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Some Giants are Just Windmills

February 1st, 2017

Or Just Windy

My efforts to complete the reading list for Columbia College’s Lit. Hum. course continue. I would almost call it a quest at this point, which is fitting, since I’m currently mired in Don Quixote.

Once again, I am having a hard time comprehending the enthusiasm scholars have for an ancient book. I started reading quite some time ago, and it has been so unpleasant, I only reached the hundredth page today. It reminds of of a joke I once read about a book a reader didn’t like. His review read, “I couldn’t pick it up.”

The cover of the book has two blurbs of praise on it. One comes from the author Vladimir Nabokov. I know I’ve read Lolita, because I remember a phrase from the book, but I must not have been very moved, because that phrase is nearly all I remember. Is Nabokov a good writer, or was he just a purveyor of lurid pulp novels? I don’t recall.

Here is what Nabokov says:

Don Quixote is greater today than he was in Cervantes’s womb. [He] looms so wonderfully above the skyline of literature, a gaunt giant on a lean nag, that the book lives and will live through [his] sheer vitality. . . . He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish, and gallant. The parody has become a paragon.

Based on my hundred pages, that looks pretty crazy.

First of all, I can’t figure out how to make the quotation work with the brackets removed. Sometimes that can be a real puzzle. Try “than he was in Cervantes’s womb. looms so wonderfully…” It’s hard to see how that could make sense. Maybe Nabokov was drunk, and he dictated the blurb into a publisher’s answering machine.

Apart from that, it’s hard to see why anyone would call Don Quixote gentle or unselfish. He was a violent lunatic who went around hacking at innocent people with a sword. How can that be gentle? I don’t know if English was Nabokov’s first language. Maybe he misunderstood the word. He also forced Sancho Panza to share his misery and join in the beatings he received, paying him nothing in exchange. If that’s not selfish, then I need to look the word up and refresh my memory.

In my dim memories of Columbia, Don Quixote is a too-long and somewhat humorous book. I am sticking with “too long,” but I feel I must withdraw “humorous.” It’s not even slightly funny. DQ attacks a windmill, and it lifts him by his lance and drops him on the ground. Is that funny? I don’t think so. It was funny when Rabelais’ Frere Jean D’Entommeures used a cross as a battle weapon and shoved it up a man’s rear end, and it was funny when Gargantua’s horse drowned a bunch of pilgrims in urine. These things were gross and sophomoric, but they were funny. Falling off a windmill is not funny or even clever. It’s not even funny by Three Stooges standards.

Cervantes seems to have a few things going for him. He is intelligent, and he appears to be well-read. He can put a paragraph or a page together. But he’s not very creative, and his stories are pointless. They don’t have any connection to each other. One of the unwritten rules of fiction is that you don’t add anything that doesn’t serve a purpose. When you write an Archie comic book, you don’t have Jughead see a flying saucer on the second page and then never mention it again. DQ wanders from isolated adventure to isolated adventure, and once an event is behind him, it vanishes as though it had never been written. That’s not how novels are supposed to work.

It’s more like a Fifties TV series than a novel. One week, Lucy dresses up as a man so she can join Ricky’s band to see if he’s cheating on her. The next week, Fred is arrested in the ladies’ room of a major department store. One episode has no relationship to the next. DQ has the same kind of existence. He bounces around in Spain, like a chrome bearing in a pinball machine. He hits the windmill bumper and bounces off. He hits the Basque squire bumper and bounces off, minus one ear. I can’t wait for him to roll between the flippers and disappear.

I’m not impressed by Cervantes’ knowledge of old literature. Think about it…how many books did a man of his era have access to? You couldn’t log onto Amazon and have any of millions of titles installed on your tablet in thirty seconds. You had to read the classics and whatever crap had been written up to your time. OF COURSE he had read Virgil and Homer and all the books of chivalry. What else was there to read? If you had been alive back then, you would have read all of that stuff, too. How many books did you read last year? Probably more than Cervantes read in five years.

When I was at Columbia, I took the DQ course taught by a man I will call Dr. S; a scholar people referred to as a genius. Like many other students, I thought it was ridiculous, and I never saw the brilliance of the book or, quite honestly, of the man who taught the course. He’s dead, so I can say that. The course was a rite of passage and an easy B, so everybody took it. S never said anything I considered remotely smart, and I never developed the impression that Cervantes was a writer of real stature.

Not all of my professors were like that. I took an advanced French poetry course taught by a guy named Daniel Penham, and I thought he and the material were great. I kept the textbook and looked for other books by the same author (Morris Bishop). The class was small, all of the students sat around a single table, and Penham told us all sorts of interesting things about France, French, the poets, and so on. I’m not the problem here. If S’s class or Cervantes’ book had had the stuff, I believe I would have perceived it.

People I knew thought S was incoherent. Sure seemed that way to me. Maybe he was slipping by the time I took his course. They said he was being treated for cancer.

It looks like an emperor’s-clothes situation to me. If people say a writer is brilliant for five hundred years, it doesn’t matter whether they’re right. Anyone who disagrees will be sent to sit on the Group W bench. I will take my seat gladly if it means I don’t have to read any more Cervantes. Life is too short.

In the liberal arts, you don’t have to do much or be very smart to be considered brilliant. Memorizing a lot of things and learning a couple of languages will do it. It’s strange that liberal arts professors have big egos and consider themselves gifted, when they walk the same halls as physicists and mathematicians.

Liberal arts people are intellectuals. The thing people forget is that “intellectual” doesn’t mean “intelligent person.” It really means “academic” or “academic buff” in practice. It describes an insular group of people who read the same books and use the same argot to confirm each other’s borrowed perceptions and opinions. Intellectuals use a lot of big words, but that doesn’t mean they’re bright. It just means they’re clannish. Sailors use a lot of funny words, too, but no one thinks it proves they’re smart.

Okay, okay. I’ll go sit on the bench.

I feel like these books are cages. I committed to read them, so I can’t spend much time reading things I actually consider interesting. I’m working on Dark Sun, the follow-up to The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and I really want to read the Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie books I bought. Arrgh. I wish I had one of those Matrix plugs I could jam in the back of my head to get DQ into me in three seconds.

Don Quixote de la Mancha: If you are a gentleman, take up arms that I might engage you in mortal combat. If not, let me know, and I will send my cloth-eared squire to beat you with a stave.

Morpheus: How the hell did you get in here?

I’m glad there are people who dedicate their lives to studying and preserving this material, and I’m also glad there are people who dedicate their lives to embalming the dead and squeezing other people’s boils. I think that sums it up. Was the Vietnam War really so scary that it was worth it for men to bury themselves in this stuff in order to get deferments? How bad can land mines and punji sticks be?

Maybe I can force myself to sit down this week and knock this book off. Like the Abbe Faria, digging his way out of seclusion with a spoon, I could eventually tunnel my way back into the light. I suppose that’s the best option, since I can’t go back in time and pay Cervantes for his manuscript so I can burn it.

Enough for one day. I need to go weld something.

3 Responses to “Some Giants are Just Windmills”

  1. Stephen McAteer Says:

    It’s impressive that you can force yourself to read this stuff when you don’t like it. Not something I could do.

  2. Steve H. Says:

    It’s getting to be a real drag. This book is just plain bad.

  3. Lee Says:

    There are at least two really good reasons to read the classics:

    1) Some of them are truly wonderful, and it’s good to know which ones they are.

    2) Some of them are truly awful, and it’s even better to know which ones *they* are.

    Once you’re pretty sure the book you’re holding is a category 2 book, it is right and proper to throw it out the window and never give it another thought. You don’t have to finish the category 2 books.

    Best wishes,
    Lee