Don Quixote, Monsignor Quixote, Graham Greene, and madness vs. Existentialism

A good book and a good cigar

There are books that I re-read with certain regularity: The Old Man and the Sea, Voltaire’s Candide, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (you can read about that one here), Don Quixote only three times.

But I recently came across a book I had read as a teenager in the 80s and decided to revisit: Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote.

As you can see from the title -I will try not to spoil anything- in a fictional meta-reality, Monsignor Quixote deals with the adventures of a descendant of Don Quixote. There is a Rocinante and a Sancho. Greene converted to Catholicism at 22 in 1926 (you can read his bio here) and this novel deals precisely with -no spoilers- with religion, theology, and the Church in early ‘80s, post Franco Spanish society (It was published in 1982). The book is an easy, quick read, and, since I am always on the lookout for the far reaching effects of Don Quixote, I re-borrowed Monsignor Quixote (thanks Sue) and thoroughly enjoyed it.

My more faithful readers know that one of my research interests is the influence of Don Quixote on Existentialist philosophy. So my antennae are always poised to pick up on this theme. Monsignor Quixote does not disappoint! The references to the links between Don Quixote and Existentialism might have been written unknowingly by Greene, which I doubt, but they are there either way:

There is a heartfelt reference to Miguel de Unamuno who was a big fan of Don Quixote and a proto-Existentialist (read San Manuel Bueno, Mártir). This is an indication that Greene understands Cervantes.

There are explicit mentions of Monsignor Quixote acknowledging his existence, which is a big step in understanding who one is.

The novel deals with our doubts and beliefs, the Existential anguish that drove Kierkegaard (but not in those words), the father of Existentialism -which would make Cervantes the great-grandfather of Existentialism (read about that here).

Finally, as any alert reader would expect of a novel with the name Quixote in it, it talks of madness. Of course, folks -specially those who have not read the novel- often confuse Don Quixote’s drive and purpose with madness (which drives me mad). I will not elaborate but Don Quixote knows who he is, it is just that nobody understands what he is doing, so they call him mad. This leads me to my first and hopefully last political statement ever on this blog: Former President Trump was often called Quixotic, for whatever reason, and the people who labeled Trump like that have obviously never read, and/or never understood Cervantes’ novel!! A similar point is seen in the film Easy Rider when Jack Nicholson as George Hanson says:

Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.

I guess I could have written a more academic article about this book, and maybe I will, but for the time being, enjoy.

A good book and a good coffee

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Although I have a few editions, the other day I picked up a nice, used copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It is one of my favorite books/poems of all time. I think it all started in the early 80s when we were living in London. My mom hired an Iranian English teacher to teach her English. I rarely saw her. I would come home from school and she would be in class with my mom. But one holiday she came to visit us in my parents’ country house outside Madrid. As a gift she brought a kilo of pistachios -which to this day I love, and a beautiful edition of the Rubaiyat.

I immediately fell in love with that book, it had an illustrated cardboard cover and beautiful illustrations. Every page had the verses in the original (more on that later) Persian or Farsi, English, and French. Right after college I purchased my first copy, and I would read it occasionally. For the last few years, I read it almost every Summer! This is not so strange, as there are several books I read and have read multiple times: Voltaire’s Candide and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea are examples.

At any rate, the book is not without controversy: About the original text, about authorship, about religious interpretations, and about the translations. I have no academic interest in the text, I just enjoy the poetry. I love the flow of the verses, the circularity of the themes, the imagery. It is ancient Persian but feels totally modern. It is an appeal to stop and smell the roses, something that we so often forget to do. Take for example:

I sent my Soul through the Invisible

Some letter of that After-life to spell:

And by and by my Soul return’d to me,

And asnwer’d “I Myself am Heav’n and Hell”

While I do not consider myself an Epicurean or a Hedonist in the modern interpretation of the words, I do enjoy small pleasures in life – which is much closer to the original thought of Epicurean philosophy, to enjoy modest pleasures from tranquility. Thus, I love a good cup of coffee or glass of wine, a well-prepared meal, a well rolled cigar, a piece of music or any art. That, I believe is the message of the Rubaiyat: to enjoy the moment that is life.

Let me know what you think of the Rubaiyat in the comments section.

Prepping for El Camino

Despite the fact that this is going to be my third Camino, it is still as exciting as the first, I guess it must be the expectation of adventure. So here are some thoughts and advice on preparing for the Camino:

Knowing that the pilgrimage to Santiago has been around for centuries (there was a pagan trek to Finisterre (the end of the world in Latin) before Christianity modified it to their needs) means that it can be done – and should be done with minimum amount of technology, help, etc. For me the Camino is a return to basics, so I do not book hotels, I do not use a phone app, nor use high tech clothes (other than shoes). This allows for a freer mind.

Because of this minimalist approach I do not have to worry about packing: just 3 pairs each of socks, underwear, shorts, T-shirts, a poncho, a sweatshirt, flip flops, Marseille soap for body and laundry, dopp kit, swiss army knife, water bottle, hat, walking stick, sunglasses, little else actually.

A more pressing issue for me is what to read on the Camino. There are at least a couple of schools of thought: one is to read something that has nothing to do with your journey. The second is to read something germane with your trip. I am in the second camp. My first outing I read a book on the parable of Abraham and Isaac and the Book of Job. On my second outing I re-read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, that fellow pilgrim James gave me on the first outing! This year I had a few options: Flaubert’s Madame Bovary which I finally have in French, Kathleen Dowling Singh The Grace in Dying, and finally the chosen option The Way of Ignatius, A Prayer Journey Through Lent, by Gemma Simmonds who was my sister’s teacher in school! Granted, Lent is over, but one should always be ready for a “prayer journey”.

As important as the kit is the actual physical preparation. This year I also had to break in new shoes, so I killed two proverbial birds with one proverbial stone: breaking in new shoes and training. The trick is to slowly add miles and weight to your pack in training with the goal of breaking in the shoes and your back!! This year I did a few solo outings and one with a couple of friends – and their dog – in nearby El Pardo natural park.

This week I bought my train ticket to Irún and a pair of socks (to replace a lost pair), but these are no ordinary socks, 60% Merino wool, no seams, and cushion. The original ones were Darn Tough socks from Vermont, this pair is Icebreaker from New Zealand.

The final details involve getting stuff done before leaving for a month, and getting the last items purchased and prepared. Follow my Instagram (Tonxob) or Facebook (tonxo balson) for daily photo uploads of the trip, starting June 3…