Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Don Quixote Rides Again!

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Don Quixote Rides Again!

Article excerpt

In a recent article, "Once Is Not Enough?", I argued that a book word-for-word identical with Cervantes' Quixote wouldn't be a new Quixote, numerically distinct from Cervantes', if it were produced in the manner described in gorges' short story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote." Menard's novel would simply be Cervantes', I tried to show, although admittedly produced in a very odd way. But philosophical issues (such as the individuation of works of art) are one thing, literary interpretation quite another. In this paper I'll be offering a comprehensive interpretation of Borges' story and arguing, against a number of critics,(1) that "Pierre Menard" is philosophically correct, i.e., that the correct interpretation of Borges' story doesn't have Menard as the author of a new Quixote. Even more importantly, I'll be arguing that the story is an extremely penetrating one, with philosophical depths as yet unexplored, although its main interest, metaphysical and otherwise, lies in a direction other than the individuation of works of art. These being my main theses, let me also issue an advance warning that my approach is itself more than a little philosophical.

I

Given my purely philosophical examination of the duplicate Quixote case, the most direct way to approach Borges' story would be to ask, Why on earth would anyone ever reproduce Cervantes' novel in the way that Menard does? But the more indirect route, and the one I'll be traveling here, is to marshal evidence bit by textual bit, all the while proceeding with the aim of constructing a unified and comprehensive interpretation. That methodology begs no critical questions, as the first one evidently does.

Structurally, "Pierre Menard" has three parts. In the first, the setting, dramatic voice, and mode of narration are established; the main character, Pierre Menard, is introduced; the prevailing tone is set; and a number of themes are broached. The story is cast in the form of an elaborate literary obituary and memoir written by an unnamed friend and admirer of Menard. Supposedly, it's an official, formal assessment and appreciation of the great man, an intellectual and a figure of stupendous, even revolutionary, but unfortunately unknown, literary achievement. Superficially, the piece resembles the sort of literary honorarium found not so much in professional journals as in the self-appointed flagships of high art, i.e., in literary magazines with pretensions to high culture. We soon discover, however, that the narrator's assessment may be somewhat biased and skewed--that he may be, in other words, an unreliable narrator. His first few sentences show him to be patronizing and bullying, and within two paragraphs his political conservatism, hauteur, and condescending attitude toward any and all who don't share his convictions are made evident. After first taking an altogether gratuitous snipe at Protestants and Masons, he proceeds to name-drop a title or two, in order, he says, to establish his authority to write an assessment of Menard and his oeuvre, but actually to call attention to himself and his aristocratic connections. Moreover, his prose style is pretentious, bombastic, and affected, and smacks more than a little of the fourth-rate symbolist:

One might say that only yesterday we gathered before his [Menard's]

final monument, amidst the lugubrious cypresses, and already Error

tries to tarnish his Memory.... Decidedly, a brief rectification is

unavoidable (Borges 36).

Clearly, this is not an assessment to be trusted. But even more clearly, and even more importantly, this is fiction, not non-fiction, despite the obituary/literary-memoir format. No piece of non-fiction would ever be as blatantly prejudiced, arrogant, or inflated as "Pierre Menard." Moreover, given only what has been said so far, it's quite probably a parody of a certain kind of litterateur and literary document, and quite probably a story whose prevailing tone is ironic. …

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