The Transylvania Times -

What Do Cervantes And Jeremiah Have To Teach Us? -Brevard NC


March 30, 2017

Windmills are windmills. Right? Not so, if you are Don Quixote. Windmills are giants! Sheep are sheep. Right? Not so, in the Don’s mind. They are invading armies.

Don Quixote, the enchanting character in Cervantes’ great novel, lives in an imaginary world. What is real by most accounts is foreshadowed by his illusory effort to imitate someone who never existed, in doing things which that person, Amadis de Gaule, and others like him, never did. So astonishing is the identification that Don Quixote sees things through the eyes of this non-existent person.

Sancho Panza, his trusted squire, goes along with his master’s adventures and, too, is smitten by chivalrous ideals.

Their exploits, however, cause hardship. In Part 1 of the book there has been an incident regarding a barber’s basin which the barber had temporarily worn on his head to protect himself from a sudden rainstorm as he crosses the plains. Don Quixote sees the shiny object, but since he sees objects through the eyes of Amadis, he does not see a barber’s basin; he sees instead a gallant warrior’s helmet, the helmet of a figure of knightly lore. It becomes necessary for Quixote to liberate this chivalric relic from the unworthy barber who is clearly unsuitable to be its guardian, which he does, thus depriving the honest barber of one of the essential tools of his trade.

Cervantes is taking us down the road which will, many chapters hence, lead to Don Quixote’s deathbed conversion, the moment when the great knight is able to give a penitent account of all the grave harm he has wrought because of his mistaken adventures and asks God for mercy and clarity of mind so he can recognize that his misguided illusions of chivalry, were purest nonsense.

In my reading of “Don Quixote,” Cervantes is warning the reader that human beings can latch onto and invest tremendous energy in an illusory cause that in the end leads to harmful consequences and disappointment.

I was aware of this potential in my doctoral year at Vanderbilt University Divinity School when I wrote a paper about authoritarian leadership. One of my references was a book by Theodore Adorno, entitled “The Authoritarian Personality;” he was trying to shed light on why fascism arose in Europe prior to the Second World War. It became clear that one of the biggest dangers-illusions-if you will, facing Europe was based on leaders who aroused visceral excitement of mass unity in the hatred of others and a worship of a supposed glorious past. These leaders, appealing to primitive fear and hatred, stirred passions which eventuated in military aggression. As we know the results were disastrous.

We certainly don’t want to move in the direction that befell Europe; namely, an authoritarian drift into emotionalism at the expense of morality and reason. Such a development is possible in this country, though not inevitable, because our political institutions are faltering.

Enter Jeremiah. Jere-miah is a prophet of survival realism. He proclaimed his message when the religious and political institutions of Israel had fallen in grave disrepair. The book by the prophet’s name tries to come to terms with and move beyond destruction wrought by Babylon’s three invasions of Judah and its religious center, Jerusalem.

An essential theme in the Book of Jeremiah is that the people of Israel are part of a covenant with God. Such a covenant is sacred and if restored a “righting” of a relationship with God will bring promise, even in the midst of captivity.

We may find a parallel with the events in the Book of Jeremiah regarding the status of our institutions and political leadership. When, for example, our country faces multiple challenges in the areas of health care, climate change, income disparity, terrorism, educational decline, and foreign interference, we look to our leaders for earnest solutions. Instead they are caught up in a closed system bolstered by an ideology of conservatism on the right or progressivism on the left.

A closed system is self-perpetuating and intends to preserve the status quo at all costs.

Just as Jeremiah called for restoration of covenant relating, we might ask ourselves in what way can a contract of citizenship be renewed. How can the foundational principles of American democracy, a representational government based on the ability of the average citizen to influence the direction of their government, be restored?

It seems to me that an effort to broaden voter participation and limit the influence of money in politics is essential.

Citizens forming a contract (“covenant”) of mutual concern that takes into account broader voter participation and the influence of money can eventually bring about a more just and equitable country.

I write this column from a background of fidelity to faith traditions and soul searching as a citizen of the United States. I can’t divorce my concern about the direction of our country from my moral and religious background.

Relying again on the prompting I received from Don Quixote, one of literature’s great figures, and Jeremiah, one of Israel’s great prophets, I hope to convey that we need to be vigilant and involved so that we don’t count on imaginary versions of reality that arouse our passions but solve nothing. Our obligation is to become informed, active citizens not tossed to and fro by every sensational sound bite.

Don Quixote on his death bed saw the error of an ill spent life and felt redemptive clarity. May we recognize the same for ourselves and act accordingly.

(Dr. John Campbell is a semi-retired resident of Brevard.)


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