Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Mambrino's Helmet

In Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s novel Don Quixote, a barber’s basin is transformed into the Helmet of Mambrino through Don Quixote’s fertile imagination. Don Quixote is quite concerned about the care taken with the precious helmet, and so inquires about it to Sancho Panza. Sancho replies:

In God’s name, Sir Knight of the Sad Countenance, I cannot endure or bear with patience some of the things your worship says; they make me think that all you tell me about chivalry, and winning kingdoms and empires and giving isles, and doing other favors and mighty deeds as knights-errant do, must be just wind and lies, and all friction or fiction, or whatever you call it; for to hear your worship say that a barber’s basin is Mambrino’s helmet and persist in that error for more than four days, what can one think? Only that a man who persists in saying things like that must be cracked in the brain. I have the basin in the bag all dented, and I am taking it home to mend it and to use if for shaving.

Don Quixote answers him

Look you, Sancho, by the same oaths as you swore just now, I swear that you have less brains than any squire has or ever had in the world. Is it possible that all this while you have been with me and have not discovered that everything to do with nights-errant appears to be chimera, folly, and nonsense? This is not really the case, ut there is a crew of enchanters always among us who change and alter all our deeds and transform them according to their pleasure, either to either favor us or to injure us. So what seems to you to be a barber’s basin seems to me to be Mambrino’s helmet, or to another as something else.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingAt first reading it may be easy to dismiss Don Quixote’s comments about the barber basin (which Don Quixote is usually depicted wearing, as in the adjacent image) as the ramblings of a madman who is unable to see reality clearly and rationalizes his delusion as the work of imagined enchanters in our midst. But whether Don Quixote is mad, there is a deeper kind of meaning hidden within his words.

It is easier to see this meaning within the same artistic context in which Don Quixote is speaking. Just as the romantic world of chivalry within which Don Quixote lives is the product of an enchantment placed upon him by the books he has read, so to is the world in which we live transformed by the enchantment of artists who, fortunately, are always among us.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingSome may look at blocks of marble and see only chunks of stone.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingBut the fertile imagination of the artist can see in the block of stone the hidden beauty within. Through a process that might while be called enchantment, the artist can call forth from within the stone a statue, an image that only existed within the artist's mind's eye, and through this process enable us to see what previously the artist alone could imagine.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingIn the end the marble is transformed from a piece of rock into an image of youth and beauty. And yet, and yet, there are still people who will look at the image and say that it is still only a piece of stone, it is not a person at all, and it does not in the least resemble anyone who has ever lived.

For most of us, we are willingly complicit in the artist’s abstraction, and by entry into the enchantment, not only share the artist’s vision, but are enriched and ennobled by it. We willingly participate in the abstraction, and don't even think of the statue as a piece of stone at all. Through a kind of enchantment, the stone is transformed and we share the artist's vision.

Nor are these enchantments limited to mere esthetic interludes. Our lives are transformed by the experience. And so a man seeing a young woman for the first time might well invoke Byron’s words and say to himself “She walks in beauty like the night/Of cloudless climes and starry skies” – and the enchantment can be so strong that he sees her the same way even after 23 years of marriage, though the youthful beauty has faded.

As Don Quixote acknowledges, the enchanters’ influences are not invariably good. But for those complicit in the enchantment, the ability to see the Helmet of Mambrino where others may see only a barber’s basin may be what gives ordinary circumstances their charm and savor, and indeed gives purpose to life. Because at some level, life can appear little more than a series of random and inexplicable episodes and coincidences, ending in death – nothing more than a dented barber’s basin. But through the transforming power of enchantment, something noble, beautiful and valuable may be discerned. May we all be so forunate to recognize Mambrino's helmet, even if not (perhaps especially when not) apparent to others.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The One Sin Greater Than Plague or Death

In our time, we are comfortable thinking about issues such as debt or bankruptcy as strictly practical or legal concerns. But in an earlier times, debt was a moral issue. This is starkly illustrated in Henry Knighton's contemporaneous account of the Black Death in England; Knighton reports that "the Bishop of London sent word throughout his whole diocese giving general power to each and every hear confessions and to give absolution to all persons with full episcopal authority, except only in case of debt. In this case, the debtor was to pay the debt, if he was able while he lived, or others were to fulfill his obligations from his property after his death." Knighton's report appears in Eyewitness to History, a fascinating 1988 compilation of first-hand accounts of historical events, edited by John Carey.