I like lists, although I do think that my lists get together and make fun of me sometimes. Most of my lists enumerate things that I would like to do, should do, or may just look good on a list. One of these lists contains the titles of very important books that very smart people have told me I should read in order to be smart enough to tell other people what books should be on their lists. Some of the titles have a little check by them; I love to check things off lists! But others, some near the top of the list (denoting a longer period of residency on said list) stare back at me in mocking laughter; these are the books that know they are smarter than I am. They are Classics, a term that I am sure was developed by those same very smart people and applied to books they knew I wouldn’t understand, just too make me feel a little worse.
Proust and Cervantes authored two of those classics; just the mention of those men can give you street cred with those liberal elites that are so darn mean to Sarah Palin. Of course the danger in mentioning them is that you might run into that 1 in 10,000 who has actually read them, and they might ask you about more than just the author and title…
I’ve made three attempts with Proust, but it seems that Swan’s Way is not my way. I even went to see his old haunts in Paris and stared at his grave in hopes that some post-mortality essence might yet linger in the air, but no. I will try again, even if I have to buy a beret, start smoking Gitanes and drinking absinthe.
The Cervantes work is different; I think the reason I can’t ever get all the way through it may be the fact that I already know the story — and so do you.
Don Quixote, the main character, has become one of the great icons of Western literature, and tilting at windmills is something we vaguely know we should avoid. The Don is everything sad and comical, even pathetic about the old world from Cervantes’ point of view. An unheroic man, who reads himself into a faith in something that no longer exists, and fights battles against imagined foes. I think in its most positive spin, the Don can be seen as noble, willing to take on insurmountable challenges – to fight the good fight. Nothing wrong there… good icon. At the other end, the Don is championing a dead cause, here Cervantes may have been critiquing the burgeoning nationalism of his day, fighting a meaningless foe – all sound and fury signifying nothing… bad icon.
In my own life I have taken aim at both real and imagined windmills, as I suppose we all have. In my first three decades or so, I had an untarnished record and came to possess a pretty high regard for my aim and the power of my lance. That ended about five years ago when I took dead aim at one of the worlds more cyclopean windmills. I charged without hesitation, lowered my lance at what I perceived to be the weak spot, kicked my trusty stead into full gallop – and didn’t even make a dent, not a scratch. I found myself laid out, Quixote like; lance shattered, stead hobbled and hubris embraced.
In the years since, I have come to better understand this book that I haven’t read – not every windmill is the same, some are real and evil and could do with a good lance-poking. Others are more self-created windmills (…sound, fury, yada yada yada). We build them-up all on our own so that we can suit-up, grab our lances and have at them. We may feel better, but we waste a perfectly good tilt.
There are plenty of real-life windmills out there, and nowhere near enough Dons willing to charge them, it seems the challenge is to know the strength of your own lance, the stamina of your mount and the strength of the opposing windmill.
I’ve recovered now, dusted-off the ole’ lance and begun trying to get the war-horse back in fighting shape. But before I saddle-up, I’m going to read Cervantes; cover-to-cover, just to make sure the next windmill I take aim at is a real one, lest I tend toward too much tilting.