A Novel to Cross a Desert With

FullSizeRender.jpg-1by Leanne Ogasawara

When I was a young, I don't remember why, but I scribbled a poem by Osip Mandelstam on a piece of thick, mauve-color Nepalese mulberry paper. And as I wrote it, I thought to myself, "This is a poem to cross a desert with."

Depriving me of sea, of a space to run and a space to fly,
And giving my footsteps the brace of a forced land,
What have you gained? The calculation dazzles
But you cannot seize the movements of my lips, their silent sound.
–Osip Mandelstam 1935

I carried this poem around in my wallet for twenty-five years–like an amulet. Looking back, I can only wonder what in the world drew me to it when I was still so young and free-spirited…But in fact, this poem of Russian gulag captivity gave me strength during times of hardship; for contained within those few short lines is a beautiful testament to the great strength that our inner lives have to sustain us…

Fast forward twenty-five years when a forty-five year old woman scrawled one line from another poem on the back of that same mauve-color piece of mulberry paper. This time it was the famous line from Tao Yuanming's poem, Plucking chrysanthemums by the eastern fence:


A world away in spirit from Mandelstam's poem perhaps. As the poem sums up perfectly the serenity achieved by a life of cultivation –at the end of the hero's journey.

飲酒詩     陶淵明
結盧在人境 而無車馬喧
問君何能爾 心遠地自偏
採菊東籬下 悠然見南山
山氣日夕佳 飛鳥相與還
此還有真意 欲辨已忘言

Drinking Wine (#5)–Tao Yuanming
I’ve built my house where others dwell
And yet there is no clamor of carriages and horses
You ask me how this is possible– (And so I say):
When the heart is far, one is transported
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern fence
And serenely I gaze at the southern mountains
At dusk, the mountain air is good
Flocks of flying birds are returning home
In this, there is a great truth
But wanting to explain it, I forget the words (my trans)

That line has become a perfect touchstone for the next part of my life; another poem to cross a desert with.

All this about deserts….

The truth is, if I were really to cross a desert, I would most probably prefer to take a novel–not a poem.

I'm curious, do you have one book that you would happily re-read over and over until the end of time?

I had thought I had a definite answer for myself. My novel of a lifetime has always been The Brothers Karamazov. This changed in an eye-blink when I finally began Don Quixote. Like Karamazov, the Quixote is chock full of philosophical questions that would engage a reader endlessly. And what the Quixote may be lacking in religious truths, it more than makes up for in humor. And indeed, don't we want to keep laughing? The countless droll and surprising images in the book can become like little poems that a reader can carry around with them in their pocket and bring out whenever they want to smile or giggle, or to just plain fall on the floor laughing! I love el Quixote and was not surprised one bit to hear that it is one of the most requested book by the inmates at Guantánamo. (That, according to Quixote scholar Roberto González Echevarría).

As is well known, the great Borges was deeply passionate about the Quixote and returned to the work over and over again –in stories, essays, and poems– throughout his life. In particular, Borges loved Cervantes' literary devices that worked to undermine literary truth (and notions of absolute truth in general it could be said); indeed, the works of both Borges and Cervantes could be characterized by a playful questioning of something Karl Popper called the myth of the framework. Better explored by Martin Heidegger and Thomas Kuhn, the idea being that what we see as "the world" is no more than a shared cultural, linguistic and ideological framework by which we interpret things. This framework informs –and indeed decides– not only how we interpret experiences but frames perception itself.

This is to say, we are all enchanted.

Imprisoned in our preconceived notion such that not only are our judgements being compromised but our sensory perceptions themselves are suspect. Thus, Thomas Kuhn famously illuminated this by examining scientific paradigms, coming up with the concept of incommensurability. We know we are in the gripe of a linguistic, cultural or ideological framework when we come up against concepts that simply do not translate (for example, mass and gravitation do not perfectly translate from classical to quantum mechanical schemes; or in Heideggerean terms, saints and sinners no longer show up for us today as meaningful–any more than the ancient Greek concept of a hero would seem a sensible option for a man today). Humans assign meaning and interpret not only the world around them, but their understanding of being itself, so that being is intrinsically embedded within all the shared social and cultural practices by which we have been socialized and through which we understand the world around us (l'existence précède l'essence). So fundamental, it is often unconscious to us as well– like the air we breathe. Foucault used Heidegger's concept of the clearing to explore what he called the episteme. This was always Foucault's primary interest: to try and grasp the a priori network or grid of meaning that we map onto the world.

My Don Quixote professor called this grid of meaning the "rules of the world."

I love that expression.

Cervantes gives us a fiction. But he also always gives us the rules, says the dear professor.

And, it is in the recognition that reality is a cultural construct and that all narratives have rules by which we can–in this recognition– take a stand. [the existential stand].


Just amazing that Cervantes was exploring something so modern over four hundred years ago!

But Cervantes was not any ordinary writer! Indeed, has any writer had as adventurous a life as Cervantes?

First of all, he was at the legendary Battle of Lepanto. Yes, you heard me right. And there, by all accounts, he was very heroic. Hit three times by harquebus fire, he was struck twice in the chest and once in the left hand. Luckily, his armor deflected the chest wounds, but his left hand was permanently damaged during the battle. His maimed hand earned him the nickname, "El Manco de Lepanto." His heroic service that day got him several letters of commendation; one being from "his serene highness" Don Juan himself. Unfortunately, these letters were on his person when he was captured by the dreaded Barbary pirates and taken to Algiers. . His new master, believing him to be a man of great value because of these letters, set an exorbitant ransom, prolonging his captivity to five hopeless years.

I wonder whether returning home, he struggled with resuming normal life. I had trouble readjusting to life in the US after my decades abroad. It can be very hard coming home because things that you once thought as being "obvious" or "natural," no longer feel that way and you find yourself questioning everything. Cervantes does this in the novel by pitting all manner of preconceived notions and narratives against each other–even calling into question the act of storytelling itself. Is Don Quixote mad or is the world mad? Are all those notions held by people in various times and places somehow "real" or are we all not bewitched like actors playing parts in a wondrous play? One of the most eye-opening techniques that Cervantes uses to highlight the role of narratives in our lives is his use of interruptions. I was surprised by how modern they feel– the way chapters and situations simply trail off, and all the interpolated tales–not to mention the way the main story is abruptly paused by a complete novella plopped into the middle of the first book! Just as a reader is being lulled into a certain worldview, Cervantes adroitly yanks the rug from beneath our feet! As if to say,

See how good I am at this? But be wary, dear reader, for this too is only another narrative and you shouldn't be too trusting. Step back and take a stand on everything!

FullSizeRender-28María Antonia Garcés is one of my intellectual heroes, and she wrote a book about Cervantes' years in captivity in Algiers. Evoking Freud, she discusses the way that in some people trauma is actually bypassed in the mind: it is not experienced directly and instead is registered in the psyche as a kind of memory of the event that patients or survivors return to again and again, neurotically trying to process what happened to them. Of course, many people have traditionally processed traumatic events by revisiting them in art — and Cervantes indeed seems to return again and again to issues of captivity and broken narratives. For what is trauma but a deep interruption? Falling through the cracks of one's own life is how I used to put it until I read María Antonia Garcés' book. For trauma is an interruption of life, like a broken thread (el roto hilo de mi historia). And Cervantes himself uses the language of tying up the broken thread in his telling tales. As a former captive of Columbian guerrillas, María Antonia Garcés is very compelling.

Writing this two days after the Florida school shooting on Valentine's Day, I was thinking of this very sobering article by Umair Hacque that was shared widely, including at 3 Quarks Daily. Echoing another friend of 3 Quarks, Anis Shivani, who also has written about the futility of trying to repair a situation that has deteriorated this badly, Hacque gives real reasons for despair. It is starting to feel like a complete societal collapse, since we are not even protecting or doing right by our own children (we are the most dangerous wealthy country to be a child ). Umair Hacque ends his piece by suggesting that,

We need a whole new language — and a new way of seeing — to even begin to make sense of it.

I agree!

Both Descartes and Cervantes were interested in the notion of being "bewitched." In this state of slumber we do not question “the world”, instead accepting that what we know as real is truth and cannot be replaced with an alternative, better, saner world. The rules of our problematic world are built into the very language we use to talk about it, trapping us unless we break out of our own narrative prisons. As Amitav Ghosh tells us concerning climate change, we cannot tell the story of how to make a better world using a language that was built word by word on the framework upon which the problems are built. Interruptions can begin to distance us from the current narrative.

Humor and playfulness can also be very effective. As can be immersing oneself in a different language or culture to help see the world with new eyes. I might have mentioned the sabbath movement here. Spearheaded by Columbia Theological Seminar professor Walter Brueggmann and inspired by the Jewish sabbath, it is a movement to set aside one day where you interrupt the current model of human beings as producers and consumers (I think this is what Heidegger would say we are bewitched by) and try to do things in a different way. It is an effort to step out of the Matrix. In our house the aim is to not work or be consumers; and to just play for an entire day every Sunday. Our day usually involves cocktails at lunch and a homemade dinner with candles and listening to music… we try to avoid computers and cell phones and resist all the things we have become. No amazon, no streaming, no heavy-duty industrial food…. It is enlightening to realize how hard it is to do this. In fact, when I see how challenging it is for me to live in a simpler way (the way I lived thirty years ago), I realize how much I have drunk the Koolaid.

One of my presumably non-religious friends on Facebook shared this article about the Anglican church encouraging Lent be used to step out of our current mindless use of plastics. He said this:

This looks like a neat example of how religion might do what it does best and encourage virtuous behaviors among its members and perhaps model that behavior for society at large. I’ve always thought that Lent has such potential for critiquing our consumer society—and here is an environmental twist. Maybe we should all try it—religious or not. Check out the Lent calendar link in the article. It is very cool.

It is very cool! Many traditional calendars have these kinds of feast and fast days and also days of abstinence. They are very helpful in attempting to combat 24/7 consumerism, where everyday is Christmas. In any case, it's harder than it looks from here. I can say, it was orders of magnitude easier in Japan (where the average citizen has 1/4 the carbon impact that the average American has, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists). And with this in mind, I think Cervantes is right that interruptions can be the first step to taking a stand in life; for as Einstein might have said: We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

Or better

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”


Much gratitude to Nicolás Wey Gómez for teaching me so much about the Quixote…. 感謝! 

María Antonia Garcés' Cervantes in Algiers: A Captive's Tale

My Goodreads review of A Captive's Tale is here.

For more, see my: A Poem to Cross a Desert With &


Also, if you are interested in the Quixote, please see my (and the Puppy-Librarian Senor Borges') Don Quixote Diaries

What to Give up for Lent? Plastics! Lenten Calendar

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