of this ur-novel is its modernity. Formally, Cervantes is far more daring than his Victorian successors. This is admittedly more apparent in Part Two, when Cervantes has his characters travel around a world where Part One has already been published and read widely, and where the spurious Part Two by Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda (a pseudonym) has just been released. This leads to self-referential tricks worthy of the coolest postmodernist: the duo encountering readers of the prequels and commenting on their own portrayal. Another daring touch was Cervantes’s use of the Arabic historian Cide Hamete Berengeli—whose Arabic book, found on the streets of Toledo, he is merely transcribing into Castilian—which allows him to comment on the text he is writing: praising the historian’s scrupulous attention to detail and skipping over boring sections in the “original.”

All this is done, not merely to be clever, but to reinforce the sense of infinite irony that pervades the text. The gap opened up by these tricks is what gives Cervantes room to be so delightfully ambiguous. As the authorship is called into question, and as the characters—who are imaginative actors to begin with—become aware of themselves as characters, the sense of a guiding intelligence crafting the story becomes ever more tenuous. The final irony, then, is that this self-referential irony does not undermine the reality of the story, but only reinforces it. In Part Two, especially, the characters leap from the book into reality, becoming both readers and writers of themselves—so real, indeed, that we risk repeating the don’s error of mistaking the book with reality.

Having said all this in praise of El Quijote, I should mention some of the book’s flaws. These are mostly confined to Part One, wherein Cervantes inserts several short novelas that have, for the most part, aged poorly. At the time there was, apparently, a craze for pastoral love stories involving shepherds and shepherdesses, which nowadays is soppy sentimental trash. One must also admit that Cervantes’s was a very mediocre poet, so the verse scattered throughout these pages can safely be skipped. On the whole, though the book’s most iconic moments are in Part One, Part Two is much superior and more innovative.

Part Two is also far sadder. And this is the last ambiguity: the reader can never fully decide whether to laugh or cry. Tragedy and comedy are blended so deeply together that no emotional response seems adequate. I still have not decided with any certainty how I feel or what I think about this book. All I know is that I wish it could go on forever—that I could read another chapter of don Quijote’s and Sancho Panza’s adventures for the rest of my life. To reach the end is unbearable. Don Quijote should live eternal life. And he will.

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Review: Meditations on Quixote

Review: Meditations on Quixote

Meditaciones Del QuijoteMeditaciones Del Quijote by José Ortega y Gasset

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like the varnish on a painting, the critic aspires to put literary objects in a purer atmosphere, the high mountain air, where the colors are more vibrant and the perspective more ample.

Ortega published this, his first book, in 1914 when he was 31 years old. It was meant to be only the opening salvo of a continuous barrage. According to his plan, this book was to be followed by nine other “Meditations”: on Azorín, Pío Baroja, the aesthetics of The Poem of the Cid, a parallel analysis of Lope de Vega and Goethe, among others. But, like so many youthful plans, this ambitious scheme was soon abandoned and this brief essay now stands alone.

As is the custom, Ortega fashions himself a follower of Cervantes; but he distinguishes his “quijotismo” by asserting that he worships, not the character Don Quixote, but the book. Ortega sees in this novel a repudiation of an earlier form of literature. By having his titular character rattle his brains by reading romantic tales of knights and adventure, only to go out into the world and make a fool of himself, Cervantes condemned all literature based on unusual people and events, replacing it with the literature of realism.

This is most dramatically portrayed in the episodes involving Maese Pedro, a picaresque character whom Quixote frees in the first part, and who returns in the second part to put on a puppet show for our hero. Unable to distinguish the puppets from his reality, the knight promptly charges and destroys them. This little episode demonstrates that romantic characters, such as Maese Pedro, reside in an imaginative space clearly delineated from the reality we know; but for Don Quixote imagination and reality are one seamless blend.

Apart from this discussion of the novel, Ortega roams far and wide in this essay, comparing Mediterranean and German cultures, discussing the epic form and Charles Darwin, and also including a germ of his later philosophy: “I am myself and my circumstances.” This collection also includes a long essay on Pío Baroja, which I could not properly appreciate since I have yet to read any of Baroja’s novels.

Ortega is his usual charming self. His prose is fluid and clean; his sentences sparkle with epigrams. He scatters his thoughts here and there with youthful zeal, not properly developing, clarifying, or defending any of them, but pushing joyfully on to the next point. I have heard some people describe Ortega as “dense,” but to me he is remarkably readable. Indeed I would describe Ortega as more of an intellectual essayist than a disciplined thinker. And the more I read of him, the more I am impressed.

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Review: Our Lord Don Quixote

Review: Our Lord Don Quixote

Vida De Don Quijote Y Sancho/ the Life of Don Quijote and Sancho (Letras Hispanicas / Hispanic Writings)Vida De Don Quijote Y Sancho/ the Life of Don Quijote and Sancho by Miguel de Unamuno

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

‘For me alone was Don Quixote born, and myself for his sake; he knew how to act and I to write,’ Cervantes has written with his pen. And I say that for Cervantes to recount their lives, and for me to explain and elucidate them, were born Don Quijote and Sancho. Cervantes was born to narrate, and to write commentary was I made.

Miguel de Unamuno defies classification. At once a philosopher, a literary critic, a novelist, a poet, and an essayist—and yet none of them completely—he resembled Nietzsche in his mercurial identity. In this way, too, did he resemble Nietzsche: though he had many themes and central ideas, he had no system. He wrote in short feverish bursts, each one as fiery and explosive as a sermon, going off into the branches (as the Spanish say) and returning again and again to his ostensible subject—only to depart once more. He was a wandering knight errant of a writer.

Unamuno was a member of the so-called Generation of ‘98. The date—1898—alludes to the Spanish-American war, a conflict in which Spain suffered a humiliating defeat and lost nearly all of her colonies. After this, it became impossible to see Spain as a world power; her decline and decadence were incontrovertible. This generation of intellectuals and artists was, therefore, concerned with rejuvenating Spanish culture. In Unamuno’s case, this took the form of finding Spain’s ‘essence’: which he did in the person of Don Quixote. He sees in the knight errant everything profound and important in Spanish culture, as a kind of Messiah of Spanish Catholicism, often comparing Quixote to Iñigo de Loyola and Teresa de Ávila.

This book has, therefore, a quasi-nationalistic aim, which may weary the non-Spanish reader. But it survives as one of the greatest works of criticism written on Spain’s greatest book.

The title of Vida de Don Quijote y Sancho is usually rendered in English as Our Lord Don Quijote; and this title, though not literal, does ample justice to Unamuno’s project. In this work Unamuno undertakes to write a full, chapter-by-chapter commentary on Cervantes’ novel; but his commentary is no conventional literary criticism. Unamuno declares his belief that Don Quixote and his squire were real, and that Cervantes did a grave injustice to their lives by writing it as a farce. In reality, the Don was a hero of the highest order, a saint and a savior, and Unamuno aims to reveal the holiness of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance for his readers.

Unamuno is, thus, the most quixotic of interpreters. He claims to see naught but pure nobility and heroism in the great knight from La Mancha. And yet the grandiose and ludicrous claims of Unamuno, and the farcical nature of Don Quixote himself, put the reader on guard: this commentary, like the great novel itself, is laden with delicate irony—an irony that does not undermine Unamuno’s literal meaning, but complements and complicates it.

You might call this Cervantine irony, and it is difficult to adequately describe, since it relies on a contradiction. It is the contradiction of Don Quixote himself: perhaps the most heroic character in all of literature, braver than Achilles and nobler than Odysseus, and yet laughably ridiculous—at times even pitiable and pathetic. We are thus faced with a dilemma: applaud the knight, or ridicule him? Neither seems satisfactory. At times Quixote is undeniably funny, a poor fool who tilts at windmills; but by the end of the novel—an ending more tragic than the darkest of Shakespeare’s tragedies—when he renounces his life as a knight and condemns all his adventures as insanity, we cannot help but feel profoundly sad, and we plead along with Sancho that he continue to live in his fantasy world, if not for his sake than for ours.

This is the paradox of idealism. To change the world you must be able to re-imagine it: to see it for what it might be rather than for what it is. Further, you must act “as if”—to pretend, as it were, that you were living in a better world. How can you hope to transform a dishonest world if you are not honest yourself, if you do not insist on taking others at their word? Quixoticism is thus the recipe for improving the world. Dorothea, from Middlemarch, is a quietly quixotic figure, only seeing pure intentions in those around her. But paradoxically, by presupposing only the best, and seeing goodness where it is not, she creates the goodness that she imagines. Confronted with a person who sees only the most generous motives, those she meets actually become kind and generous in her presence.

We then must ask: Is Dorothea a fool? And if so, does it even matter? And what does it even mean to be a fool? For as Lionel Trilling pointed out, Cervantes posed one of the central questions of literature: What is the relationship between fiction and reality?

Human reality is peculiar: We acknowledge an entire class of facts that are only facts because of social agreement. The value of a dollar, for example, or the rules of football are real enough—we see their effects every day—and yet, if everyone were to change their opinion at once, these “facts” would evaporate. These “social facts” dominate our lives: that Donald Trump is president and that the United States is a country are two more examples. You might say that these are facts only because everyone acts “as if” they are: and our actions constitute their being true.

The reality that Don Quixote inhabits is not, in this sense, less real than this “normal” social reality. He simply acts “as if” he were residing in another social world, one purer and nobler. And in doing so, he engenders his own reality—a reality inspired by his pure and noble heart. What is a queen, after all, but a woman who we agree to treat as special? And if Don Quixote treats his Dulcinea the same way, what prevents her from being a queen? What is a helmet but a piece of metal we choose to put on our heads? And if Don Quixote treats his barber’s bowl as a helmet, isn’t it one? We see this happen again and again: the great knight transforms those around him, making them lords and ladies, monsters and villains, only by seeing them differently.

In this way, Don Quixote opens a gulf for us: by acknowledging the conventional nature of much of our reality, and the power of the imagination to change it, we are left groping. What does it mean for something to be real? What does it mean to be mistaken, or to be a fool? To improve the world, must we see it falsely? Is this false seeing even “false,” or is it profoundly true? In short, what is the relationship between fiction and fact?

To me, this is the central question of Cervantes’ novel. But it remains a dead issue if we choose to see Quixote merely as a fool, as he is so commonly understood. Indeed I think we laugh at the knight partly out of self-defense, to avoid these troublesome issues. Unamuno’s worshipful commentary pushes against this tendency, and allows us to see the knight in all his heroism.

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Day Trips from Madrid: Alcalá de Henares

Day Trips from Madrid: Alcalá de Henares

(I wrote this post only a few months after my arrival in Spain, while I was still mostly ignorant of the country and its language. With the exception of Chinchón, I have visited all of these places since then, so I have appended little notes at the end of my posts about what I now know. I have also broken up my original post for ease of navigation.)


There are many advantages to living in Madrid. It’s big, it’s bustling, and it’s diverse. But one of my favorite aspects of Madrid is its location. By design, the capital of Spain is almost equidistant from every corner of the country; to drive from Madrid to Catalonia, to Andalusia, to the Basque Country, and to Galicia all take roughly the same amount of time. And transportation isn’t hard to find; the city is well connected by rail, highway, and plane to all points of the compass. Travel is cheap, easy, and fast.

As a consequence, there are a great many excellent day trips you can take from Madrid. I’ve already written about some of them: Toledo, Segovia, and El Escorial. In these posts, I want to talk about some of the perhaps lesser-known cities for day-trippers. I’ll start at the very beginning, with my first trip inside Spain.


Alcalá de Henares

As soon as I got to Spain, I blabbed to everybody I met that I had read Don Quixote. I was very proud of this, for I thought it gave me some kind of badge of honor in Spanish culture. And indeed, a few people seemed genuinely impressed—though less so when I told them I read it in English.

“Ah, so you like Cervantes?” a friend of ours said.

“Oh yes, he’s incredible.”

“You should visit Alcalá de Henares, then. It’s where Cervantes was born.”

This was only our second week in Spain, and we were still a bit disoriented by our surroundings. The prospect of taking an actual trip in Spain seemed almost Herculean, an added challenge to the day-to-day struggle of navigating our new city. But I was determined to get culture, by hell or high water; so as soon as we could, we made it to Atocha station and took the Cercanías to Alcalá de Henares. (For once in our lives, we found the train without a problem.)

The train was too full for us to sit down. We stood by the doors, both of us swaying nervously with the ever-present anxiety you feel when in a strange environment. I was looking forward to seeing the area around Madrid, but the windows were smudged and dirty; and the view, from what I could see, wasn’t much anyway—just the featureless tan wasteland of the dry foothills. Before even coming to Spain I had terrified myself by reading online stories about the ingenuity of pickpockets in Europe, and couldn’t stop casting interrogative glances at all the passengers around me, wondering whether any of them were thieves eyeing me up, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.

Station after station went by, and I was paying fierce attention to all of them, paranoid that we would miss our stop and get hopelessly lost. It’s really exhausting traveling somewhere totally new—it is for me, at least—because you can’t take anything for granted. The doors of the trains work differently; the seats are arranged differently; the automatic announcer is speaking a foreign language. Added to this, I was constantly afraid of doing something wrong by accident, breaking the train etiquette of Spain and drawing everyone’s attention to myself. It’s pretty amusing to me now, as I look back; but then it was just stressful and scary.

We arrived. After some confused mucking about, we began making our way to the center of town. Neither of us had Spanish SIM cards yet, so our phones didn’t work. We just followed the crowd, who all seemed to be walking in the same direction. The city seemed rather ordinary at first—though even this was interesting to me, since I hadn’t seen any city in Spain besides Madrid yet—but soon something caught our eye. It looked like a little castle, with a tower on one end and a tiny battlement at the top of a square structure.

IMG_0364

But what really made it stand out was the intricate ornamentation. The façade of the tower, for example, was covered in swirls. It was quite pretty. Although we didn’t know this at the time, it’s called the Palacete Laredo, and is one of the famous monuments of Alcalá. It was originally built as a private house for Manuel Laredo, a polymath artist who served as the mayor of Alcalá de Henares. Nowadays, it serves as a museum of the Cistercian order, as well as a specialized research branch of the Complutense University.

Looking back now, I can tell that it was built in a Neo-Mudéjar style, with crescent arches and a domed minaret. The top of the main building, however, is not Neo-Mudéjar in style, but rather looks like a small copy of the Alcázar in Segovia. In fact, the more I look at my pictures, the more of a stylistic jumble the place appears, with all sorts of different Spanish architectural elements mixed together. Of course, at the time I just thought it looked weird.

We kept going, following the trickle of pedestrians into the center of town. Eventually the buildings started to look older; the streets were narrower here and paved with stone. But what most caught our attention was a big beautiful bird, sitting on top of an old church. It looked so incongruous and stood so still that we were convinced it was fake—that is, until it twitched its head. When we got a bit closer we could see it had built a big, bushy nest up high on the building.

IMG_0399.jpg

As we moved on, following the throng of people wherever it seemed thickest, we eventually found ourselves in a dense crowd. Little shacks were set up all over the place, selling cheese, sausage, olives, nuts, spices, tea, wooden bowls, leather bags, colorful scarves, cheap jewelry. Not only that, but all the people in these shops were dressed up in funny outfits, like they were in Medieval times. Was Spain always like this on the weekends? I was both excited and terrified—excited to see a slice of Spanish life, but now scared more than ever about being pickpocketed.

We rounded a corner and came across an outdoor restaurant. Dozens of tables and chairs were gathered under a tent. Several harried men in ridiculous costumes—looking like court jesters, with striped red and white shirts and big puffy hats—were running left and right, carrying massive trays of food. Outside the tent was the cooking area, where a large circular charcoal grill was covered in sausages, meats, fish, and vegetables of all kinds. Immediately I felt very, very hungry. From the shops were hung all manner of flags and banners painted with signs from medieval heraldry—black, yellow, and red.

Every new street we entered was more packed than the last. Soon it dawned on us that this wasn’t at all normal, but was some kind of special festival. As if to confirm our suspicion, a group of men dressed up like medieval soldiers, with fake swords by their sides, paraded through the crowd while another man, dressed in rags, pretended to be a lunatic. One of the soldiers held him by a rope, while the maniac ran after people in the crowd (mostly women), gargling his throat and reaching out his dirty hands. Another soldier was beating a big bass drum, while they all shouted things that I couldn’t understand.

Alcala Marching Band

(As we later learned, this was the Cervantino, a medieval fair named after Cervantes, which is held in the first couple weeks of October. I have since gone back twice, and I highly recommend it.)

We wandered along this way, two bewildered Americans, absolutely intimidated by our surroundings, until eventually we were standing in front of a couple of statues. I immediately recognized these as being Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; both of them were sitting on a bench, and seemed to be having a damned good time. In between the knight errant and his square there was a space on the bench where tourist after tourist was lining up to have their picture taken. I would have had my picture taken, too, if I wasn’t so afraid that my phone would disappear as soon as I took it out of my pocket.

Don and Sancho statue

Behind the bench was the Cervantes House—the house where Cervantes himself was born and reared. We got on line and went right in. It’s quite a small place, actually. In the center of the house is a little courtyard, around which every room is situated. The insides of these rooms were furnished to look like they would have during Cervantes’ lifetime. I have to admit not much caught my eye, except perhaps the old kitchen equipment. It was more rewarding just to pace about, thinking that I was standing in the very place where Cervantes, that master of masters, entered into the world. This feeling was so strange to me that I’m not sure I quite took it in. This was perhaps the first appearance of “European Travel Syndrome” in my life. You simply can’t have an experience like this in New York.

Cervantes Statue
The statue of Cervantes in the main square

In just half an hour, we were out in the street again. We didn’t know anything else to do except walk around, seeing as much of the city as we could. Many of the buildings were impressive; but at this early stage, we didn’t really know how to go about visiting buildings or even how to look at them. In fact, what I most remember were not the buildings themselves, but the dozens stork nests sitting snuggly on rooftops, their bushy lairs looking somehow both ridiculous and majestic.

Alcala Food Stand

Eventually, we decided to sit down to eat in one of those tent restaurants. The waiter ran up to us, his floppy hat thrown over to one side of his head, and asked us in a slew of Spanish words what we wanted. We ordered two things, and he was off. At this point, we were so clueless in Spanish that most of the time we didn’t even know what we were ordering in restaurants. This was a classic example: We asked for “pimientos fritos” thinking they were french fries; five minutes later, the waiter dropped a plate of fried, salted green peppers on our table. I know, I know, this is an embarrassing mistake, not least because “potato” is “patata” here—not hard to guess.

The upside of our ignorance was that we ended up learning a lot about Spanish food, since we accidentally ate a lot of it. These pimientos were a case in point: we loved them, and pimientos now are one of our staple dishes. Really, if you’re in Spain and you can’t speak Spanish, just go into a restaurant and order whatever sounds interesting. All the food is good here.

After eating the pimientos, and then following it with a plate full of chorizo and tomato sauce on bread, we began to walk around again. But I’m afraid we didn’t do much of interest; and in an hour, we were on our way back to the train station to return to Madrid.

Reading over what I just wrote, and comparing it to what I find online about Alcalá de Henares, it’s obvious to me that we left most of the main sights unseen. Oh well, next time. But it was a fantastic stroke of luck to arrive on the very weekend when they were having their famous Medieval Market. And as I look back on it, this trip seems to presage our whole time in Spain so far: we arrive clueless and unprepared, and yet everything works out marvelously. Traveling in Spain is, in fact, a lot like ordering in a Spanish restaurant: even if you have no idea what you’ll get, you can be sure it will be delightful.


Alcala University

Addendum: Since this initial trip, I have since learned that Alcalá de Henares has been more than simply the birthplace of Cervantes, but has played an important role in Spanish history.

The city has existed since at least Roman times, when it was known as Complutum. It was in this town that Cardinal Cisneros, one of the leading functionaries of the Catholic Monarchs, founded the University of Alcalá in 1499. Under his direction the scholars of the university undertook and completed one of the greatest intellectual accomplishments of the Spanish Golden Age, the Polyglot Bible, which contained the entire text of the Old and New Testaments in three languages: Latin, Hebrew, and Greek—and sometimes Aramaic. The University was eventually moved to Madrid, where it was renamed the Complutense (which comes from Alcalá’s Latin name); and it remains one of the major universities in the country.

The original university building still stands in Alcalá’s main square. Its frontal façade is magnificent, and for a small price you can take a guided tour to learn about the university’s history.

The Cathedral of Alcalá is also worth a visit. Although it was burned during the Spanish Civil War, thus destroying many of its decorations and altars, it remains an attractive building. The cathedral is, curiously, the unique for being the only one in the world which possess the title “Magistral Church,” which requires that all of its priests be doctors in theology. 

Alcala Cathedral

Don Bigote: Chapter 1

Don Bigote: Chapter 1

Don and Dan Build a Shelter

In a little town in Alabama—where exactly I won’t tell you, since my dad says the internet is full of creeps—there lives a man who wears a grey smoking jacket on hot summer days, who has a loaded antique revolver on his hip at all times, and who keeps an arthritic greyhound out back. This guy is my neighbor, Don Bigote, who everyone calls “Colonel.”

Despite his nickname, I doubt he ever was in the army. I think he got it from his habit of wearing a gun all the time (though God knows he isn’t the only person to do that around here). Or maybe it’s the stiff, sort of soldierly way he walks and moves around, like he’s a windup doll made of wood. In any case, it’s clear that the guy was never a soldier, since he’s so skinny and light—basically a skeleton with some skin stretched over it—that a bumblebee’s sigh could sweep him away.

This gauntness, combined with his enormous height, makes him look like a human streetlamp.

But I forgot to mention Don Bigote’s most striking feature: his enormous white mustache. I don’t know how he maintains that thing, since his hair is thin, and the top of his head is totally bald; but the mustache sits proudly and nobly, completely covering his mouth, sneaking up towards his ears, shivering in the wind, perfectly brushed, trimmed, and sculpted. It is a work of art.

Don Bigote isn’t working now. Nobody’s quite sure what he did before he retired. My dad thinks he was a schoolteacher, since “All teachers are useless hippies! And besides how else could he have such a good pension? The good-for-nothing, stealing from the government!”

Most people agree that Bigote’s a bit off. He doesn’t seem to have any friends or family. His social life is confined to his greyhound. The two of them make quite a pair during their walks through the neighborhood. The poor whelp is almost as stiff, skinny, boney, and haggard as Don Bigote himself. The old girl walks slowly, limping slightly, with her head bent down, not pausing to sniff at anything, while Bigote marches forward to an invisible drumbeat.

You get the picture. Well, Don Bigote has been our neighbor for a long time now; and aside from a few neighborly interactions, and aside from the usual commonplace hellos and all that, and aside from the occasional jokes about his weirdness, we haven’t had much to do with him. Not yet, anyway.

Lately I’ve had much more important things to worry about.

I just graduated high school, which is a big deal. That’s something you only do once. You can graduate college multiple times, and you can get married to many different people—consecutively or simultaneously (depending on where you live)—and you can have as many kids are your sexual potency permits and your wife’s (or wive’s) fertility allows, and you can exclude as many of those kids from your will as your heart desires, and you can even die over and over again if someone is kind enough to bring you back to life with a defibrillator—but graduating high school is a one-off thing. So I’m savoring the experience.

To get particular, this savoring involves a lot of drinking and as many girls as I can convince to be a part of the celebrations. I have carefully budgeted, planned, and I have convened counsels, secret and solemn, with friends and acquaintances, and I have run careful reconnaissance missions, sent invitations, bought supplies—beer and condoms, mostly—to ensure that this savoring goes on without any interruption for as long as possible. So far so good.

Last night was no exception. I won’t go into details, but I had a proper debauch. I’ll just say that this morning I woke up on Jimmy’s couch next to someone, needing badly to pee and vomit (not in that order), with a terrible headache and a slight burning sensation in my loins that I hope is just from friction. After taking care of business, I do what I always do: throw on my clothes and sneak out, leaving everything for Jimmy to clean up.

Well, as I’m walking home, bleary-eyed, head pounding, body aching, blinking in the bright day, pausing occasionally to spit up a little into the bushes, this infamous Don Bigote—who, I should make clear now before I forget, is the entire subject of this story, and the entire reason I’m writing in the first place, so pay attention—this infamous Don Bigote, as I was saying, with his mustache twinkling in the sunlight (he must’ve drank something recently, since it looks moist), walks over from his front porch to his fence and starts talking to me.

“Hello, good sir,” he says.

“Ugh,” I reply.

“Fine day, is it not?”

“Yug.”

“Yes, there is a northerly breeze, and the sun’s rays are dripping full down like a waterfall from heaven.”

“Gargle.”

He opens the gate of his fence and approaches closer. I can hardly keep my eyes open, and judging from the sounds my stomach is making, I don’t have long to get to a bathroom (we ate spicy burritos before the party).

“May I ask, sir,” he says, “if I have the honor of talking to the first-born son of Mr. and Mrs. Chopin?”

“Yurgle,” I answer.

“And is this first-born son bestowed with the appellation, ‘Daniel’?”

“That’s me,” I say. “Dan Chopin.” Stomach clock still ticking.

“Ah, what a pleasure,” he says, and stretches out his hand. I do likewise and he very formally and firmly shakes my appendage until he’s good and satisfied.

“And am I correct in the knowledge, recently acquired, that this very same son, Dan Chopin, is recently graduated from high school?”

“Mmmm.” Stomach can’t take much more of this.

“And is this same aforementioned son, the honorable Dan Chopin, currently in want of gainful employment?”

“Uuhhhhhuuuhh!” I scream. “Dude, just send me a letter!” And I run into the house and make it just in time (well, close enough).

I shower, nap, get up, shave, apply deodorant under my armpits and my legpit, and then I go again to the bathroom just to make sure my system is totally vacant, and then—cleaned up, spruced up, and emptied out—I go downstairs to enjoy the good and wholesome cooking of my wonderful mother, who is already busy in the kitchen, as my acute nose informs me.

“You got a letter,” she says as I walk in. “It’s on the table.”

“Oh yeah? What’s for dinner.”

“Chicken. You got a letter. It’s on the table.”

“Oh yeah? What kind of chicken?”

“Roast, with rosemary. The letter is there on the table.”

“And what’s on the side?”

“Potatoes and greenbeans. The letter’s right there on the table.”

“Oh yummy, potatoes and greenbeans!” I say, as I sit down at the table and absently open the letter, thinking it’s just the usual bullshit about college. But then I pause. It’s written in script, and the writing is all squiggly and fancy-like. I need to squint to read it, since who writes in script? It goes like this:

My dear Daniel, 

I hope this letter finds you in good health and fine spirits. I am sorry to have caught you at an inopportune moment earlier today, my sincere apologies.

I am writing you today to introduce a certain proposal into your hands. Recently I have been doing a great deal in my house, and it struck me that I badly require assistance, seeing as I am old and increasingly in need of haste due to events beyond my control.

My proposal is this. I wish to contract your services, for a few hours each week, to help me around the house. For your services, I will give you a suitable monetary reward, the exact amount being negotiable but certainly substantial.

If you wish to accept this offer, or if you are merely intrigued and wish to learn more, please come over any time tomorrow and we will discuss it further. If, however, you cannot or do not wish to accept this offer, be assured that I understand and respect your decision, and no further action need be taken on your part.

 Yours faithfully,

 Don Bigote

What a wackjob. Who writes like this? Well, what should I do? I’ve got so many parties coming up, I don’t think I have any spare time…. tonight at Jimmy’s again, then Thursday I’m with Jessica, then Friday we’re going to the old factory… But then again, if I work during the day, maybe it won’t be a problem. And some extra money could really help with the debauching…

“Hey mom,” I say.

“Not for another five minutes,” she says, stirring something.

“No, it’s not about dinner. But thanks for letter me know.”

“What, then?”

“This letter, it’s from the Colonel. He wants me to work for him.”

“That’s nice, dear.”

“Says he’ll pay.”

“Very nice.”

“What do you think?”

“Well, it sounds terribly nice.”

“Should I do it?”

“I think it would be a nice thing, Danny.”

* * *

Next day at noon, I knock on his door.

In three seconds Don Bigote opens it. He’s dressed the usual way: pistol on hip, grey smoking jacket, mustache looking as sharp as a razor blade.

“My dear Chopin, come in,” he says, gesturing stiffly.

“Yo,” I say. “What’s up?”

“I am so pleased you came.”

We walk to his kitchen. On the way I get a glimpse of his house. It’s a total mess. Magazines, books, and papers are strewn everywhere. It’s a weird assortment of stuff, too—the National Review, ¡Adios America! by Ann Coulter, a book of Latin grammar, a history of the Spanish Reconquista, and several books with the Twin Towers on the cover. Equally random are the pictures on the walls—Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan, the Confederate flag, a map of Europe, a glossy photograph of a castle, and an old oil portrait of someone with a big chin who looks historical and important. And the whole place smells like cigars and sawdust.

When we get to his kitchen—chipped plates, dirty dishes, and greasy glasses in the sink, and pots and pans and cutlery strewn everywhere—a radio is playing:

“Nowadays, you can’t say you’re against immigration or the media immediately calls you a racist. Like, am I a racist if I don’t like Mexicans? It’s a conspiracy! The left is trying to open the floodgates, my fellow Americans, and they’re already in control of all the television, all the…”

Don Bigote turns off the radio. Then he pulls out a chair for me at the kitchen table, and walks over to the cabinet to get something. In front of me is a Bible (in the King James translation), and a book called Vaccines and Autism: Behind the Liberal Conspiracy to Poison our Kids.

“I understand,” he says, as he rummages through his shelves, “that nowadays it is illegal for people of your age to partake of alcoholic drinks. Government tyranny!” He pulls down a bottle of bourbon from the shelves. “Those ungodly communists!” He pours me a drink, and pours himself one.

“To freedom!” he says, and we clink glasses. The bourbon burns.

“Onward to business, then,” he says, crossing one leg over the other, sitting straight up as if someone stuck a stick up his ass. “Chopin, before I begin, I need your most solemn promise of confidentiality. What I am about to tell you is very sensitive information, and if you were to tell anybody, maybe even your parents, then things could get very bad for me.”

“No worries, dude. I’m no snitch.”

“Excellent. Well, to begin, surely you are aware, Chopin (not to put too fine a point on it), that the world is in crisis. This much is clear to everybody. Immigrants are pouring in and turning the streets into chaos, Muslim terrorist are sneaking into countries and killing untold numbers of innocents, and the media and the government are doing nothing to stop it.”

“You sound like my dad.”

“Yes, all this is generally known and rightly complained of. But it has lately come to my attention—how exactly, I can’t tell you, just know that it was the process of many years of painstaking research on the internet, searching through countless forums and chatrooms, as well as a huge effort of radio listening and book reading—it has come to my attention that the trouble goes far, far, far deeper than you think.”

“Oh yeah?” I say, and polish off the bourbon.

“You see, all of these events are connected. The Muslims, the Mexican immigrants, the Media, the Government—they aren’t separate phenomena, but are working in a close alliance. And they have been for a long time, Chopin. Now, I don’t want to scare you, but what if I told you that everything from the Twin Towers attack, to global warming, to vaccinations, to multiculturalism, to abortion, to evolution, to feminism—all of these, Chopin, are part of a carefully planned and perfectly executed conspiracy.”

“Is it alright with you if I have another glass?” I say, as I walk over to the bourbon bottle.

“Yes, yes, of course.”

“So, like, why?”

“Why?”

“Yeah, what’s the point of this conspiracy, then?”

“Chopin, don’t be naïve!” he says. “The purpose is as clear as crystal: to end Western Civilization as we know it.”

“Mmmhmm,” I say, mid gulp, mulling it over. “Are you sure about this, dude? Sounds pretty crazy to me. Like, isn’t the government busy killing the terrorists over there? And, like, why would feminists want to blow up the World Trade Center?”

“I know it may seem hard to believe,” he says. “But that’s just the brilliance of it—that’s why nobody but me has figured out the truth.”

“Well, alright. Then shouldn’t we stop it? Or like tell the police?”

“Chopin, Chopin, I wish we could. But I’m afraid the conspiracy goes far too deep. I mean, look at this.”

He pulls out a twenty dollar bill from his pocket.

“Just watch.”

He starts folding it very carefully, like its origami or something. When he’s finished the bottom is triangular and its been folded lengthwise in half.

“See?” he says, handing it to me.

I can see two parts of the White House with trees on the end.

“Can you believe it?”

“Well, I’ve honestly seen better. My friend can make a swan.”

“The Twin Towers!” he says.

I look again. I guess it does sort of look like two buildings on fire, if you squint.

“The twenty dollar bill has had this design since 1928. You know what that means? They have been planning this since before the World Trade Center existed! And at the highest levels of government!”

His eyes were wide with terror, and his mustache seems to be squirming around on his upper lip like a small animal.

“Wow, that’s pretty crazy,” I say. “Some real illuminati shit. So, like, when’s the last time you went to a doctor?”

“You can’t trust doctors either, Chopin. I’m afraid they are some of the most fiendish conspirators of all.”

“I see, I see. Wow, dude, seems pretty hopeless. So what do you want me to do?”

“At this point, Chopin, I think that there is no hope of preventing their success. Civilization will collapse entirely, in about five years if my calculations are correct. Thus, I have taken it upon myself to begin storing up knowledge for the dark times to come. If I cannot prevent this disaster, at least I can make it easier for future generations to rebuild civilization and regain what was lost. This is what I need you for.”

“Yeah, go on.”

“You see, I am building a shelter beneath this house, a shelter deep underground, where I will store up all of the knowledge, the literature, music, architecture, painting, poetry, all of the science and philosophy, and of course all of our theology and religion, where it will be safe, I hope, when society begins to fall apart. I can’t build it alone, so that’s why I wanted to hire you, as an assistant.”

“So, like, how much are we talking here?”

“Is this a monetary question?”

“Yeah. Cashwise, how much?”

“Well, since I expect money will lose its value in a few years, I am willing to be very generous. How about $50 an hour?”

“I’LL DO IT!” I say. “Let’s start right away!”

* * *

“Okay,” he says, “let me see here. How long did you say the basement is?”

“25 feet and 3 inches.”

“And tell me the width once more?”

“20 feet 8 inches and a quarter.”

“Hmmm. This means, according to my calculations, that we need about sixteen hundred cinderblocks, eight bags of cement (I have the mixer machine already out back), at least half a ton of gravel, and several hundred feet of plastic tubing.”

“Why tubes?”

“My dear Chopin,” Bigote says. “The atmosphere on the surface will be unbreathable. We need to install an atmosphere purification system, to remove toxins and radiation, so we can survive long enough for the earth’s ecosystem to re-balance itself. Trust me, I’ve read several blogs about this.”

“Who’s ‘we’?”

“Why, do you think I’d be so heartless as to leave you to fend for yourself during this cataclysm? The thought of it!”

“And my parents?”

“Well, uh, you see Chopin, space is very limited.”

“Ok, I hope you’re a good cook, then, if I won’t have my mom with me.”

“Have no fear about that. I have been practicing the ancient and noble arts of French and Italian cooking, so that I can teach the survivors how to make poulet cordon bleu and spaghetti—two vital elements of Western culture.”

“Alright, well then, just don’t light the place on fire.”

“No more time for small talk, Chopin. We must attend to business. Let us away to the pick up truck, to purchase these supplies and start construction.”

“Ok, but I’m driving.”

Bigote’s truck is a true piece of shit and leaves a trail of black fumes behind it as it coughs its way to the department store. The whole interior smells like gasoline and burning brake fluid, which pours in through the ventilators, and the seats aren’t even comfortable.

“I bought it used,” he explains. “No paperwork, paid in cash. For the past seventeen years, you see, I have been doing my best to live off the grid. No bank account, no government records, no paperwork, no signatures, nothing. I live invisibly.”

“But isn’t your name on your mailbox?”

“An alias, my good Chopin, an alias. My true name is not Don Bigote.”

“What is it, then?”

“Here we are!” he says, as the Home Depot pops into view.

We jump out, and I pick up one of those big metal trolleys for serious home improvement shopping. Bigote leads the way, his giant legs crawling like a giant spider over the flat parking lot, his mustache fluttering heroically in the wind. He looks ridiculous and I feel embarrassed, but money is money.

We walk through the sliding automatic doors and into the big, spacey interior, that always reminds me of an airport hanger.

“First, I suppose we should get the concrete,” Bigote says, staring down at his list through wire-framed glasses.

“Welcome to Home Depot,” someone says. “Can I help you?”

“Yes, do you—”

Don Bigote looks up at the assistant and freezes. I look at the assistant, too, and recognize him immediately. He’s my classmate Juan López, from Venezuela, a short, dark-haired boy with a nose piercing. Quite good at lacrosse.

“No, sorry, I’m not in need of anything, just browsing, thank you very much…”

Don Bigote turns and bolts down the nearest aisle.

“Yo Juan, you coming tonight?” I say.

“Dunno yet dude.”

“Ok, well see ya around.”

I follow Bigote.

When I find him, he’s leaning against the tires, pale and panting.

“Dude, what’s wrong?”

“Don’t you see!” he sputters. “They’re here! The Mexicans!”

“Who, Juan? He’s not Mexican, dude.”

“That’s what they want you to believe!”

“Who? His parents?”

“Oh, this is bad, Chopin, very bad. If they see what materials I’m buying, they will get suspicious and investigate, and my scheme will be ruined. No, it’s too risky, too risky.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s fine, dude. Juan’s cool, mostly. He did hit a guy in gym class in April. Got suspended.”

“Damn them to hell!” he says, pounding his fist into his palm. “Clever bastards! I will not be defeated so easily!”

And with this, he pulls his revolver out of his holster and starts dashing towards the front door.

What the fuck are you doing?!” I scream, and run after him.

He gets to the end of the aisle, stops, and aims straight at Juan.

“See you in Hell, communists!”

“Wait, wait, wait!” I yell, and tackle him from behind just as the shot rings out.

The bullet goes wild and hits the roof. Meanwhile the two of us slam into a shelf full of electric drills, which comes tumbling down. And then, like in all the movies, the domino effect: one shelf hits another shelf hits another, until the entire store is collapsing. Babies are crying, men and women are running for the exits, the alarm is sounding, red lights and a siren, the sprinkler too, everything is going totally nuts, and the string quartet is still bravely playing.

Finally the last shelf tumbles down, and the place is deathly still. The two of us slowly get to our feet.

What do we do? What do we do? Shit, shit, shit, Bigote will get arrested, and then who will pay me? And what if they arrest me to? Think, think, think.

Wait!

“Freeeee stuff!” I yell. “Get it quick, get it now! Before the cops come!”

The store explodes again, as every customer begins frantically looting, ripping open the cash machines, filling up their arms with everything they can carry, running this way and that, in every direction, and still the string quartet doesn’t stop.

“Now’s our chance! We’ve got to go!” I say to Bigote, and yank him towards the exit.

“But the shelter!”

“No time, dumbass! Let’s get our asses in drive, and skedaddle!”

And we run out into the parking lot, jump into the car, and zoom into the sunset.

(Continued in Chapter 2.)

Quotes & Commentary #26: Durant

Quotes & Commentary #26: Durant

A sense of humor, being born of perspective, bears a near kinship with philosophy; each is the soul of the other.

—Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy

Durant, though not much of a comedian (and hardly more of a philosopher), did have his funny moments. My favorite of his subtle sarcasms is this delicious pun: “Holland boasted of several ladies who courted in Latin, who could probably conjugate better than they could decline.”

I was reminded of this quote while reading Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. In his brief overview of his therapeutic technique, Logotherapy, Frankl mentions that he often uses humor to help his patients deal with neuroses.

The popular cognitive therapist, David D. Burns, also uses humor to help his patients deal with anxiety and depression. One of his techniques for managing fear is to replace a dreadful fantasy with a funny one. This relies on the same principle as the advice commonly given to people with a fear of public speaking: imagine everyone in the crowd in their undergarments. The effect of this is to transform something dreadfully serious and frightening into something absurd, and even fun.

I remember something from a documentary I saw long ago (I wish I could remember which one) that human babies laugh when something apparently dangerous turns out, upon closer inspection, to be harmless. For example: A mom hides her face behind her hands. The baby gets confused and nervous. He can no longer see her face. Is that still his mom? What’s going on? Then, the mom takes her hands away, revealing a silly smile. The baby giggles with delight. It was mommy all along!

The reason why humor is effective in dealing with anxiety relies, I think, on this same mechanism. When we manage to see the humor in our situation, we see it from a new point of view, a new perspective in which our problems, which looked terrible from up close, now look silly and harmless.

In a way, to find something humorous, we must see the situation from a greater distance. Instead of getting absorbed in a problem, letting its shape occupy our whole field of vision, we place the problem in a landscape and thus contextualize it. When we do this, often we find ourselves laughing, because the problem, which before seemed so huge, is really small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Here’s a recent example. A book review I wrote, of which I am fairly proud, was somehow deleted off Goodreads. At first I got very annoyed and upset. I had put so much effort into writing it! And I lost all the likes and comments! Then, with a smile, I realized that it is a bit absurd to get worked up about an internet book review. People are struggling to find jobs, managing chronic diseases—and for Pete’s sake Trump is president! My lost book review was nothing to get frustrated about.

As Durant points out, it is this quality of humor—seeing the part within the context of the whole—that most approaches philosophy. Durant does not, of course, mean “philosophy” in the strict, modern sense of the word (the subject that deals with problems of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and so forth). He means, rather, philosophy in its classic sense, as a method of regulating one’s life and thoughts in order to be more virtuous and happy. Nowadays, instead of philosophy, we have therapy and self-help books to aid us in this quest. But whatever we decide to call the art of life, I think most of us can agree that humor plays no small part in it.

Just the other day, I was having a conversation with a teacher in the philosophy department of my school. I asked if there were any Spanish philosophers she would recommend. She mentioned a couple names, but then she added: “You know, the most profound Spanish philosophy cannot be found in any philosophy book. It’s in Don Quixote.”

I was struck by this comment, because Unamuno, who I just finished reading, had the same opinion. And I can’t help agreeing. All profound comedy—and there is no comedy no more profound than Don Quixote—necessarily carries with it a profound philosophy. I do not mean by this that you can extract from Cervantes anything similar to Kant’s ethics; only that great comedy requires an ability to see things as they really are, within the context of the whole, and to transmit this vision with punch and savor.

The comedian alive who, in my opinion, comes closest to this quixotic ideal is Louis C.K. His comedy is distinctive for its emphasis on self-mockery. Most often he uses himself as the butt of his jokes. But his comedy is saved from narcissism because, despite his wealth and fame, he convincingly adopts an everyman persona. Whenever he makes fun of himself he is making fun of you, because inevitably you think the same thoughts and do the same things. But his comedy isn’t threatening because, however denigrating he can be, everyone in the audience is all in it together.

This ability to make fun of yourself is one of the qualities I value most highly. It saves you from being arrogant, condescending, and over-serious. It allows you to be humorous without picking on other people. Self-mockery is also, I think, an excellent antidote to many of life’s petty troubles (like deleted book reviews). If you can take a step back from yourself, and honestly see your faults, your pettiness, and your absurdities—not with bitterness but with forgiving humor—then you will be able to see your successes and your failures with the gentle irony that life, a thoroughly silly thing, so richly deserves.

Review: Pride and Prejudice

Review: Pride and Prejudice

Pride and PrejudicePride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jane Austen’s tools are tweezers and a nail file. Tolstoy built cityscapes; Dostoyevsky dug sewer systems; Joyce made funhouses; Kafka put up prisons; Cervantes created carnivals. Austen crafts ivory figurines, incredibly lifelike portraits that fit in the palm of your hand.

When you read Pride and Prejudice you see the novel in its barest form. Her prose has no pyrotechnics, her descriptions have little poetry. Word-play, fantastic events, bizarre characters, cliff-hangers, and elaborate plots are similarly absent. When you read this book you realize that these tools are not only unnecessary, but can distract from the craft of the novel.

In all of the annals of social science—the ethnographies of anthropology, the studies of sociology—there has never been an observer of social life more keen than Ms. Austen. What we have here is one of the best accounts of marriage customs ever written. That information alone would make this book invaluable.

But of course, this is no academic treatise; it is a novel, and a brilliant one at that. Unlike other authors, who use the dialogue to present information about the plot, for Austen the dialogue is the plot. It is a story of information and misunderstanding. Who thinks what, who knows what, who tells what to whom—all form the intimate tapestry of events that propel this book forward to its merry conclusion.

Austen also excels at omitting unnecessary information. She never tells instead of shows. She does not beleaguer the reader with descriptions of personalities, or even of appearances. Descriptions of setting are similarly kept to the barest minimum; in fact, they are almost apologetic.

The scenes of our greatest struggles and triumphs aren’t always aboard a whaling ship or before the gates of Troy. Sometimes they are conversations held over the soft plunking of a piano-forte

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Review: The Western Canon

Review: The Western Canon

The Western Canon: The Books and School of the AgesThe Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tradition is not only a handing-down or process of benign transmission; it is also a conflict between past genius and present aspiration, in which the prize is literary survival or canonical inclusion.

As far as I know, Harold Bloom is the last major proponent of the ‘Great Books’ paradigm of higher education. This makes him something of an apocalyptic prophet. With great solemnity, he predicted (this was in 1994) that the Western world was about to enter into a new cultural era, a new Theocratic Age, wherein dogmatism would drive out aesthetic criteria from literature departments. These new dogmatists Bloom dubs the School of Resentment—a catch-all term that includes Marxist, Feminist, and post-structuralist literary critics. All of these approaches, says Bloom, seek to replace an aesthetic motive for a social or political one, and thus miss the point of literature.

Bloom sets out to defend his familiar Western Canon, and does so by analyzing twenty-six writers to see what makes them canonical. Why do we keep reading Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, and Tolstoy? The answer, Bloom finds, is because these works are strange: “One mark of an originality that can win canonical status for a literary work is a strangeness that we either never altogether assimilate, or that becomes such a given that we are blinded to its idiosyncrasies.” Canonical works are those that are always beyond us somehow, those that are too rich, deep, and original to fully absorb.

How do artists achieve this exquisite strangeness? Bloom’s answer is that authors creatively misread the works of their predecessors to clear a creative space for themselves. This is Bloom’s famous anxiety of influence. Every writer feels anxiety about what they owe to their predecessors, so they attempt to find a weakness or a shortcoming—a place where there is still room for originality. But almost no author is original enough to outperform every one of their literary forebears. In Bloom’s opinion, there have only been two writers who have done so: Dante and Shakespeare. (I would add a few others to the list, personally.)

While Dante is given his due, Shakespeare is the real center of this book. Bloom is obsessed with Shakespeare: he worships him. For Bloom, Shakespeare invented the modern human. By this he means (I think) that Shakespeare’s characters redefined what we think of as personality and the self. Every writer since Shakespeare has so deeply internalized Shakespeare’s version of human nature that we can’t portray people in any other light. Shakespeare’s mind was too vast, acute, and convincing for us to get beyond it. Thus all writers after Shakespeare are forced to misread and misunderstand him in order to find a space for creativity.

Since Bloom thinks Shakespeare is so inescapably central, he discusses Shakespeare in every chapter—even the chapters on writers who predated Shakespeare: Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, and Montaigne. But Shakespeare is not the only writer whose influence Bloom discusses. Bloom’s whole model of literary originality consists of reading and misreading, influence and anxiety, so he is constantly comparing and contrasting writers. One of his favorite activities is to trace out literary ancestries, saying which writer descended from which.

It is hard for me to know what to make of all this. I find Bloom’s model of the anxiety of influence really compelling. But it is clearly the theory of an avid reader, not a writer. As is obvious on every page, Bloom is obsessed with reading; so it’s natural for him to reduce the writing process to reading and misreading. Bloom’s approach also leads to a rather inordinate amount of name-dropping. He mentions scores of poets, playwrights, and novelists on every page, often in long lists, and sometimes this seems to be for purposes of intimidation rather than illumination. What is more, Bloom’s approach requires a great deal of comparing and contrasting between different authors, which can make it seem as though he is more interested in connections between authors rather than authors themselves.

Bloom’s writing style, while appealing, can also be off-putting. There is something incantatory about it. He repeats similar observations, drops the same names, inserts the same quotations, and asserts the same points in different contexts and to slightly different purposes. His mind seems always to be swirling and buzzing rather than traveling in a straight line. He also has the bad habit of arguing from authority rather than with reasons. His treatment of the so-called School of Resentment is dismissive at best. He does not address their arguments, but rather talks of them as lost souls, blinded by worldly things. Another fault is that he makes assertions about authors that are not properly substantiated. The most noticeable of these was his claim that all of Freud’s theories are contained in Shakespeare—something he says repeatedly, but never adequately demonstrates.

I found Bloom to be consistently good in his criticism, but not great. There are many excellent and thought-provoking observations about writers and books here. But all too often Bloom’s criticism consists of little more than repeatedly insisting that this author is one of the best. His belief is that aesthetic appreciation can’t be taught; thus if you are not so endowed, you simply have to trust Bloom that certain writers are better than others. To be fair I think it’s impossible to “prove” that Shakespeare is better than Dan Brown. Nevertheless, Bloom’s attitude of authority can be seriously disagreeable. To question the motivation of your opponents (which he does) and to position yourself as an oracle and a prophet (which he also does) are not healthy attitudes for an intellectual.

Despite all of these misgivings, however, I still largely agree with Bloom’s judgments. In my experience the writers in Bloom’s canon are in a league of their own for the depth of literary pleasure they can provide. And although I am not so convinced of the autonomy of the aesthetic, I also think that aesthetic criteria are ultimately the most important in literary judgments.

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Review: Europe, by Norman Davies

Review: Europe, by Norman Davies

EuropeEurope by Norman Davies

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Can one narrate time—time as such, in and of itself? Most certainly not, what a foolish undertaking that would be. The story would go: “Time passed, ran on, flowed in a mighty stream,” and on and on in the same vein. No one with any common sense could call that a narrative.

—Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

Personal Preface

Lately I have been thinking a lot about time. Well, perhaps thinking isn’t the right word; I’ve been worrying. Ever since I moved to Spain, time has been a problem. What’s the proper time to eat? When do people sleep here? How long will my job last? What about my visa? Multiple clocks beset me, counting down and counting up.

Beyond my petty troubles, I have been thinking about time as an experience: how monotony speeds up the clock’s hand, variety slows it down, and nothing can stop it. I have been thinking about the inexorability of time: every passing second is irretrievable, every yesterday is irrecoverable. I have been spending a lot of time remembering, connecting my past with my present, if only artificially, and wondering how much the act of remembering itself distorts my memories. And in a Proustian mood, I have wondered whether a tremendous act of remembrance is the only defense we have against the ceaseless tide of time.

In the midst of our mundane concerns, it is all too easy to forget to remember. But is it crucial to remember; otherwise life can go by without us noticing. This is why we celebrate birthdays. Logically, it is silly to think that you turn from one age to another all at once; of course we get older every day. We celebrate birthdays to force ourselves to reflect on the past year, on how we have spent our time and, more chillingly, on how much time we have left. This reflection can help us assess what to do next.

Birthdays are just one example. In general, I have been finding it increasingly important to focus on these cycles, when a milestone is reached, when a process is completed, moments when the past is forcefully juxtaposed with the present. Finishing Norman Davies’s Europe was one such moment for me, and an important one. I first heard of the book from an old copy of National Geographic; it was in an article discussing the recent introduction of the euro (in 1999), a historic step in European unity. Davies’s book had just been published the year before, and the reporter had interviewed Davies about his thoughts on the future of Europe.

I read this article right as my love of reading began to blossom. Thus I dutifully underlined the name of Davies’s book, hoping to buy and read it some time in the future. But it was years until I finally bought a copy; and still more years before I finally started reading. When I first heard of the book I would never have imagined that I would finally read it, many years later, in Europe. But here I am, and it feels great.

The Review

Norman Davies’s Europe is an attempt to write a survey history of Europe in one volume, from prehistoric times to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, covering both Western and Eastern Europe. It’s an ambitious project. As you can imagine, an enormous amount of selection and compression was necessary in order to fit all this material into one volume. Luckily, Davies is adept at both of these skills; unfortunately, the book is still too big to carry around. It is big, fat, and heavy: thick enough to stop a bullet, hefty enough to knock someone out cold.

In terms of content, the book is both longer and shorter than it appears. Of the nearly 1,400 pages, only about 1,140 are actual history; the rest is given over to his notes, the index, and a lengthy series of appendices, on subjects ranging from the standard canon of opera, to death tolls in the Second World War, to the life course of an Austrian peasant household. Nevertheless, the pages are dense with text, in small font and with narrow margins; and the pages themselves are quite big. Moreover, owing to the huge amount of territory Davies covers, the book is almost nauseatingly packed with information, every page a summary of whole books. It isn’t the sort of thing you can breeze through.

Davies begins with a pugnacious introduction, in which he denounces all of his forbearers. For him, attempts to write European history have all fallen into various traps, by focusing too much on the ‘Great Books’, by their excessive length, or by their neglect of Eastern Europe. Davies snubs his nose at specialization, and wags his finger at academic fads; he bashes both the traditionalists and the radicals. I personally found this introduction to be an interesting read, but it does seem out of place in a book for the general reader.

For all that talk, you’d think Davies’s treatment would be highly heterodox. But that’s not the case. After an obligatory chapter on prehistory, he goes into a chapter on Greece, then Rome, then the Middle Ages, and so on. And even though one of his major bones of contention is the erstwhile disregard for Eastern Europe, he generally spends far more time on Western Europe.

The chapters increase in length as they approach the future, becoming progressively more detailed. For example, Aristotle and Plato must share one measly paragraph between them, but Gorbachev is given a dozen pages. As a result, the book gets more interesting the further you read. The coverage is only so-so for the ancient world; quite good for the Medieval period; and becomes really gripping by the 19th century. Davies attempts to cover all the major developments, but of course his space is limited. He sketches the historical individuals when necessary, but this is certainly not a “Great Man” telling of history. For the most part Davies focuses on economic, political, social, and cultural history, while paying less attention to intellectual and art history. Among the arts, he is strong on music but weak on painting, sculpture, and architecture.

The main narrative is broken up by what Davies calls ‘capsules’. These are mini-essays, ranging from half a page to two pages, on a variety of topics that interested Davies; they are set aside in their own boxes, interrupting the flow of the main text. This was Davies’s attempt to give extra color to his narrative, by focusing on little parts of the story that would otherwise be ignored. But I had mixed feelings about the idea. Half of the capsules were fascinating, but I thought many were uninspiring. And it was annoying to constantly be having to put the main narrative on hold, read a little essay, and then return where I left off. I thought it would have been a much better idea if he had left the capsules out completely, developed them into full-length essays, and then released them in their own book. I’d read it.

Davies is a writer of high caliber. He can adapt his style to any subject. His prose, although largely devoid of flourish, is consistently strong. In short, he has achieved that allusive aim of popular history writers: to inform and entertain in one breath. Seldom does he come across as seriously biased; but he is not afraid to be opinionated at times, which adds a nice touch of spice to the book: “Chamberlain’s three rounds with Hitler must qualify as one of the most degrading capitulations in history. Under pressure from the ruthless, the clueless combined with the spineless to achieve the worthless.”

I did catch two errors worth noting. First, Davies says that Dante called Virgil “The master of those who know,” when that epithet was really applied to Aristotle. Second, in the same sentence Davies calls Picasso, who was born in Andalusia, a “Catalan exile,” but he calls Dalí, who was born in Catalonia, a “Spaniard.” There were probably many more errors that I couldn’t catch, but in general the information seemed reliable.

Although this book is a survey history, Davies does have one central concern: the European identity. What does it mean to be a European? Davies doesn’t give any simple answers to this question, but instead traces how the European identity evolved through time. The reason for his concern is obvious. The Soviet bloc had only recently been dismantled, and now the European Union was faced with the task of dealing with these newly freed states. Davies himself appears to be strongly pro-Union; and in that light, this history of both Western and Eastern Europe can be seen as an attempt to give the people’s of Europe a shared past, in the hopes that they might embrace a shared future.

It was a bit strange to be finishing this book now. I can still remember the hopeful, enthusiastic tone of that National Geographic article about the new euro. People must have felt that they were entering a new age of European unity. Now the United Kingdom is threatening to leave the European Union, and several other countries are grumbling. The future, as always, is in doubt.

 Afterthought

I finished the book on April 23, which is Book Day here in Spain. Yesterday was the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’s death; and today is the same anniversary for Shakespeare. To celebrate, I go to the <i>Circulo de Bellas Artes</i>, where they are having a public reading of <i>Don Quixote</i>. Everyday people, old and young, are lined up in an auditorium to read a page from that great masterpiece; it will go on for 48 hours. After that, I walk to the Cervantes exhibition in the National Library, where they have dozens of old manuscripts of Cervantes and his contemporaries on display. From there, I walk to the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, where Cervantes was buried.

I was celebrating the completion of a cycle, and so was Spain. The past is alive and well in Europe.

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