Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote

Jorge Luis Borges

Widely described as one of the 20th century’s foremost literary innovators, with an influence now often compared to Kafka and Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges (1899 — 1986) lived and worked in almost total obscurity for much of his life in Buenos Aires. In 1939, while working as an assistant cataloguer at a local municipal library, Borges sustained a head injury which brought him close to death. It was this that led him, relatively late in his writing career, to risk a first experiment with prose fiction, and he wrote what he would always describe as his first true story: Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote.

Pierre Menard is in many ways the archetype of the short fictions that were to later transform Borges into an international literary phenomenon in the 1960s. It embodies, fully-formed, all of his most important formal innovations, and when it finally appeared in French (1951) and English (1962) translations, quickly achieved classic status as an almost talismanic text in French and American philosophy. Word for word, this short story must be amongst the most critically elaborated of all works of fiction.

The story itself recounts the tale, in the form of a bogus obituary by an anonymous narrator, of an author, Pierre Menard, who after a lifetime of effort, succeeds in writing (but not copying) in exact replica three fragments of Don Quixote. While Menard’s text and Cervantes’ text are verbally identical, the narrator concludes that Menard’s text is “almost infinitely richer”.

Borges’ fictions appeared to anticipate by some twenty years many of the central debates of mid-20th century French theorists, and were widely referenced by them. It was Michel Foucault who placed Borges centre stage in France in his Les Mots et les choses (1968), which takes Borges as its point of departure. Pierre Menard in particular was the subject of specific attention, Maurice Blanchot initiating discussion of the story in Le livre à venir, 1959. For Gilles Deleuze, Menard’s text furnished a quintessential exemplar in his Différence et répétition: “Borges, we know, excelled in recounting imaginary books. But he goes further when he considers a real book, such as Don Quixote, as though it were an imaginary book, itself reproduced by an imaginary author, Pierre Menard, who in turn he considers to be real. In this case, the most exact, the most strict repetition has as its correlate the maximum of difference” (Gilles Deleuze, Différence et répétition, 1968).

For novelists such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and John Barth working in the late 1960s, Pierre Menard was nothing less than a blueprint for the future of literature: “[Borges’] artistic victory, if you like, is that he confronts an intellectual dead end and employs it against himself to accomplish new human work” (John Barth, The Literature of Exhaustion, 1967). This analysis of Borges’ artistic achievement has held for several decades; as Hans Robert Jauss was later to put it, “As John Barth shows in The Literature of Exhaustion, the first document of the American post-modern era, Borges’ Ficciones marks the end of the classical modern era of the twentieth century while at the same time showing the way for the departure of new avantgardes” (Jauss, The Theory of Reception, 1990).

In a more purely philosophical mode, Pierre Menard began to appear in the 1980s as a key thought experiment in the context of debates, principally amongst anglophone analytical philosophers and art critics, concerning the ontology of art. For Arthur Danto (who was largely responsible for initiating discussion of Pierre Menard in this context), “The possibility [of indiscernible artworks] was first recognised, I believe, in connection with literary works, by Borges, who had the glory of having discovered it in his masterpiece, Pierre Menard (Arthur Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, 1981).

But perhaps the most astonishing achievement of Pierre Menard has been its capture of the debate that surrounds it — which for so many decades has focused on the text that Menard produces: a fiction within a fiction. There is now however an attempt amongst scholars to question again Borges’ (as opposed to Menard’s) text: “There is some doubt, even internal to the story, that the process by which Menard arrives at his Quixote is even intelligible… Couldn’t we — shouldn’t we? — perhaps read the story as a witty reductio ad absurdum, a description of a magnificent, pathological, hopelessly flawed enterprise, rather than solemnly taking it as literally credible?” (Peter Lamarque, Work and Object, 2010).

Borges himself was notoriously elusive regarding his intentions, and as much as it is a provocation, Pierre Menard is also a satire of the debates that it has provoked. Most obviously, it comes complete with an absurd “bibliography” of Menard’s other literary works, parodying future commentary on the story itself — a fictionalising of criticism. Perhaps the most bibliophilic of all authors, Borges conceals within his tale a treacherously complex structure of layered texts — his inclusion of Don Quixote, itself a maze of nested authors, is of course highly deliberate.

A final move by Borges, hidden in plain sight in all printed versions of the story, is only revealed by the manuscript itself. In what are quite literally the last words of his tale, Borges supplies a mock footnote in which he describes the physical appearance of Menard’s manuscripts: “I recall his square-ruled notebooks, his black-crossings-out, his peculiar typographical symbols, and his insect-like handwriting.” A description that applies precisely to Borges’ own manuscript, with the inevitable conclusion that the ultimate target of Borges’ text is himself.

The exhibition presents the only known manuscript of Pierre Menard: 11 sheets of ink on paper, removed from a notebook (as was customary for Borges at the time), each written on one side. It appears to be a version of the story prepared for publication in El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (1941), and contains a significant number of revisions that reveal alternative choices of words and phrasing, hitherto unpublished, discarded by Borges in the course of composition.

Also presented are the two earliest printed versions of Pierre Menard: SUR, vol. 56 (1939) and El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (1941)