Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Don Quixote's Profession by Mark Van Doren

Don Quixote’s Profession by Mark Van Doren
New York: Columbia University Press, 1958. Print.
Drawings by Joseph Low

Mark Van Doren in Quiz Show, answering a question about the meaning of Don Quixote:
"It means, if you want to be a knight, act like a knight."

My great friends do not know me.
Hamlet in the halls,
Achilles by the river
Feasting with the Duke see no one there
Like me, like Mark Van Doren, who grows daily
Older while they look not, change not,
Die not save the deaths their masters made.
- The Autobiography of Mark Van Doren (page 351)

My purpose in this case, and I did to keep it a secret from the class, was to examine the various ways in which the greatest storytellers had put divine things and human things together. The ultimate dimension, I suggested, was given to narrative by the presence in it of gods or their equivalent. In the case of Cervantes I promised that it would be difficult to say what the equivalent was, yet I supposed it was there, or else Don Quixote would not be the supreme novel it is. Reading it slowly in preparation for the course, listening to every word of it in Motteux's joyful translation, I had fallen hopelessly in love with it as I continue every year to do.
- The Autobiography of Mark Van Doren (pages 283-4)
In November 1956, Mark Van Doren gave a series of three lectures at Emory University about Don Quixote. In 1958, Columbia University Press put out this slim volume (just over 100 pages) containing those lectures. Van Doren talks about his reluctance to attempt a talk on Don Quixote since it wasn't just a subject, "It was a world." As he ends his introduction he notes, "This is not all I have to say about Don Quixote, but for me it is the central thing and I am willing to let it go at that." It is a pleasing and challenging little book that I highly recommend for anyone that has an interest in Cervantes.

Van Doren begins with a simplistic synopsis of the book (see the link below to Simon Leys article for that summary). He notes that the novel is "both simple and mysterious" and moves on to his central argument:
The sign of its simplicity is that it can be summarized in a few sentences. The sign of its mysteriousness is that it can be talked about forever. It has indeed been talked about as no other story ever was. For a strange thing happens to its readers. They do not read the same book. Or if they do, they have different theories about it. ...

He suffered from no delusion as to his identity. It was merely that he had been reading many books, and out of them he formed a conception of life as he would henceforth live it if he could. ...

It is well to observe that imitation was his aim. Not impersonation, and not deception. He knew very well who he was. The only question was whether he would be able to act the part he had chosen. (from pages 3, 4, & 5)

That is the focus of his lectures: Don Quixote was not mad—he knew exactly what he was doing when he was imitating a knight. I'm not sure I completely buy into his argument, but it is an extremely fun ride following his thoughts on the book and its central character. He begins by looking at why Don Quixote chose the role of knight. Since he was so well read, he could have imitated a scholar or a shepherd, or even a religious occupation. Van Doren believes Don Quixote chose knighthood as his role because of the learning involved in being one: "The discipline of knighthood was to him the sum of all the arts and sciences; was wisdom itself; was a liberal education." This might present a problem in looking at his role models, such as Amadis of Gaul, who was no scholar. But Amadis didn't have to talk about being a knight—he was one. Wisdom and learning play a part in imitating a knight. As Van Doren mentions later in the lectures, "To act as he [Don Quixote] acts is more than to ape; to imitate as he does is finally to understand."

Van Doren theorizes that Don Quixote "was first and last an actor, a skillful and conscious actor, who wrote his own play as he proceeded and of course kept the center of its stage." Here we run into one of the many similarities with Hamlet. Was he mad because he acted madly? Did he confuse the role he was playing with the role? Early on in the novel, after his first sally, a neighbor farmer finds and rescues Don Quixote. Upon hearing the old man calling himself the names of knightly characters, the farmer tells him that he is only the honorable gentleman Señor Quijana. "Don Quixote answers him with seven famous words. 'I know very well who I am.' This could mean, of course, that he knows he is Baldwin or Abindarez and therefore is mad. But it could also mean just what it says." Possible, but the knight then rambles on about who all he could be, too.

Van Doren mentions the troubling aspect of doing "violence to harmless creatures who get in his way," such as the poor sheep he assaults, mistaking them for armies. Or the funeral procession he disrupts, maiming one of the mourners. It's one thing to risk his own life when tilting at windmills, but something quite different "when he hurts people who in no sense deserve it. His acting now becomes extravagant with a vengeance; his role grows ruthless; he behaves more like a lunatic than like a knight; he is fanatical, as if he thought himself, like Providence, privileged to seem cruel." Van Doren points out there is a rivalry between the concept of behaving outside the law because he is just and the law itself. In order to maintain his role, Don Quixote has to behave in the former manner. And when he does make mistakes, he always blames the misinterpretation of appearances, whether through sorcerers or spells. If things had really been as he had interpreted them, his behavior and actions would have been justified. Van Doren uses this, though, to demonstrate Don Quixote wasn't mad. A madman would have continued these exploits whether or not he thought he could achieve his desires. Don Quixote continues because he believes everything is within his grasp. As he constantly puts it, his goal would have been successful in all of his failures if he had not been deceived. This delusion, then, supports his sanity.

One trait Van Doren points out that proves Don Quixote's sanity is his humor. He is able to laugh, not just at others, but at himself, too. After pointing out several examples, Van Doren states, "So much humor, so easily and so naturally expressed, is not the mark of a madman. It is not demonic humor; it is pleasantry, it is power and wisdom at play... ." Another point Van Doren highlights is that when Don Quixote is alone, which isn't often, "He is controlled and serene." Another is the understanding Don Quixote had of the part he played and his remarkable ability to play it well. If he was a poor actor, we wouldn't be talking about him. Although I have to wonder if he was a superb actor and never failed, would our take on his madness/acting change?

There's also the logic that Don Quixote uses, such as his paying penance in the mountains for Dulcinea. As he explains to Sancho, running mad without a cause shows the perfection of his undertaking. There's a certain logic in his madness, but whether it's of a sane man or a calculating madman I can't say. He understands that pretending isn't enough...as actors would say, he has to sell it. We see similar acts of madness in the novel. Carrasco fails to defeat Don Quixote when pretending to be the Knight of the Mirrors because we was a poor actor. He didn't believe what he was doing to the same extent as Don Quixote. The story of Basil winning the hand of Quiteria through his acting skills, though, demonstrates ingenuity in playing a part to earn what he wants, and Don Quixote admires him for it. As the novel progresses, the reader has to wonder which of the other characters are crazy. Characters humoring Don Quixote or trying to outwit him can seem crazier than their target.

As Van Doren concludes, it may be that Don Quixote was the "most perfect knight that ever lived; the only one, in fact, we can believe; but Cervantes never asks us to arrive at that conclusion." One of the most successful of Cervantes' achievements was to save the literature of chivalry and knight-errants by ridiculing it, a treatment that also deepens into a love for the characters he has created. In the move Quiz Show, Charles Van Doren goes to visit his father Mark Van Doren in his classroom. As Charles enters the classroom, his father is answering a question from a group of students (including Ethan Hawke, who recently wrote a book concerning knights) about what Don Quixote is about. "It means, if you want to be a knight, act like a knight," the elder Van Doren replies, and I can think of no better summary for this entertaining book. I enjoyed the confidence he has in his arguments, even when I don't fully agree with him.

I am hopeful someone is able to put these lectures back in print. (Hint hint NYRB Classics!) Very highly recommended.

Other works mentioned in this post:

  • The Autobiography of Mark Van Doren by Mark Van Doren. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958. Print.
  • "The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote" by Simon Leys. The New York Review of Books, June 11, 1998 issue
  • Quiz Show. Burbank, CA: Hollywood Pictures Home Video, 1994.

Update (23 May 2016): After looking high and low for a copy of Don Quixote's Profession I could afford, I gave up and requested a copy via interlibrary loan. My post is based on the original book. I have since found out that Van Doren's The Happy Critic contains the text of Don Quixote's Profession and can be found for much cheaper prices. It does not contain Van Doren's introduction or Joseph Low's illustrations, but for the difference in price (under $10 vs. greater than $50 for DQP), I wanted to post about this avenue of availability. I hope to post on some of the other essays in The Happy Critic soon.

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