A comparison of attempts to turn oneself into a legend
Sometimes when I start a close reading of a text, I’ll start to notice different, seemingly insignificant details from other things going on around me that are strangely relevant to the topic I’m studying, almost as if the universe creates a confluence of signifiers to help me understand the text better. On the other hand, their appearances could be complete coincidences. At any rate, as I wrote in an earlier post, I’ve started to read Don Quijote de la Mancha again. I’m taking my time with it, reading no more than one chapter per day, giving myself a little time for contemplation. Within 24 hours of reading Part One, Chapter One, I watched the latest episode of Marvel’s “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” with my kids. Ordinarily, the two plots from these vastly different fictional universes would not share space and time in my consciousness, but hear me out. In short, while both Don Quijote and the new Captain America, John Walker, attempt to be heroes inspired by predecessors, Quijote ultimately creates a new self that emulates his influences, while Walker is forced to imitate his model, whose accomplishments he’ll never be able to equal.
Chapter One of Don Quijote presents our protagonist, an over-the-hill hidalgo, which is a member of a minor nobility without a hereditary title. He has a little bit of land in an unnamed part of La Mancha, but he doesn’t have to perform manual labor, nor does he have to pay taxes. He lives with his niece, his housekeeper, and a young man who does different chores around the house and stables. Despite being a noble, he does not have much wealth. And with no wife or children, he has a lot of free time on his hands, which he spends reading chivalric novels. Over time, he becomes more and more obsessed with his books, to the extent that he neglects his mental and physical health; he even sells what little property and belongings he has so he can purchase more novels. Eventually, he makes the decision that he is going to emulate the heroes he reads about. To do this, he needs to obtain armor, get a horse, give himself an impressive sounding name, and find a lady love. The details of how this protagonist accomplishes these tasks are quite comical. His armor is ancient and rusty, having once belonged to his great grandparents. He gives his old and tired horse the name Rocinante, which is derived from rocín, meaning “draft horse.” The name Quijote seems to be derived from his last name, which is Quijana, but it also sounds a bit like Lanzarote (or Lancelot, in English), who was a famous fictional Knight of the Round Table. And in his mind, he transformed a local peasant woman into the beautiful Dulcinea, who would be the inspiration for his future accomplishments.
As I read Chapter One of Don Quijote, one term that stood out to me was “confirmádose a sí mismo” in reference to the protagonist’s choosing of his name, the process of which is analogous to the Catholic sacrament of confirmation, in which one adopts the name of a saint who will be something of a model and protector. Interestingly, even though he imitates much of what he has read and chooses a name reminiscent of someone else, his identity is his own; he wants to surpass his fictional models, not just be copies of them. None of his preferred heroes is quite like him. Quijote may be raving mad, but he makes very conscious decisions about who he wants to be and how he will live his life from then on. His decisions don’t have to make sense to anyone else, because they make sense to him. Of course, these decisions will ultimately have consequences for those who come into contact with him, as he risks harm to others, not just himself. Virtually everyone he meets will see just how crazy he his, and his few friends will attempt to convince him to see the error in his ways. In this sense, Quijote is somewhat admirable; he holds on to his vision tightly instead of blindly accepting what others tell him he should be.
It’s not that easy to make sense of Don Quijote’s decisions, but it’s a bit too easy for me simply to accept that he’s a mad man. There’s no evidence of hereditary madness or previous trauma that would cause a mental breakdown. As I reflect on what is known about him, I try to relate to him as best I can. Don Quijote is somewhere around 50 years old, so he is a bit older than I am. Unlike Quijote, I have a family and work obligations, but like him, my profession allows me to have more free time than most. I, too, enjoy spending time reading. I can’t help but think that Don Quijote is exhibiting some characteristics of a mid-life crisis. Of course, our protagonist is probably well past midlife by sixteenth century Spanish standards, but he clearly exhibits a dissatisfaction with his current situation and a desire to make drastic changes in his lifestyle. Nowadays, a middle-aged man who wants to feel young and vibrant might buy a sports car, get a facelift or hair transplant, purchase a new wardrobe, look for a much younger girlfriend, or take up an extreme sport.
Don Quijote, however, decides to address his middle-age malaise by emulating fictional heroes, which isn’t so strange by today’s standards. It’s not rare, for example, to come across middle-aged men who dress up like their favorite Jedi Knights and attend Star Wars conventions. Most of us know people who admire fictional characters so much that they try to imitate them in one way or another, often spending lots of money and alienating people close to them in the process. The main difference, of course, is that, by and large, these people know that they’re just pretending; they don’t attack innocent people on the street, accusing them of being Sith Lords. Another difference, however, is that these fans try to look and act like their models in almost every way. Unlike Quijote, they don’t usually create a new identity for themselves intended to rival the heroes they see on screen. Don Quijote is ultimately successful at surpassing his influences, not as a knight errant, but as an immortal, influential, and beloved character.
The possibility of creating a new identity for oneself has also been a theme of Marvel’s “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” which streams on Disney Plus. If you haven’t been following these characters and their stories from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it would be impossible for me to summarize them accurately in a few short sentences. I’ll just say briefly that this new series follows two of the Avengers, a group of super heroes who have defended Earth and the whole universe from destruction at the hands of an existential threat known as Thanos. These two members of the group, Sam Wilson, better known as Falcon, and Bucky Barnes, often referred to as the Winter Soldier, have to adapt to their new reality after having survived the traumatic events of the previous movie, “Endgame.” At the end of this film, Captain America, known to his friends as Steve Rogers, now an old man, gives his famous shield to Sam, who is hesitant to inherit it.
In the new series, which takes pace a few short months after the events of the film, Sam and Bucky struggle to find direction after the passing of Steve, who was a close friend and mentor to both. Sam donates Captain America’s shield to a museum because it just doesn’t feel like it belongs to him. Bucky, on the other hand, is just plain lost and is in court ordered therapy. In episode two, which premiered this past week, Bucky and Sam visit someone from Bucky’s past named Isaiah; the two fought against each other in the Korean War, and Bucky tries unsuccessfully to tell him that he’s no longer an assassin. During their heated conversation, Isaiah asks Bucky a question that made me pause the episode to write it down: “You think you can wake up one day and decide who you wanna be?” The rejection of one’s past and the creation of a new self isn’t easy for many reasons, not the least of which is because others will always remind you of who were.
There’s another character in “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” whose situation makes me think of Don Quijote. The American government longs for a new hero to keep order, so Captain America’s shield is removed from the museum and given to a decorated soldier named John Walker, who becomes the new Captain America. While virtually nobody supports Don Quijote’s emulation of his heroes, almost everybody is in favor of Walker’s imitation of Captain America. I say “almost everybody” because those who actually knew Rodgers, like Sam and Bucky, hate seeing someone else with shield; it feels like a betrayal of their friend’s wishes and a stain on his legacy. (And the fans of the show hate seeing a new Captain America, too.) Walker understands the skepticism, but he defends himself by saying that he’s not trying to be Steve; “I’m just trying to be the best Captain America I can be,” he says. Nonetheless, by just accepting the title, wearing the outfit, and wielding the famous shield, he’s setting himself up for constant comparisons with the original. Nothing he does could ever match up with his predecessor. There’s a lot that we still don’t know about Walker; some theorize that he’ll actually turn out to be a bad guy, while others think that he’ll somehow end up sacrificing himself for the greater good. One prediction I can make, however, is that at some point Sam will get the shield back and get comfortable with the idea of being its owner.
You can find traces of the greatest works of literature, like Don Quijote de la Mancha, in all genres of art. It might be a bit of a stretch to make meaningful comparisons between Don Quijote and Captain America, but it’s fun to try. Walker may be much more of a hero than Quijote, but it’s hard to imagine that Walker can become as legendary as the man from La Mancha. Perhaps the thing I love most about having a blog like this is that it allows me to make connections between all of my interests and to communicate them informally.
In what works have you found echoes of Don Quijote? Let us know about them in the comments below.
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