Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (Pierre Menard, Autor del Quixote) by Jorge Luis Borges, 1944
PIERRE MENARD, AUTHOR OF THE QUIXOTE (Pierre Menard, autor del Quixote)
by Jorge Luis Borges, 1944
Among the short fiction that brought renown to Jorge Luis Borges, his story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote " ("Pierre Menard, autor del Quixote ") is something of a legend. Conceived and started in a hospital bed, where Borges lay convalescing from a home accident that had brought him near death, it was his first major narrative piece. Published in Sur in May 1939, the story was gathered thereafter in the volume Ficciones. It went on to enjoy an astounding influence among literary people, its clever thoughts giving rise to aesthetic theories that went well beyond anything Borges had probably intended.
"Pierre Menard" is a prime example of the so-called essay-fiction genre fashioned by Borges. It presents itself as a posthumous literary appreciation of the recently deceased Menard as told by an unnamed and typically snobbish French rightist. The list he gives of Menard's published works shows the dearly departed to have been a narrow, claustrophobic sort whose interests lay chiefly in self-enclosed fields such as chess, metrics, symbolic logic, and the retranslating of translated books back to their originals. One of these titles tells all: Les problèmes d'un problème ("The Problems of a Problem").
Menard's unpublished masterwork, however, was the fulfillment of his fond ambition, namely, to write—independently and verbatim (without copying)—Don Quixote. The project, we are informed, went through thousands of drafts, but Menard finally came up with some two chapters. How he got there is a complex matter. At first he had contemplated reliving Cervantes's life, but he soon realized that his aim was to write Don Quixote not as a seventeenth-century Spaniard but as Menard the twentieth-century Frenchman. In the meantime he devoured all of Cervantes's works—save for Don Quixote. This he had already read at the age of twelve, and it thus existed in his mind much as an unwritten work of art does, furnishing him the initial germ for his "creation."
The main substance and wit of the story are in the prissy narrator's subsequent "commentary." To him Menard's Quixote is actually more impressive than Cervantes's, inasmuch as the Frenchman was writing in a language not his own and was encumbered with all of the quaint stereotypes (conquistadors, gypsies, Carmen) of later European vintage. Moreover, one of the passages that Menard "wrote" was the mad knight's spirited defense of arms over letters—easy enough for Cervantes, who had been a soldier, but not so for a bookish, reclusive Menard. The narrator deftly attributes this choice to influence from Nietzsche and also to Menard's ironizing habit of saying the opposite of what he really felt.
The most famous moment in the story comes when the narrator compares two brief passages dealing with the subject of truth, one from Cervantes and the other from Menard. Though the two extracts seem identical, Menard's, he argues, is actually the better one, since Cervantes's is mere commonplace rhetoric of the time whereas Menard echoes the ideas of his contemporary pragmatist William James. To cap the story, the eulogist sums up Menard's real achievement, a revolutionary new technique of reading in disregard of chronological sequence or authorial fact—for example, thinking of the Aeneid as coming before the Odyssey, or the Imitation of Christ as written by Céline or Joyce. On this wild speculation the piece ends.
"Pierre Menard" is several things at once. On the most basic level it is a broad satire of the debates, polemics, and tempests in teapots of literary criticism. The narrator fittingly deploys such typical "weapons" of literary criticism as erudite allusion, high sophistry, and thick irony and along the way provides vivid instances of critical subtypes: ideological aesthetics, literary memoir, philological enumeration, genetic explanation (how Menard's Quixote originated), study of influence (the role of Nietzsche), historical scholarship, and evaluative criticism. The choice of Don Quixote is not accidental, for Cervantes's masterwork itself starts out as a satire of genre, and his mock romance has since been subjected to every conceivable interpretation, from didactic to Christian and existentialist. Menard's eulogist's is only the latest installment in a long series.
At the same time Borges's spoof raises weighty points concerning the place of literature in an age of decline. Coming as he does at the end of French symbolism, poor Menard can only write what has been written before, though with irony and on a Quixotic scale. Such a pessimistic prospect has in fact been part of the twentieth-century climate, and parodying past works is among the outstanding devices in modern art: Joyce's Ulysses and the Odyssey, Duchamp and the Mona Lisa, Stravinsky's Pulcinella and Pergolesi, to cite but a few examples. In this respect "Pierre Menard" also inaugurates what we now see as the postmodern sensibility, in which in all art tends to ironic quotation and history is flattened out into a timeless present.
In its original intent, of course, Borges's piece was largely humorous. He was devising a complex mental joke, not propounding a new aesthetic. Nonetheless, the "ideas" in the story were eventually to be picked up on and further elaborated on by influential men of letters. The French critic Gérard Genette in his essay "L'utopie littéraire" (1966) bases an entire theory of ahistorical literary space on "Pierre Menard." Alain Robbe-Grillet in For a New Novel (Pour un nouveau roman; 1963) expressly defends Borges's (actually the narrator's) notion that two identical texts can mean different things. And the American novelist John Barth in his well-known essay "The Literature of Exhaustion" (1967) takes "Pierre Menard" as a starting point for what he sees as the necessity of parody in our time. (Some of Barth's own novels, in turn, are parodies of nineteenth-century narrative.)
None of this, of course, could have been foreseen by Borges as he imagined "Pierre Menard" in his hospital room. Still, the comments and quasi-manifestoes elicited by this little story speak for its intellectual richness, its power to quicken the mind and suggest possibilities. "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote " is a funny story that inspires serious thoughts—much as is the case with the first Don Quixote of Cervantes.
—Gene H. Bell-Villada