Don Quixote: Eternity and Death

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that “the madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”1 In Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes presents a plethora of madmen of nearly every vocation and class, from priests and dukes to barbers and shepherds. All of these characters live in a world where the ordinary reigns supreme. In this ordinary world of the utterly realistic, time becomes a source of decay and death, an ever-present reminder of impending doom. The one sane man in the novel is Don Quixote, regarded by all of the others as a madman, who, through his embrace of the mystery of the world around him, is able to transform time from a sequence of events and inevitabilities into an eternal present which creates a self-renewing repository of surprise.

Don Quixote is separated from his contemporaries by his epistemology and his historiography, two elements of his worldview which are quite closely connected and which form the foundation for the rest. For Don Quixote, history is no mere reliquary filled with dry, old bones. It is, instead, a living reality. The stories of chivalry, courtly love, and knightly adventure are not records of a distant past, but invitations into a fuller experience of the present.

Before beginning his adventures, Don Quixote takes out his great-great-grandfather’s old suit of armor, which, “being mouldy and rust-eaten, had lain by, many long years, forgotten in a corner.”2 He cleans and restores this, preparing it for use as his own armor. In this action, Don Quixote takes an initial step toward redeeming the past from the decay brought on by ordinary time. In this act of redemption and transcendence, Don Quixote has brought two periods of time into confluence and thereby brought time and eternity closer together. In his Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains that “God has no history. He is too completely and utterly real to have one. For, of course, to have a history means losing part of your reality (because it has already slipped away into the past) and not yet having another part (because it is still in the future).”3 God, according to Lewis, experiences time as an eternal now. Don Quixote, in salvaging the armor of his ancestor, has moved closer to a God’s-eye view of the cosmos and therefore closer to reality.

Don Quixote’s choice to adopt this God’s-eye view of time is also exhibited in his choice to become a knight-errant, a knight who travels about searching for adventure. This wandering life is a perfect embodiment of Don Quixote’s perception of time. For him, time is not linear but, in a sense, simultaneous. A pictographic representation of time for Don Quixote would not be a straight line but a scribble in which the line intersects itself at nearly every point.

This historiography leads Don Quixote to adopt an epistemology which refuses to accept the merely directly empirical as the sum total. For Don Quixote, there is always a deeper reality behind that which can be immediately observed. One of Don Quixote’s earliest adventures, for instance, pits him against a troop of giants disguised as windmills. Sancho, Don Quixote’s simpleminded squire, is unable to see past the immediately observable and peer deeper into the secrets hidden behind the apparent. For Sancho, the windmills are simply windmills. Don Quixote, however, is able to see past the apparent and stand in a world where the enormity of an other can still evoke awe. As an exasperated Don Quixote flippantly informs Sancho, “one may easily see … that you are not versed in the business of adventures.”4

Throughout the novel, Don Quixote is able to consistently maintain his devotion to his special insights about time and the world in spite of the persistent attempts of the novel’s many characters to drag him back into the ordinary through reason, deception, and mockery. Though Don Quixote is frequently shown to by his enemies and their schemes to be a less than entirely perfect knight, his resistance to their frequent assaults on his worldview is proof of his true heroism. A famous saying attributed to St. Anthony the Great, one of the founders of Christian monasticism, is the claim that “a time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.’”5 Grace M. Jantzen’s explanation of this saying is illuminating:

If sanity is defined by the conventions and expectations of a society preoccupied with defeating mortality first by securing their own welfare in food and material possessions and then by procreation and establishing households and families that would continue after they were gone, then those who defied these conventions – despised greed, renounced violence, defied death – were mad.6

In his preface to his English translation of Don Quixote, John Ormsby identifies the vocation of a knight-errant as “to right wrongs, redress injuries, and succour the distressed.”7 To put such a vocation into practice, says Ormsby, the knight-errant must “cast fear aside.” In other words, Don Quixote has chosen to defy conventions, to despise greed, to renounce violence (that is, the use of force against others for one’s own gain), and to defy death. Significantly, Ormsby asserts of Don Quixote that “it is his madness [which] makes him virtuous.”8

It is only when he is finally defeated by the Knight of the White Moon and must renounce the life of a knight-errant that he begins to lose faith in his insight. At first, he attempts to hang on to his view of time as an eternal now. He proposes that he and Sancho adopt the pastoral life, telling his squire, “we will range the mountains, the woods and meadows, singing here, and complaining there.”9 Through their exploits as shepherds, Don Quixote assures Sancho, “we shall make ourselves famous and immortal, not only in the present, but in future ages.”10 This tenuous grasp on eternity, however, inevitably slips away and Don Quixote plunges headlong into the ordinary.

In the ordinary, Don Quixote’s immediate experience is like that of the young Siddhartha Gautama on his famous journey outside of his pleasure-palace. Don Quixote falls sick, experiences the decay of old age, and, finally, dies. The difference between Don Quixote and the Buddha, however, highlights what makes Don Quixote significant. Siddhartha’s timelessness was an attempt to rise above time by hiding from it, a project doomed to failure. Don Quixote’s timelessness, however, was an embrace of time. By gathering all of time into one embrace, Don Quixote had transcended time by entering into all of it simultaneously. He, like God, had no particular location in time because he was present in all of it at once. In other words, the difference between Siddhartha’s timelessness and Don Quixote’s timelessness is synonymous with the difference between the Buddhist idea of eternity as perpetual stagnation and the Christian belief in an eternity that is dynamic in its continual growth, newness, and surprise. To fall from this dynamic eternality into the ordinary is to fall into the inevitability of death as a final end rather than death as the great commencement of a new beginning.

1 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane Company, 1908), 32.
2 Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part 1, Chapter 1.
3 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001), 169-170.
4 Cervantes, Part I, Chapter 8.
5 Anthony the Great, quoted in Grace M. Jantzen, “Touching (in) the Desert: Who Goes There?,” in Yvonne Sherwood and Kevin Hart, eds., Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments (New York: Routledge, 2005), 387.
6 Jantzen, 387.
7 John Ormsby, “Don Quixote – Ormsby; English Translation,” (accessed 5 November 2013).
8 Ibid.
9 Cervantes, Part II, Chapter 67.
10 Ibid.

The Character of Bartleby

In his short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Herman Melville presents the reader with a main character, Bartleby, who is simultaneously bizarre and relatable. The character of Bartleby was perhaps designed by Melville to in some ways represent Melville himself and his reception by the literary critics and reading public of his own day. No matter how personal the character may have been to Melville, Bartleby is also a character with a nearly universal appeal. Even while remaining somewhat perplexing throughout the story, Bartleby is a character to whom, in his rejection of the stifling social expectations of the modern world, many modern readers must feel a certain attraction. Though the reader never enters directly into the mind of Bartleby himself, and so Bartleby in one sense remains disconnected from the reader, the reader is nonetheless led by the growing sympathy of the narrator, an employer of Bartleby who becomes nearly obsessed with the man, to develop a close identification with Bartleby as a symbol.

One of the most remarkable features of the story of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is that Bartleby is, in a sense, a minor character in his own story. Although the story is named after and ostensibly revolves around Bartleby, Bartleby says and does remarkably little in the story. This scarcity of deed and word, of course, is what makes Bartleby important. He stands out precisely because of his destitution of action and language. What makes him noteworthy is that he refuses to interact with others in the usual way, to follow the customs and conventions dictated by mainstream society with its social demands and cultural norms and mores. The phrase Bartleby repeats with the greatest frequency is the simple statement, “I would prefer not to,” his answer to nearly every request or question posed to him (Melville 304). Bartleby, though, makes very little fuss about his preferences. Typically, he informs his interlocutor of what he prefers and exits the scene, refusing to argue the matter even when directly confronted. It is, in fact, the narrator of the story who makes the most ado about the word “prefer,” detailing how others around Bartleby, including the narrator himself, had acquired the unconscious habit of frequently using the word.

This is the way that Bartleby is experienced throughout the story. The narrator leads the reader through his own experiences of Bartleby, bringing the reader to feel the same successive puzzlement, sympathy, irritation, revulsion, and, finally, a kind of identification with Bartleby which the narrator experiences and details. In this way, Bartleby remains a figure of mystery to the reader, a symbol rather than a person. Had Melville chosen to tell his story from the perspective of Bartleby, whether in the first person as Bartleby himself or in the third person as a disembodied voice with omniscient access to the feelings, motives, and thoughts of even Bartleby, Bartleby would have become a person and lost the ability to function as a symbol for the reader. As it is, the reader interacts with Bartleby as another person would interact with Bartleby, allowing Bartleby to maintain his autonomy and independence. Ironically, it is easier to identify with and experience empathy for a distant and mysterious figure than for one whose most intimate and personal feelings and thoughts are made evident.

With this in mind, I think Melville would have done better to end his story with the death of Bartleby rather than continuing, as he does, to conclude with a postscript in which the narrator reports some rumor he had heard which apparently explains Bartleby’s motivations. By adding this postscript, Melville made the character of Bartleby, hitherto a pathetic figure in the sense of that word which indicates a figure that arouses pity or empathy into a pathetic figure in the negative sense of the word. In other words, he is not someone with some special insight into the human condition who has triumphed over the pettiness of the everyday but he seems instead to be a pitiful depressive nihilist who is unable to cope with the facts of life. It is noteworthy here, however, that this seeming insight into the psychology of Bartleby is only, as the narrator explicitly states, “one little item of rumor” and a “vague report” by an unnamed third party (Melville 321). Even at the close of the story and in the moment of greatest revelation about the character of Bartleby, the reader is not given insight into Bartleby the man but instead is led through another’s perspective on Bartleby to further regard Bartleby the symbol.

The saying that “familiarity breeds contempt” is a very old one with which Herman Melville was probably familiar. He certainly applied the wisdom of this aphorism in composing his story of “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Rather than allowing the reader to get close to Bartleby through a first person narration or some other direct means of contact with the person of Bartleby, the reader is kept close enough to Bartleby to develop some notions about him but distant enough to never gain a comprehensive familiarity with him. In experiencing the words and deeds of Bartleby through the observations of the narrator, and in allowing that narrator to play a great role in digesting and interpreting those words and deeds, Bartleby is a character who becomes a symbol with which the reader identifies rather than person with whom the reader interacts.

Works Cited
Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume E. 3rd ed. Gen. Ed. Martin Puchner. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 296-321. Print.


Social Life in an Unsocial Environment

The concentration camps of Nazi Germany were, arguably, societies that were as far from normal, natural social situations as a society can get and still retain the name. Disparate individuals and groups of people were forced together into a situation in which they felt they had to vie with one another for their very survival. As in any human society, a system of complex social arrangements and customs, never clearly discernible or intelligible by outsiders, arose as a means by which communication and cooperation between the society’s members could be facilitated. Because of the extraordinary circumstances of these particular kinds of societies, however, the social system within the concentration camps developed unique features which often appear to be a kind of caricature of a healthy human society. In his essay “Social life in an unsocial environment: The inmates’ struggle for survival,” Falk Pingel traces some of the features of society within the concentration camps, including both the developments natural and universal to human societies and the degenerative aspects unique to the concentration camps.1His overview of concentration camp society includes a discussion of the hierarchies of power that developed within the camps, the social divisions within concentration camp societies, and unique features of concentration camp language and interaction between prisoners.

Power hierarchies within the concentration camps largely relied upon the reason for which inmates had been interned in the first place and the order in which they had been interned. Communists, for instance, were among the first to be placed into the concentration camps, which, according to Pingel, “probably explains why, in later years, communists were often successful in gaining positions of ‘power’ within the system.”2The Communists also, like other political prisoners who were interned later, were able to create a sub-group for themselves and to draw upon their past to exercise the kind of political resistance they had practiced previous to their time in the concentration camp. In addition, if an inmate from among their particular political faction was chosen for a position of responsibility by the camp authorities, he could use his position to benefit the other members of his group. This created an environment of solidarity among members of their political faction and a means by which to ensure survival of the individual via the group. In this way, social affiliations and obligations which one had developed before the camp continued into the camp and could grant one an advantage in the conditions of the concentration camp.

The political situation outside of the camp also influenced relationships in the camp in other ways. The eugenics agenda of the Nazis, for instance, influenced where certain groups of prisoners were placed within the camp system and how these groups were treated both by the authorities and by fellow prisoners. Jews, for example, “were individually targeted and often segregated from the other inmates.”3Social taboos that had been present on the outside also continued to influence interaction and treatment on the inside. Homosexuals, for instance, who were forced by the camp authorities to identify themselves with a pink badge on their uniform, were treated as social outcasts by their fellow inmates and kept from entering the mainstream of camp society. What might have been mere disapproval and avoidance outside of the concentration camps, however, could spell certain death within.

The position and activities of those who were able to gain some measure of power within the camps is also demonstrative of the simultaneous adoption of natural social relations and institutions coupled with the perversions of these social features that were unique to the concentration camps. Camp functionaries selected by the Nazi authorities for positions in inmate leadership or in administrative positions were able to enjoy special privileges which resulted from their closer proximity to the guards, such as a lower chance of being selected for extermination or transfer to another camp and the ability to secure certain benefits through bribery. They also were able to exercise authority over their fellow inmates, “including through intimidation and violence through their superior position.”4The unnatural and impoverished circumstances of the concentration camp also led to egregious abuses of this power. Some of these functionaries, for instance, “used their position to demand sexual favours from their fellow prisoners.”5Whether through bribery or intimidation, camp functionaries often used their powers to secure a variety of comforts and even indulgences for themselves in the camps.

In addition to the social hierarchies and divisions that developed within the camp, a further notable feature of camp social life as outlined by Pingel is the unique linguistic pattern that emerged among inmates. Concentration camp language was characterized by a certain terseness and forcefulness, limited largely to “short, sharp commands and responses.”6Pingel describes this use of language in the concentration camp as “primitive.”7Much as the social hierarchies in the camp devolved to the point of merely attaining personal privilege through dominance rather than the affective use of power to achieve social cohesion, the use of language also reflects a degraded form of social relations. Pingel, in fact, identifies the two institutions and their mutual devolution to a primal stage, claiming that “camp language reflects the hierarchy of power and social life within the camp itself.”8

As the language of the Nazi camp authorities was German, German necessarily became the lingua franca of the concentration camp system. For the many prisoners of other nationalities, this posed a particular challenge as they found themselves excluded from the positions of authority through which they could benefit themselves and their fellow countrymen. The Babel-like nature of the concentration camps also led in a large degree to the terseness of the German spoken in them. All that was required and often all that was possible was learning to comply with and respond to basic orders and commands. This limited use of language fostered a limited purview of concern. The prisoners were prevented by their linguistic differences from developing social relationships more complex than what was required for mere survival. In this way, the language of the concentration camps served to reinforce the rigid hierarchies and social divisions as well as the corrupted use of power which marked camp life.

The inmates of the concentration camps were almost entirely ordinary people forced into extremely extraordinary circumstances. The breakdown of normal social relations among these inmates provides insight into the nature of human societies in general. The prisoners of the Nazi concentration camps were forced into a situation in which they saw themselves as competing against other prisoners, many of whom they would not have associated with outside of the camps, for any comfort or convenience they desired and often even for their own survival. In addition, the Nazi ideology of eugenics and extermination suffused the atmosphere of the camps. Any acquisition of any measure of power was seen as an opportunity to secure personal safety and succor for one’s compatriots, a group that never consisted of all of one’s fellow inmates in general but only of those with whom one might have had an relationship previous to or outside of the camp system. Normal social cohesion was further impeded by the multiplicity of languages within the camps and the terseness of language that camp life necessitated. As a result, a spirit of corruption, suspicion, despondency, and division permeated the fabricated society of the concentration camp. Reduced to a fight for survival, the prisoners’ personal outlooks and social interactions degraded remarkably quickly to a remarkably primitive level.

1 Falk Pingel, “Social life in an unsocial environment: The inmates’ struggle for survival,” in Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany: The New Histories, ed. Jane Caplan and Nikolaus Wachsmann (New York, NY: Routledge), 58-81.
2 Ibid., 60.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid., 61.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid., 70.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.