The Mediterranean & Raft of the Medusa

When Théodore Géricault, an icon of French Romanticism, painted his ‘Raft of the Medusa’ back in  1818, he didn’t know he was immortalizing a horrific tragedy in which a group of French people were left on a makeshift raft in the middle of the ocean with no means to navigate and no supplies to keep them alive, while the rich were carried to safety in lifeboats following the catastrophe that had befallen their ship. What followed was a dark drama that ended up in ‘survival of the fittest’. Everything was fair game for the survivors, starting with throwing the weak and the wounded into the sea, and ending with cannibalism (because, who said romanticism was about ‘romance’?).

Almost two centuries have passed since Théodore Géricault had depicted this event based, in part, on the discussion he held with some of the survivors. The painting was so intense that the great Eugène Delacroix willingly posed as model for one of the dead figures in the artwork (face down, arm stretched in the middle). Géricault chose a dramatic moment to capture, namely that in which the survivors spot a ship. Hope of deliverance breathes life into half-dead bodies and souls, and the raft turns into a ghastly theatre of earthly horrors. Expectedly, the painting eventually became a universal icon of human struggle for survival and facing the unknown.

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Some 200 years after, one is flooded every day with images of migrant boats and drowned refugees. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), some 3770 migrants died crossing the Mediterranean in attempts to reach Europe in 2015 (an average of 10 people / day). I came across a photo that shows a group of Syrian refugees finally reaching the shore after an epic journey across the sea, Mare Nostrum which has become Cemetery Nostrum. The photo supposedly gained some award (I don’t know the photographer), but this is not the important thing. The important thing is that it captures an extreme human condition of mixed feelings following an impossible odyssey. How would Théodore Géricault paint this tragic moment had he been among us today? What other icons of human failure should we be adding to our collection?

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The Adventures of Don Quixote

“You must endeavour to write in such a manner as to convert melancholy into mirth, increase good humour, entertain the ignorant, excite the admiration of the learned, escape the contempt of gravity, and attract applause from persons of ingenuity and taste.” – From the Preface of Don Quixote

This might indeed be the endeavour that Cervantes undertook while writing his epic masterpiece, Don Quixote; possibly Spain’s greatest literary achievement, and the most incredible window that one could ever peer through into the turbulent 17th century in Spain and the Mediterranean: omnipresence of the church, widespread superstition, contempt to the moors and the Jews, fear of the corsairs, sharp divide between social strata, strong ideas about proper conduct, etc.

Having recently finished reading this epic work, I can fairly claim that no one could possibly understand -at least in part- the roots of the Spanish culture without first reading Don Quixote. How else would you understand sayings like ‘de la ceca a la mecca’ (from Ceca to Mecca) or ‘Santiago, y cierra España’ (Saint James, and strike for Spain) or ‘más perdió el rey godo’ (bigger was the loss of the Visigoth King)?

Through one episode after another, the novel is structured around countless chivalric tales, impossible loves, acts of wizardry, parables on virtue and vice, all wrapped in a vivid proto-costumbrismo that would characterize many literary and artistic works of the Spanish Golden Age (Siglo de Oro).

Cervantes masterfully incorporates different literary resources and tricks of composition as he swiftly sets in the footsteps of Don Quixote. He tells us that the storyteller that recorded the adventures of Don Quixote is a moor called ‘Cid Hamet Benengeli’, which is probably a playful reference to himself (Cid means Master in Arabic, Hamet could be an interpretation of Miguel, and Benengeli can be Ibn al-Ayel or Son of the Deer, an Arabic equivalent to Cervant-es). While this resource is, clearly, a meta-fictional instrument, one can only wonder why he chose a moor as his storyteller despite all the derision that he expresses towards the moors and the moriscos throughout the novel. The influence of the Italian novella is unmistakable in some parts, and so is that of pastoral songs and epic poems, and yet Cervantes creates an unparalleled work that is totally and unmistakably his, complete with autobiographical elements that allude to his captivity in Algeria.

Throughout the novel, we enjoy the adventures of a delusional self-proclaimed knight-errant (Don Quixote) and his simpleton-yet-witty squire, who devoutly follows his master in the hope of a reward that never comes (Sancho Panza). Wherever he goes, Don Quixote shows himself to be a madman and draws everyone’s attention and curiosity, yet his gentle and gallant character never fails to impress. Probably the most sober -and to my taste, sad- moment in the novel comes as Don Quixote realizes towards the end of the story, and just before his death, that he had been afflicted with a serious madness that he attributed to his obsession with knights and their false stories. A man can spend his entire life engaged in heroic battles, only to realize when it’s already too late that it was all nothing but a chasing after the wind (and fighting against windmills!). This takes us back to one of the most powerful ‘images’ of the novel, in which a curate and a barber, both of them friends that are genuinely concerned about Don Quixote and his mental health, hold a mini-Inquisition for the chivalry books in possession of Don Quixote!

Finally, I would like to share with you some quotes from Don Quixote:

“In the midst of this their conversation, they discovered thirty or forty windmills all together on the plain, which the knight no sooner perceived, than he said to his squire, ‘Chance has conducted our affairs even better than we could either wish or hope for; look there, friend Sancho, and behold thirty or forty outrageous giants, with whom, I intend to engage in battle, (…) for it is a meritorious warfare, and serviceable both to God and man, to extirpate this race from the face of the earth.”

“I cannot conceive how falsehood is able to ape truth so exactly.”

“Where is the merit in a woman’s being chaste, when nobody ever courted her to be otherwise? What wonder, that she should be reserved and cautious, who has no opportunity of indulging loose inclinations, and who knows her husband would immediately put her to death, should he once catch her tripping?”

“Nothing sooner successes in overthrowing the embattled towers of female vanity, than vanity itself, employed by the tongue of adulation.”

“While we enjoy our meal, let every harlot mind her spinning-wheel.”

“Hunger is the best sauce, and as that is never wanting among the poor, they always relish what they eat.”

Illustration by Gustave Doré