by RIchard K Munro
“And one morning before dawn on a hot day in July, without informing a single person of his intentions, and without anyone seeing him, he armored himself with all his armor and mounted Rocinante, wearing his poorly constructed helmet, and he grasped his shield and took up his lance and through the side door of a corral he rode out into the countryside with great joy and delight at seeing how easily he had given a beginning to his virtuous desire.” CERVANTES
I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that one should read at least one old book for every one or two new books. Now, I love old books and the classics and when it comes to literature (drama, novels, poetry) i favor the classics. I enjoy the Beatles but if one reads their songs as poems and literature, they are quite minor when compared to the greatest songwriter ever produced by the British Isles, namely, Robert Burns. The Beatles are like nice picture postcards or cotton candy, but they are not deeply wise and as moving as, for example, as Shakerspeare, Cervantes or Tirso de Molina or Calderon de la Barca or even El Duque de Rivas.
But I always come back to Don Quixote. Instead of going back to watch “video thrillers” like The Sopranos or Stranger Things (both enteraining in their own ways) consider doing something else like reading or re-reading a classic poem or book (something over 100 years old). We have Netflix series today and movies but during the Renaissance people were engaged by the Arthurian Romance like Amadis de Gaula circa 1535 and numerous sequels. These stories all followed a similar pattern: the beautiful and virtuous damsel, incredibly handsome and brave and noble chivalrous knights, evil and treacherous villains, impossible quests. As literacy developed with the printing press the romance was what the reading public adored.
It is not insignificant that some of the Spanish Conquistadors of the 16th century named places they discovered from names that directly came from chivalric romances, for example: California. Cervantes turned this world on its head. Instead of fantasy he seemed to say I will show you the real world the real Spain, real places and real people the Spanish people and their culture. And he did. Don Quixote is a serious and tragic book but it is also one of the funniest books every written! Cervantes gave us unforgettable stories and characters and much more to laugh about and to think about.
Another thing Cervantes did was move away from stories merely focused on the court and aristocratic life to daily life of the ordinary people of Spain. We remember Don Quixote as the first novel but it was one of the first and still the greatest on the road narratives. Whomever Don Quixote finds on his travels, a nobleman, a common innkeeper, a barber, a bandit, a soldier, prisoner, a moor, or a prostitute Cervantes showed dignity and humanity in everyone.
Don Quixote proclaimed: “It is not the responsibility of knights errant to discover whether the afflicted, the enchained and the oppressed whom they encounter on the road are reduced to these circumstances and suffer this distress for their vices, or for their virtues: the knight’s sole responsibility is to succour them as people in need, having eyes only for their sufferings, not for their misdeeds.”
And of course, Don Quixote has the delightful travelling companion the everyman of the people, Sancho Panza. It is interesting to note that Shakespeare, who was a contemporary of Cervantes, mostly wrote of the higher echelons of society, the captains and the kings, the queens, the nobility, MacBeth, Brutus, Caesar Cleopatra or Mark Anthony. The commoners are to be found in Shakespeare, of course, I recall the Gravedigger in Hamlet, Bottom, Feste the Jester, Malvolio but the nobles and elites predominate.
Here, Cervantes is more modern than Shakespeare who was so grounded in the aristocratic classics like Plutarch’s Lives. Shakespeare seemed to know, instinctively, that the “groundlings” loved to vicariously enjoy the life of lords and ladies. “
In English-speaking America the delightful Lazarillo de Tormes is not as well-known as Don Quixote but I have always considered it an important precursor and I believe inspiration to Don Quixote. In one episode the Hidalgo of Toledo, reminds us of a younger Don Quixote. And like Don Quixote, Lazarillo de Tormes is a road story. The primary difference is that it is rather more episodic than Don Quixote and the remarkably interesting sympathetic and tragic character of the Hidalgo only appears in one episode. So this picaresque novel is really more a series of interrelated stories than a complete novel. But like Don Quixote Lazarillo is ironic and intensely funny.
But in addition, like Don Quixote, Lazarillo de Tormes is very realistic and continually makes reference to the dress, food, customs of 16th century Spain. In many ways, Lazarillo de Tormes is one of the first psychological works. In its humor and satire on Spanish society. I recommend to anyone who reads Don Quixote to spend a few evenings to read Lazarillo de Tormes. “ni oro ni plata te puedo dar, pero sí muchas enseñanzas para vivir.” “No hay tal cosa en el mundo para vivir mucho que comer poco.” These are quotations of the penniless Hidalgo. “Neither gold nor silver can I give you but many lessons for life” and “There is nothing is the world to live well as to eat little.” This is what the Hidalgo says when his poverty causes Lazarillo and him to fast.
Cervante’s characters are full of wise commentaries on life:
“All I know is that while I’m asleep, I’m never afraid, and I have no hopes, no struggles, no glories — and bless the man who invented sleep, a cloak over all human thought, food that drives away hunger, water that banishes thirst, fire that heats up cold, chill that moderates passion, and, finally, universal currency with which all things can be bought, weight and balance that brings the shepherd and the king, the fool and the wise, to the same level. There’s only one bad thing about sleep, as far as I’ve ever heard, and that is that it resembles death, since there’s very little difference between a sleeping man and a corpse.”
Don “Quixote says: “Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected. Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty we can begin to enrich ourselves. This is noble, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth.”
“What giants?” Asked Sancho Panza.
“The ones you can see over there,” answered his master, “with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long.”
“Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”
“Obviously,” replied Don Quijote, “you don’t know much about adventures.”
Sancho doesn’t know the fictional world of chivalric knights like someone today who does not know the world of Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings.
There is a wonderful old Highland saying “is i ‘n ailleantachd maise nam ban” (the truest beauty of womankind is in their modesty). Immodesty is like drunkenness is unattractive. Character is perhaps the most important element of beauty. Cervantes wrote:
“Remember that there are two kinds of beauty: one of the soul and the other of the body. That of the soul displays its radiance in intelligence, in chastity, in good conduct, in generosity, and in good breeding, and all these qualities may exist in an ugly man. And when we focus our attention upon that beauty, not upon the physical, love generally arises with great violence and intensity. I am well aware that I am not handsome, but I also know that I am not deformed, and it is enough for a man of worth not to be a monster for him to be dearly loved, provided he has those spiritual endowments I have spoken of.”
“It is a science,” said Don Quixote, “that comprehends in itself all or most of the sciences in the world, for he who professes it must be a jurist, and must know the rules of justice, distributive and equitable, so as to give to each one what belongs to him and is due to him. He must be a theologian, so as to be able to give a clear and distinctive reason for the Christian faith he professes, wherever it may be asked of him. He must be a physician, and above all a herbalist, so as in wastes and solitudes to know the herbs that have the property of healing wounds, for a knight-errant must not go looking for someone to cure him at every step. He must be an astronomer, so as to know by the stars how many hours of the night have passed, and what clime and quarter of the world he is in. He must know mathematics, for at every turn some occasion for them will present itself to him; and, putting it aside that he must be adorned with all the virtues, cardinal and theological, to come down to minor particulars, he must, I say, be able to swim as well as Nicholas or Nicolao the Fish could, as the story goes; he must know how to shoe a horse, and repair his saddle and bridle; and, to return to higher matters, he must be faithful to God and to his lady; he must be pure in thought, decorous in words, generous in works, valiant in deeds, patient in suffering, compassionate towards the needy, and, lastly, an upholder of the truth though its defence should cost him his life. Of all these qualities, great and small, is a true knight-errant made up;”
The greatest and noblest of the virtues Cervantes teaches us comes from love and friendship:
“I will buy a flock of sheep, and everything that is fit for the pastoral life; and so calling myself the shepherd Quixotis, and then the shepherd Pansino, we will range the woods, the hills and the meadows, singing and versifying….Love will inspire us with a theme and wit, and Apollo with harmonious lays. So shall we become famous, not only while we live, but to make our loves as eternal as our songs. ”
The idea of romantic love has an attractive and rich history in classical literature.
Robert Burns and Walter Scott come to mind immediately
Highland lad my love was born (Burns)
A Highland lad my love was born, The Lalland laws he held in scorn, But he still was faithfu' to his clan, My gallant, braw John Highlandman. Chorus: Sing hey my braw John Highlandman! Sing ho my braw John Highlandman! There's not a lad in a' the lan' Was match for my John Highlandman. With his philibeg an' tartan plaid, An' guid claymore down by his side, The ladies' hearts he did trepan, My gallant, braw John Highlandman. We ranged a' from Tweed to Spey, An' liv'd like lords an' ladies gay, For a Lalland face he feared none, My gallant, braw John Highlandman. They banish'd him beyond the sea But ere the bud was on the tree, Adown my cheeks the pearls ran, Embracing my John Highlandman. But, och! they catch'd him at the last, And bound him in a dungeon fast. My curse upon them every one, They've hang'd my braw John Highlandman! And now a widow, I must mourn [The pleasures that will] ne'er return ; No comfort but a hearty can, When I think on John Highlandman. Here it is performed by the famous and talented Highland composer and bardess Mairi MacInnes. Her modern Gaelic songs and compositions are very admired.
BURNS. “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose” . This is a famous song. My father and grandfather knew this poem by heart and both recited it the day of their wedding. I sang it at my wedding in Spain and translated it to Spanish.
Walter Scott: JOCK O’ Hazeldean is an old favorite I sang with my mother at our Hamiliton upright piano countless times or in long rides back from Shea Stadium after a baseball game in the 1960s.
Why weep ye by the tide, ladie, Why weep ye by the tide? I'll wed ye tae my youngest son, And ye'll shall be his bride; And ye'll shall be his bride, ladie, Sae comely tae be seen;" But aye she loot the tears down fa' For Jock o' Hazeldean.
Then we have also Victor Hugo’s The Toilers of the Sea, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, Verdi’s magnificent La forza del destino The Force of Destiny)
The libretto was based on a Spanish romantic drama, Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino (1835), by Ángel de Saavedra, El Duke of Rivas. It is very interesting to note that La Fuerza del Sino deals with the theme on racism and class prejudice as well as interracial love.
Unforgettable in the story of romantic love we have Heine’s love poems and the Schubert and Hugo Wolf music settings for them. My mother used to sing Heine’s famous song. She said it almost made on forget German beastliness entirely and remember a better world and the best part of German culture.
Buch Der Lieder: Die Heimkehr:
‘Ich Weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten’ (Heine)
I don’t know what it could mean,
Or why I’m so sad: I find,
A fairy-tale, from times unseen,
Won’t vanish from my mind.
The air is cool and it darkens,
And quiet flows the Rhine:
The tops of the mountains sparkle,
In evening’s after-shine.
The loveliest of maidens,
She’s wonderful, sits there,
Her golden jewels glisten,
She combs her golden hair.
She combs it with a comb of gold,
And sings a song as well:
Its strangeness too is old
And casts a powerful spell.
It grips the boatman in his boat
With a wild pang of woe:
He only looks up to the heights,
Can’t see the rocks below.
The waves end by swallowing
The boat and its boatman,
That’s what, by her singing,
The Lorelei has done.
And there are an infinite number of parodies and burlesques of romantic stories including Tom Jones as well as Don Quixote. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum comes to mind (Stephen Sondheim) as well as Learner and Loewe’s Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, Gigi and Camelot.
“If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love.” said Italo Calvino. “All that can be done is for each of us to invent our own ideal library of our classics; and I would say that one half of it would consist of books we have read and that have meant something for us and the other half of books which we intend to read and which we suppose might mean something to us. We should also leave a section of empty spaces for surprises and chance discoveries.”
Italo Calvino also wrote:
“The classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them. For the fact is that the reading we do when young can often be of little value because we are impatient, cannot concentrate, lack expertise in how to read, or because we lack experience of life. This youthful reading can be (perhaps at the same time) literally formative in that it gives a form or shape to our future experiences, providing them with models, ways of dealing with them, terms of comparison, schemes for categorizing them, scales of value, paradigms of beauty: all things which continue to operate in us even when we remember little or nothing about the book we read when young. When we reread the book in our maturity, we then rediscover these constants which by now form part of our inner mechanisms though we have forgotten where they came from. There is a particular potency in the work which can be forgotten in itself but which leaves its seed behind in us. “
So let us return to the classics and often.
A classic to me is something of surpassing literary beauty that touches upon themes of universal human importance such as timeless truths. There are many books on family relationships; one of the greatest of course is the Old Testament another is the Odyssey. Both books illustrate that the traditional family is the essential foundation of any civilization and culture. My father and I often talked about marriage and choosing a mate and the importance of chilldren. My father often said “marriage did not mean sex or money or advancement but openness to children and deep frienship.” He was married for 59 1/2 years separated only by war and, finally, death. When spoke of marriage he referred to the classics such as Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities Little Dorrit and the Four Loves by C.S. Lewis. My father emphasized that one should not marry or have a relationship based on sexual attraction alone. One should marry someone at the right time for the right reasons. I loved a girl once but did not ask her to marry me because I had no job and very little to offer her. I did offer her my friendship and worked hard to be worthy of her love. In the end, we married and lived happily ever after. But I only asked her to marry me at the right time and in the right place.
“The classics are a treasury of the world’s accumulated wisdom that counteract trendy ideas and modern ideologies Just as there is great art, great music, and great architecture that evokes wonder and enlarges the mind,” wrote Mitchell Kalpaka. He said also that. “the classics too possess the power to reach the depths of the mind, heart, and soul in a way that films and media can never penetrate.”
Movies ARE wonderful because they are an easy shared experience. I love classic movies and grew up watching them with my parents and grandparents at places like the Little Carnegie in New York City, on Saturday Night on the Movies or the CBS LATE Show and later on VHS tapes. I will never forget seeing the 1935 David Copperfield one dark and rainy evening almost 60 years ago with my entire family including my mother’s mother. At one poignant point when David finally reaches his aunt after much suffering and travail the entire family broke down in tears including all the children. I can never re-read Dickens without remembering movie and TV versions of his works. But the books are greater and deeper than the films. The films are like canned soup and toast compared to a homemade Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.
Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath is a powerful unforgettable film about how poverty almost destroyed family bonds beneath the wheel but Steinbeck’s book is far deeper. Richard Brook’s Elmer Gantry is a wonderful introduction to the 1927 novel by Sinclair Lewis but it is less than half the story (read the entire book!). All Quiet on the Western Front is a 1930 American film based on the 1929 by German novelist Erich Maria Remarque and was Directed by Lewis Milestone. It was the first Oscar Winner for Best Picture winner based on a novel and to its credit it comes very close to the spirt of the novel. My grandfather, who was a World War I combat veteran said the book and the movie came closest to the experience of the combat soldier as any he knew. For Whom the Bell Tolls (see the uncut version) is a 1943 American film produced and directed by Sam Wood and starring Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, unforgettably Akim Tamiroff as Pabloi and , Katina Paxinou as Pilar. The film is a noble attempt but the main character Robert Jordan (an American teacher of Spanish) is only partially characterized in the film, but the film does summarize the main action. El Sordo’s Last Stand is powerfully recreated for example. However, the education of Robert Jordan during the Spanish Civil War his experience with fanatical Communists as well as Spanish Nationalists and his love for Spain and the Spanish people are only partially illustrated. Once again, the film is a good introduction to the book but the book is far deeper. The late Hugh Thomas, an expert on the Spanish Civil war felt the two best books and essential books on the Spanish Civil War were For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway and Homage to Catalonia by Orwell. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy has been filmed several times (I remember the Garbo/March version and the 2012 Keira Knightley, version.) I read Anna Karenina as a young man and was moved by its modernity with its honest themes of adultery, passionate erotic love, humanity, and life in Russia plus I think elements of mental illness.
But nothing beats a great book—not even great movies or operas based on books.
Sed in primis ad fontes ipsos properandum, id est graecos et antiquos. (“Above all, one must go to the sources themselves, that is, to the Greeks and the Ancient authors” ERASMUS)
So we must return to CERVANTES, DANTE, HOMER, VERGIL and SHAKERSPEARE and other greats and near greats. I would never say Rumer Godden’s 1945 A Fugue in Time, made into the film Enchantment in 1948 starring David Niven and Teresa Wright is the greatest book every written but I will say this for the book. It is very accessible and I am fond of it. There is a lot of room for lesser classics and sentimental favorites. And it had a very important influence on me personally. I saw the film first and read the book. Because of the book I realized as Conan Doyle did there were decisive moments in our life. “Now is the dramatic moment of fate, Watson, when you hear a step upon the stair which is walking into your life, and you know not whether for good or ill.” Sometimes you have to take a chance. Sometimes you have only a narrow opportunity to get to know someone and to express your true feelings to that person. Loves and friendships can wash away and be lost forever. We all have regrets and have all made mistakes but if one can say one is happy at the end of one’s life and if one has had much love and contentment in one’s personal life one can count oneself blessed. This lesson the Bible and the great classics teach us.