May 30, 2016.
...for me, the modern world begins when Don Quixote de la Mancha, in 1605, leaves his village, goes out into the world, and discovers that the world does not resemble what he read about it.---Carlos Fuentes in his introduction to the 1986 edition of Tobias Smollett’s 1755 translation of Don Quixote De La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes.
When I tell you Bernie Sanders has been reminding me lately of Don Quixote, I’m not referring to any impossible dreaming or tilting at windmills on his part. I’m not suggesting you go looking for specific windmills he’s mistaken for giants or flocks of sheep for armies or rundown inns and disreputable taverns for castles and palaces or prostitutes for chaste and refined ladies of the court.
I’m not about to identify any peasants bribed into signing on as his squire by promises of political power, faithfully sticking by his side while still being voices of reason and offering realistic advice. It’s actually too bad for Bernie that he doesn’t appear to have any Sanchos riding with him.
I’m not trying to point out that the horse he’s mounted with pride isn’t the magnificent charger he’s insisting the rest of us see it as but a broken-down, swaybacked, old nag that can barely manage a trot nevermind a gallop into the lists or that the barber’s basin on his head isn’t the golden helmet he flatters himself that it is.
I’m certainly not calling him a crazy and deluded old man.
I’m not calling his campaign quixotic. It might have looked quixotic at the start but it has proven to be something else, a real political force for change and that at one point had the potential of upsetting the Democratic Party favorite. If he’d gotten started sooner and had been better prepared, he might have won.
I do think there’s a strong strain of nostalgia at work driving his campaign. A belief that once upon a time the Democratic Party was truly the progressive party and steadfast and passionate in its commitment to progressive policies and goals but now fallen and needing to be redeemed by the heroism of its still true-believing idealists. That’s quixotic.
But his campaign has been, objectively, a real and practical success. It’s been effective not just in exciting millions of voters and bringing them to the polls but in engaging them in the process of changing the country for the better. It’s forced important issues into the open and forced the Democratic Party in the person of their chosen standard-bearer and eventual leader to address those issues not just with respectful lip-service but with specific policies of her own to deal with those issues. It’s forced Hillary to run a more positive campaign instead of the defensive one she seemed inclined to back before Bernie got into it and stirred things up.
Bernie’s failed in that he failed to win the nomination. But success and failure are relative and always mixed. Considering how high the odds were stacked against him (The odds, not the deck.), what he’s achieved is astonishing. Nothing quixotic in that.
So when I tell you Bernie reminds me of Don Quixote, I mainly mean that he’s like Don Quixote in the way Carlos Fuentes implies we’re all like Don Quixote sometimes.
All of us are regularly---sometimes it seems daily---disappointed by the cruel reality that life isn’t what we’d like it to be, dream it could be, need it to be, and our reactions to the disappointment are to varying degrees quixotic.
We adjust. We accept. We compromise and we settle. We console ourselves with nostalgia for an idealized past and day-dreams of future heavens on earth. Ideally, we give ourselves the quixotic task of making the world more like the way we dream it could and should be. Short of that, we try to live up to the ideal in our own daily dealings with the world. More often, however, we deny the hard truths and pretend things are just fine and go about our business as if life is what we imagine it to be.
All of that is quixotic and makes all of us at one time or another versions of Don Quixote.
Of course, the most Don Quixote-like thing to do is go mad and retreat into dreams and fantasies.
There are two Don Quixotes jousting for pre-eminence in our collective imagination. Both go mad but to different effect. The first is the Don Quixote of the musical Man of La Mancha. The second is the Don Quixote of Cervantes’ novel. He’s the more ridiculous Don Quixote, which make the more realistic and instructive character.
The Don Quixote of the musical, which opened on Broadway in 1965, is a pure product of the 1960s. His is an idealized madness. It’s the madness of an innocent soul who’s rejected the “sanity” of Cold War America with all its materialism and greed, racism, sexual repression, conformity masquerading as selfish individualism. Don Quixote is “mad” because he refuses to accept that the way things are are the way they have to be. He’s an impossible dreamer. Someone who sees the world as it could be and asks “Why not?”
His fantasy that he’s a knight on a quest to redeem the world isn’t so much a delusion as a self-idealization. In declaring himself a knight-errant he’s declaring that his ideal self is his true self and he’s going to live out that ideal. And one of his successes is to convince at least one other person,the tavern wench Aldonza, that her ideal self, the Lady Dulcinea, is her real self. The moral of the story, then, is that the hero’s quest is to convince people to live up to their ideal selves.
It makes perfect sense that Bobby Kennedy loved Man of La Mancha and “The Impossible Dream” was one of his favorite songs---according to Evan Thomas in his biography of Kennedy, RFK saw the original Broadway production three times and played the soundtrack over and over at home “until guests became accustomed to the sound, like elevator music.”
But Cervantes’ Don Quixote is an ordinary old man who’s lived a too quiet life. Tired of being a boring stay-at-home he decides to make his life interesting (and make himself more interesting to others and to himself), and sallies forth on a road to adventure he’s physically, mentally, and emotionally not up to traveling. It’s almost beside the point that he’s delusional. It’s simply symbolic that he sees himself as a knight in shining armor: what he’s doing is not seeing himself as what he really is. He thinks that by putting on what are really a much younger man’s clothes, he’s become young again himself. This makes him like anyone who would like to deny the effects of the passing of time. Which is to say, like any of us over the age of thirty.
All of us have or will make fools of ourselves trying to be what we obviously aren’t anymore---if we ever really were that, whatever it was---and attempting to do what we’re no longer capable of doing---if we ever really were.
It’s something to watch out for.
I can see both Don Quixotes in Bernie.
You’ve probably guessed, however, that I’m going to focus on the ways he’s like the second.
Bernie can’t admit his time has passed. I’d make the case that that’s a theme of this election, with both Trump’s campaign and Bernie’s fueled by frustrated middle-aged and old men raging at the dying of the light. Another post. The point is Bernie missed his chance this time out when he decided that he could win just with the coalition he had. He needed to make inroads among Hillary’s coalition and win over significant numbers of African-Americans, Hispanics, and middle-aged women of all backgrounds, as well as the type of Democrats he and his supporters disdain as establishment Democrats also of all backgrounds---that disdain cost him. He couldn’t bring himself to ask for the votes of the first three cohorts. Instead, he told them why they should give them their votes. And if he’d brought over more of the them---and they’re the real Democratic base, not the self-important progressives ranting on the internet---more establishment Democrats might have been drawn to him too. More superdelegates would have pledged to him or at least held off in pledging to Clinton.
But instead he decided to rely on his own coalition, apparently forgetting how many of his voters were Independents and even Republicans and couldn’t vote for him in primaries in delegate-rich states like New York and Pennsylvania. Also apparently without counting just how many independents there were in key states with open primaries like Virginia, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Illinois. (Final tally: Not enough.) I’m not sure exactly when the moment when he could have won over those Hillary voters passed, but when it passed his moment passed. He was done. And I won’t be surprised when the campaign histories start coming out we learn that he realized it and that a lot of what we’re seeing now is him taking out his anger and frustration with himself on the Democratic Party.
Here’s the thing, though.
I think his time actually passed twenty, thirty, or even forty years ago. And Bernie himself let it pass when he decided that he didn’t want to be a reformer, never mind a revolutionary. He was going to make a career out of being a gadfly.
Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Hubert Humphrey (perhaps the best president we never had) came into their own as political leaders as challengers to their party’s establishments. But they did it as young men and practically as their first order of business after their first elections. They should have been Bernie’s early role models. Particularly Humphrey. The former mayor of Minneapolis who helped reinvent the Minnesota state Democratic Party as practically a brand-new party should have been a hero to the one-time mayor of Burlington. And all three probably were his heroes. But he couldn’t manage what they managed. For whatever reasons, he didn’t become the leader of a real reform movement when he was a young man and now here he is trying to do it as an old man. This puts him in the quixotic position of being an old man taking on---of his own volition---the task of a young hero.
The question is why is he coming so late to his own cause of Democratic Socialist revolution? Why wasn’t he working for it his entire twenty-seven years in Congress? Maybe he thought he was. But then there should have come a point much sooner than last summer when he realized he wasn’t going to bring it about by lecturing and scolding his Congressional colleagues and badgering them into seeing the wisdom and righteousness of his cause. He would need to reform the Democratic Party and give it new leadership and direction, and to do that he would need allies, lieutenants, and foot soldiers. And because of the time it would take to build his revolutionary army, he would need young lieutenants, young men and women with the energy and time ahead of them to do the work over the long haul and take over and carry on when he was no longer up to the task himself. Where then are his apprentices and proteges? Where are his young lieutenants?
Bernie and his supporters are proud that he’s winning the vast majority of young (Democratic and liberal) voters and they claim this makes his coalition the future of the party.. But the campaign really hasn’t been about those young voters or their future. It’s been about Bernie as the hero of the moment.
Things may change after the primary’s all over. Bernie may put himself to work building for the future. He may find and recruit those young lieutenants. But right now, the way he’s been talking and acting, all that appears to be driving him is his bitterness and resentment at Hillary’s denying him his chance to be the hero he imagined himself to be.
Back in March, Danny DeVito introduced Bernie at a rally as Obi-wan Kenobi and called on him to help us, leaving Bernie’s being our only hope implied rather than stated. I had some fun in a post called End Force Inequality! Vote Bernie for Jedi Council in which I made the case that the comparison to Obi-wan was inapt. Bernie’s supporters would reject the old Jedi for, among many reasons, being a member of the Jedi establishment. You can read that post later, if you want. Right now, though, my point is that there’s another, non-facetious reason the comparison doesn’t work.
The Obi-wan DeVito meant was Alec Guinness’ Obi-wan, the old Obi-wan, the crazy old wizard. And that Obi-wan knew his time had passed, he was too old for the quest, and that it was up to Luke now. It was Luke’s adventure.
The tragic element in the story is that Obi-wan knew something else about himself. He had had his moment and he had failed.
This is something that must be considered when looking at the Star Wars saga. It’s the story of one hero’s failure after another’s. Qui-gon fails. Obi-wan and Yoda fail. And now we’ve learned that Han and Luke have failed.
This is a lesson for all of us when we give our hearts to a political leader. All heroes fail, along the way or in the end.
But to get back to Bernie, Obi-wan, and Don Quixote…
Obi-wan knew he was too old and the quest and the glory belonged to the young heroes, Luke, Leia, and Han. Merlin knew that the sword was meant to be drawn from the stone by Arthur. Gandalf knew that finding the ring and then destroying it were tasks for Bilbo and Frodo. Dumbledore knew that Harry was the Chosen One.
All of them knew that their role in the story was that of teacher and adviser and that the role of hero had to be played by young proteges.
There’s another lesson for all of us, if we’re to avoid finishing our lives as Don Quixotes. There comes a time when we have to accept that our time has passed and the world doesn’t need us anymore or, any rate, not in the way we used to think it did. We have to come to terms with the ways we failed to be the heroes and heroines of our own lives we dreamed of being. We have to come to terms with the fact that we are going to die and life will go on without us as if we didn’t matter---as if we never existed.
We have to find a way to live with this fact without retreating into fantasy and self-delusion or giving in to bitterness, anger, resentment, and despair.
At the end of the novel, Don Quixote, having had the sense literally knocked into him, returns home to die quietly in his bed. He accepts those facts but finds he can’t live with them.
At the end of the musical, Don Quixote rises from his bed, re-convinced that his ideal self is his real self but collapses before he can set forth on new adventures. He dies nobly but still lost in a dream.
Maybe someday someone will tell the story of a third Don Quixote, one who instead of resigning himself to fading away or re-donning his armor and calling for his sword, intent on setting forth once again to redeem the world, turns on it and sets out to ruin it for everyone who will outlive him.
But I’d rather see a fourth Don Quixote who doesn’t die, doesn’t despair, doesn’t cling to his fantasies, but says to the young people around him, “This belongs to you now. If you would like, I will do what I can to help you take care of it, but if not, I’ll just enjoy watching what good you make out it.”