January 16, 2019

Don Quixote and Captain Ahab Meet Kafka in the Twilight Zone

By Stuart Mitchner

Had the trump of judgment blown, they could not have quivered more; yet still they felt no terror, rather pleasure.

—Herman Melville, from Moby-Dick.

The T-word again! I’ve been trying to think which great writer’s works are most evocative of the twilight zone we entered when Trump shut down the government rather than give up his fantasy of a border wall.

2019 being the 200th anniversary of Melville’s birth, I’ve just finished reading The Confidence Man (1857) and “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853), both of which contain eerie intimations of the twilight zone. Not so nuanced are the closing walls pressing the victim of the Spanish Inquisition to the brink of the abyss in Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” with its last-second Hollywood ending as the French army enters Toledo. Given the ever-deepening menace of a foreign adversary, with twilight shadows verging on the depths of night, the present-day reality needs a writer who can suggest the subtle nightmare presence of powerful autocratic forces, like those, say, in Franz Kafka’s The Castle and The Trial, though what’s happening here begins to call for a variation on “The Metamorphosis” in which an entire country wakes up one morning to find itself transformed into a giant insect giving off an odor of kvass and speaking in a voice with a distinctly Russian accent.

Walls Walls Walls

And how Twilight Zone Kafkaesque is the recent discovery of a 1958 episode of Trackdown, a show aired on CBS in which a “high priest of fraud” named Trump is arrested after trying to con a town into building a wall as protection against a doomsday meteor shower. For the past weeks, it’s been walls, wall to wall. I’m sure I’m not the only person whose brain keeps replaying Robert Frost’s line “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” along with Pink Floyd’s “All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall.”

Yes, we’re all bricks in the imaginary wall that’s standing between the government and its rightful business.

And I almost forgot the wall Kafka builds in his story “The Great Wall of China,” with gaps which “have never been built in at all, although that’s merely an assertion which probably belongs among the many legends which have arisen about the structure and which, for individual people at least, are impossible to prove with their own eyes and according to their own standards, because the structure is so immense.”

Back to the Source

Merriam-Webster’s primary definition of quixotic — “foolishly impractical especially in the pursuit of ideals; capricious, unpredictable” might have been coined expressly for another Donald. This is not the case if you go back to the source, as I did when the hallucinatory border wall that candidate Trump claimed Mexico would finance conjured up the equally hallucinatory windmills of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, which was published 414 years ago today. The dictionary’s bow to the novel follows on the italicized word “especially: marked by rash lofty romantic ideas or extravagantly chivalrous action.” Cervantes’s Quixote went mad from reading too deeply in the books of chivalry while the current president’s notoriously unchivalrous behavior — however deranged or delusional — can be blamed in part on his aversion to reading deeply in anything.

An Encyclopedia of Cruelty

Vladimir Nabokov created a stir when he called Don Quixote “a veritable encylopedia of cruelty” in a lecture series given at Harvard in 1951-52. “From this viewpoint,” he said, “it is one of the most bitter and barbarous books ever penned.” Yet he ended by admitting, “We do not laugh at him any longer. His blazon is pity, his banner is beauty,” and he looms “wonderfully above the skyline of literature, a gaunt giant on a lean nag….He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish, and gallant.”

My first encounter with the “gaunt giant” was in Classic Comics No. 11, which I found full of cruelty and mockery. I saw nothing gentle or gallant in the comic book caricature, just a lanky, aging, goat-bearded object of ridicule, a mad knight accompanied by a brainless squire, a couple of ancient comedians being subjected to a series of ludicrous beatings and humiliations. “So this is what happens to crazy people,” I thought at age six.

Embarrassed to discover that I no longer owned a copy of the novel, I went to the library and borrowed Edith Grossman’s acclaimed 2003 translation. Diving in and out of the 940 pages, looking for references to walls that might make for an amusing reflection on the shutdown, the only one I found was in a chapter near the end set in the walled city of Barcelona, where a Castilian confronts the sad knight in terms that called me to attention. Besides offering an example of the cruelty Nabokov was talking about, the Castilian’s attack resounds across the centuries to the twilight impasse of January 2018: “You’re a madman, and if you were a madman in private, behind the doors of your madness, it wouldn’t be so bad, but you have the attribute of turning everyone who deals with you or talks to you into madmen and fools, too; if you don’t believe me, just look at these gentlemen who are accompanying you.”

Comparing Windmills

I was surprised to find that the windmill scene, one of the most celebrated and frequently referenced in literature, occupies only two pages of Grossman’s translation. The full-page Classics Comic image drawn by Louis Zansky hit me, at six, with the force of a once-in-a-lifetime view of a whole world waiting to be explored. Looking at it now, I can see that the power of the picture is in the vast orange Spanish sky looming above a vista of variously colored wind-mills receding into the distance. The first windmill, the one Don Quixote sees as “a monstrous giant,” is red with blue sails that become the giant’s mile-long arms. When the armored knight and Rosinante ride into battle, the giant’s arm knocks his helmet off, lifting him, horse and all, while Sancho Panza tries to grab hold of one of his boots, and they all come tumbling down. After that luminous vision of the Spanish landscape, the action seemed little more than the usual slapstick cartoon chaos.   

The Classic Comic leaves out what the fallen knight says as he lies there unable to move, listening to Sancho’s I-told-you-so (“Didn’t I tell your grace … that these were nothing but windmills?”): “I think, and therefore it is true, that the same Frestón the Wise who stole my room and my books has turned these giants into windmills in order to deprive me of the glory of defeating them.”

To which Sancho replies, “God’s will be done.”

Quixote’s “I think, therefore it’s true” is what Dostoevsky calls “a lie saved by a lie” in The Diary of a Writer, wherein he devotes a chapter to “the most magnanimous of all knights on earth” and “one of the greatest men in heart.”

“Madness and Gladness”

In his introduction to the Grossman translation, Harold Bloom suggests that Melville blended Don Quixote and Hamlet in his creation of Captain Ahab, who “desires to avenge himself upon the white whale.” It makes sense: Quixote’s windmill is Ahab’s Moby-Dick. The “trump of judgment” I began with is from the chapter called “The Spirit Spout,” which surges between “the madness and gladness of the demoniac waves.” That the crew of the Pequod feels “no terror, rather pleasure” is because a whale has been sighted (“There she blows!”) on a moonlit night, “a most unwonted hour,” and “so impressive was the cry, and so deliriously exciting, that almost every soul on board desired a lowering.” The chapter ends with the first mate Starbuck’s vision of wind-blown Ahab sitting in his cabin, “the rain and half-melted sleet of the storm from which he had some time before emerged, still slowly dripping from the unremoved hat and coat”: “Never could Starbuck forget the old man’s aspect…. Though the body was erect, the head was thrown back so that the closed eyes were pointed toward the needle of the tell-tale that swung from a beam in the ceiling. Terrible old man! thought Starbuck with a shudder, sleeping in this gale, still steadfastly eyest thy purpose.”

Ahab’s “purpose” leads to the sinking of the Pequod and the death of everyone on board except for Ishmael. Don Quixote, on the other hand, dies a sane, comfortable, confessional death, asking a weeping Sancho Panza’s forgiveness for making him “fall into the error into which I fell, thinking that there were and are knight errants in the world.”

Wall Street

Another variation of the T-word shows up in Melville’s The Confidence Man in reference to those Wall Street naysayers who “trump up their black panics … solely with a view to some sort of covert advantage.” When “Bartleby the Scrivener” appeared in Putnam’s magazine, it was subtitled “A Tale of Wall-Street.” During a discussion of that Kafkaesque story in Melville, His World and Work (2005), Andrew Delbanco gives the man himself a cameo a decade before he declared his candidacy, referring to John Jacob Astor as “the Donald Trump of his day.”

Another Melville biographer, Newton Arvin, writes of the total effect of “strangeness and even madness” in “Bartleby,” which reminds him of “some tale by Gogol or Dostoevsky” about “life in a Petersburg government bureau” that “creates in the midst of dinginess, an effect of wildness and terror.” Is the setting, Arvin wonders, “a Wall Street law office or the cosmic madhouse?”

The Russians again! But better Gogol and Dostevsky than the puppeteer in the Kremlin.