Don Quixote and Aristotle

In Chapter III of the Second Part of Don Quixote, Bachelor Sansón Carrasco, Don Quixote, and Sancho Panza discuss the First Part of Cervantes’ work. One of the questions addressed is the difference between poetry and history.

“Even so,” responded the bachelor, “some people who have read the history say they would have been pleased if its authors had forgotten about some of the infinite beatings given to Señor Don Quixote in various encounters.”

“That’s where the truth of the history comes in,” said Sancho.

“They also could have kept quiet about them for the sake of fairness,” said Don Quixote, “because the actions that do not change or alter the truth of the history do not need to be written if they belittle the hero. By my faith, Aeneas was not as pious as Virgil depicts him, or Ulysses as prudent as Homer describes him.”

“That is true,” replied Sansón, “but it is one thing to write as a poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.”

The debate that these three men are having centers on an Aristotelian question, treated heavily by 16th and 17th century humanists. In chapter 9 of his Poetics, Aristotle writes:

But it is evident from what has been said that it is not the province of a poet to relate things which have happened, but such as might have happened, and such things as are possible according to probability, or which would necessarily have happened. For a historian and a poet do not differ from each other because the one writes in verse and the other in prose; for the history of Herodotus might be written in verse, and yet it would be no less a history with meter than without meter. But they differ in this, that the one speaks of things which have happened, and the other of such as might have happened.

The poet’s job is to relate what might have happened while the historian’s job is to give an account of what actually happened. But what does Aristotle mean? During the Renaissance, writers try to systematically describe a verisimilitudinous play (i.e. a play that presents events as they might have happened). The 17th century humanist Nicolas Boileau even applies Aristotle to non-theatrical poetry in his Art Poétique (Art of Poetry). The debate concerning the difference between a poet and a historian is also a debate about the role of the public. What does the public expect from a poet vs. from a historian?

Don Quixote, as part meta-fiction, is not only a satire on courtly romance but also a commentary on Renaissance values such as verisimilitude. What does the public expect from a history of Don Quixote? If the story is about a knight errant, should it follow tropes found in the courtly romances that Don Quixote‘s audience know so well? How should Don Quxote act? Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are at once ignorant and self-aware. They behave irrationally, but they know what readers of courtly romance expect. They try to realize in their own lives what a knight or a squire never did historically but might have done poetically. What is ironic about the above conversation is that Don Quixote seems to know that the heroes in his favorite stories were idealized and mythologized, yet he attempts to imitate them anyway. Sancho Panza definitely knows what the public (i.e. Don Quixote) expects because he frequently lies about events to fool and please his master.

Top 5 Favorite Books of 2016

This is certainly my favorite post of the year. I read 47 books in 2016. Below is a list of my top 5 favorites, with my most favorite book at #1. I also included 2 honorable mentions.

1)  Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest) by Georges Bernanos

I read this book at the start of 2016, and upon finishing it I knew that this would be one of my favorite books of the year. This is “slice of life” literary fiction at its best. The Diary of a Country Priest is the journal of an unnamed country priest living in France between the two World Wars. This is a thought-provoking and moving look at parish life in the wake of one of the greatest atrocities in history. Our country priest is neither exceptionally holy nor exceptionally sinful. He is simply human. This is a book that I know will stay with me for the rest of my life.

2) The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Image result for the new jim crow

This is definitely the most important book I read in 2016. I never understood why racial justice activists were so concerned about the War on Drugs until I read The New Jim Crow. Michelle Alexander exposes the racial bias in the American criminal justice system. I am pleased that this book is on many reading lists. I regret not having reviewed it earlier. Alexander demonstrates convincingly that the War on Drugs grew out of white resistance to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After incarceration, Blacks often don’t have their voting rights restored to them. Due to their prison record, they can’t find employment, get housing, or receive food stamps. This is the New Jim Crow. Every American should read this book.

3) Terre des hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This is one of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s flight memoirs. Airplanes today are quite safe. Plane crashes are rare. For the holidays I’m sure many of you flew to meet loved ones or to get away from the cold. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a pilot for the airmail carrier Aéropostale at a time when air travel was dangerous . It was not uncommon for pilots to lose friends in the business. This memoir is a celebration of life and friendship. It is the most hopeful book I read all year.

4) Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

This book is part mystery, part philosophy, part literary theory, and part Franciscan history. The detective is a Franciscan friar named William of Baskerville who allows his knowledge of the philosophy of William of Ockham (a 14th century scholastic) to inform his investigation. This is the finest historical fiction I have ever read. This is a dark and twisted story in more than one way.

5) Augustine of Hippo: A Biography by Peter Brown

St. Augustine was the bishop of Hippo Regius (modern-day Annaba, Algeria) in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. He is without doubt the most influential figure in Western Christianity. But it’s Peter Brown’s storytelling that makes this biography so wonderful. I definitely will be rereading this work in 2017. Augustine was a complex and controversial man. Brown’s biography made me feel like I was in Augustine’s basilica hearing him preach. A great accomplishment. It convinced me to listen to Augustine’s 1184-page City of God on audio book.

Honorable Mentions

1) Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

Image result for orlando a biography harcourt

This is a book about Orlando, a gender nonconforming poet and playwright. The biography begins in the 16th century and ends in the 19th century. Orlando has to navigate a world of strict gender and sexual expectations. But this book is not exclusively about gender and sexuality. It is  also an exploration of Renaissance and early modern historiography and storytelling. How should Orlando’s life be told? Can we ever know who Orlando really is? Virginia Woolf’s works are challenging, but this book is one of the most accessible.

2) Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Image result for don quixote edith grossman

I must include this book on the list. Although it was longer than I would have liked, Don Quixote was both an entertaining and thought-provoking work. It is metafiction about the lives of a knight errant named Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza. If you are trying to tackle this book, I suggest you think about it as a short story collection rather than a giant novel. Edith Grossman is an incredible translator.

5 Goals for 2017

Image result for fireworks new yearI set myself a 50-book goal in 2016. I read 46 books. I could read a few picture books or something to reach my goal, but I won’t. I am OK with the number of books I read. I will probably keep my Goodreads goal at 50 books with the understanding that I may not reach it again in 2017 and that’s OK. I am not including my 50-book goal as one of my goals in 2017 because I simply don’t care how many books I read next year. I prefer quality over quantity, and number goals often prevent me from reading bigger books. I didn’t reach my 50-book goal this year, but I read Don Quixote and listened to Augustine’s City of God.

If you have been following this blog you know that I have a particular interest in late medieval hagiography (i.e. saints’ lives) and religious rhetoric of the Late Middle Ages. The books I read are either too niche or are only available in research libraries. Therefore, I didn’t review most of the books I read this year on this blog. In 2017, I will continue to write reviews only for books I think are appropriate for this blog, but I want to encourage more people to study medieval, Renaissance, and early modern history and literature.

1) Write short reflection posts

This goal goes along with what I wrote above. We all love reading. If you are following my blog you probably also love reading books that are considered “classics”. But I believe it is important to step back and consider the social, political, and religious movements that inspired the works that have come to be known as “classics”. In 2016, I wanted to make more literary history and analysis posts, but I didn’t. Because I wanted to do so much, I ended up abandoning the project. In 2017, I hope to post on the topics that interest me, but they will not be in-depth studies. They will simply be short observations (my own or others’) on something literary or concerning the period that I study.

2) Read 5 books that have been published since 2000.

On Goodreads, I probably have a list of at least 50 books that have been published since 2000. I know that this blog is dedicated to the classics, but hundreds of books have come out in the past few years that could easily become classics someday. I want to read at least 5 contemporary works in 2017.

3) Read more books relevant to current events.

This is a broad goal. I am not very well-informed when it comes to contemporary politics. I know enough, however, to be upset about the results of the 2016 presidential election in the United States. We Americans simply don’t know enough about the world. I believe that education is the key to overcoming prejudice. I began reading more diversely in 2016, and I want to do more of that in 2017. The reason why I didn’t make reading diversely a goal this year is because I don’t want to read a book simply because it contains diverse characters. I want to read a book because it is important. There are books on my Goodreads to-read list that cover the refugee crisis, gun violence, ethnic/racial tension, and gender/sexuality. These are very important topics that I don’t know enough about. They concern current events. I hope to read and review more books about such topics in 2017. They don’t have to have been written in the last decade (i.e. they could be classics), but they should concern contemporary questions.

4) Read Les Misérables in French.

In 2016, I met my goal of reading Don Quixote. For years, I have wanted to read Les Misérables. 2017 will be the year.

5) Get more involved in the book-blogging community

We all love thought-provoking reviews or reflection posts. But I also enjoy more light-hearted posts that engage with the book-blogging community. I will never be someone who does tags all the time. They often take too long, and I hate tagging others. But I will try to do more tags or participate in more challenges. I don’t like making promises because I am bad at keeping them. But I will try to do more of the Classics Club blog challenges, particularly the spin challenge. I won’t do any buddy-reads because I just can’t commit to finishing the books when I’m supposed to. In general, I need to reconnect with others in this community.

I think these are very manageable goals. Happy New Year to all! My top 5 favorites of 2016 will be posted soon.

Review of Don Quixote

Image result for don quixote edith grossmanPerhaps, I am being generous in my 4-star rating. Don Quixote could have been half the length. Still, most of the stories were entertaining, and our knight and his squire were pretty compelling characters. The brilliance of this work is in its narrative style. Don Quixote is a story within a story within a story. Cervantes published the first part years before the second part. Between the publication of the two parts, Cervantes was imprisoned. The story of Don Quixote was continued by Avellaneda without Cervantes’ permission. The narrator as well as the characters in the real story ridicule Avellaneda’s account. The narrator insists that the only true story about Don Quixote is the one we are reading. It was translated from the Arabic by the Moor Cide Hamete Benengeli. And of course there is Don Quixote himself who tries to imitate the knights errant described in popular Spanish courtly romances. To deceive Don Quixote, the other characters have to play into our knight’s delusions.

Don Quixote is a satire on Renaissance Spain. The speeches of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are almost literally lifted from the writings of the Renaissance humanists. Despite Don Quixote’s insanity, his speeches are often quite moving. Sancho Panza loves stringing proverbs together, but he often cites them out of context. While this is certainly an entertaining work, it is also somewhat tragic. People take advantage of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza to serve their own selfish ends. But who can help Don Quixote? Most tragically, Sancho Panza believes in some of his master’s hallucinations and promises. Don Quixote means well, but he resembles a cult leader. Courtly romance and hagiography were two popular literary traditions in Renaissance Spain. By exploring the theme of heroism in both tradition, Don Quixote addresses the purpose of historiography.

Because this work is as much about the writing of Don Quixote as the story of Don Quixote itself, I cannot ignore the role Edith Grossman played in translating it from the Spanish. This is an astounding accomplishment. Based on the quality of the footnotes it is clear that Grossman spent a lot of time researching the literary and historical references in Don Quixote. My edition included an interview with the translator as well as an introduction by the literary critic Harold Bloom.

I do wish Don Quixote was shorter, but I know that I won’t forget Don Quixote or Sancho Panza anytime soon. With its commentary on truth vs. falsehood and wisdom vs. folly, the work feels particularly relevant to our social media age.

Favorite Quote

“In short, our gentleman became so caught up in reading that he spent his nights reading from dusk till dawn and his days reading from sunrise to sunset, and so with too little sleep and too much reading his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind.”

Review of Faust, Part I

Image result for faust philip wayneWhat was it about?

Heinrich Faust’s desire for knowledge is so great that he makes a pact with the devil to attain it. The more he reads the more he feels in despair. He doesn’t want any kind of knowledge. He wants the knowledge that is only proper to God. At the start of the play, Faust contemplates suicide, but the sound of bells ringing stays his hand. As he is returning to his study on Easter day, he notices that a small dog is following him. He tries to get rid of the dog but to no avail. In his study, the dog transforms into Mephistopheles (i.e. the devil), and Faust sells his soul. The two go on adventures throughout Leipzig. Mephistopheles calling the shots, and Faust obeying. It is all fun and games until Faust meets Gretchen. Faust, Part I by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is a cautionary tale about one man’s lust for knowledge.

What did I think of it?

Faust is a poem in two parts, but the actual story is in the first part. I have not read the second part yet, but when I do I will review it here. Although Faust takes place during Easter, it is perfect for the winter holidays. There is magic everywhere. The play takes place in Heaven, Hell, and on earth. Mephistopheles and Faust participate in ceremonies and celebrations. I would love to see this play performed on stage. It reminded me a lot of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, perhaps because they both are moral tales.

Part I is not very philosophical. Most of the emphasis is on the action. Faust makes a pact with the devil and decides to seduce a woman. The reader is, however, dazzled by an array of really odd characters. Everything is so dramatic. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy the translation. Philip Wayne tried to preserve the rhyme pattern found in the original German, but that just ended up compromising the poem’s lyricism. I feel like a lot was lost in translation. I hope to purchase a new edition in 2017 before reading Part II. Still, I loved the magic of the story and the character of Mephistopheles. I assume that Faust’s character (whom we don’t learn much about in Part I) will be explored in more detail in Part II.

Favorite Quote

[Mephistopheles]:
You are, when all is done – just what you are,
Put on the most elaborate curly wig,
Mount learned stilts, to make yourself look big,
You still will be the creature that you are.

[Faust]:
I know. In vain I gathered human treasure,
And all that mortal spirit could digest:
I come at last to recognize my measure,
And know the sterile desert in my breast.
I have not raised myself one poor degree,
Nor stand I nearer to infinity.

Review of Praise of Folly

Image result for praise of folly penguinWhat was it about?

At the start of the 16th century, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam writes an encomium on folly from the perspective of Folly herself. Inspired by the satires of Lucian whom Erasmus translated with his friend Thomas More, Praise of Folly is a critique of late medieval society and religion. School theologians concern themselves with nonsensical questions and parish priests are barely literate. Popes and princes go to war. Mendicants are known for their wealth, arrogance, and greed. The satire begins with the genealogy of Folly before moving to a description of her role in the ancient world. Folly argues that humanity is indebted to her. Although philosophers generally condemn folly, life would be unbearable without some foolishness. In fact, folly holds a special place in the Christian tradition. Praise of Folly (trans. Betty Radice) is both a social satire and a commentary on true wisdom.

What did I think of it?

I read Praise of Folly at the right time. Last semester I took a course on medieval philosophy, and I am currently reading Don Quixote. Therefore, late medieval theology and Renaissance/early modern aesthetics are all I think of these days. There’s nothing like reading Praise of Folly after a semester-long course on the scholastics! Reading this book  was therefore quite rewarding.

The narrative voice changes throughout the work. The first part is clearly from Folly’s perspective. She is not beyond ridiculing 16th century humanists for their learning. But the voice changes mid-way through the work. Folly’s criticism of the Church is clearly Erasmus’. It no longer reads as a satire but as a diatribe. I wish Erasmus’ had maintained Folly’s perspective throughout the work. I wonder what she would have said. The final part is on the place of folly in Christianity. Here, Erasmus shares his philosophical and social views with the reader.

My Penguin edition came with a good introduction and thorough footnotes. Because Praise of Folly is a highly intellectual satire, the footnotes are indispensable. Thanks to the editor, it is quite accessible to the non-specialist. Erasmus’ Colloquies are (in my opinion) superior to Praise of Folly, but Praise of Folly was more influential. It voiced the criticisms of countless intellectuals on the eve of the Reformation. Erasmus never wrote for the lay person, but his writings inspired educational and religious reforms in 16th century Europe. I am glad I read it when I did.

Once I finish and review Don Quixote, I hope to make at least one post comparing it to Praise of Folly.

Favorite Quote (!)

“Nothing is so foolish as mistimed wisdom, and nothing less sensible than misplaced sense. A man’s conduct is misplaced if he doesn’t adapt himself to things as they are, has no eye for the main chance, won’t even remember that convivial maxim ‘Drink and depart’, and asks for the play to stop being a play. On the other hand, it’s a true sign of prudence not to want wisdom which extends beyond your share as an ordinary mortal, to be willing to overlook things along with the rest of the world and wear your illusions with a good grace. People say that this is really a sign of folly, and I’m not setting out to deny it – so long as they’ll admit on their side that this is the way to play the comedy of life.”

Review of The Power and the Glory

Image result for the power and the gloryWhat was it about?

A cleric known as the “whisky priest” is the last surviving priest in Mexico. Despite his reputation, the “whisky priest” secretly hears confessions and administers the Sacrament to the faithful in Mexico. The Lieutenant, an inquisitor for the socialist state, considers the Church to be the greatest threat to the revolution. What has the Church ever done to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor? Priests seem to serve the poor only so that the Church looks good; they have no desire to abolish the social hierarchy. As long as the poor remain poor, the Church is needed. And look at the priests’ lifestyles!

The “whisky priest”, on his end, doesn’t really know why anybody would waste their time pursuing him. He is comforted by the idea that, despite his sins, he can administer the sacraments, but the “whisky priest” is not martyr material. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene explores the lines that divide saint from sinner and liberator from oppressor.

What did I think of it?

I read this book more than six months ago, but it had such a great impression on me that I think about it nearly every day. The questions Greene deals with in The Power and the Glory are questions that come up a lot in public discourse. How should poverty be addressed? Is religion the opium of the people as Karl Marx claimed, or can it play a role in social justice? The book also explores sainthood and martyrdom. Should a person as sinful as the “whisky priest” be considered a martyr? What cause is he dying for if he is? If you like character studies, you will enjoy The Power and the Glory. The prose is gorgeous. I am not surprised that it is included on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest novels of all time.

Favorite Quotes

“It infuriated him to think that there were still people in the state who believed in a loving and merciful God. There are mystics who are said to have experienced God directly. He was a mystic, too, and what he had experienced was vacancy–a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all.”

“How often the priest had heard the same confession–Man was so limited: he hadn’t even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had died: the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater the glory lay around the death; it was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or civilization–it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.”