Don Quixote’s Profession

October 17, 2020

I’ve finished Mark van Doren’s slim volume, “Don Quixote’s Profession.” 

Someday I must read “Don Quixote” again with van Doren’s idea that DQ was acting, and with Nabokov’s idea that DQ had many victories.  These were not things that I appreciated in my own reading.  The idea that DQ was acting barely seemed possible.  But van Doren makes a great case for it.

His case is all the more formidable because he’s not saying simplistically that DQ was a perfectly sane person putting on a 100% self-conscious act.  He says that DQ was clearly mad when it came to chivalry.  But he insists that this man who determined to act like a knight was a genius, and a great soul.  And for van Doren, of course, to “act” like a knight is a complex thing:  you become something by acting like it, rather than already being a knight and then acting like one.  He says it’s like when we ask children to “act like an adult”:  we’re not asking them to be something that they’re not; we’re asking them to put something into action, which in turn will make them what they naturally are.  The act itself makes you, externally, into an adult as seen by others, and, internally, it gradually makes you into that adult you’re striving to be.

In this context, DQ can be acting like a knight, not out of self-deluded illusion, nor as an actor putting on a play, but as someone who really wants to act like the knight he believes the can be and, in some sense, naturally is.

In any case, what he emphasizes about DQ’s speech is true.  I hadn’t allow it to draw too much of my admiration when I was first reading it, because I was focusing on what I took to be a mental malady, and was worried about what the malady might result in.  It’s like when you read any book, and you’re concerned, on first reading, on where the basic plot is going to go; only on second reading can you concentrate on other things beneath such surface questions, like whether DQ is going to get beat up in the next adventure, when and how he will go home, etc.

I do wonder whether van Doren is reading a bit too much of himself into our knight.  He can see that DQ acts both mad and violent at times but his overall portrait of DQ is that of a lovely man and a brilliant, soft-spoken intellectual – which is how Paul Scofield portrayed van Doren in “Quiz Show” (though I know nothing else about the man). 

Interesting, too, that in “Quiz Show,” Mark van Doren is unable to see through the hoax that the quiz show, and his own son, are perpetrating, not because he doesn’t have a perceptive mind – you can see his sharp wits at all times – but because he’s a sweet man who can’t imagine these dark things being associated with his son.  And DQ is similarly a sweet man who can’t see through the hoaxes being perpetrated on him – or so I thought, on first reading.  Van Doren’s extraordinary claim is that DQ actually did see through at least some of them, but persevered through them for his own reasons, and even was smart and self-aware enough to play his own small hoaxes on Sancho in answer to the lies his squire has told him.

All very interesting, and I look forward someday to reading the novel again with all this in mind.

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