24 September 2009

"Pierre Menard Author of the Quixote"

This amusing short story, by Jorge Luis Borges, anticipates and mocks reader response theory in literature - the notion that we should consider the meaning of a text to be changeable depending on the reader's experiences and interpretation. While I think reader response is very valuable (Stanley Fish walks the streets of Olympus) it is nonetheless a damn funny story.

It's written as if it were a literary review, and it highly praises the fictional Pierre Menard, who has "rewritten" Cervantes' Don Quixote. But all he has done was mimic the original text exactly - the only difference is how we supposedly must read the versions differently based on their authorship.
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.

Check it out.

No comments:

Post a Comment