I’ve been called Don Quixote so often—not usually as a compliment, but not really as an insult either—that I thought I should re-read Cervantes, a project upon which I am presently embarked. Similarities, I’ve seen a few. I admire Quixote's madness. Seeing the world around him denuded of both mystery and purpose, he refuses to acquiesce to an existence so banal. He chooses instead to live in a world of his own making, one in which everyone and everything he encounters is assigned unique meaning and purpose. By choosing to be a fool, Quixote gets to live hundreds of imaginary lives, in an age where the passive docility of his peers, their unquestioning subservience, strikes him as a sort of living death.
Today, of course, if we are talking about literature we should be talking about The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Oddly, Atwood like Cervantes, seems too to takes aim at passivity and subservience, acquiescence and self-delusion—the great perils of every age. Atwood suggests that an actual dystopia is already well under way. We are all in it. Not wanting to appear mad, most of us have already accommodated ourselves to the new era. In failing to oppose the destruction of democracy, we normalize a post-democratic age. Having done so, we try our best to fit into the new power structure in a way that allows us to imagine we are still not part of it.
“I picture you as a young woman, bright, ambitious,” Aunt Lydia writes, as the end approaches. “You’ll be looking to make a niche for yourself in whatever dim, echoing caverns of academia may still exist by your time. I situate you at your desk, your hair tucked back behind your ears, your nail polish chipped—for nail polish will have returned, it always does. You’re frowning slightly, a habit that will increase as you age.”
Jia Tolento, from whose article the above passage is excerpted, suggests “pragmatic indifference” is Atwood’s true target in The Testaments. As long as the ethical can be bought with a salary, they’ll find a way to keep quiet, to go along to get along. This is not incidental to the onset of totalitarianism: abdication of academic and ethical responsibility is a necessary precursor.
The world needs more fools is, I guess, what I’m saying. More fools, less tools. Let that be this knight errant’s motto. And, since Don Quixote de la Mancha was itself a made-up name, a spruced- and tarted-up version of his actual name, designed to harken back to illustrious noble titles of bygone times, I feel like if you’re gunna have a motto you may as well go full-on fool and give yourself a title and so the next person I see I am going to ask to knight me officially, and, when next we meet, I shall be pleased to be of aid for I am your servant, most humbly and most truly,
Sir Snotwell, of the Dumplings