“Stained,” “Drained”: La Mancha

La Mancha – (Arabic: المنشا (al-mansha)) “barren; dry land; inhospitable arid region”

La Mancha – (Spanish) “stain; splotch; blotch”

Chosen by Miguel de Cervantes as the cradle of Don Quixote.  ¿Porque?  The answer to this is a bit quixotic.

A friend of mine pronounces this, “Key-HOE-tic.”  Actually, a little more like, “kwee-HOE-tic.”  I have always said, “quick-SAH-tic.”  I wonder what you say?

Cervantes plants his anachronistic knight in the soil of “the Stain,” a literary device to increase the irony of the character.  How could a paragon of virtue (delusional as he may be) grow from such sterile ground?

Flat, dusty, criss-crossed with shallow arroyos and sticky clods, the countryside of La Mancha doesn’t make it difficult to decipher its moniker.  It is a long, wide, and flat plateau around 2,000 feet above sea level.  But this is also the land of queso manchego [Facebook page]: a sheep cheese with a protected denominación de origen.

The manchega sheep breed probably migrated across the Pyrenees millennia ago.  They eventually settled in La Mancha and got themselves domesticated by the local Iberians.  The queso is traditionally prepped in baskets woven of esparto grass, which creates the unique signature pattern on the rind.  The Spanish call this grass, native to the areas around the western Mediterranean, “atocha,” which appears to be a name that pre-dates the Romans in Iberia.

But back to finding wonderful things in incongruous places… Don Quixote has persisted like few other characters.  He has transcended archetypes themselves, becoming his own.

In Book V of the Prelude, William Wordsworth includes a passage where he is reading Cervantes, and he falls into a sleep.  Tumbles further into a dream.  On these twin perplexing and vexatious parallels he had been ruminating: intellect and creativity.  Words and sound(shape)s.  Ration and irrationality.  Science and art.  “Poetry and geometric truth.”

How do we humans merge these competitive forces?  How do we re-integrate what we seem to have distinguished?  Should we have?  Did we mean to?

In his dream, an “arab of the Bedouin tribes” appears to him, riding a dromedary, as he materializes in a wide desert.  He carries a lance under his arm.  In one hand a stone.  In the other, a shell of “surpassing brightness.”

The stone, he learns, is “Euclid’s Elements.”  The shell, when held to the ear, whispers poetry.  Imagine the stone as a prism, like the one held in the hand of the statue of Isaac Newton at Westminster Abbey.  Holding the shell to the ear, one can hear an apocalyptic prediction of a great flood.  Told in verse, of course.

The rider is Don Quixote.  Holding in one hand art, and the other, science.  With one stone, he reveals the truths of natural objects we cannot otherwise see.  With the shell, we hear of the inevitability of death.  Notice that the stone is a natural object.  The shell is a crafted abode.

A professor of mine, back in the early 1990s, Jeffrey Robinson, once talked about this with me in his office hours.  We wondered, why has Don Quixote persisted in our imaginations? Few people can quote passages of Cervantes.  We don’t quip from those texts like we do with Shakespeare.  But he is universally recognized.

Who among you looks at any of these images and does not immediately think, “Aha!  The Man of La Mancha!”?!?  Not think.  But know.

Professor Robinson gave me his idea.  It has something to do with the struggle.  Despite all odds.  Despite us knowing he is mad.  Despite not fitting in his proper time and place.  There’s a part of all of us that roots for him.  We want to see that evil giant/windmill face its comeuppance at the end of a well-thrusted lance.

So… anyone else out there who still tilts at your own windmills?

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