Saturday, May 8, 2010

Menard Stands Alone

Borges and I have never agreed with each other. Same with Kafka. The puzzling thing is that I've loved other authors who either influenced them or were influenced by them (such as Macedonio Fernández, Georges Perec, and Ferenc Karinthy), and I came into Kafka and Borges wholly expecting to love them. I studied both in college too, but that still didn't help. (Actually, the best insight into Kafka I've ever gotten was from an anthology about the Iron Curtain called The Wall in My Head.) So when I heard that our Non-Structured Book Club was going to be doing an extracurricular Borges reading, I initially opted out and chose to simply read everyone's posts instead. But then I found myself intrigued by what was being said about "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," so I decided, why not? Maybe I should give Mr. Borges another chance.

"Menard" is written in the form of an article from an academic journal. The author/narrator was a friend of the late Pierre Menard, a French literary critic, and is utterly infatuated with what he perceives to be Menard's brilliant project involving Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote. Menard wanted to write it himself. Not copy it. He wanted to somehow channel Cervantes and compose the Quixote word for word. As Menard explained it:
When I was ten or twelve years old, I read it, perhaps in its entirety. Later, I have reread it closely certain chapters, those which I shall not attempt for the time being. I have also gone through all the interludes, the plays, the Galatea, the exemplary novels, the undoubtedly laborious tribulations of Persiles and Segismunda and the Viaje del Parnaso . . . 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. Once that image (which no one can legitimately deny me) is postulated, it is certain that my problem is a good bit more difficult that Cervantes' was. My obliging predecessor did not refuse the collaboration of change: he composed his immortal work somewhat à la diable, carried along by the inertias of language and invention. I have taken on the mysterious duty of reconstructing literally his spontaneous work.
Menard rejects the idea of literally becoming Cervantes by forgetting all the history of Europe since 1602, fighting the Turks as Cervantes did, and so forth on the grounds that such a thing would be impossible. Of course, he acknowledges that the whole undertaking is impossible, but of all the ways of going about it, that would be the least interesting.

Borges's imaginary academic nevertheless believes that Menard's endeavor was quite successful, even perceiving his friend's signature style in certain passages of the Quixote which are completely identical to those of Cervantes. He claims to recognize the influence of Shakespeare and further praises Menard's mastery of a foreign language and alien dialect (Renaissance Spanish) compared to Cervantes's advantage of writing in his own native tongue. Why, it's astounding, he goes on, that Menard was able to ignore the work of William James and, like Cervantes, proclaim history to be the origin of reality instead of an inquiry into reality! In short, the narrator is arguing that Menard's word-for-word duplicate of the Quixote is richer, deeper, and a grander achievement than Cervantes's original.

As Emily notes in her post, Borges brings up a multitude of questions surrounding context, subjectivity, and perspective. Although the two texts are identical, the copy is held to be superior because its reader (the author of the article) was able to locate more meaning in it. In other words, he examined the copy as an artifact of the environment in which it was produced: the early twentieth century, presumably in France, as opposed to Spain in the late 1500s. Since the narrator views this Quixote as having arisen entirely in the mind of Menard, it's like a copy without an original.

It was then that the heavens opened, a light shined down, and Borges started to make sense.

I'm a big fan of Ghost in the Shell, a (post)cyberpunk Japanese franchise that began with the Ghost in the Shell manga by Masamune Shirow and has since expanded to include two manga sequels, three acclaimed anime films, and a popular anime television series. Like The Matrix, which it greatly influenced, GitS is deeply concerned with postmodern philosophy and social theory. The title of the TV show, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, refers to a concept developed over the first season. The "stand alone complex" is basically a "phenomenon where unrelated, yet very similar actions of individuals create a seemingly concerted effort." For example, say a building catches fire and burns down. While accidents like that happen all the time, depending on the greater context of the time and place in which said building was located, people can get it into their heads that the fire was the work of an arsonist motivated by whatever political or religious ideology is currently making news (i.e. Islamic terrorism). Several malcontents then get on the imaginary bandwagon and commit their own acts of arson in the name of Allah. A chain of spontaneous order is then created out of the chaos of society, politics, media, and random accidents. But the copycats have no original.

And then I realized I was doing the exact same thing as Borges's fictional academic! I was anachronistically analyzing an older text ("Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote" by Jorge Luis Borges) from the perspective of someone familiar with literary and philosophical ideas that would not be developed until decades after said text was written. "To attribute the Imitatio Christi to Louis Ferdinand Céline or to James Joyce, is this not a sufficient renovation of its tenuous spiritual indications?" Menard's disciple asks. (I like Emily's translation better: ". . . a sufficient renewal of those faded spiritual warnings?") Just as Cervantes's position regarding the power of letters v. arms could not possibly have been influenced by Nietzsche (as Menard's completely identical passage is claimed to have been), Borges could not possibly have written "Pierre Menard" with any knowledge of Japanese cyberpunk anime.

And thus: the meaning of a text is ultimately subjective, as the reader's response always occurs within the context of the reader's knowledge and experience, which may be completely and utterly different, especially given the passage of time, from those of the author.

I get it! I like Borges now!

My Borges edition, incidentally, has an introduction by William Gibson, whose Neuromancer trilogy is widely regarded as the origin of the cyberpunk genre. I knew I was onto something.

It's the audio from the Matrix: Reloaded trailer with images from GitS: SAC, starring Togusa as Neo, Motoko Kusanagi as Trinity, and Daisuke Aramaki as Morpheus.

The Non-Structured Book Club is reading three short pieces by Borges for the month of May. Our schedule is as follows:

May 7: "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"
May 14: "The Library of Babel"
May 21: "The South"

This week's participants were:



Anonymous said...

Whoo hoo! So exciting. What a great post! I'm glad you've found the key to your enjoyment of Borges. I love your "And thus: etc." bit. So, so true and so articulately put. What an amazing story. Just gets better as I read more of people's reactions to it.

Caitlin said...

I absolutely agree that our experience as readers is by its very nature subjective, filtered as it is through our experiences, our history, other things we've read, whether our pants are too tight while we're reading, and on and on (maybe not so much the pants, but you know what I mean).

I read a lot and have some things that I revisit. Often when I re-read something I can so easily imagine the places I was when I read it before - sort of Proustian, but without the nummy bakery treats. I think all those things also influence my experience of reading things.

Lastly, I think that different things work for you at different times. There are a lot of books you should read before it's too late and more that you need to be ready to read.

Aren't books just so very cool?

Richard said...

Glad you had a Borges breakthrough, E.L. Fay! And I enjoyed your anime/manga detour even though you kind of reject the reason for bringing it up there at the end. On the author/artist influence front, I think that's kind of a tricky thing: Bolaño's list of fave writers has steered me in good directions for the most part (or to authors we both liked anyway), for example, but it wouldn't surprise me if he loved somebody I hated either. The friends of a friend don't always become your friend idea. Authors who claim to be influenced by other authors is an even trickier business because 1) it's not always clear what influenced them, and 2) who knows if they're lying in the first place! A lot of musicians claim to be influenced by certain bands that they sound nothing at all like. Anyway, interesting post--looking forward to seeing how you like Borges next week when he gets all cosmological on you!

nicole said...

And then I realized I was doing the exact same thing as Borges's fictional academic!

Nice! Ah, the inescapable, damn its inescapability. Great post on making friends with Borges. I have the same problem you do with Kafka; perhaps some day I'll have a similar breakthrough with him. Or not.

E. L. Fay said...

Sarah: Yes, reading all the reactions is what convinced me to give Borges another try. It worked where college didn't.

Caitlin: One of my professors said something to the effect of, when you write a book it's like throwing pages to the wind. You never know where it's going to end up or what people are going to do with it.

Richard: He gets COSMOLOGICAL? Now I'm nervous. My head nearly 'asploded from this story alone.

Nicole: Yeah, Kafka's a pain. But maybe one day we will have that breakthrough with him as well.

Emily said...

Sorry to be so late to the party here, EL Fay, especially after all your kind references to my post, but I'm so glad you finally found an "in" to Borges! He obviously hit me just at the right time & I loved this story from the get-go, but I have definitely had similar experiences & breakthroughs with other authors over the years. And it seems like he would so approve of your retrospective-influence connection here! Awesome.

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