STEINBERG: ‘Don Quixote’ ripped from the headlines?

"Don Quixote and the Dead Mule" by Honore Daumier | Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Self-praise is self-debasement.”
“Craziness has more companions than wisdom.” 
“If a man cannot govern himself, how can he govern others?”

Now seemed a perfect time to flee into “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes, to get lost in the vast 400-year-old Spanish novel of a deranged knight and his trusty mule-borne sidekick, Sancho Panza.

You can run but, alas, you cannot hide, and a vexing present will sneak up where least expected. I don’t want to suggest that “Don Quixote” is suddenly a political novel, ripped from the headlines of 2017.

Let’s just say the tale of a delusional old man who blunders about, claiming to help people while actually attacking innocent passersby and then interpreting the resulting fiascoes as embellishing his legend of unmatched glory, well, has a certain unexpected relevance.

Or as the Knight of the Sorrowful Face says: “The woman they call Fortune is fickle, and blind and drunken and doesn’t know who she raises up or sets down.”

Tell it, brother.


I do have to give technology a nod. Our brave new digital world gets blamed for mooting books, and rightly so. But the sword cuts both ways, to offer a proverb in the spirit of Sancho Panza, that endless font of aphorisms. Technology can also be literature’s friend.

A few months ago I joined Audible in order to stroll through all 20 of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey nautical novels. Once you’re a member, however, Audible automatically charges $14.95 a month and gives credit for a book.

With Captain Jack safe in his final port, I had already paid for a new book. The question became: What to read? I went to the “Classics” section and “Don Quixote” was just sitting there. It was sitting at the library, too, the same excellent translation by Edith Grossman, published in 2003. But technology changed the dynamic. No longer was it a 940-page brick that would have to be lugged around for months. Now it was 39 hours of aural entertainment at the same price as any other book. A bargain!

I scorned the abridged versions as beneath me. Who wants to say he climbed a smaller, scaled-down version of Mount Everest? Though in the case of “Don Quixote,” abridgment might be justified because it isn’t just long but repetitive; the famous tilting at windmills, over in a page, then one mishap after another, most ending with Quixote and his squire beaten and humiliated.

“A veritable encyclopedia of cruelty,” as Vladimir Nabokov called the book, a phrase that, again, could neatly summarize the administration of a certain president.

Which touches on the central difference our two unhinged Dons: Don Quixote is sweet. His heart is pure. He is violent but not mean, and he has none of the malice we see daily from the Don in Washington. Quixote never paws the women he champions. Quixote keeps promising Sancho a governorship, and — spoiler alert! —the squire actually gets one. His amazed master questions him in a way I’d love to quiz Donald Trump, demanding to know how “contrary to the law of reasonable discourse” Panza could find himself holding high office.

“Others bribe, importune, solicit, are early risers, plead, persist, and do not achieve what they long for,” Quixote says. “And another comes along and without knowing how or why finds himself with the office and position that many others strove for . . . . You, who in my opinion are undoubtedly a dolt, and who without rising early or staying up late or making any effort whatsoever . . . find yourself governor.”

Escapism is more necessary than ever. But take refuge in “Don Quixote” and you’ll find our troubles waiting. Samuel Johnson once said “Don Quixote” is the only book he wished were longer than it is. I disagree — it’s long enough — but I sure do wish it were less relevant.

“Since I’ll be in charge of everything, I can do whatever I want . . . .”

“The rich man’s folly passes for good judgment in the world. And since that’s what I’ll be, being a governor . . . nobody will notice any faults in me.”

“Everything’s deceit.”

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