A short note on Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote”

The other day, while getting rid of some old papers which had been occupying the shelves for a while, I discovered a short piece I wrote about 6 years ago for a seminar on Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine master. A search on my email folders gave me a soft-copy which I post today. This essay is on “Pierre Menard,” which, while not strictly science fiction, shares with a lot of Borges’ other stories strong elements of fantasy, and is one of the most important texts for addressing questions of genre in postmodern theory. I don’t intend to rework or publish this essay as it was written during a phase when I used to be incredibly fond of jargonese. So I share it freely instead. Who knows, there might be an idea or two here!

Into the Labyrinth
“Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939) is regarded as one of the key object-texts in postmodern theorizing (1). Object-texts are texts which become the locus of philosophical analysis, and seem to best represent a particular kind of aesthetic ideology. The term “postmodern” for the author, Jorge Luis Borges was first employed by a literary critic (2), and perhaps the deepest irony of the story lies in that it is a self-reflexive discourse on and a parody of the process of literary criticism, raising a number of questions about the structures that literary critics take for granted, such as the “author” and the “work”, and which allows them to maintain the industry of literary criticism. Indeed one of the problems that one faces with object-texts is their saturation with theory, which makes it difficult to say something “original” about them unless originality itself is no longer considered in terms of idea but in terms of arrangement of pre-existing statements, the laws of the Library (Labyrinths, 81); déjà-dit becoming the fundamental principle of this theory of originality. In this paper then what I will say may be considered neither new, nor “original”, even a statement about the impossibility of there being an original statement will be considered most unoriginal. Thus my paper will also lack the so-call “thesis statement”; I can neither prove nor disprove anything nor say anything new that would require primacy effects. If this seems to be a rather blatant statement in defence of the style I employ, I believe the event “Menard” itself calls for it.

“Pierre Menard” belongs to the category of the pseudo-essay. The term is employed by Borges himself, in “An Autobiographical Essay”, to refer to works that are “halfway house between the essay and the true tale” (The Aleph, 171). A pseudo-essay exhibits the formal characteristics of the essay: it purports to be non-fictional, it is structured around a single idea/event which describes without employing the means of a story, its narrator and the implied narrator coincide and people described within it have their real life counterparts; that is, the essay claims to a dissimulated connection to the Real, while fiction can at best be a simulation (Baudrillard 167). At the same time its non-fiction status makes it a receptacle for multiple enunciations which can in themselves be fiction but are non-fiction within their new modality; in short, the essay is the neutralising zone where fiction is un-fictionalised (cf. Foucault, Archaeology 65). The pseudo-essay however, is a reversal of strategy – it fictionalises while claiming to be non-fiction. The naturalization which takes places in the story/tale is of a different order from the naturalization that takes place in the pseudo-essay – in the one the fiction is rendered meaningful by its reference to reality, in the other, fiction is consumed as the real. The questions then that “Pierre Menard” raises through its formal characteristics are aesthetic (genre, narrative) as well as ontological (what is work, whose work).

In aesthetic terms, the genre of the short story is transformed into a self-reflexive discourse; “originality” does not emerge from the level of plot but from the level at which statements are arranged and organized in the text. The distance between the implied author and the real writer no longer needs to exist (note that the narrator in “Pierre Menard” is unnamed) since there is no longer a contract between the writer and the reader to maintain the “fictionality” of fiction: fiction need not be a story, and characters need not be fictional; as such story narrative may be suspended since it is now the fictionality of relational identities between statements that is at stake. The epistemic status of object “Menard” is determined by its absence in spaces marked as true: it is precisely because it does not exist.
Equally significant is the notion of work, which now comes under scrutiny. Hack-writing and criticism fall under the categories of parasitic literature. Hack-writing depends for its success on the existence of “serious” literature: the hack appropriates the “true”/”original” and multiplies it (hackneyed); it thrives on repetition. Criticism is directly parasitic; it seeks to present the “truth” of the work by means of repetition. The parasitic is always sacrilegious, it appropriates by creating a distance between creator and creation, and destroying the distance between the creation and itself. It is significant that Menard in the story conceives the project of writing Quixote under the influence of parasitic literature. Within the fictional oeuvre of Menard moreover parasitic literature overwhelms “original” work: criticism, theoretical essays and translations. Even creations themselves derive meaning from and fit into structures that ostensibly precede the creation (“symbolist”, “sonnet”). While the nature of Menard’s visible work is parasitic, and hence repetition only to a certain extent, the invisible work strives for total verbal identification. Moreover, the invisible work does not exist except as a conceptual space on the basis of which more works are generated. One can extend this further to say that the invisible work serves as the palimpsest of the visible – the former exists in total identification, the latter as the understanding of the difference in meaning in spite of identification. Thus we have different orders of “work”, each of which question the relation of originality to work, and thus the ontological validity of the category of “work” itself; a) visible and invisible work, b) works of and works not of Menard, none of which may be considered unambiguously original; c) works of “Borges” on “Menard”; d) works on “Borges” by Borges and so on to us.

Connected directly to the notion of the work is the notion of the author, as Michel Foucault notes in his 1968 essay “What is an Author?” In this essay, in part influenced by the object-text “Pierre Menard,” Foucault challenged the Barthesian notion of the work as a site of unity, but he carried the examination of the “spaces” of absence further to the figure of the “author”. Foucault claims that authorship is a function, that only certain texts possess the “author-function”. The author is not an indefinite source of significations, he is a certain functional principle, that of restriction, the “principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning”. He is used to reduce the danger of infinite meanings, a regulator of the fictive. Foucault calls for a form of culture in which fiction would not be thus limited, indeed, since the form of the author is tied to the subject, Foucault predicts a future in which discourses will be free of the tyranny of the author, and would develop in the anonymity of murmer.

This brief interlude, the discussion on Foucault is part of my strategy of revealing what “Pierre Menard” itself uses. The meaning of Foucault is clarified with the example of “Pierre Menard,” and vice-versa. It is not merely the reversal of chronology that is at stake in the question of authorship and influence, it is rather the reversal of the semantic order. Is the Borges who writes “Pierre Menard” an author or a writer? Is the Menard who writes Quixote an author or a writer in the process of writing? To whom does Quixote, as inscription, as a locus of meaning, belong: Cervantes, Borges, Menard, Me? What is the status of the traces that constitute the author (the names, the quotations, the references, the footnotes, and the personal pronouns) and the fine line between reason and unreason {making “Pierre Menard” fiction and not non-fiction a guarantee of Borges’ sanity, dans et dehors (The Aleph, 171)}? The reader, functions as a trap network (3), a grey area between the poles of passive reception and active generation of meaning; anything but the “ideal reader”. In an essay titled “Kafka and his Precursors”, Borges claims that a writer creates his own precursors, a statement that means several things. A writer creates his own precursors might mean that a writer chooses to write within a particular tradition and emulate its practitioners, as Menard chooses the Symbolists (“a devote of Poe, who engendered Baudelaire, who engendered Mallarme, who engendered Valery, who engendered Edmond Teste”). It can also mean contradictorily that a writer literally makes his own precursors, that he determines the ways of reading works that he brings within his own, that is, “his work [will modify] the past as it does the future” (Labyrinths, 236). This is a hat-tip to T. S. Eliot, whose “Tradition and Individual Talent” (1922) is the template on which Borges constructs his essays “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” and “Kafka and his Precursors”, and whose understanding of traditions informs Borges’ own. In the double gesture of tradition however, it is not Eliot, but Menard who is the precursor of Borges, a “fictional” Menard who is perhaps the stand-in for a “real” James Joyce (Rice 47-62).

We have now come to what may be called the central symptom or source of all the questions we have raised so far, and that is the Quixote itself. Menard does not “want to compose another Quixote – which is easy – but the Quixote itself” (Labyrinths, 65), and produce it from a context distant by three centuries, arguably, freeing the meaning of a literary text from its context: the “infinite richness” of Menard’s Quixote is because the difference of context allows the “contingent” text to become the “inevitable” text. Borges is undoubtedly ironic here. Both Cervantes’ and Menard’s Quixote are parodies of the excesses of literary fantasy, including the fantasy of reading infinite meanings to the point where the real and the fictional coalesce. However, the latter is meta-parody in relation to the former; it acknowledges Cervantes’ Quixote as its ancestor, and at the same time anticipates that Quixote in its readings by taking its meanings to a state prior to its existence. The raising of a parody of reading to canonical status is for example latent in the Cervantes text, while the actual philosophic history of reading the Cervantes text as well as its future is overtly apparent in Menard’s text, making the existence of meaning possible in Cervantes, accounting for “truths” (and “texts”) which might not have existed before, including the additional “ambiguity”.

Yet one knows that Menard’s text, the object of the foregoing analysis does not exist. But its existence as a work is no more contingent than is the Quixote. And this marks a shift from the notion of work to the notion of discourse. In his 1971 essay “De l’oeuvre au texte” (Revue d’esthétique 3, 1971), Barthes moved from a notion of work to Text (capital T), the latter term approximating the discourse in Foucault. According to Barthes, the work is a physical entity that can be catalogued, ordered, and placed with respect to other such works, in a library. The Text, however, is not to be thought of as an object that can be computed. It is rather a “methodological field” which does not, and cannot, stop on a library shelf. The work bears the inscription of the father; the Text operates without the inscription. The Author may come to the Text but as a guest, his inscription too is tied to the field of play; “his life is no longer the origin of his fictions but a fiction contributing to his work”. The work is held in hand, the text held in language, existing only in the movement of a discourse. Barthes writes: “the Text is not the decomposition of work; it is the work that is the imaginary tail of the Text”. The Text can only be in its difference (not in individuality but in relational identity), “woven with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages”. Nonetheless, this intertextual is not to be confused with origins, as “the citations which go to make up a Text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read: they are quotations without inverted commas” (Barthes 155-164). This relativisation of meaning extends to where a work is not only freed of its context and its author, but to where a work is freed of itself to become Text: we can “read a work by Madame Henri Bachelier as if it is by Madame Henri Bachelier” (Labyrinths, 71) . This is more than an advancement of “the art of reading”, it is rather, a new aesthetic of intertextuality.

Thus an aesthetic of intertextuality may be formulated on the basis of a belief in the fundamental polysemy of the linguistic sign. Repetition is relocation of meaning, making obvious the difference in the same: spatial distribution and temporaldisplacement prefigure the “Gutenberg galaxy” (Virilio 37). There is Menard, who is dead, whose works are catalogued, and who is friend to a Borges. There is Menard, whose works are un-scribed by a Borges, revealing the repeated as non-repetition. There is Menard, the son of al-Mu’tasim (4), who is the father to Borges and Pierre, the latter in turn the progenitor of Mirrors, as Foucault explains, like a discourse, it maintains not a single and exclusive meaning but the simultaneous existence of multiple meanings, a vertical system of mirrors that keeps reflecting and multiplying itself onto infinity (cf. Foucault, Aesthetics 113) . The legion exploit the possibilities offered by a variety of enunciations – visible and invisible, inscribed and un-scribed, biographical and critical, extant and lost – symbolised by the form itself: the essay, “the attempt”, a path towards the transcendental signified (5), vital, labyrinthine. In this essay, in itself a mirror to the mirror that is “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” I have chosen a few spectral threads to lead me, not out of but into the labyrinth: work-Text, author-reader, intertextuality. These spectres I choose for my protection, for what I choose to write about writes about me, threatening to un-scribe me.


1 Jorge J. E. Garcia, Jorge Luis Castillo, Deborah Parker and others mention a number of writers who have written on or used Pierre Menard; to name a few, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, John Barth, Paul de Man, Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard.

2 Suzanne Jill Levine mentions that the term “postmodernist” for Borges was first used by the critic John Barth (Levine 344).

3 The reader is both the field of constitution of meaning [in the Barthesian sense (Barthes 148)] and the one for whom “writing is inaugural” [in the Derridean sense (Derrida 11)].

4 The pseudo-essay which preceded “Pierre Menard” is titled “The Approach to al-Mu’tasim” (The Aleph, 171).

5 The word essay derives from the French verb “essayer”, to attempt.



2 thoughts on “A short note on Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s