Translating Malaprops in Don Quixote

Don Quixote - RutherfordOne of the many humorous elements of Don Quixote is the repeated use of malaprops by Sancho. Don Quixote is constantly correcting him and Sancho is not pleased about this. He points out — quite correctly — that Quixote clearly knows what he means, or he wouldn’t be in a position to correct. Thus, Sancho reasons, Don Quixote should just shut up. But these malaprops pose something of a problem to translators. Literal translations of malaprops will rarely work. So they have to come up with substitutes — which often works because both languages have a lot of Latin root words. Or they just have to copy other translators — which they do with great regularity. And understandably so.

A good example of this is found in chapter 5 of the second book. It is a nice reversal. In it, Sancho is talking to his wife and we learn that he has picked up a bad habit from Don Quixote: he corrects his wife. In the original Spanish, this reads as follows:

[Replicó Teresa,] “Y si estais revuelto en hacer lo que decis…”

Resuelto has de decir, mujer,” dijo Sancho, “y no revuelto.”

In this case, his wife mistakenly uses the word “revuelto” (mixed up) when she means to use the word “resuelto” (resolved). So she says, “If you are mixed up to do what you say.” And Sancho replied, “Resolved, not mixed up.” That doesn’t work at all. So it would appear that the very first English language translator of Don Quixote, Thomas Shelton, came up with the following solution:

[Teresa says,] “And if you be revolved to do what you say…”

“Resolved you must say, wife,” quoth Sancho, “and not revolved.”

The second translation, by Peter Anthony Motteux, used “devolved” and “revolved,” which is actually not that bad. But given that this is widely (and rightly, I think) considered the worst translation of the novel, it isn’t surprising that no one followed its lead. It also has the problem of not being an accurate translation. “revuelto” means mixed up or scrambled. So Shelton’s translation of “revolved” is actually fairly accurate.

I went through about half of my translations and they all followed Shelton. I didn’t bother checking the others because it got to be very boring. Everyone just seems to agree that there really isn’t going to be a better solution to this particular translating problem. It reminds me of the evolutionary development of major organs. Nature does not seem to have independently created multiple livers. It came upon a designed that worked and stuck with that. (This is not the case with the eye, though — which we would think would be more complex but is not at all.)

There are many other examples this kind of thing in Don Quixote. I suspect that there is more disagreement in other cases. As I make my way through John Rutherford’s excellent (probably best) translation, I’m marking different cases. Perhaps in the future I will do some others. But in general, I don’t expect to see too much variation. Translating Don Quixote is hard enough without trying to find different ways to translate every little thing. And that’s especially true today when there already exist so many great translations.

We Owe the Dead Because We Care for the Living

Funeral of GrisóstomoI was having a conversation with Ramona Grigg recently. You probably know her from one of her blogs Ramona’s Voice and Constant Commoner. Anyway, we were discussing the new book that Harper Lee is publishing. I became substantially less excited when I found out that it wasn’t something new, but rather a novel she had written before To Kill a Mockingbird. Generally, reading that sort of thing is disappointing — just a historical curiosity. But maybe not. We’ll see. Regardless, this led to a discussion of author’s intend.

Grigg mentioned that she had checked out a book of Willa Cather’s short stories, and discovered in the introduction that the author had explicitly said she didn’t want the included stories published. But here they were. Grigg was horrified by this and so didn’t read the book. That shows an admirable level of ethics. After all, Cather is long dead. But it got me thinking about the issue. And fundamentally, I don’t think it is a matter of Cather or any other dead person. But I do think that it is really important to respect the dead — because of the living.

In chapter 13 of the first volume of Don Quixote, this issue is discussed at the funeral of Grisóstomo. He is, from my vantage point in life, a supremely silly young man who killed himself because a young woman he loved, Marcela, didn’t love him back. But before he died, he asked that all his writing be burned with his body. As a result, his friend Ambrosio was set to do just that. But an outsider, Vivaldo, bristled at this idea. And he presented a fairly compelling argument for not following Grisóstomo’s wishes:

You would treat them even more harshly and cruelly than would their owner himself, for it is neither reasonable nor right to obey the wishes of someone who commands you to do that which goes beyond all reason. Who would have thought it right had Augustus Caesar consented to the divine Virgil’s dying wish, and allowed the Aeneid to perish? Accordingly, Señor Ambrosio, consign the body of your friend to the earth, but do not consign his writings to oblivion, what he ordered because he had been wronged, you ought not to execute out of imprudence. Rather, by preserving the life of those documents, which bear eternal witness to Marcela’s cruelty, let them serve as an example to those who live in future times, to shun and flee from such dangers.

Ambrosio won’t budge on this, because he was Grisóstomo’s friend. So Vivaldo grabs some of the papers and Ambrosio allows him to keep and read them, but will not allow more. It is all a set up for Cervantes to insert a rather long poem into the text. Cervantes always considered himself a poet above all else. But no one takes him seriously on this score — including me. Even in Spanish, they seem mediocre to me. In translation, they are usually dreck.

But this argument between Ambrosio and Vivaldo leaves out what I think is the most compelling of arguments in favor of honoring Grisóstomo’s request: the way it affects the feelings of the living about how they will be treated in death. Whether one believes in an after life or not, it can’t be that the dead care about how we treat them. Consider the ending of the Iliad. After killing Hector, Achilles drags his body around from his horse. That greatly distressed Hector’s father, King Priam. But it clearly didn’t distress Hector at that time. The idea of it, however, did greatly distress Hector while he was alive.

That is why I think honoring the wishes of the dead matters. And I suppose that puts me down on the baby side of the “save a baby or the last copy of Shakespeare’s complete works” question. It would be sad if we didn’t have the Aeneid. But I’m afraid that life is for the living. And that is why we honor the dead.

Afterword

For this article, I used Burton Raffel’s excellent translation of Don Quijote.

The Self-Perpetuation of Awards

Shorter Poems - Gerald BurnsI used to be roommates with Gerald Burns — a well known poet and literary critic. Well, he was well known in the sense that any poet is well know. He was a great writer and I learned a lot from him. He also knew everyone. He was friends with people like Andrei Codrescu and enemies with far more. Poetry is like that. At that time, Burns was something of a big deal. He had won the National Poetry Series award in 1992, which is immortalized in a wonderful book, Shorter Poems. The poems were not what most people would consider short. It is just that they weren’t thousands of lines long the way they often were in such books as, Longer Poems.

The thing about Burns’ award was that it didn’t have all that much to do with the quality of his work. It was just that he had been writing long enough and was well enough connected that eventually, he found that one of his close friends was sitting on the judging committee of a major poetry award. And they picked Burns. It had to be like that. His poetry was extremely dense and ostentatiously intellectual. Most people thought reading him was like chewing gravel. But among those who got it, his work was brilliant and even charming.

I was reminded of this on Sunday when I read Thomas Frank’s newest article, Genius Grant or TED Talk: Does a MacArthur Grant Make a Genius Smarter? It is about how awards lead to awards. The MacArthur Fellowship may have started out as a way to give out awards to deserving unknowns, but like all awards, it quickly became just a way to polish its brand. How do we know that a MacArthur Fellow is brilliant? Because he has been given lots of awards by other organizations. Unlike his best work, Frank kind of rambles in the article, but you get the point.

Let me be more blunt. Awards like the MacArthur Fellowship are part of our problem with inequality. Society decides that this or that genius is the genius. I own a number of recent English translations of Don Quixote. Not one of them is distinctly better than another. That is because they are all shockingly great in their own way. But the award business is about picking one as though he is preeminent. So Edith Grossman becomes a millionaire and John Rutherford just remains a fellow at The Queen’s College, Oxford. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the awards make distinctions where none exist. And giving money to a single creative worker is probably a bad use of resources. (For the record, Edith Grossman has not won a MacArthur fellowship; I’m just making a point.)

Of course, this isn’t all about branding. It’s also about laziness. It is a hell of a lot easier to look around and see what people other groups are celebrating than to go out and look for new or unknown talent. For example, how would anyone even know about a modern day Emily Dickinson? What’s more, an unknown artist might embarrass a foundation by turning out to be someone who isn’t right thinking as defined by the kind of people who give out these awards — you know, the TED Talk crowd. These are people who thought Nick Hanauer was “partisan” because he didn’t think rich people were “job creators” and thought that Sarah Silverman was unacceptable because she performed her act at TED the same way she has for decades. You know: upper class douchebags.

As for Gerald, I suspect there were more awards in his future. He had broken through and his work was so difficult that even if people didn’t read it, they would have gone on respecting it. But only a few years later, Gerald died quite suddenly, under the most tragic of circumstances. But his award lives on. And all the awards live on. Because ultimately, that’s what they are for: themselves.

Don’t Forget Cervantes

Jáuregui's CervantesEven though we’ve already had our birthday post, the day cannot go by without mentioning that Miguel de Cervantes was born on or around this day in 1547. I often find myself reminding people that I’m a bit of a Cervantes fan, even though all they have to do is look at the header of this website. The site has had three headers since it was started almost five years ago. The first was the René Magritte header, which was super cool but took up too much of the page. Then we had the phrenology header, which was interesting but I never felt comfortable with it. That’s when we came up with the current “Lego” Don Quixote header. Or rather I should say that Andrea did. She’s done all the art and all the thinking.

But the header does give one incorrect impression. Although I think the two Don Quixote novels are amazingly awesome works, it isn’t just that. Cervantes himself was a really interesting guy. He’s a lot more than those two books. He did quite a lot of great work in his later years. I think it is because he really started showing who he was on the page. It’s clear that he was a very funny guy. He had a wry outlook on life. And especially at this point in my life, I need that.

Life and Times

Cervantes is also my kind of guy. He always wanted to be a poet, but he wasn’t from a rich family and he wasn’t a very good poet. So he joined the army and went off to war. This was at a time when soldiers had to be hunter-gatherers to get fed. They often waited years to get paid. Spain was at war with the Ottoman Empire, and Cervantes fought bravely — even heroically. In the process, he lost one of his hands. It has never been clear to me whether it was amputated or simply useless. Regardless, on his way back to Spain, he was captured by Algerian pirates. Because of some mix-ups in communication, his captors became convinced that he was well connected and thus would bring a high ransom. He wasn’t and didn’t. He spent five years in captivity, during which time he tried escaping four times — a couple of them quite involved schemes. Eventually, his family was able to provide a small ransom and get him released.

On his return, he tried to get a military commission, but the government wasn’t interested. He continued to write plays, but no one was really interested in them either. This is about the time that he and Lope de Vega became literary enemies. Cervantes was a traditionalist, as far as theater was concerned. And de Vega was revolutionizing the theater. It’s an interesting irony that when Cervantes finally found success by revolutionizing the novel, de Vega was disparaging.

Regardless, without any other way to make ends meet, Cervantes became a tax collector. This does not mean what you probably think. He would go into townships and negotiate with the entire town to pay what it owed. These negotiations could go on for months and Cervantes didn’t have a great deal of leverage. What was worse was that like being in the military, the government only paid him afterwards — often long afterwards. And they provided no stipend for him to get by on while working in the field.

Because of this work, he was twice thrown in prison because of irregularities in his accounting. One time it was simply a matter that he deposited government money in a bank that went bankrupt. So you can see, life for people like Cervantes was not easy and it was extremely unfair. He had constant financial problems throughout his life, although things did seem to get a bit better at the end.

The way publishing was done at that time was a writer sold a work to a publisher. That was all the money the writer got. The publisher owned it. (It is technically different now, but as any writer will tell you, don’t expect to make much more than your advance.) So when Don Quixote Part 1 was a huge hit, it didn’t make Cervantes rich. But it did make it much easier for him to publish things — and for more money. And this is when he wrote his greatest works such as Exemplary Stories, Eight Comedies and Eight New Interludes, Never Before Acted, and his masterpiece, Don Quixote Part 2.

Appearance

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article, This is Not Cervantes. It is about that image at top of this article. Everyone uses it because it is the only thing we have that might be considered an image of him. In his preface to Exemplary Stories, Cervantes talks about how a young artist could have painted a portrait of him to go into the book. As Cervantes’ scholar Melveena McKendrick noted:

This innocent remark, which could be taken to mean either that Cervantes had been painted by Jáuregui or that the painter could, if asked, produce such a portrait, predictably sent posterity haring off on a wild goosechase in an effort to discover the authentic likeness of the great man. But alas, there is none, and the portrait most often reproduced as being that of Cervantes, dated 1600, bearing the name Jáuregui and entitled Don Miguel de Cervantes, is not genuine… The painting is almost certainly a nineteenth-century fraud.

We have the same problem with Shakespeare. There is no painting or etching of him from when he was alive. The closest we come is a sculpture on his tomb, where he looks rather bloated, that was doubtless done from his corpse. Better than nothing, but forget all those images you’ve seen. Regardless, it doesn’t really matter what either man looked like. At least Cervantes was good enough to provide us with a self mocking description of his appearance in Exemplary Stories:

This person whom you see here, with an oval visage, chestnut hair, smooth open forehead, lively eyes, a hooked but well-proportioned nose, & silvery beard that twenty years ago was golden, large moustache, a small mouth, teeth not much to speak of, for he has but six, in bad condition and worse placed, no two of them corresponding to each other, a figure midway between the two extremes, neither tall nor short, a vivid complexion, rather fair than dark, somewhat stooped in the shoulders, and not very lightfooted…

Plays

Cervantes wrote at least eight full length plays. They are generally not well regarded. But I wouldn’t know. I’ve never read them. Just recently, his two best regarded plays The Bagnios of Algiers and The Great Sultana have been translated by Barbara Fuchs and Aaron Ilika in, Two Plays of Captivity. More important to me, no one has ever translated Eight Comedies and Eight New Interludes, Never Before Acted. There are individual plays translated here or there. Some day I may do it myself.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about Cervantes’ short comedy, The Cave of Salamanca. It is very funny. Here is the beginning of it from a translation by Edwin Honig:

[Enter Pancracio, Leonarda and Cristina]

pancracio: Mistress, dry those tears and stop your sighing. Remember, I’ll be away four days, not centuries. On the fifth day, at the latest, I’ll be back, God preserve me. But if it upsets you so, just say the word and I’ll break my promise and give up the trip altogether. Surely my sister can get married there without me.

leonarda: Pancracio, dear lord and master, I don’t want you to be discourteous because of me. Go now, God speed you, and meet your obligation, since the matter is so pressing. My grief I’ll keep to myself and spend the lonely hours as best I can. Only, I beg you to come back and not stay any longer than you promised. Oh, help me, Cristina, I’ve a pain in my heart!

[Leonarda faints]

cristina: Ah, weddings and holidays—such dreadful things! Indeed, sir, if I were you, I’d never go there.

pancracio: Run inside, girl, and get me a glass of water to throw in her face. No, wait, I know a few magic words I’ll whisper in her ear: they can revive people who faint.

[He speaks the words and Leonarda recovers, saying]

leonarda: Enough. It can’t be helped. I must be patient. My dear, the more you linger, the longer you delay my happiness. You friend Leoniso should be waiting for you in the carriage. God be with you and bring you back as quickly and safely as I could wish.

pancracio: If you want me to stay, my angel, I’ll be like a statue and not budge an inch.

leonarda: No, no, sweet comfort. Your wish is my desire, which means you must leave and not stay here, for your honor and mine are one and the same.

cristina: Oh, mirror of matrimony! If all wives cherished their husbands as my mistress loves hers, they’d sing a different tune.

leonarda: Go get my shawl, Cristiana. I must see your master safely off in his carriage.

pancracio: No, I beg you. Kiss me, but stay here, please. Cristina, be sure and cheer up your mistress, and I’ll get you a pair of shoes when I return.

cristina: On your way, sir, and don’t you worry about my mistress. I’ll see to it we both enjoy ourselves so she won’t miss your absence.

leonarda: Enjoy myself? Me? What a fantastic idea! Without my love beside me, I can know no bliss or joy, only grief and sorrow.

pancracio: I cannot bear this any longer. Ah, light of my eyes, farewell; I’ll see nothing to delight me will I gave upon you once again.

[Exit Pancracio]

leonarda: Good-bye, and good riddance to you! Go, and don’t come back! Vanish, go up like smoke in thin air! Good God, this time all your bluster and squeamishness don’t move me a bit!

cristina: And I was afraid your sweet nothings would keep him here and spoil our fun.

leonarda: Do you think our guest will really come tonight?

cristina: And why not? I’ve been in touch with them, and they’re just dying to come.

Cervantes was a little devil. Eventually the husband’s carriage breaks down and he comes back and it all turns into something like a Marx Brothers movie.

Translations

When it comes to Don Quixote I still get asked a lot what translation is the best — or at least which one they should read. The standard answer to that is, “Anything but Peter Motteux.” But in general, I wouldn’t even go that far. I would say you should read any copy you can get your hands on. The standard translation is John Ormsby’s, which is absolutely free and available in a number of formats from the Gutenberg Project. Walter Starkie’s 1957 translation seems to always be available in abundance at book sales for a quarter. Or you could get The Portable Cervantes, that provides Samuel Putnam’s lightly abridged Don Quixote, two stories from Exemplary Stories, and a tiny bit of The Troubles of Persiles and Sigismunda.

I don’t think it is necessary to pay more for one of the recent translations like the one by Edith Grossman. But if you do, I would recommend taking a walk on the wild side and trying one by Burton Raffel or John Rutherford. But like I said, it doesn’t too much matter. Since Cervantes is above all a character-oriented writer, his voice comes through regardless.

The main thing to remember is that both the books are a romp. They are comedies. Cervantes had a keen eye for the absurdity of life and people and it finds its greatest expression in Don Quixote. And given that, it is perfectly all right to skip the poetry, which is, with very few exceptions, mediocre. And that’s when it is well translated. Grossman, for example, doesn’t even pretend to care.

Cervantes is still alive. If you read him.

Rutherford, Humor, and Don Quixote

Don Quixote - RutherfordI got an interesting question from reader Aster about the Jervas translation of Don Quixote. In his version of Jervas, the opening sentence of the preface was different from what I had quoted in About to Read Don Quixote. It turned out that both sentences were correct. It is just that some editors change translations a lot. Mine was Edited by E C Riley, who is excellent; but that means the Oxford World’s Classics edition is kind of a conglomeration.

At first I thought that Aster must be mistaken, so I went searching through my collection of translations. I never found it, of course, but I did come upon an interesting translation controversy. In the introduction to his own recent translation of Don Quixote, John Rutherford opens with, “Yet another Quixote translation? Isn’t it an act of quixotry to write the thirteenth English version of the great Spanish novel?” He goes on to explain that previous translations have been too reverential, usually at the expense of Cervantes’ excellent sense of humor.

In this regard, he provides an example:

Cervantes gives the alert reader the chance to catch a telling and amusing glimpse of the brash young graduate Sanson Carrasco’s sharp-witted malice, and of Don Quioxte’s bumbling innocence, in a deft parody reversal of a conventional formula for leave-taking at the end of Chapter VII of Part II: “Sanson embraced Don Quixote and begged to be sent news of his fortunes both good and bad, to rejoice at the latter or grieve over the former, as the laws of friendship required…”

That is clever. And it is entirely in keeping with the book. Many characters make fun of Don Quixote and he is far too earnest to ever notice. So Sanson is saying, “Please tell me if things are going wrong so I can celebrate!”

Rutherford goes on to show that other translators completely dropped the joke. But he didn’t mention Putnam, so I checked my copy:

Sanson gave the knight a farewell embrace, urging him to send back word of the good or ill fortune that the pair met with, in order that he, Carrasco, as the laws of friendship demanded, might rejoice over the former or grieve over the latter.

So Putnam does not translate it as a joke. But Putnam was a careful translator and I found it hard to believe that he would miss this. So that took me back to the Spanish edition:

Abrazole Sanson, y suplicole le avisase de su buena o mala suerte, para alegrarse con esta o entristecerse con aquella, como las leyes de su amistad pedian.

This translates roughly, “Sanson embraced him, and he asked to be notified of any good or bad luck, to rejoice with this or be sad with that, like the laws of their friendship asked.” Do you see the reversal that Rutherford is talking about? I don’t. It seems to me that Putnam has it right (although why he moves that ending clause to the middle, I can’t say). What are we to make of this?

It could be that I am simply a lousy Spanish language translator. Well, actually I am a lousy translator. But I don’t think I’m wrong here. Not to mention that Putnam and every other translator agrees on this reading. That brings us to a second possibility: Rutherford is using a different Spanish language text. After all, they aren’t all the same. Rutherford says he used Luis Andres Murillo’s modern Spanish language edition of the book, which was published in 1978. That could explain the difference.

But I suspect that the problem is just a matter of approach. Rutherford wants to translate Don Quixote in such a way as to highlight the humor in it. And given that one could reasonably argue that the phrase was meant to be that way, Rutherford has decided that it was meant that way. I think that’s entirely valid, even if I think the comedy comes out very well in the “reverential” translations.

If you are still looking for a translation, Rutherford’s Penguin Classics edition is a fine choice.

Don Cervantes

Jauregui's Cervantes - not actually CervantesOn this day in 1571, the great Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio was born. He was only 38 when he died, but he was hugely influential on the path of painting. Yet he was all but forgotten after his death. It has only been in the last century that he has been given his due. He was a wonderful painter regardless.

The great Jerry Lee Lewis is 78 today. Here he is doing “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On”:

Other birthdays: the great novelist Elizabeth Gaskell (1865); largely wrong economist Ludwig von Mises (1881); the great physicist Enrico Fermi (1901); novelist James Fogle (1936); actor Madeline Kahn (1942); actor Ian McShane (71); the great television composer Mike Post (69); and comedian Robert Webb (41).

The day, however, belongs to the man who not only invented the modern novel, he invented the postmodern novel: Miguel de Cervantes who was born sometime around this day in 1547. I’ve read a couple of biographies about him and I can tell you this: we don’t know much about him. But the man clearly loved poetry. And yet, he really wasn’t that good a poet. What I don’t think he ever appreciated enough is just what a great wit he was. It isn’t just in Don Quixote. His Ocho Cemedias would be hysterical if performed. And even the Novelas Ejemplares are funny. But it seemed to be so much a part of who he was that he didn’t focus on it.

He also had a remarkable life. While coming back from war, he was captured and enslaved for five years, during which time he attempted to escape 4 times—some of the attempts quite daring and involved. But he never really used the experiences in his work—at least not in an autobiographical way. Again, I think it was too much a part of him. As a result, I always imagine him as a very introverted man who perhaps didn’t have the best notion of what was going on in the “objective” world. But he certainly created much great literature.

Let me explain what I mean when I say he invented the postmodern novel. In the first book of Don Quixote, he claims just to be someone who found these true histories of this amazing man Don Quixote. But then, in the second book, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza—the actual people the story was written about—become famous because of the first book. That is some seriously twisted life imitating art imitating life. It is wonderfully charming and funny.

Happy birthday Miguel de Cervantes!

Quixote Vs. Kowalski

QuixoticYou all know what a Don Quixote fan I am. What you probably don’t know is that I’ve been trying to write my own take on the tale. To some extent, I’ve been inspired by Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote. I am trying to do something quite different, however. I want to stay much closer to the original. Greene takes the tale in a highly philosophical direction and doesn’t attack the core of the book which is the nature of self. At first, I started the story (for lack of a better term, because I don’t know what it is at this point) on a bus with a man defending a woman’s honor. He is so overpowered with the feelings from this that something snaps in him and he begins to wander the country like Caine in Kung Fu. But the bus wasn’t really cutting it, so I changed the location to a bar.

Life may indeed imitate art. But I write comedy. And life is tragic. Simon Gutierrez at the ABC affiliate in Houston reported earlier this week about a bar fight last Saturday. The reporting is vague and contradictory, but I think I’ve got the broad outlines of the story. A couple of guys came into the bar right before closing. They acted like real jerks, getting in people’s faces and such. Then they force a woman to dance with them. Another guy, our own gallant Don Quixote who is said to be Jesus Geraldo Solis,[1] intervened and told the guys to knock it off. He said she had a boyfriend or some such. A fight broke out. One of the jerks pulled out a gun, and shot Solis twice, killing him.

This makes me reflect on Don Quixote all the more. In a reasonable world, Don Quixote might lose a battle badly. He certainly does in the book but not as much as you would think given that he’s old and crazy. But in our unreasonable world, Don Quixote just gets blown away. There is no romance. No gallantry. No manhood. There is simply the great technological leveler—the individual equivalent of nuclear weapons and the madness Mutual Assured Destruction.

What makes this interesting is that most people who own guns think they make the person more manly. I think it is the opposite. They can certainly just be tools as they are for a great many people. But more often, I’m afraid, they are a symbol of manhood for a culture that has lost it. Don’t get me wrong. I know that actual knights were lowly noblemen who were generally evil and above the law when it came to the vast majority of the people. But there was an ideal.

What is the ideal now? I think there are two things: cash and carnage. Greed is good and so is violence—at least if you can come up with the vaguest of justifications. “He made me look bad in front of that woman, I think I’ll kill him.” But there are ideals for those who want them. And maybe it is better to die a Don Quixote than to live a Stanley Kowalski.

H/T: Mad Mike’s America


[1] I mention his name only because he’s a hero. I get so tired to hearing how every person who puts on a uniform is a hero, like some cop who spends his whole career working in the records department is deserving of the term. People who actually stand up to evil are extremely rare. Mr. Solis is a hero.

Update (23 July 2013 12:09 pm)

Two suspects have been arrested in the case. There is another detail. At first Solis was shot in the leg. He attempted to walk away, so the shooter went up to him and shot him a couple of more times. It is also interesting that one of the guys arrested is only 19.

Tobias Smollett Day

Tobias SmollettBack in 1860, William Jennings Bryan was born on this day. He has a bit of a bad reputation because he was on the wrong side of the Scopes Trial. But the truth is that he was a good strong progressive. I don’t doubt that today he would accept evolution. Sadly, he died just after “winning” that trial in 1925.

It seems most days are good days for Nazi birthdays, and today is no exception. Hitler’s architect Albert Speer was born in 1905. He spent most of his life after World War II arguing that he didn’t know about the genocide. I tend not to believe him, but I will allow that he wasn’t the evilest of men. Speaking of the evilest of men, Adolf Eichmann was born in 1906. I will give Eichmann this: at least he had the good taste to get captured so we could hang him. (I know, I know: I don’t believe in capital punishment. But if anyone does deserve it, it is Eichmann.)

Philip Roth is 80 today. He’s been spouting a lot of nonsense recently, but he was very important to me when I was younger. Burt Metcalfe, the MASH TV series writer, is 78. There are Hollywood birthdays today: Glenn Close, Harvey Weinstein, and Bruce Willis. If you want more details, go over to IMDb! One birthday today shocked me: Sirhan Sirhan is 69 today. I thought he died years ago.

And finally, the man of the day: Tobias Smollett was born in 1721. He wrote the fourth real English translation of Don Quixote. It is one of two mid-18th century translations (the other being Charles Jervas), both of which are quite readable today, even without modern editing. However, Smollett has the advantage of being edited by Carole Slade for the Barnes & Noble Classics edition. As I’ve written before, this edition is worth its price just for Slade’s notes. Give it a read!

I claim this day, 19 March, as Tobias Smollett Day. Hallmark may start printing the cards!

Spreading the Quixotic Word

QuixoticIf you read this blog even causally, you know what a fan I am of Don Quixote. It is a delightful book that everyone should read. In a way, my writing about the book is an effort to share my joy about Cervantes’ crowning achievement. But there are other ways to do that.

Here’s one. I could go door to door every Saturday and talk to people. “Hi! I was wondering if you’ve read Don Quixote?” The middle aged woman stares at me blankly. “No? I’d like to read you a passage from Part 1, Chapter 7, The Second Sally. ‘At that instant Don Quixote began shouting…'”

I suspect if I did that people would either think that I was crazy or that I was involved in some kind of prank. They would just want to get rid of me. But it would be different if somehow they managed to see that I really do love that book and I really do want to share my love of it. In that case, they would think that I was just this rude guy who thinks that he has a right to bother other people who are otherwise enjoying their weekend.

But wait, there’s more! Suppose that I wasn’t just spreading the good word about what a great read Don Quixote is. Suppose I was selling a subscription service. Suppose I wanted to get them to come to Don Quixote appreciation meetings where they would be expected to pay dues! In that case, I think these front door confrontations might turn violent.

This is how I feel about the Jehovah’s Witnesses who come to my front door almost every Saturday: they are incredibly self-serving and rude. It is every bit as repugnant as the kids who come through the neighborhood selling magazines. Perhaps worse, because the kids at least admit to what they are doing.

What’s more, because I truly am interested in spiritual matters I find it annoying that I can’t discuss these issues with them. If you’ve ever talked to them, you know how it goes. Start talking to them about cosmology or theodicy and what you get back is some Bible verse. Truly, if you argue with them about how all of their beliefs depend upon the core belief that the Bible is actually the word of God, they have an answer. They will turn to John whatever and show you that the book says right there that it is the word of God. So any discussion with them is nothing more than the most aggravating tautology you will ever deal with.

I really don’t know what to do about these people. I don’t like to be rude to people, even when they are being rude to me. Perhaps the next time they come, I can bring a copy of Don Quixote to the door. And for only $12.95, it too can be theirs.

Monsignor Quixote

Monsignor QuixoteThere is a great deal of moral thought in Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote. I just want to finish off my thoughts on this novel, which I discussed in video form a couple of weeks ago.

In modern America, I think of Christians as being selfish conservatives who think the poor are morally inferior. It is nice to remember that this is exactly the opposite of traditional Christian thought. Father Quixote is a man who cares very much about all people. I think this, more than anything else, is why his best friend is the Communist Sancho.

In this first excerpt, Father Quixote is trying to figure out what penance he should give to an undertaker who claims to have stolen handles off the coffin of a beloved priest (although he didn’t really):

Father Quixote wondered what Father Heribert Jone would have written about this case. He would certainly list it among sins against justice, the category to which adultery also belongs, but Father Quixote seemed to remember that in the case of theft the gravity of the sin had to be judged by the value of the object stolen—if it was equivalent to one-seventh of the owner’s monthly wage it must be treated seriously. If the owner were a millionaire there would be no sin at all—at least not against justice. What would Father Gonzalez have earned monthly and indeed was he the true owner if he had only come into possession of the handles after death? A coffin surely belonged only to the earth in which it was laid.

Imagine the good Christian men Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney (yes, Mormonism is a kind of Christianity) would think of this idea about the sin of theft. In our society, the rule seems to be that if you steal from the rich you will get more punishment, not less.

The other excerpt is shockingly beautiful in its compassion, although I think most people will find it repellent. Don Quixote starts this dialog with Sancho:

“There is a popular saint in La Mancha who lost her virginity when she was raped by a Moor in her own kitchen when he was unarmed and she had a kitchen knife in her hand.”

“She wanted to be raped, I suppose.”

“No, no, her thought was quite logical. Her virginity was less important than the salvation of the Moor. By killing him at that moment she was robbing him of any chance of salvation. An absurd and yet, when one thinks of it, a beautiful story.”

Again, this is not the thinking of most people who consider themselves Christians. Yet this saint did just what Jesus supposedly did: she suffered for the sin of the Moor.

Many years ago, I attended a lecture by Kurt Vonnegut. He said that reading was the western version of meditation but that it was better. “When we read, we meditate with the greatest minds of our culture.” I think he was right. And I can’t think of a novel in which this is more true than Monsignor Quixote. I highly recommend meditating for a few hours with Graham Greene, who is certainly one of the greatest minds of our culture.

A Late Night Babble

I’ve been experimenting for months, trying to create videos that don’t totally suck. And I am making progress. I still don’t feel comfortable releasing anything I’ve worked hard on. But I’ve decided to start releasing videos that I just throw together. It’s typical internet stuff, except that they deal with stuff I’m interested in. This time it is Graham Greene’s excellent Monsignor Quixote. I have a lot to say about the book, but I don’t have time right now to write about it. So I offer you “A Late Night Babble”:

Making Don Quixote Dramatic

QuixoticI just finished reading two translations of the first part of Don Quixote and I’ve begun to see it in a whole new way, at least in terms of theatrical production. Cervantes does something that was greatly improved upon by later writers: he brings a number of subplots together with the main plot. It isn’t clear that he knows that he’s doing this, because he doesn’t make good use of it.

Probably the most surprising thing he does is to reintroduce of the 15 year old lad from Chapter 4. When we first see him, his master is whipping him. Don Quixote, that righter of wrongs, makes the lad’s situation even worse. And Don Quixote, lost in his dream world, rides off thinking he has done a great deed.

Here the boy comes back and explains all that happened. Don Quixote wants to right this further wrong, the boy stops him. He explains that Don Quixote only makes bad situations even worse and that the best thing is to stay the hell out of other people’s business. This is the only time in the whole novel that Don Quixote seriously considers that he is not right.

These last chapters also set right the story of Cardenio, Lucinda, and Ferdinand. This involves Ferdinand’s first love, Dorothea, who he abandoned. They leave as two couples: Cardenio with Lucinda and Ferdinand with Dorothea. The evil Ferdinand gets no punishment for his actions, probably because he is of noble birth who are not only above the law but beyond moral expectations.

There is also yet another couple of young lovers who get together, but why they are thrown in the book is not clear. Gines de Pasamonte shows up long enough to return Sancho’s sometimes stolen sometimes not donkey. The barber whose basin Don Quixote stole is bought off. And the innkeepers are paid for Don Quixote’s lodgings and all the destruction he has caused.

The most important tying up is done with Don Quixote’s friends the priest and barber—but not the barber who lost his basin (this is very confusing when they are together in the story). They bring him home where he is cared for by his niece and housekeeper. The plot is left there, but Cervantes writes that he has heard of further adventures, but hasn’t been able to get his hands on them. So the book ends with as shameful a lead in to a sequel as the new Spider-Man film.

The main thing about all of this is that if plotted correctly, all of these story threads could come together to great comedic effect. The story does not have to be a sequence of adventures—it can have real dramatic momentum.

One thing though: the windmills have got to go!