[Paleopsych] Simon Jenkins: A windmill I won't tilt at
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Tue Feb 8 21:37:31 UTC 2005
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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