Quixote at 400
ANTONIO MUÑOZ MOLINA: 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 and tragedies, the task of the hero is to fulfill his destiny. 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 they live in. 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. There is always another life they would rather believe in, another 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 a prison. 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, becomers—perpetually unsatisfied with their lot in this world, forever trying not to be what other people have agreed or decided they are, but something else, somebody else. For them, Arthur Rimbaud wrote, “True live is 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 done or what we would like to be or do. Through our blind allegiance to an original culture, to our sexual pressure or national being, we are expected to achieve a better self, the only possible one for each of us. This seems to be a time for be-ers, not becomers. But that is precisely why Don Quixote is so relevant, especially 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 like to write them.
In our time, to break through the boundaries, we are not supposed to trespass, to escape beyond the limits of the self, the frontiers of the space, in what Vladimir Nabokov called “the prison of time.” 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 an actor—like an effector—the gentleman Alonso Quixano provides himself with a false identity before taking to the world. Chanting the name that was given to you at birth is the first step toward starting on a new life. After having read so many adventures, Alonso Quixano 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, like any other, 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. Of course, we know he’s a ridiculous old man, grotesquely caught up in 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’s 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 cannot 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 about me.” Our highest aims seem very often a ritual, 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’s 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 boundaries between self-invention and self-delusion. Having been a failure himself most of his life, Cervantes knew what he was writing about. Many 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. 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 here tonight to remember his name and pay tribute to his masterpiece?