Don Quixote or the Art of Becoming

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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.