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Through a Glass, Madly

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In my day, the A-level Spanish syllabus included a few score of the key pages of Don Quijote – windmills mistaken for giants, labourers for lords, prostitutes for princesses, and so on. When I got to univer­sity I found that we were supposed to know the whole novel. I struggled through most of it but couldn’t handle its digressions and longueurs. Cervantes could veer off at tangents and not return for a hundred pages or more. My tutors encouraged me to persevere. After all, Cervantes was revered as Spain’s Shakespeare.

These days, I remember little of The Quixote, as the literati call it. But what I do recall, vividly, is a short story from a collection of twelve which was also on my undergraduate programme. In 1613, three years before he died, Cervantes produced his Novelas Ejemplares or Exemplary Novellas. Exemplary in the sense of instructive; they’re cautionary tales. They’re all strong stories, some stronger than others. But one especially has lodged in my memory, and because of the pandemic I’ve been thinking about it more than usual.

‘El Licenciado Vidriera’ – ‘The Glass Graduate’, or, in someone’s bright coinage, ‘Dr Glass Case’ – is the story of a young man who for a while is convinced he’s made of glass. He’s called Tomás Rodaja. Aged 11, he’d arrived in Salamanca, seat of Europe’s third-oldest uni­versity, hoping to find service with any master who’d give him the freedom and opportunity to study. Eight years later, aged 19, he’s achieved most of his goals. But then an army recruiter charms him with tales of the soldier’s life. Tomás accompanies him to Italy. There follow several pages of travelogue, an account of places in Italy which possibly Cervantes knew as a soldier himself. The pair then transfer to Flanders. Eventually, Tomás is drawn back to his original plan of becoming a lawyer. He returns to Salamanca. One day he’s intro­duced to a woma

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In my day, the A-level Spanish syllabus included a few score of the key pages of Don Quijote – windmills mistaken for giants, labourers for lords, prostitutes for princesses, and so on. When I got to univer­sity I found that we were supposed to know the whole novel. I struggled through most of it but couldn’t handle its digressions and longueurs. Cervantes could veer off at tangents and not return for a hundred pages or more. My tutors encouraged me to persevere. After all, Cervantes was revered as Spain’s Shakespeare.

These days, I remember little of The Quixote, as the literati call it. But what I do recall, vividly, is a short story from a collection of twelve which was also on my undergraduate programme. In 1613, three years before he died, Cervantes produced his Novelas Ejemplares or Exemplary Novellas. Exemplary in the sense of instructive; they’re cautionary tales. They’re all strong stories, some stronger than others. But one especially has lodged in my memory, and because of the pandemic I’ve been thinking about it more than usual. ‘El Licenciado Vidriera’ – ‘The Glass Graduate’, or, in someone’s bright coinage, ‘Dr Glass Case’ – is the story of a young man who for a while is convinced he’s made of glass. He’s called Tomás Rodaja. Aged 11, he’d arrived in Salamanca, seat of Europe’s third-oldest uni­versity, hoping to find service with any master who’d give him the freedom and opportunity to study. Eight years later, aged 19, he’s achieved most of his goals. But then an army recruiter charms him with tales of the soldier’s life. Tomás accompanies him to Italy. There follow several pages of travelogue, an account of places in Italy which possibly Cervantes knew as a soldier himself. The pair then transfer to Flanders. Eventually, Tomás is drawn back to his original plan of becoming a lawyer. He returns to Salamanca. One day he’s intro­duced to a woman who falls violently in love with him, but he does not love her. Desperate, she slips Tomás a love potion. The result is not lust but lunacy. Tomás falls seriously ill, and on recovering he believes he’s made entirely of glass. He’s also become a fount of wis­dom, dispensing aphoristic pearls to anyone who asks. He’s a sort of king’s fool, part-Socrates part-circus act. After two years he’s cured of his delusion. He changes his name and asks for nothing more than to be left in peace to practise law. It’s not to be. People want him only as the dotty man of glass. Disillusioned, he returns to Flanders, where, ironically, he achieves fame as a soldier, dying in battle. A cautionary tale indeed. Fortune is fickle; one minute you’re the toast of the town, the next you’re toast. And there’s the perennial question: are the mad saner than the rest of us? A question that applies to poor, magnificent Don Quixote, whose story – from sanity to delusion to disenchantment – is Tomás’s, if writ much larger. ‘The Glass Graduate’ was working away at me well before the pan­demic brought it into sharp focus again. Around 2005, I decided to write a radio play about the glass delusion, as it’s known. I’d found out more about it in bits of my reading. Andrew Solomon mentions it in his monumental book on depression, The Noonday Demon, and it’s there in Robert Burton’s classic The Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621. I wrote my play and the BBC took it on condition they could add two documentary strands: an intermittent commentary by Andrew Solomon; and contributions by glassmakers Mark and Patricia Tranter. My brother Neil composed music which he scored for glass jars, beakers and retorts. The glass delusion is about human fragility, the unstable ego. It’s both a defence mechanism and a threat. Don’t touch me or I’ll break into little pieces, and you yourself might well be wounded. The delu­sion was quite common in Cervantes’ time, an era, according to Andrew Solomon, when the techniques of manufacturing clear glass were perfected. Here was a unique medium, simultaneously an absence and a presence, a piece of magic, a barrier that could be passed through by light waves (and Alice). Glass is usually our friend; but for a disturbed few, it’s a metaphor for damage and extinction. Sufferers from the delusion took extraordinary measures to safeguard themselves. They avoided contact with other people, but if they couldn’t, they donned layers of protective clothing. If travel was unavoidable, they’d have themselves packed in straw and carried around in crates or on litters. One man thought his buttocks were made of glass, and so refused ever to sit down. There were some famous people among the deluded, King Charles VI of France the highest-ranking of them, while Princess Alexandra of Bavaria and Tchaikovsky suffered from closely allied conditions. By the modern era, the delusion had just about died out, though there were a few attested cases in the twentieth century, one as late as the 1940s. Because clear glass has been ubiquitous for centuries, hypochondria – the glass delusion surely comes under that heading – has now found other metaphors which better reflect the threats and realities of the modern age. But we’re all just as fragile as Tomás Rodaja. The latest and grisliest reminder of that inconvenient truth is coronavirus. We’ve had to behave like the glass graduate, but for the least deluded of reasons. We may not have packed ourselves in straw, but it’s as if we did. For straw and padded clothing, read masks and social distancing. Some-one’s cough or sneeze or accidental nudge could shatter the shell each one of us inhabits, precarious as crystal. When I first read ‘El Licenciado Vidriera’, I thought it powerful but anachronistic. When I wrote my play, I thought Cervantes’ story relevant and disturbing in ways I couldn’t quite fathom. Today, I get it one hundred per cent.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 73 © Martin Sorrell 2022


About the contributor

Martin Sorrell’s The Glass Man received the 2006 Mental Health Media Award for the best radio drama.

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