We're doing Quixote again in World Literature class. And, again, it impresses me with its modernity, its central theme being the madness and the irresistible romance of living by outdated principles and beliefs. Who today can't relate to that struggle? The mind is an impressionable organ, and the dents and nicks it receives in just a single lifetime pretty much define what it is and how it will be remembered for however long it will be remembered. And, on top of that, an entire culture! The baggage of culture--norms, revelations, prejudices, myths, traditions, laws, rites--all received ready to wear, and into this crib we are born, and in it all the hard knocks of the individual life are defined, contained, and reinforced.
Don Quixote does irreparable harm by living in his dreams, spawned from too much reading about false realities that, as Cervantes notes in his prologue, Aristotle, St Basil, and Cicero never spoke of--that is to say, as I take it, realities that science, charity, and civil law know nothing of. His chivalrous concept of justice leads him to attempt to rescue a 15-year-old servant from the harsh master who has tied him to a tree to beat him, but no sooner has Quixote left the scene, self-righteously waving his makeshift spear, than the master ties the boy back up again for an even worse beating. And the harm ultimately comes back to Quixote himself, in the end, surrounded by mirrors and confronted with his measly absurdity and decrepitude, so that his relatives and neighbors may "cure" him of his "madness"--a cure that succeeds admirably ... and absolutely, since Quixote dies immediately thereafter, a shivering, neurasthenic mess.
So, too, there is the romance of living in one's technicolor dreams. Reality is a bitch, as they say, and it's a crutch, Lily Tomlin said, for people who can't handle drugs. In Don Quixote, what we see of the outside world, the world outside Quixote's romance-fevered imagination, is no great shakes--peasants who have learned to thrive on cruelty and guile; businessmen whose whole world revolves around turning an ever-inflated profit, unaware that supply and demand are limited; noblemen whose whole world languishes in inherited wealth and a jaded and corrosive sense of irony. No wonder Quixote cracks and decides to wear kitchen utensils and speak lines straight out of potboilers.
Then there's Sancho Panza, too. Not an educated man, foolish enough to cater to Quixote's grandiose fantasies just on the promise of an island kingdom of his own at the end of the line, but with enough native wits about him to see the plain light of reality more often than not. But then, being a realist, why does Sancho persist in following Quixote despite strong, well-founded doubts and an ability to recognize that Quixote's quests pose more risk than glory for them both? The answer is sad yet understandable. Without Quixote and his madness, there can be no island kingdom at the end of the line either. Sometimes to give up the fantasy is to give up hope--as, again, demonstrated in Quixote's ultimate downfall: bereft of illusions, his life is demolished.
At the end of Annie Hall, Woody Allen recounts an old joke: "This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, 'Doc, my brother's crazy. He thinks he's a chicken.' And the doctor says, 'Well, why don't you turn him in?' The guy says, 'I would, but I need the eggs.'" The human need for illusions--even destructive and paranoid ones--is an idea Allen explored in other films (Stardust Memories, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and most recently You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), and it's one our culture has not yet worked its way through yet--witness the growing number of atheists and agnostics coming out of the closet, matched only by the number of theists arguing their beliefs in a deity and an afterlife on the basis that life would be too terrible without them. But the postmodern condition is not modern, much less post-modern. Cervantes was outlining it 400 years ago.