September 2018 Print

Tilting at Windmills, A Warning from 1605

by Andrew J. Clarendon

The primal curse of Genesis remains: “with labour and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life…In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth of which thou wast taken.” All attempts to fabricate a new paradise on earth have failed, with the experiments of 20th century atheistic materialism standing as particularly deadly examples. Nevertheless, man has employed the gift of the intellect to develop ways to try to make life easier or to at least solve certain problems in our fallen world. From the most primitive tools to today’s supercomputers, technology is, in a wide sense, both “applied science [and] the things people make and use”; the word itself comes from the Greek for “art” or “skill.” Dante and Shakespeare among others, write eloquently about how it is natural to man to imitate the Creator by using or even improving upon what is found in nature. In The Winter’s Tale, for example, Shakespeare cites cross-breeding flowers as “an art / Which does mend nature—change it, rather—but / The art itself is nature.” Today, in the midst of rapid developments in technology that were recently the stuff of science fiction, mankind is faced with a Pandora’s box of future advancements with at least partially unknown consequences. We are at—or perhaps beyond—a crossroads, one that involves both the individual and the planet as a whole. Interestingly, the poets have not only sounded warnings today and as the Industrial Revolution was beginning, but also centuries earlier. One of the earliest examples pointing to this ambivalent relationship between man and the machine is the famous windmill episode in Miguel Cervantes’ 1605 comic masterpiece Don Quixote.

The Shift to Modernity

Occurring early in the novel, this iconic moment illustrates central concerns of the work itself as well as the great cultural shift from the medieval to the early modern period. Quixote is an hidalgo, a minor nobleman, who spends his time reading chivalric romances—knights in shining armor, damsels in distress, fantastic magical adventures, and the like—until one day his wits turn, and he decides that it is his mission in life to become a knight errant, riding out to seek adventure. After an initial sally, Quixote convinces his neighbor, Sancho Panza, “a peasant and an honest man...but not very smart” to join him as his squire. So, the greatest comic odd couple in literature sets out on the dusty roads of La Mancha to right wrongs and battle foes. The episode with the windmills is, appropriately, the first adventure the two encounter and is a type for all the rest. Seeing “30 or 40 windmills” on a plain before them, Quixote’s crazy imagination turns them into what he calls “monstrous giants.” He goes on to tell Sancho that he plans to “take all their lives, and with their spoils we’ll start to get rich. This is righteous warfare, and it’s a great service to God to rid the earth of such wicked seed.” Although Sancho tries to warn him, Quixote attacks; after his lance gets stuck in one of the sails, he is lifted into the air and thrown to the earth, with his horse on top of him.

At the most basic level, this is slapstick comedy: the proud man is literally brought down to earth—an image of humility. The core of Cervantes’ genius, however, is to include a deeper, philosophical point within the comedy. At this profound level, Quixote is right: the windmills are giants. This machine grinds wheat much faster than a human being and so man can quickly become dependent upon it. In his crazy yet noble imagination, Quixote has realized an important point: man can become a slave to the machine, even to the point that he can hardly imagine life without this or that gadget. It is disturbing to contemplate what would happen, particularly in the big cities, if electricity—the most fundamental modern technology—were to disappear; indications of the consequences have already been seen after hurricanes. What is more, it is interesting to note that the first time the Pilgrim sees Satan in Dante’s Inferno—a work Cervantes must have known—the fallen angel of light’s wings are compared to the sails of a windmill. Brilliantly extending the point, in his unfinished film version of Don Quixote, the great director Orson Welles has a scene in which Quixote and Sancho ride into contemporary Barcelona. They make their way into a movie theater and in a moment that recalls the windmills and other moments in the novel, Quixote attacks the movie screen to the anger of the adults and the cheers of the children in the theater. To fight for the right while crazily fighting against the machine is the original quixotic adventure.

A Word About Warfare

As Quixote chooses the profession of arms, a word must be said about warfare. Later in the novel, Quixote notes that technology is very often used in combat where the same concerns are present. Speaking to a group of young nobles at an inn, he says, “happy and blessed were those ages that lacked the dreaded fury of those devilish instruments of artillery—whose inventor I’m convinced must be in hell as a reward for his diabolical invention—with which it’s possible for a despicable and cowardly arm to take the life of a brave knight.” Modern industrial warfare has shown Quixote to again have a valid argument. While it is part of Quixote’s noble insanity to react against the monstrous machine, even the last of the knights is easily brushed aside by the giant windmill just as he could easily be shot and killed. It is enough that he stands up to it. In later centuries, authors like Jonathan Swift and Charles Dickens take up the warning in wider social terms, arguing against thinking of people as only useful products or as cogs in the industrial machine. In our own age, it is not accidental that the dystopian novel has continued to grow as authors explore the possible effects of our technological times in war and in uneasy peace.

A Question of Balance

Of course, even Quixote cannot do entirely without machines: swords and armor do not grow in nature. The question therefore is one of balance. Clearly, our environment has been severely impacted over the decades and the effects on the individual are only really beginning to be understood. One need not be a video game or smart phone addict to feel disturbed by the near ubiquity of modern machines in one’s life. Surely the answer is something along the lines of the appropriate technology movement associated with E. F. Schumacher and the various bio-conservative movements that seek to at least put a check on our rapid development. As G. K. Chesterton puts in The Outline of Sanity, “The best and shortest way of saying it is that instead of the machine being a giant to which the man is a pygmy, we must at least reverse the proportions until man is a giant to whom the machine is a toy.” Anyway, after a day of staring at a screen, there is hardly anything more pleasant than to work outside in the garden, handling real soil, water, and living things. Not only does our age need to again affirm the divine order, but also, in a world of so-called virtual reality, even the natural order needs to be championed. Even now, in the 21st century, we declare with Hopkins, “for all this, nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; /…/ Because the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”