[Paleopsych] Simon Jenkins: A windmill I won't tilt at

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Simon Jenkins: A windmill I won't tilt at
January 21, 2005

[I'm taking my annual Lenten break from forwarding articles again this 
year. It's a vice to spend so much time doing this. So I'll be off the air 
for forty days and forty nights from Ash Wednesday until Easter.]

    It is the 400th anniversary of Don Quixote, a more important work than
    all of Einstein's theories

    A PICTURE of a battered warrior sits on my desk. I found it in a
    Bloomsbury print shop many years ago. He sits thin and sad on an ass,
    his helmet broken, his armour gone. He arrives home late at night to
    be greeted with joy and relief by his loving household. He has
    returned from knight errantry, to recover his reason and die. He is my

    This month we celebrate two anniversaries. One is of Einstein's
    Special Theory of Relativity (1905), a great work of Western
    civilisation. The other is Cervantes's Don Quixote (1605), also a
    great work of Western civilisation. The first is greeted with BBC
    specials, colour supplements, postage stamps and a United Nations Year
    of Physics. The other, at least outside Spain, is being ignored. Which
    merits the bigger salute?

    I have no quarrel with Einstein. The mobsters of Big Science have
    declared him master of the Universe. His brain was measured and his
    shoes embalmed. Women wrote him letters wanting to have his babies.
    His thoughts are installed in Newton's temple and not found wanting.
    Einstein is cool.

    But if Einstein had not existed, physics would sooner or later have
    invented him. I am sure of that. His theory of relativity was an
    understanding of nature. It lay over the cosmic horizon, awaiting
    discovery by the first genius to pass its way. Einstein was its

    Not so Miguel de Cervantes. He surveyed the landscape of post-medieval
    Europe and asked, but where is Man? He grasped at valour, love,
    loyalty, triumph and mortification and, like his contemporary,
    Shakespeare, compressed them in a human frame. He told a tale like no
    other man. If Cervantes had not existed, he could not have been
    invented. There would be a hole in the tapestry of Europe.

    Few English people read Don Quixote, probably because they think they
    know it already. We have heard of his fantasies and ordeals, of his
    poor horse and loyal squire, Sancho Panza, "not rich but
    well-flogged". We know of the tilting at windmills and ludicrous deeds
    to impress his yearning for the matchless Dulcinea del Toboso. The man
    is mad and not of our time.

    That is not the half of it. In 1605 there was also the publication of
    the full text of Hamlet. Quixote and Hamlet are often compared, though
    rarely by the chauvinist British. They share ghosts and demons,
    passion and honour, and they use plays within plays as metaphors. They
    both lead us over the bridge from the Middle Ages to introspection and
    the modern era. But Quixote is the more inventive, funnier, sadder,
    the loftier mind and the better conversationalist. His dialogues with
    Sancho, the knightly believer and the doubting servant, are among the
    most enchanting in literature.

    Cervantes lived his character. He fought the Turks at Lepanto in 1571,
    the culminating struggle of medieval Europe. He lost his left hand,
    was enslaved in Africa and imprisoned in Spain. His plays were
    failures. His life was a mess. Yet in just a few months of 1605 he
    wrote a book which soared beyond its time.

    The two parts of Don Quixote are as different as thesis and
    antithesis. The Don of the first part is the true fantasist, sated on
    fusty old texts. He sets out to re-enact the rules of chivalry, to
    defend justice and love in a sinful world. He battles with windmills,
    sheep and innkeepers' daughters. In his great essay on the Don, Carlos
    Fuentes talks of "art giving life to what history has killed".

    Part II breaks step with the past. The Don hears tell of his own
    exploits, indeed of his own book. Already he has chastised Sancho for
    thinking him unaware that Dulcinea is not a great beauty. He knows
    that she is a vulgar village girl, but she is the nobler for it. "Come
    Sancho," he cries, "it is enough for me to think her beautiful and
    virtuous . . . I paint her in my imagination as I desire her." A
    million Spanish women cheer. We are no longer sure who is poking fun
    at whom. Who are we to legislate between dream and reality? We are
    players and audience alike in the charade.

    Hence the Don leaps up from a puppet show and decapitates the model
    soldiers, to stop them arresting a lover and his princess as they
    escape to freedom. He then richly compensates the puppeteer for this
    "debt of honour". In the last chapter comes the final synthesis. The
    dying Quixote renounces the "dark shadows of ignorance" that came from
    reading "my detestable books on chivalry". He regrets only that he has
    no time to read "other books that can be a light to the soul".

    Don Quixote is supposedly the most popular novel in history. The Don
    was worshipped by Sterne, Goethe, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Kafka and
    Melville. Two years ago his saga was voted the best novel of all time
    by the world's "hundred top writers".

    Millions have come to regard Quixote as a friend for life. Like
    Cervantes, they have slaved in the galleys at Lepanto and emerged with
    only their dreams to live for. Like Quixote they have hoped beyond
    hope and loved beyond love. All of us sometimes see windmills as
    giants, and giants as windmills. Everyone has a knight errant within
    them, guiding his lance and turning the most humble career into a
    noble crusade. Like Quixote we long to leap on life's stage, to warm
    Mimi's frozen hand or stay Othello's dagger. We imagine that frump in
    the Tube as the matchless Dulcinea, at least until Tottenham Court

    Somehow I shall survive without Einstein. I can drive spaceship Earth
    without knowing the workings of the atom. But I cannot do without my
    icon. I raise my glass to the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, Don
    Quixote of La Mancha, as he trots across the plain of life in search
    of self-fulfilment. He knew that reason would triumph, but he also
    knew that reason was not enough. Quixote's epitaph ran: "It was his
    great good fortune to live a madman and die sane." Amen to that.

    simon.jenkins at thetimes.co.uk

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