Quixotic Thought: The Disease of Literalism

By Brian Congdon

Don Quixote “Obviously,” replied Don Quixote, “you don’t know much about adventures. Those are giants, and if you’re frightened take yourself away from here and say your prayers, while I go charging into savage and unequal combat with them.1” The adventure-thirsty knight charged after his “giant” foes ignoring Sancho Panza’s warnings, only to be flung violently to the ground, bruised and disgraced. Even if taken literally and the thirty or so windmills were actually giants, Quixote would have been far outnumbered and ill-equipped to slay them.

For those who have read Don Quixote, the reader knows all too well about his maniacal character. Each adventure or misadventure, depending on interpretation, is inaugurated by a drawn-out monologue of extraordinarily eloquent speech articulating the intricacies of some knightly code or custom. But when the speeches are compared with the stupidity of Quixote’s actions in “battle,” they do not make any sense. An incongruence between lofty statements made for the sake of justice, and such ridiculous actions, signal that at base something is not right. Quixote knows plenty about laws of knighthood and chivalrous conduct, but next to nothing when it comes to the intuitive nature of fear in the presence of dangerous individuals. Quixote has a very hard time sensing trouble, or any pernicious situation for that matter. He always finds himself right in the middle of them with too little time to escape.

The adventures of Don Quixote are relevant for contemporary study because the main character’s wild conduct reveals a gaping deficit in experiential knowledge. Despite his “informed” opinions and eloquent speech which always seems to defend a valiant cause, his actions are reckless and foolish. His extremely low capacity to intuitively or experientially navigate through a difficult situation becomes an overriding issue and major source of hardship. Cervantes wrote this novel using fictional characters, but regrettably the Christian church brims with persons of remarkably similar disposition.

Much like Don Quixote, man does not function well when solely relying on intellect. More often than not, modern man displays a disproportionate reliance on cognitive, rational analysis. The schism of head and heart, or the distance between discursive reason and intuitive, symbolic-feeling, is the chasm situated between two necessary and complementary faculties. They form the essential makeup of man. Extreme circular and introspective analysis alienated from the intuitive, feeling faculties has a propensity to strip concrete thoughts of their actual meaning. The head and heart faculties are complementary and were never intended to be separate, lest one or the other suffer isolation and abnormal development. Man equally possesses a certain propensity to base understanding solely on his heart, isolated from the rational and logical ways of knowing. However, a balanced, healthy person relies on both faculties simultaneously as a means of interpreting and knowing everyday life.

Leanne Payne says “this schism probably began with the advent and universal acceptance of greek philosophies, then Rene Descartes’ dictum “I think therefore I am,” followed by the Cartesian world and its emphasis on scientific knowing.2” An extreme dependence on the intellect probably results from mental over-compensation for lack of integration with one’s heart. Subsequently, the imbalanced person must “balance out” the lack of emotional substance with the mind. Some might refer to this condition as hard-heartedness, or relational “dryness.” More precisely, this is the system of defense that one develops to combat estrangement from emotional or feeling-based types of knowing. It is “the terrible schism in the heart of man that Kierkegaard cried out about when he said that we have forgotten how to exist, and can only think and talk about being.3

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