Yesterday, I dropped into Twice Told Books in Guerneville, California—a very cool little store that just happens to be be for sale for just $25,000. This sounds like a deal to me, and if anyone wants to loan me $15,000, I think I can make a go of it. (Or if you want to buy it, you can contact Richard Lester and John Genovese at 707-303-6358.)
The proprietor of this charming store just happened to have the 22nd edition of El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote De La Mancha :Coleccion Austral behind the counter and let me have it for just five bucks! Generally, Spanish language versions of Don Quixote are at least twenty dollars, which is kind of strange given that they don’t even require editors. This book, for example, doesn’t even have a perfunctory preface, foreword, or introduction. (Not that these are necessary—Cervantes provided more than enough of that.)
When last I discussed Don Quixote, I was praising its wit and modernity. But things have changed. It all started in Chapter 3. Up to that point, Cervantes was very light and funny. But then things turned dark. This is not a mistake but rather a cultural difference. I’ve seen it with Francois Rabelais, people’s ideas of humor in the 16th century were much more coarse than ours. I’d like to look into this a little.
In Chapter 4, Don Quixote comes upon a farmer whipping a lad of fifteen who it would appear is nothing more than a slave laborer. The Don is appalled by this and forces the farmer to stop torturing the boy and to pay him what he is owed. The farmer claims that his money is at home and that he will take the boy there and pay him. The boy protests that this will not happen—that once the knight is out of sight, the farmer will renege on his promise.
“I go home with him!” cried the lad. “Never in the world! No, sir, I would not even think of it. For once he has me alone he’ll flay me like a St. Bartholomew.”
Don Quixote brushes these concerns aside. He believes that the farmer is a knight and is bound by honor. Having seen justice prevail, Don Quixote rides off.
As he said this, he put spurs to Rocinante and was off. The farmer watched him go, and when he saw that Don Quixote was out of the wood and out of sight, he turned to his servant, Andres.
“Come here, my son,” he said. “I want to pay you what I owe you as that righter of wrongs has commanded me.”
“Take my word for it,” replied Andres, “your Grace would do well to observe the command of that good knight—may he live a thousand years; for as he is valorous and a righteous judge, if you don’t pay me then, by Roque, he will come back and do just what he said!”
And I will give you my word as well,” said the farmer; “but seeing that I am so fond of you, I wish to increase the debt, that I may owe you all the more.” And with this he seized the lad’s arm and bound him to the tree again and flogged him within an inch of his life. “There, Master Andres, you may call on that righter of wrongs if you like and you will see whether or not he rights this one. I do not think I have quite finished with you yet, for I have a good mind to flay you alive as you feared.”
Don Quixote is crazy, of course. And I pitied him even through Chapter 3—where he behaved rather badly. But here, I found that I was really very angry with him. He was so caught up in the romance of knighthood, that he didn’t find it necessary to make sure that justice was done—just that he announced what justice ought to be done. And in the end, Andres was harmed even more than he would otherwise have been.
This episode contrasts very well with a true story about Henry Bergh, the founder of the ASPCA. During the Civil War, he had a diplomatic post in St. Petersburg, Russia. According to Nathan J. Winograd in his excellent book, Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America:
Finding the duties tiring and mundane, Bergh spent less time on official duties and more time taking aimless carriage rides throughout the city. When he witnessed a peasant beating his donkey on one such ride, Bergh ordered the man to stop, which the man did in deference to Bergh, who looked like a well-dressed gentleman of official position. According to legend, the experience completely transformed Henry Bergh and left him with an abiding sense of accomplishment. Bergh spent his remaining time in Russia traveling daily by carriage in search of such transgressions, which he could prevent by reason of his social class, official position and immense physical stature.
Bergh would spend the better part of the next two decades in a daily struggle for the animals in and around New York City. Turning to the event in the streets of St. Petersburg that inspired him, his first order of business was to better the plight of New York City’s much abused working draft horses … The annals of the ASPCA describe the first such encounter:
The driver of a cart laden with coal is whipping his horse. Passersby on the New York City street stop to gawk not so much at the weak, emaciated equine, but at the tall man, elegant in top hat and spats, who is explaining to the driver that it is now against the law to beat one’s animal. Thus, America first encounters “The Great Meddler.”
Bergh spent the next twenty-two years of his life daily going about New York personally stopping animal cruelty—even arresting people and taking them to jail. If he saw a horse-pulled train that was over-crowed, he would stop it and force the riders to get off. Henry Bergh was a Victorian Don Quixote, in the sense of one man out to right wrongs, no matter what the odds.
I am reading Don Quixote very slowly. I just pick it up when I want something light. It almost always wins out over P. G. Wodehouse. And it can be read in much the same way as The World of Jeeves. It is highly episodic. All this means, however, that I don’t know where Don Quixote is going. I’d like to think that Don Quixote really becomes the knight of his foolish fantasies. I hope that his quixotic quest leads him to the nobility of Bergh’s.
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