How a pandemic or mid-life crisis makes us return to the classics
One consequence of the current pandemic is that it has made many of us (of a certain age) reflect on our own mortality and legacy. It also has made us slow down. We haven’t traveled or participated in many of the recreational activities we used to enjoy. I took advantage and picked up some new hobbies, including birdwatching, studying chess, blogging, and savoring different coffees. Now that the new vaccinations are allowing us to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, I fear that we might forget some of the insights gained during this time. While I certainly won’t miss 2020, I hope not to overcompensate and start to live life at breakneck speed when restrictions are eventually lifted as we inch towards herd immunity. There’s a certain solace that we can take in stepping back to contemplate our life, pandemic or no pandemic. One way we can appreciate who we are, where we’re going, and what life means is to perform a careful study of great art and literature, whose creators seem to have special insights on the human experience. As my quarantine progressed, one goal I set for myself was to read (or reread) some of the classic books that I don’t often take the time to consider, like Don Quijote de la Mancha.
In a recent class of Masterpieces of Spanish Literature that I’m teaching this semester, we read a very short fragment of Don Quijote. Every time we get to this topic in this undergraduate class, which I teach once a year, we read about how the crazy old man known as Don Quijote attacked a bunch of windmills, thinking they were giants, while his rotund squire, Sancho Panza, unsuccessfully tried to make him see reality. It’s a classic scene, no doubt, and it’s funny and easy enough to comprehend, but I’ve always thought that it gives students an insufficient understanding of why this work is so significant.
Of course, in class I try to contextualize the work for the students and reflect on its author, Miguel de Cervantes, the time period, and its influence on countless novelists and other artists. Videos, like the one embedded below, can often help. Nonetheless, I always lament that we can’t spend more time on this text. One plea I make to my students, who are just getting a small taste of this work, is to read, at some point in their life, the novel in its entirely, even if it’s in English. Then we move on to the next topic, unfortunately. Sadly, most of them won’t ever pick up the book.
While I know some colleagues and former professors of mine who have read Don Quijote multiple times, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve only read the novel, cover to cover, once, which is probably once more than most people I know. It is said that the only book that has sold more copies than Cervantes’s masterpiece is the Bible, but I would venture to say that most people haven’t read that book in its entirety, either. A lot of us, myself included, buy large quantities of books to fill our shelves, while many of them go ignored, gathering dust. This phenomenon has intrigued me so much that it was the starting point for my doctoral dissertation. I noticed a good number of realist and naturalist novels in which there were fictional characters who were readers of real books or who had an unused library; often times despicable characters were fervent readers of a certain type of literature or misunderstood what they were reading. The references to literature in fiction often amount to thinly veiled literary criticism, in which the authors engage with and even condemn their predecessors and contemporaries. This technique is not unique to the nineteenth-century novels that I studied in grad school, as it dates back to, you guessed it, Don Quijote, whose protagonist read so many chivalric novels that he went crazy and attempted to imitate the heroes of the books he read. The famous escrutinio de los libros scene, in which Don Quijote’s friends go through his library, deciding which ones to burn, is repeated in one form or another in many of the books I have analyzed in my research. You could say, then, that I owe some of my modest professional achievements to Don Quijote, even if I’m not a specialist in Golden Age Spain.
Cervantes’s work has not only influenced me professionally, but personally as well. The one time I read it in its entirety was when I studied abroad in Mexico for the first time in my Master’s program. My reading of Don Quijote is rightfully overshadowed in my mind by other events during that summer of 2002, like the first encounter with my future wife, but I remember being extremely moved by what I read, too. It was part of an independent study course with Dr. Armando González-Pérez, of Marquette University, who met with me weekly in a café to go over what I was reading. He was a specialist in medieval literature, but like a lot of my professors from Marquette, he also was knowledgeable in literature from many regions and time periods, including Golden Age and even contemporary literature from his native Cuba. When we got to the end of the novel, I remember shedding a few tears because of how it ended. The protagonist whom I originally perceived as a simple buffoon, transformed into something of a philosopher, transforming me in the process.
While I was a doctoral student at UCLA, I had the good fortune to take a class with Carroll B. Johnson, who was one of the foremost experts in Don Quijote in the world. The innovative seminar I took with him was not simply on the novel itself, but how we could use it as a lens through which to analyze whatever our academic focus was. (Many of his students thought that he came to resemble how we pictured Don Quijote to be; somewhat tall and slender, with a gray goatee.) Another professor with whom I often talked about Don Quijote was Enrique Rodríguez Cepeda, whose collection of artifacts related to the novel was featured in the LA Times. In my first academic year at UCLA, 2004-2005, we celebrated in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese the 400th anniversary of the publishing of the first part of Don Quijote. While there were many organized events throughout the week, the one that was most meaningful to me was a marathon reading of the novel in the library, for which I read aloud two chapters, including the very last one, that had made me emotional a few short years earlier.
Today I’m reminded of Don Quijote as I walk through my home and see a poster of Pablo Picasso’s famous interpretation of the protagonists, as well as a unique print from a talented artist and high school Spanish teacher named Emanuela Bruce, who was a former student of mine; I cherish this work that she was kind enough to give me. There are other reminders of Don Quijote around my house, like a small sculpture of the iconic character, made from screws and other bits of metal that I purchased in Tijuana, Mexico. I even affectionately call my wife, whose first name is Dulce, “Dulcinea,” on occasion.
So, why have I only read Don Quijote all the way through one time? The short answer is that it takes a long time and it’s difficult. While editions may vary, the text is easily over 1,000 pages, and it’s now over 400 years old. I know that reading Shakespeare is difficult for me, even though I’m a native English speaker; likewise, the language used in Don Quijote can be challenging for a native Spanish speaker. In other words, it takes a large investment of time and attention just to make it through such a text. The payoff, however, can be worth the investment.
Thus, I’m starting to read Cervantes’s masterpiece again. This time, I’m not doing so because I feel like I have to. I won’t be earning a grade. It’s just another personal endeavor that I hope to accomplish. I’m especially looking forward to what Don Quijote can teach me that is relevant for a (more or less) middle-aged reader in the United States in the year 2021. I’m in a very different stage of my life now than I was when I first read the novel back in 2002, so I would expect to be drawn to different aspects of the work. I’m limiting myself to one chapter per day, accompanied with some time for contemplation. And of course, I’ll be blogging about any insights that are especially meaningful. Check back regularly to read about my experiences.
Do you have any pandemic projects still pending? Have you ever read Don Quijote de la Mancha? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments below.
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