Pierre Menard Author of the Quixote
by Jorge Luis Borges
The visible work left by this novelist is easily and briefly enumerated. Impardonable, therefore, are the omissions and additions perpetrated by Madame Henri Bachelier in a fallacious catalogue which a certain daily, whose Protestant tendency is no secret, has had the inconsideration to inflict upon its deplorable readers—though these be few and Calvinist, if not Masonic and circumcised. The true friends of Menard have viewed this catalogue with alarm and even with a certain melancholy. One might say that only yesterday we gathered before his final monument, amidst the lugubrious cypresses, and already Error tries to tarnish his Memory . . . Decidedly, a brief rectification is unavoidable.
I am aware that it is quite easy to challenge my slight authority. I hope, however, that I shall not be prohibited from mentioning two eminent testimonies. The Baroness de Bacourt (at whose unforgettable vendredis. I had the honor of meeting the lamented poet) has seen fit to approve the pages which follow. The Countess de Bagnoregio, one of the most delicate spirits of the Principality of Monaco (and now of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, following her recent marriage to the international philanthropist Simon Kautzsch, who has been so inconsiderately slandered, alas! by the victims of his disinterested maneuvers) has sacrificed “to veracity and to death” (such were her words) the stately reserve which is her distinction, and, in an open letter published in the magazine Luxe , concedes me her approval as well. These authorizations, I think, are not entirely insufficient.
I have said that Menard’s visible work can be easily enumerated. Having examined with care his personal files, I find that they contain the following items:
a) A Symbolist sonnet which appeared twice (with variants) in the review La conque (issues of March and October 1899).
b) A monograph on the possibility of constructing a poetic vocabulary of concepts which would not be synonyms or periphrases of those which make up our everyday language, “but rather ideal objects created according to convention and essentially designed to satisfy poetic needs” (Nîmes, 1901).
c) A monograph on “certain connections or affinities” between the thought of Descartes, Leibniz and John Wilkins (Nîmes, 1903).
d) A monograph on Leibniz’s Characteristica universalis (Nîmes 1904).
e) A technical article on the possibility of improving the game of chess, eliminating one of the rook’s pawns. Menard proposes, recommends, discusses and finally rejects this innovation.
f ) A monograph on Raymond Lully’s Ars magna generalis (Nîmes, 1906).
g) A translation, with prologue and notes, of Ruy López de Segura’s Libro de la invención liberal y arte
deljuego delaxedrez ( , 1907). Paris
h) The work sheets of a monograph on George Boole’s symbolic logic.
i) An examination of the essential metric laws of French prose, illustrated with examples taken from Saint-Simon (Revue des langues romanes, Montpellier, October 1909).
j) A reply to Luc Durtain (who had denied the existence of such laws), illustrated with examples from Luc Durtain (Revue des langues romanes, Montpellier, December 1909).
k) A manuscript translation of the Aguja de navegar cultos of Quevedo, entitled La boussole des précieux.
I) A preface to the Catalogue of an exposition of lithographs by Carolus Hourcade (Nîmes, 1914).
m) The work Les problèmes d’un problème (
, 1917), which discusses, in chronological order, the different solutions given to the illustrious problem of Achilles and the tortoise. Two editions of this book have appeared so far; the second bears as an epigraph Leibniz’s recommendation “Ne craignez point, monsieur, la tortue” and revises the chapters dedicated to Russell and Descartes. Paris
n) A determined analysis of the “syntactical customs” of Toulet (N. R. F. , March 1921). Menard—I recall—declared that censure and praise are sentimental operations which have nothing to do with literary criticism.
o) A transposition into alexandrines of Paul Valéry’s Le cimitière marin (N. R. F. , January 1928).
p) An invective against Paul Valéry, in the Papers for the Suppression of Reality of Jacques Reboul. (This invective, we might say parenthetically, is the exact opposite of his true opinion of Valéry. The latter understood it as such and their old friendship was not endangered.)
q) A “definition” of the Countess de Bagnoregio, in the “victorious volume”—the locution is Gabriele d’Annunzio’s, another of its collaborators—published annually by this lady to rectify the inevitable falsifications of journalists and to present “to the world and to Italy” an authentic image of her person, so often exposed (by very reason of her beauty and her activities) to erroneous or hasty interpretations.
r) A cycle of admirable sonnets for the Baroness de Bacourt (1934).
s) A manuscript list of verses which owe their efficacy to their punctuation.1
1. Madame Henri Bachelier also lists a literal translation of Quevedo’s literal translation of the Introduction à la vie dévote of St. Francis of Sales. There are no traces of such a work in Menard’s library. It must have been a jest of our friend, misunderstood by the lady. This, then, is the visible work of Menard, in chronological order (with no omission other than a few vague sonnets of circumstance written for the hospitable, or avid, album of Madame Henri Bachelier). I turn now to his other work: the subterranean, the interminably heroic, the peerless. And—such are the capacities of man!—the unfinished. This work, perhaps the most significant of our time, consists of the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of the first part of Don Quixote and a fragment of chapter twenty-two. I know such an affirmation seems an absurdity; to justify this “absurdity” is the primordial object of this note.1
1.I also had the secondary intention of sketching a personal portrait of Pierre Menard. But how could I dare to compete with the golden pages which, I am told, the Baroness de Bacourt is preparing or with the delicate and punctual pencil of Carolus Hourcade?
Two texts of unequal value inspired this undertaking. One is that philological fragment by Novalis—the one numbered 2005 in the
edition—which outlines the theme of a total identification with a given author. The other is one of those parasitic books which situate Christ on a boulevard, Hamlet on La Cannebière or Don Quixote on Wall Street. Like all men of good taste, Menard abhorred these useless carnivals, fit only— as he would say—to produce the plebeian pleasure of anachronism or (what is worse) to enthrall us with the elementary idea that all epochs are the same or are different. More interesting, though contradictory and superficial of execution, seemed to him the famous plan of Daudet: to conjoin the Ingenious Gentleman and his squire in one figure, which was Tartarin . . . Those who have insinuated that Menard dedicated his life to writing a contemporary Quixote calumniate his illustrious memory. Dresden
He did not want to compose another Quixote —which is easy— but the Quixote itself. 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.
“My intent is no more than astonishing,” he wrote me the 30th of September, 1934, from
. “The final term in a theological or metaphysical demonstration—the objective world, God, causality, the forms of the universe—is no less previous and common than my famed novel. The only difference is that the philosophers publish the intermediary stages of their labor in pleasant volumes and I have resolved to do away with those stages.” In truth, not one worksheet remains to bear witness to his years of effort. Bayonne
The first method he conceived was relatively simple. Know Spanish well, recover the Catholic faith, fight against the Moors or the Turk, forget the history of
Europebetween the years 1602 and 1918, be Miguel de Cervantes. Pierre Menard studied this procedure (I know he attained a fairly accurate command of seventeenth-century Spanish) but discarded it as too easy. Rather as impossible! my reader will say. Granted, but the undertaking was impossible from the very beginning and of all the impossible ways of carrying it out, this was the least interesting. To be, in the twentieth century, a popular novelist of the seventeenth seemed to him a diminution. To be, in some way, Cervantes and reach the Quixote seemed less arduous to him—and, consequently, less interesting—than to go on being Pierre Menard and reach the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard. (This conviction, we might say in passing, made him omit the autobiographical prologue to the second part of Don Quixote . To include that prologue would have been to create another character—Cervantes—but it would also have meant presenting the Quixote in terms of that character and not of Menard. The latter, naturally, declined that facility.) “My undertaking is not difficult, essentially,” I read in another part of his letter. “I should only have to be immortal to carry it out.” Shall I confess that I often imagine he did finish it and that I read the Quixote —all of it—as if Menard had conceived it? Some nights past, while leafing through chapter XXVI—never essayed by him—I recognized our friend’s style and something of his voice in this exceptional phrase: “the river nymphs and the dolorous and humid Echo.” This happy conjunction of a spiritual and a physical adjective brought to my mind a verse by Shakespeare which we discussed one afternoon:
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk . . .
But why precisely the Quixote ? our reader will ask. Such a preference, in a Spaniard, would not have been inexplicable; but it is, no doubt, in a Symbolist from Nîmes, essentially a devoté of Poe, who engendered Baudelaire, who engendered Mallarmé, who engendered Valéry, who engendered Edmond Teste. The aforementioned letter illuminates this point. “The Quixote ,” clarifies Menard, “interests me deeply, but it does not seem— how shall I say it?—inevitable. I cannot imagine the universe without Edgar Allan Poe’s exclamation: Ah, bear in mind this garden was enchanted! or without the Bateau ivre or the Ancient Mariner , but I am quite capable of imagining it without the Quixote . (I speak, naturally, of my personal capacity and not of those works’ historical resonance.) The Quixote is a contingent book; the Quixote is unnecessary. I can premeditate writing it, I can write it, without falling into a tautology. When I was ten or twelve years old, I read it, perhaps in its entirety. Later, I have reread closely certain chapters, those which I shall not attempt for the time being. I have also gone through 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 than Cervantes’ was. My obliging predecessor did not refuse the collaboration of chance: 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. My solitary game is governed by two polar laws. The first permits me to essay variations of a formal or psychological type; the second obliges me to sacrifice these variations to the “original” text and reason out this annihilation in an irrefutable manner . . . To these artificial hindrances, another—of a congenital kind—must be added. 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 three hundred years have gone by, filled with exceedingly complex events. Amongst them, to mention only one, is the Quixote itself.”
In spite of these three obstacles, Menard’s fragmentary Quixote is more subtle than Cervantes’. The latter, in a clumsy fashion, opposes to the fictions of chivalry the tawdry provincial reality of his country; Menard selects as his “reality” the
during the century of Lepanto and Lope de Vega. What a series of espagnolades that selection would have suggested to Maurice Barrès or Dr. Rodríguez Larreta! Menard eludes them with complete naturalness. In his work there are no gypsy flourishes or conquistadors or mystics or Philip the Seconds or autos da fé. He neglects or eliminates local color. This disdain points to a new conception of the historical novel. This disdain condemns Salammbô, with no possibility of appeal. landof Carmen
It is no less astounding to consider isolated chapters. For example, let us examine Chapter XXXVIII of the first pare, “which treats of the curious discourse of Don Quixote on arms and letters.” It is well known that Don Quixote (like Quevedo in an analogous and later passage in La hora de todos ) decided the debate against letters and in favor of arms. Cervantes was a former soldier: his verdict is understandable. But that Pierre Menard’s Don Quixote—a contemporary of La trahison des clercs and Bertrand Russell—should fall prey to such nebulous sophistries! Madame Bachelier has seen here an admirable and typical subordination on the part of the author to the hero’s psychology; others (not at all perspicaciously), a transcription of the Quixote; the Baroness de Bacourt, the influence of Nietzsche. To this third interpretation (which I judge to be irrefutable) I am not sure I dare to add a fourth, which concords very well with the almost divine modesty of Pierre Menard: his resigned or ironical habit of propagating ideas which were the strict reverse of those he preferred. (Let us recall once more his diatribe against Paul Valéry in Jacques Reboul’s ephemeral Surrealist sheet.) Cervantes’ text and Menard’s are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer. (More ambiguous, his detractors will say, but ambiguity is richness.)
It is a revelation to compare Menard’s Don Quixote with Cervantes’. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine):
. . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor. Written in the seventeenth century, written by the “lay genius” Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:
. . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.
History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened. The final phrases—exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor —are brazenly pragmatic.
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.
There is no exercise of the intellect which is not, in the final analysis, useless. A philosophical doctrine begins as a plausible description of the universe; with the passage of the years it becomes a mere chapter—if not a paragraph or a name—in the history of philosophy. In literature, this eventual caducity is even more notorious. The Quixote —Menard told me—was, above all, an entertaining book; now it is the occasion for patriotic toasts, grammatical insolence and obscene de luxe editions. Fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst.
There is nothing new in these nihilistic verifications; what is singular is the determination Menard derived from them. He decided to anticipate the vanity awaiting all man’s efforts; he set himself to an undertaking which was exceedingly complex and, from the very beginning, futile. He dedicated his scruples and his sleepless nights to repeating an already extant book in an alien tongue. He multiplied draft upon draft, revised tenaciously and tore up thousands of manuscript pages.1 He did not let anyone examine these drafts and took care they should not survive him. In vain have I tried to reconstruct them.
1. I remember his quadricular notebooks, his black crossed-out passages, his peculiar typographical symbols and his insect-like handwriting. In the afternoons he liked to go out for a walk around the outskirts of Nîmes; he would take a notebook with him and make a merry bonfire.
I have reflected that it is permissible to see in this “final” Quixote a kind of palimpsest, through which the traces—tenuous but not indecipherable—of our friend’s “previous” writing should be translucently visible. Unfortunately, only a second Pierre Menard, inverting the other’s work, would be able to exhume and revive those lost Troys . . .
“Thinking, analyzing, inventing (he also wrote me) are not anomalous acts; they are the normal respiration of the intelligence. To glorify the occasional performance of that function, to hoard ancient and alien thoughts, to recall with incredulous stupor that the doctor universalis thought, is to confess our laziness or our barbarity. Every man should be capable of all ideas and I understand that in the future this will be the case.”
Menard (perhaps without wanting to) has enriched, by means of a new technique, the halting and rudimentary art of reading: this new technique is that of the deliberate anachronism and the erroneous attribution. This technique, whose applications are infinite, prompts us to go through the Odyssey as if it were posterior to the Aeneid and the book Le jardin du Centaure of Madame Henri Bachelier as if it were by Madame Henri Bachelier. This technique fills the most placid works with adventure. To attribute the Imitatio Christi to Louis Ferdinand Céline or to James Joyce, is this not a sufficient renovation of its tenuous spiritual indications?