Hear me, heathens and wizards
And serpents of sin!
All your dastardly doings are past,
For a holy endeavor is now to begin
And virtue shall triumph at last!
Thus says Don Quixote in The Man of La Mancha. This musical, based upon the classic novel by Miguel de Cervantes, is a play within a play. In it, the knight-errant Don Quixote sets off on his quest to restore virtue and chivalry to a world that’s gone mad. However, the world sees him as mad. He’s covered in rickety metal, perceives windmills to be giants and mistakes taverns for castles. The world of gallantry and heroics exists entirely within his mind.
A conflict ensues between Don Quixote’s ideals and the ugliness of reality when he beholds the maidservant Aldonsa. Don Quixote is struck by her radiance and virginal beauty, and he vows to protect and honor her as his lady. To him, a knight requires a lady as a body requires a soul. Dismissing her ordinary name, he names her La Dulcinea—the sweetest. The catch is that Aldonsa is anything but pure. Her life consists of cleaning the filth of the kitchen and dining hall in the mornings, and selling herself in the evenings. She’s lived a hard life without so much as a glimpse of virtue. A follower of Luther, she exclaims she’s been “born on a dung heap, to die on a dung heap.” When Don Quixote speaks of showing the world her glory, she resents him and turns from him.
The story is a far cry from the typical chivalrous tale. Instead of a knight in shining armor there’s an old fool in rusty tin. Instead of a damsel in distress there’s a maid prostituting herself. Yet, apart from these odd characters, there’s still the story of redemption and mercy. Don Quixote is mad, but his madness enables him to see the world as it should be. He does not despair looking at the world as it should not be, that is, what’s fallen in the world. Rather, he looks at the world and sees the Dulcinea in the Aldonsa.
In The Idiot, Dostoyevsky creates a similar paradox. The innocent protagonist Prince Myshkin looks benevolently on a squalid mistress, Nastasya. He’s madly in love with her—not that his passions overcome his reason, but rather his reason seems damaged, as he suffers from epilepsy. He proposes to Nastasya, only to be scorned. Repulsed by his proposal, she scoffs, “You didn’t really think I’d marry him, did you? Ruin a babe like that?… I’m a streetwalker I am!”
Both stories depict men looking mercifully upon sinful women. Each protagonist looks past the mire and attempts to lift out the soul entrapped within it. Yet each story contains the suggestion that a man would have to be insane to do such a thing. Don Quixote is mad, Prince Myshkin, mad. And the truth is, One is mad to do such a thing.
Scripture portrays Israel as a harlot, always running after other nations and burning incense to their gods. The writings of the prophets are littered with these wicked deeds and desertions of the errant daughter. “They are all adulterers, a band of traitors” (Jer 9:1). God makes it explicit when He says to Hosea, “Go, love a woman who is loved by her spouse but commits adultery; just as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes” (Hosea 3:1).
Aldonsa and Nastasya have sacrificed their purity for temporal gain, but far greater is the descent of Israel. Don Quixote and Prince Myshkin may have seen past the sin of these women, but they were not in a covenant with them. Israel not only broke a covenant, but a covenant with God. The knight and prince are coequal with the women, whereas God is far above His creation. The women owed nothing to those men, but God bent down and fed Israel (Hosea 11:4).
Yet, despite the gulf between the dignity of God and His people, and the magnitude of their sin, He forgave. “Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:7-8).
The world is confounded by such a free act of love. The Don and Prince may display virtue in the face of sin, earning them the titles of fool and idiot. Heroic indeed, but it is the Lord who is truly mad. As St. Catherine of Siena writes,
Oh, inestimable Charity, sweet above all sweetness!… It seems, oh, Abyss of Charity, as if thou wert mad with love of Thy creature, as if Thou couldest not live without him, and yet Thou art our God who has no need of us.
Image: Annibale Carracci, The Samaritan Woman at the Well