In a recent post, I discussed the possibility of their being virtue in Don Quixote’s impossible goals. There may be something really valuable about attempting the patently impossible as long as it is for the right reason. But what would we say if Don Quixote had been killed by the windmill? Could we still reasonably glorify taking on the impossible if it meant ones own distruction?
Take, for example, the protagonist in Excelsior by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (If you require a refresher on the poem, read it here before you continue. While you’re up, grab yourself a beer; I’ll wait.)
Unlike with Don Quixote, we are given no background on the mission of the unnamed youth of Excelsior. All we know about his plan was that it involved crossing a certain mountain pass and that it happened during less than ideal conditions. Our biggest hint as to why is his oft repeated slogan: “Excelsior!” Which means something like “ever higher.” Perhaps he is some sort of thrill junkie?
Unlike Don Quixote’s quests as a knight errant, the youth’s desire to get “ever higher” is not single-minded. Don Quixote does not doubt or lament is calling, but the youth groans and sighs and even sheds a tear at the offer to renounce or even just delay his climb. But this isn’t inconsistent with an addiction to thrill seeking. Plenty of addicts of all descriptions recognize the destructive nature of their addictions and suffer immense inner turmoil because of it. There are people who genuinely want to quit but cannot. And in the end, the youth wanted to stop climbing the mountain but couldn’t, and his addiction killed him.
The poem is really a downer if it is about addiction. However, the poem does not really sound like it is about addiction. But if it is not addiction, what is it? Why did the youth not act more judiciously? He was warned against proceeding and his sigh and groan and tear all show that he wanted to stop but could not. What compelled him to go on? And, since he died because of it, can whatever drove him on be a good thing? If he were a martyr and he walked to his death for the glory of God or to promote a cause, that would be something. But the only cause he espoused was “Excelsior.”
Perhaps “Excelsior” really is a cause. The youth realized that progress really is everything. If he had stopped to rest in the Alpine village, he would not only have stopped making progress, he would have been going backwards. And what gives this interpretation more weight than the addiction hypothesis is the way the poem ends. Unlike an addict who is disfigured by his vice, the youth is “lifeless, but beautiful”. We even get to hear his final thought (maybe.) It is not one of lamentation and regret, bitter about his poor choices and his inability to overcome his addiction; instead, it is “serene”. The last thought is noble, even triumphant, “like a falling star”.
Still, the youth is dead. What does he or the world have to show for his decision to go ever higher?
Beer of the Week: Nepal Ice – Nothing makes a beer more appealing than freezing to death on a mountain. Ask the nice people of Nepal. This does not appear to be an “ice beer.” It is also not very impressive. With an aggressive pour, a lot of head will develop, but the large bubbles dissipate quickly. The smell is barely noticeable. As far as the taste, a sort of unpleasant sweetness from the adjucts pervades, only to be followed by a sort of wet mouth-feel as though one somehow failed to swallow it all on the first attempt. The old man from Excelsior should have said “Try not this beer.” However, like the hero of the poem, I would not have heeded the advice anyway. The bottom of my glass is inclines ever higher.
Reading of the week: Excelsior by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – The basic plot of the poem is a man traveling about on foot on a fairly treacherous mountain pass. Despite good advice to rest the night in an alpine village (and potentially get to second base with a buxom lass,) he continues on his way, driven on by his mantra: “Excelsior.” Then he succumbs to hypothermia and dies.
Question of the week: The offer to “rest [his] weary head upon [the maiden’s] breast” brings a tear to the young man’s eye. Although this indicates his inner desire to stay, he carries on. Why?