Some nonsense

From ch 25 of part 1 of Don Quixote:

“Well, Sancho, by the same oath you swore before, I swear to you,” said Don Quixote, “that you have the dimmest wits that any squire in the world has or ever had. Is it possible that in all the time you have traveled with me you have not yet noticed that all things having to do with knights errant appear to be chimerical, foolish, senseless, and turned inside out? And not because they really are, but because hordes of enchanters always walk among us and alter and change everything and turn things into whatever they please, according to whether they wish to favor us or destroy us; and so, what seems to you a barber’s basin seems to me the helmet of Mambrino, and will seem another thing to someone else.

My Borgesian imagining of the day – a reading where Quixote’s claim here is taken seriously. We cease understanding the novel as satirical work by Cervantes and view it instead as the mocking product of enchanters determined to warp a true romance of the knight’s deeds. In order to restore events to their true form the reader must inhabit Quixote’s perspective – since the great cruelty of the enchanters was in leaving him able to see and speak the truth while altering everything around him. In essence, we must quixotize ourselves through the novel just as Quixote had transformed himself through his own reading. Only when we too take the flocks of sheep in ch.19 as the armies of Alifanfaron and Pentapolin have we escaped their spell and restored the text.

This may also tread somewhat into the spirit of Unamuno’s Life of Don Quixote and Sancho.

All we can do is to stand down here in the garden and take off our hats

From Robert Louis Stevenson’s Will O’ The Mill. Online here

One day, when Will was about sixteen, a fat young man arrived at sunset to pass the night. He was a contented-looking fellow, with a jolly eye, and carried a knapsack. While dinner was preparing, he sat in the arbour to read a book; but as soon as he had begun to observe Will, the book was laid aside; he was plainly one of those who prefer living people to people made of ink and paper. Will, on his part, although he had not been much interested in the stranger at first sight, soon began to take a great deal of pleasure in his talk, which was full of good nature and good sense, and at last conceived a great respect for his character and wisdom. They sat far into the night; and about two in the morning Will opened his heart to the young man, and told him how he longed to leave the valley and what bright hopes he had connected with the cities of the plain. The young man whistled, and then broke into a smile.

“My young friend,” he remarked, “you are a very curious little fellow to be sure, and wish a great many things which you will never get. Why, you would feel quite ashamed if you knew how the little fellows in these fairy cities of yours are all after the same sort of nonsense, and keep breaking their hearts to get up into the mountains. And let me tell you, those who go down into the plains are a very short while there before they wish themselves heartily back again. The air is not so light nor so pure; nor is the sun any brighter. As for the beautiful men and women, you would see many of them in rags and many of them deformed with horrible disorders; and a city is so hard a place for people who are poor and sensitive that many choose to die by their own hand.”

“You must think me very simple,” answered Will. “Although I have never been out of this valley, believe me, I have used my eyes. I know how one thing lives on another; for instance, how the fish hangs in the eddy to catch his fellows; and the shepherd, who makes so pretty a picture carrying home the lamb, is only carrying it home for dinner. I do not expect to find all things right in your cities. That is not what troubles me; it might have been that once upon a time; but although I live here always, I have asked many questions and learned a great deal in these last years, and certainly enough to cure me of my old fancies. But you would not have me die like a dog and not see all that is to be seen, and do all that a man can do, let it be good or evil? you would not have me spend all my days between this road here and the river, and not so much as make a motion to be up and live my life?—I would rather die out of hand,” he cried, “than linger on as I am doing.”

“Thousands of people,” said the young man, “live and die like you, and are none the less happy.”

“Ah!” said Will, “if there are thousands who would like, why should not one of them have my place?”

It was quite dark; there was a hanging lamp in the arbour which lit up the table and the faces of the speakers; and along the arch, the leaves upon the trellis stood out illuminated against the night sky, a pattern of transparent green upon a dusky purple. The fat young man rose, and, taking Will by the arm, led him out under the open heavens.

“Did you ever look at the stars?” he asked, pointing upwards.

“Often and often,” answered Will.

“And do you know what they are?”

“I have fancied many things.”

“They are worlds like ours,” said the young man. “Some of them less; many of them a million times greater; and some of the least sparkles that you see are not only worlds, but whole clusters of worlds turning about each other in the midst of space. We do not know what there may be in any of them; perhaps the answer to all our difficulties or the cure of all our sufferings: and yet we can never reach them; not all the skill of the craftiest of men can fit out a ship for the nearest of these our neighbours, nor would the life of the most aged suffice for such a journey. When a great battle has been lost or a dear friend is dead, when we are hipped or in high spirits, there they are unweariedly shining overhead. We may stand down here, a whole army of us together, and shout until we break our hearts, and not a whisper reaches them. We may climb the highest mountain, and we are no nearer them. All we can do is to stand down here in the garden and take off our hats; the starshine lights upon our heads, and where mine is a little bald, I dare say you can see it glisten in the darkness. The mountain and the mouse. That is like to be all we shall ever have to do with Arcturus or Aldebaran. Can you apply a parable?” he added, laying his hand upon Will’s shoulder. “It is not the same thing as a reason, but usually vastly more convincing.”

Will hung his head a little, and then raised it once more to heaven. The stars seemed to expand and emit a sharper brilliancy; and as he kept turning his eyes higher and higher, they seemed to increase in multitude under his gaze.

“I see,” he said, turning to the young man. “We are in a rat-trap.”

“Something of that size. Did you ever see a squirrel turning in a cage? and another squirrel sitting philosophically over his nuts? I needn’t ask you which of them looked more of a fool.”

Because myth is at the beginning of literature and also at its end

From Borges’ El Hacedor / The Maker:

Parable of Cervantes and Don Quixote
Weary of his Spanish homeland, an aging soldier of the king’s army sought comfort in Ariosto’s vast geographies, in the lunar valley where lies the time that dreams squander away, and in the golden idol of Mohammed stolen by Montalban.

Gently mocking himself, he thought up an impressionable man who, unbalanced from reading fantastic tales, went forth to find feats of arms and enchantments in ordinary places with names like El Toboso and Montiel.

Defeated by reality – by Spain – Don Quixote died in his native village around 1614. Miguel de Cervantes briefly outlived him.

For both the dreamer and the man he dreamed, the story was about the clash of opposing worlds: the unreal world of chivalric fiction and the average, everyday world of the seventeenth century.

Neither imagined that with the passage of years the strife would diminish, nor did they imagine that La Mancha and Montiel and the knight’s scrawny physique would be no less poetic in the future than the adventures of Sinbad or Ariosto’s vast geographies.

Because myth is at the beginning of literature and also at its end.

Devoto Clinic, January 1955.

Parábola de Cervantes y de Quijote
Harto de su tierra de España, un viejo soldado del rey buscó solaz en las vastas geografías de Ariosto, en aquel valle de la luna donde está el tiempo que malgastan los sueños y en el ídolo de oro de Mahoma que robó Montalbán.

En mansa burla de sí mismo, ideó un hombre crédulo que, perturbado por la lectura de maravillas, dio en buscar proezas y encantamientos en lugares prosaicos que se llamaban El Toboso o Montiel.

Vencido por la realidad, por España, don Quijote murió en su aldea natal hacia 1614. Poco tiempo lo sobrevivió Miguel de Cervantes.

Para los dos, para el soñador y el soñado, toda esa trama fue la oposición de dos mundos: el mundo irreal de los libros de caballerías, el mundo cotidiano y común del siglo XVII.

No sospecharon que los años acabarían por limar la discordia, no sospecharon que la Mancha y Montiel y la magra figura del caballero serían, para el porvenir, no menos poéticas que las etapas de Simbad o que las vastas geografías de Ariosto.

Porque en el principio de la literatura está el mito, y asimismo en el fin.

Clínica Devoto, enero de 1955.

If truth be told, what I eat … tastes much better to me in my corner without fancy or respectful manners

From ch 11 in Part 1 of Don Quixote, Edith Grossman’s translation. My adult self finds in Sancho here an image of anyone ineffectually resisting an unsought promotion.

“So that you may see, Sancho, the virtue contained in knight errantry, and how those who practice any portion of it always tend to be honored and esteemed in the world, I want you to sit here at my side and in the company of these good people, and be the same as I, who am your natural lord and master; eat from my plate and drink where I drink, for one may say of knight errantry what is said of love: it makes all things equal.”

“You’re too kind!” said Sancho. “But I can tell your grace that as long as I have something good to eat, I’ll eat it just as well or better standing and all alone as sitting at the height of an emperor. Besides, if truth be told, what I eat, even if it’s bread and onion, tastes much better to me in my corner without fancy or respectful manners, than a turkey would at other tables where I have to chew slowly, not drink too much, wipe my mouth a lot, not sneeze or cough if I feel like it, or do other things that come with solitude and freedom. And so, Señor, these honors that your grace wants to grant me for being a servant and follower of knight errantry, which I am, being your grace’s squire, you should turn into other things that will be of greater comfort and benefit to me; these, though I am grateful for them, I renounce now and forever.”

“Despite all that, you will sit down, for God exalts the man who humbles himself.”

And seizing him by the arm, he obliged Sancho to sit next to him.

O fearful meditation!

Shakespeare’s sonnet 65:

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

The lining of his coffers shall make coats to deck our soldiers for these Irish wars.

From Richard II. I feel I’ve read/seen this exchange over a dozen times without ever fully taking in the coldness. There is, by the way, an OED definition of coffer as coffin. The last attestation they provide is 1550 but it’s close enough in time to suggest that the associative flow is dictated by more than just sound.


Old John of Gaunt is grievous sick, my lord,

Suddenly taken; and hath sent post haste

To entreat your majesty to visit him.


Where lies he?


At Ely House.


Now put it, God, in the physician’s mind

To help him to his grave immediately!

The lining of his coffers shall make coats

To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars.

Come, gentlemen, let’s all go visit him:

Pray God we may make haste, and come too late

Climb at Court for me that will / Tottering favors Pinacle; / All I seek is to lye still.

From Seneca’s Thyestes, the conclusion to the second chorus (conclusion of Act II, lines 391-403):

Stet quicumque volet potens
aulae culmine lubrico:
me dulcis saturet quies.
obscuro positus loco
leni perfruar otio,
nullis nota Quiritibus
aetas per tacitum fluat.
sic cum transierint mei
nullo cum strepitu dies,
plebeius moriar senex.
illi mors gravis incubat
qui, notus nimis omnibus,
ignotus moritur sibi.

Here first is John G. Fitch’s translation from the new Loeb:

Who wishes may stand in power
on a palace’s slippery peak:
let sweet repose sate me.
Set in an obscure place
let me bask in gentle leisure;
known to no Quirites
let my life flow on through peace.
So, when my days have passed
without turmoil, let me die
an old plebeian man.
Death weighs heavy on one
who, too well known to all,
dies unknown to himself.

And here is Andrew Marvell’s well-known version:

Climb at Court for me that will
Tottering favors Pinacle;
All I seek is to lye still.
Settled in some secret Nest
In calm Leisure let me rest;
And far off the publick Stage
Pass away my silent Age.
Thus when without noise, unknown,
I have liv’d out all my span,
I shall dye, without a groan,
An old honest Country man.
Who expos’d to others Ey’s,
Into his own Heart ne’r pry’s,
Death to him ‘s a Strange surprise

And a bonus –Abraham Cowley‘s somewhat expanded version:

Upon the slippery tops of human state,
The gilded pinnacles of fate,
Let others proudly stand, and for a while,
The giddy danger to beguile,
With joy and with disdain look down on all,
Till their heads turn, and down they fall.
Me, O ye gods, on earth, or else so near
That I no fall to earth may fear,
And, O ye gods, at a good distance seat
From the long ruins of the great!
Here wrapped in the arms of quiet let me lie,
Quiet, companion of obscurity.
Here let my life, with as much silence slide,
As time that measures it does glide.
Nor let the breath of infamy or fame,
From town to town echo about my name;
Nor let my homely death embroidered be
With scutcheon or with elegy.
An old plebeian let me die,
Alas, all then are such, as well as I.
To him, alas, to him, I fear,
The face of death will terrible appear;
Who in his life, flattering his senseless pride
By being known to all the world beside,
Does not himself, when he is dying, know;
Nor what he is, nor whither he’s to go.

As pride sometimes is hid under humility, idleness is often covered by turbulence and hurry.

From Samuel Johnson’s essays in The Idler, no. 31 – Disguises of idleness. Sober’s character. The full text (an extra few opening paragraphs) is here. It’s traditionally thought, based on a comment from one of Johnson’s friends, that Sober is a self-portrait.

As pride sometimes is hid under humility, idleness is often covered by turbulence and hurry. He that neglects his known duty and real employment, naturally endeavours to crowd his mind with something that may bar out the remembrance of his own folly, and does any thing but what he ought to do with eager diligence, that he may keep himself in his own favour.

Some are always in a state of preparation, occupied in previous measures, forming plans, accumulating materials, and providing for the main affair. These are certainly under the secret power of idleness. Nothing is to be expected from the workman whose tools are for ever to be sought. I was once told by a great master, that no man ever excelled in painting, who was eminently curious about pencils and colours.

There are others to whom idleness dictates another expedient, by which life may be passed unprofitably away without the tediousness of many vacant hours. The art is, to fill the day with petty business, to have always something in hand which may raise curiosity, but not solicitude, and keep the mind in a state of action, but not of labour.

This art has for many years been practised by my old friend Sober with wonderful success. Sober is a man of strong desires and quick imagination, so exactly balanced by the love of ease, that they can seldom stimulate him to any difficult undertaking; they have, however, so much power, that they will not suffer him to lie quite at rest; and though they do not make him sufficiently useful to others, they make him at least weary of himself.

Mr. Sober’s chief pleasure is conversation; there is no end of his talk or his attention; to speak or to hear is equally pleasing; for he still fancies that he is teaching or learning something, and is free for the time from his own reproaches.

But there is one time at night when he must go home, that his friends may sleep; and another time in the morning, when all the world agrees to shut out interruption. These are the moments of which poor Sober trembles at the thought. But the misery of these tiresome intervals he has many means of alleviating. He has persuaded himself that the manual arts are undeservedly overlooked; he has observed in many trades the effects of close thought, and just ratiocination. From speculation he proceeded to practice, and supplied himself with the tools of a carpenter, with which he mended his coal-box very successfully, and which he still continues to employ, as he finds occasion.

He has attempted at other times the crafts of the shoemaker, tinman, plumber, and potter; in all these arts he has failed, and resolves to qualify himself for them by better information. But his daily amusement is chymistry. He has a small furnace, which he employs in distillation, and which has long been the solace of his life. He draws oils and waters, and essences and spirits, which he knows to be of no use; sits and counts the drops, as they come from his retort, and forgets that, whilst a drop is falling, a moment flies away.

Poor Sober! I have often teased him with reproof, and he has often promised reformation; for no man is so much open to conviction as the Idler, but there is none on whom it operates so little. What will be the effect of this paper I know not; perhaps, he will read it and laugh, and light the fire in his furnace; but my hope is, that he will quit his trifles, and betake himself to rational and useful diligence.

A gentleman-like monster, bred … by affectation; and fed by folly

From Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour (3.4)

Cob. Nay, I have my rheum*, and I can be angry as well as another,

Cash. Thy rheum, Cob! thy humor, thy humor—thou mistak’st.

Cob. Humor! mack**, I think it be so indeed; what is that humor?
some rare thing, I warrant.

Cash. Marry I’ll tell thee, Cob: it is a gentleman-like monster,
bred, in the special gallantry of our time, by affectation; and fed
by folly.

Cob. How! must it be fed?

Cash. Oh ay, humor is nothing if it be not fed: didst thou never
hear that? it’s a common phrase, ‘feed my humor’.***

* ‘rheum’ a synonym for ‘humor’ that had fallen out of fashion
** ‘mack’ – minced oath for ‘mass’
*** ‘feed my humor’ – cater to my disposition, a fashionable affectation.

And this we know, that chiding streams betray small depth below

From Robert Herrick‘s Hesperides (number 38, text from the 2013 edition of The Complete Poetry by Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly):

You say I love not, ’cause I do not play
Still with your curles, and kisse the time away.
You blame me too, because I cann’t devise
Some sport, to please those Babies in your eyes:
By Loves Religion, I must here confesse it,
The most I love, when I the least expresse it.
Small griefs find tongues: Full Casques are ever found
To give (if any, yet) but little sound.
Deep waters noyse-lesse are; And this we know,
That chiding streams betray small depth below.
So when Love speechlesse is, she doth expresse
A depth in love, and that depth, bottomlesse.
Now since my love is tongue-lesse, know me such,
Who speak but little ’cause I love so much.

And for a change of pace, number 5 of the collection

Another [to his booke]
Who with thy leaves shall wipe (at need)
The place, where swelling Piles do breed:
May every Ill, that bites, or smarts,
Perplexe him in his hinder-parts.