Pierre Menard never existed. He is Borges's fictional creation: a minor 20th-century French Symbolist writer who goes about the task of "writing" -- not copying -- Cervantes's Don Quixote for a modern audience. Such a premise might remind one of Joyce's Ulysses, which was also a "rewriting" of sorts. The difference, however, is that the fictional author Pierre Menard actually traces verbatim the source text to produce an exact, though unfinished, replica of the original. The story's narrator, a literary critic and friend of Menard, defends the work from the censorious detractors, lauding it as "perhaps the most significant [work] of our time" (65). Like most of Borges's writings, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," is a tightly-wrought miniaturist piece. Though not numbered with chapter divisions, it can be broken down into the following nine parts.
1. The Slanderous Catalogue of Madame Henri Bachelier
The story begins with the narrator indignant at the fact that Menard's Don Quixote has been slanderously omitted from Madame Henri Bachelier's catalogue. A "true friend of Menard," our unnamed narrator vows to restore Menard's memory and rectify his reputation by defending this newest version of the Quixote.
2. Two Other Testimonies That Support the Narrator's Thesis
The narrator, apparently not confident of his own authority, mentions "two eminent testimonies" that support his claim: one from the Baroness de Bacourt and the other from the Countess de Bagnoregion.
3. The Visible Bibliography and the Glaring Omission
Here the narrator provides a bibliography of the "visible work of Menard," which consists of nineteen works, some minor arcana, a few monographs, and jottings on Symbolist poetry. Judged on these works alone, Menard is damned to the status of minor writer; but when his magnum opus, Don Quixote, is included to the list, he is proclaimed by our narrator to be one of the great geniuses of the age. Still, his Don Quixote is fragmentary, containing only "the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of the first part of Don Quixote and a fragment of chapter twenty-two" (65). But it is this very disunity, the narrator claims, which gives Menard a depth not found in Cervantes.
4. Menard's Inspiration
Two sources provide the inspiration for Menard's word-for-word "writing" of Don Quixote. The first is a work by Novalis, in which he advocates "total identification with a given author." The second is "one of those parasitic books which situate Christ on a boulevard, Hamlet on La Cannebiere or Don Quixote on Wall Street" (65). One wonders if Borges had Joyce's Ulysses in mind with this description.
5. Menard's Intent
The narrator then clarifies Menard's intent in rewriting the Quixote. "He did not want to compose another Quixote -- which is easy-- but the Quixote itself," he writes. "Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide-- word for word and line for line -- with those of Miguel de Cervantes" (65).
6. Menard's Two Methods
Having made clear Menard's intent, the narrator speculates that, in writing the Quixote, Menard has available to him two possible methods. The first method is, essentially, to become Miguel de Cervantes, i.e., to forget the three-hundred-year-plus span that lay between him and the original text, to gain a command of seventeenth-century Spanish, to "recover the Catholic faith, [and to] fight against the Moors or the Turk" (66). Menard soon realizes the impossibility of such a task, and abandons this for a second approach, which is to reach Quixote "through the experiences of Pierre Menard" (66). Apparently, Menard is successful in this second method, as the narrator is able to hear Menard's voice even in the parts of the Quixote that Menard never even penned: "I recognized our friend's style and something of his voice . . ." (67).
7. Menard's Letter
Addressing the question "why the Quixote?" our narrator quotes a letter received from Menard. "The Quixote is a contingent book," Menard writes, "the Quixote is unnecessary. I can premeditate writing it, I can write it, without falling into tautology" (67). Also, Menard's vague memory of the text resembles the vague conception of an unwritten work: "My general recollection of the Quixote, simplified by forgetfulness and indifference, can well equal the imprecise and prior image of a book not yet written" (67). The narrator posits that Menard's task was considerably more difficult than Cervantes's, because
To compose the Quixote at the beginning of the seventeenth century was a reasonable undertaking, necessary and perhaps even unavoidable; at the beginning of the twentieth, it is almost impossible. It is not in vain that the three hundred years have gone by, filled with exceedingly complex events. Among them, to mention only one, is the Quixote itself. (68)
8. The Narrator's Case for the Superiority of Menard's Quixote
Menard's version, the narrator claims, is "more subtle" and "infinitely richer" than Cervantes's. Menard, who is both historically and linguistically removed from the seventeenth-century Spanish setting, has a wider variety of subjects, forms, languages, and techniques at his disposal, and his knowledge -- of theory, at least-- is greater than Cervantes, who had access only to everything up through 1604. These extra three centuries provide Menard with a vastly larger reservoir to draw from, and his skillful selection of form and subject makes him the greater genius. Menard's work "points to a new conception of the historical novel" (68); Cervantes work, by contrast, is merely a satire of his contemporary world in the contemporary language.
Furthermore, Mernard is capable of ironic distancing, whereas Cervantes is not, as can be observed in the scene where Don Quixote declares his preference for arms over letters: a rather predictable conclusion, according to our narrator, given Cervantes's career as a soldier. Menard, however, "a contemporary of La trahison des clercs and Bertrand Russell, shows more artistry in his version by presenting characters and ideas who are so anachronistic and distanced from himself and his age. Having this resigned or ironical habit of propagating ideas which were the strict reverse of those he preferred" (69), Menard is, according to our slightly demented narrator, able to distance his own subjectivity from the work and its characters in a way that Cervantes could not.
Perhaps the most humorous section of Borges's work is the comparison of two identical passages, one taken from Cervantes's text and the other from Menard's. Menard's version, by virtue of being written in our time, is open to a whole host of interpretations that are not available to the original, including Freudian and Nietzschean analysis. (The problem with this joke, of course, is that there is no reason that the old texts should be disbarred from the same modern interpretations.) Comparing the "two" styles, the narrator writes:
The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard - quite foreign, after all - suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time. (69)
If it can be said that there is a "point" Borges wished to convey through this story, then it is this: A given text means or, more accurately, behaves only how the reader, or, more broadly, the particular society and age demand it to behave. Borges's essay-story can be read as a response to the supposed "universality" of literature, which presumes the existence of an ideal, mystical realm where canonical works rest shoulder to shoulder in some permanent and immutable state. Borges provides an alternate theory: A work should be seen within the borders of certain temporal and historical conditions; and only after being exposed to these original and particular conditions can the work-- if it is successful-- spread beyond its initially intended communities, and gather as it ages new interpretations and misinterpretations, the sum total of which form what we refer to as the work's "meaning." Therefore, a Don Quixote written today means something entirely different than a Don Quixote written four centuries ago, even if the words of the text are identical. Despite its parodic qualities and outlandish premise, Borges's story can be read as an early delineation of the reader-response theory.
Ultimately everything is corrupted by the passage of time, Borges seems to suggest. All great works of philosophy and literature begin their existence as a contribution to "knowledge" -- "as a plausible description of the universe" (70)-- but they are soon relegated to that dusty, unfrequented corner of the library called "history of knowledge." The only thing that can reinvigorate the work and return it to the library's "knowledge" section is the "rewriting" of it by subsequent generations. "The Quixote- Menard told me -" Borges writes, "was above all, an entertaining book; now it is the occasion for patriotic toasts, grammatical insolence and obscene de luxe editions" (70).
(This article is copyrighted © 2005 - 2008 by Beholdmyswarthyface. The story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" first appeared in 1939, and can be found in the collection Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings.)