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Thoughts on “Don Juan in Hell” by Charles Baudelaire

Painting by Carlos Schwabe

The night Don Juan came to pay his fees
To Charon, by the caverned water’s shore,
A beggar, proud-eyed as Antisthenes,
Stretched out his knotted fingers on the oar.

Mournful, with drooping breasts and robes unsewn
The shapes of women swayed in ebon skies,
Trailing behind him with a restless moan
Like cattle herded for a sacrifice.

Here, grinning for his wage, stood Sganarelle,
And here Don Luis pointed, bent and dim,
To show the dead who lined the holes of Hell,
This was that impious son who mocked at him.

The hollow-eyed, the chaste Elvira came,
Trembling and veiled, to view her traitor spouse.
Was it one last bright smile she thought to claim,
Such as made sweet the morning of his vows?

A great stone man rose like a tower on board,
Stood at the helm and cleft the flood profound:
But the calm hero, leaning on his sword,
Gazed back, and would not offer one look round.

(translation by James Elroy Flecker)

So I read this poem through a couple times, and had no sense on what Baudelaire was expressing. Mainly, because I did not understand all the references within the text. So I systematically went through and looked up all the references, and then the meaning became clear. So before I provide my interpretation of the poem as a whole, let me quickly share what I found regarding all the names mentioned in the text.

Charon was easy enough—the ferryman who brings the souls of the dead across the River Styx to the Underworld. Antisthenes, I discovered, was a pupil of Socrates and was known for being very ethical and “advocating an ascetic life lived in accordance with virtue.” (Source) Sganarelle is a one-act play by Moliere, also coined “The Imaginary Cuckold.” “The story deals with the consequences of jealously and hasty assumptions in a farcical series of quarrels and misunderstandings involving Sganarelle (the imagined cuckold of the title), his wife, and the young lovers, Célie and Lélie.” (Source) Don Luis had a bet with Don Juan to see who could “conquer more women and kill more men than the other,” a bet which Don Juan won. (Source) And finally, Elvira is a reference to Donna Elvira, a lady of Burgos abandoned by Don Giovanni in the Mozart opera. (Source)

So, now that all the references are cleared up, we can look at the poem as a whole.

Don Juan is the antithesis of Antisthenes. He is an unrepentant womanizer and someone ruled by his baser desires. On his journey into Hell, he looks around at the souls of those he destroyed and used, and feels no remorse whatsoever. In fact, one gets the sense that he almost feels a sense of pride in regard to his past exploits.

So how does Baudelaire feel about Don Juan? This is less clear. I suspect that Baudelaire wishes he could be more like Don Juan, trampling through life ruled solely by his passions and not caring about people who he may use and hurt along the way. But my impression is that Baudelaire is not as void of feelings for others as he may appear. While it may make things easier for him to not harbor emotions for others, he does, and even though he is prone to giving in to his desires, he feels remorse, unlike his anti-hero Don Juan.

These are just my thoughts on the poem. If you have other thoughts or insights, I’d love to hear them. Feel free to share in the comments section. Cheers!

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Final Thoughts on “Don Quixote”

The Death of Don Quixote — Gustave Dore

The Death of Don Quixote — Gustave Dore

So I finally finished Don Quixote, and I figured I would give my overall impression and final thoughts, since I published a whole series of posts exploring specific aspects of the text (see links below).

As a whole, I liked this book a lot. It was funny yet thought-provoking. It’s pretty much an easy read (although quite long) and the story holds up well today, since it deals with some universal truths about humanity.

I really related to both Sancho and Don Quixote as characters, because they are essentially outcasts, as well as archetypes of creative and passionate people. And like most creative and romantic outcasts, they are picked on, ridiculed, and taunted by people who are more popular, richer, and “smarter” than they are. But in spite of all the abuse, the two remain steadfast in their ideals and follow their passions until the end. This is something I admire greatly.

It is a person’s dreams, imagination, and aspirations that make life meaningful and worth living. When deprived of these, we lose our will to live and we begin the process of dying. This is what happened to Don Quixote when he was defeated and had to relinquish living as a knight-errant.

But for all this, Don Quixote could not shake off his sadness. His friends called in the doctor, who felt his pulse and was not very well satisfied with it, and said that in any case it would be well for him to attend to the health of his soul, as that of his body was in a bad way. Don Quixote heard this calmly; but not so the housekeeper, his niece, and his squire, who fell weeping bitterly, as if they had him lying dead before them. The doctor’s opinion was that melancholy and depression were bringing him to his end.

(p. 1124)

The only way that feels right in bringing this blog series to a close is to share the epitaph for Don Quixote’s tomb:

A doughty gentleman lies here;
A stranger all his life to fear;
Nor in his death could Death prevail,
In that last hour, to make him quail.

He for the world but little cared;
And at his feats the world was scared;
A crazy man his life he passed,
But in his senses died at last.


For those of you who are interested, here are the links to my previous posts on the book:

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Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 8: Anti-Government Sentiment

donquixote_cover

I think it is a pretty safe assertion that most people today at one point in their lives have had a negative view of government. We see the corruption, the bickering, the greed, and the meanness that permeates the institution. Well, if it is any consolation, these feelings have been around probably as long as there have been governments, so it’s not surprising that we find instances of anti-government sentiment in Don  Quixote.

The first one I will share is when Sancho is telling his wife of his plans to become a governor. Teresa’s anti-government stance is borderline anarchist, where she feels that no government is good.

“Nay, then, husband,” said Teresa; “let the hen live, though it be with her pip, live, and let the devil take all the governments in the world; you came out of your mother’s womb without a government, you lived until now without a government, and when it is God’s will you will go, or be carried, to your grave without a government. How many people are there in the world who live without a government, and continue to live all the same, and are reckoned in the number of people…”

(p. 574)

It is later asserted that even an idiot can become a governor, that education and intelligence are not requisite for being in the government.

… and moreover, we know already ample experience that it does not require much cleverness or much learning to be a governor, for there are a hundred round about us that scarcely know how to read, and govern like gerfalcons.

(p. 803)

And finally, one that made me chuckle. When discussing whether Sancho should bring his donkey Dapple with him to govern, Sancho point out that there is no shortage of asses in government.

“Don’t think, senora duchess, that you have said anything absurd,” said Sancho; “I have seen more than two asses go to governments, and for me to take mine with me would be nothing new.”

(p. 814)

As I watch how uncivil our government and democratic process have become, it becomes apparent that it is the loudest, craftiest, and most offensive who are winning in the political arena. With that in mind, I’ll leave you with one last quote:

God help us, this world is all machinations and schemes at cross purposes one with the other.

(p. 775)

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“Man and the Sea” by Charles Baudelaire

Painting by Ivan Aivazovsky

Painting by Ivan Aivazovsky

Always, unfettered man, you will cherish the sea!
The sea your mirror, you look into your mind
In its eternal billows surging without end
And its gulfs are bitter, so must your spirit be.

You plunge with joy into this image of your own:
You hug it with your eyes and arms; your heart
Forgets for a time its noisy beat, becomes a part
Of a greater, more savage and less tameable moan.

In your own ways, you both are brooding and discreet:
Man, no one has mapped your chasm’s hidden floor,
Oh sea, no one knows your inmost riches, for
Your jealousy hides secrets none can repeat.

As the uncounted swarm of centuries gathers
You two have fought without pity or remorse, both
From sheer love of the slaughter and of death,
Oh, eternal wrestlers, oh, relentless brothers!

(translation by Ruthven Todd)

The use of the sea as a metaphor for the subconscious mind is not unusual in literature, but this may be one of the most clear examples of it. Right in the first stanza, Baudelaire describes the sea as a mirror that allows you to “look into your mind.”

The second stanza intrigues me. The idea that is expressed is that once a person connects with his or her subconscious mind, then that person loses awareness of his conscious self. One’s ordinary awareness is replaced by something primordial, something that exists in the deepest recesses of the psyche.

In the third stanza, we are faced with the mystery of consciousness. The subconscious mind is something that cannot be fathomed or comprehended by our normal state of awareness. Like the divine spirit, it is ineffable.

This brings us to the fourth and final stanza. We have here a struggle, between the rational and the emotional, between the physical and the spiritual, between our inner good and our inner decadence. But what Baudelaire does so eloquently is that he ties these personal internal struggles in with the greater cosmic struggles. The “eternal wrestlers” and “relentless brothers” conjure images Jacob wrestling the angel, as well as Jacob’s struggle with Esau.

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Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 7: The Stream of the Subconscious

Image Source - USF

Image Source – USF

In my previous post on Don Quixote, I explored the cave as a symbol for the subconscious mind. In this post, we will look at the river as a symbol for the stream of the subconscious.

After recovering from the experience of the cave, Sancho and Don Quixote arrive at the bank of the river Ebro. As they gaze into the water, there is an immediate but gentle shift in consciousness.

By stages as already described or left undescribed, two days after quitting the grove Don Quixote and Sancho reached the river Ebro, and the sight of it was a great delight to Don Quixote as he contemplated and gazed upon the charms of it banks, the clearness of its stream, the gentleness of its current and the abundance of its crystal waters; and the pleasant view revived a thousand tender thoughts in his mind.

(p. 769)

They discover a bark, which is a type of boat, and use it to set forth upon the river. As they embark, they feel a sense of trepidation, which signals that they are about to enter into an uncharted region of the psyche.

“Now they are tied,” said Sancho; “what are we to do next?”

“What?” said Don Quixote, “cross ourselves and weigh anchor; I mean, embark and cut the moorings by which the bark is held;” and the bark began to drift away slowly from the bank. But when Sancho saw himself somewhere about two yards out in the river, he began to tremble and give himself up for lost;

(p. 770)

The stream represents individual consciousness, which flows into the ocean, which is a symbol for the divine consciousness.

Art thou, perchance, tramping barefoot over the Riphaean mountains, instead of being seated on a bench like an archduke on the tranquil stream of this pleasant river, from which in a short space we shall come out upon the broad sea?

(p. 771)

The next passage I want to share is my favorite from this section. It is often believed that one must use mysticism or the occult in order to connect with the subconscious and ultimately the divine consciousness, but that is not the case. This is something that occurs naturally and effortlessly, once you calm the mind and open yourself to the flow of consciousness.

… and shaking his fingers he washed his whole hand in the river along which the boat was quietly gliding in midstream, not moved by any occult intelligence or invisible enchantment, but simply by the current, just there smooth and gentle.

(p. 773)

The genius of this book so far for me is how Cervantes is able to weave in rich mystical and spiritual ideas in a tale that is farcical and at times downright funny. Stay tuned for my next installment.

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Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 6: The Symbolism of the Cave

donquixote_cave

On a hero’s journey, the hero often goes through a symbolic exploration of the subconscious mind. This can be represented by the hero going into water, the underworld, or a cave. For this reason, I was not surprised when Don Quixote entered a cave and explored the abyss within, emerging with an expanded consciousness.

Before undertaking a daunting task, heroes will summon strength from an outside source. Before entering the cave, Don Quixote calls upon Dulcinea for protection and guidance upon his journey into the underworld.

“O mistress of my actions and movements, illustrious and peerless Dulcinea del Toboso, if so be the prayers and supplications of this fortunate lover can reach thy ears, by thy incomparable beauty I entreat thee to listen to them, for they but ask thee not to refuse my favour and protection now that I stand in need of them. I am about to precipitate, to sink, to plunge myself into the abyss that is here before me, only to let the world know that while thou dost favour me there is no impossibility I will not attempt and accomplish.”

(p. 716)

After Don Quixote reemerges from the cave, he relates his experience to his companions. The visions he describes are consistent with altered states of consciousness. He actually describes how he slipped into a state of reverie prior to the shift in awareness that brought on the mystical visions.

“… and as I was thus deep in thought and perplexity, suddenly and without provocation a profound sleep fell upon me, and when I least expected it, I know not how, I awoke and found myself in the midst of the most beautiful, delightful meadow that nature could produce or the most lively human imagination conceive. I opened my eyes, I rubbed them, and found I was not asleep but thoroughly awake. Nevertheless, I felt my head and breast to satisfy myself whether it was I myself who was there or some empty delusive phantom; but touch, feeling, the collected thoughts that passed through my mind, all convinced me that I was the same then and there that I am this moment. Next there presented itself to my sight a stately royal palace or castle, with walls that seemed built of clear transparent crystal; and through two great doors that opened wide therein, I saw coming forth and advancing toward me a venerable old man, clad in a long gown of mulberry-coloured serge that trailed upon the ground.”

(pp. 719 – 720)

The old man that Don Quixote encountered was Montesinos, but I could not help but seeing him as a Merlin figure. In fact, Merlin is mentioned later in the chapter as having prophesized the arrival of Don Quixote (p. 723). And the castle being made of crystal corresponds to the crystal cave of the Merlin mythology.

The last thing I want to discuss is the distortion of time associated with altered states of consciousness.

“I cannot understand, Senor Don Quixote,” remarked the cousin here, “how it is that your worship, in such a short space of time as you have been below there, could have seen so many things, and said and answered so much.”

“How long is it since I went down?” asked Don Quixote.

“Little better than an hour,” replied Sancho.

“That cannot be,” returned Don Quixote, “because night overtook me while I was there, and day came, and it was night again and day again three times; so that, by my reckoning, I have been three days in those remote regions beyond our ken.”

“My master must be right,” replied Sancho, “for as everything that has happened to him is by enchantment, maybe what seems to us an hour would seem three days and nights there.”

(p. 725)

In addition to the distortion of time, there is some number mysticism woven in here. We have three days existing within one hour, or three comprising the one. I cannot help but wonder if this is a reference to the trinity forming the godhead (father, son, holy ghost), or the mind/body/spirit trinity within a human being. Additionally, it could be symbolic of the triple goddess (maiden, mother, crone). Regardless, we have a situation where the hero travels to the underworld, encounters a mystical being, experiences time distortion, and is presented with the number three as being connected to the mystical experience.

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Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 5: A Sonnet on Sancho Panza

sanchopanzastatue

The worthy Sancho Panza here you see;
A great soul once was in that body small,
Nor was there squire upon this earthly ball
So plain and simple, or of guile so free.
Within an ace of being Count was he,
And would have been but for the spite and gall
Of this vile age, mean and illiberal,
That cannot even let a donkey be.
For mounted on an ass (excuse the word),
By Rocinante’s side this gentle squire
Was wont his wandering master to attend.
Delusive hopes that lure the common herd
With promise of ease, the heart’s desire,
In shadows, dreams, and smoke ye always end.

(p. 538)

I find this sonnet, which appears near the end of Volume 1 of the text, both sad and sweet. On one hand, there is something so admirable about Sancho. He is a faithful and steadfast friend, who is always seeking to do the right thing. But alas, Sancho, for all his kindness, has one human flaw—the desire for comfort and ease.

As is often the case, seeking quick and easy comfort can lead you down the road that culminates in broken dreams, ashes, and sadness. The idea of comfort, for too many people, is nothing but the smoke of a pipe dream. And this is the case with Sancho. And sadly, as I look around me, I see so many people who share Sancho’s flaw. They think that following this leader or that idea will bring quick happiness and contentment. “If this person is elected, then all my problems will vanish and I will enjoy the American Dream.” But that is all it is; a dream.

There is a lot we can learn from Sancho Panza. It is important to be truthful, to be a good friend, to be trustworthy, and to follow our dreams; but we should also be careful not to pursue shadows or let our dreams lead us down roads that take us nowhere. There needs to be a balance between dreams and reality, between hope and striving. If we are not willing to do the hard work, then our dreams will never become realities.

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