The First-Person Don Quixote

By Phillips, Brian | The Hudson Review, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

The First-Person Don Quixote


Phillips, Brian, The Hudson Review


I. Pinnacle of All Beauty

If you put the whole world into a book, it would be a comedy; if you put just one human soul into a book, it would be a tragedy; Don Quixote does both, and so it is both: not some mingling of the two, but a whole tragedy and a whole comedy at the same time.

I thought of this not long ago on a trip to New York City. I was walking in Times Square on an evening in late autumn, at the hour when the City grows luminously gray. At first I was not thinking of Don Quixote at all, but only walking and looking. I suppose I was in the midst of one of those trains of halfunconscious thought that often go along with the rhythm of a walk. It had something to do with an essay I was supposed to write on the question of character in fiction-whether it was internal or external-whether there was such a thing as sympathywhether anything was shared. But I hardly remember what I was thinking about. All along the sidewalks the shy flares of taxi headlights paused. The hurried crowd flowed everywhere, like something being poured.

If you have ever been in Times Square, you know how the City there is really on two levels, the crowded one on the ground, for people and magazine stands, and the spacious one above, full of brilliant, gargantuan images. Stock quotes go racing past. The names of musicals flash and disappear. There are movie posters, too tall to be imagined, showing actresses with universe-sized faces. A woman, impossibly beautiful, hanging twenty stories in the air, calmly brushes her teeth in close-up on a video screen. A sprinter a city block long crouches lightly in his starting stance, his absurdly perfect muscles honed in cold blue light.

Not one of them was real, of course; they had all been changed into pictures; there was something inhuman about them. Most of them were there only to sell something, they were all a hundred feet tall... And yet as the sky grew dark, it seemed to me that they were phenomenally beautiful, by themselves and in the chaos of their nearness; and for some reason I thought of Marcela in Don Quixote, who says that it is natural to love what is beautiful, but not necessarily for what is beautiful to love that which loves it. That must be true, I thought, for what is beautiful is always a little impossible; what is beautiful is almost always strange. Three thousand years ago in ancient Egypt they painted their eyelids with malachite, because we are so constituted, our desires are so acute, that inhumanly large eyes attract us more than anything nature can give us. We make iambs of unpatterned speech. The mind is simpler than the world, is that it?-it squares the world's curved corners; it imperfectly overlays what surrounds it. Threeto-two is an arbitrary ratio in nature, no less so than sixteentwenty-sevenths, but when applied to a vibrating string it fills us with such a sweet sensation that it inspires an aesthetics of sound. In the world outside there is no golden mean, but there is one in the mind. We are complex, elusive and various, infinitely so, and nothing like a manifesto or a theory of proportion can explain us. But the urge is universal for the structures of the world to match the structures of the mind; and the world disappoints us; and we form ideals in the pain of the mismatch. Some of them are hanging in museums. One of them is brushing her teeth in the sky above New York City.

The notion made me laugh; and I thought of Don Quixote, who drove himself mad with the ideals in his books, who saw giants in place of windmills, who made himself a knight for the sake of his image of images, the imaginary princess Dulcinea. In Times Square we were all seeing giants; and the thought of Don Quixote made the spectacle of the thing, this neon-drenched crowd under its Olympus of L'Oreal billboards, seem desperately funny, as though Don Quixote had only been the first to go mad, and now we had all followed after him. And what a magnificent carnival it made! …

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