The never sufficiently praised Don Quixote of La Mancha

An egomaniac on the loose in the US and Spain

Head of Don Quixote
“Don Quixote head” by sanzibar is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Thank you, Salman Rushdie, for spurring me on to read Don Quixote (1615) – Edith Grossman’s 2003 translation in particular. Your New Yorker story “The Little King” and the recently published novel Quichotte seduced me by showcasing Atlanta and made an offer (to read and compare Cervantes’ classic to contemporary times) that I could not refuse.

“The Little King” is funny, pointed, and more coherent, I think, than Quichotte. Both works feature the self-named character Quichotte, “a traveling man of Indian origin, advancing years, and retreating mental powers, who had developed an unwholesome, because entirely one-sided, passion for a certain television personality, the beautiful, witty, and adored talk-show host Miss Salma R., whom he had never met….” Quichotte believes in TV as the gospel truth. His cousin and employer Dr. R.K. Smile, a member of “the large and prosperous Indian community of Atlanta,” is in the fentanyl manufacturing and marketing business, and uses Quichotte to transact an opioid sale with said Miss Salma.

Khabar
December 2019 issue of Atlanta-based Indian newspaper Khabar featuring Rushdie’s novel Quichotte

Rushdie, who ended his 9 years of teaching at Emory University in 2015, describes a number of Georgia landmarks from Dr. Smile’s private executive jet:

The aircraft was his favorite toy. Sometimes on a still and sunny day (Dr. Smile) took it up from Hartsfield-Jackson just to potter about in the sky for a few hours, over Stone Mountain and Athens, Eatonton, and Milledgeville, or the Chattahoochee and Talladega forests, or along the route of Sherman’s march. Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Brer Rabbit, the Tree That Owns Itself, and the War Between the States were all down there, and he was above them, feeling at such moments like a true son of the South, which of course he was not.

Also mentioned are landmarks from the Atlanta Indian community, including the Atlanta Cricket League, the Al-Farooq Masjid mosque on Fourteen Avenue, the Indian newspaper Rajdhani, and the popular tea house Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party. It seems savvy that Rushdie used the vantage point of the Indian-American community from which to imagine a vast corrupt pharmaceutical marketing enterprise implicating the whole American medical system.

Atlanta Cricket League
The Atlanta Cricket League; League photo reprinted with their permission

Meanwhile Quichotte (“pronounced key-SHOT,” according to Rushdie, alluding to a shot of heroine) embarks on a quest across the country towards New York City where Miss Salma lives, a destabilizing, anxiety-provoking tale of suspense until their fateful arranged meeting in Central Park. Late in Quichotte Rushdie lays out the book’s meaning: “I think it’s legitimate for a work of art made in the present time to say, we are being crippled by the culture we have made, by its most popular elements above all… And by stupidity and ignorance and bigotry, yes” (362).

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The Al-Farooq Mosjid on Fourteenth Avenue, Atlanta

Which brings us to Don Quixote. Cervantes’ 17th century protagonist is besotted not with TV celebrities, FaceBook, and other digital media, but with tales of chivalry in which knights errant venture out in search of heroic adventures in the name of a mythic Lady on a pedestal. From rumor rather than any firsthand experience, I’d always expected Don Quixote to be a whimsical troubadour goofily poking at windmills with a lance. Yes, there is unrelenting comedy, and my personal favorite is Quixote’s enthusiastic battle with armies that only he sees which are actually herds of sheep. But it surprised me to experience Don Quixote as a brutal maniac. His rigid adherence to the archaic as well as purely fictional idea of knighthood in an attempt to revive a “Golden Age” damages almost everyone he encounters. Take the scene where he imagines, based on nothing, that two men escorting a carriage en route are instead abducting the lady inside the carriage and without hesitation beats them to a pulp.

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Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party, Candler Park, Atlanta

Don Quixote is not only violent but also obsessed with his greatness, abusive towards his staff (Sancho), only interested in women for his image, and insistent on absolute loyalty and agreement with his distorted imaginings. Early in the first volume Quixote’s village neighbors try to bring him down so that he can do no further damage, and he is finally trapped and carried home in a cage. In Volume II, Quixote escapes on a second quest, and one of the many gags of this complex book is that many characters he encounters now have read volume I and are in on the joke – that the knight is a narcissist who can easily be flattered and tricked into ridiculous pursuits to his own humiliation. Don Quixote is actually a very unsuccessful knight – only in his own mind is he successful – but his pursuits are not benign.

When the Holy Brotherhood police finally catch up with him and issue an arrest warrant, Don Quixote scoffs at the indignity of it. Lesly Fredman reads this passage from Chapter XLV in the following sound clip:

The only way to subdue DQ seems to be to woo him with his own language. It is finally his compassionate neighbor dressing up as a knight (although there are no knights) and accosting this “never sufficiently praised Don Quixote of La Mancha” with the challenge of a duel that finally brings Don Quixote down. In the end, maybe it is Don’s incapability of seeing how he has done anything wrong that makes him the sort of innocent we know him as. He lacks experience, can’t help but be out of step, and has no ability to restrain himself. It is up to everyone else, from the crowds and royal patronages who ridicule him to the angry observers and victims who speak out, to the neighbors worried that his misdeeds will reflect badly on themselves, to do the right thing and get him home and out of the public arena.

We are Salman Rushdie pin
Salman Rushdie solidarity button supporting freedom of speech, WUSTL Digital Gateway Image Collections & Exhibitions, accessed December 9, 2019, http://omeka.wustl.edu/omeka/items/show/12737

A Californian in Atlanta

Georgia’s “heartbeat” bill evokes Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays (1970)

Beach by South Fork Peachtree Creek, Morningside Nature Preserve Atlanta
Beach along the South Fork of Peachtree Creek, Morningside Nature Preserve, Atlanta

After living in Atlanta for 14 years, I remain convinced that as states go, Georgia and California are about as far apart, physically and culturally, as you can get. The sweltering humidity of Atlanta in July is completely unknown in California, where heat is dry, plunges at night, and reappears in the morning only after the fog lifts. The ocean is a long four-and a half hour drive away from Atlanta compared with minutes away in my native Bay Area, though I’ve recently discovered the sand beaches hidden along our copious creeks. California has “Cal” (University of California at Berkeley), the ghost of hippies past, while Georgia has “UGA” (University of Georgia, Athens) where students even today actually wear what appear to be Chanel dresses to football games. California speak may be vague, dude, but Georgia speak is intentionally indirect and veiled, bless your hearts. California has Hollywood, but Georgia has … Hollywood of the South. Finally! One point of state-to-state connection.

Half Moon Bay by Mimpei is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
“Half Moon Bay” by Mimpei is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

An exhibit on display now at The Carter Center called Georgia on my Screen traces the history of film in Georgia, beginning with the adaptation of Atlantan James Dickey’s novel Deliverance to film in 1972, continuing with then-Governor Jimmy Carter’s creation of the first state film commission in 1973, and culminating with its present position as a center of Marvel Studio productions (Avengers: Infinity WarAvengers: Endgame, Ant Man and the Wasp, and Black Panther) due to favorable tax incentives.

DSC00292 by BillDenney is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Atlanta’s Fox Theater, a former movie palace; DSC00292 by Bill Denney is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

But “the Industry” in California is coming into some collision with Georgia now that Governor Brian Kemp has signed the “Fetal Heartbeat” law prohibiting abortion after a fetus’s heartbeat can be detected (approximately 6 week,  versus the federal legal standard of 20 weeks). Some Hollywood studios and actors are considering pulling their projects from Georgia in protest.

Los Angeles Theater by www78 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
“Los Angeles Theater” by www78 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

These recent ideological tensions called to mind Play It as it Lays, an existentialist novel by one of my favorite writers, Joan Didion. It was published in 1970, just three years before Roe v. Wade established today’s federal abortion standard. In it a backroom abortion in Encino, California, figures in the main character Maria’s mental breakdown. The abortion dramatizes the protagonist’s crisis of alienation, aimlessness, exile from the past and future in the social milieu in and around Hollywood. Maria (May-eye-ah) is a B-grade actress who is passed around by producers and struggles to find anything from her upbringing or past that applies to the world where she finds herself. She has one child, Kate, who is intellectually disabled, and who has been placed in an institution by her husband Carter. Kate is her emotional anchor as she moves through Hollywood sets, California freeways, parties, and mental institutions. She is pregnant with a fetus that is not her husband’s. In this sound clip dramatizing the book’s metaphor of life as a card game, Maria tries to play her hand for access to Kate with Carter, who is insisting that she have an abortion:

The illicit abortion occurs after transfer of money and amid rudimentary hygiene: “The floor of the bedroom where it happened was covered with newspapers. She remembered reading somewhere that newspapers were antiseptic, it had to do with chemicals in the ink…” The abortion haunts her.

GA45sRoadCurvesCountyLine by formulanone is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 Copy rich text
“GA45sRoadCurvesCountyLine” by formulanone is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

To those who say that Maria is a “self-centered pseudo-actress with a crack in her head…endowed by the author with the spunk of a jellyfish and the brain of a flea” (an actual 1970 review by Phoebe-Lou Adams), I would say that she is a not a vapid woman but a woman navigating a vapid landscape in which it is incredibly hard to find purpose, as suggested by this sound clip:

Maria tries to stay in the game and focus on the present, trying not to think of that back room in Encino, and holding out hope of being reunited with Kate. In one exhilarating passage in the book, Maria drives the freeway daily just to drive, a meditative act. I think of the immaculate and continuously tarred California freeways and also how people in Georgia don’t use the term “freeway,” I’ve been told. It’s a uniquely Californian term; freedom in California and Atlanta have profoundly different connotations.

LA by Davie Dunn is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
LA by Davie Dunn is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Didion comes from an old California family, was a student at Cal, and like Sylvia Plath, was selected as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine fresh out of university in the 50s, and later made her way to Southern California where she and her husband John Dunne did some script work.  She was considered a New Journalist along with Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson (see, for example, “In Hollywood” and her essay “On the morning after the sixties” from The White Album). Recently she has written several memoirs – including one, Blue Nights, that looks unflinchingly at aging – but I prefer her fiction. She is a brilliant rhetorician. Consider these words describing Maria’s attempt to live in the present following her mental breakdown:

I try not to think of dead things and plumbing. I try not to hear the air conditioner in that bedroom in Encino. I try not to live in Silver Wells or in New York or with Carter. I try to live in the now and keep my eye on the hummingbird. I see no one I used to know, but then I’m not just crazy about a lot of people. I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?

It is some comfort to me as a reader that Maria loves the child she has and that she and others are able to not bring another child into the world unwanted. For another California abortion classic see Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion (1971), and I highly recommend Walter Kirn’s She Needed Me (1992).

Joan Didion #wcw #wce by Tradlands is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Joan Didion #wcw #wce” by Tradlands is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

 

Riotous noon-day sun of the June-day long

Sidney Lanier’s The Marshes of Glynn comes alive in music

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The Meridian Chorale performing in Southern Folk Passion, with Brenda Bynum on April 14, 2019 (photo courtesy of Meridian Herald)

I owe my budding awareness of Sidney Lanier entirely to Meridian Herald’s Southern Folk Passion this past Palm Sunday at the Church at Ponce and Highland. But for stumbling upon Lanier on the group’s website before the concert, I might have always assumed that Lake Lanier and the other Lanier monikers around Atlanta were named for a great engineer or politician. Knowing that they are named after a poet laureate from Georgia, one who was commissioned as a southerner to write the words (along with Dudley Buck, a northerner, to write the music) for the cantata for the 100th anniversary of the United States in 1876, deepens my understanding of Georgia as a literary place. That makes a difference to me. Continue reading Riotous noon-day sun of the June-day long

Not like one of the family

Seeing and hearing black nannies

Robert Frank Charleston South Carolina
Robert Frank, “Charleston, South Carolina,” from Framing Shadows exhibit, photo of a photo

Kimberly Wallace-Sanders’ exhibit Framing Shadows features 22 photos of African American nannies of white children from the 1840s to the 1920s, a family photo type found during these years in the eastern United States. It also displays novels that feature the mammy-child relationship such as Gone with the Wind, which Dr. Wallace-Sanders has written about in Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory. The juxtaposition shows a progression in Dr. Wallace-Sanders scholarship from the fictive mammy character in narratives, images, and artifacts to the real African American taking care of white children in historical photos and biographical accounts. The exhibit previews her upcoming book on this work Nannies, Mammies, and Love Slaves: Portraits of Black Women Taking Care of White Children 1850-1950. Continue reading Not like one of the family

In and around the oak

In honor of Earth Day

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“Hank Aaron” white oak in Connally Nature Park, East Point

What are the significant trees in your world?

Last month I stumbled upon a memorial to “Big Al,” a massive willow oak on the Georgia Tech campus that spontaneously split and fell last autumn, shocking the community. Fall of a Champion was a student-produced exhibit on the more than 100-year-old tree that included benches, bookmarks, hinged wooden book covers, and coasters made out of Big Al, a poster that juxtaposed important events in the history of the university against dates of the rings in Big Al’s trunk, and paper meditations on trees. After that event I got to thinking about how trees inspire communication. Continue reading In and around the oak

Majestying in Buckhead

Out to dinner at King + Duke

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Restaurant at the corner of Peachtree Road NE and West Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name Huckleberry Finn? It might be “floating down the Mississippi River on a raft,” or “friendship with Jim the runaway slave,” or maybe “smoking, cussing, fibbing… with a heart of gold,” or even “escaping ‘sivilization.’” Chances are you’re not going to say “food.” Continue reading Majestying in Buckhead

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean

Romeo and Juliet at Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern

As Valentine’s Day looms, the thoughts of those so inclined naturally turn to one love classic above all, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In this romantic tragedy, young lovers – Juliet is not even 14 years old! –  from feuding families – the Montagues and the Capulets – unite but fail to bring their families together; they die from hate, misunderstanding, and bad timing.

Like many Americans I first encountered Romeo and Juliet in high school, and imagined myself to be on the balcony where “stony limits cannot hold love out.” The thrill was enhanced with exposure to the Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 classic film adaptation with Olivia Hussey. But amid government shut-downs, and from the vantage point of the national capital of the civil rights movement, I confess that these days my thoughts turn more to the feuding Montagues and the Capulets than to the lovers Romeo and Juliet. Continue reading Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean