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Quixotic Days and Listless Knights

Erik Wennermark

Whether chasing windmills, challenging the political machine, or indulging in classic television, the baddest Librarian continues to find art and salvation in his travels.

I'm totally confused by America. Completely and utterly stupefied really would be the more appropriate description. Nay, dumbfounded! It was just a couple of weeks ago that there I was, alone in my apartment, doing toe points and toe taps and all manner of other pretty little ballerina maneuvers in joyous celebration of the death of Section 215, the library related Patriot Act thingamajig (this is the last column I'll mention it, I swear). The catalyst of my dance being the "Yay!" vote to an amendment tacked onto a judicial spending bill by Independent congressman Bernie Saunders of Vermont; the passage of which thereby insures the righteous destruction of the ignoble proviso.

Then, while browsing the liberal blogosphere a few days back, I read that no, there would not actually be a celebration, but a dirge . . . Section 215 is to be extended for 10 years. To say my tutu hung limp would be a gross understatement. So our trusted politicos changed their minds? I don't get it. This new thing, (called H.R. 3199, whatever the hell that is), apparently passed by a House vote of 257-171 and makes permanent 14 of the 16 expiring provisions of the Patriot Act and sets up decade-long windows for the renewal of 215 and 206. Ten years! Like a really, really long time. Huh?


Whether chasing windmills, challenging the political machine, or indulging in classic television, the baddest Librarian continues to find art and salvation in his travels.

I have been scouring the web trying to figure out what horribly calamitous event happened to bring about this Kerry-esque flip-flop, and to my chagrin have discovered that apparently it was some rules committee byproduct mumbo jumbo. The enactment of which (the mumbo-jumbo) didn't allow Saunders' amendment on the new bill, there was no vote, blah blah blah. So now this governmental contrivance (H.R. 3199) is the law of the land. Point being that my laudatory final paragraph in last month's "Bad Librarian", celebrating the defeat of fascism, was bullshit. Absolute and utter bullshit. I sincerely apologize for being in any way hopeful and promise never to do it again.

In response to this latest setback, American Library Association Washington Office Executive Director Emily Sheketoff said — clearly more knowledgeable than my duped ass — "We are hopeful that reader privacy protections will be restored when H.R. 3199 is conferenced with the Senate bill." This, of course, just confuses me further. I thought when they passed a bill, they passed a bill. What the hell is a bill anyway? It's obviously time for me to dig out my old School House Rock tapes and start singing, (with emphasis on a sort of bluesy swing beat):

"I'm just a bill / Yes, I'm only a bill / And if they vote for me on Capitol Hill / Well, then I'm off to the White House / Where I'll wait in a line / With a lot of other bills / For the president to sign / And if he signs me, then I'll be a law / How I hope and pray that he will / But today I am still just a bill."

Ta da! I get it now. Yes, this H.R. 3199 thing still has to go through the Senate, then eventually to the White House, and then through the judicial branch of government (courtesy of the million lawsuits that will likely be started by the ACLU and their ilk); all these machinations taking however long and probably winding back in the House for changes, or a new law or whatever, ad infinitum. Would it then be alarmist to once again proclaim the end of the free world? Perhaps, as it's clearly difficult to undo 200 years of democratic government and make the good ol' US of A a totally fascist state with the whole checks and balances thing in effect. Man, those Founding Fathers were really something! Shame about the plantations and 3/5s-of-a-man thing and all that. Sign of the times I guess. Much like the popular belief that modern civilization will be destroyed by a few guys with box cutters and a penchant for Ayurvedic oils unless the Tex-ecutive Bunch wrests total control of all matters pertaining to national security. Oh, wasn't that risqué! Whatever man, I'm down with Homeland Security.

Enough of the civics lesson. My mind is still in Peru. Ah Peru, where a shoe shine's a nickel! Peru, land of a smallpox decimated indigenous population! Raped for its gold, and then for its cocaine! Peru, lasting proof that European colonial aspirations fuck things up worse than Americans do. It was a trip worthy of more than one length of column so I choose to continue on. I didn't even mention libraries last month, for God's sake. Not even Peruvian libraries, at that. Yes, of course while there I explored the local library scene! Where else would you have me, in some tawdry two-bit juke-joint? Well okay, in the evenings for sure, but in the daylight hours I need the stacks at my back and the weight of a book in my hand.

I went to three libraries in Peru! I was so damn thorough in my library watching I even went to the construction site of the yet to be completed — and by the looks of it, never to be completed — new Peruvian National Library. A gnarly monstrosity nigh the National Museum, it resembles a Borg spaceship composed of powder blue tin. Awful really, and it puts Seattle's new space to shame for pure aesthetic displeasure. Truthfully, I quite like Seattle's new library, but those old-timer librarians, woowee, they're up in arms in the break room. Between the Diet Cokes and Snickers bars, there ain't nothing but venom directed towards anything resembling contemporary architecture.

As for me, I enjoy not only Rem Koolhaas, but the Village People look in general, thus it wasn't difficult to get me to don my hard hat and tour the Peruvian construction grounds. I even had a brief moment ala Don Barthelme's classic short story "The School", where there was a near miss with a falling girder (I highly recommend the story to any who haven't read it: it's short, it's funny, and it's available free online). It was bliss. I also checked out the branch library in San Isidro, the hipster warehouse neighborhood of Lima. Fantastic. But the true joy, aside from my near brush with death and the cessation of all that is meaningless and useless in a life of unrelenting suffering, was of course the Central Library in downtown Lima.

From the Plaza de Armas (the main square), I walked through Lima's Chinatown, navigating a pedestrian walkway of tripe, menudo (guts), and Sponge Bob Square Pants- on-a-stick toys, bobbing in the hands of children like plastic bottles on an oil rainbow at high tide. Cruised past the Chifas (what Peruvians call Chinese restaurants), an optometrist running 30-cent eye exams in El Hueco (a flea market sorta place), and thrust out onto the main drag. The library was but a few blocks ahead and shrouded by school buses and vagrants; it reminded me of my own Version Americano.

Named after Jose San Martin (Peru's own George Washington), the Library was founded in 1921 and houses over a million books (not that many) and five million periodicals (give or take a back issue). If the new one is ever finished, the building will be turned into a library museum housing old texts, historical documents and the like. In fact, it seemed the transition was already being made. While the internet room was jammed and active (clearly a sign of a modern library in operation) the majority of space was given over to an exhibition celebrating the 400th anniversary of the most famous book in Spanish Language literature, arguably world literature, Cervantes' classic, Don Quixote. Multiple editions of the book (some as old as 250 years, in at least 15 languages) were on display, augmented with artwork based on the story.

I am embarrassed to say that by the time of this travel I hadn't yet read this classic, though as soon as I got home I picked up Edith Grossman's new-ish translation just out in paperback and now call myself one of the indoctrinated to the Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha and his exploits. I remember when this edition came out last year and how it was given such high praise. I agree, Grossman's wordplay is deft and the characters' voices are varied and playful. All in all, it's a magnificent read. In a perfect world, before attempting anything approaching reasoned criticism, I would take a look at another translation and read the book again. But alas, as reality so often intervenes (the book is 900 pages long and we have these annoying things called deadlines), I will venture into it, provide a pithy 500 word analysis, and tie it back to an issue related to cultural criticism (my duty here, at least in theory) and my introductory ramble which more or less concluded with a Saturday morning cartoon sing-a-long from the '80s.

This is the task at hand. I am not particularly confidant of my chances. In all honesty, I am terrified at the prospect of attempting to synopsize what could well be THE classic work of literature, but in the words of young Paul Atreides courtesy Frank Herbert's Dune, "Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain." For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!

The premise of the book is simple enough, even as it sprawls outward in page length, allegory, and interpretation. Our hero, Don Quixote, goes a bit batty reading pulpy novels of chivalry, thinks he's a knight, recruits his squire (the legendary Sancho Panza), and sets out into the world to right wrongs and wreak vengeance for the glory of his love, the magnificent and beautiful Dulcina. Unfortunately for the Don, (and Sancho's dreams of a bequeathed island over which he may one day lord) every adventure is fanciful imagination and most every character encountered chooses to encourage Quixote's infirmity and subsequent thrashings. Cervantes sets up this simple frame, wraps it in parody of the novels that drove the Don crazy in the first place, and goes on to change the history of the novel itself, raising the stakes for writerly and thematic prowess to a place that may never have been reached since. (There are a lot of arguments here; in my opinion, Melville, among several others, achieved equality, but I have a soft spot for tattooed guys with harpoons and encyclopedic displays of minutiae. After all, Ishmael is nothing if not a librarian).

Even so, Don Quixote starts off as a bit of a grind. My 21st century reader/writer sensibility requires definition, concise sentences, and clear point of view (so obvious from my own writing style, eh?). You know, the shit that has been drummed into me at writing workshop upon writing workshop. Instead, I get Don Quixote and Sancho Panza repeatedly, and violently, and fruitlessly, and depressingly, getting their asses beat for 200 pages with no end in sight. I mean gruesome stuff, like kicked in the guts and spitting out teeth. It's both a painful read and a nice illustration that repetitive action to the point of boredom can be totally constructive and not everything has to be snappy in the interest of building means and mood. Talk about nihilistic! The saving grace of the early exploits, and the chassis of the book as a whole, is the humor that pervades each whooping of man or mission.

The classic book-burning scene, where the Don's friends go to his library and try to figure out what exactly drove him nuts, is poignant and hysterical. Cervantes unleashes a scathing wit as he lets us watch these two guys mull over the Don's books as if they were having a chat whilst enjoying a latte at Barnes & Nobles, deciding which books are worthy of saving and which belong in the fire. The torment of books (or men) would be too much without the humor, and even for me, Mr. Sensitive Self Help Guy, the book borders on being so cruel as to be difficult to read.

The sadistic pleasure taken by peripheral characters in hurting the Ingenious Gentleman is stunning in its sincere malevolence. By page 700 of Don Quixote making an ass of himself and getting thrashed for his trouble, I was exhausted by the carnage. My resultant reaction (which bears a curious similarity to my take on the news since George Dub-yuh's re-election) was that I had grown so desensitized and/or shell-shocked to the parade of wounds that I started not to care about the Don's pain, and instead opted for self-serving melancholy (a standard ploy of mine). Even so, that was to me the most striking thing about Don Quixote: 400 years after it was first published, I found it could still affect me in such a remarkable number of ways. Whether I was visualizing George Bush and Colin Powell riding their respectively ratty steeds off to war, thinking a goat with an eggbeater is really a WMD, or ruminating on my own sometimes overly romantic illusions regarding humanity, society, literature, or whatever else, I felt the foundational experience of reading the book, insuring for me its place in the category of timeless, classic art.

Don Quixote, and art like it, is what keeps me going through all the bullshit with bills and Republicans and Democrats. There's gotta be some reason we have to deal with these simplistic, parochial assholes; what else would we write about? What else would we paint? It's pretty standard thought that true artistry thrives in times of bad governance and war (visual art in the 1950s is but one example). Art, in all its self-indulgent glory, is what makes us different; it's what separates us from the oxen. To my mostly secular view, it's an engagement with an aesthetic greater than myself. It is how I cope, how I understand, and how I make sense of the world.

So what if it's an illusion? So what if it is not technically "real". Fiction is truer than the truth could ever be because it is false. It is an opportunity to create the perfect truth, a picture not muddled with reality. The truth is that we create fantasy everyday. We are always, like the Don, chasing our own personal windmills. We create worth where there is none, meaning where there is chaos. What difference does any of it make? A bill passes or it doesn't, the president signs it or he doesn't. John Roberts get confirmed or he doesn't. The reality of these scenarios makes little difference. It's the perception of the reality that is important . . . and the means used to process that perception. So we create in a vacuum, or we create with a fist in the air. We construct our own reality and furnish it. Ah, egregious displays, a thought that brings me back to another School House Rock gem, the mouthpiece of a generation, and a valuable lesson for the kids everywhere:

"We hold these truths to be self evident/that all men are created equal / And that they are endowed by their creator / With certain unalienable rights. / That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness / And if there's one thing that makes me happy, then you know that it's (ooh!) / There's gonna be fireworks!"

There it is, straight from that Saturday morning arbiter of all that is right and true: it is your patriotic duty as an American to blow shit up. Just make it pretty.

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