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“The Halting and Rudimentary Art of Reading”: A Reader’s Agency in Borges

by Julien Gagnon

In his essay “Kafka and His Precursors,” Jorge Luis Borges writes that “each writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future” (365). This idea that time moves both forward, and backward, is central to Borges’ work; in his short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Borges explores this understanding of history in relation to the act of reading. While “Pierre Menard” seemingly criticizes literary criticism, by pointing to its absurd excesses and extravagance, it simultaneously undermines its absurdity by asserting the creative power of reading and thereby the importance of reading carefully. Borges constructs this tension between the excesses and shortcomings of reading through the point of view of the first person narrator, who presents the reader with multiple layers of readers and ironically makes use of New Historicism and metafiction.

The anonymous critic who narrates “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” presents the reader with multiple layers of readers within the story. This is achieved most notably by the form of the story—it is written as a fragmentary essay that shifts between the critic’s correspondence with Menard, his footnotes, a list, and quotations from authors both fictitious and real. Ultimately, this transforms the story into a “reader-oriented narrative” (Castillo 415). While the fragmentary story deconstructs itself through its “absurdity” (Borges 88)– and thus turns into a satire of what it is trying to achieve– the narrator nonetheless plays a “constructive role” (Lie 89). By including readers in his narrative, the critic emphasizes the importance of readers and their inevitable creativity.

At the forefront of these narrative layers is what the narrator calls “my reader” (Borges 88), which refers to the actual reader of Borges’ story. To be sure, this reader also reads the critic within the story, perhaps one of Menard’s “detractors” (91). By calling on the reader of the story, however, the narrator’s reader is inevitably also the same as Borges’. For, while it cannot be said that Borges and his narrator are one and the same, the metafictional quality of the story renders it impossible to clearly distinguish Borges’ voice from the narrator’s. Thus, we, as the invoked readers of the story, are reading two stories: Borges’ and the critic’s. Ironically, although unintentionally, we are reading “Pierre Menard” in translation, thereby creating an additional layer of reading. While these three texts are essentially synonymous (admittedly, less so the translation), “Pierre Menard” is precisely about how a single text can be read differently. Even when a passage “follow[s] the original text word by word and line by line, they are always different texts” (Priel 1127). Thus, when the narrator claims that “Cervantes’ text and Menard’s are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer” (Borges 91), in effect quoting the same passage twice and providing a different reading each time, he exemplifies the power we have in reading the story—to be sure, the narrator sounds absurd doing so, which emphasizes the satiric quality of the story. Notably, it is the context in which the narrator invokes us as readers that emphasizes this creative power of reading. He writes that, although Pierre Menard discarded “the first method” of becoming Cervantes to write the Quixote because it was “too easy,” the reader “will say” instead that it is “rather […] impossible!” (88). The narrator thereby lends an interpretive agency to his reader beyond his own reading of Menard.

In a similar way, Pierre Menard is himself a reader. Of course, because of the “twofold process of writing [and] reading” (Castillo 416), Menard, as an author, is also a reader. However, the narrator chooses to present Menard’s reason for rewriting the Quixote, claiming that this will “justify this ‘absurdity’” (Borges 88). The narrator writes, “But why precisely the Quixote? our reader will ask” (89). Quite tellingly, we have moved from being “my reader” to being “our reader,” which includes Menard in the equation. This move adds another layer of reading to the narrative, which becomes increasingly absurd in its complexity. The narrative focus thereby switches to Menard through the use of quotation. He “speak[s], naturally, of [his] personal capacity,” referring to his reading of different authors, and how he is able to imagine the world “without the Quixote” (89) but not without Poe or Coleridge. He then goes on to write about his “general recollection of the Quixote, simplified by forgetfulness and indifference,” which emphasizes his perception of the work, rather than its “historical resonance” (89). In quickly dismissing the aforementioned “historical resonance,”which is particularly ironic considering the narrator’s own emphasis on history, Menard fails to appreciate the fact that his reading of the work and its historical resonance are tied together; it cannot be denied that a novel’s resonance is shaped by its readers. As a result, Borges argues that “Don Quixote exists because Cervantes, his publishers, and his readers created it” (Elmajdoub and Miller 250). While Menard seeks to recreate the Quixote, in simply reading the novel he has inherently already played a role in rewriting it.

Through the invocation of history apparent in the shift to Menard’s point of view, the reader comes to see the “Borgian temporality” (Elmajdoub and Miller 250) in the text. Most notably, it is the contrast between points of view that explains the author’s understanding of time. While Menard dismisses “historical resonance,” the narrator focuses on it incessantly. The passages that the narrator repeats verbatim, one from Cervantes and one from Menard, tellingly concern “truth,” “history,” “time,” “past,” “present,” and “future” (Borges 91), which tie Borgian temporality to the issues of reading and writing in the story. At the crossroad between history and literature, Borges situates what is called New Historicism. The irony is that “New Historicism” can only be applied to this context by those who are knowledgeable in literary theory, for the narrator’s pretentious tone and absurdity mock this very knowledge—although this mockery is quickly undermined by the narrator’s agency as a reader. New Historicism essentially collapses “our tendency to separate history and literature,” which Menard attempts to do in his reading of Cervantes by claiming that “history must be interpreted; our reading of it is as subjective as our reading of any other texts” (Lynn 155). In the narrator’s reading of Menard’s Quixote, “historical truth […] is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened” (Borges 91). By writing that we read history, Borges presents the incredible power of reading. Not only can we read simple novels in different ways, but we can change the past by rereading it. Remarkably, this understanding only emerges from the narrator’s reading of Menard, and not from Menard himself. As the narrator writes at the end of his account, it is “perhaps without wanting to” that Menard “has enriched, by means of a new technique, the halting and rudimentary art of reading” (Borges 92). The narrator, as a reader, likewise embodies the very agency and creative power of reading by finding meaning in Menard’s writing that is not intentionally there, or there at all. Even if the narrator seems both illogical and comical while reading “Pierre Menard” for the first time, there is real value to his approach.

In this manner, Borges suggests that if reading is so powerful, we must be careful with reading too much or too little meaning into a text. Although quite subtle, there is a liminal space between Borges and the point of view of his narrator. This space is where the author situates his anxieties. Borges’ self-conscious anxiety ultimately derives from the incredible metafictional quality of “Pierre Menard;” if the reader plays such an important role in creating meaning, who is to say they will interpret Borges’ story correctly? After all, we are reading and interpreting this story ourselves. While “Pierre Menard” satirises the absurdities of literary criticism, it also suggests that it can teach us the importance of reading carefully—if one were to only read Borges’ story once, for example, one might not understand the complete implication of the satire. The narrator writes that “there is no exercise of the intellect which is not, in the final analysis, useless” (91). Not only does this statement challenge the reader’s interpretative skills by the convoluted use of a double negative, it suggests that, by delving too deep and thereby “exhausting the combinations of past, present, and future” (Barrenechea qtd. in Elmajdoub and Miller 249), meaning can be lost. In remaining too close to the surface, such as when a work reaches the mindless masses, meaning is likewise corrupted, for “fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst” (Borges 91).

Borges must thereby create harmony between excessive and deficient reading. This harmony is tellingly located not in Menard, but rather in the narrator. Menard is said, after all, to have written an essay about innovating chess, and he “proposes, recommends, discusses and finally rejects this innovation” (86). This circular argument illustrates the excesses of interpretation that Borges cautions against, for Menard ends up no further than where he began. The narrator, however, is unreliable, and most importantly, is unsure of himself; he is, in fact, metafictionally mirroring Borges’ anxieties. He is aware “that it is quite easy to challenge [his] slight authority” (86) and attributes most of his original ideas to Menard, only truly acknowledging his interpretative agency at the end of the story by writing that Menard had done what he attributes to him “perhaps without wanting to” (92). The narrator’s unreliability is made most apparent by his need to justify his authority, and his claim that “these authorizations, I think, are not entirely insufficient” (86), once again using double negatives, in this case quite modestly.

This unreliability paradoxically renders the narrator more reliable, for it is truly by embracing ambiguity that he avoids interpreting too little or too much. After all, he writes that “ambiguity is richness” (91). When the narrator borders on exercising too much power as a reader, such as when he writes that he “read the Quixote—all of it—as if Menard had conceived it” (89), his uncertainty and lack of authority impart his interpretation with an almost comical quality. This tone is crucial, for the narrator seems to be making a dangerous interpretation that would mean “that three hundred years have gone by” in vain, dismissing the “exceedingly complex events” of the period,“amongst them […] the Quixote itself” (90). Not only does he introduce this idea by writing “shall I confess,” which undermines his authority, but he never truly justifies how he “recognize[s]our friend’s style” (89). Instead, he quotes Shakespeare, followed by an ellipsis, and abruptly changes the subject. This aposiopesis effectively sterilises the narrator’s dubious reading, for he never follows through with the idea. In fact, the very nature of the narrator’s fragmentary essay pacifies most of his more radical ideas, demonstrating a truly admirable, if not comical, exertion of the power of reading. In contrast, Menard’s voice is only ever framed by the narrator’s—as a result, Menard cannot be said to be as admirable of a reader. In the end, it is not Menard who enriches reading “by means of a new technique,” but the narrator’s more “halting and rudimentary art of reading” (92) that does so.

To conclude, in his short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Jorge Luis Borges presents the act of reading as a powerful form of rewriting both history and literature, while also exploring the characteristics of a good reader. Although in part ridiculing the absurdity of literary criticism, Borges situates his anxieties elsewhere; ultimately, it is not the critic that is to fear, but anyone who does not read carefully. Through the interplay of metafictional layers of readers, Borges suggests that a careful reader must critically engage with the text, but that modesty and self-awareness are important to avoid dangerous overzealousness. Borges would certainly have appreciated if one were to compare different translations of his works, for they are, after all, the quintessential embodiment of the creative power of interpretation.

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Kafka and His Precursors.” The Total Library: Non Fiction 1922-1986. Translated by Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine and Eliot Weinberger, Penguin Books, 2001, pp. 363-365.

—. “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, translated by James E. Irby, edited by Richard Bausch and R. V. Cassill, Shorter 8th ed. Norton, 2015, pp. 85-9.

Castillo, Jorge Luis. “Pierre Menard and the School of the Skeptics.” Hispanic Review, vol. 71, no. 3, 2003, pp. 415–428.

Elmajdoub, Aburawi, and Mary K Miller. “The ‘Eternal Now’ in Borges’ ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ and ‘Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote’.” Durham University Journal, vol. 52, no. 2, 1991, pp. 249-251.

Lie, Nadia. “Who is the Reader of Pierre Menard? Borges on Cervantes Revisited.” International Don Quixote: Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Editions Rodopi, 2009, pp. 89-107.

Lynn, Steven. “Connecting the Text: Historical, Postcolonial, and Cultural Studies.” Texts andContexts: Writing about Literature with Critical Theory, 5th ed, Pearson Longman, 2008, pp.144-158.

Priel, Beatriz. “Transformation and Invariance in Creative Translations and Analytic Interpretations: a Reading of Borges and Cervantes.” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 94.6 2013, pp. 1115-1127.

Photo: The Yellow Books by Vincent Van Gogh.