Monday, November 17, 2014

Currently Reading: Middlemarch and Don Quixote


One of the pleasures of majoring in English is that one is forced to read the novels that "should" be read. Now, "forced" and "pleasure" are generally not words that are used in the same sentence unless the speaker of the sentence is dressed in leather, but as for college level English courses, I think it is apt; after all I was forced to both Middlemarch and Don Quixote  in college and while I may have perused those books in the past, weighing them against a slim volume of Carver short stories or thrillingly stark tales of Western gothic from McCarthy, the thick doorstops of literary history didn't stand a chance. However, after having been forced to read them both, I can't help but feel grateful that I did.

Of course, it could all have something to do with the time of my life in which I am reading these classic works that make them so relatable. I devoured the work of Beat writer Jack Kerouac when I was younger. Dropping out of consumerist society to live life on the road spurred me to pursue a career as a stand-up comedian. It wasn't fame or adulation that served as my lodestone, but rather, the independence a nomadic existence promised that held the greatest attraction. Today, I find Kerouac's wanderings to be naive and precious, although I certainly still relate to his youthful protagonists's romantic notions of freedom and deliverance from the staid conformity of American life. Cervantes's masterpiece allows me to reflect on my quixotic travels of youth while George Eliot's Middlemarch reminds how simple it is for even the most ardent of desires to slip through one's fingers.

Both Don Quixote and Middlemarch, it should go without saying, are works that, devoid of my personal relation to them, stand up as great literature in and of themselves. But I wanted to explore how and why these works impacted me personally. As a non traditional student, I spend most of my day feeling faintly ridiculous (and I am a Creative Writing major, no less!). I feel my fellow classmates' eyes boring into me, as if they are robots that have been given some impossible equation to decipher; "He...is...older than my Dad...yet...not...the professor...does not compute...bzzzrrr...rrppp...fizzzle."

Yet, Don Quixote gives me the courage to move forward. Am I ridiculous? Maybe. But just as Don Quixote fashioned himself an identity based on the books of chivalry that he has fed on over the decades, I have constructed an identity that is no less fantastic; the good student. I am applying myself in ways that I always assumed I was simply not able to. In my previous scholastic endeavors, C stood for "Celebration", but today, receiving a grade of C would be sufficient reason to cut my pinky finger off, Yakuza style, to pay tribute to my shame.

George Eliot's Middlemarch, however, speaks to me in much more fatalistic terms. While Don Quixote is to some extent a book about identity and hope, Middlemarch seems to be about the myriad ways in which our dreams, even with the most noble of motives, have a way of getting twisted up and abandoned.  Middlemarch is a sobering work, but one that is infused with Eliot's beautiful prose and breathtaking sentences.

Ultimately, both Middlemarch and Don Quixote offer what I would argue is the most vital and ephemeral quality in literature: consolation. When we read these works, we recognize in their pages the mistakes of our pasts, the delusions of our presents, and the anxiety of our futures that define the very essence of being. George Eliot and Miguel Cervantes have reached out through the ages to deliver the most important message a human can ever receive: "It's all okay, you're not alone."

After all, who can not read these words from the end of Eliot's Prelude to Middlemarch and not feel a wave of melancholic gratitude, "Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion."

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