Guided By The Word

In the early parts of “Don Quixote,” Cervantes is heavily invested in the idea that Quixote is mad and was driven that way by the books he read about knights errant. Having just completed what he considered to be a successful quest to defend the economic rights of a peasant — which actually led to that peasant being more viciously flogged — he looks for another quest:

And having gone about two miles, Don Quixote saw a great throng of people who, as he subsequently discovered, were merchants from Toledo on their way to Murcia to buy silk. There were six of them, holding sunshades, and four servants on horseback, and three boys on foot leading the mules. No sooner had Don Quixote seen them than he imagined this to be a new adventure; and in order to imitate in every way possible the deeds he had read in his books, this seemed the perfect opportunity for him to perform one that he had in mind. And so, with gallant bearing and great boldness, he set his feet firmly in the stirrups, grasped his lance, brought the shield up to his chest, and, stopping in the middle of the road, he waited until those knights errant, for that is what he deemed and considered them to be, had reached him; and when they had come close enough to see and hear him, Don Quixote raised his voice and, in an imperious manner, he said: “Halt, all of you, unless all of you confess that in the entire world there is no damsel more beauteous than the empress of La Mancha, the peerless Dulcinea of Toboso.”

Notice how Quixote is not actually looking for a real injustice to set right in the world, he is actively looking to turn any situation he comes across into something out of a book he’s read. He’s not looking for adventure as much as he’s looking to manufacture adventure.

I couldn’t help but think how much this conflicts with the Eastern philosophies, especially Taoism. And so, I thought I might digress here to consult the I Ching in this case to see what guidance it might give Quixote as he approaches these merchants. I ended up drawing I Ching #2:

K’un, the Receptive, is the complement to Ch’ien, the Creative: the dark which is illuminated by light, the earth which receives the blessings of heaven, the vessel into which nourishment flows. This is a time to follow rather than talk. Re-devote yourself to the cultivation of modesty, receptivity, and gentleness now, and let go of concerns about the conduct of others or the progress of your worldly ambitions.

Oops, I guess Quixote made a bad choice then in demanding they pay homage to his fictional anima. And, of course, things end up badly for Quixote as a result. He decides to charge the group of them for blaspheming his goddess. His trusty steed falls to the ground during the charge, leaving him hobbled and easy prey for the merchants to then beat him silly with his own lance.

But is it madness that leads to Quixote’s misfortune or is it his over reliance on the power of the word? If I listen to Carl Jung, he will say that we shouldn’t judge Quixote for being bewitched by his books of chivalry, it is simply the act of an aging man trying to attach some meaning to his life:

Meaning makes a great many things endurable—perhaps everything. No science will ever replace myth, and a myth cannot be made out of any science. For it is not that “God” is a myth, but that myth is the revelation of a divine life in man. It is not we who invent myth, rather it speaks to us as a Word of God. The Word of God comes to us, and we have no way of distinguishing whether and to what extent it is different from God. There is nothing about this Word that could not be considered known and human, except for the manner in which it confronts us spontaneously and places obligations upon us.

Quixote is powerless in the face of this language and would much rather suffer the short term defeats of his quests than continue on with a life that had become pure drudgery. He had opened himself up to all experience, which Jung says is the natural result of following The Word:

The Word happens to us; we suffer it, for we are victims of a profound uncertainty: with God as a complexio oppositorum, all things are possible, in the fullest meaning of the phrase. Truth and delusion, good and evil, are equally possible.

This is what the Western story is all about, unleashing a little madness onto life so that the stories come out. This puts me in mind of the great scene in the movie “Adaptation” where Charlie Kaufman consults script guru Robert McKee about what do to with a script where nothing really happens, people just live, like in the real world. McKee’s response is priceless:

Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day. There’s genocide, war, corruption. Every fucking day, somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else. Every fucking day, someone, somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it. For Christ’s sake, a child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church. Someone goes hungry. Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life! And why the FUCK are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie? I don’t have any use for it! I don’t have any bloody use for it!

The best part is that after the rant is over, Kaufman just sheepishly thanks McKee and then sits down in the auditorium. I think you actually could tell a Taoist version of the Quixote, where the Knight spends just as much time avoiding confrontations and adventures and maybe even pulls out his sticks and does I Ching readings when in doubt.

But a Knight who did that would be living by a far different code than the one he received in his books. He would have, in that case, been bewitched by different words in different books. And perhaps due to that, may have chosen never to leave home at all.