Dr. Robert Hickson 14 January 2020
Saint Hilary of Poitiers (d. 368)
“Turgenev,” said [the Russian teacher] Yakovlev [when addressing Christopher Trevenen, himself the restless protagonist], says that man is either a Hamlet or a Don Quixote. You are a Don Quixote, only you have none of the Spaniard’s kindness and humility. If you are a Don Quixote you should be chivalrous.”
“Don Quixote, fortunately for him, was mad.”
“He was very sane too.”
“You mean that I am neither mad nor sane?”
“Neither mad nor sane enough.”
“I will try and improve,” said Christopher, and he laughed.
(Maurice Baring, The Coat Without Seam (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929), page 225—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)
“I declare,” cried Sancho, “you [wife Teresa Panza] must have some devil in that body of yours. God bless us, woman, what a power of things you have strung together, one after the other, without head or tail!….Listen, dolt and nincompoop (I’m right to call you this, seeing that you don’t grip my meaning and you go tearing away from good fortune)….why won’t you agree and fall in with what I wish?”
“Do you know why, husband?” answered Teresa….“All give the poor man a hasty glance, but they keep their eyes glued on the rich man, and if the rich man was once poor, then you will hear the sneering and the gossiping and the continued spite of the backbiters in the streets, swarming as thick as bees.”
“Look here, Teresa,” said Sancho, “and pay heed to what I’m going to tell you, for maybe you never heard it all your life. And remember that I’m not airing my own opinion, but those of the reverend father who preached it in this village last Lent and who said, if I remember correctly….” (The remarks of Sancho are another reason for the translator’s former statement that this chapter [chapter five of Part II] is apocryphal, for they are beyond the mental capacity of our honest Sancho.) “Hence it happens, ….rest assured, Teresa, that no one will remember what he was [namely, such a poor man now up from “his low estate”], and all will respect him [as a rich man now] for what he is—that is to say, all except the envious [persons], from whom no prosperous fortune is safe.”
“I can’t make head or tail of you, husband,” answered Teresa. “Do what you will, and don’t break my head with your orating and speechifying. And if you have revolved [sic] to do what you say–”
“Resolved you should say, woman,” said Sancho, “not revolved.”
“Don’t start argufying with me, husband, “ said Teresa. “I speak as God pleases, and I’m content to call a spade a spade….”
“Then we both agree that our daughter [Sancha, or Marisancha or just Marica and Sanchica, as affectionate variants (559, 563)] is to be a countess,” said Sancho.
“The day I see her [our daughter] as a countess,” replied Teresa, “I’ll feel that I’m burying her; but once again I say, do as you please, for such is the burden we women receive at birth, to be obedient to our husbands no matter how doltish they may be.”
And with this she [Teresa] began to weep in real earnest as though she already saw Sanchica dead and buried. Sancho consoled her by saying that since he [as Governor] would have to make her a countess, he would postpone doing it as long as he could. So ended their conversation, and Sancho went back to see Don Quixote and make arrangements for their departure [on their third sally and joint adventure!].” (Miguel Cervantes, Don Quixote of La Mancha—Walter Starkie translation (New York: A Signet Classic—New American Library, 1957 and 1964), pages 561-563—Part II, Chapter V—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)
Some time ago now, but I can now reliably remember where I first saw it, Maurice Baring, the graciously cultured author and close friend of Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton, had one of his educated Russian characters say—it is to be found in Baring’s profound novel The Coat Without Seam (1929)—that a man has a basic disposition toward one of two types: either toward a brooding and vacillating Hamlet or toward a spontaneous and generous and very forgiving Don Quixote.
While recently reading Don Quixote aloud to my wife and our two young and eager children—especially some comic parts about Sancho Panza and his wife Teresa Panza “orating” and “argufying” together—I thought especially of one of Maurice Baring’s own subtly nuanced 1925 Diminutive Dramas, entitled “Xantippe and Socrates.”1 Thus, I thought to present both of these short literary attainments as an enhancement for our own still desirably larger spirit of comic festivity. To counterpoint the artful Miguel Cervantes and the artful Maurice Baring might still give us sparkling delight as well as some wise instruction. (From the first and extended Epigraph above, we may already savor Cervantes’ comic tones and characters, and promised adventurous substance.)
Maurice Baring himself was “a Don Quixote” who, as is fitting, was also “chivalrous” as well as a man of recurrent and manifest “kindness and humility.” He knew many languages and literatures—to include Greek and Latin and Russian—and he could deftly convey poignancy and elegiac tones of language and wounded life in his poetry and in his varied prose, as we shall soon see in his dramatic presentation of “Xantippe and Socrates” in which Socrates himself speaks very few words, while Xantippe shows, though often somewhat shrewish, how just lonely and uncertain she is. (Moreover, in this conversation, there is no mention of their children in Baring’s domestic piece and parody, though scholars speak of their two or three children who helped Xantippe after the death of Socrates, when he took his own life instead of going into a severe exile.)
Although Baring’s “diminutive drama” presents to a reader the few scenes and settings that could—and should—be acted out on stage, even by a resourceful wedded couple, we shall now try to accent the sequence and the actual words of Xantippe herself in her swift and voluble vividness. For example, after setting the scene and entrance of Socrates into a room in his home, here is how the play commences:
(Xantippe—henceforth, for convenience, presented as “X”). You’re twenty minutes late.
(Socrates—henceforth presented as “S”). I’m sorry, I was kept–
X. Wasting your time as usual, I suppose, and bothering people with questions who have got something better to do than to listen to you. You can’t think what a mistake you make by going on like that. You can’t think how much people dislike it. If people enjoyed it, or admired it, I could understand the waste of time—but they don’t. It only makes them angry. Everybody’s saying so.
S. Who’s everybody?
X. There you are with your questions again. Please don’t try to catch me out with those kind of tricks. I’m not a philosopher. I’m not a sophist. I know I’m not clever—I’m only a woman. But I do know the difference between right and wrong and black and white, and I don’t think it’s very kind of you, or very generous either, to be always pointing out my ignorance, and perpetually making me the butt of your sarcasm.
S. But I never said a word.
X. Oh, please, don’t try to wiggle out of it. We all know you’re very good at that. I do hate that shuffling so. It’s so cowardly. I do like a man one can trust—and depend on—who when he says Yes means Yes, and when he says No means No.
S. I’m sorry I spoke.
X. I suppose that’s what’s called irony. (177-178)
Before we resume this exchange between husband and wife, it will be good to learn of Baring’s description of the Scene and its implicit atmosphere for their conversation:
A room in Socrates’ house. Xantippe is seated at a table, on which an unappetising meal, consisting of figs, parsley, and some hashed goat’s meat, is spread. (177)
After Xantippe says “I suppose that’s what’s called irony,” she resumes her diatribe:
I’ve no doubt it’s very clever, but I’m afraid it’s wasted on me. I should keep those remarks for the market-place and gymnasia and the workshops. I’ve no doubt they’d be highly appreciated there by that clique of young men who do nothing but admire each other. I’m afraid I’m old-fashioned. I was brought up to think a man should treat his wife with decent civility, and try, even if he did think her stupid, not to be always showing it.
S. Have I by a word or hint ever suggested that you were stupid?
X. Oh, of course not—never. However, we won’t discuss that. We will change the subject, if you don’t mind.
S. But really–
X. (ignoring the interruption) Please give me your plate. I will help you to the goat.
S. None for me, thank you, today.
X. Why not? I suppose it’s not good. I’m afraid I can’t provide the food you get at your grand friends’ houses, but I do think it’s rather cruel of you to sneer at my poor humble efforts. (178)
Then begins a long exchange about food, to include figs, but not meat! “I suppose that’s a new fad, not to eat meat,” Xantippe says promptly (179), and then she adds:
I assure you people talk quite enough about you as it is without your making yourself more peculiar. Only yesterday Chrysilla was talking about your clothes. She asked if you made them dirty on purpose. She said the spots on the back couldn’t have got there by accident. Every one notices it—every one says the same thing. Of course, they think it is my fault. No doubt it’s very amusing for people who don’t mind attracting attention and who like being notorious; but it is rather hard on me. And when I hear people saying “Poor Socrates! It is such a shame that his wife looks after him so badly and doesn’t even mend his sandals”—I admit I do feel rather hurt. However, that would never enter into your head. A philosopher hasn’t the time to think of other people. I suppose unselfishness doesn’t form part of a sophist’s training, does it?
[SOCRATES says nothing, but eats first one fig and then another.]
X. I think you might at least answer when you’re spoken to. I am far from expecting you to treat me with consideration or respect; but I do expect ordinary civility.
[SOCRATES goes on eating figs in silence.]
X. Oh, you’re going to sulk. First you browbeat, then you’re satirical. Then you sneer at the food, and then you sulk. (179—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)
For the next two pages—180-181—there again the wife and husband have a lively exchange about food. The entire two pages, I believe, ought also be closely read to appreciate the nuanced modulations of tones, as well as its being a preparation for a more serious matter: Socrates’ punitive condemnation by some of the powerful Athenian oligarchs.
At the end of their exchanges about nourishing food and special garlic and roasted goat, Xantippe says: “Then it’s quite ridiculous your not eating. Let me give you some goat at once.” (182)
Socrates then replies and has another surprise: “I couldn’t really. Besides I must go in a minute.”
X. There! I knew it! You’re going out to dinner.
S. You are mistaken, Xantippe.
X. You’d far better tell me the truth at once. I’m quite certain to find it out sooner or later. You can’t think how foolish it is to tell lies and then to be found out afterwards. You can’t think how much a woman despises a man for that—you couldn’t do anything more foolish.
S. I promise you by all the gods that I’m not going to dine elsewhere.
X. I suppose you don’t expect me to fall into that trap! Swearing by all the gods, when every one in Athens knows you are a professional atheist—when you do nothing but mock the gods from morning till night—and what’s far worse, make other people mock them too; when I scarcely like to have a slave in the house because of your impiety—and your blasphemy.
S. I really think you are rather unfair, Xantippe. You will be sorry for this some day. (180—my emphasis added)
As we realize more and more how little Xantippe understood her husband’s principles and eccentricities, we are allowed to see their effectively farewell conversation, which Maurice Baring conveys to us poignantly, drop by drop—except, perhaps, for Xantippe’s trifling and bathetic final sentence about food:
X. Then may I ask where you are going?
S. I’ve got an important engagement.
X. And with whom?
S. I would rather not say, for your sake.
X. That’s very clever and ingenious to put it on me. But I’m tired of being bullied. Even a worm will turn, and I demand to be treated just for once like a human being, and with the minimum of courtesy and frankness. I don’t ask for your confidence, I know that would be useless. But I do ask to be treated with a grain of straightforwardness and honesty. I insist upon it. I have borne your sneers, your sarcasm, and your sulkiness, your irritability, your withering silence, quite long enough. I will not put up with it any longer.
Socrates. Very well, Since you will have it, I have been impeached by Lycon, Meletus, and Anytus on some ridiculous charge, the result of which, however, may be extremely serious–in fact it may be a matter of life or death—and I am obliged to appear before them at once.
Xantippe. Oh dear, oh dear! I always said so, I knew it would come to this! [THEN also cometh her final trifling and bathos:] That is what comes of not eating meat like a decent citizen!
[XANTIPPE bursts into tears.]
(182-183—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)
The further comic and elegiac counterpoint of Miguel Cervantes and Maurice Baring will indeed teach us many nourishing things of wisdom, by way of their differentiated artfulness and tones of irony.
© 2020 Robert D. Hickson
1Maurice Baring, Diminutive Dramas ( London: William Heinemann LTD., 1925). “Xantippe and Socrates,” the last chapter of the book, is to be found on pages 177-183 (Chapter XXIII). All future references to this text will be to the William Heinemann edition and they will be placed in parentheses in the main body of this short essay above.