Monday, May 12, 2008

Notes On "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," by Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)


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)

9. Conclusion

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.)

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Borges! I remember reading Borges in high school. "Kafka and His Precursors" (I think it was called) is one of my favorite stories of all-time!

If I remember correctly, the narrator, "I," is a scholar of sorts who "once premeditated making a study of Kafka's precursors." According to this narrator, early Kafka doesn't lead to Kafka: Zeno and Browing do. Zeno is of course Zeno from Zeno's paradox, and Kafka is Kafka of The Castle: "the moving object and the arrow and Achilles are the first Kafkian characters in literature" (234).

Also Kafkian is Han Yu, a Chinese "prose writer of the ninth century" whose apologue is reproduced by Margoulies in 1948, along with
Kierkegaard. Browning (particularly his poem "Fears and Scruples" (1876)), Leon Bloy, and Lord Dunsany. "If I am not mistaken," writes the narrator, "the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka's idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist" (236).. . ."The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future. . . The early Kafka of Betrachtung is less a precursor of the Kafka of somber myths and atrocious institutions than is Browning or Lord Dunsany" (236).

-Rachel

Anonymous said...

Sure, I remember both of those works. But my favorite Borges story has to be hilarious“The Wall and the Books," where he talks about the constructive and deconstructive urges of Shih Huang Ti. I, too, read it in high school.

Shi Huang Ti orders the burning of books in order to erase history and start everything anew. He also starts the project of building a wall (the Great Wall) in order to wall himself off from death.

The burning of books of course is a metaphor. Shih Huang Ti “tried to abolish the entire past in order to abolish one single memory: his mother’s infamy,” writes the narrator (he had earlier banished his mother for “being a libertine.”I wish I had done the same to my mother, who was also a libertine!

The wall, too, is of course a metaphor.“Perhaps the wall was a metaphor," he writes, "perhaps Shih Huang Ti sentenced those who worshipped the past to a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the past itself . . . Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in his empire because he knew that it was perishable and destroyed the books because he understood that they were sacred books, in other words, books that teach what the entire universe or the mind of every man teaches. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the erection of the wall are operations which in some secret way cancel each other.”

In conclusion, Borges takes Kant’s “purposelessness” of art and formal interiority and applies these to life, which is also an aesthetic experience. All things aspire to pure form:

“Generalizing from the preceding case, we could infer that all forms have their virtue in themselves and not in any conjectural ‘content’. This would concord with the thesis of Benedetto Croce; already Pater in 1877 had affirmed that all arts aspire to the state of music, which is pure form. Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces belaboured by time, certain twilights and certain places try to tell us something, or have said something we should have missed, or are about to say something; this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.”

-Bob Taft

Anonymous said...

You guys are funny. I remember one called Borges’s "Theme of the Traitor and the Hero." It, too, is narrated in the first-person, who is an author in 1944.

Ryan, in 1824, is writing about the death of his great-grandfather, Fergus Kilpatrick, and discovers in the process that everything overlaps, repeats, is related.

Ryan's great-grandfather, Fergus Kilpatrick, is a traitor to a group of conspirators; but his treason is kept secret so that he may remain a hero to his countrymen. Fergus thus agrees to his own assassination, scripted from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

James Nolan is a friend of Kilpatrick, and translator of Shakespeare into Gaelic. He asassinates Kilpatrick, after which he writes Kilpatrick's biography.

There are numerous other historical and literary references in the work: to Lincoln’s assassination, MacBeth’s assassination of the king, Hegel’s morphologies, Condorcet’s decimal history, Spengler and Vico, Hesiod’s men, the transmigrations of souls, Chesteron, Leibniz’s pre-established harmony, and to Moses.

Borges seems to be implying in this story that history is a copy of history is a copy of literature: “That history should have copied history was already sufficiently astonishing; that history should copy literature was inconceivable” (103).

-Penny

Anonymous said...

I must say my favorite would have to be Borges's "Shakespeare’s Memory." The story is narrated in the first-person, by Hermann Sorgel, a Shakespeare scholar, who, in 1924 receives from his friend Daniel Thorpe the gift of Shakespeare’s memory. Sorgel is not a great writer (“I do not know how to tell a story,” he admits), but he accepts nonetheless.

Finally, when Shakespeare's memory begins to eclipse his own, he gives the imported memory away to a stranger. The music of Bach helps him get rid of the memory of the memory.

Daniel Thorpe, a military physician, tells the narrator he has King’s Solomon’s last ring (Shakespeare’s memory). He received it the memory from Adam Clay, who gave him it just before dying on the Western front in the First World War. Using this, he attempts a fictional biography of Shakespeare.

On the “Caverns of memory”Borges writes:“I know that for Shakespeare the moon was less the moon than it was Diana, and less Diana than that dark drawn-out word moon” (513).


On supremacy of art to biography (someone should show this to Greenblatt): “Besides, such a book [a biography that includes every memory/perception/thought of Shakespeare] would be pointless. Chance, or fate, dealt Shakespeare those trivial terrible things that all men know; it was his gift to be able to transmute them into fables, into characters that were much more alive than the gray man who dreamed them, into verses which will never be abandoned, into verbal music.”

Borges also hints at something like the transmigration of souls (or are they just memories of the memories? ):“but at dawn I sometimes know that the person dreaming is that other man. Every so often in the evening I am unsettled by small, fleeting memories that are perhaps authentic.”

-Sally

Anonymous said...

All of these are fine. But I liked "Valery as Symbol" best, in which Borgess talks about the image of the poet being constructed from the reception of the poetry. His two examples, Valery and Whitman. Much distinguishes the two from each other. Yet "one act, however, links them: the work of both is less valuable as poetry than it is as the sign of an exemplary poet created by that work." In other words, Valery magnifies the "virtues of mind," while Whitman represents the "human faculties of philanthropy, fervour and joy."

Thus, the creation of the personalities of Whitman and Valery is more important than the work itself. There is, however, a distinction to be made between the self and the figure of self (Lascelles Abercrombie correctly distinguishes the two, referring only to the semi-mythic Whitman of Leaves of Grass in his essay on him).

-Yuki

Anonymous said...

Ryan, thanks for the article on the story. There are some other points of discussion that I was hoping to discuss with you tomorrow at the cafeteria. First, the notion of literary/historical criticism as sakuhin (the opposite of which is explored in "Library of Babel," with the infinite monkey theme).

Also, Borges wrote the story in 1939 after recovering from a serious illness. Given this biographical background, one cannot help but make the conjecture that the pre-Don Quixote Pierre Menard, having only nineteen minor to his name, is Borges`s portrait of himself should he have died the previous year.

And finally, Menard is to Cervantes as Borges is to Poe, or as Joyce is to Homer, or as Edmond Teste is to Valery is to Mallarme is to Baudelaire is to Poe, if that makes any sense.

Anyway, see you in the lunch-ticket line tomorrow at noon!

-Kathy

Anonymous said...

But you guys are forgetting The Secret Miracle (1944), about Jarmir Hladik, a 40-year-old Jew and translator of the playright Sepher Yezirah. He is in Prague March of 1943 when the Nazis come, as in arrested on March 19, sentenced to death on March 29, and to be executed by 9 a.m. the following day. He wants only to finish play "The Enemies," a wish God grants him, stopping time to give him an extra one year of subjective time in order for him to write it. Much of the story presumably takes place in his head. He is worried about his legacy, having written to date only minor, flawed works and Expressionist poems. He seeks "to reedem himself with his drama in verse, The Enemies" (121).

Verse, he claims, is necessecary "because it makes it impossible for the spectators to lose sight of irreality, one of art's requisites" (121).

Jarmir's final play is set in Hradcany, "in the library of Baron von Roemerstadt, on one of the last afternoons of the nineteenth century" (121). Roemerstadt receives strange visits from secret enemies he recalls having seen somewhere. His sweetheart is Julia von Weidenau. There is also Jaroslave Kubin, who has lost his mind, "and [who] believes himself to be Roemerstadt". The plot grows more and more complicated as Roemerstadt kills one of the conspirators . . . the dead man returns later in play . . .

In the end, "the audience understands that Roemerstadt is the miserable Jaroslav Kubin. The drama has never taken place; it is the circular delirium that Kubin lives and relives endlessly" (121).

To Borges, then, symbolist poetry, or, more generally, poetry can be defined as the individual's state-of-mind. The happenings of the mind are themselves poems.

Also, the relative time theme occurs in this work; it is also present in "An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge."

Good day,
Ingram

Anonymous said...

I liked "Averroes’s Search" (1949) -- the one where the narrator (Borges?) is separated by centuries from Averroes, Arab translator of the foreign concepts of Aristotle, from whom he’s separated by centuries. Averroes is stuck with task of having to explain the word“drama” to a culture that only understands straight narration.

Abulcasim, traveler and companion of Averroes, is also faced with task of describing something he doesn't understand. (Though I forget what exactly it was. You'll have to forgive me-- it's been years since I read the story.)

Finally, there is Farach, a Korean scholar, and the host of the party. I forget what exactly he says in the story.

-Pamela

Ryan said...

“If the characters in a story can be readers or spectators, then we, their readers or spectators, can be fictitious.”

Anonymous said...

The best story of Borges would have to be "The Zahir," a sort of tale of post-modern, unrequited love-- or, is it about the anxiety of influence (a dead author consuming another writer)?

The narrator is first haunted by the image of Clementina Villar, his recently deceased lover, but what haunts him is soon transformed to the Zahir coin.. . .

More on this later. I got to go now.

-Palter

Anonymous said...

What about "Death and the Compass."
In one of his essays, Borges talks about detective stories being geometrical poems where the poet is the criminal and the detective the reader.

Here, too, we have an intricate poem/detective story set in Paris-- or is it Buenos Aires? The murders are committed in four corners, making a geometrical shape which matches the four Hebrew letters for word God (the Tetragrammaton, or JHWH ("Yahweh"). The murderer leaves a trap to catch detective, media, and public.

The first three murders form a triangle. Lonnrot, the detective, guesses when and where the last murder will take place.

Erik Lonnrot is an extremely rational detective who can't solve the crimes. He is too clever for his own good, unlike his predecessor, Poe's C. Auguste Dupin (prototype for Sherlock Holem). Lonrot is set up after pinpointing the time and place of the fourth murder using geometric clues.

Inspector Treviranus is the detective's boss. Also appearing in the story are Red Scharlach (aka Scharlach the Dandy or Zunz), who is a notorious robber. The discovered murderer is in the end no genius, but merely a common outlow.

The story was made into film by Alex Cox in 1996.

-PK