The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
Edited by Charlotte Mason.
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Educational Value of Great Books:
By Osborne Brigstocke.
Volume 15, Number 1, 1904, pg. 25-32
[William Osborne Brigstocke edited an edition of Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well in 1904 and helped translate Dietzel's Retaliatory Duties. He was a member of the Unionist Free Trade Club.]
"Fooled thou must be, though wisest of the wise:
Then be the fool of virtue, not of vice."
From the Persian (quoted by Emerson)
The Spirit of genius is like the wind: it moves in a mysterious way, in paths unseen. How strange, for instance, that it should have passed into a book that seems to have been originally meant to serve the purpose of ridiculing the romance tales of chivalry! Don Quixote--now one of those real though unseen friends of man that live in literature--once went a tilting against the true and wonderful histories of Sir This and Don That. It has even been said that he rode against a foe that was already fallen. At all events he dealt the last and fatal blow. Fatal? Chivalry can never die: but that particular form of chivalry was ugly, because it had lost its sense of proportion. All one can say for it is that, like the sandal tree that perfumes the axe that fells it, those old ridiculous volumes gave the book that satirized them to death all the innate nobleness that sill lingered in the heart of them. Undoubtedly the weapon of satire was very sharp when Miguel de Cervantes first set about attacking those detested books: he quickly committed the majority to the flames. But, as the work progresses, it is clear that the edge becomes less keen, and on it hangs the perfume of the tree that falls, until Don Quixote de la Mancha becomes more really, more entirely, more truly a knight-errant than all the famous knights of yore together.
But how comes it that this Don Quixote finds a place amongst our Lears and Othellos, our Fausts and Iphigenias? How can this mad knight be of "educational value" to us?--for it is from this standpoint that we must consider him today. I think for this very reason, that he is mad. We are all more or less mad, says Montégut (I lay all the responsibility for the statement on his shoulders). But I can answer for myself: I have had projects far more mad than any of Don Quixote's, and doubtless am fated to entertain many more. But even if some will not own that they are more or less mad, they will at any rate acknowledge that if sympathy depends on likeness, Don Quixote must be loved by a great number of men and women. We all--it would not be accurate to say most of us--we all imagine there is nothing nobler than devoting one's life to redressing wrongs, to helping the fatherless and widows, to raising those who fall, to giving aid to those who are in need. But there is something more to account for our affection for Don Quixote: though we do feel sympathy for all this. Let me give an instance; recently I found in The Spectator the following extract from a book by W. H. Channing:--
"To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to listen to stars and birds, babes, and sages, with open heart; to study hard; to think quietly, act frankly, talk gently; await occasions, hurry never; in a word, to let the spiritual unbidden and unconscious grow up through the common--this is my symphony."
[The poem "My Symphony" is often attributed to William Ellery Channing, but is thought to have been written by his cousin, William Henry Channing.]
Very beautiful--and I look up to that writer as I do to Marcus Aurelius, but not as I do to Cervantes, though those sentiments are almost word for word the same as those Don Quixote tried to inculcate on Sancho at different times, more especially on the eve of his departure to "the island."
"Foresee, as it were instinctively, how far the income of your office stretches, and if it allow you to give your servants livery, let them have it rather convenient and refined than gorgeous and luxurious, and distribute it to your servants and to the poor. I mean, that if you can clothe six pages, keep only three and clothe three beggars; thus you will have pages in heaven and on earth; and this new method of distributing your liveries will not be imitated by any of your proud snobs.
"When a man is accused and brought before you for trial, look upon him as upon a poor man subject to all the weaknesses of our erring nature, and show yourself, without injustice to the opponents, sympathetic and kind, for although no one property of God is better than another, yet does his mercy seem to our eyes brighter and more beautiful than his justice.
"Do not make many laws, and those you make let them be good and, above all, obeyed, for laws that are not kept might as well not exist; moreover, they prove that the ruler, though he had the wit and means to frame them, has not the power to enforce them."
And so on; the sentiments in either case are, I say, identical, and yet Cervantes touches us far more than a mere moralist. The difference may seem subtle, but for that very reason it is all the more important to the finer chords within us. It comes from this, that in the one case we have art, in the other something that may be very beautiful and true, but not art. There is an instance in the Bible history--a history that is so full of art--namely, the chapter which tells of the giving of the Ten Commandments. These ten ordinances are still read in our churches--a sufficient testimony to their intrinsic worth; but (were they not set now in the most perfect of services) we could never read them apart from their original context with the emotion that we feel when we hear that "the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables . . . And it came to pass, as soon as Moses came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing; and Moses' anger waxed hot and he cast the tables out of his hand and brake them beneath the mount." We can realise the tables were written by God because we can understand Moses breaking them at the sight of the people worshipping the calf--actually disobeying the very first of those commandments. In the same way Don Quixote's words sink far into our hearts, because we find that they were spoken by a man as mad as any of us to another man as foolish as ourselves; we feel that all that rare pure sentiment is not beyond our reach, that the best is very near us, and that the sublime seldom steers quite clear of what is commonplace, just as swallows sometimes cannot help dipping into the water when they seek insects just before the fall of rain.
And if the common and sublime are so closely knit together, may not illusion be a congener to reality? Indeed, so close are these of kin, that one must sometimes wonder which is which. One may be tempted to think that illusion is as essential to the progress of the world as electricity to some vast system of machinery. In both cases the motive force is invisible and imperceptible--only the effect is palpable. Cut off the supply of electricity and all the wheels and beams and belts and rods are still. And if we do away with all illusion, what have we left? A world without an atmosphere and uninhabitable. You and I are ever drawing from the fund of this priceless tonic; I now write with the consciousness that you have an illusory idea of me--that you do not think of me as being quite so worthless as I am; and that very thought prompts me to endeavour to raise myself to the level on which your illusion places me.
Furthermore, I think of you in a way which may be more or less illusory; I need not tell you, gentle reader, what I think of you; let it suffice you to know that if perchance you think it may be needful to rise a little to reach my estimate of you, you will thereby attain perfection. Idle flattery? By no means; as far from it as are the fond words of lovers and those strange fancies which we dare not call illusion. We all know that we are not the beings our friends imagine us to be; and when our spirits are low we realize that our friends are not all we, in our better moments, think them to be. But it may be urged that love is no illusion. Why not? Because love knows. But so did Don Quixote; he knew that hose windmills were giants, that the barber's basin was the magic helmet, that the flocks were armies, that Dulcinea was the most perfect lady in the world. He knew all that just as well as we know who is the best man, woman, child or friend in the whole world. You say he saw with the eyes of love, of blind enthusiasm, of transcendentalism. Doubtless; but if God is love, if "nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm," if "the only sin is limitation," how are we to suppose that God looks upon the world if not with the eyes of love, how could he work without enthusiasm, how think without transcendentalism? That is what makes one wonder whether reality is so very real after all. My friend is not as perfect as I imagine? That's his look-out. I for my part believe in what you call my illusions. Why should I harbour such illusion if it is not of some benefit to him and to myself? But illusion is and must be a great benefit to us both, as it is to the whole world; for this tendency is common to all. We are all idealists: we are not even content to have the devil nearly black; he must be very black, perfectly black, blacker than he really is.
Then what is illusion? The dictionary tells us that is it "an unreal image presented to the bodily or mental vision"--a definition that may be accepted with the proviso that the opposite may be true, namely, that "reality is an illusory image presented to the bodily or mental vision." But this is hardly to the point. We need not attempt to decide whether the windmills or the giants were real, whether Dulcinea was a princess or a peasant girl, whether the dust-clouds covered sheep or warriors. Don Quixote could harm no one by believing that all inns were castles; he could do no one any damage by imagining that he was bound to deny himself more than did other men. But he did do harm when he began to stick other people's sheep with his rickety lance; he damaged himself by tilting at the windmill; he prejudiced society by loosing the convicts. He was, in fact, mad; and the important point is to understand where illusion ends and madness begins. Coleridge says that "Madness may perhaps be defined as the circling in a stream which should be progressive and adaptive," and Don Quixote's illusion became madness as soon as it failed to be progressive and adaptive. He himself acknowledges at the close that he has failed--"in last year's nests there are no eggs,"--that his progression had in reality been retrograde, that he had falsely adapted his ideals and illusions. Let us briefly consider these ideals and illusions in a three fold aspect--the influence the books had in forming his ideals, the influence those ideals had upon himself, the influence he himself had on his faithful Sancho.
The story of the influence of those books on Don Quixote's mind is one full of deep meaning. It reminds one how incalculable are the effects a book may have--"more, much more, springs in the garden than the gardener ever sowed." And just as one can sympathise with those Jewish women who yearned so deeply for a son who might be the Messiah, so one can understand the fond desire to leave at least one book behind which may, if God will, play a great, if unforeseen, part in the life of some individual. In either case, the off-spring is made nobler by the yearning. As Sainte-Beuve has pointed out, great books become universally famous only when men are able to twist and turn them to suit the spirit of their particular generation. A great book changes face with each successive school of thinkers, just as in religion some points of doctrine are at one time more in evidence than at another. Thus each individual lends an atmosphere to the book he reads--the book and the reader are, so to speak, the ends of an electric circuit of personality which, when they are in contact, produce light. Don Quixote read those old books of chivalry and tried to live up to their superannuated code. "Man is one world and hath another to attend him"; but if the two worlds are at variance, there can be but little happiness or success. The right method was taught long ago by St. Paul, "But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth that . . . they that use this world (be) as not abusing it, for the fashion of this world passeth away." How few of us use this world without abusing it, remembering that the fashion of the world passeth away! Poor Don Quixote, perfect knight, noblest of the noble, abused his world; the gold he heard of in those books, the gold of which he should have fashioned his life's work, lay at his feet in that quiet village home; elsewhere he found but gold-dust, which slipped through his fingers when he took it up. In one of the Servian ballads, translated by Sir John Bowring, these lines occur:--
"There's a fresh water found below:
And in the fount a marble stone;
Which a gold cup reposes on,
And in the cup a ball of snow" . . .
Even such a ball of snow was Don Quixote's love. He offered it to all: all saw that it was melting even whilst he held it out to them: he was the only one to notice nothing but the golden cup it rested on and the marble and fresh water whence it came.
In spite of all, throughout the book Don Quixote is infinitely attractive because he is what Emerson calls "a great hope, a sea to swim in"; he is a constant surprise to us--we never dream of the possibility of really taking life so high. But above all we are surprised by that delightful self-esteem which springs from his respect for his profession. When Don Quixote praises himself we never feel that he is conceited; we feel that he is expressing his faith in the greatness of the order of the knights-errant--"the fellowship of all who are bound together by the divine belief in the good and the beautiful." We feel that he assumes that every knight-errant is as perfect as he himself tries to be; that therefore he believes, with perfect right, in their efficacy as a power working for good. When we start out with the conviction that every fellow-worker means as well as or better than ourselves, we are bound to meet with much the same rebuffs as Don Quixote--rebuffs that may seem to some to be a warning. But are they? Can we find no "divinity behind those failures" and those follies? What if Don Quixote's ideals did lead him into all kinds of pitfalls? "Nature stretcheth out her arms to embrace man, only let his thoughts be of equal greatness." In fact all that Dr. Garnett said of Emerson applies equally well to Don Quixote. "In private places, among sordid objects, an act of truth or heroism seems at once to draw to itself the sky as its temple, the sun as its candle. Nature stretcheth out her arms to embrace man, only let his thoughts be of equal greatness. Willingly does she follow his steps with the rose and the violet and bend her lines of grandeur and grace to the decoration of her darling child. Only let his thought be of equal scope and the frame will suit the picture. A virtuous man is in unison with her works, and makes the central figure of the visible sphere . . . "Don Quixote's ideals are himself; for "use what language we will, we can never say anything than but what we are. Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat; up again, old heart! It seems to say: there is victory yet for all justice; and the true romance which the world exists to realize will be the transformation into practical power." (from Experience, by Emerson.) That is just what Don Quixote did, for though it took him a long time to reach the point from which he should have started,* his ideas were in the end transformed to practical power. Don Quixote had completed the long struggle, the circle closed, and if he knew of no other fruit of his life-works, he at least realized that he had inspired into Sancho a part of his great soul. Sancho had journeyed with him all that time, hearing but hardly understanding the "musical perfection underneath the inharmonious and trivial particulars," till he grew like his master and worthy to be his disciple rather than his servant.
* "On travaille quelquefois longtemps pour arriver au point par où l'on devrait commencer." --De Maistre. [Google Translate: We sometimes work a long time to get to the point where we should start.]
And this leads up to Sancho's question in the last book,--"What have the Panzas to do with the Quixotes?" Evidently, a great deal, and the relationship is not difficult to discover: Don Quixote was Sancho's teacher. He taught him how to live by loving him, by making him understand that feeling of absolute dependence which, according to Schleiermacher, is religion, by stimulating him and by guiding his thoughts to the consideration of that other world attending him. Says Coleridge, "The height, whatever it may be, of the imaginative standard will do no harm: we are commanded to imitate one who is inimitable. We should address ourselves to those faculties . . . which are first awakened by nature, and consequently first admit of cultivation, that is to say, the memory and the imagination . . . In the imagination of man exist the seeds of all moral and scientific improvement; chemistry was first alchemy, and out of astrology sprang astronomy . . . The imagination is the distinguishing characteristic of man as a progressive being . . . Men of genius and goodness . . . are by a law of their nature unremittingly regarding themselves in the future, and contemplating the possible of moral and intellectual advance towards perfection. Thus we live by hope and faith; thus we are for the most part able to realize what we will, and thus we accomplish the end of our being. The contemplation of futurity inspires humility of soul in our judgment of the present." Was there ever a more imaginative master than Don Quixote?
Brave Don Quixote! I never read the tale of his pathetic end, his patient longing for the fair princess that never came, the sudden recovery from madness just before death, "so that they knew death was near because he was no longer mad," never without recalling two verses of the poet, T. E. Brown:--
"Nor think, if haply He thou seekst be late,
He does thee wrong;
To stile or gate
Lean thou they head and long! . . .
"But if He come not, neither do thou go
Till vesper chime;
Belike thou then shalt know,
He hath been with thee all the time."
[Specula, by Thomas Edward Brown, from the book Old John and Other Poems, 1893]
Typed by Rondalyno, June, 2022; Proofread by LNL, June, 2023