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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 How can society as a whole be better off when the upstanding knights-errant have been replaced by people soft, indulgent, and deceitful?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?


Can’t Get Enough of That Wonderful Duff!

Books, wrote Milton in Areopagitica  “are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.” To destroy a book is to destroy thought itself, a crime nearly equal to that of killing a man. A book has a life as “active as that soul was whose progeny they are.” To what extent, though, do the lives of books ever truly separate from the lives of their authors? Don Quixote, argued by some to be the greatest novel ever written, may give us some insights.

Early in Part 1, a curate and a barber purge Don Quixote’s library of the dangerous books that have led him to believe that he was a knight-errant. (It occurs to me that at the time a barber would have also been a surgeon, so why should he not be the one to “cure” Don Quixote by surgically removing the cause of his illness?) Throughout the comical scene of these two passing judgement on books, they show the strength of Milton’s claims. The very idea of destroying “dangerous” books only makes sense if one believes that there is a great potency in them. Further, the books are discussed as if they are people, e.g. “we must condemn him to the fire.” The curate and the barber are reverse of Milton; they recognize the immense power and independent personalities of books, but they conclude that books must be censored where Milton concludes that they must not.

But the curate and the barber do not strictly separate the personality of the books from their authors. By the end of their inquisition, they become weary and lazy. They begin to mix judgments of the books with judgments of the authors: “Let him be kept, both because the author is my very great friend, and in regard of other more heroical and lofty works he hath written.” So the judges are willing to spare some books, not because of their content, but because of their authors. I suspect that this inconsistency is meant to show a flaw of their methods. If the book is dangerous, how can it matter who wrote it? So the curate and the barber are bad judges at best, and, more likely, totally backwards in their thinking. Books really do have a life independent of their authors.

Don Quixote is an attractive subject for this sort of study for another reason. Supposedly, Don Quixote, Part 1 was published with no intent of their being a second part. The story is complete and deeply satisfying, with no need for further adventures. However, Cervantes wrote in a time without intellectual property law. The character of Don Quixote was so popular, that other authors wrote their own adventures for the man of La Mancha. (The same thing, incidentally, happened with the character Sherlock Holmes.) Cervantes, unhappy to see his character appearing in other writers’ works, published Part 2 as the definitive final adventure of Don Quixote.

Proponents of strong intellectual property law claim that without it, inventors will not invent and writers will not write. But Cervantes continued to write, even after his character was employed elsewhere. Charles Dickens was not protected by IP law, but he still made a living. Once an idea is out in the world, it has its own life. How can the author expect to keep that life reined in?

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Beer of the week: Duff Beer – Speaking of intellectual property, the makers of this beer have had to spend a lot of time in court fighting for the right to use the name and logo of Homer Simpson’s drink of choice. Surely an American company that tried this would lose the fight, but this beer is German, and Europeans love sticking it to America almost as much as they love protected place names. The beer itself probably isn’t too different from what the Simpsons creators had in mind. It really is a very ordinary mass-produced beer. The only hint that this is really a cheap German lager instead of a cheap American lager is that there is no hint of corn or rice in the flavor and there is a little bit of hoppy dryness in the finish, maybe even a touch of grass. I overpaid just because of the name, but if this were priced the same as beers of similar quality, I could definitely see my way to imitating Homer and drinking a lot of it.

Reading of the week: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes – The curate and the barber put together a mock auto-da-fé for the dangerous books in Don Quixote’s library. The scene is very comical. I particularly like when the curate laughs at the naive old woman who suggests blessing the library with holy water, only to replace blessing-with-water with purging-by-fire.

Question of the week: If a book has a life of its own, isn’t strong IP law a form of slavery? Shouldn’t ideas be free to work wherever they might be of most use?


Getting High

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?


Wanted: One side-kick, must love beer, Spanish speaker preferred

So often, late January is the time when New Year’s resolutions fall apart. There are a number of reasons for these failures. Most of the problems involve impulse control and will-power. However, a many people set unrealistic goals and bring about their failure in that way.

The most extreme and strict resolutions are so prone to failure because an all-or-nothing attitude can make even the smallest of hurdles insurmountable. You couldn’t get to the gym today? Might as well eat a whole pizza, resolution over.  It has almost become a recurring theme on this blog to encourage moderation. Moderation in drinking, moderation in studying and now moderation in self-improvement. By being moderate in what we hope to accomplish, we will experience only moderate setbacks. If we wish to make tremendous changes, the obstacles we face will be tremendous.

Still, one must admit that there is some sort of virtue in attempting great self-improvement. So how can one seek greatness without falling on every small difficulty? The answer may be in the attitude of the man of La Mancha. Don Quixote’s goals and aspirations were extremely high; higher than even conceivably attainable. However, when he encountered setbacks, he simply added them to the list of things that he would overcome. Each time that something went wrong, and that was quite often, he saw an opportunity to make his glory even greater. Sure he was delusional, but perhaps a bit of delusion is exactly what is needed to drive one to greatness. So remember, those windmills really are giants. And if they knock you down, get right back on your horse and chase down the wizard who sent them to get you.

Beer of the Week: Cusqueña Malt Lager – While Cervantes was writing about our quixotic hero, the Spanish Empire was growing. Although the Spanish no longer control Peru, their influence there will probably never go away. Cusqueña, however, may not stand the test of time. The most exciting part of this beer is the fact that it’s from Peru. The look isn’t at all bad. It is a pale gold with a pure white head. From there, it is pretty much down hill. It is reminiscent of a standard American macrobrew, although it may have a bit more flavor. The finish is rather wet, which doesn’t help the overall appeal.

Reading of the week: Don Quixote, Part One by Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote tilting at windmills is the most iconic scene of Cervantes’ masterpiece. Taking on 30 or 40 horrible giants can be quite daunting, so “if thou beest afraid, go aside and pray, whilst I enter into cruel and unequal battle with them.”

Question of the week: If you take on a quixotic project, how important is it to have a Sancho Panza?