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

Books, books, books

Some of the books I had lying around

Some of the books I had lying around

Locked up at home during the Coronavirus quarantine, I get to read a lot, which got me thinking of books This blog exists because of books. You see, I started this blog to report my Harley-Davidson trip visiting universities across the South for my PhD in Spanish Literature, that is: books. Yes, I am addicted to books. Having said that, I am a slow reader. So, while I enjoy books, I do not devour books like some folks do. Anyway let’s start at the beginning:

My first blurry memories of reading are of Enid Blyton, I guess like millions of children. Fortunately in high school, I had the privilege of being taught by Mrs. Soledad Sprackling. And my mind exploded with what she had me read: Borges, Neruda, Lorca, et al. That was it, I was hooked. In college my super cultured friend Silvia Velez introduced me to Gabriel García Márquez and my mind exploded again! It has been a series of explosions since.

Luckily I can read in Spanish, English and French and find it very frustrating when I cannot read every book in the original language it was written in. In fact, when I was twirling about with the idea of getting my PhD, I wanted to study comparative lit Spanish / Russian, but there was no way I was going to learn that level of Russian in a hurry, so that was the end of that thought. Miguel de Unamuno, one of my literary heroes actually learnt Danish so he could read Kierkegaard, bastard.

Here is a list of some of my favorite books with only number 1 in a clear position – all the rest vary according to the day you ask me:

  1. Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote. I have only read it three times, once with the amazing Prof. Louise Cohen. She shared with me her passion for this book, which I have written about in previous posts.
  2. Alexandre Dumas – The Count of Montecristo. Love, adventure, revenge, massive wealth, what’s not to like?
  3. Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina / War and Peace / Death of Ivan Ilyich. Tough call on this one…
  4. Ernest Hemingway – For Whom the Bell Tolls or The Old Man and the Sea. It takes a foreigner to describe Spain with such precision. High School is also where I got hooked on Hemingway.
  5. Gabriel García Marquez – Cien Años de Soledad (But really any by him). Of course, nowadays, I keep thinking of Love in the Times of Cholera
  6. Voltaire – Candide. Possibly the best satire ever written?
  7. Miguel de Unamuno – San Manuel Bueno, mártir. Proto-existentialism at its best!
  8. Mikhail Bulgakov – Master and Margarita. Or as the Rollings Stones interpreted it: Sympathy for the Devil
  9. Francisco de Isla – His early works. After all, I am the leading authority on the subject…

Of course, there are many, many more, but I don’t want to bore you, dear reader, any more.

Interestingly, my last read was. The Grace in Dying by Kathleen Dowling Singh which was recommended to me (like so many more) by my dear friend Patxi. It is about the spiritual journey of death, and how the best approach to death is meditation. I started reading it before the massive Covid outbreak and it has helped me digest the numbers in the news. I loved it. My next read, to celebrate the centenary of Benito Perez Galdos’ death will be Trafalgar, about the battle of the same name, not the square in London.

There you have it, some thoughts on reading and my some of my favorite books. Which are yours? What do you recommend? Tell me in the comments!!

That is not one of the editions of Quijote that I have read

That is not one of the editions of Quijote that I have read

Dalí and the Dalí Museum

 

The biggest collectors of Dalí where Reynolds and Eleanor Morse, who founded the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg – the one in Florida, not the original one. My Spanish V class went on a field trip to visit it.

This year in  Spanish V we studied early 20th Century Peninsular literature and culture. It was an exciting course: we started with late 19th C. Naturalism, reading Emila Pardo Bazán’s short stories, and moved on to Miguel de Unamuno’s San Manuel Bueno, mártir, a proto existentialist text. (To read more about Unamuno and Existentialism see my previous post about Existentialism and the Quijote), we saw Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, while studying and reading about Surrealism. We read Federico Garcia Lorca’s poetry  and talked about the Second Spanish Republic and how that led to the Spanish Civil War.

Our visit to St. Petersburg was fun. We took a van for the two hour drive North (with the obligatory stop at Starbucks to start the road trip). Once there, the Museum had our visit very well prepared. We explored the galleries and the students each presented on a work they had studied and talked a bit about Dalí. Outside the museum we walked around the gardens and labyrinth. From there we went a couple of blocks to hip, thriving, Central Ave in Downtown St. Pete, where the students  ordered their lunch – in Spanish – at Red Mesa Mercado, a street side taquería. While the students enjoyed some free time to explore the area, I enjoyed a nice coffee, then we drove back to Seacrest.

The trip was a cultural and pedagogical success, we all learned about Dalí and discovered a little bit of wonderful St. Petersburg – the one in Florida, not the original one.

Don Quixote’s influence on Existentialist philosophy

This has taken me a couple of years to bring to the Interweb. The idea of publishing my thoughts in an academic journal kept me from using my own blog as a platform. Now that I have some distance from the ivory tower that is academia, I feel liberated enough to use this humble vehicle to say my thoughts.

The idea is quite simple: The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who comes up with the idea of existentialism, even if not in those words – he is known as the grandfather of existentialism –, was a fan of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, writing extensively about him. Kierkegaard influenced many of the philosophers who came after him: Friedrich Nietzsche, Miguel de Unamuno, Martin Heidegger, José Ortega y Gasset, and eventually Jean Paul Sartre (although it would be fairer to say Simone de Beauvoir) who finally came up with a formal theory of existentialism. Unamuno relied heavily on Kierkegaard and on Don Quixote to form his theories.

In 1605 Cervantes creates a man who decides to live life by his own rules. Bored with his bourgeois life, he becomes a knight in somewhat shining armor. Don Quixote is a celebration of free will with all the beauty and issues that that carries. Therefore Don Quixote is the great-grandfather of existentialism. As you will be able to see from the bibliography, remarkably little, if anything has been written about this topic.

This is my Master’s thesis which I wrote in 2008 at Simmons College in Boston, for the great professor Louise Cohen. It has not been peer-reviewed, which is not to say that this paper is any good, it is not. If you have read any of my work on this blog before, you know I write like a horse’s ass. So read at your own discretion. Oh, haha, FYI it’s in Spanish.

el-existencialismo-en-el-quijote

My Madrid (continued)

Madrid, like most cities, has a cadre of writers that have historically portrayed it. From Quevedo, to Moratín, to Pérez Galdós or Unamuno. I understand them well. I have often said – and I’m sure I’m not being original here – that cities are like people, with their quirks and ugly bits. Madrid never disappoints. In fact, I would say that just walking around the city is one of my favorite pastimes. And I always discover something new.

These last few years when I come to visit I like to spend most of my time with my parents, so I do not get out much. They – like the rest of us – are not getting any younger. But when my childhood friend Jaime, who is in the art restoration business calls to say he has access to the top of the Alfonso XII monument in the Retiro Park in Madrid, you go.

It was a clear, brisk winter morning in Madrid, the highest capital in Europe at about 646 meters (2,119 feet) above sea level. I walked down the Castellana, the main boulevard, the backbone of Madrid to the park. When I got to the monument, miraculously, there was no one there, extremely rare, as it is normally filled with tourists, romantic couples, Cannabis salesmen, etc. it would soon fill up, even with a professional photo shoot of a rather pretty model, as they tend to be.

This amazing sculptural set was made of a very soft stone that is literally falling apart. Some colleagues of my friend Jaime have been charged with researching how to restore it. When Jaime showed up we climbed up and up, a dark metal staircase to the very top, just under the statue of King Alfonso XII who reigned Spain from 1874 to 1885. There are some small windows as you stand under the bronze base of the statue, you can actually see the wickets that hold the king’s horse’s legs! Since they say a picture is worth a thousand words here are some photos to save me some writing.

After this amazing experience Jaime and I walked across the park to the nearby Prado museum for a coffee. Jaime did part of his training there, so he is obviously very familiar with it. I had not been there in five years, so going back was a very cathartic experience for me. At one point Jaime stood staring at Tiziano’s huge portrait of Carlos V on horseback. When I pressed Jaime to tell me what he was so profoundly looking at, he laconically replied “Hmmm, it looks like there might be some humidity damage on that corner.” Occupational hazards of hanging out with an art restoration expert! So we had a lovely coffee catching up, walked a bit around the museum and walked around the city. I must say, a morning does not get much better than that. Gracias Jaime.