The Certain and the Uncertain


My granddaughter Siena, exploring all the available painting surfaces

The assault on reason and human values that is ongoing in the political landscape isn’t confined to the ideological arena. When life’s bandwidth gets hijacked daily, resource allocation happens by default (especially for those of us over 50 who have to husband our energy.) As a longtime advocate on this blog for the sovereignty of subjectivity so essential for artistic exploration and expression, I haven’t had the words or the proclivity for that important cause these last few months. It’s like the loss of libido when personal tragedy hits: You want to feel the life force back in your body, but it has gone underground. What’s needed is some “daylighting,” the ecological restoration that exposes the natural streams buried under the city cement.

Good citizenship comes with an obligation to pay attention to this cavalcade of idiocy and evil. But that obligation—if it is that—renders most of us into passive observers who eventually turn away in exhaustion and disgust. The problem is, that is the ultimate intention: Wear people out so they retreat back into their lives and their own concerns. That’s an essential step in dismantling a democracy.

I have been encouraged by Timothy Snyder‘s survival techniques in his book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. I also turn to my old stand by, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, by Paul Rogat Loeb, and to the hopeful vision of the future in Journey to Earthland, by Paul Raskin.

But I have also been considering alternative ways of approaching this battle zone.

A good one showed up in the New York Times’ series, The Stone, a forum for contemporary philosophy and thought. Mariana Alessandri‘s piece, In Praise of Lost Causes, features the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno and the Spanish classic by Cervantes, Don Quixote. After Spain lost the war with the United States in 1898, Unamuno encouraged his fellow citizens to practice quixotism: adopt the moral courage to fight for lost causes with no concern for what the world thinks. “Today, when much of society and politics—both in and outside the United States—looks like a lost cause to a great number of people, we might do well to consider Quixote’s brand of lunacy,” Alessandri writes.

She goes on:

Quixote’s loss of common sense offered him a more meaningful metric for deciding which battles are worth fighting. Quixote didn’t charge the windmill because he thought he would defeat it, but because he concluded it was the right thing to do. Likewise, if we want to be legitimate actors in the world, Unamuno would say that we must be willing to lose the fight. If we abandon the common-sense belief that deems only winnable fights worth fighting, we can adopt Unamuno’s “moral courage” and become quixotic pessimists: pessimists because we recognize our odds of losing are quite high, and quixotic because we fight anyway. Quixotic pessimism is thus marked by a refusal to let the odds of my success determine the value of my fight.

Turning more specifically to Cervantes’ classic, Alessandri turns the usual interpretation of the characters in the book on its head:

In the most famous scene of the book, his squire, Sancho Panza, warns Quixote that the giant he is tempted to charge is just a windmill, and, as such, should be left alone. Sancho’s common sense tells him that fights that are sure to be lost are not worth fighting. Yet it is that same common sense that continually keeps Sancho from engaging with the world; likewise, it keeps us from engaging in what are perhaps the worthiest of causes: the lost ones.

Unamuno believed that it was not Quixote but Sancho who was delusional, firm in his belief that windmills are not worth charging, and, more broadly, that unwinnable battles are not worth fighting. The result of this type of thinking will usually be paralysis, since most enemies are windmill-size instead of human-size. Sancho believed that tilting at windmills was dangerous. Today, we might just call it a waste of time, and since common sense also tells us that time is money, we had better steer clear of anything unprofitable…

Three centuries before Unamuno, Cervantes detailed a life in praise of futilely resisting a corrupt world. Quixote fought giants because he could not, in good conscience, not fight them. We can similarly transform ourselves into quixotic pessimists—the kind who are called dreamers, idealists or lunatics—by reading more, rejecting common sense and reinterpreting what constitutes a waste of time. If we happen to succeed by worldly standards, we will be surprised and perhaps pleasantly so; if we fail, we will have expected it. Praise be to uncertain successes and to certain failures alike.

Quixote fought giants because he could not, in good conscience, not fight them. Sounds like a lot of us.

In an email discussion of this essay this morning with my friend Andrew Kimball, he added this turn: “I do, though, wonder if there is not more wisdom in the more eastern formulation of duty in the Bhagavad Gita, where one acts simply because it has been given one to do so and not out of passionate personal conviction of one’s own unerring vision or rectitude, which seems to so bedevil the world at present.”

Whether it is karmic destiny or just a stubborn determination to charge the windmill because it was the right thing to do, I’m with Alessandri: Praise be to uncertain successes and to certain failures alike, a concept that applies to politics, life and to making art.

3 Comment

  1. dipittsburgh says: Reply

    I am in agreement, “adopt the moral courage to fight for lost causes with no concern for what the world thinks.” I will also expand my approach to include “not looking for expected results.” I act because I must do “the next right thing” my action may not be successful in itself but the interconnectedness of the Universe is waiting for that piece to be layed down.
    This is great reading, Deb. Thanks I needed that!

  2. deborahbarlow says: Reply

    Thanks Di. I know we walk this path together…

  3. Great post, thank you. There are a lot of us out here, that heartens me.

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