Thursday, 20 September 2012

Mad Knights, Gentleman Cowboys, Socialist Martians…and Me

The story of Don Quixote is that of an old man who indulged himself in tales of Medieval Romances until his brain shrivelled and he came to believe himself to be a person like the characters in one of those stories and this was the lens through which he perceived reality. It is through the character of Don Quixote that Cervantes writing in 1605 effectively destroyed ideas concerning the values and virtues commonly associated with the Middle-Ages – at least for a while.

Mark Twain made this observation in his book, Life on the Mississippi:

A curious exemplification of the power of a single book for good or harm is shown in the effects wrought by 'Don Quixote' and those wrought by 'Ivanhoe.' The first swept the world's admiration for the medieval chivalry-silliness out of existence; and the other restored it. As far as our South is concerned, the good work done by Cervantes is pretty nearly a dead letter, so effectually has Scott's pernicious work undermined it.

In a preceding passage, Twain had noted, “Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the [American Civil] war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.” This is true. The stereotypes of the Southern gentleman or the dashing cavalry officer owe much to the influence of Scott’s works as Southerners sought to emulate his character’s examples. This may be deemed pretentious, but it is not if you were raised with these values and virtues as norms from childhood.

With the luxury of historical perspective, I can see something that may have eluded Mr Clemens. Cervantes may have made a mockery of the chivalrous ideal, but it made a come-back that defined an entire era of history much larger than simply the American South in the mid-Nineteenth Century. Twain could not truly comprehend that within historical context his era would be just as romanticized, if not more so, than the medieval.

The Middle-Ages were not always in the middle. History is pretty big so historians have divided it into manageable chunks. Today, we see the Middle-Ages as set in-between the Ancient and the Modern. Before the Middle-Ages were the middle, it was called the Gothic Period. But things are not always that straightforward. We also have intermediary transitional periods.

In school texts books we read of one period in one chapter and then turn the page into the next, often to the exclusion of these transitional periods. For example, after the fall of the Roman Empire, we have the Dark Ages, which are counted among the Middle-Ages. Then we have the Renaissance and the Enlightenment as part of the Modern, but they are really transitional periods between the Middle-Ages and the Modern.

Likewise, we are currently in another transitional period called the Post-modern. I argue that this period started in 1929. It is called the Post-modern because it is distinct from the Modern, but we don’t really know what it is yet. Personally, I call it the Socialist Era because of the culture’s emphasis on collectivism as opposed to the Romantic individualism that distinguishes the Modern.

Setting this sweeping stage is important for the point I wish to make, and it is a point very dear to my heart, in fact, I might call it the core of my being.

During the Middle-Ages, travelling troubadours entertained the people with tales of noble and chivalrous knights, beautiful landscapes, and mystical happening. When these were eventually written down they became known as Romances. These were the books that shrivelled Alonso Quijano's brain turning him in Don Quixote.

Then, at the end of the period known as the Enlightenment, with its passion for the Classical world, a group of artist and thinkers went against the mainstream and found inspiration in these same Romances and were labelled Gothic. In the late Nineteenth Century, they came to be known the Romantics who had ushered in the Romantic Era (1776-1929). For all intents and purposes, the Romantic Era is the Modern Era, and the post-Romantic is the Post-modern.

The influence of Sir Walter Scott on the culture had more to do with the existing culture of his time than anything he imposed upon it. In essence he gave the public what it wanted. A glorified version of the Medieval Period derived from the Romances rather than actual history and this in turn affected the culture thus making the Victorian a sort of pastiche of some idealised medieval counterpart. This was just as true in London as in the American South or North. But where it had its greatest impact for us today was in the American West.

Sir Walter Scott had two noteworthy successors. Nathaniel Hawthorn’s collection of novels known as The Leatherstocking Tales and Owen Wister’s 1902 novel, The Virginian are both conscious imitations of Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe, but set in the American wilderness rather than the English countryside. Ivanhoe traded in his lance for a six-shooter and the Western was born. 

If Cervantes were to write Don Quixote today, I suspect that rather than becoming a knight our hero would become a Western gunslinger.  The Western is to our culture what the original romances were to Cervantes’ audience in 1605.  Director Mel Brooks is credited for killing the Western Cervantes-style with his 1974 film Blazing Saddles.  It is true that the Western is no longer as popular as it was previous to 1974, but nonetheless the genre still retains power.

Throughout this great span of history an interesting picture begins to develop. The Medieval Romances are killed by Cervantes, reinvigorated by Sir Walter Scott and his fellow Romantics, thus creating Victorian culture and the Modern world, from which we have the Western Romances that inspire the behaviour of many people today, much to the chagrin of the modern day scions of Cervantes seeking to kill it.

What’s more, Cervantes’ anti-Romantic work, Don Quixote, has been transformed into one of the most pro-Romantic works of the Twentieth Century, the musical The Man of La Mancha, in which the character of Cervantes says:

I've been a soldier and a slave. I've seen my comrades fall in battle or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I've held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no brave last words, only their eyes, filled with confusion, questioning "Why?" I don't think they were wondering why they were dying, but why they had ever lived. When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? To surrender dreams - -this may be madness; to seek treasure where there is only trash. Too much sanity may be madness! But maddest of all - -to see life as it is and not as it should be.

The critics of the Romantic, as well as some of its misguided followers, believe the Romantic to be a rejection of reality. This is not true. At the core of the Romantic is the quest to make the individual, and by extension the world, better by using the tools reality has provided without denying reality itself. This is accomplished by placing real and imagined heroes upon pedestals to serve as examples for our behaviour and focal points for our values and virtues in a process that I call herotyping.

The counter to this comes from the anti-Romantics who seek to destroy heroes.  Cervantes mocks the knightly virtues through Don Quixote, Mel Brooks mocks the Westerners, and biographers like Lytton Strachey reduce the Victorians to the prudish stereotype familiar throughout the Twentieth Century.  When we look at the depictions of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in film, they are typical of Stracheyan Victorian stereotypes.  It was not until director Guy Richie’s popular Sherlock Holmes films (2009 and 2011) that we see Holmes as the expert boxer described by Arthur Conan Doyle or Watson as the Afghan War veteran, thus restoring the characters to their Romantic origin.

I have recently concluded that, like Alonso Quijano, my brain has shrivelled into Romanticism because of my consumption of Romantic literature, films, and television programs since childhood. For me, it was not the adventures of knights, but of Victorian and Edwardian gentlemen, American cowboys, and superheroes and their virtues and values that inspired my thinking about the world.

What has brought this to mind is that I have been inspired by the 2011 film, John Carter to finally read the book upon which it is based, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I had read two of his Tarzan books (which are unlike any film versions) as a teenager, but had never read John Carter.

On a personal note, Burroughs died in his home in Tarzana, California in 1950 of heart failure. I know Tarzana well; it is a suburb of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley named for his creation Tarzan, and lies directly to the west of the adjoining town of Encino, where I was born seventeen years after Burroughs died.

Thus far three scenes in the book have stuck in my mind that have made me realise that not only was I reading a science-fiction book depicting another world, but I was reading the cultural values of another time that are just as alien to us today as Mars was to the book’s first readers when it was published in 1912.

In one passage, Captain John Carter, a Confederate veteran of the American Civil War mysteriously transported to Mars, is soon after his arrival captured by the so-called green type of Martians and treated roughly. “As he banged me down upon my feet his face was bent close to mine and I did the only thing a gentleman might do under the circumstances of brutality, boorishness, and lack of consideration for a stranger's rights; I swung my fist squarely to his jaw and he went down like a felled ox.”

The common misconception of men during the Romantic Era was that they were like characters from modern costume dramas and that to be a gentleman was to just be polite and effeminate. By reading the literature of the period, especially the so-called “boy’s books” like this one, we find that the lesson is that a gentleman must be prepared to fight those who cross the line, so to speak, in defence of his rights.   Of course the heroes always win, but in real life the bad guys may end up punching you in face. I know this from experience, nonetheless, I could leave the conflict with my honour intact because I did not leave the abuse unchallenged and I did not retreat. To my mind, that is what makes a gentleman, though I am aware that the current social norm values self-preservation over asserting one’s liberties.

This same principle is repeated later in the book where John Carter states his position.

"As you know I am not of Barsoom [Mars]; your ways are not my ways, and I can only act in the future as I have in the past, in accordance with the dictates of my conscience and guided by the standards of mine own people. If you will leave me alone I will go in peace, but if not, let the individual Barsoomians with whom I must deal either respect my rights as a stranger among you, or take whatever consequences may befall.”

This book was written during the period that I call The Romantic Twilight from 1900-1929. It is a transitional period when the culture of the Romantic Era was transitioning away from the individualistic and towards the collectivism that would characterise the Socialist Era that followed. Bearing that in mind, I find this next passage interesting where Burroughs makes an attack on collectivism in the form of a speech given by the red Martian princess to her green Martian captors, whose society is based on communal use and communal relationships.

"Why, oh, why will you not learn to live in amity with your fellows, must you ever go on down the ages to your final extinction but little above the plane of the dumb brutes that serve you! A people without written language, without art, without homes, without love; the victim of eons of the horrible community idea. Owning everything in common, even to your women and children, has resulted in your owning nothing in common. You hate each other as you hate all else except yourselves."

The concept Burrough’s is echoing here is known as The Tragedy of the Commons. The idea is that when property is held in common, no one takes personal responsibility for it. The result is that it devalues until it is deemed worthless. There is also an eerie hint at what cultural historian Jacques Barzun calls “the modern ego” of the Twentieth Century as being hateful of everything that isn’t the self or does not serve the perceived immediate self-interest. As with much of the writings coming from the dwindling number of genuine Romantic authors during the Romantic Twilight, there seems to a sense of what was on the horizon.

In the musical, The Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote chose to live life by a higher standard. It was a standard that had gone out of fashion. When people saw him he looked like a bad cosplayer dressed in antique rusted armour, carrying a broken lance, and eventually wearing a shaving basin on his head thinking it to be a magical golden helmet. Nonetheless, he held true to the world as he saw it and the noble values and virtues that came with it. This inspired others to be more than they thought they could be. Far from the mockery intended by Cervantes, Don Quixote has become a figure of inspiration to those individuals willing to take on hopeless causes.

Hear me now oh thou bleak and unbearable world
Thou art base and debauched as can be
And a knight with his banners all bravely unfurled
Now hurls down his gauntlet to thee!

I am I, Don Quixote, the Lord of La Mancha
Destroyer of evil am I
I will march to the sound of the trumpets of glory.
Forever to conquer or die.

Hear me heathens and wizards and serpents of sin
All your dastardly doings are past
For a holy endeavor is now to begin
And virtue shall triumph at last!

I am I, Don Quixote, the Lord of La Mancha
A name all the world soon will know
And the wild winds of fortune will carry me onward
Oh whither so ever they blow

Just as Don Quixote was inspired by the Medieval Romances, and just as the Victorians were inspired by the Romantic histories, today, people like myself, are inspired by the Victorians and their American counterparts. In our Romantic visions of these people we see virtues and values absent from a modern world that we find as “based and debauched as can be”. So, like Alonso Quijano, we read their tales in old books until they infect our brains with the madness of Romanticism, and then we rise up, adorned in their garb, and declare defiant, “I am I”.