As far as I can remember, Don Quixote, though at the top of the Well Educated Mind List, was not in the wooden-floored, white-shelved municipal library my mother took me to as a child. Nancy Drew was, so I read her series, my Bible, and as many fairy tales as I could find. There was a library at my church too, and I read pretty much all of the missionary biographies it contained. This last feat is not as impressive as it sounds since that particular library consisted of a small collection of books contained on a few shelves in a closet that doubly served as an office where my dad kept track of Training Union literature and recorded attendance on a carbon-paper notepads.
In junior-high, I read around the scant school library. I started in the corner that snuggled Agatha Christie and, after a sad clingy goodbye to crime and mystery, moved to the longer wall were real people waited patiently for me on wooden shelves. At some point in God’s providence, my mom subscribed to a mail-order book club so that, before my libraries rendered me completely ignorant, I was introduced to such literary giants as O’Connor, Welty, Homer, Twain, Morrison, Tolkien, Lewis, London, James, and some of the great poets.
The Greatest Poet
In my early twenties I was of the opinion that Sylvia Plath was the greatest poet that ever lived. This estimation was most likely because of my then romanticized reconstruction of her suicide. In retrospect, I suppose that a more realistic account would be that, after a thrilling day of riding my tricycle in circles on our fairly new open carport pad, tires teetering precariously toward its elevated edge, I was blissfully engaged in innocent dreams while Sylvia turned on the gas and put her sad, poet head in a dingy oven. I imagine that before her body had time to get cold and stiff, dawn broke just outside her kitchen window to reveal a wonder-world of swirling colors carried on a crisp early-autumn breeze. I wonder, too naively and optimistically, if the cool, dry, psychedelic breeze might have revived her spirit if she had only waited a few more minutes.
A Literary Travesty
When I finally made it to middle-age, I found out that my literary repertoire was quite the travesty. So I panicked and read, Hawthorne, Melville, Cooper, Bunyan, Dostoyevsky, Teresa of Avila, Austen, Augustine, chunks of the great philosophers and the Reformers. Now, in my fifties, I have just finished Cervantes’ seventeenth-century magnum opus, Don Quixote. I’m so far behind the mark of an accomplished reader, who knows if I will be educated before I die?
I found out by listening to a series of free Yale lectures, that there is a judge who keeps a page from Don Quixote framed in gold on the wall of his chambers. I have an English translation of the book on my Kindle app, where, as you know, what’s on a page changes with the settings, so I don’t know exactly what the judge’s page looks like, but the lecturer said that it contains the advice that Don Quixote gave his squire Sancho Panza about how to govern fairly. Excerpts of this advice (Edith Grossman’s translation), which I have taken the liberty to outline, are as follows:
- “First … you must fear God, because in fearing Him lies wisdom, and if you are wise, you cannot err in anything.”
- “Second, you must look at who you are and make an effort to know yourself, which is the most difficult knowledge one can imagine. When you know yourself, you will not puff yourself up …”
- “Never be guided by arbitrariness in law, which tends to have a good deal of influence on ignorant men who take pride in being clever. Let the tears of the poor find in you more compassion, but not more justice, than the briefs of the wealthy. Try to discover the truth …”
- “If you happen to bend the staff of justice, let it be with the weight not of a gift, but of mercy. If you judge the case of one of your enemies, put your injury out of your mind and turn your thoughts to the truth of the question. … Consider the culprit who falls under your jurisdiction as a fallen man subject to the conditions of our depraved nature, and to the extent that you can, without doing injury to the opposing party, show him compassion and clemency, because although all the attributes of God are equal, in our view mercy is more brilliant and splendid than justice.”
Wisdom Rides with Craziness
I include this advice, to show Don Quixote’s saneness and wisdom – traits that continually surprise the story’s supporting characters in light of the lunacy Quixote otherwise evidences through his self-identity as a knight errant (think King Arthur and the valiant Knights of the round table) and his whole-hearted submission to the laws of chivalry.
It will do me no good here to go into the many details of the laws of chivalry except to say that they had to do with justice and honor; selflessness; and a singular, devoted, courtly love directed toward an adored woman whose beauty and honor a knight declared unmatched and in whose name all knightly deeds were done. Cervantes took these codified laws of the twelfth-century, that were no longer fashionable in the real-life happenings of Quixote’s cultural milieu, and dropped them into old histories and pleasurable novels that either amused or infuriated the readers in the world Quixote inhabited.
Of Quixote’s self-identity and devotion to the chivalric code, Miguel de Cervantes summarizes:
… at all times and in every moment his fantasy was filled with the battles, enchantments, feats, follies, loves, and challenges recounted in books of chivalry, and everything he said, thought, or did was directed toward such matters.
Wisdom rode on a horse with craziness, when Quixote’s interpretation of everyday objects and events filtered through his lens of ultimate beliefs and values. Quixote’s knightly worldview brought the most fantastical things to his mind, and his antique code prodded his will so that an array of unexpected behaviors emerged. As onlookers strove to make sense of these mystifying behaviors, the incredible underlying reality, that rooted Quixote and urged him on, became perceptible either through questioning or through Quixote’s voluntary admissions. This intersection of wisdom with strange behavior and unconventional belief is the reason Quixote’s fictional contemporaries, and modern man too for that matter, all marvel at Quixote’s wisdom while declaring him insane.
Why Nancy Drew is Fiction
As far as I remember, no one thought Nancy Drew was crazy. In her world, with proper sleuthing, everything, no matter how bizarre, could be explained without reference to unconventional beliefs or mysterious forces. Maybe that is why books, where everything can be neatly tied up and accounted for must stay in the fiction section or in science books – whose indisputable facts often eventually end up there too.
Of course there are non-fictional biographies, to the degree that “non-fiction” can describe anyone’s version of a person’s life, about sensible, down-to-earth people whose lives inspire you to just try harder but, in the end, depress you because you just can’t be all that. But the best biographies have something unseen and otherworldly, yet nevertheless true, in them. Things are, after all, more real when there is real mystery and a hero or heroine who recognizes the grandeur of it and is driven on by it.
Real Living and Great Stories
You just feel more deeply alive when some underlying bewildering truth shows you a world in which a kitchen bowl is really a knight’s helmet, a cheap hotel is a castle, and a baby boy lying in a feeding trough is really God. You suspect that you are living most fully when, urged by this hitherto unseen knowledge, you go and do this thing or that.
Genuinely good and interesting biographies then must have everyday things like attendance records and carbon notepads intersecting with such wonderful perplexities as talking donkeys; powerful evil; angels singing gloria above rough, smelly shepherds; and a shinning city where God makes everything delightfully beautiful, and his glory lights up the world. Even if these things are only subtle and elusive nuances, both reader and real-world resident must know they are there.
Great stories must have ordinary people too who see all these wonderful things and who begin to live lives that prove they believe that the surreal grandness is all so very true while living among those who can’t see and won’t ever understand. The self-proclaimed sane unconvinced onlookers in books and life expect that their science, stealth investigation, or innovation will eventually clear every messy mystery up and prove once and for all the intense madness of true believers who, guided by the sure light of a divine code, walk in ancient ways.
Religion’s Romance and Danger
In Mad Girl’s Love Song, Sylvia Plath wrote:
God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
When the romance that is in Christian religion is lost, (and I specify Christian religion, because, though a darker romance can be found in other religions, Christianity is where the loveliest lover and the sweetest romance is found) the world seems dead.
Here I must interject that, along with immense beauty, wonder, and love, great danger lurks in the kind of insanity Quixote was accused of, which I will call religion here since it is similar to the supposed lunacy of the true religious believer. The darker religions, and I include our current post-modernism with its worship of fluid “non-religious” opinions and denial that even the most heinous acts can be wrong while its threatening posture declares those who say the emperor has no clothes and calls the kettle black to be wrong, will in the end have more human carnage on the side of evil than Christianity. But, like Quixote, Christianity has misused the divine code and gotten off track here and there and, in the name of doing justice, has effected injustice, and, as a result, has its own pile of atrocities that it must claim and mourn.
But despite the danger of religion, without a true driving belief in something beautiful and powerful outside yourself, the world seems dead. Perhaps dead is how Sylvia Plath saw the world the night she turned on the gas and laid her head on that metal pillow. The dark, dense, gloom must have weighed so heavy that any hope of a forthcoming swirling wind, no matter how vibrant and tingly and refreshing, that might have lifted her head out of the oven, was lost to her.
People sigh and die all the time while little girl’s trikes go round and round on concrete pads with raised edges, as the world swirls round and round in its carefully confined course, as day follows day. Disaster is always waiting for one thing or the other on boundary edges.
This I think is as good of a reason as any to look for something to wonder about and follow its trail to the grand wonder of the triune God where Father, Son, and Spirit dwell as One. It is a good reason to look past the treacherous edges of the confined, safe, and supposedly sane and grab the splendor of the miraculous. It is a good reason to see the reality of demons and warrior angels and the mighty right arm of a Savior who is God and to hope in resurrection and a new world where all is light and right and good and love. And, when angry or amused people declare you insane, as they surely will, perhaps, as you breath and ride out to do honor to your one great love guided by the light of the ancient code, they will, at the same time, delight in your wisdom too.