Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Chasing Shadows, Fighting Windmills

Dead authors sometimes surprise us with their amazing wisdom. Of course, living authors do so too.

From my child hood, I had always known Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote as a book dealing with the mad adventures of a crazy night. I knew Cervantes was laughing at the craziness of us human beings through his literary masterpiece, which is often considered the first novel from the western world. The book was one in which the central character was out of touch with the reality of everyday living, out of touch with concrete facts and lived in a world of misguided fantasies. I had taken it at that and had never bothered to read the full book after I read an abridged version of it in my teens, which I enjoyed tremendously. But recently I came across a quotation from Cervantes and that made me sit down and think about the book more seriously. The quote said: ““Make it thy business to know thyself, which is the most difficult lesson in the world. “ That is what Socrates said in ancient Greece and what the Upanishads told us several millennia before him in India: Man, know thyself.

Now when I look at Cervantes from the standpoint of this quotation, the whole Don Quixote gains a new dimension. Aren’t the adventures of Don Quixote the madness of all humanity ignorant of its own self? Wasn’t Miguel Cervantes telling us the highest truth about human life through his literary masterpiece? Wasn’t he talking about the existential madness of man rather than of its mild crankiness? Wasn’t he telling us that all human pursuits undertaken while we are still ignorant of ourselves are like Don Quixote’s chasing windmills mistaking them for giants? Isn’t Cervantes telling us that we are all like the musk deer that goes crazy by the fragrance of the musk it has smelled and madly searches all over the mountains for it when he himself is the source of the musk? Wasn’t the Spanish renaissance author a later day literary Buddha in his own right?


Cervantes’ hero is an eccentric gentleman of fifty. He has lived a life of neglect, failing in all his responsibilities, leading a life of fantasies engendered by the books of chivalry he has spent all his life reading. One day his decides he now wants to experience for himself the adventures he has been reading about.

His family owned an old armour – it once belonged to his great-grandfather and “had been lying forgotten in a corner eaten with rust and covered with mildew.” He scours and polishes it – but there was a problem still. It “had no closed helmet, nothing but a simple morion. This deficiency, however, his ingenuity supplied, for he contrived a kind of half-helmet of pasteboard which, fitted on to the morion, looked like a whole one.”

He now finds an old hack and, after four days of pondering over the matter and considering and rejecting numerous names, eventually names it Rocinante, which he feels is a lofty, sonorous and significant name appropriate for a great knight’s horse. Having named the old hack, he now has to find a name for himself and, after eight days of continuous pondering, chooses for himself the name Don Quixote of La Mancha.

He had by now assembled everything that was needed for a knight, but one important thing was still missing: a ladylove. For, every knight had a ladylove in whose name he performed great deeds and a “knight-errant without a ladylove was like a tree without leaves or fruit, or a body without a soul.”

Here is how Don Quixote solves the problem. In a village near his own, there was a very good looking farm-girl over whom he once had a crush, though she never knew of it. The girl was named Aldonza Lorenzo and he decides she shall be his ladylove. Of course she needed a new name that befits a princess, a great lady. He again considers numerous names and eventually decides upon Dulcinea del Toboso, “a name, to his mind, musical, uncommon, and significant, like all those he had already bestowed upon himself and the things belonging to him.”

Having completed his preparations, one fine morning Don Quixote puts on his knight’s suit of armour and patched up, mounts Rocinante, braces his buckler, takes his lance and slips out of the back door of his yard, without informing anyone of his intentions. He rides the whole day and by evening reaches a roadside inn – he is hungry and exhausted because he hasn’t had anything to eat the whole day.

He decides that the wayside inn is a mighty castle. He expected a dwarf to blow his trumpet, informing the lord of the castle of the arrival of a great knight. He is disappointed when this does not happen and he moves towards the door of the inn. He finds the two common prostitutes standing at the door of the inn and takes them for two fair maidens or lovely ladies, relaxing near the castle door. At this time, a shepherd near the inn blows his horn to gather his sheep and Quixote takes it for the trumpet of the dwarf he has been waiting for and is delighted things are happening exactly as they should.

The prostitutes are terrified of Quixote’s appearance and turns away towards the inn in fear. Quixote addresses them courteously in a gentle voice, as becoming of a knight addressing noble ladies, telling them, “ "Your ladyships need not fly or fear any rudeness, for that it belongs not to the order of knighthood which I profess to offer to anyone, much less to highborn maidens as your appearance proclaims you to be." The prostitutes cannot contain their laughter when they hear him addressing them as maidens, and they laugh at his word, making Quixote indignant but even in his indignity he does not forget the manners of a great knight.

Quixote decides the innkeeper is the keeper of the great castle and addresses him in the manner befitting his position. The innkeeper decides to play along with Quixote’s fantasies, and addresses him treating him as a knight and informs him that he can have everything there, except for a bed. Quixote replies that his armour is his only wear and battles are his only rest. Since he is unable to stand his hunger any more, Quixote has for his meal whatever victuals the innkeeper has still left with him since others staying at the inn have already eaten.

Before he has meals the prostitutes help him remove his armour – and he believes it is two noble ladies doing it. However, the women are unable to pull out his helmet off since he has tied it onto his head with ribbons and he wouldn’t allow them to cut the ribbons. Eating the meal of small trout is a chore because of his helmet and visor but the women help him by placing his food in his mouth. “But to give him anything to drink was impossible, or would have been so had not the landlord bored a reed, and putting one end in his mouth poured the wine into him through the other.”

After his meal is over, Quixote has himself knighted by the innkeeper and then he begins on his journey of adventures that would make him attack windmills taking them for giants made to appear so by the evil magic of an enchanter, attack two monks escorting a lady taking them for magicians who have captured a princess, attack two herds of sheep taking them for two great armies on the brink of a battle, attack a barber wearing a basin on his head mistaking the man for a great knight wearing a mythic helmet with magic powers and innumerable other adventures of the sort.


While Don Quixote appears crazy to us as we read his adventures, are many of us really different from him? Don’t we too spend our entire lives searching for things that exist only in our imagination?

I remember reading sometime back Robin Sharma’s international bestseller The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. Here are some excerpts from the first chapter of his book where he describes the life of the lawyer Julian Mantle.

“He collapsed right in the middle of a packed courtroom. He was one of this country’s most distinguished trial lawyers. He was also a man who was as well known for the three-thousand-dollar Italian suits which draped his well-fed frame as for his remarkable string of legal victories. The great Julian Mantle had been reduced to a victim and was now squirming on the ground like a helpless infant, shaking and shivering and sweating.

“I had known Julian for seventeen years. Back then, he had it all. He was a brilliant, handsome and fearless trial attorney with dreams of greatness. Julian was tough, hard-driving and willing to work eighteen-hour days for the success he believed was his destiny.

“For the first few years he justified his long hours by saying that he was “doing it for the good of the firm”, and that he planned to take a month off and go to the Caymans “next winter for sure.” As time passed, however, Julian’s reputation for brilliance spread and his workload continued to increase. The cases just kept on getting bigger and better, and Julian, never one to back down from a good challenge, continued to push himself harder and harder. In his rare moments of quiet, he confided that he could no longer sleep for more than a couple of hours without waking up feeling guilty that he was not working on a file. It soon became clear to me that he was being consumed by the hunger for more: more prestige, more glory and more money.

“As expected, Julian became enormously successful. He achieved everything most people could ever want: a stellar professional reputation with an income in seven figures, a spectacular mansion in a neighborhood favored by celebrities, a private jet, a summer home on a tropical island and his prized possession — a shiny red Ferrari parked in the center of his driveway.”

However, none of these was enough for Julian. He wanted ever bigger cases to win. He wanted his preparations to be more thorough than ever before. He wanted his research into each case to be no less than perfect.

The author continues: “The more time I spent with Julian, the more I could see that he was driving himself deeper into the ground. It was as if he had some kind of a death wish. Nothing ever satisfied him. Eventually, his marriage failed, he no longer spoke with his father, and though he had every material possession anyone could want, he still had not found whatever it was that he was looking for.

“It showed, emotionally, physically — and spiritually. At fifty-three years of age, Julian looked as if he was in his late seventies. His face was a mass of wrinkles, a less than glorious tribute to his “take no prisoners” approach to life in general and the tremendous stress of his out-of-balance lifestyle in particular. He had lost his sense of humor and never seemed to laugh anymore. Julian’s once enthusiastic nature had been replaced by a deathly somberness. Personally, I think that his life had lost all sense of purpose.

“Perhaps the saddest thing was that he had also lost his focus in the courtroom. Where he would once dazzle all those present with an eloquent and airtight closing argument, he now droned on for hours. Where once he would react gracefully to the objections of opposing counsel, he now displayed a biting sarcasm that severely tested the patience of judges.

“And then it happened. This massive heart attack that brought the brilliant Julian Mantle back down to earth and reconnected him to his mortality. Right in the middle of courtroom number seven on a Monday morning, the same courtroom where we had won the Mother of All Murder Trials.”


Was Julian Mantle searching anything different from what Don Quixote was chasing? Or was Alexander chasing anything different? Or Hitler – though his search was a thousand times more deadly and ruthless, a thousand times more frightening in its implications. Or why go for such giants – good, bad, whatever – from history – is what most of us search in life any different from what Don Quixote was searching?

Aren’t we all chasing shadows and fighting windmills? Aren’t the things that we are after and the things we are running away from all as shadowy and insubstantial as Quixote’s Dulcinea and his giants?

That is, all of us, except perhaps a rare Siddhartha who stands back and questions so that he becomes a Buddha?

We do not understand life until we understand ourselves first. And when we understand it, we understand how very like Don Quixote we have all been.

And we laugh at ourselves.


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