A Masthead for Vagabonds, Drunkards and Saints

New Beginnings

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 ErrantThe 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.

10 Responses to New Beginnings

  1. Bravo! It’s a good start.

    Your topic, that if you “want to be a knight, be a knight,” reminded me of something I picked up recently. I’ll risk making flesh of angels to offer an article I picked up on the topic of identity:

    http://www.physorg.com/news/2010-10-true-psychologist-publishes-authentic.html

    “Staying true to yourself and not changing your personality to fit different situations is highly valued in Western culture. Shakespeare’s famous line “to thine own self be true,” has been echoed across the centuries by parents, pop singers and motivational speakers.

    “But, in a new study published in the Journal of Personality, Wake Forest University psychologist William Fleeson found “being true to yourself” often means acting counter to your own personality traits.”

    It goes on to say that what we consider our “really real” self is often the nicer, more extroverted self. It suggests our “true self” is the better self, however we conceive it.

    And I would add that it does no disservice to the idea to suggest the “heart of hearts” isn’t a material thing, and it isn’t “real” in a sense. It’s only real insomuch as we make it real. So, congratulations on making your own reality, your own world here, and I wish you the very best luck returning to that place of truth that is true insofar as you make it so.

    • C.T. Webb says:

      Thanks for the article. No disservice, at all, but I’m not sure I believe that meanings, or realities for that matter, can be assembled like automobiles from the raw bits of the world. We are born into a world of meanings, and those meanings are more than arbitrary and often impervious to the will, perhaps for no other reason than history distorts possibility the way a planet distorts space. It is certainly true that the West is obsessed with authenticity, and I’m more than a little sympathetic to the idea that the self is really a multiplicity of selves, but I still think that science, at this stage at least, is an indelicate tool for understanding the interior landscape, which, even if illusion, is an illusion which cannot be dispelled.

      This landscape may not be the twin to that landscape, but they’re really close cousins.

  2. Natasha says:

    Congrats, T!!! I’m very excited! I love the foreword, the name, and really appreciate the ideas. Can’t wait to read on!

  3. Seph says:

    This makes me think of how the American story may be a kind of nationalised, ideological version of the self-invention idea, with a good deal of structural economic and political support for it. I mean, I think even of one of the latest television crazes, Mad Men, and how the character at the centre of it, Don Draper, is completely self invented. The problem, of course, with that social model is that he, and people like him, end up cutting most familial ties to have that freedom, a new name, a new community.

    This is also been the difficulty for me with most literary characters who appear to represent a kind of freedom and almost boundless possibility: how do they make connections again? What are the terms for a real enlivening connection to those around the hero. You could look at Don Draper and not be very encouraged by the answer (albeit I have only seen season one).

    It is always a question for me: how to live, that is embody your ambition without turning into a wanderer, a stone skipping on the water. I wonder if someone has made the argument that the cast of fools following around Quixote might also very well be his inventions? He invented himself, why not the necessary accoutrements? I course it would have helped if I had actually read the novel.

    Perhaps another way to look at it is to follow up on an argument made by Collins, don’t recall the first name right now, who wrote a book on the formation of the nation state in England. He argues that as ecclesiastical means for redemption wane in their power over the populace, they are replaced by a belief in the state, ideologically becoming the primary means by which people see themselves: a citizen of Britain, and so on. Maybe this self invention, aside from being a unique, existential possibility is also a new religion to replace a waning Christianity, at least among those, like Draper (me for instance) who believe the universe is indifferent and self invention is the only possible means to wake up in a world in which you can act with intention and conviction, and even sometimes for free.

    Seph

  4. Larry says:

    Interesting start Travis. I’m definately looking forward to a few more smoke signals and the shape they take.

  5. I never heard of Socrates toast to Ae- – – – but always thought it was the best way to give up my last breath in life. Since the pre-teen years of being asked and coached by educators, counselors,parents and others “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, at 56 years old I still haven’t figured it out. But I damn well learned what I did NOT want to do or be so started a long list of choices which were NOT for me. Eventually I decided to keep it SIMPLE, live a life of learning and adventure, maintaining faith in myself and others rather than fear of the unknown and the strange.

    You’ve made a good start at blog writing and along with your own mental masturbation have managed to motivate me to give you some feedback. The way you merge your original thoughts with your exposure to others’ roles and lives from the past and in the present is creative and entertaining.

    Like the bible quotes Jesus, “I am that I am” reminds me of Popeye the Sailor Man saying, “I yam what I yam” and Buddha’s enlightenment is within each of us and each of us one with all. I don’t know any one faith which is worth following but believe “God” being must be having a good long laugh at all the things his creation has chosen to embrace. I know that death is the ultimate adventure as so many questions will be answered in a moment but meanwhile I plan to live forever.

    If you keep this blog alive and active you’ve accomplished more than I have managed to do, not being very self-disciplined, preferring to live life as spontaneously as possible.

  6. roclafamilia says:

    Helpful blog, bookmarked the website with hopes to read more!

  7. Ernie Redmond says:

    Your expanding acuity and development continues to fascinate me and stimulates some of my dormant brain cells. I look forward to more. Is there yet hope that the “manuscript” will be published and someday available to me on Kindle? Best regards to the boy Knight Liam.

    Ernie

  8. Camila says:

    “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” – Thoreau

    Keep going! You are truly spectacular!

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