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« Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote (part 2) | Main | Akhmatova, "Хорони, хорони меня, ветер!" »
Monday
Jun132011

Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote (part 1)

The first part to one of the greatest of all Borges tales ("Pierre Menard, author of Don Quixote").  You can read the original here.

The visible work left by this novelist can be easily and briefly enumerated, which makes the omissions and additions perpetrated by Madame Henri Bachelier in a fallacious catalog all the more unforgivable.  A fallacious catalog which a certain newspaper – whose Protestant tendencies are hardly a secret – had the inconsiderateness of inflicting upon its deplorable readers (although these are few and Calvinist, if not masons and circumcised).  But to Menard’s real friends, the sight of this catalog caused both sadness and alarm.  It could be said that we met before the last marble, between the unhappy cypresses, and already then did Falsehood try to tarnish Memory … Decidedly, a brief rectification was inevitable.

I know for a fact that it is very easy to challenge my feeble authority.  Nevertheless, I hope I shall be permitted to mention two testimonies of great importance.  The Baroness of Bacourt (at whose unforgettable vendredis I had the honor of meeting the lamented poet) would sanction the lines that follow.  The Countess of Bagnoregio, one of the sharpest minds of the Principality of Monaco (and now of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, since her recent marriage to international philanthropist Simon Kautzsch, so slandered, alas, by the victims of his disinterested maneuvers), sacrificed “to veracity and to death” (such were her words) that lordly reserve which distinguishes her, and, in an open letter published in the magazine Luxe, granted me her blessings as well.  These judgments, I believe, are more than sufficient.

I have said that Menard’s visible work is easily enumerable.  Having carefully examined his private archive, I have verified that it consists of the following items:

a) A symbolist sonnet which appeared twice (with variations) in the magazine La Conque (the March and October issues of 1899);

b) A monograph on the possibility of constructing a poetic vocabulary of concepts which were not synonyms or periphrases of those informing the common languages, but instead “ideal objects created by convention and destined, in essence, for poetic necessities” (Nîmes, 1901);

c) A monograph on “certain connections and affinities” in the thinking 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 enriching chess by eliminating one of the rook’s pawns.  Menard proposes, recommends, discusses, and ends up rejecting this innovation;

f) A monograph on Ramón Lull’s Ars Magna Generalis (Nîmes, 1906);

g) A translation with prologue and notes to Ruy López de Segura’s Libro de la invención liberal y arte del juego del axedrez (Paris, 1907);

h) Sketches of a monograph on the symbolic logic of George Boole;

i) An examination of the essential metrical laws of French prose, illustrated with examples from Saint−Simon (Revue des Langues Romanes, Montpellier, October 1909);

j) A response to Luc Durtain (who had negated the existence of such laws) illustrated with examples from Luc Durtain (Revue des Langues Romanes, Montpellier, December 1909);

k) A handwritten translation of the Aguja de navegar cultos by Quevedo, entitled La boussole des précieux;

l) A preface to the exhibition catalog of lithographs by Carolus Hourcade (Nîmes, 1914);

m) The work Les problèmes d’un problème (Paris, 1917), which discusses in chronological order solutions to the illustrious problem of Achilles and the tortoise.  Two editions of this book have appeared in print up to now; the second bears as epigraph the advice of Leibniz, Do not fear, my lord, the tortoise, and updates the chapters dedicated to Russell and Descartes;

n) An obstinate analysis of the “syntactic customs” of Toulet (Nouvelle Revue Française, March 1921).  Menard, I recall, declared that censuring and praising are sentimental operations which have nothing to do with criticism;

o) A transposition into alexandrines of Paul Valéry’s Cimitière marin (Nouvelle Revue Française, January 1928);

p) An invective against Paul Valéry, in Jacques Reboul’s Hojas para la supresión de la realidad (This invective, we say here in brackets, is the exact opposite of his real opinion of Valéry.  This Valéry understood and their longstanding friendship was not endangered);

q) A “definition” of the Countess of Bagnoregio in the “victorious volume” – the expression belongs to another collaborator, Gabriele d’Annunzio – which this lady publishes annually so as to rectify inevitable journalistic falsehoods, as well as to present “to the world and to Italy” an authentic effigy of her person, so exposed (also for her beauty and performance) to erroneous or hasty interpretations;

r) A cycle of admirable sonnets for the Baroness of Bacourt (1934);

s) A handwritten list of verse which owes its effectiveness to its punctuation (Madame Henri Bachelier also enumerates a literal version of the literal version that Quevedo made in the Introduction à la vie dévote by San Francisco de Sales.  In Pierre Menard’s library there are no traces of this work.  We must be dealing with a prank on the part of our friend, a prank fallen on deaf ears).

Up to now (without any other omission save a few circumstantial sonnets for the hospitable or greedy album of Madame Henri Bachelier), this is the visible work of Menard in chronological order.  And now I move to the other work: the underground, the endlessly heroic, the uneven.  There is also – alas, so many possibilities hath man! – the unfinished.  This work, perhaps the most significant of our time, is composed of chapters IX and XXXVIII of the first part of Don Quixote, as well as of a fragment of chapter XXII.  I am fully aware that such a statement seems like nonsense; justifying this “nonsense” is this note’s fundamental objective (I also had the secondary objective of sketching out the image of Pierre Menard.  But how could I dare compete with the gilded pages which, I am told, the Baroness of Bacourt is preparing, or with the precise and delicate plume of Carolus Hourcade?).

Two texts of unequal worth inspired the undertaking.  One is a philological fragment by Novalis – the one that is summoned by number 2005 in the Dresden edition – which outlines the theme of total identification with a given author. The other is one of those parasitic books which find Christ on a boulevard, Hamlet on the Canebière, or Quixote on Wall Street.  Like all men of good taste, Menard loathed these useless carnivals which were only good for, in his words, arousing that plebeian pleasure of anachronism or (even worse) mesmerizing us with the primitive notion that all the ages are the same or different.  More interesting to him, however contradictory and superficial it might be, was Daudet’s famous proposal: combine into one figure him who is Tartarin, the Ingenious Nobleman and his squire … Those who have claimed that Menard devoted his life to writing a modern version of Don Quixote slander his bright memory.

He did not wish to compose another Quixote – which would be easy – but Don Quixote itself.  It is useless to add that he never came face to face with a mechanical transcription of the original; he was not intending to copy it.  His admirable ambition was to produce pages which would coincide – word for word and line for line – with those of Miguel de Cervantes.

“My proposal is merely amazing,” he wrote to me from Bayonne on September 30, 1934.  “The final term of a theological or metaphysical demonstration – the external world, God, chance, universal forms – is no less common or further in the past than my divulged novel.  The only difference is that philosophers publish in pleasing volumes the intermediary stages of their work, whereas I have resolved to lose those stages.”  And, indeed, there is not a single draft attesting to his years of work.

His initial method was relatively simple: a good knowledge of Spanish, a recovery of his Catholic faith, war against the Moor and against the Turk, a forgetting of European history between 1602 and 1918, being Miguel de Cervantes.  Pierre Menard studied this procedure (I happen to know that he managed to acquire a rather reliable command of seventeenth-century Spanish), but he discarded this method as too easy.  As too impossible, the reader might say.  I concur; but the undertaking was impossible from the very beginning.  And of all the impossible ways to bring it to that final term, this was the least interesting.  Being a popular seventeenth-century novelist while living in the twentieth century seemed to be a demotion of sorts.  In a way, being Miguel de Cervantes seemed to be less arduous a task (and, consequently, less interesting as well) than continuing to be Pierre Menard and arriving at Don Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard (this conviction, incidentally, made him leave out the autobiographical prologue to the second part of Don Quixote.  Including this prologue would have created another character, Cervantes, but would have also meant presenting Don Quixote as a function of this character and not of Menard.  This, naturally, was rejected for its ease).  “My undertaking is, in essence, not difficult,” I read now in another part of his letter.  “My carrying it out to the end would suffice for immortality.”  Should I confess that I have the habit of imagining that he did carry it out, and that I read Don Quixote – all of Don Quixote – as if Menard had thought of it?  On nights past, leafing through chapter XXVI (which Menard never practiced), I recognized the style of our friend and, as it were, almost his voice in this exceptional sentence: the nymphs of the rivers, the sad and humid Echo.  This effective conjunction of moral and physical adjectives brought to my memory a verse of Shakespeare’s which we discussed one evening: Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk.

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