Word of the Week, 1/16 – 1/20/12 — quixotic

quixotic • adj. exceedingly idealistic; unrealistic and impractical: a vast and perhaps quixotic project.

DERIVATIVES: quixoticallyadv., quixotismn., quixotryn.

The Oxford Essential Dictionary of Difficult Words

Picasso, 1955

This is one of those words that was born out of literature, deriving from the main character of Miguel de Cervantes’s opus, the titular Don Quixote.  Don Quixote describes the character and pursuits of a sad (by our estimation, not his own) gentleman from La Mancha:

Down in a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to recollect, there lived, not long ago, one of those gentlemen who usually keep a lance upon a rack, an old buckler, a lean stallion, and a coursing greyhound.  Soup composed of somewhat more mutton than beef, the fragments served up cold on most nights, lentils on Fridays, eggs and collops on Saturdays, and a pigeon, by way of addition, on Sundays, consumed three-fourths of his income; the remainder of it supplied him with a cloak of fine cloth, velvet breeches, with slippers of the same for holidays, and a suit of the best homespun, in which he adorned himself on week-days…  The age of our gentleman bordered upon fifty years; he was  of a strong constitution, spare-bodied, of a meagre visage, a very early riser, and a lover of the chase.

Now this worthy gentleman, in his leisure moments, which composed the greater part of the year, gave himself up with so much ardour to the perusal of books of chivalry, that he almost wholly neglected the exercise of the chase, and even the regulation of his domestic affairs; indeed so extravagant was his zeal in this pursuit, that he sold many acres of arable land to purchase books of knight-errantry; collecting as many as he could possibly obtain.

Miguel de Cervantes,  Don Quixote

(Borders Classics–translator omitted)

This gentleman, rather too taken with his obsolete ideas of chivalry, goes on his adventure which includes, perhaps most famously, the attempted slaying of a dragon that is, in fact, a windmill.  He is, in short, delusional with his attempt to pursue his notions of heroic chivalry as relayed to him through his old books.

Naturally, this work is significant for its style and scope in literary history, putting Cervantes in rarefied air, but that is the work for literary historians.  I find the word a particularly enigmatic one precisely because of the contrasts drawn between the work’s protagonist and its author.  Delusional Don Quixote is pursuing heroism in a time that rejects the notion of a solitary knight hero, when wars and battles are actually increasing from the medieval era and the early whispers of industry allow for large armies of commoners and mercenaries.  (See, for example, The Military Revolution Debate, Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe, edited by Clifford Rogers.)  Opposed to his anti-hero is Cervantes who, in this same era, embodied many of the same antiquated medieval ideas espoused by Don Quixote.

Cervantes fought in one of the last crusades–the only entirely naval crusade–led by the dashing Don Juan of Austria, bastard brother of the Spanish King Philip.  The surprising reality of the Battle of Lepanto, in which they fought against the Ottoman Empire’s navy directly threatening Rome and the Papacy, is that it contains all of the trappings and features of a fictional, chivalric tale from the medieval era.  Despite being fought in the early modern period, it is a crusade called by the pope in defense of Rome against Ottoman Muslims.  The response from Europe to the call is negligible, entirely encapsulated in Italian ships manned by Spaniards (with some Italian mercenaries and German Landsknechts via the Hapsburg connection)–long the stalwarts of the crusades.

In the battle, the two sides line up in the last of the ancient naval battles, which will shortly be revolutionized with cannon.  The records tell us that the Christians lined up in a cross to combat the Muslim line of ships arrayed in a crescent.  The Christians win the day with heroic actions from Cervantes and Don Juan and free Christian slaves who man the rows of the Muslim ships.  Cervantes, is outstanding in his individual bravery and daring, fighting a real threat, in real battle–so much unlike his sad fictional gentleman, clearly a relic from a past time in the novel.

This curious juxtaposition between the author and his character is puzzling.  G.K. Chesterton wrote about it on more than one occasion, including in his short epic poem of the battle.  It casts an interesting connotation on the word quixotic.  If it is simply applied to unrealistic, idealistic, perhaps antiquated, pursuits–which is how I think it is used most frequently–then that is one thing, but it is also mocking not so much because one aspires to heroism, but because the one who aspires is so woefully inadequate, has such vainglory notions, and is so abysmally deluded that the aspiration is empty and hopeless.

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