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.


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).


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.

Reading history: the witch hunt and the profit motive

“In Trevor-Roper’s view, the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries were part of the reaction against growing doctrinal pluralism, and were ultimately traced back to the conflict between the rational worldview of such thinkers as Desiderius Erasmus and other humanists and the spiritual values of the Reformation.”

History was an art, insisted Hugh Trevor-Roper, but even he was not free of the historian’s occasional ambition to be a “scientist”: in his The European Witch-craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries Trevor-Roper proposed a kind of thermodynamic theory of witch hunts:  as the social pressure rises, things begin to boil (you know: p = tv etc.).  Presumably it follows that the wearing off of the witch hunts would serve as a gauge of some kind of lowering in the “social pressure” — the “social pressure” in question remaining undefined.  But both the rise and the wearing off of witch hunts had direct causes minutely and clearly described in Roper’s essay, which — though wholly unnoticed by its author — are so obvious as not to require any special theoretical apparatus such as “social pressure”.

If you wish to stick with the scientific ambition, you could say that instead of the (very vague) thermodynamic model, an epidemiological model is called for:  the witch-hunting meme is like any other virus in his native environment:  it is a disease vector which under normal circumstances is under control — lies dormant in harmless fairy tales and, in our own times, TV mini-series — but give it a chance and it begins to replicate geometrically causing a break out of the disease. Why it should break out so easily is not hard to understand:  we are wired by nature to suspect that some people within our midst are secretly conspiring against our interests because in fact this is the case — think of the most obvious (and supposedly “harmless”) examples:  brewers secretly manoeuvre to corner the beer market, doctors the prescribing of medicines, etc.

But better yet — and far simpler — is the economic model.  As any accountant will tell you: when you wish to understand something, follow the money.  In the 17th century, the witch hunting meme began to replicate suddenly when some enterprising genius — acting in his best understood self-interest — discovered that it could be used to achieve money and status.  Trevor-Roper describes the way in which witch hunters — all self-made, self-proclaimed men — made money and gained social status, chiefly by blackmailing and extortion (though also to some extent by rewards of property seized from their victims) — he even describes the public displays of wealth by their wives, but — perhaps historians by their nature are blind to the profit motive — he fails to see money as the driving force of the phenomenon.  He can’t imagine that the witch hunters were pursuing profit and proposes that they were merely responding to some kind of “social pressure”.

Likewise, he describes how the field soon became crowded with many practitioners competing for the business and how eventually they turned on each other.  (This was another brilliant exploitation of the meme:  how come this witch hunter know so much about witches?  perhaps he himself has secret dealings with the devil?).  When witch hunters themselves began to burn at the stake, the business became too dangerous and quickly emptied of volunteers.  (Perhaps they moved on to promote penny stocks).

If you look at every other witch hunting phenomenon — from Roman persecutions of Christians, to Moor hunting in Iberia, to Jewish ritual murder cases, to McCarthyism — they all follow the same structure:  someone discovers a “secret plot” scheme which he can exploit to his advantage; soon others get on his bandwagon and the thing becomes a huge money- (and tragedy-) maker; eventually the field becomes overcrowded, the entrepreneurs turn on each other and — the phenomenon dies out.

Viewed in this light, civilization — “progress” — is really a kind of arms race between human inventiveness on the one hand (people inventing ever new ways to exploit ugly aspects of human nature for personal profit) and human inventiveness on the other — the commonwealth trying to adopt ever new rules to prevent the same bad habits from wreaking havoc.  (Er…  Hobbes?)


The really interesting thing about this phenomenon is that none of the successful witch hunts has ever sported a meme about money:  in other words, there has never been a witch hunt against monopolistic connivings of drug companies, for instance.  It is always about some weird and disgusting thing:  people stealing babies to drink their blood, etc.  Why?  I think the explanation is that the entrepreneurs who drive the witch hunts go out of their way to hide their true motive.  Therefore the theory of the “evil them” cannot involve money.  In the words of Borges:  “What is the single word prohibited in a riddle about chess?  Chess.”

That most people would fail the Turing Test

The Turing Test concerns machine intelligence. The question is: when can it be said about a machine that it is “intelligent”? Answer: when we cannot tell from observing its conversation that the machine is a machine.

Trying to think about this test, I have identified three areas that seem essential to me personally in any human interaction – three features of personality which I look for in every human encounter. All three are readily tested through conversation.


To some extent perception can be trained. For instance, looking at lots of song birds and comparing one’s findings with entries in ornithological guides trains the “mind’s” eye: it teaches the looker to look for features such as “rump” and “wing coverts” which an untrained looker might not notice (having no clue what he is looking at/for); or: looking at lots of very fine details (say, magnitude +6 stars with one’s naked eye) teaches one the trick of looking at things by not looking at them directly but rather by focusing one’s sight just to the right or left of the object (in order to engage one’s peripheral vision); and: smelling lots of roses teaches one not only that roses of different colors smell differently, but that a rose cannot be smelled too long before the brain no longer detects the smell (usually about 20-40 seconds), after which the nose must be “washed”; and that one can improve one’s sense of smell by pouting one’s lips (so that the upper lip creates a kind of “funnel” under one’s nostrils).

But all of these are techniques; and are useless if their owner is not interested to look/ smell/ taste/ observe; and then interested/able to reflect on what s/he sees. This kind of curiosity for the world around us is linked to something Konrad Lorenz called “exploratory instinct” and ascribed to all mammals (mice and hamsters in particular). But it is clear that not all mammals possess it: a great number of human beings are perfectly uninterested in observing and learning. And when they do (as tourists in my city do, for instance) they are perfectly happy to follow a manual (notice only what is pointed out to them).

Yet, to be in any way interesting a person must be able to tell us something new about the world, something they have not read in a book, or heard on TV, but something they saw and realized themselves. Otherwise, why listen to them in the first place? (And without listening The Turing Test cannot be performed).

Authentic aesthetic and/or emotional response

Another thing I look for in people is their ability to surprise me with original, novel, and authentic responses to the world. By authentic I don’t mean heartfelt, but – their own. i.e. ones not borrowed from others (Mom, friends, teachers, TV). I do not only ask them their opinions of things or love stories (or “art stories”), but also look at their clothing, accessories, apartments and furniture. By this measure most people are unoriginal in every way: they furnish their homes at IKEA and paint the walls white; they dress like they see others dress; their professional life is dictated to them by the market (“plastics”); and their emotional life is a copy of what they have seen on TV and read in romantic novels. If you ask them why they do this, or feel that, they shrug: as far as they are concerned, that’s how it is and there is nothing they can (or care to) do about it. Generally, my interlocutors are surprised when they are told they could do something/feel about something differently; prodded to say why not they can’t say why not, merely resist in a kind of panicky, animal, unthinking refulal: it is simply unthinkable. If you think about it, this is how computer generated characters in fantasy action games behave: they behave in some way and you cannot argue with it.

Independent planning

I am interested to talk to people who live their lives “differently” – who do not marry, or reproduce, for instance; or who do not live all their lives where they were born; or who do not buy a 42 inch flat screen TV when everyone else does – and generally do not buy anything when everyone else does; or who do not take a mortgage; or who opt out of the state pension program; or who do not own a car; or who wake up before daybreak; or who do not go to the beach on Labor Day; or who, during rush hour, when all traffic goes zig, drive the only car in the opposite lane, zagging; or who don’t know who won last night on penalty shots and genuinely don’t care; or who marry a woman twice their age, or live with two.

But this in itself is not interesting: a lot of non-conformist behavior is hard-wired – and hard-wired actors can’t tell you why they are doing what they are doing. These are not so interesting, no matter how odd their course of life.

The really interesting people are the ones who are doing odd things – or normal things, but oddly – because of a calculation: people who have thought about their objectives and then plotted their own course because that is what they wanted to do and this was the best way to get there. (They are called “autotelic”).


I can safely say that on these three measures, a very large majority of human beings would fail the Turing Test. Indeed, to an observer applying these three measures to his test, most of us would appear to be automata engaged in an elaborate deception to produce the (false) impressions that we are independently observant, sensitive and autotelic, that we have a taste, or emotions, or cunning; that we are, in other words, actually human. But this deception is easily exposed: put your ear to their forehead and listen carefully: you will distinctly hear the low murmur of the cooling fan.

That it is perfectly possible to be rich and idle and do nothing cultural for five minutes

(Nothing vaguely cultural going on there for five minutes)

[We interrupt our interrupted programing again [programmus interruptus is our specialty] to bring you this newsflash]

I have been planning to write an essay on Jerzy Stempowski — in my book, the literatus par excellence — the only man I have ever read whose writing style matches that of Russell – not a single spare, wasted word; a prose so stripped of fluff — so full of meaning — as to appear skeletal (burgeoning); the argument races so fast through the text, one has to read slowly, for fear of falling behind — and meaning to begin the essay with the observation that he was a kind of fruit typical of his climatic zone — Podolia.

Like Korzeniowski (“Conrad”), Szymanowski, Lechon, Iwaszkiewicz, Neuhaus — the A list — the B list is an arm long — he grew up on a largish property whose owners, idle and isolated as they were from the rest of the world, were want to beat the blahs with… culture. Multilingual (Polish, Russian, French, German), classically trained (Greek and Latin), they read voraciously, wrote extensively (mainly letters and memoirs, but also manuals, chronicles, genealogies, dramas in the Greek style, novels in the French), composed and performed music (piano played well enough to handle Chopin and Beethoven was de rigeur, amateur opera performances with neighbors not an unusual pastime), and spoke and thought of the world in a manner reflecting their deep reading: off the cuff quotes from Marcialis, or Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy — not meant to impress but a natural turn of mind — the way some of you might refer to Saturday Night Live (or whatever else you refer to). (They had no television in Podolia). They were also well traveled — mainly in the Romance South — between which and Podolia they often divided the year; and they imagined themselves a Mediterranean people accidentally cast in the North of the continent (ego Romanus sum, wrote their sixteenth century ancestors). Sicilia and Podolia are much alike, wrote one of them, meaning great geographical beauty, fabulous fertility, long history, changing political fortunes, layers of historical influences, a baffling (and fertile) mix of languages and religions (in Podolia: Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Armenians, Russians, Greeks, Karaites, Tartars, Germans).

Which is why Wyspa Montresor, a book about Montrésor, a Polish feudal fief in France (Indre-et-Loire) is such a profound surprise: it is a kind of collage of voices of three-dozen different people — mostly family members — associated with the property, documenting the life of its half-Podolian owners in the 19th and 20th centuries. That life is colorful (the family was related by marriage to both Hohenzollerns and the House of Savoy, lived east and west, participated in French politics as well as Polish, etc.); tragic (it is hard not to see the twentieth century as a plot to eradicate them — everyone robs them — Russian revolutionaries, Ukraininan freedom fighters, German conquerors, their own domestics, the Soviet regime, the Polish People’s Republic, even Giscard d’Estaing’s farm policies); but above all — shocking: the family — in the 19th century among the richest in Russia, certainly among the most landed in Europe — appear to have been… cultural idiots: there is not a single mention of any book, any opera, any museum, any painting. It’s all about hunting — and mostly of the dumb French variety in which the beaters drive the animals towards stationary shooters who spend the whole day shooting — thousands of animals — without the least expenditure of energy or brain-power (but develop a pretty strong forefinger).

Why is it a shock?

It is a shock because, in my generosity, I have always imagined the present (apparent) decline in cultural interest among the higher echelons to the disappearance of the economic class who in the past embodied cultural life: by which I meant the economic class with 1) the free time to engage in culture and 2) the financial resources to pay for it — in short, Veblen’s “leisure class”: land aristocracy, the agrarian rentier class. (Stempowski himself, in his bibliophilic La Terre Bernoise, makes a similar claim regarding the cultural lives of Swiss peasants who used to engage in folk art until, suddenly, cities began to grow thus creating a demand for village products, and thereby robbing the peasant of his free time).

I am now made to realize that for a cultured class to arise a third element must be present: an interest. Without it, it turns out, it is perfectly possible to be rich and idle and do nothing cultural for five minutes; a free, rich person can remain a cultural idiot all one’s life.


That it is possible to write a decent novel and not understand what it is about

Ahmed Ali, Twilight in Delhi

The critical praise Twilight in Delhi has continued to receive is surely due to the description of Muslim life in Old Delhi before the Partition; the patterns of speech (with flowery formulas, pious quotations and love poems), hobbies (kite flying, dove-keeping, poetry meetings), magical medical practices, fable-telling, clothing, housing, the marriage customs and wedding ceremonies, the funeral practices – they are all attractive aspects of a way of life now, as the expression has it, “mostly lost”. I say “mostly” because they are not entirely gone — similar practices still survive in some parts of North India – even some parts of Delhi; they are much rarer now than they used to be; coming upon them is a matter of exotic delight; but they were clearly already threatened when the book was written – in 1939. Reading the novel one cannot help feeling that the author foresaw and rued their passing – the way a Japanese poet might preciously rue — on a balmy August afternoon — the imminent (to him) passing of the summer. And this is pretty: regret for things past is a touching sentiment, especially when it is, as it is in this novel, unstated, only implied, and when it comes from the pen of a a 29-year-old (as Ahmed Ali was at the time of writing).

Hostility towards the English and constant bewailing of the fall of the Mughal Empire – it sounds so familiar to Polish ears – are in a way part of this way of life. Remembering valiant deeds of 1857 and offering occasional charity to beggar descendants of royal blood seem customary – meaning, perfunctory — like the embroidered cap or the praising the prophet – it is all part of the formula, it need not be taken seriously: after all, despite the horrors of 1857 — mass expropriations, exiles, and executions – the old way of life still continued fifty years later (the novel is set in 1910-18) pretty much the way it had been before the conquest. The real change – and the real loss of 1857 – took place only at the top of the social hierarchy to which none of the book’s heroes has ever belonged anyhow.  The ruing of the Empire’s loss is aesthetic.

But human beings mistake formulas for content and Ahmed Ali’s introduction to the book (written in 1993) makes it plain he does: there is a lot more there about colonialism – complete with the inevitable quotation from Edward Said. This subtracts from the novel: it interprets it in a tired nationalistic light, and in a suddenly florid prose — the sort Indians fall into whenever they speak of The Nation — and with the familiar old moralism of the defeated. Of course, the defeated invariably find moral fault with the victor – yet, what right had the Mughals had to conquer and rule India that the British did not?

The moralizing of the defeated is a powerful emotional cocktail and Ahmed Ali fell for it himself: in time, he came to believe his novel was about colonialism, when in fact, it is about the disappearance of a certain way of life. Yet, that way of life has not disappeared because of the British but because of – demography. By the end of the nineteenth century the poor stopped dying in the usually atrocious numbers meaning that their numerical advantage over the middle-class suddenly increased many-fold; by the beginning of the twentieth, they began to get access to information, meaning that they began to realize their strength; finally, in the course of the wars of the first half of the twentieth century, governments put guns in their hands. In one half of the world, the poor used those guns to kill the rich; in the other, to tax them. Everywhere, the old way of life came to an end.

A way of life is a form of art. Like any art, it can be more or less artful. What we call the “old ways” often seem more artful than the new ways because they were the ways of a kind of social class which has ceased to exist today: a smaller (and therefore more interconnected), richer, and far less busy middle class. Given time and resources, humans engage in art – in the broad sense of the word, meaning any beautiful skill, including mastering the smoking of the hookah. And so the heroes of Twilight in Delhi do: they pursue artful hobbies, which include poetry, alchemy, embroidery, singing and dancing, elaborate family rituals. Today, the socialist great leveler has eradicated that class — we moderns either have time or money; and while in the West there has been an offsetting gain — the life of the very poor improved as a result of transfer taxation – it is hard not to look at the life of those of our grandparents and great-grandparents who had been of the better sort with a kind of nostalgia. It was so obviously prettier than any life we live today. (This realization has driven a lot of the best art of the modern age from The Leopard, to The Buddenbrooks, to Fanny and Alexander).

Reflecting along those lines, it sometimes becomes hard not to doubt the utilitarian principle: does the greatest good of the greatest number justify destruction of goods (in this case the good is a way of life) just because they cannot be universally held? Perhaps there is something to be said for the Borges formula – that of Babylonian Lottery – let there be injustice in the world, some very rich and some very poor, but assign who gets what totally randomly — and to assure cooperation, reassign it frequently.

The characters of Twlight in Delhi provide a strong argument for the Lottery concept. Although Ahmed Ali presents them with charity; and they earn our sympathy by the sadness of their fates – all life is fundamentally tragic because it ends in disease and death; there does not seem to exist any apparent reason why this particular lot, and not their water-carrier, say — should enjoy rents on a few houses and some agricultural land. They are neither especially kind, nor gentle, nor wise; they manage their private lives with the same mixture of thoughtlessness and fumbling the rest of humanity do; and for all the artful beauty of their lives they manage to make themselves and each other seriously unhappy.

This also presents in a stark light the main problem with all novel writing:  human lives — which are by necessity any novel’s main subject — are not particularly worth knowing about, and therefore reading about, and therefore, it would seem, writing about. Perhaps, like a certain other descendant of Polish nobility (see footnote 1), I am too smart, too well-read, and too philosophically inclined to find anything of interest in a novel about people

Are there any novels about penguins, I wonder?


(1) One Nitecki, of course: cf. the famous chapters of Ecce Homo with titles like “Why I am so wise”, etc.  As the Italians say, beh!