Monday, November 28, 2011

Moby Dick

by Herman Melville

Moby Dick is a book that is rarely read for pleasure.  Unlike a page-turner such as War and Peace it is a dark and grim story with not a hint of romance, gallantry, or triumph in tragedy.  In truth, most of us who have read Moby Dick have done so because our high school or college English Literature teacher required it, after all, “The Whale” is one of the great works of American literature.  Despite its lack of entertainment value, Moby Dick  is a fascinating story, rich with biblical, literary, and philosophical references.  Moreover, this book contains a deep and detailed discourse on the practice of whaling, from ship construction to harpooning to slaughtering to butchering to the rendering of whale oil.  In the 19th century whale oil literally "lit the night" and was therefore vital to the growth of industry and technology in the 19th century.  As a result, whales were nearly hunted to extinction.  Around this same time, however, petroleum refining and production had developed sufficiently to fuel the Industrial Revolution; and so, one way or another, the whaling industry and a way of life for many New Englanders were doomed.

The author, Herman Melville (1819-1891), lived an odd, itinerant life, including time on a whaling ship, and mined his experiences for his writing.  He first published Moby Dick, a groundbreaking American novel, in England, where it received scathing criticism for being poorly written by people who did not understand that American English writing reflected the character and soul of a people who had built a nation from the ground up.  Melville’s American contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, was one of the few who recognized the importance of the book, but with the abandonment of the whaling industry and the frenzy of the Gold Rush, Moby Dick  languished for decades before receiving the attention of authors Carl Van Doren and D. H. Lawrence in the early 20th century.  Had it not been noticed by these men and kept in circulation by New York’s literary society, Moby Dick could have quietly disappeared into obscurity.

A facile outline of the plot is the story of a whaling ship’s captain, Ahab, who having lost his leg to the great white whale, Moby Dick, devotes his entire life and being to slaying the legendary beast, at any cost.  The narrator, Ishmael, is a social outcast like his Biblical namesake; he joins the crew of the Pequod as a way of further exiling himself and likens going to sea in pursuit of whales as a way of leaving life, abandoning the self, perhaps a form of suicide.  Melville crafted Ishmael carefully so that he would be a credible narrator of a work that is a literary masterpiece with its study of humanity, treatise on whaling, and allegory of human self-destructiveness.  Because he had once been a teacher, Ishmael's sophisticated narration fits what little we learn of his character.  As a character, however, his role in the story is almost exclusively that of a fatalistic observer.

Captain Ahab enters the story cloaked in mystery.  He boards the Pequod in the early hours of the day it is scheduled to depart Nantucket, and immediately retreats to his cabin.  Elijah, one of the crew, adds to the sense of foreboding by engaging Ishmael in a cryptic conversation about fate and whether he has a soul.  Days later when Ahab finally emerges to meet the crew, he explains that rather than hunting whales for their oil, they are hunting a specific whale:  the mythical great white whale that he has sworn to track down and kill.  To Ahab, Moby Dick represents everything that is evil and destructive in the known world.   The whale, however, is nothing more than a living creature determined to survive in a forbidding and often hostile environment.  Melville uses Moby Dick to symbolize the enormity of what is unknown and unknowable in our world.  Ahab’s mission to bring down the great white whale can be viewed as an attempt to master the universe.  The crew, spellbound by Ahab’s charismatic personality, follow his lead out of a combination of admiration, fear, and having nothing to lose.

One reason the book received severe criticism from its first readers is that it journeys beyond the straight ahead telling of the story of Captain Ahab and his cetacean nemesis.  Herman Melville, through Ishmael, illuminates the world of whaling.  Several chapters describe in detail the construction and design of a whaling ship, as well as explain the art of killing and harvesting ten-ton  marine mammals.  Regardless of the horror of slaughtering and butchering whales, the whalers were men of great courage and strength whose movements resembled a work of intricate choreography.  Melville’s writing about this way of life is so beautiful, that the reader can appreciate the human achievement that whaling represents, rather than dwell on visceral and emotional reactions to the subject matter.  That, more than anything, is what makes Moby Dick a great book, worthy of being called a classic.

At the time Herman Melville was writing Moby Dick, the United States was heading toward civil war over the questions of slavery and states’ rights.  White Americans exploited and enslaved Native Americans and Africans; while around the globe, white Europeans invaded and colonized nations of darker-skinned people.   On board the Pequod, the crew represents a broad spectrum of religions and races.  These differences disappear almost completely at sea because a ship is a world unto itself and each member of the crew has an interest in everyone else’s survival.  Just the same, the ship’s leaders are white men who reveal their subconscious racism in unguarded moments. 

Almost everyone knows that the original “Starbuck” had nothing to do with coffee.  He and some of American literature’s most memorable characters appear in Moby Dick.  In addition to Captain Ahab and the whale, there are Queequeg, Pip, and Elijah who give the story its edginess.  The crew of thirty individuals represents the diversity of our world and a microcosm of human behavior.  As the journey progresses, the crew exhibit character weaknesses, acts of heroism and kindness, as well as brutality.  Starbuck, the first mate, is the only one to see the folly of Ahab’s pursuit of Moby Dick, but remains loyal to Ahab out of a sense of duty.  Queequeg, Ishmael’s closest friend, is from a cannibal tribe in the South Seas and serves as a harpooner on Starbuck’s crew.  Considered a savage, he is meticulous in his grooming and personal hygiene.  At one point Queequeg becomes deathly ill and requests that a coffin be built for him.  He lives, however, and converts his coffin into a life-preserver for the ship.  What happens to Pip can only be appreciated by reading Moby Dick.

In its essence, Moby Dick is about the universal and eternal struggle of man against nature, of life against death, and what can happen when that struggle becomes an obsession that crosses over to madness.  A good analogy to Ahab’s blind quest for vengeance would be an Iraq War veteran who, having lost a leg, attempts to murder the President:  not only would the leg remain lost, the veteran would spend the rest of his life in jail, a felon rather than a hero.  Some things are not available for our understanding nor are they suitable adversaries.  The whale in its unfathomable marine world symbolizes the danger of turning that which we do not – and cannot – understand into an enemy which must be defeated at any cost.

Copyright 2011, Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Crime and Punishment

by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Presidential elections provide many “litmus tests” by which we define the candidates, some valid and some ridiculous.  During the 2008 election, the “War on Terror” and questions about then-Senator Obama’s religious beliefs and patriotism were upstaged by the collapse of the United States’ financial system.   If that had not happened, the election might have turned out differently, but there is no way to know for sure.  As we enter the 2012 presidential campaign season, the death penalty has taken center stage, with each of the Republican candidates trying to show how tough he or she is on crime based on the number of death row inmates executed in their respective states.    In 1988, Michael Dukakis lost the election to George H. W. Bush during a debate in which a questioner asked Governor Dukakis whether he would seek the death penalty if someone raped and murdered his wife, Kitty.  Dukakis unemotionally said that he opposed the death penalty, always had, always would; he didn’t even scold the questioner for throwing a sucker punch.   His lack of outrage, which came across as a lack of empathy for those who had lost loved ones to vicious crimes, turned the tide in his bid for the presidency.  This is because significantly more Americans (greater than 60% at present) favor the death penalty than those who oppose it.  The idea of justice based on revenge has greater appeal than the Christian notions of forgiveness, rehabilitation, and turning the other cheek. 

During the last two decades, support for the death penalty has dropped somewhat, likely because of advances in forensic science which have exonerated a number of death row inmates.  In other words, an unknown number of people have been imprisoned and executed for crimes they did not commit, and an equal number of criminals literally got away with murder.  It is hard to see these wrongly-convicted people as “collateral damage” in the so-called war on crime: they are tragic victims for whom there will never be justice nor will there be revenge.  It would be nice if presidential candidates could have a more nuanced and thoughtful discussion of whether and when to execute someone, but this level of discourse cannot fit into a “tweet” or sound-bite.

People commit heinous crimes for many reasons:  revenge, greed, jealousy, and insanity among the most common.  Some murders happen without any forethought:  they are crimes of passion or anger.  Others happen because of psychoses such as schizophrenia and delusions.  Crime and Punishment, by Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, is a compelling analysis of pre-meditated murder and the type of soul-sickness which can drive one to kill another.  In the story, a man, believing himself to be exempt from laws and social norms, decides to commit a murder.  His conscience puts up a good fight but eventually loses ground to perceived messages, signs, and signals which the man uses to justify the crime.  One murder turns into two when the man is caught in the act by the first victim’s slow-witted sister.  The rest of the story concerns the aftermath:  the man, who had thought himself somehow superior to everyone else and not bound by their laws, lives in a state of tormented guilt and paranoia about his crimes until he comes to understand that only by confessing and going to prison will he be set free.

The first part of the story, in which an alienated and disturbed person kills out of a sense of self-righteousness, is all too familiar.  Notorious examples include Jared Lee Loughner’s killing spree aimed at  Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s assault on Columbine High School, and Sueng-Hui Cho’s massacre at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.  Each of these men was isolated and angry, and felt completely justified in gunning down innocent victims.  Loughner has been diagnosed as schizophrenic; but Cho, Harris, and Klebold committed suicide rather than surrender, so their diagnoses will never be completely made.  It is clear that mental illnesses and possible personality disorders blinded these young men to the reality that killing others was a far greater crime than any wrong that had been done to them.  If he is ever considered fit to stand trial, Jared Loughner could face the death penalty.  If convicted and executed, would justice truly be served?

Crime and Punishment, is an intricate examination of the interplay between alienation and empathy with which people struggle during desperate times.  The main character of Crime and Punishment, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, lives in miserable poverty.  His squalid living conditions as well as the filth and decay of St. Petersburg’s slums have left him alienated from society.  To him, life seems meaningless and without justice.   As a way of coping Raskolnikov engages in denial, telling himself he is superior in every way to the filthy wretches surrounding him, even though his own clothes are in tatters, and he is always hungry, owes money everywhere, and has pawned everything of value that he owns.  Raskolnikov, like many of his neighbors, harbors a grudge against the local pawnbroker because of her miserliness and abusive treatment of her mentally challenged sister.  There is also a whispered hint of anti-Semitism in discussions about her.  Raskolnikov overhears someone say that the world would be better off if someone would kill the pawnbroker and give her money to the poor; and decides in that instant that it is he who must right this particular wrong in the name of social justice.

While planning the murder, Raskolnikov wrestles with his conscience, his self-respect, and his resentments.  Unlike Loughner, Harris, Klebold, and Cho, Raskolnikov knows that murder is wrong even though his nihilism tells him that life is meaningless and that there is no God.   While his behavior and thoughts suggest that he  suffers from narcissistic personality disorder, he is clearly rational.  After the murders, Raskolnikov’s superiority complex falls away leaving him even more alienated than before.  Moreover, the guilt over his brutal killing of the women eats away at his soul and his life becomes punishment until he is redeemed by the power of selfless love and forgiveness.

Dostoyevsky drew from many of his own life experiences in the writing of Crime and Punishment:  he lived in St. Petersburg and often walked the slums, he spent time doing hard labor in Siberia for being part of a movement to end serfdom, and he struggled with gambling debts for most of his life.  What is interesting is that his political views changed from decidedly socialist to more traditional and nationalistic while serving his time in the prison camp.  At the same time, Dostoyevsky moved away from nihilism and became an orthodox Christian.  These conversions did not, apparently, make him believe that capital punishment was appropriate for heinous crimes.  If Crime and Punishment is a reflection of his philosophy, then it seems he believed that repentance and confession could absolve one of sin; and that forgiveness would heal the families and friends of crime victims to a greater extent than revenge.

 Dostoyevsky was fascinated by the idea of how to live with oneself while carrying the overwhelming burden of guilt from having killed another human being, and that belief in God was not a requirement for having a conscience.  He also sought to understand how one’s living conditions and social status could strengthen one’s innate character defects and lead to deluded thinking.  In other words, guilt and responsibility inhabit a spectrum ranging from insanity to inhumanity.  Raskolnikov was somewhere in the middle:  he had to commit the murders in order to discover his conscience and that was the greatest punishment.  We could, therefore, interpret Crime and Punishment to mean that having a conscience is proof that God exists because, in the end, Raskolnikov admits his guilt, begs forgiveness, humbly accepts his punishment, and is thereby saved.

Almost everyone has an untested opinion about capital punishment because most of us are fortunate enough not to be touched by violent crime.  I, myself, am opposed to the death penalty, but if the unthinkable happened to one of my children or to my husband I might feel differently.  Similarly, a life-long death penalty advocate could change his views if a loved one was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death.   The lessons I take away from Crime and Punishment are that often the greatest punishment is having to live with guilt, that the line between rationality and mental illness can be quite blurry and is easily influenced by environment and heredity, and that we – as a society – owe it to ourselves to be sparing in our use of execution as punishment, lest we lose our humanity in the pursuit of justice.

Copyright 2011 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


by George Eliot

A popular fiction writer like Jackie Collins or Nick Sparks could reinterpret Middlemarch as a story of the Palm Beach social scene (or Washington power politics, for that matter).  Take the main character, Dorothea Brooke, an idealistic young woman whose beauty and social position overshadow her intelligence and capability.  To achieve her desire of doing meaningful work, she marries an older man who is writing an “important” book on religious philosophy, thereby rejecting the shallow values of her small town socialite friends and family.  Edward Casaubon, it turns out, is a fraud and he knows it; moreover, he realizes that his naive but brilliant young wife will soon see him for what he is.  Out of anger and resentment, he ensures that Dorothea will have to choose between loneliness and poverty after he dies.  In Ms. Collins’ or Mr. Sparks’ version, there would be a prenuptial agreement which Dorothea, blinded by her innocent optimism, would gladly sign as a down payment on achieving a greater glory through helping her husband publish his transcendent book.

The town’s most prominent politician, Nicholas Bulstrode, is a man with a past he is trying to forget.  His own brand of cognitive dissonance is to hide behind his religion and to impose his strict moral code on the entire society.  In an effort to tout his “holier than thou” Christianity, he decides to fund a hospital for the poor which he has no intention of building.  To give this project legitimacy, he brings in a young doctor from a good, but not socially connected family.  This doctor, Tertius Lydgate, immediately becomes the target of Rosamond Vincy, a gold-digger and social climber who mistakenly believes that he can support her in the lifestyle to which she feels she is entitled.  Soon after marrying, Rosamond realizes that Tertius has no family money and, in a prolonged fit of passive-aggression, drives him into financial ruin in order to keep up the appearance of wealth and high social standing.  In the end, Tertius’ financial dependence on Nicholas Bulstrode results in his being linked to a scandal involving Bulstrode’s shady past, and having his own innocence and idealism shattered in the process.

In an updated reimagining of this classic novel, the male romantic lead, Will Ladislaw, would probably not keep his clothes on and neither would Dorothea.  He would also feel considerable heat from the frustrated and insatiable Rosamond Vincy Lydgate.  It is also likely that Edward Casaubon would not have to die in order for Dorothea to be free to marry Will.  She can simply divorce him.  Casaubon's lawyers will make sure that she leaves the marriage with nothing more than the clothes on her back.  Dorothea won’t mind this, of course, because she and Will won’t have much use for clothes as they begin their beautiful new life together, riding off to Key West on a borrowed Harley, while Casaubon sits alone with his bitter and empty self.   

Hypocrisy and self-delusion are two important themes of this timeless novel written by George Eliot, as are questions about appropriate roles for women.  It is this deeper analysis of the human psyche that differentiates Middlemarch from the typical novels written by and for women in Victorian England, as well as today.  Middlemarch is a provincial village in the midlands, and representative of small towns everywhere.  The novel takes place in the 1800s, during a time of political reforms aimed at allowing new groups of voters, but not women, to have a voice in governance.  Dorothea’s uncle, Arthur Brooke, joins the cause and runs for a seat in Parliament even though his own tenants live in deplorable conditions.  With the exception of Will Ladislaw and one or two others, every character suffers from varying degrees of at least one personal weakness.  Will is the outlier, someone who lives by a different set of rules and therefore represents freedom from the stranglehold of social convention.  Dorothea, having realized that her marriage to Casaubon was a mistake, finds Will’s authenticity compelling, but dares not act on their mutual attraction. 

Living unconventionally is perhaps the most important theme of Middlemarch because the author, like Will Ladislaw, was an outlier.  George Eliot, the pen name of Mary Anne Evans, was an extremely unattractive but highly intelligent woman who had access to education and a vast library in her youth.  Her parents had little hope of finding her a husband and so Mary Anne was trapped by family obligations until the age of 30.  While caring for her aging father, Mary Anne became friends with Cara and Charles Bray, a wealthy couple who cultivated a free exchange of ideas and radical thinking.  Through this friendship she met Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Martineau, Herbert Spencer, and others who helped broaden her understanding of the world.  It was only after her father died that Mary Anne Evans was free to develop her talents. 

When the Brays travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, Mary Anne accompanied them and ended up staying for a year, during which time she decided to become a writer.  Upon returning to England, Mary Anne found work in newspaper publishing with John Chapman, a friend of the Brays who had recently taken over The Westminster Review.   She fell in love with Chapman, who was married and not interested in her, and like Dorothea devoted herself to his success.   Her pieces for the newspaper were well received despite her unprecedented role as a woman working among men and she began forming ideas for a novel.  In the Victorian era, a woman writing anything other than romantic fiction was unheard of, so Mary Anne hid behind a male name in order that her work be taken seriously.   

At the age of 39, Mary Anne Evans published Adam Bede under her male pen name.   The novel was an immediate success and her readers became increasingly curious to know more about the reclusive author.  An imposter claiming to be George Eliot forced Ms. Evans to reveal herself and her unconventional lifestyle to the public.  She was, at the time, living openly with a married man and while her readers disapproved, they continued to purchase her novels.   In total, Mary Anne Evans/George Eliot wrote seven novels, 12 poems, and numerous essays, book reviews, and feature articles for The Westminster Review.  This body of work reveals a great intellect and an astute observer and chronicler of human society.  Mary Anne Evans knew how easily we believe those who tell us what we want to hear and how often we see the world through the lens of our own myopic belief systems.  

Today, women enjoy many of the privileges and perquisites of their male counterparts.  For some women, since the advent of in vitro fertilization, men have been relegated to mere sperm donors.   In the United States of America and much of Europe, “lifestyle choices” have replaced once closeted sexual relationships.  Without regard to gender orientation, however, relationships continue to perplex us.  Mary Anne Evans knew that there would always be marriages entered into for the wrong reasons, with unhappy consequences.  Middlemarch is a cautionary tale for us all to be true to ourselves first and foremost rather than looking for someone else to define who we are.

Copyright 201, Teresa Friedlander,  all rights reserved

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Leaves of Grass

by Walt Whitman

“The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature.  The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem…Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations.” – Walt Whitman, from his introduction to Leaves of Grass.

It is during times of great social change that iconic artists, writers, and poets emerge whose works reflect and express the spirit of the times.  Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was one of these icons and his epic poem cycle, Leaves of Grass, describes a young nation attempting to define itself while reconciling the conflicts left unresolved at its inception.  Whitman was born at a time when slavery was ripping the United States of America into feuding camps:  abolitionists wanted slavery to end on purely moral grounds while slave states depended on the plantation economy in order to produce cash crops such as tobacco and cotton.  In the years leading up to the Civil War, friends and family members would often come to blows over the issue of slavery because there was no middle ground.  Either slaves were full humans and therefore entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” under the Constitution, or they were on a par with livestock, entitled to no rights whatsoever.  In the end, it would take the catharsis of war to settle the question, but the end of the war was the beginning of the social turbulence created when tens of thousands of freed slaves abandoned the plantations of their birth, with little more than the clothes on their backs, for the hope of paid work in the smokestack industries of the northeast.

As this drama unfolded, Walt Whitman’s inner world roiled as he watched, listened, and reported on the national argument.  The greatness of the United States came from the idea that we are a nation of laws, not of men, and that all men are created equal.  Only the most intellectually dishonest people could argue that slaves were not human beings, and while he himself did not favor slavery, Whitman did not fully embrace the Abolitionist movement, because he felt it was somehow antithetical to the American ideal.  Whitman recognized that slavery as a practice was dehumanizing; that even the most beaten down slave was still a man or woman in possession of a soul, capable of goodness and evil, and made of the same stuff as his or her master.  The question of slavery notwithstanding, Whitman understood that the American ideal transcended the lesser aspects of human nature, allowing our more noble character traits to define us:  a pure example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.  Slavery and the American ideal were incompatible, but the southern United States depended on slavery for their survival.  Whitman recognized that resolving this issue was going to be painful, perhaps ruinous.

Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855, describes America and Americans in words the way a mixed media collage or abstract expressionist painting tells a story through visual imagery.  In the introduction to the poem cycle, Whitman writes that  “the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors…but always most in the common people.”  Whitman himself was of modest origins and worked in journalism and publishing for most of his young life, taking time out to nurse Civil War soldiers before becoming a US government employee after the war ended.   He knew the meaning of work and was not afraid to get his hands dirty.  Whitman had little in the way of formal education, but had a high aptitude for the English language and became a writer at a young age.   In his early thirties, Whitman decided to become a poet and completed the first edition of the collection of poems which would establish him as one of America’s seminal literary figures.

Reading Leaves of Grass is a journey deep inside oneself.  Whitman’s struggle to make peace with ethical dilemmas, sexuality, religion, death and relationships is not unique:  it is something common to almost every human being, fortunate enough to live free from tyranny, who seeks a life with meaning.  His poems make another point which is that even though our constitution gives us freedom, we Americans do not always agree on what it means to be free.  Whitman received harsh criticism both for his free-form writing and for his treatment of sexuality in Leaves of Grass.  Some said it was immoral, pornographic, homoerotic, or all three.  Just the same, Whitman continued to revise and republish the work up until his death in 1892, and it remains a classic piece of American literature to this day.

I decided to read Leaves of Grass after finding my husband’s copy bookmarked by his terminally ill brother.  The first bookmark fell on a verse discussing immortality, the second on sleep – eternal and otherwise, the fourth on a verse about God, and the fifth about final judgment.  Clearly, my brother-in-law was preparing himself for the end and these poems were helpful to him.  So out of sympathy I read the first three verses of “Song of Myself” which begin as follows:

I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease….observing a spear of summer grass.

And I was hooked which surprised me because I have never enjoyed reading poetry.  As a child, I loved listening to poems and nursery rhymes with their song-like cadences and colorful phrases; the captivating blend of stories and songs set to verse.  One of my fondest memories is of my mother’s voice reverberating as I rested my head against her while she read from “The Family Book of Best Loved Poems” with her arm tucked around my shoulders, my little sister on her other side, and my baby brother on her lap.  If I could relive one moment of my childhood, it would be this.

The rhythmic poems I loved as a child are the product of a great tradition of spoken and –eventually –  written language.  Epic poems were how histories survived from generation to generation and across cultures.  Traveling orators committed poems to memory and earned a living by entertaining crowds while preserving histories until they could be written down.  The classic poems from pre-literate societies relied on  metered verses with repeating phrases and epithets to make them easier to memorize.  Some surviving examples of this spoken tradition include Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey”, and Virgil’s “Aeneid” in Greek; Vyasa’s “Mahābhārata” in Sanscrit; and “Beowulf” of unknown authorship in old English. 

Unlike his predecessors and most of his contemporaries, Walt Whitman crafted free-form verse which had a more emotional and expressive quality than cadenced rhyming verses.  Reading Leaves of Grass engages all the senses as if one is sharing Walt Whitman’s experience in the moment.  I can see why it appealed to my brother-in-law when he believed he was dying, still hoping for a miracle.  (Perhaps the poems have curative powers because not only did my brother-in-law survive his high risk surgery, but his body remains completely cancer free some three years later.)  It took me the better part of a month to read Leaves of Grass in its entirety, taking it a few verses at a time, but when I was finished I felt like I could appreciate the beauty of life more deeply than before.   Walt Whitman is considered a “transcendentalist” in that he sought greater and more profound truths than what we can sense and prove scientifically.  What this means is that he could see God in a single blade of grass.

Copyright 2011 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved

Monday, July 11, 2011

Don Quixote

by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Before publication of  The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote, written circa 1600 and still in print, novels tended to be dreamy fairy tales of knights in shining armor rescuing princesses held captive in ivory towers.  Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra challenged that convention as well as notions of romance and chivalry with his multi-layered story of the world’s most famous knight-errant, Don Quixote de la Mancha.  While we can’t know for sure, it also seems that Cervantes’ book was a secretly subversive critique of the ruling classes, the Spanish Inquisition, and possibly even the Bible itself.  At close to 1,000 pages, Don Quixote is neither a slow, nor an easy read.  It is, however, enormously entertaining and thought-provoking, and well worth the time and effort required.

Don Quixote is one of those books which almost everyone has heard about – thanks to the Broadway musical “Man of La Mancha”  – but few have read.  Dale Wasserman’s play won several Tony Awards and has enjoyed numerous revivals both on and off Broadway in the decades since its debut in 1965.  The script, based loosely on the life of Miguel de Cervantes and his classic tale of Don Quixote introduced many to the book which scholars say is the first modern novel in Western literature.  While little documentation exists on the life of Miguel de Cervantes, his experiences as a prisoner of war, soldier, and victim of the Spanish Inquisition certainly inspired many of the stories and themes of Don Quixote.  Within the many pages of this novel are the famous tales of the ridiculous Don Quixote on his skeletal stallion, and Sancho Panza on his donkey, fighting windmills, attacking sheep, and spilling gallons of wine in the name of slaying giants, defending helpless damsels, and freeing innocent prisoners.  These tales not only paint a lively historical portrait of Spain, but also point out the varieties of human weakness, such as greed, jealousy, and delusions of grandeur.  “Man of La Mancha” features only a handful of the stories told by Miguel de Cervantes but, to a greater extent than the book, illuminates the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition.

Before Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand sent Christopher Columbus on a quest to find a better route to the Orient, in 1492, they set about converting all of Spain to Christianity.  To do this, they declared a holy war on the Muslim Kingdom of Granada in southern Spain, the last frontier of the Crusades.  The Spanish Inquisition was established to test the strength of the Catholic faith of any Muslims and Jews who chose to convert rather than live in exile.  Much feared during this time was the so-called “Christian Brotherhood” whose members travelled Spain in search of infidels.  In the century following the removal of Jews and Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula, the Inquisition continued to be the judicial arm of the monarchy.  Miguel de Cervantes ran afoul of the Christian Brotherhood, himself, and spent five years in prison.  He is thought to have penned the first book of Don Quixote during this time.  Following its publication in 1604, Cervantes became famous and earned enough money to lift himself out of poverty. 
The tales of Don Quixote became so popular that an imposter decided to write a sequel in which he insults and belittles Miguel de Cervantes.  This was before the time of copyrights and the notion of intellectual property, so Cervantes opens Book Two by disavowing the false sequel and challenging the integrity and morality of its author.  After the tragi-comical adventures of Book One, Book Two is more thoughtful and more subtly subversive.  In it, Cervantes develops the characters and ethical values of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, and others, questioning many assumptions about society in the process.  

Don Quixote is portrayed as delusional, Sancho as a self-interested sycophant, noblemen as cruel, and clergymen as parasitic.  Cervantes could easily have found himself before the Inquisition for a second time had the story not been as convoluted as he made it.  Don Quixote, the madman, insulted the clergy and questioned their value to society, something Cervantes himself could not do.  Cervantes put responsibility for the creation of Don Quixote on an old Moorish document, authored by one Cid Hamet Benengeli, which he claimed to have purchased at a market in southern Spain and then had translated by a converted Muslim.  This clever device enabled Cervantes to explore a number of controversial ideas and observations while reducing his risk of torture, execution, or both, at the hands of the Christian Brotherhood. 

Literary scholars for the most part interpret Don Quixote as a parody of popular books about heroic knights, and indeed it was, as well as a light-hearted social commentary on nobility and the merchant classes.  On a deeper level, however, Don Quixote questioned ideology, blind faith, and the tyranny of the Catholic Church.  Don Quixote, an elderly gentleman who follows books on Chivalry as if they were the word of God, goes on a quest to right the wrongs of the world as he sees them, like a Crusader blindly killing in the name of Christianity.  Sancho Panza, for his part, exhibits the kind of unquestioning faith required for belief in things that defy rational thinking but are accepted as fact, “knowing” he will be rewarded in the end.  He is considered by many to be a fool, and yet when given responsibility for governing, his judicial decisions are fair, intelligent, and just.  Cervantes keeps the reader off balance with his parody of the ruling classes, personified in the characters of the Duke and Duchess of an unnamed province, who entertain themselves royally at the expense of delusional Don Quixote and gullible Sancho Panza.  Finally, Cervantes shows how the Inquisition was the equivalent of a repressive regime, which everyone feared and no one dared question.  He got away with this by using the insanity defense on the part of the main character, who was the creation of a long dead infidel.

It is clear that Miguel de Cervantes was highly educated in the classics, most likely while in exile in Italy as a youth.  He fluidly quotes the works of ancient Greek poets, scientists, and historians throughout Don Quixote.  He includes numerous poems and sonnets in the many stories within the story of Don Quixote, all of which attest to the author’s literary gifts.  One theme that Cervantes explores is how social values in Spain had not kept pace with the rapidly changing world.  Spain’s discovery of the Americas gave rise to an era of exploration and scholarship at the height of the Renaissance.  Superstitious beliefs fell in the face of scientific discoveries and a merchant class arose enabling those of humble origins to become wealthy.  Cervantes recognized that many people clung to archaic world views which limited their prospects and kept them mired in ignorance, as evinced by the popularity of books on chivalry.  

Whatever Cervantes’ motives for writing The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote, he produced a book which, like the works of William Shakespeare, changed the way we use and enjoy language.   With Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes used  a book to make fun of books, questioned adherence to blind faith and outdated social conventions, and made readers puzzle over who was more insane:  Don Quixote or everyone else.  I think the man of La Mancha was crazy like a fox.

Copyright 2011 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved