Thursday, May 26, 2005

Cowardice and Authenticity

[cross-posted from 400 Windmills]

”You are naturally a coward, Sancho,” said Don Quixote, “but so that you will not say that I am stubborn and never do as you advise, on this occasion I want to take your advice and withdraw from the ferocity that frightens you so, but it must be on one condition: that never, in life or in death, are you to tell anyone that I withdrew…out of fear.” (173 in Edith Grossman’s translation)

So, I will admit that I’ve lost a little momentum in my reading. But, I’m saddling up the pony again: I will not be deterred by the accidents and errands of life. I will read Don Quixote. Thinking that, feeling that, considering that, I’ve also been considering Bud’s question: Is Don Quixote a coward?

When I returned to the book last night then, I discovered, to my relief, that, behind as I am, I am also at the beginning of the Cardenio episode (I’m on page 203 of the Grossman translation now—that’s in the middle of chapter 25). I thought about the question as I read and found myself thinking more and more about questions of authenticity. The very questions, it turns out, that Ana Maria is mulling over in her post. When Quixote looks about for a priest and finds none, she writes: “I don't think he was ‘greatly troubled’ because he truly needed consolation, but because finding a hermit would make the scene that much more ‘authentic.’"

That seems right to me—it’s a symptom I recognize of having spent too much time in books. From books, we feel we know how things go; in life, we find ourselves trying to set the scene to make it match the representation. Here begins the hall of mirrors of life imitating art that so excited and dizzied Wilde, Borges, Nabokov and others.

Bud writes: “while Cardenio's scorn is also imagined, it is far more real than Quixote's. But Cardenio does go mad and seems quite committed to it until heaven hearkens his pleas.” And I agree that Cardenio’s madness seems more real, somehow, but I’m not quite sure why. (And, as I ‘ve confessed I’m not done with the episode.) One answer to the purpose of this interpolated scene, however, might have to do with the parallels it provides to Quixote’s own setting of the stage. Like Don Quixote, Cardenio has set the stage, too. We know that, when he arrived he asked shepherds for the remotest spot (179-80), that he announce himself as a penitent (180), whose grief made him unpredictably violent (180). He left behind money, lovely shirts, and poetry: enough evidence to prove himself a gentleman in some sort of romantic distress. In the end, that’s not that different from Don Quixote hoping for a rustic priest to witness his penance (or from the many other moments when Quixote and Sancho debate the merits of performing acts of heroism without a witness). In this, then, the Cardenio story might be a story about one kind of limit of Quixote’s quest: what begins as art (acting out penance) ends in madness.

At this point in the story, Quixote still has enough wits about him to be ticking off the elements of the genre like a Russian formalist studying the folktale, choosing which brand of penance suits him best.

All of which brings me back to the quotation with which I began. Don Quixote calls Sancho a coward when they retreat from the angry Holy Brothers. I read the tone of the book much as Ana Maria does—these quixotic moments are gently comic, wry. If he is “a type of artist” (and I think he is), part of his art consists in choosing the way in which he plots his own romance. Calling Sancho a coward is a lovely moment of cowardice masquerading as courtesy and manifesting itself as class-based contempt and bad logic:
  • Lowborn people are cowards.
  • Sancho is lowborn.
  • THEREFORE, Sancho is a coward.

Clearly, proposition one is false on its face, but the reasoning that comes after cannot be faulted. And he leaves the implication of his own bravery hanging in the air so he cannot be accused of speaking false. In the end, I think the question of whether or not he’s a coward is provocative and interesting to consider because it turns out to be a bit beside the point. The question that must accompany this one is, something about authenticity. At what point does reading so pollute our experience that it is no longer authentic? What is the relationship between authenticity and reading? Even the most blockheaded soldier going to war may likely be doing so in the service of some idea, some story; even the most illiterate lover may be serving some notion of romance. But, at a certain point, is there too much reading, too much of an expectation that life will conform to the rules of a genre?

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