Sancho Panza, cosmologist

October 20, 2020

A few notes on cosmology in “Don Quixote”, but I’ll let Sancho have the last word.

In Vol. I, ch. 20, Burton Raffel’s translation speaks of “the fearful sound of that water we have come searching for, which seems to smash down and hurl itself from the lofty mountains of the Moon”. 

John Ormsby’s translation at Gutenberg has: “the awful sound of that water in quest of which we came, that seems as though it were precipitating and dashing itself down from the lofty mountains of the Moon”. 

My Spanish edition reads:  “el temeroso ruido de aquella agua en cuya busca venimos, que parece que se despeña y derrumba desde los altos montes de la Luna,” and in a note:  “En Etiopía, donde se pensaba que nacía el Nilo” (page 175). 

So these are not the lunar mountains, which Galileo discovered in 1609, and wrote about (to general acceptance) in 1610.  These are a mountain range known as the Mountains of the Moon, in Ethiopia or eastern Africa.

Shooting stars are mentioned in Vol. II, ch. 35 (“those cold fiery flashes that fall from Heaven and, to our eyes, seem to be shooting stars”).  The “layers” of air and fire in our atmosphere, and the Pleiades, are mentioned in Vol. II, ch. 41.

In Vol. II, ch. 29, Don Quijote speaks of the earth as a globe (as people of his time already knew, even well before Magellan returned to Spain in 1521).  He even attributes the system of 360 degrees to Ptolemy.

However, in the prologue, Cervantes looks down on books that – apart from being “stuffed with lies and indecencies”, despite being filled with footnotes and citations – are “crammed full of Aristotle’s wisdom, or Plato’s, and the whole mob of philosophers, and then everybody’s stunned and says they’re written by really learned men, widely read, truly eloquent.”  The editor’s footnote reads:  “Cervantes is thematizing here a cultural revolution that took place between 1550 and 1650, when Western thinkers had begun to mistrust the writings of antiquity as sources for all important truth.”  This is contra Carl Sagan’s famous but incorrect view that ancient wisdom, particularly ancient science, disappeared during the Middle Ages and only reappeared after the Renaissance.

As I wrote in a previous post, Sancho sounds to me almost like Carl Sagan, in this passage from Vol. II, chs. 41-42 (Edith Grossman translation):

I looked down at the earth, and it seemed to me that it was no larger than a mustard seed, and the men walking on it not much bigger than hazel nuts, so you can see how high we must have been flying then. . . . After I came down from the sky, and after I looked at the earth from that great height and saw how small it was, the burning desire I had to be a governor cooled a little; where’s the greatness in ruling a mustard seed, or the dignity or pride in governing half a dozen men the size of hazel nuts? It seemed to me that this was all there was on the whole earth.

From Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot”:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.

On Google, I can’t find any indication that Sagan had read “Don Quixote”; and I see only one blogger who has even noticed the connection.  I own the Kindle versions of “Pale Blue Dot,” “Cosmos”, “Dragons of Eden” and “Contact”; none of them quote Sancho, Cervantes or “Don Quixote.”  And “Contact,” at least, begins every chapter with quotes from a wide span of sources, fiction as well as nonfiction, ancient to modern.

But Sagan does mention Cervantes in passing.  In “Contact,” there’s this from Vaygay (ch. 11): 

Even if the Message cycles back and even if we completely decrypt it, how good could the translation be? You know the opinion of Cervantes? He said that reading a translation is like examining the back of a piece of tapestry.  Maybe it’s not possible to translate the Message perfectly. Then we wouldn’t build the Machine perfectly.

In fact our knight says in Vol. II, ch. 63: 

Still it seems to me that translation from one language into another, if it be not from the queens of languages, the Greek and the Latin, is like looking at Flemish tapestries on the wrong side; for though the figures are visible, they are full of threads that make them indistinct, and they do not show with the smoothness and brightness of the right side; and translation from easy languages argues neither ingenuity nor command of words, any more than transcribing or copying out one document from another. But I do not mean by this to draw the inference that no credit is to be allowed for the work of translating, for a man may employ himself in ways worse and less profitable to himself. This estimate does not include two famous translators, Doctor Cristobal de Figueroa, in his Pastor Fido, and Don Juan de Jauregui, in his Aminta, wherein by their felicity they leave it in doubt which is the translation and which the original.

See update.

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