The importance of being Quixote

During high school and college I read Don Quixote three times.  The last time was for a “great books” course where we had to read a book each week and write a paper about it.  My paper was titled “The Importance of Being Quixote.”  I didn’t get a very good grade because it was more about me than about Cervantes’ story.  I’m reminded of this because I’m thinking of reading Don Quixote again.  I’m curious about what my teenage self found so compelling about Don Quixote’s story, and how my old man self will react.

For similar reasons I’m close to finishing Moby-Dick for the second time.  The first time was ten years ago during Laura’s first course of Avastin.  It wasn’t that I found a parallel between Ahab’s pursuit of the White Whale and the doctors’ futile efforts to stop glioblastoma multiforme.

Though I must say that at times during that period I identified with Pip, the young man who lost his mind when he went overboard during a whale chase and was left behind all alone in the vast ocean.  When Queequeg fell so ill that he asked to be placed in his coffin, Pip slipped in next to him to hold his hand, gently crying:

“’Poor rover! Will ye never have done with all this weary roving? where will ye go now? But if the currents carry ye to those sweet Antilles where the beaches are only beat with water-lilies, will ye do one little errand for me? Seek out one Pip, who’s now been missing long; I think he’s in those far Antilles. If ye find him, then comfort him; for he must be very sad; for look! he’s left his tambourine behind; —I found it. Rig-a-dig, dig, dig! Now, Queequeg , die; and I’ll beat ye your dying march.’”

Reading that passage the day after a hard night for Laura, I wrote in my journal: “Sometimes I feel like Pip, lost in the wide sea with no boat in sight.”

I don’t feel that way almost ten years to the day later.  What drew me back to Moby-Dick was not any desire to relive those days.  Rather I still find deep pleasure in Melville’s flowing words.  For example, I have referred to the following passage more than once in this blog, but have never quoted it in full, as it merits, particularly given my recent musings on time.  Scholars debate whether it is Ishmael or Ahab reflecting here on an expanse of calm sea.

Oh, grassy glades! oh, ever vernal endless landscapes in the soul; in ye,–though long parched by the dead drought of the earthy life,–in ye, men yet may roll, like young horses in new morning clover; and for some few fleeting moments, feel the cool dew of the life immortal on them. Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause:–through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling’s father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.

Scholars also debate what Melville was really saying about the white supremacy that’s really evident to me on this second reading in days less fraught in my own life.  Some of those passages have troubled me such that I get less pleasure out of the sonorities of passages like “Oh, grassy glades!”

One Comment

  1. Every time I think about “Don Quixote”, I can picture sister Sara opening up her Christmas book and exclaiming as a tween and wIth great pleasure “Oh good Don Quick Oats” ! I’ve never been able to call it by it’s proper title. It still makes me smile at her happiness

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