Criticism Essay

Don Quixote or the Art of Becoming

Becoming, not being, is what the Novel as an art form is all about, and that is why we regard Don Quixote as the first modern fictional hero. In epic poems, in tragedies, the task of the hero is to fulfill his destiny, to act out the deeds he was born to perform. The hero is meant to accomplish a foretold identity: Achilles was already himself in the cradle, and Ulysses could not help being smart and cunning. The same can be said about some beloved characters in popular fiction. Sherlock Holmes is fixed forever in his unchanging analytical intelligence, in his cold detachment from ordinary human passions. He never seems to learn anything new at the end of each adventure, and a devoted reader will search in vain for any information concerning those obscure times in which the detective would still have been honing his skills, learning the tricks of his trade. And neither does Dr. Watson seem to learn very much from being close to his friend and master. But we love Sherlock Holmes’s stories precise­ly because both characters and situations never evolve into something different; and the moment we read the first paragraph in one of these otherwise beautifully written tales we find ourselves walking familiar ground. As we are subject to chance and change, we love the reassurance of an imaginary world where everything is perpetually unchanging, and we are allowed an immediate feeling of recognition. As Umberto Eco once wrote, we don’t read murder mysteries and detective stories to be taken by surprise, but to confirm once again what we already know: the fact that Dr. Watson is as dumb and warm hearted as Holmes is smart and detached; that the mystery, weird and even supernatural as it may seem, will eventually turn out to have a rational explanation. Our love of fiction was born and nurtured in our childhood, and children like repetition as much as they expect to be mesmerized by a good story. But then as we grow older or wiser, or more sophisticated, or simply more restless, we demand something new both from life and from fiction.

There are two kinds of people, wrote Saul Bellow in Henderson the Rain King: the “be-ers” and the “becomers.” According to Bellow, the be-ers are those who try their best to remain forever the way they are, who are content with their lives, with their names, with the places where they live. Becomers always feel ill at ease with the world as it is, and what they love are not the certainties of being, but the adventures of becoming. Bellow himself had very good reasons to know what he was talking about, as did so many second generation Americans coming of age during the twenties and the thirties. They were torn between their allegiance to their parents and the all-powerful pull of the world they had been born in, in spite of not being quite sure whether or not they belonged in it. At home, in their ethnic and de facto segregated neighborhoods, they still heard the languages and tasted the foods and listened to the stories of the old country. At school, they learned to speak without a trace of an accent and became aware of their growing distance from their hard-working and ever foreign parents. Rather self-consciously, many of them adopted the ways of the new country yet seldom had the chance to forget where they had come from or how different they were from mainstream old-stock Americans. If you had been born in Canada in 1915 to Russian-Jewish parents who spoke Russian and Yiddish at home and never fully mastered English, and if you saw yourself growing up in a mostly Polish neighborhood in the late twenties and almost desperately tried to push yourself through high school and then college in the bleakest years of the Depression, you would not have had a chance to see yourself as a be-er, to give up on your wild dreams and accept your lot. You almost would not have had a lot, in the first place, as your future would have been as uncer­tain as your past. So the only way ahead would be to try to muster the courage to invent yourself and then to flesh out that inven­tion by becoming the most unlikely of things, at least for a Jewish boy from the Chicago slums: an American writer.

Becomers are easy to recognize at first sight. They make up most of the great heroes of fiction as well as some eminent fiction writers, like Cervantes or Bellow. There is always another life they would rather be leading, a different country or distant city where they suspect a better life might be possible, another job, more beautiful or passionate lovers, more exciting friends. Personal identity is not their home but their prison, from which they are always trying to break free, sometimes literally, sometimes through the dreamlike ways of escape provided by fiction. As a child in Chicago, Saul Bellow was a vocational, even an obsessive reader. Cervantes, in Don Quixote, also portrays himself as someone so fond of written words that he says he reads “even the ragged sheets that I find in the streets.” Reading is an escape into solitude, a way of putting aside for a while the most pressing or boring demands of reality without actually having to tackle them. You only need some peace and quiet and a book. Thanks to the wonderful invention of the printing press, books became far easier to come by and even to handle. Without the increasing availability of printed texts, two of the pivotal revolutions of the modern era would never have taken place: private reading and the art of the novel. Solitary reading of the Bible, translated into vernacular languages and not tampered with by nosy priests, is at the heart of the Reformation. But solitary reading of easily available books (and therefore literacy) is also the bedrock on which the whole universe of the novel is built. And the vice of reading is exactly what most fiction writers and fictional heroes have in common. As Leo Spitzer pointed out in a luminous essay, “Linguistic Perspectivism in Don Quixote,” to which I am most indebted, in the century that had roughly elapsed between the invention of printing and the mature years of Miguel de Cervantes, the number of books available had grown exponentially, as well as the number of readers and the privacy and intensity of the act of reading. In Don Quixote, the first modern novel, Cervantes addresses this most modern of conun­drums. What is the influence of fiction not only over the conscience, but also on the life of readers? With so many books being available for more or less educated readers, how can one pick out the good from the bad? Written words, set in printed letters, exert an almost instant authority: Is there a safe way to find out which stories are true and which are false; in other words, how can solitary readers be certain about the right attitude to be taken toward a particular book? The reader is in constant danger of misreading as long as he or she doesn’t grasp the exact nature of the book. Cervantes was acutely aware of this problem, having been himself as much in love with chivalric and pastoral novels as Don Quixote. Mistaking a novel for a book of history is no less a catastrophe than mistaking windmills for giants or peasant women for princesses. Printed fiction was still so new a medium of representing the world at the time of Cervantes that many people had not yet fully developed accurate skills to decode it.

Of course some readers were more vulnerable than others to the charms and the pleasures of fiction. Be-ers can easily recognize and dismiss the beautiful yet dangerous lies found in novels, and they are so comfortable with life as it is that they do not need to yield to the daydreams of books. Be-ers are mostly concerned with the status quo; becomers tend to wonder about what might have been. I don’t know whether or not Robert Kennedy was a reader of Cervantes, but a famous statement he made not long before he was killed strikes me as Cervantian: “Some men see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say, why not.” That is exactly what becomers do, what Alonso Quijano does when he is already obsessed with books almost to the point of lunacy and has not yet decided to become one of the knights errant he has read so much about. The pleasant but ineffective flights of the imagina­tion are coming to an end: it is about time to move on, to act. This very quixotic moment pervades so profoundly our modern conscience that it can be repeatedly found in the most unex­pected places.

Last year I was attending a Broadway performance of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and came across the scene in which Tom is planning to leave home for good. He is the usual quixotic suspect if there ever was one. Reading books and watching movies every night at a local theater, he tries to make up for the vulgar life he has to endure, confined to the store where he works and the apartment he shares with his mother and sister. He gets away from home every night, always to the same place, as he repeats as an incantation, “to the movies.” The movies are for him as the chivalry books are for Don Quixote. They provide him with the necessary comfort to endure an unbearable life, a cheap escape that he can accomplish merely by crossing the street and spending a few cents at the box office. But, as with Alonso Quijano, the same fictions that feed his imagination make him daring and restless, and he gathers the strength he needs to leave his job, his family and his city. The strength and also the selfish­ness it takes to untie the bonds of love and guilt. “I’m tired of the movies,” he says, “I’m tired of the movies and I am about to move!”

Be-ers stay, whereas becomers move. For practical reasons be-ers can move and still stay the same. They cling to their past, to their personal habits and loyalties, and they are so impervious to new experiences or places that they can spend most of their lives in a foreign country and not learn a single thing, hard-shelled and spiky as crustaceans. That other greatest of readers, Michel de Montaigne, marvels at someone who has traveled extensively abroad and come back home without seeming to have learned anything: “How could he have learnt,” says Montaigne, “if he took away with him the full baggage of himself?” Personal iden­tity, like personal belongings, is too heavy a burden if you want to travel very far. Don Quixote leaves everything behind, especially his own name, his home, even his cherished books. Stendhal’s Fabrice del Dongo also leaves in the dead of night to join Napoleon’s armies. In order to escape from his abusive father, Huckleberry Finn goes as far as to pass himself off for dead so that his former identity will not easily catch up with him. Encap­sulated in the very name of Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly is the idea of a swift and graceful getaway. But I am certain that when Capote was inventing this self-inventing liar, he was some­how portraying his own struggle to become what he was not meant to be, what he achieved (and then lost) through the sheer energy of a quixotic vocation.

Being the embodiment of the most modern ambition, becomers don’t fit easily in our postmodern world. Community means submission. Identity, this celebrated mantra of contemporary culture, is not what they are in search of, but what they are very often fleeing from. That is why the heroes of so many modern novels are liars, deceivers, fugitives, impersonators, impostors, vocational becomers perpetually dissatisfied with their lot in this world, forever trying not to be what other people have agreed or decided they should be, but something else, somebody else. Let me briefly mention a minor character in Don Quixote who is also one of the most endearing, the shepherdess Marcela. Cervantes is credited with bringing about the end of pastoral and chivalric romances, but deep down he was as much in love with them as Tennessee Williams’ Tom with Hollywood flicks and Emma Bovary with the kind of cheap romantic novels that pushed her to dishonor and ruin. Early in the first part of Don Quixote, the Don and his squire run into a pastoral plot, just as in a Woody Allen film an ironic and middle-aged New York couple run into a murder mystery. In the Sierra Morena, where they have already met some very real and harsh goat keepers, Don Quixote and Sancho learn the tragic story of shepherd Chrysostom, who fell in love with the beautiful yet cruel shepherdess Marcela. According to the rules of the genre, he wrote long complaining poems instead of taking care of his herd and ended up committing suicide. So far we find ourselves on a well-trodden path. Shepherds are supposed to be poets and victims of unrequited love, and shepherdesses, accordingly, are dashing and pitiless, as fatally as, remember, Holmes was smart and Watson dumb, and Clark Kent a hopeless greenhorn, and Bette Davis an aging and vulnerable bitch, and Peter Lorre a sweating creep. We are deep into be-er territory here. But then something happens, and the mood of the story swiftly changes from old-fashioned romance to modern narrative, from stereotype to full-fledged characters, from closed identity to open destiny. Up above a rock, over the burial ground where shepherd Chrysostom is being laid to rest and his phony shepherd friends gather to mourn his untimely death and recite his poems, a gorgeous woman appears, the most talked and written about and the most unexpected, shepherdess Marcela herself. She is as beautiful as she was alleged to be and equally haughty and defiant. But she is no longer something else she was meant to be, apart from being beautiful and pitiless. She is not silent. She speaks up, and the moment she does so, she is turning the rules of the genre upside down. What she says is plain and sensible, but it has never been uttered before by any of the hundreds of muses and shepherdesses and coy lovers of medieval and Renaissance poetry and fiction. She simply claims her right to tell her side of the story. Is she to be held accountable for the suicide of someone to whom she had never promised anything? Should she live up to other people’s expectations about her behavior or abide by their rules? And having made herself clear, Marcela disappears into the thick of the forest, and we do not get to know anything else about her. Her future in the novel is as open as the life she has taken into her own hands, as the narrative she would not allow anyone else tell on her behalf. Don Quixote courageously takes her side, maybe because he has instantly recognized a kindred spirit in her. The outcome of the story is not written in advance. In a novel, as in life, there is no fixed comfortable ending: “Our knight resolved to seek out the shepherdess Marcela and offer to serve her in any way he could. But matters did not turn out as he expected. . . .”

Marcela fades away, and we never get to know anything else about her. By leaving, by rejecting the identity others were trying to force upon her, she becomes both a modern woman and a modern character, recklessly searching out her own undefinable destiny, a life of her own. As Arthur Rimbaud wrote, real life lies elsewhere. But then Rimbaud was a fugitive himself, a poet and an outcast who gave up poetry altogether and became an arms trader in Africa. Nowadays, as in Don Quixote’s time, social pressures compel us to conform to an established identity, to be part of a group and proudly proclaim what we already are, not what we have accomplished or what we would like to become or do. Through our blind allegiance to an original culture, to our sexual, racial, or national being, we are expected to achieve our better self, the only possible one for each of us. This seems to be a time for be-ers, not becomers. And it all has to do with a shift in the meaning of the word culture. When I was a boy growing up in a small provincial Spanish town, culture was something you achieved by your personal effort through reading and learning, with a very distinct impulse to accomplish a better understanding of the world around you and especially of those parts of the world and those fields of experience not easily given to you in the course of your daily life. You were supposed to get culture your­self, to learn as much as your intelligence would allow, and that was what school and education were all about. Now culture is not something you set yourself out to achieve but the original envi­ronment into which you were born, or the long-lost vernacular heritage you should try to recover. The meaning of the word has shifted from the chosen to the given, from the secular to the anthropological. Culture is not about what you freely, even whimsically choose to become, but about what you and your ancestors were destined to be since the time of a common and often sacred past.

I find this utterly disgusting. According to the collective identity rules, am I supposed to mourn or regret the loss of the culture into which I was born? Come to think of it, it was an anthropologist’s dream: we were poor, we were peasant, we clung to ancient customs, we had a copious oral tradition of stories and folk songs. We were the last of the rural European Mohicans, natural born be-ers, bound to repeat step by step our parents’ and grandparents’ peasant lives, including the endearing and exotic submission of children to parents, of women to men. But some of us, late in the sixties, got wind of the revolts that were taking place in the world at large, beyond the boundaries of our native realms, and made our minds up to live out new lives, to learn the foreign languages and share the excitement we learned about in the songs we heard on the radio, in some of the books we sometimes managed to lay our hands on. We loved the new books and not the old stories, pop music hits better than folk songs.

Maybe that is precisely why Don Quixote is so relevant to those among us who are not willing to abide by any fixed laws of identity. That is why we love to read novels in the first place, and also why some of us love to write them, in an attempt to break through the boundaries we were not supposed to trespass, to escape beyond the limits of the self, the frontiers of space, and what Vladimir Nabokov called the prison of time. When you have lived most of your life in a great city and enjoyed the advantages of hot water, central heating and efficient sanitation, it is easy for you to wax sentimental about the authenticity and the rough pleasures of Third World romance. Civil rights and individual freedom are often conducive to a nostalgic endearment for tropical tyrannies and backward village traditions. I myself was born in a backward village and was raised during a dictatorship in what was at the time a gaudy, exotic country, so I know what I am talking about.

What I am talking about is the sheer excitement of finding in books and films the promise of a brand-new life far beyond the limits of origins and being. Before you figure out a future as a novelist, you begin by seeing yourself as a character in a novel. Novels, stories, and plays are almost always about someone who is eager to escape, who sets out on a journey toward an uncertain destination. Like a spy, or like a defector, the gentleman Alonso Quijano provides himself with a false identity before taking to the road. Changing the name that was given to you at birth is the first step toward starting on a new life. After having read about so many adventures, Alonso Quijano is ready to enact a new one that has yet to be written, namely the adventure of becoming one of the heroes he has read so much about, the author and master of his own story. And like any author, he has to begin by choosing the right names for his characters: for himself, for the lady he has decided he must be in love with, even for his horse. And then he is ready to hit the road, to unburden himself of the routines of his respectable life: his house, his family, and the small village where he was destined to live until the end of his days. By an act of sheer will, he becomes what he is not, and by doing so he propels himself to a daring and dangerous freedom. Someone says to Don Quixote, almost at the beginning of the novel, “you are not a knight errant; I am your neighbor and I know who you are.” And Don Quixote, beaten and wounded, but not defeated, answers in a way that is for me a glorious statement about personal freedom and modern self-invention: “I know who I am. And I know I can be not only those I have mentioned but the twelve peers of France as well, and even all the nine paragons of Fame, for my deeds will surpass all those they performed, together or singly.”

Of course we know he is a ridiculous old man, ridiculously got up in battered, homemade armor, so intoxicated by what he has read in books that he can no longer tell reality from fiction. We laugh at him because we know he is bound to be defeated again and again, to be taken in by his lack of attention to the hard facts of reality and his stubborn reliance on the lies told in books. But these are the dangers every becomer has to face, not only the heroes we have learned to love in novels, plays and films, but also each one of us. Who can say, like Don Quixote, I know who I am, and who I am in my heart of hearts has nothing to do with your ideas and your expectations of me? Our highest aims very often seem unreachable, and the same imagination that allows us to identify them exaggerates the hardships we will have to con­front in order to achieve them. Being is comfortable, becoming is risky, and there is always the chance that we may tilt at windmills mistaking them for frightful giants. This is the second lesson we learn from Don Quixote and through him from Cervantes’ wisdom and irony: you should have the courage to desire but also the shrewdness to look very carefully at things so as not to get lost among the mirrors of your imagination. This book of laugh­ter is also a book of sadness, and in its celebration of the power of desire and the joys of fiction lies a serious warning about the boundary between self-invention and self-delusion. Having been a failure himself most of his life, Cervantes knew what he was writ­ing about. But appearances are deceiving, as we readers of Don Quixote’s adventures know all too well. Failure and success can be as deceiving as windmills and giants. If Miguel de Cervantes was really only an obscure Spanish writer, a failed playwright, a handicapped veteran, a survivor of poverty and misfortune, what is it that has brought so many of us to remem­ber his name and pay tribute to his masterpiece, more than four hundred years after it was written?