Sunday, September 10, 2017

Don Quixote and Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot


I read the Edith Grossman translation oDon Quixote.



Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote is full of brilliant passages. One example of marvelous and creative writing can be found when Don Quixote’s squire, Sancho, believes that he has been transported through the heavens on the back of a magical, wooden horse. At ths point in the narrative Sancho is anticipating a ridiculous and false promise that has been made to him that he will soon be appointed governor of a province.  He describes the experience below. 

“I looked down at the earth, and it seemed to me that it was no larger than a mustard seed, and the men walking on it not much bigger than hazel nuts, so you can see how high we must have been flying then.

After I came down from the sky, and after I looked at the earth from that great height and saw how small it was, the burning desire I had to be a governor cooled a little; where’s the greatness in ruling a mustard seed, or the dignity or pride in governing half a dozen men the size of hazel nuts? It seemed to me that this was all there was on the whole earth.”

The above is a very interesting passage for several reasons. Comparing Earth to a mustard seed seems to reference The Mustard Seed parable of the New Testament. In the gospels of both Luke and Mathew, a mustard seed is compared to the Kingdom of Heaven. However, this passage is reminding me of something else, something more contemporary. In a public speech, and in his book, Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan commented upon a picture of Earth taken by Voyager One,

“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.”

Dark grey and black static with coloured vertical rays of sunlight over part of the image. A small pale blue point of light is barely visible.
The Voyager One Photograph refereed
to in  Carl Sagan's quotation. 


I find the sentiments in these two passages similar in several ways. These quotations written hundreds of years apart seem to have a lot in common. Both refer to the insignificance of Earth. What is remarkable about Cervantes’s writing is that it was written in the 17th century, before the age of technology. The 17th century writer did not have pictures of Earth from space to inspire him. Yet, based mostly upon intuition and reason, he was able to express, very eloquently, something of the smallness that is our planet.

Both quotations also try to grapple with the apparent insignificance of human endeavors. I find Sagan’s words so moving as well as eye opening. He encapsulates human thought and efforts from the beginning of time in just a few sentences.

Likewise, Sancho’s dream of being a governor is diminished when he sees how small all of Earth and its people are. He compares the planet to a plant seed and its inhabitants to hazelnuts. He realizes, to paraphrase Sagan, that he is trying to become a momentary master of a fraction of a dot. Once again, this is all the more striking when one realizes that Don Quixote was written many centuries ago.

Sagan often talked and wrote about how humans tend to overinflate Earth’s importance and place in the Universe. Within the pages of Cervantes’s work, we find similar ideas. In this way, Cervantes seemed very ahead of his time. The Spanish author also expressed these thoughts in an eloquent and aesthetically pleasing way. This passage is one of the many gems that can be found in the epic that is Don Quixote.


31 comments:

Lory said...

What an interesting juxtaposition! It also makes me think of something I read in The Book of Joy, by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. They identify the first "pillar of joy" as "Perspective," as putting our problems and worries into a larger context can help us let go of the self-centeredness that makes us miserable. I think there's a danger in taking this view too far into nihilism -- I actually think the earth and human beings ARE important -- but we have to enlarge our view to get away from ourselves sometimes.

Fred said...

I fear that, regardless of what happens to our planet and to humanity and the unfortunate creatures trapped here with us, one thing that will never be lacking is the egotism and deluded visions of grandeur that infect us.

Mudpuddle said...

people don't think very much... if they did, then the discovery by the ancient Egyptians that the world was round would have precipitated major revolutions in their behaviors; it would have been a matter of instant perspective as regards the insignificance of humans and the very tiny place the species occupies in the unimaginably vast universe...
Sagan was a master word smith; i think if he hadn't deceased prematurely the world might presently be very different...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lory - You raise such an interesting point. This can go into the direction of nihilism. This may be a duality that we find throughout human history and thought. With the two poles being nihilism and self - importance.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Fred - Perhaps we shall never overcome our feelings of grandeur. If so we will likely have people like Cervantes and Sagan reminding us just how small we are.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpudde - People are indeed shortsighted. We can be so terribly arrogant. I agree that we sorely need Sagan today.

Suko said...

It is interesting, and significant, too, I think, that their ideas are similar. Wonderful commentary, Brian Joseph.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko - And these two men with similar ideas lived 500 years apart!

Fred said...

Brian Joseph--I think we will always need to be reminded of what we really are.

thecuecard said...

Interesting comparison. It seems we take our place in the universe & the Earth for granted so it's nice to think about these ideas that you raise here -- I guess our place is really much smaller than we think / and less important. We need to gain some perspective on this.

Harvee said...

I need to reread Don Quixote so I can appreciate Sancho Panza some more!

Stephen said...

What an unexpected link between two authors, so separated by the centuries. Cervantes' imagination was incredible to have been able to imagine the Earth -- the whole landscape of his and everyone else's existence -- as a small little fleck in the dark.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - Humans over inflating our importance was a common theme with Sagan. It also played a part in Don Quixote as we see here.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - Sancho Panza was such a wonderful character.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephen - Indeed, the fact that Cervantes could imagine this so many centuries ago is striking.

James said...

What a great connection you have made. The beauty of Cervantes is his ability to capture such a wealth of moments that we can have our imaginations piqued centuries later.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James. Cervantes really does transcend time.

Gently Mad said...

Hi Brian

Interesting comparison and contrast. It's interesting how we form conclusions based on our foundational beliefs.

As someone who believes God made the universe, including the world, and made man in His Image as recorded in the book of Genesis, I also believe in God's conclusion: It is good.

Size doesn't determine importance. I have a friend whose little boy is missing only a microscopic fraction of a Chromozone which renders him severely disabled both physically and mentally. He will never be able to live independently. How important is that tiny portion of DNA information!

And how amazing that if earth was not in exactly its present position in the Milky Way with exactly the right elements all working together we would not even exist. It blows my mind.

I believe that when God is our center of the universe, man can see himself in a realistic context. I am important because God made me in His image and pronounced me good. That does not make me the center or more or less important than I am. It does not place me in a disproportionate level of importance but allows me to enjoy my own existence and yours in the context of this beautiful world and amazing universe that I daily revel in. I can value human life and all life and planets and space and everything God spoke into existence because it is good!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon – I think that the lesson here is that humanity is insignificant in relation to the entire Universe. The chromosome example is a good one, but a chromosome effects the entire body. I think that it will turn out humanity is not effecting the entire Universe.

With all that, I think that if it turns out that we are the only intelligent life, or one of the only example of it, that would make us very special. The jury is still out on that one.


Though I do not believe that there is a God, I do believe that despite our small size, we can find our own meaning and importance in the Universe. Personally I believe that meaning can be found in empathy and kindness, our quest to understand the Universe or the march of science, and in the arts.

At the very least I think that one can take from this a message that humans should not be too arrogant or self important.

Rgaks for the great comment and have a great week!

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, Great commentary. Cervantes of course a brilliant writer and very impressed with the translation. No trouble understanding at all. Carl Sagan is a revelation too, very fine writer and your linking of the two well done. Agree, Cervantes lived during a time when the earth would have been the center of everything to most people and yet Cervantes saw beyond that as great artists often do.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy. This work was very understandable. Folks who have read other translations seem to be saying the same.

Many great artists were indeed very ahead of thier time. Cervantes work illustrates that.

Stefanie said...

Sagan and Cervantes, two writers I never would have thought had anything to compare. How wonderfully you have brought them together!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephanie - I tend to make strange connections between writers :)

Evelina said...

I've actually never read the full Don Quixote, only passages that we read in school. You make a very nice comparison!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Elvina - If you ever give it a try, I found this work to be very accessible and easy to read.

Richard said...

DQ has something for everybody, Brian, but I still didn't expect you to draw a parallel between Cervantes & Sagan! Interesting point and glad you enjoyed this great novel in all its resonance.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Richard - You hit it on the head when you say that this work has something for everyone. I tend t find odd connections between books.

Maria Behar said...

BRILLIANT post, Brian!!

I love your correlation of the Cervantes quote with the Sagan quote! What a fascinating leap, from "Don Quixote" to "Pale Blue Dot"! And what a genius the great Spanish writer was, to intuit such a profound philosophical viewpoint before the age of telescopes and space probes!! AMAZING!

The Cervantes passage, although expressing the same insights as the one by Sagan, has a rather humorous flavor that was entertaining, and included a very shrewd observation of human nature. Sancho, like many before and after him, was interested in self-aggrandizement, but only if it was REALLY worth it. When he looked at the Earth from the point of view of someone situated high above it, and perceived how insignificant it really was, in the grand cosmic scheme of things, he was no longer interested in governing part of it.

The Sagan passage actually gave me chills! Its aim is obviously different. It has a more obviously philosophical tone, whereas the Cervantes passage subordinated the philosophy to the depiction of a specific character, as well as to commentary on the pettiness of human nature.

The Sagan passage is so beautifully written! I LOVE the sonorous cadence of the words and sentences, the vivid juxtaposition of images; all served to throw me into the existential reality of the Earth's insignificance when compared with the vastness of space. I guess this is why people LOVE to speculate on the possibility of extraterrestrial life. We HATE the thought of being alone in the universe. I am one of those who fervently hope that there is, indeed, intelligent life on other planets! This would certainly help to cure "our cosmic loneliness"!

This post is certainly proof of the richness of classic literary fiction in delving into human nature, as well as the human existential dilemma.

Now I need to make SURE I read both "Don Quixote", and "Pale Blue Dot"!!

Thanks for such an insightful post!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Maria.

Cervantes was indeed a visionary.

You mentioned several things that are characteristic of Don Quixote. That is humorous, entertaining, yet keen insights into human nature.

I also find that Sagan very moving. You describe it a lot better then I can.

One ironic thing is that if we discover other intelligences then that makes humanity a little less special. If other intelligence do not exist, humanity becomes much more special. In a way, this is counter to Sagan’s point.

Deepika Ramesh said...

Such fascinating reads. Thank you for this brilliant post, Brian!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Deepika!