A short story by Jorge Luis Borges in which an acquaintance of the author, Pierre Menard, resolves to independently compose Cervantes' classic novel Don Quixote. Though the end product is identical to the original of several hundred years earlier, Borges provides a deadpan review in which he points out how much richer the new version is, quoting the same passages from each to illustrate his point.

If you wish to write don Quixote from scratch…

Summary

«Pierre Menard…» opens with a discussion on the two main branches of Menard’s oeuvre: one visible and one invisible. The former is easy to enumerate and understand, even if it seems to encompass many areas of knowledge. The latter, however, is «subterranean, endlessly heroic, without equal (…) unfinished.». This invisible catalog is a lot smaller: it comprises only chapters 9 and 38 of the Quixote’s first part and a fraction of chapter 22 of the second part.

Why do this? The narrator explains his two main sources (emphasis in original):1

Two texts of unequal value inspired his enterprise. One is that philological fragment of Novalis—the one numbered 2005 in the Dresden edition—which sketches out the theme of total identification with a given author.2 The other is one of those parasitic books that situate Christ on a boulevard, Hamlet on the Cannebière, or Don Quixote on Wall Street. Like every man of good taste, Menard hated such frivolous carnivals.

The narrator notes that Menard did not want to merely re-type the novel—«an easy task»—but to somehow produce the exact same literary work of Cervantes. In order to achieve this, Menard’s initial method was to be Cervantes, through learning Spanish, recovering his Catholic faith, fighting of Moors… Living his the Spaniard’s exact experiences.

Although this seems like an impossible task, it proved uninteresting to Menard. His new approach was, then, to «continue being Pierre Menard and arrive to Don Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard.»

The narrator interrupts his telling to confess that he now reads Don Quixote as if Menard had wrote it, even recognizing his friend’s style here and there. The differences between the two start to become apparent. For instance, it’s easy for a Spaniard to write a novel where all the action happens in Spain; but when you consider a French symbolist—reader of «Poe, who begot [Charles] Baudelaire, who begot [Stéphane] Mallarmé, who begot [Paul] Valéry, who begot Edmond Teste»—it’s a whole different story.

As a result—the narrator says—Menard’s Quixote can be read as «more subtle than Cervantes’», putting forth chapter XXXVIII of Don Quixote I. Don Quixote’s decision to favor arms over letters is an obvious choice when written by an ex-soldier, but a surprising one when written by a man of letters.

Cervantes’ and Menard’s texts are verbally identical, but the latter is infinitely richer.

The narrator finally notes that Menard has, unknowingly, enriched the «arrested and rudimentary act of reading» by introducing a new technique: that of deliberate anachronism and erroneous attributions. What if, for instance, Louis Ferdinand Céline or James Joyce had written «The Imitation of Christ»?

Andy’s commentary

I’m not any kind of expert in literature, I just enjoy reading some of it.

Rereading this short piece, I couldn’t help but think of two connected topics.

Remix culture

I’m immediately reminded of that story about how Hunter S. Thompson would retype Hemingway and Fitzgerald. His aim (if I recall correctly) was to «get a feel» for what is like to write a good novel. This is by no means unique to the twentieth century: many famous writers started by literally copying down well-known works by people that came before and applying some good old observation and introspection to learn something from the process.

Even this mechanical transcription can lead—if one so desires—to an interesting understanding of an author or their work. After all, we humans learn largely by copying. As we grow, we never really stop imitating others, although we do it in a more subconscious way: many of us adopt new gestures and phrases whenever we integrate into a new social group; inside jokes work because they rest on an underlying common foundation with others.

This author has tried—and failed—to write interesting or even funny strips of Dinosaur Comics. At first glance, this shouldn’t be that difficult: a lot of the work is already done: the characters and layout are already there; even some background on the protagonists. Even with this help, I have yet to produce something that would make Ryan North proud of me.

See, working within the same limitations that he has—writing a comic using the same six panels over and over again—is something that doesn’t come easy at all; and Mr. North has been doing it for over a decade. I have not. But trying over and over has given me a new perspective on how such a comic could be written.

The words «Remix culture» come to mind. Also the book «A technique for producing ideas» by James Webb Young. Both are insistent proposers of the idea of creating new artifacts by copying, combining and adapting the old. Pierre Menard was, in that sense, a remixer; taking the old and producing something new.

But unless this new Quixote is clearly labeled as Menard’s, anyone could confuse it with the original one. That’s where the second piece of the puzzle comes in:

Active reading

Whereas Cervantes merely advises telling the truth of what happened in the past, for Menard historiography, the act of interpreting and writing history creates its own object, according to ideology, etc. ‘Historical truth, for Menard, is not “what happened”; it is what we believe happened’.

(Boldy 2009, 77)

Another point that I find interesting is that Menard’s «new» Quixote is only richer because the reader is playing an active part of it. As I’m becoming older, I realize more and more the importance of being an active consumer of media as far as my poor brain and limited knowledge allow. This is something that is never taught in any language class3 and carries on for a lifetime.

Last year some of my fellow grad school students and I started a book club, vowing each to read at least one book every two months.4 It was astounding to see just how many in this group—already an elite when it comes to education—never gave any though to whatever they read, relegating their comments to a mere like/dislike spectrum.

I don’t mean to say it’s an easy thing to do and I don’t mean to say all media needs an intense analysis and focus to be enjoyable—see: Discworld—but it’s something that one needs to do if one is to truly cultivate their own personal taste for reading. Anyone can read, but just consuming mindlessly leads to consuming Paulo Coelho—blergh—with the same attention as, say, Carlos Castaneda. I suspect this is part of why lots of crappy authors are so popular in Latin America: hype is confused with quality and one page full of words is similar to another like Coke and Pepsi.

❧❧❧

Back to the point in question: I think that the pleasure and privilege of reading should never dismiss the idea of bringing one’s own cultural baggage while reading. Some times it may not be necessary, but just like one likes to dress up for a formal night out, one’s brain should also rise to the occasion of consuming consciously.

It’s fine to overthink «Installing Linux on a Dead Badger» and write ten thousand words on how it’s a metaphor for the panoptikon as a disease that turns us all undead. It’s also fine to read Borges without paying attention to his numerous references. But both should, in my opinion, be done as a result of a personal choice, not because of one’s own bad reading habits.

Please note that I do not wish to advocate for intellectualism or gate-keeping: there’s no need to hold any kind of degree to read—and enjoy—any book one desires. Reading actively is not a matter of encyclopedic knowledge, but that of having an inquisitive mind, same as listening to music, visiting a museum or watching a street performer. Exactly how this is done has already been the subject of innumerable books and seminars, but the simplest answer is this to ask the simplest questions to oneself: ‘What am I reading? What do I think it means? Is it any good? Why or why not?’

May we all find new meaning by reading the old with deliberate anachronism and erroneous attributions. Go there and see if Banksy’s «Gioconda» is as good as they say.


Also on Jorge Luis Borges’ «Ficciones»

  1. «El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan»
    1. Prologue
    2. «Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius»
    3. «Pierre Menard, autor del Quixote» («Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote»)
    4. «Las ruinas circulares» («The Circular Ruins»)
    5. «La lotería en Babilonia» («The Lottery in Babylon»)
    6. «Examen de la obra de Herbert Quain» («An examination of the Work of Herbert Quain»)
    7. «La Biblioteca de Babel» («The Library of Babel»)
    8. «El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan» («The Garden of Forking Paths»)
  2. «Artificios»
    1. Prologue
    2. «Funes el memorioso» («Funes the Memorious»)
    3. «La forma de la espada» («The Form of the Sword»)
    4. «Tema del traidor y del héroe» («Theme of the Traitor and the Hero»)
    5. «La muerte y la brújula» («Death and the Compass»)
    6. «El milagro secreto» («The Secret Miracle»)
    7. «Tres versiones de Judas» («Three Versions of Judas»)
    8. «El fin» («The End»)
    9. «La secta del Fénix» («The Sect of the Phoenix»)
    10. «El Sur» («The South»)

Notes

This writeup is based on the Kindle edition of «Ficciones». As such, it doesn’t contain «El acercamiento a Almotásim» («The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim»). Most of the translations are mine, given that I only have access to the original Spanish version.

Format
Kindle ebook
File size
779 KB
Pages
560
Publisher
LUMEN (May 6, 2011)
Sold by
Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial SAU
Language
Spanish
ASIN
B0062Y7C18

References

Balderston, Daniel. 1993. Out of Context: Historical Reference and the Representation of Reality in Borges. Duke University Press Books. https://books.google.com/books?id=iw9PEik16fYC&dq=Novalis+total+identification&source=gbs_navlinks_s.

Boldy, Steven. 2009. A Companion to Jorge Luis Borges. NED - New edition. Boydell; Brewer. https://openlibrary.org/books/OL26054724M/A_Companion_To_Jorge_Luis_Borges.

Butler, Rex. 2010. Borges’ Short Stories: A Reader’s Guide. CONTINNUUM 3PL. https://books.google.com.mx/books?redir_esc=y&id=fGnOBAAAQBAJ&q=Menard#v=snippet&q=Menard&f=false.

Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía. 2019. “Población Lectora de México Decreciente En Los últimos Cinco Años.” Press Release. Mexico: Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía. https://www.inegi.org.mx/contenidos/saladeprensa/boletines/2019/EstSociodemo/MOLEC2018_04.pdf.


  1. This particular translation comes from Balderston (1993, 21)

  2. According to Balderston (1993, 21) the fragment in question is «Pflichtenlehre des Lesers» («The Ethics of Reading») and it says:

    I only show that I have understood an author when I can act in his spirit; when, without diminishing his individuality, I can translate him and transform him in many ways.

    I have yet to find another source for this in either Spanish or English.

  3. English for many of you, Spanish for me.

  4. Much as I love my country, we statistically don’t read. According to official statistics (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía 2019), only about 42% of the adult (18+) population reads, and they only clock 3.3 books per year. This book club was the result of all of us wanting to read more, so 6 books per year seemed reasonable for those who had to build the habit of reading from the ground up.

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