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cr88's picture

An Alternative "Borgesian" Story

We've talked a lot about Borges with regards to the notion of his "Library of Babel", but the question raised in Generosity about there being a fixed number of possible plots made me think of another Borges story: "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote". This short story is actually less of a story than it is a theoretical thought experiment. Borges discusses the fictional personage Pierre Menard, a 20th century writer who sets out to write the novel Don Quixote. He does not seek to write a contemporary version of Miguel de Cervantes' 17th century novel, but rather to write "the Quixote itself." Borges writes that Menard "never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it." Menard seeks to create the Quixote exactly as it is, but to arrive independently at the finished product rather than simply reproduce it. He at first attempts to do this through reliving the life of Miguel de Cervantes, which requires only that he "know Spanish well, recover the Catholic faith, fight against the Moor or the Turk, and forget the history of Europe between the years 1602 and 1918." He later abandons this method, however, for not being arduous enough and decides a more interesting challenge would be to instead "reach the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard." He does so, and Borges' comparison of the two "versions" of the Quixote is fascinating: 

"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."


Borges thus puts forward the argument that even an story that is completely identical to another can be read as an original story if its context and consequently its interpretation change. Given this notion, the question of whether there are or are not a mere 24 plots upon which authors can draw becomes quite obsolete; every version of a plot will have its own specific significance, no matter how similar they may be. I thought this was an interesting extra perspective on "The Evolution of Stories", particularly given the amount of time we have dedicated to another Borgesian perspective on this subject.
 

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