When I finally decided to start “The Rambler,” to begin something foolish, vain, and vaguely masturbatory–intellectually, I mean–it took me a long time to screw up the courage to act. Initially, there was a lot of reorganization of my desk, a lot of trips to the Apple store, a lot of peddling my new me to anyone that would listen–usually my fiancè. Many software programs were purchased. Many apps. Many hours spent researching PhD programs, and medical schools, and the modification of Moleskine journals I didn’t even own. Many, many things that confirmed I was not only committed to my foolishness, I was also committed to its indefinite deferral. That went on for a long, very uninteresting, while, but the time’s up, and I’ve had enough to drink to really give it a go, so here I am, hitching a ride on this virtual Pequod, just me and my crew of vanities, drifting downstream at 5mbps–give or take a million–looking for Dick.
You’ll have to forgive the pun. What I’m trying to say isn’t all that obscure, just difficult. Let me explain with a throw-away line from one of my favorite movies.
Not too far into the second act of Quiz Show, “Charlie” Van Doren goes to visit his father, Mark Van Doren, to confess that the role he’s played for the game show, 21, has been an elaborate lie. I’d seen Quiz Show a few years after I’d read Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain, so I knew who Mark Van Doren was. Merton insisted in his autobiography that Mark Van Doren was the only professor at Columbia in the 1930‘s who taught what was worth teaching. No pedantry there, no sub-sub-disciplinary fantasies; no, he worked through only the most difficult humanistic calculations, the common denominators that fraction us all: the brief nobility, the inevitable tragedy, the shared comedy.
So, “Charlie” walks into his father’s class just as a student, played by Ethan Hawke, asks “the point” of Don Quixote, and Prof. Van Doren replies, “If you want to be a knight, be a knight.”
“If you want to be a knight, be a knight.” Like I said, it’s a throwaway line. Nothing special, just a moment to show how the wise patiently bears the young. But, several years later, after having read Don Quixote, that line returns to me. I’m not sure if Richard Goodwin discusses Van Doren’s treatment of Don Quixote in his book, Remembering America, the movie’s ostensibly factual germ, since I’ve never ventured that deeply into the world of political biographies, but it matches perfectly the sentiment of Van Doren’s still useful study Don Quixote’s Profession. It’s a wonderful little book actually. A series of lectures not at all fussy, filled with sharp but earnest sketches of the knight and his cast of fools.
In the book, Van Doren makes the point that Don Quixote’s indispensable foolishness was the audacity to become what it is he wanted to be. He acted the part he wished to play. Not the way Pacino plays a mass-murdering coke fiend, or Ian Holmes a hobbit, but the way a man plays a swimmer by swimming, a woman a mother by birthing, the way even, perhaps, a god played at being a man by suffering. Of course, our egregious misunderstanding of the religious possibility, both the fundamentalist and materialist varieties, precludes such an understanding of identity, and so we go on disposing of angels, by making them flesh or making them fantasy–choose your misprision.
It’s nearly a clichè, really–“be that thing.” It’s probably a slogan on some yoga t-shirt, or the title of a workshop at a Tony Robbins weekend. Still, the possibility sings. Nietzsche was enamored with it: “become what you are,” he translated from Pindar and explained to Lou Salomè in a letter intended to spread her horizons, no doubt. Be that thing that you would be, that person, that father, that drifter, that madness, that saint. Regardless of the bruises and the lonely miles, the ridicule and the insignificance, be that thing. Play the fool. Blake died a pauper. Socrates poisoned and disgraced. Joan of Arc raped then burned. Victor Jara, his hands broken, sang out “Venceremos” (We Will Win) on the floor of Chile’s National Stadium, before Pinochet’s soldiers played Russian Roulette with him ‘til he lost. Knight of the Sorrowful Face, indeed.
Don Quixote’s bind, the brutal bind of each to all, from newborn to avatar, is not the reason for the Knight’s madness; it is the bind’s only solution. To “be a Knight.” The Knight Errant. The Knight of the Sorrowful Face. The one in the dirt, sorely beaten, but singing.
Certainly, on a planet of such grand fools, my meager talents and vain aspirations can endure the obscurity of few readers, and fewer admirers; if Socrates can drink a toast to Aesculapius for an erection unto death, I certainly can begin a blog with no clear purpose, no definable audience, on a name stolen from Dr. Johnson and purchased with luck’s proceeds.
So, there you have it; my foolish endeavor is an absurd solution to a serious problem. It is, of course, a minor foolishness, and only enjoys the company of my many cited friends by the flimsiest of associations, but, if I can “facebook” 100 people I haven’t seen since high school, certainly, I can “friend” a few of the world’s great clowns.