Don Quixote and the Hyperboloid Cooling Towers

Don Quixote is greater today than he was in Cervantes’s womb... The parody has become a paragon. …[He] looms so wonderfully above the skyline of literature, a gaunt giant on a lean nag, that the book lives and will live through his sheer vitality... He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish, and gallant.  
-Vladimir Nabokov [1]

When I started my blog about nuclear history, with a title that quixotically asked the world to establish a nuclear-free world by the year 2045 (a century after the first atomic bombs exploded), I created an image for my homepage in which I altered Pablo Picasso’s 1955 sketch Don Quixote to overshadow the renowned windmill with the hyperboloid cooling towers of a nuclear power plant. The reference might be obvious for those with a knowledge of classic literature, but it probably requires some elaboration in this age when so many have been told to follow an education in the arid realm of STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. They have their stems, but they don’t have their roots. They can find some perhaps in the time when Cervantes’ great novel was written in the dying days of another age of technological "triumph."
Don Quixote is the fictional errant knight created by Miguel de Cervantes in two works of fiction, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha Part 1 (1605) and Part 2 (1615). Spain had just spent a century plundering the silver of the new world, but the galleon trade had corrupted the nobility, caused global financial chaos, and ultimately weakened the Spanish empire. Carlos Fuentes described it as “a country that has conquered and plundered and built a New World in the Americas and returns, exhausted.” [2]
Don Quixote tells the story of a late middle-aged estate owner who, having read too many romantic tales of chivalric knights, seeks greater meaning in life by setting off on a life of adventure and daring-do with his servant and sidekick, Sancho Panza. As the road story unfolds, Don Quixote must see every mundane encounter through a lens of delusion in order to make it meet his expectation of adventure and his need to do good. Imagination must test reality, or reality must test imagination.
Part 1 was a literary success that Cervantes added to ten years later with Part 2, and with it he gave the Western canon some of its earliest meta-fiction before there was a word for it (Shakespeare’s play within the play appeared in the same decade). In the contemporary era, we have become accustomed to the blend of mockery and pathos we see in reality TV “characters,” and we know that real gangsters watch the fictional Silvio from the television drama The Sopranos doing an imitation of Al Pacino from the fictional movie The Godfather Part 3. Before all this, in the early seventeenth century, Cervantes had his hero in Part 2 living in a world in which everyone he meets has read Part 1, and his celebrity as the foolish, errant knight is what leads him to be invited by real aristocrats to a real castle for their mocking amusement and his humiliation.
In the castle, Don Quixote is finally living the dream, but it is here that he eventually becomes aware that only his make-believe at the country inn, which he took for a castle, has lived up to his ideals. Life with true aristocrats has shown him their treachery. After all, the noble baron turns out to be a greater fake than the deluded knight. It is revealed by his servants that he is hopelessly in debt to the rising merchant class. As Don Quixote wakes up from his illusions, the aristocrats are disillusioned as well, for they have been slow to realize that they needed Don Quixote more than he needed them. He possessed the ideals they lacked in themselves. As the reviewer Richard Eder put it, “Seeking to toy with him, they are toyed with, just as readers have been ever since.” [3]
In a review of the latest English translation by Edith Grossman, the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes wrote:

The illusion comes crashing down. Books are no longer the grand, imaginative truth that moved Don Quixote through perils without end. So the windmills were not giants. So the armies were only flocks of sheep. So reality is shabby, gray, unarmed... What can Don Quixote do but return home, get into bed, recover his reason and peacefully die? The “impossible dream” is over. No wonder that Dostoyevsky, in his diary, calls Don Quixote “the saddest book ever written.” For it is, he adds, “the story of disillusionment.” That Edith Grossman has brought all these levels—and many more—to contemporary life is a major literary achievement. For to read Don Quixote, in an increasingly Manichaean world of simplistic Good versus Evil and inquisitorial dogmas, becomes one of the healthiest experiences a modern, democratic citizen can undertake. [4]

The windmills that Don Quixote mistook for giants can be seen in Picasso’s sketch, but I’ve added the hyperboloid cooling towers of a nuclear power plant to the horizon. What does the reworked image mean? Do the cooling towers push aside the windmills as the new evil giants? After all, windmills carry a benign meaning now as renewable sources of electricity. Is it a delusion for one unaccomplished, isolated writer, advancing in years like the old knight himself, to take on the nuclear industry? Or does the image now show the disillusionment, the reality unveiled? While the majority of citizens tilt at their chosen windmills by pursuing their personal dreams, their religions and their favored causes, a larger threat now looms on the horizon—nuclear waste and weapons, or, more generally, all that makes up the debt of ecological destruction that has been left for future generations to deal with.
   One could also ask who is really being quixotic in arguments about how to deal with the nuclear legacy. Is it a pipe dream to think the nuclear genie can be put back in the bottle, or are the real dreamers those who think that fallible humanity can manage this technology without destroying what sustains life?
   The dreamers remind me also of Don Quixote’s sidekick, Sancho Panza, who is the fool when his master is wise, and wise when his master is the fool. Throughout the story he often forgets, or pretends to forget, that his master is mad, and he goes along with his delusions, imagining that when Don Quixote prevails, he himself will be rewarded with a fiefdom in Africa that will provide him with an endless bounty of wine, gems and young maidens. It’s a boy’s dream of getting something for nothing, like electricity too cheap to meter—the dream of having servants at one’s command without a Faustian bargain in the deal. Sancho learns, when he actually does become a governor, that there is always a price too steep to pay, and he jumps at the chance to return to his humble home.
   Carlos Fuentes said in his review of Grossman’s recent translation, “Don Quixote has so many levels of significance that I can set foot on only a couple of them.” I leave it to readers to add their own ideas about what the mash-up of the sketch means. [5]


[1] Vladimir Nabokov, Vladimir Nabokov: Lectures on Don Quixote, ed. Fredson Bowers (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), xix, 28, 112.

[2] Carlos Fuentes, “Tilt,” a review Edith Grossman’s English translation of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, New York Times, November 2, 2003.

[3] Richard Eder, “Beholding Windmills and Wisdom From a New Vantage,” New York Times, Books of the Times, November 14, 2003.

[4] Fuentes op. cit.

[5] Fuentes op. cit.



  1. I love how you added the nuclear power plants to the Don Quixote print.

    It's extremely clever.

    My first thought when I saw it was that "aha!" moment when the truth/reality finally dawns on you, instead of the brainwashing/conditioning you've been told about nuclear energy.

    No more disillusionment.

    Just the truth.

    P.S. - Can I use your drawing as an avatar?


  2. Thanks for the nice comments on the blog. Yes, you can use the drawing, but you should know that it is a famous sketch by Picasso that I mashed up by adding the cooling towers.

  3. Cooling Towers are a prominent feature on the British skyline. These huge, convex structures punctuate both rural and urban landscapes, and have done so for decades.
    Nevertheless, many people are still unaware of what they are and the role that they play in industry. If you're in the dark about cooling towers, here's a quick guide to how they work.