On “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” by Jorge Luis Borges

by Ralph Dumain

‘True thoughts are those alone which do not understand themselves.’ — Theodor W. Adorno

Each time I return to Borges, the more I absorb of his genius. I find group discussion invaluable in teasing out the complex logical structure behind his narratives. Yesterday's discussion led me to sketching out this logical diagram (the vertical arrows at the far right should line up and meet the horizontal arrows at both ends; zoom in or out until you get a reasonable approximation):

↔       ↔      ↔     ↔     ↔    
     Cervantes       Don Quixote    ↔    ↔
Pierre Menard     ↔  “Don Quixote    
↨      Narrator  ↔    ↔    ↔                   
↨       ↨                                                  
↨       ↨    ↔      ↔      ↔     ↔     ↔     ↔        
↔   Borges

Figure 1

There are two key enigmas to solve in this schema: (1) What is the nature of Menard's creative process? (2) What is Borges' implicit attitude towards the narrator, and is the narrator reliable?

The other set of relationships to assess is:

               visible work                  invisible work       creative process
public/canonical status /               reader reception/interpretation
reputation / representation

Figure 2

By the narrator's account, Menard is both a reader/interpreter and a creator. The narrator himself is an interpreter. And one question is, whether the reader/interpreter engages in a creative process, co-creating the meaning of the work. Another question is, whether the creator's intent, or the meaning latent in his work, can ever be captured, and whether the meaning adduced by the interpreter is legitimate or a mere projection/miscomprehension of the interpreter's own creation.

As readers, we initially take the standpoint of the narrator. After extensive group deliberation on the story, I began to wonder about Borges' own viewpoint concerning his narrator's. Borges' stories sometimes incorporate several layers of reflection and irony. It is possible that the narrator is guilty of the very misapprehensions that he reports Menard as criticizing, and that we have to open up a gap between the narrator and Borges and map the relationships of Borges to components of his story as well.

Ars Combinatoria

We know from his other work that Borges is skeptical of the possibilities of merely mechanical combinatorial thinking. See “The Aleph” (‘El Aleph’, 1945) and my commentary, and “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” (‘El idioma analítico de John Wilkins’; see links below for your choice of translations). There are telltale items enumerated among Menard's manuscripts, especially these:

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).

f ) A monograph on Raymond Lully’s Ars magna generalis (Nîmes, 1906).

. . . And related to this:

h) The work sheets of a monograph on George Boole’s symbolic logic.

We learn also:

Two texts of unequal value inspired this undertaking. One is that philological fragment by Novalis—the one numbered 2005 in the Dresden edition—which outlines the theme of a total identification with a given author. The other is one of thosea 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.

Let us also keep in mind the extreme juxtapositions of the globally influential surrealist movement in Borges' time, harking back to the 19th century poet Lautréamont: “. . . a chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!”. Whatever Menard thought about surrealism, we need to take a look at Borges' attitudes toward surrealism and the other avant-garde milieux in which he was immersed. There are several references to tendencies and criticism in literature—to symbolism et al.

We can surmise that for Borges, and for Menard, mechanical, rationalistic combinatorialism is dead and uncreative. The nature of creativity is elusive.

Experience, Abstraction, Literature, Philosophy, Time & Identity

Another diagram is necessary to map these relationships. (Zooming in or out will most likely be required to get all the arrows lined up properly.)

                                                 ↔     ↔     ↔     ↔     
                                                ↕                                       ↕
↔     Experience          Abstraction   ↔   Self/Other   ↕
      (concrete /                                                            ↕
↨        context)                                                    ↨          ↕
                   ↔     ↔     ↔                                      ↕
    Literature    ↔   ↔      Interpretation ↔   ↔             ↕
↨                                                                                     ↕
    Philosophy  ↔    ↔         ↔     ↔     ↔     ↔      ↔

Figure 3

We should then begin with this paragraph:

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.

Here we find philosophy contrasted with literature, and apparently both are inadequate to the world they attempt to describe, or their their content does not survive intact over time. The meaning of literature appears to be unstable, more unstable than philosophy.. Is literature an exercise of the intellect, which is then useless, or perhaps literary criticism is useless? We also recognize that whatever content there is in literature is papered over with reputation, status, and received wisdom. (See figure 2.) In all these cases, there is loss and futility. It is impossible in this narrative, as in other works of Borges, to retain or duplicate all experience, or the concrete world. Not only can't we do it, but if we were totally nominalistic in our practical relation to the world, we could not survive. Borges' story Funes the Memorious spells out this problem. Our stability depends on being able to abstract from the stream of experience and thereby create a self, albeit illusory, whose attempts to fix the flux are inevitably in vain. Literature and philosophy (along with memory) can't do justice to experience, and apparently the interpretation of literature is analogously stymied.

The inability to capture time and the limits of memory are here manifest in multiple ways. Cervantes and his literary creation cannot be reproduced; whatever meaning there was originally has been at least partially obliterated. Menard relinquishes the impossible option (which he claims, oddly, to be the easiest of the impossible options) to duplicate the life of Cervantes. Menard's intermediate drafts have been destroyed. There is no trace left of his creative process. Yet the final result, the duplication of a fraction of the Quixote, is subject to the interpretation of the narrator, and is found to be richer than Cervantes' "version," though clearly, the system of significations is the narrator's construct. We are left with the conundrum of novelty and the re-creation of the past.

With such a dilemma, the relevance of context is unmoored from its organic relationship to text. Undoubtedly there is meaning to the narrator's proliferation of references, which is one level removed from Borges' own repertoire and motivation for his allusions. We many learn to decipher meaningfully Borges' numerous allusions, but we can only wonder whether the narrator's pedantry is ultimately pointless. But time, meaning, and authorship can be shifted around at will. Borges' puts his own thoughts into the narrator's voice:

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?

We also know what Borges asserted in “Kafka and His Precursors”: “The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors.”

In many of his writings, Borges' maintains the illusory nature of the self, as well as of time. Noteworthy for our purposes now are examples of the self's loss of grip on its own experience, on its own work in the world. Of special importance is the assertion of a gap between the writer and his own creations. See the essay “Borges and I” and the poem “Limits".

Metaphysical Anxiety, Self-Reference, Infinite Regress & Irony

The descent into the pure flow of time renders the world unreal and hallucinatory. Infinite divisibility and the spectre of Zeno's paradox are the mathematical expressions of all I have referenced on experience, abstraction, time, and identity. These are connected with the metaphysical anxiety which pervades Borges' imaginative universe. Worse, the consequences of self-reference and infinite regress, the duplication of the universe in a microcosm, are associated with the violation of a taboo, threatening to destabilize and unravel the cosmos.

We don't get this sense of danger in Menard. He declines to duplicate Cervantes' life, which would not seem to upset the cosmic order. Now consider this:

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 Europe between 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 [. . .]

There are the makings of a regress in the self-referential prologue in which Cervantes appears as a character (or Menard in his place)—almost. There is no perceptible metaphysical anxiety in this story—none detectable in the narrator's pedantry, none emerging in his reportage of Menard's frame of mind. In any case, the rest of the paragraph reveals Menard's rationale, and also the narrator's projection of his own interpretation onto the original Quixote via his orientation to Menard.

Menard's reportedly decides to re-compose the Quixote because it is "contingent", not a "necessary" book. Menard describes how he will take on "the mysterious duty of reconstructing literally his [Cervantes'] spontaneous work." Menard must mean it is contigent for him, not in general. The problem is not so much the psychological hurdles described, but:

“. . . 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.”

Elsewhere the obstacle of the Quixote's public standing is highlighted. (For example: “Fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst.”) The formulation here is that the social context in which the Quixote is interpreted includes the Quixote itself. This presents an obstacle, but apparently not a metaphysical crisis, nor an infinite regress (the interpretation of the interpretation of the Quixote, and so on, as part of objective history).

Eventually it will be necessary to look up the chapters of the Quixote cited. But we are confronted, in addition to all the foregoing, with an additional potential layer of interpretation:

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.)

Note the dig against surrealism, but crucially, how much of the ability to interpret Menard's works is reliable in light of the possibility of unrestricted irony? Irony may be a feature of the author's intent, but it may also be an unauthorized projection of the interpreter.

Immediately following this, the narrator quotes two identical passages from the Quixote, the original authored by Cervantes, the other "by" Menard, and interprets them radically differently. The narrator is quite earnest about this, but we can imagine Borges having a huge laugh.

Note also the reference to William James’ pragmatism, a philosophy that impressed Borges.

Menard's version can further be intertextually amplified by this statement in a previous writing of Menard:

“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.”

It seems here that the fictitious entities of self and other are dissolved in the very assertion of everyone's creativity. The boundaries between individual works and the collective "work" also dissolve. Literature is inexhaustible, interpretation cannot be fixed, whether one considers the individual work or the universal "work".


My analysis is itself an abstraction from an incredibly rich, allusive, logically complex work. An exhaustive mapping would constitute a massive amount of writing. Nevertheless, the three diagrams I have provided, along with a skeleton of exposition, should bring the major questions of the logical structure of the narrative into relief. This essay amplifies on my original observations introduced into the group discussion, and the other discussants amplified on questions treated herein.

The main ideas introduced by other discussants which are noteworthy beyond my own are these: (1) the (historical) instability of meaning, the problem of translation, and the ability of the work to survive translation; (2) the seriousness of the narrator, coupled with the possibility that Borges is engaging in self-parody; (3) the importance or irrelevance of context; (4) the importance of time in Borges' work; (5) intuition vs. execution, the impossibility of fully executing a concept (cf. Henry James); (6) the relation between spontaneity and creativity; (7) the possibility that duplication may cease to be a copy (like the interpretation of a song?); (8) the instability of literature as a meaning-preserving entity, compared to philosophy; (9) the relevance of the concept of infinitesimals, with nonstandard analysis as a possible analogue to Menard. To which we must add (10), which perhaps should be (1) because it should be glaringly obvious: Menard's quest is itself quixotic.

I need to add a few more references which I did not bring up in discussion.

Two German literary critics are vital in reader-reception theory and here especially relevant—Hans Robert Jauss and Wolfgang Iser. From Jauss I get the notion of "horizon of expectations", or how the conceptual universe that bounds the possible interpretations of a text expands in succeeding epochs. From Iser I get the idea that the text provides a somewhat abstract framework, which the reader himself augments and concretizes in the act of reading.

I mentioned the propensity of surrealism to capitalize on exotic juxtapositions. Shock effects can easily be produced by juxtaposing two incongruous objects. But how original is this? René Magritte had caveats about such casual juxtapositions, and he considered his artworks exercises in problem-solving, exemplified in his Les affinités électives. In addition to how he solved the particular problem of this work, Magritte in a lecture of February 1937 contrasts arbitrary and essential juxtapositions:

There is a secret affinity between certain images; it is equally valid for the objects which those images represent . . . We are familiar with birds in cages; interest is awakened more readily if the bird is replaced by a fish or a shoe; but though these images are strange they are unhappily accidental, arbitrary. It is possible to obtain a new image which will stand up to examination through having something final, something right about it: it’s the image showing an egg in the cage.

This page composed 28 July - 2 August 2011
© 2011 Ralph Dumain

Nota Preliminar (1945) de Jorge Luis Borges,
prefacio de / preface to Pragmatismo [Pragmatism] de William James

Borges Revisited (3): “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”

Borges Revisited (10): ‘Pierre Menard’: Philosophy or Literature?

On “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges: Observations and Questions
by Ralph Dumain

Originality Blues: Tales of the ‘70s
by R. Dumain

The Philosophy of Originality: Vignettes
by R. Dumain

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Study Materials on the Web


Pierre Menard (fictional character) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote by Jorge Luis Borges

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote by Jorge Luis Borges

Pierre Menard, author of the Principia by Basileios Drolias

'The Analytical Language of John Wilkins'
(originally 'El idioma analítico de John Wilkins' ) by Jorge Luis Borges
    Translated by Lilia Graciela Vázquez
    Translated by Will Fitzgerald
    Spanish original & English translation

Borges, a Writer on the Edge. Ch. 2 by Beatriz Sarlo

Ĝirafo: ars combinatoria

Jorge Luis Borges - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Borges: Garden of Forking Paths

Borges Center

Les affinités électives

Fitting Surprise « Structure & Surprise

About Modern Art by David Sylvester

Living by Fiction by Annie Dillard

Writing Degree ∞ (On Recent Haiku)
by Michael Theune

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 2 August 2011

©2011 Ralph Dumain