Search Deeblog
Navigate through Deeblog
Categories and months of Deeblog
Reviews, essays, and translations
« The Final Cut | Main | Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote (part 1) »

Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote (part 2)

The conclusion to the Borges masterpiece ("Pierre Menard, author of Don Quixote").  You can read the original here.

Why of all things Don Quixote, our reader will ask.  This preference, for a Spaniard, would not have been hard to explain.  But for a symbolist from Nîmes, it is indeed.  A symbolist fundamentally devoted to Poe, who engendered Baudelaire, who engendered Mallarmé, who engendered Valéry, who engendered Edmond Teste.  The letter previously quoted elucidates one point: “Don Quixote,” clarifies Menard, “interests me profoundly, but does not seem to me to be – how should I say this – inevitable.  I cannot imagine the universe without Poe’s interjection:

Ah, bear in mind this garden was enchanted!

Or without Le bateau ivre, or The Ancient Mariner, but I can imagine the world without Don Quixote (I speak, of course, of my personal ability and not of the works’ historical resonance).  Don Quixote is an incidental book, Don Quixote is unnecessary.  I can premeditate its writing; I can write it without encountering a tautology.  I read it at two or three, perhaps all of it.  Since then I have reread certain chapters attentively, others I have not tried until now.  I have also studied the shorter plays, the comedies, the Galatea, the Novelas ejemplares, the undoubtedly laborious “works” of Persiles y Segismunda and El Viaje del Parnaso … My general recollection of Don Quixote, simplified by forgetfulness and indifference, may well be the equivalent to the prior imprecise image of a book as yet unwritten.  Once this image has been postulated (which no one may justly deny me), there can be no doubt that my problem is significantly more difficult than that of Cervantes.  My complacent forerunner did not refuse collaborators by chance: he was composing his immortal work ever so slightly à la diable, borne out by inertias of the language and of invention, whereas I have assumed the mysterious task of literally reconstructing his spontaneous work.  My only game is governed by polar laws. The first permits me to try out variations in form and psychology; the second obliges me to sacrifice these variations to the ‘original’ text and to reason its annihilation in an irrefutable way … In addition to these artificial obstacles, there is another, congenital obstacle, to overcome.  Composing Don Quixote at the beginning of the seventeenth century was a reasonable, necessary, perhaps even fated undertaking; at the beginning of the twentieth century, it is almost impossible.  Not in vain have three hundred years passed filled with the most complicated of facts and events.  Among these we may mention only one: Don Quixote itself.”

Despite these three obstacles, Menard’s Quixote fragment is more subtle than that of Cervantes.  The latter, in a crude way, opposes the poor provincial reality of his country to the tales of chivalry; Menard chooses as his “reality” the land of Carmen during the century of Lepanto and Lope.  What Iberian clichés this choice might have shown Maurice Barres or Doctor Rodríguez Larreta!  But Menard’s naturalness eludes them. In his work there are no gypsies, no conquistadors, no mystics, no Philipp the Second, no autos de fe.  Such disdain indicates a new meaning of the historical novel.  This disdain indisputably condemns Salammbô.

No less amazing is a consideration of the isolated chapters.  Let us take a look, for example, at XXXVIII of the first part, “which deals with the curious speech made by Quixote on arms and the arts.”  It is known that Don Quixote (just like Quevedo in an analogous and later passage in La hora de todos) rules in favor of arms and against the arts.  Cervantes was a former soldier, so this ruling is easy to explain.  But the Don Quixote of Pierre Menard!  Pierre Menard, the contemporary of La trahison des clercs and of Bertrand Russell, relapsing into these nebulous sophistries!  Madame Bachelier saw in these same sophistries an admirable and typical subordination of the author to the psychology of the hero; others (in no way perspicaciously) espied a transcription of Don Quixote; whereas the Baroness of Bacourt suspected the influence of some German philosopher.  To this last observation (which I judge to be irrefutable), I hesitate to add a fourth consistent with Pierre Menard’s almost divine modesty: his resigned or ironic habit of propagating ideas which were the exact reverse of his own preferences (let us recall again his diatribe against Paul Valéry and the ephemeral, superrealist page of Jacques Reboul).  The text of Cervantes and the text of Menard are verbally identical, but the second is infinitely richer (infinitely more ambiguous, its detractors will say; but ambiguity is a richness).

It is a revelation to collate Menard’s Don Quixote with that of Cervantes.  For example, Cervantes wrote (Don Quixote, first part, chapter IX):

… Truth, whose mother is history, emulates time, depository of actions, witness to the past, example and advice of the present, warning of what it is to come.

Written in the seventeenth century, written by the “ingenious layman” Cervantes, this enumeration is nothing more than the rhetorical praise of history.  On the other hand, Menard writes:

… Truth, whose mother is history, emulates time, depository of actions, witness to the past, example and advice of the present, warning of what it is to come.

History, mother of truth; the idea is astounding.  Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an investigation of reality but as it origin.  According to him historical truth is not what has happened but what we judge to have happened.  The final clauses – example and advice of the present, warning of what it is to come – are unabashedly pragmatic.  A vivid contrast is also found in their styles.  Menard’s archaizing style – foreign, ultimately – lacks any affectation whatsoever.  This is not so in the case of his forerunner, who manages with ease the Spanish of his époque.

There is no intellectual exercise that is not ultimately useless.  A philosophical doctrine is at first a plausible description of the universe; years pass and it becomes a mere chapter, if not a paragraph or a name, within the history of philosophy.  In literature, such caducity is all the more notorious.  “Don Quixote,” Menard once told me, “used to be a thoroughly pleasant book; now it is an occasion for patriotic toasts, grammatical arrogance, and obscene luxury editions.  Glory is a miscomprehension, perhaps the worst of all miscomprehensions.”

These nihilistic verifications contain nothing new; what remains odd is the decision Pierre Menard derived from them.  He resolved to proceed in that vanity which preserves all of man’s weariness, and he attacked a supremely complicated undertaking which was futile from the very start.  He devoted his scruples and waking hours to repeating in a foreign language a preexisting book.  He multiplied the drafts, tenaciously edited and tore up thousands of handwritten pages (I recall his gridded notebooks, his black amendments, his peculiar typographic symbols, and his insect-like scrawl.  In the afternoons he liked to walk through the quarters of Nîmes; he would take a notebook along with him and cheerfully make a bonfire).  He did not allow anyone to examine them and made sure they did not survive him.  It is these pages that I, in vain, have tried to reconstruct.

I have come to think it justifiable to see in the “final” Don Quixote a sort of palimpsest in which one ought to be able to make out the features, faint but not indecipherable, of the “premeditated” writing of our friend.  Unfortunately, only a second Pierre Menard, reversing the work of the previous Pierre Menard, would be able to exhume and resuscitate these Troys…

“Thinking, analyzing, inventing,” he also wrote to me, “are not anomalous acts, but the natural respiration of the intellect.  Glorifying the occasional perfection of this function, treasuring old and alien thoughts, remembering with incredulous stupor what the doctor universalis thought, all this is confessing our languidness and barbarity.  All men should be capable of all ideas, and I understand that in the future, they will be.”

By means of a new technique, Menard (perhaps without wanting to do so) has enriched the stayed and rudimentary art of reading: the technique of deliberate anachronisms and erroneous attributions.  This technique of infinite application urges us to go through The Odyssey as if were later than The Aeneid, and the book Le jardin du Centaure by Madame Henri Bachelier as if it were by Madame Henri Bachelier.  This technique populates the most tranquil books with adventure.  Is attributing The Imitation of Christ to Louis Ferdinand Céline or James Joyce not a sufficient renovation of this weak spiritual advice?

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>