ethics

On Chivalry and Mental Health (in the matter of Cervantes and Dostoevski)

Lesser’s book on rereading (Nothing remains the same) is a failed book.  It was written to a scientifically identified market demand for a 250 page product, but the author having had only enough material for 50, she was obliged to add 200 pages of “words, words, words” (as they say in Scandinavia); and the publisher — to print, and sell under false pretenses.  It would be shameful if the practice were not so common.  In a world of “made books” (just look at Amazon) to criticize this one would be unfairly to single out.  (Fie).

But even a failed book, can sometimes help one see better what he thinks.

1

Like all modern commentators, Lesser misses the point of Don Quixote.  It is true that Cervantes and various figures in his novel keep harping about the bad bad bad romances of knight-errantry and how Don Quixote is supposed to be an attack on them (see the introductory material to Volume 2), but the truth is that the topic of the book is not romances of chivalry but chivalry itself; and that all those characters criticizing the romances of chivalry must in fact be understood the way anyone criticizing anything must usually be understood — as in fact attacking something else altogether, something to attack which directly would be unseemly; and therefore attacking it indirectly, tarring it, as it were, by association; they are all attacking the notion of chivalry.

My grandmother understood chivalry the way Digby did:  as a kind of moral code of conduct.  (Chivalry is only a name for that general spirit or state of mind which disposes men to heroic actions, and keeps them conversant with all that is beautiful and sublime in the intellectual and moral world, etc.)

And this is how she passed it on to me. To her, and therefore to me, chivalry has been a living philosophy of life, a valid code of conduct:  to be truthful, gallant, and courageous, to keep promises, to stand up for the weak and against injustice, to give a fair fight to one’s opponents — have all seemed to me worthy precepts of conduct.  To Wendy Lesser, like to everyone else in modern West today it seems, chivalry is a quaint archival curio; something akin to the Eleusinian Mysteries, perhaps; only…  worse: unlike the Mysteries, chivalry is rendered malodorous by its association with the hateful evil political system of the past. (Droit de seigneur and all that, even if no such thing has ever existed.  I will probably never write that overdue essay about the evil droit de seigneur about which everyone has heard and which everyone quotes as the most aggregious excess of the ancien regime but which has never ever existed except “over there” — to Baumarchais in evil Spain; to Spaniards — in Tsarist Russia, etc.) Political commitments require Lesser and everyone else to ridicule chivalry because they require her to hate and ridicule everything aristocratic.  Her reading of Don Quixote it inevitable; she learned it in school, in Civics 101, at the impressionable age of 12 or 14.

Lesser does note that “chivalry has costs” — but in her mind they are costs to others; she fails to see that the person most endangered by its commitment to a selfless ideal is in fact the knight himself — the person obliged to practice heroic rectitude and self-sacrifice — which seems to have been de Saavedra’s central point:  that chivalry is an attractive ideal which it is unwise to adopt; and wiser still to give up, my dear Lord-Knights.  Though, of course, so very sad to do so.  (“Last year’s nests have no chicks,” says Don Quixote when he comes to his senses and — everyone cries).

2

In discussing Dostoevski, Lesser describes all the things that irritate her in his novels: such as that they are all about some sort of a nasty injustice which goes on unopposed; or that they are an endless processions of characters throwing tantrums and telling others all sorts of nasty things about themselves and each other. This is of course why I invariably throw Dostoevski away in exasperation (disgust?) — but why Lesser, it turns out… likes them! She openly confesses to liking these features — and the resultant feeling of irritation! So, here we have it: my puzzlement over Dostoevski’s popularity has been resolved: it is not that his admirers don’t see what I see; it is that they see it and — like it! (To each his own, I suppose.  Some like crumbs in their bed so why not hangnails?)

Lesser does not note that which is my strongest reason to dislike Dostoevski: that all his characters also appear to be sick, depraved, twisted, and perverted — racked by self-doubt, envy, hate, chemical dependency, fear, resentment, epilepsy, and remorse — which I have fancifully taken on as proof that there is something congenitally rotten with the “deep” Russian soul (“over there”) and a ready-made explanation why all my attempts at acquaintance with Russians (and Mainland Chinese) always seem end up in some sort of horrendous humiliation.

But Lesser’s omission is very meaningful here: that she does not notice suggests that to her these characters appear… normal— not Russian (“over there”) but — at home, i.e. that they are similar enough to people she knows — Americans and Britishers and so forth. Which seems odd because I don’t know many such people either among the Anglos or — any race. But perhaps I do not know such people because a) I am careful to avoid such people once I have formed a suspicion about their character (i.e. I not giving them a chance to (dis)prove themselves); and b) I am willing to not notice minor signs of mental disturbance in people I know slightly but am not obliged to learn better (i.e. I lipstick the pig).  I happily assume the race is better than it really is as a kind of… willful self-deception. 

While in fact, Lesser confirms by silence, things are very bad indeed and Dostoevski tells it like it is.  Lesser’s acceptance of Dostoevski’s heroes as ordinary men allows me to understand better the real reason why I have chosen to live unnoticed, in internal exile, away from men.

It also explains why the lessons of Civics 101 would be so eagerly embraced and chivalry so openly ridiculed. Every Dostoevskian person will be relieved to be given a reason (“evil immoral past”) to refuse a moral code which demands of him or her to be what s/he can never be. If Dostoevski’s right, than the code of chivalry can be expected to have a lot of natural enemies.

It’s no accident The Idiot contains many references to Don Quixote.

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