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As this is my first diary entry under the category of Books That Changed My Life, it is perhaps fitting that I begin with a book that acts as a cautionary tale about books that can change your life.  The Ingenious Gentleman:  Don Quixote de la Mancha, written by Miguel Cervantes in 16th century Spain, is just such a book.  I read excerpts of it as part of my assigned reading in a college course on world literature in 1965.  Years later I would read the entire, unabridged, two-volume work.  Although I regard this book as important, because it changed my life by keeping me from changing my life, I must admit that the excerpts alone were sufficient.  So, if you decide to read this novel, an abridged version will do just fine.

The title character becomes obsessed with books of chivalry and knight-errantry, reading them all through the night.  The result of so much reading and so little sleep is that he loses his mind. In his madness, he conceives of himself as a knight, just like the ones he had read about, and is determined to ride about the countryside in quest of adventures, by which he will right many wrongs, while achieving much glory and renown.  And as he transforms himself, so too does he transform the world around him.  Some old pieces of armor that had once belonged to his great-grandfather are polished up, with a missing piece being replaced by cardboard.  His nag becomes Rocinante, a mighty steed.  An unwitting farm girl becomes Dulcinea del Toboso, his lady love, in whose honor he will perform deeds of great merit.  And a neighboring farmer, Sancho Panza, is persuaded to become his squire.  Thus arranged, they sally forth and have many misadventures, the iconic one being the windmills he imagines to be giants, the tilting at which has become a common expression.

Much as it pains me to confess it, I have been guilty more than once of attempting to emulate some character in a book that I had read, or even more so, in a movie that I had seen.  Of course, when I did this as a child, it was forgivable.  Every Saturday morning, my friends and I went to see a movie, and every Saturday afternoon, we acted out what we had seen.  That is why Tom Sawyer, another character of fiction that is unduly influenced by tales of romance and adventure, merely makes us smile, for he has his youth as an excuse.

But as I got older, my quixotic behavior became increasingly inappropriate.  By the time I got to high school, I had seen movies like Blackboard Jungle, High School Confidential!, and Rebel Without a Cause.  So naturally I just had to become a juvenile delinquent.  I slicked and swirled my hair into a ducktail.  I bought a black-leather jacket and some pointy-toed shoes with taps on them to make an assertive “click” as I walked down the halls of my high school.  Finally, as a necessary fashion accessory to my wardrobe, I got myself a wicked-looking switchblade knife. But there was just one problem.  Unlike a real juvenile delinquent, I never broke the law, other than some occasional underage drinking, and I did not like fighting.  The difference was critical, because only by committing crimes and getting into fights does a young man prove he is not just playing dress-up in his gangster-chic, but is actually the badass he appears to be. After all, had Don Quixote come across a real giant, and run him through with his lance, no one would ever again have thought him ridiculous.  Instead, I was just a poseur, and I guess everyone knew it but me.

I wish I could say that as soon as I read Don Quixote, I never again embarrassed myself by identifying with a fictional hero, but I cannot; because at the same time I was reading this novel in a perfunctory manner, I was caught under the spell of James Bond.  Goldfinger had started showing at the theaters a few months previously, and Bond was all the rage.  Even today, when I watch the introductory scene in the casino in Dr. No, I ache with envy.  Oh, to be that cool!  Fortunately, I only played the fool by trying to be as cool as 007.  Thank goodness I did not get so carried away as to think I could be a spy.  I do wonder sometimes, though, how many Bond wannabes joined the CIA under the influence of those movies.  I remember reading in the newspaper that this agency was experiencing a significant increase in applications for employment during that period.

Speaking of others, it is some consolation to me that I am not the only one I know who tried to be like some character of fiction.  A friend of mine thought he could be Sherlock Holmes, and went about making acute observations and shrewd deductions, not a single one of which ever panned out. And then there was the guy that used to practice his quick-draw at the beginning of every episode of Gunsmoke.  He got pretty good at it too, for one night he put a bullet right through the TV tube before Matt Dillon even cleared leather.

It is hard to say just how much of the wisdom of Cervantes had sunk in from taking World Lit in college, but about seven years later I got a refresher course.  Woody Allen took up the same theme in Play It Again, Sam, in which he plays Allan, a neurotic film critic who has seen way too many Humphrey Bogart films, and struggles with his desire to be like him.  Woody Allen’s physical appearance in contrast with that of Bogart is every bit as ludicrous as that between the mournful countenance of Cervantes’ knight and the dashing good looks of those he had read about.  As noted above, however, it is more than just a matter of appearance.  One also has to be able to act the part successfully.  When the ghost of Humphrey Bogart tells Allan to kiss Linda (Diane Keaton), who is a married woman, Allan protests that if he tries that, she will slap his face.  “I’ve had my face slapped lots of times,” Bogart replies.  “Yeah,” says Allan, “but when it happens to you, your glasses don’t go flying across the room.”

Well, monkey see, monkey do.  We naturally imitate others, and the characters in books and movies, being the idealized creations of art, can exert a powerful influence on us, far more so than the people we meet in real life.  To a certain extent, this is a good thing, for it can make us aspire to be better than we are.  But if we go too far in emulating these romantic figures, we run the risk of looking as ridiculous as Don Quixote.  And so, if Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities inspires you to be a little less selfish in your dealings with your fellow man, that’s fine. Just don’t lose your head.

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 05:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  This is wonderful, disinterested! (21+ / 0-)

    Really enjoyed this diary, as it brings up a point about literature that I don't recall having been discussed before--at least, not in this forum. Sometimes we do find ourselves trying to be like a fictional character, aspiring to be better than we are.

    In my own case, the fictional character wasn't from a book, but from a TV series called "Due South."  The premise was "a fish out of water"--a Canadian Mountie, accompanied by his pet wolf, comes to Chicago to hunt down the killer of his murdered father, also a Mountie. The contrast between the solitude of the frozen wastes of the Yukon and the noisy, frenetic life of Chicago was the starting point of the conflict.

    After I stayed up late, evening after evening, watching the first season (which I'd missed), I wanted to be like Constable Fraser--kind, gentle, always right, and always correctly behaved.  I forbade anyone in my group at work to utter invectives stronger than "Oh, dear" and "Great Scott" and instituted a "swear box."  We had to put a quarter in if we said anything stronger than the approved phrases.  One Christmas our contributions went to Children's Hospital, another year to the Humane Society.

    Now that I look back on it, I was a much nicer person when I tried to emulate Constable Fraser, looking to find the good in people while making allowances for the imperfections of human nature.

    This part of your diary made me laugh out loud:

    A friend of my thought he could be Sherlock Holmes, and went about making acute observations and shrewd deductions, not a single one of which ever panned out. And then there was the guy that used to practice his quick-draw at the beginning of every episode of Gunsmoke.  He got pretty good at it too, for one night he put a bullet right through the TV tube before Matt Dillon even cleared leather.
    This is a most enjoyable diary to start the day--thank you kindly!

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 05:16:49 AM PDT

  •  I teach Don Quixote at the college level. Loved (18+ / 0-)

    this diary.  Now I have to go watch Allen's Play it again, Sam, once again.  Years ago when I saw it, I didn't make the DQ connection, but your point is an excellent one.

    That's one more thing to add to my long list of small problems. --my son, age 10

    by concernedamerican on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 05:28:04 AM PDT

  •  In DQ, it's pretty clear (15+ / 0-)

    that he's jousting with windmills.

    In real life, sometimes the distinction between what's a windmill and what's not, is less obvious.

  •  Two plays, at least, of the English stage (10+ / 0-)

    derive from DQ. Beaumont's Knight of the Burning Pestle contains elements that suggest Cervantes' parody of Knight-errant tales was wildly popular. Theobald's Double Falsehood, a century later, purported to be the "lost" Shakespearean play, Cardenio (taken from an episode within DQ).  Theobald was efficiently refuted in his time, but the play has crept back into the expanded Shakespeare canon, as noted by an Arden edition which takes up the dispute, and the free Shakespeare app for the i-phone/pad, which presents it as if it is Shakespeare, with no editorial commentary. My opinion is it is not, based on a hilarious rendition of it two years ago at Atlanta's Shakespeare Tavern. But noted Shakespeare scholars Gary Taylor and Stephen Greenblatt have attempted expanded stagings (as documented in the Arden), suggesting the mystery lives on. One of Jasper Fforde's literary detective mysteries also includes the debate about Cardenio.

  •  great diary! (10+ / 0-)

    i really like your personal approach because it shakes up my own sense of connection to DQ and makes the book more relevant to me  in the modern world. yes, i, too, have been inspired and emulated others just as DQ did in his book as well although not quite in the same way, thank goodness.

    i must share my own inspiration related to DQ. The following comes from the ballet based on the novel, which of course take liberties with the novel. The dancer, Daniil Simkin, below is playing Basil.

  •  My own secret emulation (14+ / 0-)

    is with Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.  It seems to be true for many women my age (55).  I think it might be because she is witty and smart and doesn't take BS from any man but she still wants to be loved by a man, just someone her intellectual equal. Women today feel that same tug and pull.  

    OTOH, sometimes a negative character can change ones life.  I went through a divorce (cheating on his side) and my college age son didn't speak to me for a year mainly because he wasn't privy to all the details.  Concurrently, I was taking a Classics class at a local university and read about Clytemnestra killing her husband for adultery and Medea killing her kids.  I cried and cried and cried when I read those two plays.  Serendipity.  

    All's well that ends well though. Ten years later and everything is cool with my adult son.  His dad now lives in England, Jane Austen country.  How ironic.  

    Thanks for posting.  You are a great writer.  

    We are all in this together.

    by htowngenie on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 06:57:22 AM PDT

    •  So few women! (7+ / 0-)

      The diarist talked about having adventures like Tom Sawyer. What could I, a girl, aspire to? I wasn't pretty and that meant (according to the books) that I wouldn't be loved. That left Jane Eyre. No wonder she's so popular! But still, marriage as the be all and end all didn't appeal to me much.

      My character to emulate was Suzuki Beane. She and her "straight" (in societal, not sexual terms) friend Henry run away together to start a society that will be only children since adults are so prejudiced. The last line, with the two walking off into the sunset, Suzuki (a baby beatnik) puts her arm around Henry's shoulders and says, "Man, this is going to be endsville!"

      Sadly, though, I was a bit too down to earth, enough to realize that a society of only children wouldn't survive! So I gave up on fiction and read bios of Marie Curie, Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, Queen Victoria, Julia Ward Howe, Elizabeth Blackwell (who came from quite a remarkable family BTW) et al, looking for a real person to emulate. Sigh. If Suzuki was a baby beatnik, I was a baby geek.

  •  Great diary! But it makes me cringe.... (12+ / 0-)

    ....at my own past behavior.

    I, too, was influenced by fictional characters; in my case, all those perfect wives and mothers on TV.  :(

    My Mom wasn't perfect (the horror! a flawed human!) and I wanted to be better. Of course, I went too far and tried too hard and stayed in a marriage I should have left way earlier. All of which caused more damage to the kids than if I had emulated my Mom. My arrogance in presuming to judge her was bad enough; refusing to admit I was wrong was unforgivable. Being absolutely sure I could cure a disaster was madness.

    Thank you, disinterested spectator, you remind me that I am my own worst enemy.

     

    "May the forces of evil become confused on the way to your house." - George Carlin

    by Most Awesome Nana on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 07:08:03 AM PDT

  •  A Little Reading is a Dangerous Thing (9+ / 0-)

    Nice twist on the subject by you.  

    Fortunately, emulating fictional characters only makes us look faintly ridiculous; it's consolation can be that it provides us lots of fun and personal entertainment.

    While I can't admit to living out my fantasies, I had a rich, though internal, fantasy life as a child, based on such characters as Dorothy Gale, childhood bios of famous Americans, and even Toad of Toad Hall.  My only affectation due to fiction was behaving like I was the princess and the world was a pea whenever I was sick.

    Even without acting out, I enjoyed a more colorful and richer childhood because my imagination was more brightly illuminated by the books I read.  I adored Curious George, but even with the benefit of knowing all his adventures from the books, I was unable to conjure myself into the mind of a mischievous little monkey.

    For that, I'd have been willing to look ridiculous.

    Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

    by Limelite on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 07:13:36 AM PDT

  •  Fantastic diary! ... (10+ / 0-)

    I've taught English for 15 years at every conceivable level and in three different countries. It's not always been easy, nor necessarily enjoyable, but it is very much who I am. Your love of reading and a good story really shines through in this diary, and it has helped remind me of my own love of Literature, reading, teaching and sharing a great story with others. Thanks for your diary, and for sharing with all of here in the DKos community!
    --GA

    Appraise the Lord! : Tax Church Property.

    by Great Ape on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 07:45:06 AM PDT

  •  So much to say about Don Quixote. (12+ / 0-)

    (For starters, remember Cyrano? "Have you read Don Quixote?" "Yes, and I found myself to be the hero.")

    I'll briefly mention a few things, otherwise I'd write for hours
    about this subject.

    I think about Quixote and Cervantes periodically throughout my life. As I've gotten older, I remember the notion that Quixote should be read in youth, in middle age, and in old age, for the book will mean different things in all those stages. So true.  As we get older, there is a sense that the book grows more profound and more tragic, the way much of our life seems to be. Cervantes knew this.

    When I was a college student I was so taken by it that I dreamed about it becoming an opera or (God forbid, I shared with a friend) a musical. But I loved the old musicals at the time and I thought it could work. This was
    many years before Man of La Mancha. My friend at the time said, "A musical about Don Quixote? Ha.!!"

    I even quote the opening of the book to myself, idly, for no reason sometimes while I'm in my garden. It's very odd:
    "En un lugar de La Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivia un hidalgo...."
    This is from memory.

    Just a few notions to show how what a stamp the book made on my psyche when I was a college kid and beyond.
    Thanks for this. And one more thing:

    "Patience. And shuffle the cards."

    "They come, they come To build a wall between us We know they won't win."--Crowded House, "Don't Dream It's Over."

    by Wildthumb on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 07:59:20 AM PDT

  •  I read Don Quixote in Spanish (8+ / 0-)

    in high school. The first novel I'd read in another language. I've read it in English since then. The Spanish was better, if more work :).

    "Madness! Total and complete madness! This never would've happened if the humans hadn't started fighting one another!" Londo Mollari

    by FloridaSNMOM on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 09:11:30 AM PDT

  •  I enjoyed my struggle through Quixote. (5+ / 0-)

    As with most (classic) books, I enjoyed them more when the reading was not mandatory; and I started in on Don Quixote one year I was commuting by bus.  I can't say it changed my life; but maybe it did.  I like to think of myself as a man of honor and chivalry; so perhaps the notion of Quixote reinforced my attitude more than I know.

    I certainly enjoyed the adventures of Quixote and Sancho Panza, but couldn't help feeling sorry for the guy as much as admire his Quixotic quests.

    In the end, I'm glad I stuck with it, tho difficult in places.  Whew.

    You can't spell CRAZY without R-AZ.

    by rb608 on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 09:29:46 AM PDT

    •  Times have changed (8+ / 0-)

      Even though the book is supposed to be funny, I really did not find it so.  Like you, I felt sorry for Don Quixote.  Apparently, this is a common reaction nowadays, which Nietzsche takes note of in On the Genealogy of Morals, where he discusses the changing attitudes toward cruelty:

      … it is not long since princely weddings and public festivals of the more magnificent were unthinkable without executions, torturings, or perhaps an auto-da-fé, and no noble household was without creatures upon whom one could heedlessly vent one’s malice and cruel jokes.  (Consider, for instance, Don Quixote at the court of the Duchess.  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).
      Of course, Nietzsche being Nietzsche, he goes on to say that the world was a much more cheerful place when mankind was not yet ashamed of its cruelty.

      Whew!  That kind of cheerful I can do without.

  •  I blame Man of La Mancha ... (8+ / 0-)

    Four centuries of critical examination about Don Quixote has failed to reach consensus on  "Is this a tragedy or is it a comedy."

    Personally, as a teenager I found  it both humorous and inspiring ... the author Cervantes is mocking the hypocrisy of his age -- and  Don Quixote  a character to be admired and emulated.  

    As an Social Security pensioner , I find it tragic and instructive -- Don Quixote IS an old fool, clinging to notions of virtue which society has long since abandoned.  And in the end ... it is the objective view of himself that brings the Knight down.

    But in 1964, when all things ... racial justice , sexual revolution, the  30 hour week, the war on poverty won, a man on the moon ... seemed not only possible, but about to come to fruition  -- in years rather than decades.

    And so when in Man of La Mancha,  Miguel Cervantes in his special spotlight, climbs that fantastic descending staircase to face the Inquisition  -- we neither knew nor cared if this had even happened, or what the outcome of the encounter might/should have been.  What mattered was that a heroically virtuous character was going to fulfill his destiny and become famous.

    Inescapably: the Knight of the Woeful Countenance is an exemplar.  To fail nobly is GOOD thing.

    And so it is:  when the failure and the consequences land on someone else -- preferably a fictional character, 500 years ago.

    (And don't get me started on Sidney Carton.)

     

  •  Books ask us to collaborate imaginatively (5+ / 0-)

    so they allow us to develop our own dreams and ideas, they offer us a more personal scaffolding to grow upon. A book can evolve within you, and speak to you differently at 15 than when you read it again at 30 and 50.

    But movies and TV offer a technicolor persona, a costume and mannerisms to step right into. How many children have played tough like Bogart, Wayne or Eastwood? And how many gangsters learned a sociopathic strut from The Godfather, Scarface & Goodfellas?

    Those scaffoldings, from books and movies, are part of everybody's development. I think the important thing is not to get stuck, playing Peter Pan forever, for example. To question, to hear criticism, to deepen and mature - as Don Quixote finally does, at the sad end. I love how books can put so many seeds in our imagination, a whole orchard growing with us, a conversation that ripens in all directions.

    Wonderful diary, thanks.

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 11:07:26 AM PDT

  •  I wonder if you missed the humor in James Bond. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    shari, Dragon5616, wonderful world

    A sophisticated, worldly Brit, who drank coffee rather than tea.  It had to be a spoof.

  •  Kenneth Rexroth on Don Quixote (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    shari, Dragon5616, wonderful world

    Here is Kenneth Rexroth's "Classics Revisited" essay on Don Quixote:
    http://www.bopsecrets.org/...

  •  Don Quixote's death still one of the best stories (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    shari, Dragon5616, wonderful world

    I've ever read.  He repents of his madness and then wishes to become known by his true name, Alonso Quixano the Good, which seems also very fitting for him.

    You have exactly 10 seconds to change that look of disgusting pity into one of enormous respect!

    by Cartoon Peril on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 12:43:57 PM PDT

  •  One thing that really bugs me about (6+ / 0-)

    how Don Quixote is seen nowadays is that the play and the movie have portrayed him as this wonderful idealist.

    When he's actually a rather silly old man.

    At the time when Cervantes wrote DQ, the hot trend was idealizing the Medieval period in Europe. The age of Romance with a capital R! Knights and their ladies fair! Chivalry!

    Well, anyone who knows anything about actual medieval history knows that most knights were one step above armed thugs. They clobbered anyone who got in their way, treated the peasants like dirt, tore around Europe slaughtering and raping whenever and where ever their liege lord dictated.  Might meant right. Not much niceness involved.

    Cervantes knew this and it bugged him. So he created the Don as a chivalry enthusiast who totters all over the place convinced that he's a knightly hero, causing all sorts of problems, annoying people no end, doing really idiotic things...and if my memory serves me, even actually a bit of a dirty old man.

    Cue the play. My high school choir actually sang excerpts, so I know most of the words to Impossible Dream, Dulcinea and the oft-overlooked One Kind of Man is Like Another.  I later saw DQ as he is portrayed by Peter O'Toole: bewildered, not-terribly effective, but heroically kind and idealistic.

    Not quite Cervantes intent. He intended DQ to be someone who should be mocked....we've switched that to someone who should be admired  

    Freedom has two enemies: Those who want to control everyone around them...and those who feel no need to control themselves.

    by Sirenus on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 01:07:37 PM PDT

  •  Don Quixote should be required SCA reading, (4+ / 0-)

    so that we never lose sight of the fact that we are putting on a little fantasy, and it's only as real as we believe it to be in that particular moment.

    If it's
    Not your body,
    Then it's
    Not your choice
    And it's
    None of your damn business!

    by TheOtherMaven on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 01:45:29 PM PDT

  •  As I am a pseudo-intellect, as I've never read Don (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dragon5616, shari, wonderful world

    Quixote, nor seen Man of La Mancha. However, like a good pseudo-intellect, I know enough about the story to form an opinion. This was a man who was defeated by his idealism. And that's the way I've always related to him.

    When I was in my 20's, my uncle, who was an artist, got divorced and asked my friends and I to help him move. When we were done, he told us to select one of his paintings as payment. I selected the painting of Don Quixote in defeat, with Sancho Panza propping him up. I wanted it as a reminder of how my idealism may hinder my stated goals. My uncle didn't want to give it to me because it was one in a series of three. I told him, being very honest, that it was the only one I wanted, and I was happy to help him without being compensated. I loved my uncle, and I was being sincere. No coercion intended. Well, the painting now hangs in my living room. My uncle loved me also. I don't think I ever saw the third one, but there was a beautiful one that hung in his house with Quixote (pronounced Quiks-oat) astride a gleaming white horse.

    Perhaps your excellent diary has inspired me to read the book. I say "perhaps" because I can't remember the last time I read a book. Thanks for trying to inspire.

  •  man, you sure got me. I read "Burgess, Philby and (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    wonderful world

    Maclean" and acted like an alcoholic master spy (and betrayer) for a lot of years. I have a picture of me drunk, in a Moscow graveyard, by Philby's grave.

    And don't even ask me about "Seven Pillars of Wisdom". I did try to be a homosexual camel rider. didn't work out well.

    I tried to get through DQ, we've a copy at work, but haven't managed. 16th Century fiction too deep for me.

    Those who quote Santayana are condemned to repeat him. Me

    by Mark B on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 03:50:31 PM PDT

  •  I always feel Sancho Panza is a hero too (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Youffraita, Justus, RiveroftheWest

    He puts up with an awful lot and sticks around. He's the practical, hard-headed peasant who has more heart than he is supposed to have by the standards of the time, when such men were supposed to be only slightly above the beasts of the field. At the end, he tries to comforts the Don by offering a new dream to inspire his dying master.

    Support Small Business: Shop Kos Katalogue including Hero for Hire, an epic fantasy with a sense of humor by C.B. Pratt

    by wonderful world on Fri Aug 16, 2013 at 07:27:52 PM PDT

  •  If anyone wants to go deep (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest

    If anyone wants to go deep into this novel of novels, I recommend Professor Roberto González Echevarría's lectures.

  •  This is a very worthwhile diary; thank you! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Aunt Pat

    It also inspired very interesting comments.

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