From the November, 2005 issue of Touchstone

An Ironic Folly by Anthony Esolen

An Ironic Folly

On the Divine Wisdom of Tilting at Windmills

by Anthony Esolen

You’ve always considered yourself blessed with a fine sense of humor. But now, dragooned into a museum of art, you stand before a room full of commodes, and all you do is furrow your brow. “You don’t appreciate the irony,” your learned companion explains.

“Postmodern irony” they call it nowadays, and say it’s a laugh at the pretense of modernity to explain the universe by a single totalizing system or idea: industry, science, sexual repression, Communism, whatever. Some Christians go along, believing that the small nasty demon who tweaks the nose of the big nasty demon can’t be so bad.

There is something to be said for skepticism (one of those totalizing ideas being the movement of mankind from religious superstition to secular enlightenment), but there’s nothing new about irony that refuses to take anything seriously, faithful only to its own fickleness, flitting from tradition to tradition. It’s called irreverence. Nor is it clear which of the demons is the more dangerous: Is it really worse to worship a false god than to fail to sit still long enough to worship any god at all?

In my profession, literary studies, great works are commonly read and taught with a sneer: Odysseus was a vicious imbecile, Augustine hated women, Huck was a racist. Certain authors whose genius thrives in the garden of comedy are lauded, but for the wrong reasons—as if their comedy were our puerility writ large. One such author is Miguel de Cervantes, the first part of whose masterpiece Don Quixote this year celebrates its 400th birthday. Beware the praise.

Now the odd thing about that field of commodes ( Flushing Meadows it was called; I am not making this up) is that it is not very funny, while the work of Cervantes is. The man who believes in nothing but irony misses a lot of grand things in this world—including irony. For, as Cervantes knew, and as Christians had better know, the reverent man is the greatest fool of all. What else should he be, when the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men?

But to see more clearly why we ought to read Cervantes and heed the folly he whispers into our ears, tarry with me while I introduce you to the great ironist and lesser man who came before him: Ludovico Ariosto.

The Mad Count

The brave Count Orlando had brought his ladylove from far Cathay to France, against rival lovers and enchanters, giants and infidels. He had lost her again in the chaos when the detested Saracens stormed Paris.

Ever since, he had combed Europe looking for her, and with the most fantastic geographical celerity. He had met many adventures along the way, restoring to a princess her kingdom and her betrothed, and saving the same damsel—after her faithless lover had abandoned her on an uninhabited isle—from serving as naked breakfast to an orc. He had wasted weeks in a wizard’s castle where round every corner he seemed to hear, in distress, the voice of his fair Angelica. In short, he’d had a time of it.

Finally he happens upon a pastoral hideaway. There he reads the dread words “Angelica loves Medoro” carved upon the trees, and finds poems to fill in the details. He goes quite mad—not that he was sure of his wits before. He tears off his clothes, uproots trees, fells oxen with a single blow, flings a poor shepherd half a mile through the air, rides a horse to death and then drags the beast behind him.

The Christian host of Charlemagne, whom he has long abandoned on his quest for love, cannot defeat the Saracens without him. And where is he? Marauding across Europe, naked and sputtering gibberish and so blind that he storms past Angelica on the seashore without recognizing her.

But the Lord will not abandon his own. An English duke on a flying horse—you expected a Swede?—alights atop the very mountain whither God had removed Eden after that unpleasantry with the serpent and apple. There he is greeted by St. John in the flesh, who tells him that Orlando’s wits have to be recovered for the sake of the holy armies. Human wits are light and easy to lose, flying like vapors up to the moon, along with all sorts of vanity and folly: the sighs of lovers, the flattery of courtiers, the promises of patrons.

So John takes the duke up to the moon in the hot chariot that once spirited Elijah away—a gift from his friend and Lord. There they find what they’re looking for, in a bottle—what else?—labeled “Orlando’s Wits.”

So goes just one of the cunningly interwoven tales of folly (and courage and magnanimity) in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (Crazy Roland). When his patron, the cardinal of Ferrara, read it, he remarked, “Messer Ludovico, where did you get all these silly stories?” Gloriously silly they are, with rings of invisibility, a magic dog, the lost armor of Hector of Troy, knights who can shishkebob their opponents five on a lance, warrior maidens in love, and a perfectly scabrous tale involving a queen and a dwarf.

Alchemist Ariosto

But Ariosto was one alchemist of a poet, turning popular lead into courtly gold. His poem continued and “perfected” the popular romances that for centuries had sprung up around the figures of Charlemagne and Roland. Those were easy enough to parody, nor was Ariosto the first. But he was too smart, and too much fun, to be only a mocker. His range runs from the delicately sweet to the fantastic and ribald, always witty, and always casting a shrewd eye upon man’s folly, both the wicked and the generous. It is true that not even Christianity escapes the author’s ironic wit: St. John recommends that patrons take good care of poets, who, fortunately for patrons, don’t always tell the truth (Helen was chaste, and Penelope a whore). After all, he says, look at the reward I received from my patron!

A line like that makes the postmodern eyes roll heavenward, if there be a heavenward. “Then St. John was a liar! This Ariosto is an author after my own heart. He takes nothing seriously!”

Not so fast. That scabrous tale I mentioned—wherein a young tart hemmed in bed between her two keepers manages to cheat them both at once—is really aimed at human frailty and folly, and decks in motley a genuine plea for forbearance and forgiveness. The moral is that we should make the best of people as we find them—even our wives, and live with them and love them in peace. Orlando himself is a comic figure because he is genuinely good (though a perfect imbecile in love), and that goodness lends Ariosto the opportunity to laugh heartily and innocently at his, and our, failings.

Ariosto’s irony is a hand on the shoulder, to nudge us back to common sense and something more or less akin to Christian faith. But here I think the greater Christian and the greater wit found his literary task. While Ariosto smiled indulgently at our folly in love, showing us, too, that we could hardly live well without it, he never probed the deep meaning of Christian folly. His urbanity prevented it. Cervantes would probe that meaning, by giving it the flesh and blood of two of the greatest characters ever to ride across the pages of literature.

A Fool’s Life

Advance eighty years, to the study of a middle-aged man whose fortune is out at elbows. He is a prolific poet and playwright, but all his work has not kept him from the debtor’s prison. He is missing an arm, lost when he was a young soldier at Lepanto (1571), where the navy of the outnumbered Christian allies smashed the great Turkish fleet and destroyed Muslim dominance in the Mediterranean once and for all.

At that battle, “when the insolent pride of the Ottomans was broken forever,” to quote one of his fictional characters, Cervantes was one of the few Christians taken prisoner. He spent several years as a slave, but so valiant he was—and so imaginative and wily—that “his master never so much as struck him, nor bade anyone else strike him, nor even spoke a rough word to him, though he did things which those people will remember for many years.” Three times he tried to escape and failed; finally he was ransomed and returned to his native Spain.

He had lived a fool’s life, this Cervantes. He was none of your taffeta-ruffed sophisticates, dining with agnostic prelates, amusing the court ladies of Ferrara. He knew the court, but unlike Ariosto he also knew the docks and the barracks and the galleys. That hard and humbling life never left him. By the voice of his most famous character, a fellow madman, he stoutly maintained that the profession of arms was superior to the profession of letters. We may say that it is superior precisely because no sane man would enter it, if by sanity we mean a cold reckoning of advantages to oneself:

But though [the sailor] sees in front of him countless pieces of artillery threatening from the enemy’s side, each a minister of death, and no more than a spear’s length from his body; and though he knows that at his first careless step he will go down to visit the deep bosom of Neptune, nevertheless with undaunted heart, sustained by the honor which spurs him on, he exposes himself as a mark for all their shot, and endeavours to pass along that narrow causeway into the enemy’s ship.

Why should the fool fight? Not for gold, nor glory, but, as the madman says, for peace. A Christian soldier of all men should know how great a good that is:

For the first good news the world and mankind received was proclaimed by the angels on that night which was our day, when they sang in the sky: “ Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to men of good will”; and the greeting which the best Master on earth or in Heaven taught His favoured disciples to give when they entered a house was: “ Peace be to this house.

Hoisting Ariosto

No, Cervantes would not have traded that heroic day at Lepanto for all the gold in the mines of Potosi. Well that he retained his loyalty to Christ and Spain. For the idea came to him at last to hoist Ariosto by his own petard. If Ariosto poked fun at the tales of chivalry by having the great Orlando run mad for love, Cervantes would do him better.

He would have his hero run mad by the mere reading of the tales of romances, including Ariosto’s! And while Ariosto sometimes suggests that all our convictions, even the religious, may be the fun-house refractions of our foolish desires, Cervantes will turn the flank of his opponent, showing that one folly above all beats warmly at the heart of life, the folly of him who says that we must lose our lives in order to save them.

Cervantes is still read, but as if he were the lesser man Ariosto, who seems to give certitude with one hand and take it away with the other. Because Cervantes was a man of broad experience with the world, careful and discriminating in his views, large-hearted and forgiving of mankind, a patriot yet no nationalist, we find it easy to ascribe to that old champion our own agnostic tics and ironical lassitude. He was no prig; therefore, he could be no man of faith. But the joke is on us.

Doubtless Don Quixote opens as a savage satire against the pretentiousness of the chivalric romances. The hapless Feliciano de Silva must forever be remembered as the twit who wrote sentences like these: “The reason for the unreason with which you treat my reason, so weakens my reason that with reason I complain of your beauty.”

Who would not go mad reading such stuff? Our good fellow Don Alonso Quexana, soon to call himself Quixote, spends so many sleepless nights trying to decipher it that his brain dries up, and he fills his mind with “enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, wooings, loves, torments and other impossible nonsense.” Taking down a rusty sword and trussing up a pasteboard helmet with ribbons, he mounts his horse christened Rocinante, “Hacker”—and sallies forth to succor widows and orphans and redress wrongs.

Cervantes punishes the poor Don’s folly with brute physical humor. Charge a vanguard of giants waving their monstrous limbs? Be brought to the earth by the arms of dumb windmills, and with such force that “it shivered his weapon in pieces, dragging the horse and his rider with it, and sent the knight rolling badly injured across the plain.”

Concoct—and drink!—a magic “balsam” that would heal a man cleft in two, if the halves were laid carefully beside one another and smeared with the oil? Suffer cold sweat and cramps and purgation “at both ends.” Liberate a file of criminals on their way to the galleys, and require for their gratitude that they present themselves to your imagined lady, the fair Dulcinea del Toboso? Be stoned and stripped and robbed for your pains.

Other Madnesses

But even while we laugh at Don Quixote’s pratfalls, Cervantes begins subtly to show that other people, apparently sane, are quite as mad as the knight. Thus we have the tale of one Chrysostom, a poet who pines away and dies for unrequited love of a young lady whose caprice is to dress up as a shepherdess and live virginally upon the hills.

Or the tale of one Anselmo, so stupidly jealous of his wife’s chastity that he pleads with his best friend, Lothario (yes, Lothario), to test her by wooing her while he is away. And when at first Lothario indignantly declines, Anselmo accuses him of betraying their friendship. The outcome? Only guess. Or the fantasies of the Don’s “squire,” Sancho Panza (the Holier Paunch), dreaming of the government of an isle that will be his if only he perseveres in accompanying his master on his great adventures.

Does Cervantes then suggest that man’s life is one great fabric of delusion? Only a fool would believe so. For while Don Quixote will mistake two herds of sheep for armies about to clash upon the plains, he does not mistake other, more important things. In his discourses on anything else—literature, raising sons, bearing arms, the duty of a friend, the administration of justice, and the essence of the Gospels—Don Quixote astounds his audience by his intelligence and humanity. These qualities flash forth throughout the work and are the ironic descant upon the easier ironies of parody and satire.

For example, when the good knight shows up at his first “castle,” a shabby wayside inn, he meets “two young women of easy virtue.” When these burst into laughter upon being called “maidens,” Don Quixote remarks with a severe kindness that civility better befits the fair sex, and that “laughter arising from trivial causes is, moreover, great folly.” He is right about that. Of course it is ironic that he should mistake las putanas for ladies; but the ladies have committed the more foolish mistake of making themselves into putanas in the first place. The knight admires what they ought to be. If he is a fool, then such a fool is any good man.

Small Readers

Indeed, Cervantes is out to fool us while we enjoy the antics of the fool. Don Quixote’s delusion that he is a knight-errant has a strong streak of pride in it, but his desire to be that succor for the weak and the poor is but the grand folly of the imitatio Christi, and we readers appear small by comparison. Errantry may be his delusion, but it has grown up entangled with true wheat: valor, generosity, purity, and humility.

When one evening he and the hungry Sancho join a group of goatherds at supper, Sancho tries to take his portion apart from the rest, where he can “sneeze and cough” when he likes, and “do any of those other things which solitude and freedom allow of.” Sancho would renounce for an hour the honor of being Don Quixote’s squire, but that pretense of humility is mere selfishness. The knight’s reply is swift and apropos: “You must sit down all the same, for whosoever humbleth himself, God doth exalt.”

Indeed, unless he is rescuing a statue of the Virgin Mary from her processional “captors,” or winning from a poor barber the shaving basin he insists is the “helmet of Mambrino,” Don Quixote is much loved among people who know him in his village, and is admired by the wiser sorts who meet him on the road. He is easy to love, because he possesses the wisdom of a man who submits to divine law, but who can come to terms with sinners as they are.

So, for instance, he dissuades a posse of men ready to avenge themselves for the ridicule they have suffered from a neighboring town. What a fine mess it would be, if everyone were so rash:

No, no! God does not permit or desire that. Prudent men and well-ordered states must take up arms, unsheathe their swords, and imperil their persons, their lives and their goods for four causes only. Firstly, to defend the Catholic faith; secondly, in self-defence, which is permitted by natural law and divine; thirdly, in defence of honour, family and estates; fourthly, in their king’s service in a just war . . . But whoever takes them up for trifles is . . . lacking in all common sense. Besides, the taking of unjust vengeance—and no vengeance can be just—goes directly against the sacred law we profess, by which we are commanded to do good to our enemies and to love those who hate us.

Lest the reader suppose that Don Quixote has a touch of the too-good about him, he should recall the plenty of head-bustings that fill the book, for our hero has a temper, and the knight is of such wide sympathy that he will even argue that a well-governed state will provide men of discretion to be procurers.

Sensible Ideals

Against all expectations, in Part Two of his work Cervantes arranges it that Don Quixote “wins” an island for Sancho to govern—wins it through the connivance of a duke and duchess who have read Part One and who want to keep him and Sancho around for awhile, to marvel at his wisdom and madness, and to have some fun.

The knight then takes Sancho aside to advise him about governing. In eloquent and concise form, Cervantes places in Don Quixote’s mouth Christian ideals and hardheaded good sense. We might be overhearing another wise fool, Thomas More, recommending both the fear of God and a humble confession of one’s human weakness:

Consider the culprit who comes before you for judgment as a wretched man, subject to the conditions of our depraved nature, and so far as in you lies without injury to the contrary party, show yourself pitiful and lenient; for although all godlike attributes are equal, mercy is more precious and resplendent in our sight than justice.

To good profit are such words and many others spoken. Sancho will give his master credit for his precepts. The fat apostle proves to be a modern Solomon, solving cases that Cervantes devises to stump the “wise” reader.

But Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are not only wise fools in their own right. A truly Christian folly can never be lived alone. Quixote and Sancho are wise fools together. We behold developing in Cervantes’s tapestry of adventures something unprecedented in literature, something that echoes the sounds of a certain carpenter calling fishermen at the Sea of Galilee. It is the friendship of a nobleman with a peasant, bound by Christian charity. For when Sancho is away for a week governing his isle, the good Don “felt his loneliness” and writes to him, with more wise instructions, closing, “Your friend, Don Quixote de la Mancha.”

Your “friend”—nothing of the sort is imaginable in Ariosto, much less in the imaginations of well-heeled modern critics. It is a new folly in the world. The same raffish Sancho whose homely and ill-strung proverbs drive Don Quixote wild—with whom he has had his share of scuffles and pummelings, difficulties in eating and the easing of other humble bodily needs, but also sleepless nights, and long conversations about love and virtue and his particular enemy, the enchanter Alifanfaron—this Sancho is Don Quixote’s friend.

And Sancho himself, half suspecting that his master is not in his right mind, yet will not leave him. For of such is the kingdom of heaven. Says Sancho to a neighbor in disguise, who tries to persuade him to quit squiring and come home:

His soul is as clean as a pitcher. He can do no harm to anyone, only good to everybody. There’s no malice in him. A child might make him believe it’s night at noonday. And for that simplicity I love him as dearly as my heartstrings, and can’t take to the idea of leaving him for all his wild tricks.

A Holy Simplicity

A holy simplicity, like that of St. Francis, dwells in the knight of La Mancha. No doubt he is a sinner, too, proud and rash—Cervantes was no sentimentalist—but we might wish for some of the knight’s folly.

The irony of the book turns finally against all those who see only irony. It is not quite correct to say that Don Quixote seems foolish but really is wise. The man indeed is a fool, as we all should be. For the author, too, loves his knight as dearly as his heartstrings, and so will give him good company for his knighthood.

Late in the book, as the knight has been growing gradually more aware of his fits of madness, he and Sancho meet some men taking statues to town for a religious play. When the knight asks to see the icons—he is winningly curious about everything and everyone, like a child—he is shown St. George, “mounted on horseback with his lance thrust through the mouth of a serpent.”

Says he with wonder, and with a resurgence of madness that strikes the truth: “This knight was one of the best errants in all the Heavenly Host,” and “he was an especial defender of maidens.” Of St. Martin of Tours: “This knight too was one of the Christian adventurers, and I believe he was even more generous than valiant,” as witness his parting of his cloak with the beggar.

His praise of St. Paul is unmatched for simple eloquence:

This was the greatest enemy our Lord God’s church had in his time, and the best defender it will ever have—a knight errant by his life and a peaceful saint in his death, a tireless labourer in the vineyard of the Lord and teacher of the Gentiles. He had Heaven for his school and Jesus Christ Himself for his professor and master.

Shipwrecked and stoned, whipped and beaten, arrested here and sent packing there, taken up into the heaven of heavens to see what tongue could not utter nor the mind of man conceive, St. Paul committed the folly of faith, traversing the Roman world winning souls for Christ.

Folly Restored

If this be folly, who would not be a fool? The reader suspects that Don Quixote must eventually be restored to his senses—it is the aim of his niece and his housekeeper, and of his friends the parish priest and the barber, physicians of the soul and of the body. He will be scoured clean of every trace of pride. His last valorous act will be to die well, a sane Christian, having sworn enmity against those dastardly books of chivalry; but his valor, his faith, his charity, and his humility endure.

No longer Don Quixote de la Mancha, but Don Alonso Quexana, surnamed The Good by his fellow villagers, he thus reveals in his bequest to Sancho his devotion to a folly that raises man to wisdom:

And if when I was mad I was party to giving him the governorship of an isle, now that I am sane I would give him a kingdom, were I able, for the simplicity of his nature and the fidelity of his conduct deserve it.

So would we raise you too, Knight of the Sad Countenance. When knights no longer wander the hills, and when all are in the grip of the most malignant enchanter of them all, the Adversary who persuades us that windmills are only windmills and damsels only damsels, we need rather more folly, not less. We need those fools who will defend us with the strength of their arms and the edge of their swords, “beneath no roof but the open sky, exposed to the intolerable beams of the sun in summer and the biting frosts in winter.” We need the folly of the cross.

So, good reader, the next time you see those great arms waving against the sky, have a tilt at the giant for the knight’s sake—and for his Master’s. •

Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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