Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Quixotic Borges Problem

Let us imagine that in Toledo someone finds a paper with an Arabic text and that the paleographers declare the handwriting belongs to that same Cide Hamete Benengeli from whom Cervantes took his Don Quixote. In the text we read that the hero — who, as the story goes, rambled about Spain armed with a sword and lance, challenging all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons — discovers at the end of one of his many frays that he has killed a man. At this point the fragment breaks off. The problem is to guess, or to conjecture, how Don Quixote reacts.

As I see it, there are three possible solutions. The first is negative. Nothing special happens, for in the hallucinatory world of Don Quixote death is no less common than magic, and to have killed a man need not perturb someone who struggles, or thinks he struggles, with monsters and enchanters. The second is pathetic. Don Quixote never managed to forget that he was a projection of Alonso Quijano, a reader of fairy tales. Seeing death, realizing that a dream has led him to commit the sin of Cain, wakes him from his pampered madness, possibly forever. The third is perhaps the most plausible. Having killed a man, Don Quixote cannot admit that his terrible act is the fruit of a delirium. The reality of the effect forces him to presuppose a parallel reality of the cause, and Don Quixote will never emerge from his madness.

There remains another conjecture, alien to the Spanish world and even to the Occidental world. It requires a much more ancient setting, more complex, and wearier. Don Quixote, who is no longer Don Quixote but rather a king of the Hindustani cycles, intuitively knows as he stands before his enemy’s cadaver that to kill and to beget are divine or magical acts which manifestly transcend humanity. He knows that the dead man is an illusion, as is the bloody sword that weighs down his hand, as is he himself, and all his past life, and the vast gods, and the universe.
-Jorge Luis Borges, "A Problem"
[Translated by Mildred Boyer]

Below is Yuval Noah Harari's take on it in his book: Homo Deus.

"The narrating self is the star of Jorge Luis Borges’s story ‘A Problem’. The story concerns Don Quixote, the eponymous hero of Miguel Cervantes’s famous novel. Don Quixote creates for himself an imaginary world in which he is a legendary champion going forth to fight giants and save Lady Dulcinea del Toboso. In reality Don Quixote is Alonso Quixano, an elderly country gentleman; the noble Dulcinea is an uncouth farm girl from a nearby village; and the giants are windmills. What would happen, wonders Borges, if due to his belief in these fantasies, Don Quixote attacks and kills a real person? Borges asks a fundamental question about the human condition: what happens when the yarns spun by our narrating self cause grievous harm to ourselves or those around us? There are three main possibilities, says Borges.

One option is that nothing much happens. Don Quixote will not be bothered at all by killing a real man. His delusions are so overpowering that he will not be able to recognise the difference between committing actual murder and dueling with the imaginary windmill giants. Another option is that once he takes a person’s life, Don Quixote will be so horrified that he will be shaken out of his delusions. This is akin to a young recruit who goes to war believing that it is good to die for one’s country, only to end up completely disillusioned by the realities of warfare.

But there is a third option, much more complex and profound. As long as he fought imaginary giants, Don Quixote was just play-acting. However once he actually kills someone, he will cling to his fantasies for all he is worth, because only they give meaning to his tragic misdeed. Paradoxically, the more sacrifices we make for an imaginary story, the more tenaciously we hold on to it, because we desperately want to give meaning to these sacrifices and to the suffering we have caused."

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