Pessimism of Don Quixote

Ewa Maria Slaska

Do not worry, only this part is in Polish, further follows English text

Thanks an Arkadiusz Łuba for sending me that picture 🙂

I. Wstęp z niemieckiej prasy codziennej

Ach, miejmy nadzieję, że on naprawdę okaże się naszym promiennym zbawcą

Trudno wyrokować. Na pewno po odejściu Angeli Merkel Emmanuel Macron wybija się na przywódcę Europy, podczas gdy niemieckiemu kanclerzowi przypada zaledwie rola giermka-brzuchacza. O dalszych analogiach między dzisiejszą sytuacją Europy a życiorysem Rycerza o Smętnym Obliczu pisze Arek Łuba na swoim blogu o komiksach: TU. Ciekawe wydaje się oczywiście, że jak po dwóch miesiącach wojny biedny zapatrzony we własny brzuch giermek wreszcie podniósł oczy, ujrzał mroczne obrazy wojny i postanowił sam chwycić za miecz, natychmiast zleciały się zewsząd niemieckie intelektualne dziewczątka i chłopięta, przerażone do głębin jestestwa myślą o tym, że będzie brzydko, be i prosząc Sanczę Brzuchacza by natychmiast zrezygnował ze wspierania walki i powrócił do roli przygłupa. List intelektualistów niemieckich TU (jest nawet, niestety moja ulubiona pisarka, Juli Zeh). Najstraszniejsze w tym liście (nazwijmy go) pierwszym była teza, że jeżeli naród ukraiński będzie nadal cierpiał, to będzie to jego własna wina, bo broni się przed agresorem! To zdanie jest hańbą europejskiej myśli pacyfistycznej, a ludzie którzy uznali, że ofiara jest winna tego, że cierpi, są po prostu ch… I niech już tam sobie idą.

Na szczęście, zanim przyszedł czas na opublikowanie tego posta, pojawił się drugi list otwarty, w którym paru naprawdę porządnych intelektualistów wsparło Sancho Pansę w jego decyzji, żeby jednak stanąć po stronie sprawiedliwości.

Uwaga, po kliknięciu na tego linka znajdzie się też link, gdzie się można podpisać pod tym “drugim listem”, razem Danielem Kehlmannem, Maximem Billerem, Herthą Müller, Olgą i Vladimirem Kaminerami, ze mną i innymi porządnymi ludźmi.

Koniec części polskiej

II. Optimistic intermezzo

Albert Dros Photography

I have photographed many windmills over the years, but never one with poppies. Last week, after driving home I put my navigation ‘avoid motorways’. It’s a way for me to discover new places on the countryside, and this windmill was waiting for me. Just a few poppies were enough to make this photo.

René Magritte, The Telescope,1963, oil on canvas

III. About optimism of pessimists

Chapter Six
CERVANTES AS EDUCATOR
DON QUIXOTE AND THE PRACTICE
OF PESSIMISM

Don Quixote … is an allegory of the life of every man who,
unlike others, will not be careful merely for his own personal
welfare, but pursues an objective, ideal end that has taken
possession of his thinking and willing; and then, of course,
in this world he looks queer and odd.
-ARTHUR SCHOPENHAUER

Today we read Don Quixote with a bitter taste in our
mouths, almost with a feeling of torment, and would thus
seem very strange and incomprehensible to its author
and his contemporaries: they read it with the clearest
conscience in the world as the most cheerful of books,
they laughed themselves almost to death over it.
-FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE

Prehistory

Different pessimists have read Don Quixote in different ways (…). But the uniform praise of this novel by the pessimists should cause us to wonder at the source of the commonplace understanding of its protagonist as an enemy of pessimism. Though the reader may reflexively think of Don Quixote as an inveterate optimist, charging at windmills and the like, I would suggest that this has more to do with the popularity of the musical Man of La Mancha than with Cervantes’s actual text. Whatever merits this lachrymose bit of theater may possess, fidelity to the spirit of Don Quixote is not actually one of them. If anything, Man of La Mancha resembles the heavy-handed, Wagnerian operatic romanticism that Nietzsche so feared being associated with.
Though I am not concerned here with cultural analysis, the reworking that Don Quixote receives in Man of La Mancha is an interesting example of the kind of imperialism of optimism that has succeeded in making pessimism invisible today. As Nietzsche reminds us, however, Cervantes’s book was received by its first readers as a bright comedy and was, indeed, internationally successful on that basis.

Practice of pessimism

If Quixote hopes, at first, to right wrongs with a wave of his noble sword, the sad truth about the world eventually destroys that expectation, both in him and in the reader. But if the narratives of chivalry that Cervantes mocks have been a dubious education for Quixote, that is not at all the case for Quixote’s own narrative of chivalry, which is an education for Sancho Panza and, through him, for the rest of us. And, as certain episodes in the novel suggest (particularly those in which Sancho is called upon to govern), it is even a useful political education. For Sancho, the unlettered peasant, to the surprise of everyone, governs wisely when given the opportunity. The justice that the insane Quixote is unable to effect with the sword, Sancho brings about through a sane and brave administration inspired by Quixote’s example. Sancho’s success is limited (indeed, ultimately it is destroyed), but it is (temporarily) genuine. For a time, Sancho organizes a small portion of the universe under something like a decent political regime. And all the characters in the novel, except Quixote, find this astounding.
Cervantes (…) characterizes the universe he created as a pessimistic vision and (…) his book aims at a goal that pessimists would recognize (and have recognized) – a mode of action that acknowledges the insuperable barriers that time-bound existence throws up against justice and happiness, but which does not respond to this situation with resignation. Don Quixote represents what I am terming a “practice of pessimism,” a mode of conduct and action founded on an absence of expectation and hope.

More tomorrow

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