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This is the fourteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XIV: Don Quixote, Cervantes

In the preface to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain does not profess to know the laws or customs of Arthurian England. However, he asserts that whatever the laws and customs were in the sixth century, they must necessarily have been worse than those that exist today. “One is quite justified in inferring that whatever one of these [modern] laws or customs was lacking in that remote time, its place was competently filled by a worse one.” Society, he seems to say, necessarily improves over time.

This idea is seconded by the title character Hank Morgan. Hank finds the people of sixth century England to be boorish, gullible, superstitious, and stupid. (Even, we must take it, when compared to the people of nineteenth century Connecticut.) He reports that among the knights of the round table, there were not enough brains to bait a fish-hook. Society must have come a long way indeed if the cream of medieval society were so much dumber than people today.

As to Twain’s apparent belief in the perpetual progress of society, Don Quixote de La Mancha would certainly disagree. Don Quixote perceived that society had declined since the time of Arthur rather than progressed. The time of knights-errant was an era of men who were brave and true, and faithful to their lovers and their God. Since that time, however, society generally descended cockering and excess. How can society as a whole be better off when the upstanding knights-errant have been replaced by people soft, indulgent, and deceitful?

And as to Hank Morgan’s claim that people are smarter now, he seems to confuse intelligence with knowledge. He thinks that because he knows the formula for gun powder and the dates of certain eclipses, he is more intelligent than those who lack that specific knowledge. But it is foolish to conflate the possession of certain facts with total intellectual capacity. (And it should not be taken for granted that memorizing the dates of celestial events at least back to the sixth century is a sign of intelligence rather than a sign of unhealthy fixation.) If Hank Morgan is smarter than King Arthur because he can build a lightning rod, is he also smarter than Newton, Galileo, or Aristotle for the same reason?

At any rate Twain hints that Hank himself is not as smart as he thinks. Hank fancies himself something of a connoisseur of chromolithographs, an popular form of colored print. But Hank is quite critical of a “new artist” called Raphael who did a number of well-circulated chromos, clearly unaware that the prints are copies of Raphael’s paintings and that the artist lived and died more than 300 years earlier.

Beer of the week: Supper Club – This lager from Wisconsin’s Capital Brewing Company is slightly hazy, with a nice malty flavor and aroma. It is not very hopped, just a pleasant, bready lager. There is something to be said for simple, grain-heavy midwestern fare.

Reading of the week: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes – In this passage, our hero explains to some fellow travelers what it is to be a knight-errant. They, of course, perceive him to be insane. (As an interesting aside, this translation uses the archaic adjective “wood” meaning “insane.” Coincidently, near the beginning of A Connecticut Yankee, the narrator reads an old tale about Sir Lancelot in which a giant, terrified by the brave knight “ran away as he were wood.” Twain includes a note explaining that “wood” means “demented”.)

Question for the week: Does human society have a generally upward trajectory? Or generally downward? Or is there any discernible trend at all?


Forget Fear

The fear of forgetting is exceedingly common. More than a few people have nightmares about forgetting to study for an exam or forgetting to prepare for a presentation or speech. And it is not difficult to see why the fear of forgetting is so serious; the consequences can be dire. Forgetting an anniversary can result in marital discord. Forgetting to turn off the stove can result in a house fire. Forgetting about a project can result in a lost job. Forgetting is scary.

But forgetting is not only scary because of it’s consequences; it can also be scary because of it’s causes. Have you waken up after a night of drinking and not remembered how you got home? That is really scary. Since you don’t remember getting home, you have no way of knowing how close you may have come to doing something extremely dangerous. It may be the merest accident that you did not get seriously hurt or die, but you have no way to know because you drank so much that you can’t remember. Isn’t that terrifying?

To me, the most terrifying thing about forgetting is the fear of deteriorating mental health. I do not have any reason to think that I personally am losing any of my mental powers, but everybody who reaches old age has reason to fear that their body will outlive their reason, and that prospect is truly horrifying. I plan on living for many more years, but I extremely anxious about the prospect of living past the point where I can remember how to feed myself or recognize my loved ones’ faces.

Forgetting, however, is not always scary or bad. In fact, sometimes remembering is even worse. There is a reason that people talk of “being haunted” by memories. Edgar Allan Poe’s classic poem The Raven is about memory and the terrifying possibility of never being able to forget. The poem starts with the narrator reading a book of “forgotten lore.” And why is he reading forgotten lore? In the hopes that he can forget his lost love. He is trying to drive out his memories and replace them with something else that has already been forgotten.

The poem’s titular character, the raven, is the embodiment of the narrator’s inability to forget. Try as he might, the narrator will never rid himself of the bird just as he will never rid himself of the memory of “the rare and radiant maiden” whom he has lost. Even when he feels that he is on the verge of forgetting, when he gets distracted by other thoughts, he is brutally and unexpectedly forced to remember by the ominous fowl. And the worst thing about the raven is the knowledge that the narrator will be able to forget nevermore.


Beer of the week: Ghost Ship White IPA – With Halloween just around the corner, a beer that is advertized as “scary good” seems appropriate. This cloudy orange brew comes from Capital Brewery in Wisconsin. It pours with a sticky white head. The aroma is of strong hops with a hit of grapefruit. The smell, however, is a bit misleading; the body of the beer is lighter and the flavor is less hoppy than I expected based on the aroma. Although the flavor is surprisingly slight, the finish has a pleasant spice and a bit of a tingle from the citrusy hops.

Reading of the week: The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe – Surely this is one of the most famous American poems ever written. In The Raven, Poe does not mention beer, but he does mention nepenthe. Nepenthe is an ancient Greek potion to induce forgetfulness and chase away sorrow. Sounds like beer to me.

Question of the week: What fear is worse: forgetting something important, or the inability to forget something devastating?