Sunday, May 19, 2024

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939).

It was not too long ago that I discovered I was a character in a work of fiction.  At least that's how the whole business seems have turned out.  It was not the discovery I was expecting to make, by any means.  It's not like you can just wake up one morning and expect to find that the nature of your entire life is akin to that of words made of ink on a page?  And so, here am I.  The way it all came about was simple.  To tell you truth it was all down to nothing more than what I would have otherwise thought of as little more than a minor private pastime.  In order to explain why something like a seemingly inconsequential personal hobby can be enough to turn a flesh and blood human being into just another picture in a book, some explanation is in order.  I've been a reader and a viewer all my life, you see.  I can still recall the first clear and unbroken memory I ever had of single day in my life.  I must have been no more than five, and I'm walking into my family living room.  The TV is on, and the first thing I see, my first complete memory, is of an animated TV show featuring characters created by a man whose name I will later learn is called Jim Henson.  As my young self continues to watch the show, all that happens is Uncle Jim metaphorically takes my hand, and proceeds to teach me the value of the Imagination as a means of creativity.  Looking back, that seems to have been the start of the whole business, really.  I've been a fan of the arts ever since.

It really does seem like from that moment on, my focus in life was on the world of the Arts.  The Imagination and its ability to tell stories seems to have become one of the key guiding passions of my life.  One of my main avenues for plugging into reality, if that makes any sense.  Thanks to the efforts of Henson, and others like Spielberg and Don Bluth, I was granted the ability to be curious about how stories are made and what they all mean.  It's a path I haven't really strayed from since.  Looking back, I think the best part of getting hooked on all of this stuff was that was I never aware at any point that I was receiving a lesson.  I was just having too much darn fun to bother with the notion that I might have been learning something at the same time.  Looking back on it now, I've come to regard stumbling upon gifts like that as perhaps the best and truest way to teach any valuable subject to a person, no matter their age.  Anyway, the point is that from that moment on, I was a student of film, and later books.

When I learned to read for myself it was like discovering yet another key to an unnoticed secret casement.  The best way I can describe the value of becoming a bookworm is to say that it's like being able not just grasp or reach at least some kind of understanding of reality, it's also that for a moment or two, you're able to hold a potentially valuable aspect of it in your hands.  I can't tell how much sense I must be making now.  I'm also not so sure it matters.  Those who know what its like to come under the spell of good storytelling will know what I mean.  If a filmmaker like Henson was the gardener who planted the original seed in my mind, then it was later writers like Dr. Suess, Charles Schulze, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and J.R.R. Tolkien who taught me that the essence of stories all comes from the words on the page before it ever can or will exist anywhere else.  

So, to reiterate, I was a reader and a filmgoer to begin with.  These twins aspects of a life must be kept in mind, because otherwise nothing I'm about to explain about the occasional hobby that grew out of this process will make sense.  It's only with the full picture in place that you'll be able to understand what it's like to turn into a work of fiction.  The way this latter half of my tale came about is natural enough if you're the kind of person who likes to read and watch a lot of stories.  As I got older I began the normal process of growing up to be a discerning reader.  Rather, let's say that I've gotten somewhat better at being able to tell a good work of narration from either the minor, or else just plain bad.  What I think few people, even the professionals never bother to keep in mind, is that the Art of Writing is very much one big game of chance.  I've heard the act of literary composition described as the same type of job as any other manual labor, like brick laying or architecture.  I'm willing to admit a great deal of truth in that sentiment.  What I think even the best authors seem to miss about this aspect of the trade is that their really describing no more than the Craft of their jobs.  When it comes the actual capital-A Art of telling stories, then I'm afraid everyone is either a rookie or veteran Vegas gambler, and the house odds are always stacked against your favor.  Good writing isn't just labor, it also involves a lot of dumb luck.

Another way to say it is that the best writing often winds up as one big game of Go Fish.  The artist tries to turn their attention to the Imagination, and then just hopes and prays that something will happen.  That a really creative idea will pop up into their head, like a flair sent up from the middle of a vast lake.  I've read and studied this phenomenon enough to know that this is pretty the ultimate standard operating procedure for all writers.  All are at the mercy of the Muse.  The trouble with this method of operation is that when you get right down to it, all that the literary game of Go Fish amounts to is just gambling with the odds.  It's the basic idea of rolling the dice or betting on the lucky number by other means, no more, no less.  In that sense, much like running and playing the odds in Vegas, all the really best books amount to little more than hopeful bets that somehow managed to come up all Aces and Jacks.  An even better way to put it is that the successful story belongs to whoever is lucky enough to draw that tricksy wild card in their favor.  If all that sounds less than promising, then the real kick in the teeth is that there is no sure-fire formula for working the odds in your favor.  It's proven impossible to cheat the Imagination.  You either play by its rules and wind up with a maybe publishable book, or else you take your little red wagon and go home, never to show your face at this particular dice table ever again.

There is one aspect to this whole literary gaming table that's begun to fascinate me in recent years.  I'm not talking about the blockbuster successes or the cringeworthy failures anymore, here.  Nor am I thinking about at all about the middle of the roaders, the types of storytellers who are good enough to be remembered, even if they're not in the company of the greats.  The type of stories that have begun to draw more of my attention of late are the ones where the roll of the dice somehow just didn't pay out, yet you'll swear its almost possible to see the faint hints, traces, and outlines of how things could have worked if the writer had just a little bit more careful.  What I'm talking about now, in other words, are those moments where you run across a story that is an objective poor showing, if maybe not just plain bad.  These are the less than successful efforts where nonetheless a careful study of the material leaves the notion that you can just begin to see how things might have been able to work out with better success.  If only the artist had paid greater attention to the artistic material they were working with.  If they had just taken a bit more time to work out this particular plot point, or chosen to explore this otherwise unexamined bit of narrative thread, then things might have been different.  I don't say the finished product would have been a masterpiece.  Yet at least it might have had a better chance of being a genuine entertainment.  These are the ground rules for the kind of unfinished story I'm thinking of.

There are some books and films out there, in other words, where you can tell there was a lot good potential to be had, and yet the bet just never came off.  The author didn't play the cards he was dealt as well as he should or could have.  Are you starting to see what I mean when I say that writing is like gambling?  You take a chance on a roll of the dice, and the worst plays are the one's where you can see in retrospect how things could have been better if you'd just played your cards different, or given the writing a bit more of the effort needed to be, at the very least, a pretty decent read.  I've been fascinated by those almost success stories for sometime now.  What happened is I'd get to mulling over various finished products where I could tell the story still needed a bit of work.  The pastime I mentioned before got started when I began the serious effort of giving some actual thought into the question of whether or how could an essentially incomplete story be made better than what we got, or wound up with?  That was the key to the whole thing for me.  If you can find any halfway decent answer to that question, then you might have learned a thing or two about the Art of Storytelling that's not in any of the official dossiers.  So that's the hobby I've started.  I've taken works that seemed unfinished, and I began to mentally consider the all of the possible ways and means in which a mediocre tale can be a good one.

To my own surprise, I've managed to come up with a few possible solutions to a few final products that seemed lackluster.  I kind of surprised myself by stumbling upon what (to me, at least) sounds like a more promising narrative through line than the official one we've gotten for every single release in the Destiny video game franchise, for instance.  I'm not saying I've managed to find anything like a definitive storytelling solution.  Just one that grants the secondary world of those games a better overall plot, and hence a greater use of its recurring cast of characters.  That's a story for another day, however.  The point I've been working up to with all of this is that it was this relatively recent hobby of mine that lead by pure accident to the discovery that I was just a picture in a book.  The way that came about was that I happened to stumble by pure chance on the account of someone else who seems to have had the exact same idea more than 40 years before I was born.  I was doing nothing more than looking for something to read, and then I ran across the history of how some enterprising young wit in Argentina came to similar conclusions about how a merely competent story could become a potentially great one with just a bit of proper rewriting.  This is the story of "Pierre Menard", by Jorge Luis Borges.

The "True Story".

This story was related to me almost by accident.  I heard from a dead man.  Jorge Luis Borges has been gone, or else just "moved on" for some time now.  He was, once upon a time, however, perhaps the premiere writer in a literary movement known as Latin American Magical Realism.  If the title sounds pretentious, it's somewhat easy to understand.  To cut a long story short, all that Magic Realist fiction amounts to is what you get once a lot of the Anglo-American popular fiction (as it is defined and codified by all of the major Fantastic genres) becomes available in bulk throughout the regions and provinces of Mexico and all of South America.  Popular fiction has a way of creating devoted fanbases wherever its charms can manage to take hold, and that's what happened here.  Which is to say that there was a bumper crop of Latin American fanboys and girls growing up in Santiago, Chile, Panama City, or Buenos Aires.  Borges himself was born and raised in that last locale.  It was exposure to the translated works of fabulists such as Jules Verne or the first Latin American exposure to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, or the fantastical satires of Jon Swift which became the collective spark that lit up more than a fair share of Latino/Latina imaginations during the early years of the 20th century.

The result turned out to be Magical Realism as its now known.  It all amounts to nothing less than a new generation of (then) young and talented artistic minds first devouring the literary fantastic fiction that they love, and then finding all sorts of creative ways to repurpose the content of those fantasies into their own shared forms of artistic expression.  For the vast majority of these authors, this repurposing tended to result in works of fiction with an often surreal and fantastical bent.  You'll have a narrative that takes place in an ostensibly Realist setting, such as the suburb of a city, a family estate, a nearby aquarium, a simple apartment building, or a local beachside.  The typical situation of these will then be to introduce an element of the fantastic into these mundane settings.  The family estate keeps a tiger roaming around the premises for no other explanation than something to do with a family will.  A visitor to that local aquarium will find himself turning into one of the fish on display in the exhibits.  Or else a groups of kids playing on the beach will discover an old man with wings washed upon the shore.  No explanation is usually given for these strange turn of events, they are just taken as a matter of course.  This is perhaps the most definable keynote of the genre of Magical Realism as a whole.

Taken in all, the best description I can give to this particular kind of story is to label it as the prototype to what would later become the kind of bizarro scenarios that would make up the contents of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, or just about every other thing that Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean have ever written.  These are fantasies, in other words, where all of the creative stress is placed on highlighting the Artistic potential of the fantastic.  Perhaps the greatest surprise about these types of stories is that they never come off as pretentious.  Instead, they are more like intriguing mind-benders that always keep you guessing as to their nature and meaning.  Sometimes you get the impression you've been given a puzzle in need of solving.  At other times, you're presented with nothing more than a neat and concise surrealist painting done up in prose, and all you need to do is bask in the fantastical absurdity of the whole deal.  Out of all the list of names that helped contribute to the subgenre of Magical Realism, Jorge Luis Borges seems to have been the one to become the uncrowned king of the whole movement.  His work is a combination of mind-bending puzzles, and labyrinthine metaphysical thrillers.  Each one of them a perfect blend of the fantastical, the surreal, and even, on occasion, the wondrous.

Anyway, it was from Sr. Borges that I first learned about the peculiar literary efforts of M. Pierre Menard.  Bear in mind, what I'm about to relate counts as all I know about this particular literary name.  I've never even heard of this guy before in my life.  At least not till the labyrinth builder from Buenos Aires brought his efforts to my attention.  As to the writer himself, Pierre Menard seems to have been (from what little evidence I can piece together) a once notable yet now very minor type of figure on the periphery of the French Symbolist Movement in the early Modernist Period of 20th century letters.  In terms of "literary periods", the Symbolists are what you get when writers like Edgar Allan Poe get translated into French by the likes of Charles Baudelaire, and the American Gothic master's reputation takes off in such a big way that his words alone are able to generate an enthusiasm of reaction from artists in the Country of Lights.  What I'm willing to swear on however many official documents you'd care to conjure up is that all that French Symbolism amounts to in the long run is just Romanticism under another name.  Therefore it's gratifying to find William Blake cited as a movement precursor.

After being pioneered by the likes of Stephane Mallarme and Paul Verlaine, the revitalized, Francophile form of Romanticism began to make inroads on the world stage as the 19th century become the 20th.  It went on to be championed in the Anglo world by the likes of Arthur Symons and T.S. Eliot.  Come to think of it, there's always the distinct probability that the outré and phantasmagorical elements of the French Symbolists went on to become a vital component of Latin America's Magical Realist aesthetic.  To hear guys like Borges tell it, you'd think that a Symbolist as obscure as Pierre Menard was the one who taught him all there was to know about being a writer.  Whatever the "truth" of the matter is (and there's a probably a lot less of it here than you might realize), the facts remain that Menard's output is of a such a meager variety and catalogue that it's no surprise if his name is overlooked.  Aside from Borges' testimony, I have been able to dig up approximately zero about Pierre Menard in any of the major or reliable histories, commentaries, and/or studies of early modern French and Latin American literature.  Why it's almost as if the man in question either vanished into thin air, or else was just a pure work of fiction.  A look at Menard's bibliography reads like a career trajectory as an abrupt halt.

Out of all of his major works, just one of them counts as a published cycle of sonnets.  The rest of the writer's life seems to have consisted of a number of non-fiction studies and examinations of whatever various and sundry topics were able to capture Menard's interests.  These included not one, but two monographs on Leibniz; at least three translations  of works done by other poets (the most notable among them being the writings of Paul Valery); an interminable number of essays on the construction of poetry; and an article on the thought of Renaissance philosopher Ramon Lull.  That last one is noteworthy enough for anyone interested in the more esoteric side of Elizabethan thought.  However, it is one literary experiment in particular that caught Borges' attention.  Here is where I think I'd better let the Argentine fantasist take over the storytelling duties.  My hope is that his words can explain the subject of this whole article better than I'd ever be able to do.  Borges refers to this "subterranean" effort of Menard's as the interminably heroic, the peerless.   And -- such are the capacities of man! -- the unfinished. This work, perhaps the most significant of our time, consists of the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of the first part of Don Quixote and a fragment of chapter twenty-two. I know such an affirmation seems an absurdity; to justify this "absurdity" is the primordial object of this note.

"...(Menard, sic)  did not want to compose another Quixote -- which is easy -- but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide -- word for word and line for line -- with those of Miguel de Cervantes.  "My intent is no more than astonishing," he wrote me the 30th of September, 1934, from Bayonne. "The final term in a theological or metaphysical demonstration -- the objective world, God, causality, the forms of the universe -- is no less previous and common than my famed novel. The only difference is that the philosophers publish the intermediary stages of their labor in pleasant volumes and I have resolved to do away with those stages." In truth, not one worksheet remains to bear witness to his years of effort.

"The first method he conceived was relatively simple. Know Spanish well, recover the Catholic faith, fight against the Moors or the Turk, forget the history of Europe between the years 1602 and 1918, be Miguel de Cervantes. Pierre Menard studied this procedure (I know he attained a fairly accurate command of seventeenth century Spanish) but discarded it as too easy. Rather as impossible! my reader will say. Granted, but the undertaking was impossible from the very beginning and of all the impossible ways of carrying it out, this was the least interesting. To be, in the twentieth century, a popular novelist of the seventeenth seemed to him a diminution.  To be, in some way, Cervantes and reach the Quixote seemed less arduous to him -- and, consequently, less interesting -- than to go on being Pierre Menard and reach the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard. (This conviction, we might say in passing, made him omit the autobiographical prologue to the second part of Don Quixote. To include that prologue would have been to create another character -- Cervantes -- but it would also have meant presenting the Quixote in terms of that character and not of Menard. The latter, naturally, declined that facility.)

"My undertaking is not difficult, essentially," I read in another part of his letter. "I should only have to be immortal to carry it out." Shall I confess that I often imagine he did finish it and that I read the Quixote -- all of it -- as if Menard had conceived it? Some nights past, while leafing through chapter XXVI -- never essayed by him -- I recognized our friend's style and something of his voice in this exceptional phrase: "the river nymphs and the dolorous and humid Echo (web)".  I don't think I've ever heard of anyone being daring, crazy, or just plain stupid enough to try and copy a famous Spanish text that is literally over 400 years old.  Then, Borges went on to explain the puzzling question of why on earth (or WTF, take your pick) would this seemingly anonymous Mr. Menard even want to make such a ridiculous attempt, much less even conceive or think about it for more than five seconds.  The funny thing about this whole deal is the more Borges went on and I listened, the more I began to see at least some of the logic that would make Menard want to try and see if there was anything about the text that could have been fixed?  Was there anything out of place, or incomplete about Quixote's work?  Did it perhaps still need a bit of work here and there?  It's as I began to look at the remarkable efforts of Pierre Menard's "translation" of Don Quixote that I began to notice the awkward resemblance my own thinking on some other stories bears to his own.  That's when I began to believe I might be having the closest experience I would ever get to what it felt like to become a character in a larger story.

Conclusion: A Fan Essay Couched in a Short Story. 

I get the impression that now might be a good time to apologize a little.  If everything that's gone before has sounded twisted and convoluted, then at least some of it is my fault.  I wanted to prepare the reader for what it was like to get stuck inside the pages of a Jorge Luis Borges novel.  I just figured the best way to do that would be to write in a style and manner that more or less captures the peculiar atmosphere of the type of secondary world conjured by the Argentine fantasist.  He really does seem to be a fan of taking labyrinths and turning them into plots.  He's the kind of writer who might have been perfect for The Twilight Zone, and yet I don't know how well even that show could have wrapped its format around something by Borges.  Maybe someone like David Lynch might have been on a better wavelength to achieve the kind of literary mind-benders that the creator of "Pierre Menard" liked to spin out of thin air and dreams.  In fact, Borges is one of those writers whose entire style is so far-out there that I knew without ever having to think about it that I was going to have to be very careful when it came to selecting any of his approximately 100 short stories for a review on this blog.  The narrative of a make-believe nerd and his attempts to rewrite a famous author is the most normal candidate I found.

To set aside all the masques, the facts of the case go as follows.  All Borges did was have or entertain one of those amusing "What If" ideas that could either be little more than amusing mind games, or else a mental avenue for further exploration of an intriguing topic.  In his case, the writer seems to have been taken with the notion of a talented reader having a very atypical reaction to piece of literature.  In the pages of his story, the imaginary Mr. Menard makes no bones about his opinion of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote.  "The Quixote," clarifies Menard, "interests me deeply, but it does not seem -- how shall I say it? -- inevitable. I cannot imagine the universe without Edgar Allan Poe's exclamation: 'Ah, bear in mind this garden was enchanted!"...but I am quite capable of imagining it without the Quixote. (I speak, naturally, of my personal capacity and not of those works' historical resonance.) 

"The Quixote is a contingent book; the Quixote is unnecessary. I can premeditate writing it, I can write it, without falling into a tautology. When I was ten or twelve years old, I read it, perhaps in its entirety. Later, I have reread closely certain chapters, those which I shall not attempt for the time being. I have also gone through the interludes, the plays, the Galatea, the exemplary novels, the undoubtedly laborious tribulations of Persiles and Segismunda and the Viaje del Parnaso. . . My general recollection of the Quixote, simplified by forgetfulness and indifference, can well equal the imprecise and prior image of a book not yet written (web, ibid)".  That whole passing of judgment by Borges (through the made-up figure of Menard) on Cervantes' literary efforts is fascinating to consider for multiple intersecting reasons.  There's the way the Argentine scribe's judgment call will effect those who are fans of The Don and his friend Sancho; that of general audiences who tend to have a less vested interest in the novel as a whole; my own take as just one individual reader; and last there's the way this whole train of though could be applied in a similar nature to a number of other stories that can exist out there.

Now for any devoted fan of Cervantes, Borges' words have no choice but to come off as an insult.  For the general audience, the script gets flipped on its head.  Don Quixote's fame for them seems to rest more in his capacity for as symbol, rather than as anything like a proper character in a story.  The majority audience (even non-readers) know his name, they know of his faithful servant Sancho Panza.  Some of the luckiest out there might even be able to name the Don's long-suffering trusty steed, Rosinante.  Beyond this, however, they'll probably never have much to go on.  They'll have heard about the story of either a crazy or inspired old man tilting at windmills.  Beyond that?  The rest might as well be silence.  The best that the general audience can ever give you in terms of judgment calls about the chivalrous Don is that he is either a symbol of human folly, or else a ringing endorsement for Romanticism and Adventure.  Throw in a flock of seagulls and that is all the general audience can ever say on the matter.

So, that just leaves my own take on the subject matter?  What do I think of Miguel Cervantes' most famous, and well known work?  Well, I've studied the novel for myself and...the punchline is it's interesting to discover just how much my own thoughts on the book line up well with those of Borges.  If I have to defend such a judgment call, then it would have to go like this.   The crux of the matter with a guy like Cervantes is that what we're dealing with here is the situation no sane artist wants to find himself in.  The author of Don Quixote finds himself creating under the curse of divided loyalties.  

His express goal in the preface of the work is to mock the very idea and ideals of Chivalric Romance.  The writer appears to have set out, in other words, with the goal of creating a story that would show up the Folly of Man.  To put it yet another way, Cervantes fancied himself as a four-square type.  Someone whose feet are always firmly planted in whatever we mean when we use the word "reality".  The author believed himself to be someone capable of seeing through all the bullshit in life, and was more than ready to compose a work that would shake the cage of Spanish society out of all of its false conceptions of the world.  He therefore set out writing his story in full-on take-no-prisoners mode.  The trouble that Cervantes found was that as he went on with his work, he began to have a hell of a lot of trouble with the book's main character.  The figure of Don Quixote proved to be more of a live wire than even his creator was expecting him to be.

The titular Gentleman of La Mancha would keep getting in the way of the story the writer wanted to tell.  He would burst forth with moments of genuine, jolly humor in a scene where the laughs were meant to have a bitter, stinging bite.  Or else the Don would keep introducing notes of genuine pathos and sympathy into scenes where the tragedy was meant to be laced with nothing else but pure, mocking scorn.  The book's main character, in other words, seemed to be taking on a life of his own, one that seemed very much opposed to the stated goals and intentions of his author.  It wasn't a case of writer's block so much as the story always trying to get away from the composer.  The reason for this case seems simple enough.  In the end, perhaps even Quixote's chronicler was smart enough to realize what his problems with the novel all pointed to.  The trouble with Cervantes was that he was laboring under the burden of being a writer with divided loyalties.  His mind was a packed shelf crowded with contradictory impulses and beliefs.  On the top level, he was the consummate modern realist.  Someone who took an almost zealous pride in being a thoroughgoing non-sentimentalist of any kind or sort.

It's when the reader turns their gaze to the other shelf levels below that one that the foundation of the author's realism begins to reveal just how shaky and uncertain it is.  The initial sense of tough-minded taciturnity goes on for maybe a few shelves more before we're surprised when it comes to a complete abrupt halt.  It's not like we've hit a brick wall that we never suspected was there.  It's more that the strand and weave of Cervantes' skepticism about life in general begins to grow ever more thinner the farther away we travel from the surface of the author's mind.  The weave of avowed cynicism begins to lessen the further down we go, until at last it tapers away to the barest Ariadne thread.  As we keep following this meagre line down into the lower shelves it begins to grow and expand once more, yet it's weave, patterning, and nature have begun to take on a surprising change.  Instead of the dull, leaden quality of the surface tapestry, this new material is lively, vibrant, and multi-faceted.  The very atmosphere of the writer's mind has taken on a different nature from that apparent on the topmost level.  We've reached the shelf where Cervantes kept all of his innermost secret Romantic and Idealistic longings locked away where no one else can see or sense them.  The trouble for the writer is that he has never managed, or perhaps can't even bring himself to permanently get rid of this other material.

It lies tucked away in the basement of his mind, while the conscious literary personality goes about its disenchanted business.  The problem for the writer is that he's locked all of his ideals way down in basement level of his mind.  That's also the same place where the Imagination dwells, and the trouble with a mental function like that is it can't really lie about anything, especially not the truth of any artist that's able to tap into its own peculiar frequencies.  The trick with the Imagination is that it always tosses up confessional truths for the express purpose of public consumption.  These truths may always come packaged in a series of veiled masques, yet if there's any value to be had in such lying images, it's that the truth is always hidden away inside their centers, like a kernel or a pearl of permanent value.  The real value in stories is how they are the mind's safeguards; a way or means of keeping insanity at bay.  When James Baldwin said that "All art is confession", he was onto to a lot more than I think most of us realize.  The ultimate purpose of any story is to map out where the mind of the individual doing the storytelling is in relation to a healthy level of reality, and use that as a guidepost for how well-balanced the mind of the artist is, as well as sometimes pointing out how far they have to go for sanity's sake.

This challenge was particularly acute for someone like Cervantes.  As an artist with divided loyalties, it's no surprise that the hidden, Idealistic-Romantic side of his nature would find an outlet or escape hatch in the character of Don Quixote.  The figure is nothing less than an expression all of the optimistic qualities and/or personal traits that Cervantes always carried around on some lower level of his mind.  It was a part of himself that the writer always appears to have been in a constant state of mental struggle with pretty much all of his life.  When we read the actual Quixote, therefore, the reader is witnessing nothing less than a struggle between the artist and his own conflicting inner crisis.  I suppose another way to say it is that perhaps Miguel de Cervantes was the first artist to discover the Jekyll and Hyde concept long before Robert Louis Stevenson chanced to rediscover it several years later in a dream.  Then again, wouldn't it be interesting to learn that the later Scottish author was a fan Quixote?  Whatever the case on that score, the facts remain that the narrative of La Mancha is something of an almost textbook exploration of one writer's inner crisis between cynicism and idealism.

The punchline to all of this (for me, at least) is that while it might make for a very intriguing, maybe thought provoking therapy session, I'm not all sure it results in that good of a story.  I mean that what we have here with the tale of Sancho Panza and his Loony Lordship is a tale that remained told just by half, and never as complete as it maybe should have been.  That's because the inner mental struggle that served as the engine for the initial narrative concept wound up being so troubling for the writer that it overwhelmed or clouded the original creative idea.  It results in a narrative that feels lacking in a lot of its components, and so the whole book gives off the vibe of being unfinished at some vital level.  It all becomes explainable enough when you realize we're witnessing one writer's inner crisis of personal schism drowning out the narrative he was working on.  Now, for the record, is not this an isolated incident by any means.  I'll swear I've seen this sort of psychological artistic circumstance play out several other times before.  It happened with William Wordsworth during the course of composing his Prelude.  It's what got in Mark Twain's way when it came to setting down the ending of his otherwise superlative Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  It even affected Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Each of these writers was experiencing a moment of personal inner crisis that bled out onto the pages they were working on.  Now I'll have to be fair and admit that there are plenty of occasions when this inner turmoil can help in the production of sometimes great art.  Examples like Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are two of the most notable examples audiences might be familiar with.  The fact remains that in the case of Cervantes (and all of the other literary names mentioned above) this time it didn't really work out in any meaningful way.  The Quixote remains a map of one man's inner struggle and his inability to find any real closure to it.  Like I've said, it makes for a fascinating tool in terms of psychotherapy, just not so hot as an actual, entertaining story.  The curious part may be that these are all elements that Borges might have been aware of to a certain degree, and that's why he makes the judgment calls that he does in the course of "Pierre Menard". 

I just find it interesting that in order to maintain a sense of balanced equilibrium, the mind sometimes has to go out of its way to make the individual Mental Subject rely on thought patterns and behaviors that tend to be classified as Idealistic.  It's as if the mind required some element of Romanticism in order to maintain a viable condition of livable sanity.  That, in essence, is how I would judge the final impression left on my by Cervantes' masterwork, for better or worse.  I can just begin to see, in other words, what Borges is getting at when he describes the novel as a contingent, as opposed to necessary work.  It's even possible to see how this can apply to other works of literature out there.  For instance, if J.R.R. Tolkien had never written The Lord of the Rings it would therefore be necessary for some artist out there either to create that same story, or else to come up with a narrative of equal power and weight.  Of all the other major fantasy works out there, perhaps it is Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn which is able to both achieve and (yes, I dare argue this) surpass Middle Earth in terms of reaching a genuine level of artistic height.  In other words, I really can't imagine a world without the Shire, the Midnight Carnival, or even Huck Finn on his raft.  In contrast, it is more than easy for me to imagine a world in which Terry Brooks never created the Sword of Shannara.  That whole damn book line is one great big imitation of Tolkien that just barely avoids being a disguised form of fan fiction.

This is the type of nerd train of thought that can be multiplied and applied to any sort of text or film you can imagine.  This, in turn, is sort of part of the whole fun of the enterprise.  You get the sense that Borges is doing all he can to grant his readers permission to actually consider what a story is.  What does it mean?  How does it mean?  Why and how does it work?  The author's real bit of genius, however, seems to rest in raising a question few of us seem to have ever considered.  What does it mean when a story doesn't work, and is there any opportunity to help make it better?  Here's where I have to give Borges a hell of a lot of credit.  He's careful enough not just as a writer, but also as a critic and thinker about narratives.  He's quick to make an ironclad distinction between works where there's no need to change anything, and either the flat-out bad or also rans that leave plenty of room for improvement.  The writer appears to be a firm believer in the maxim "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", and that's all to the good.  It's the question of whether or not a bad, or else just incomplete, and therefore imperfect narrative can be made into a good, or at least halfway decent one.  Here, Borges appears to be stipulating the possibility of a riff on the traditional operating procedures of the literary author.

I've already given a hint of what that's like.  There's nothing glamorous about it.  All it amounts to is some person deciding to take a chair at their writing desk.  Closing off all unnecessary distraction.  Readying their word processor of choice, and then just playing a game of Go Fish.  The real Art of Fiction comes in those moments while the author is waiting to see if the Imagination will send up one of its flares.  If the writer can notice that, if that person has the ability to tap into the mental function responsible for the manufacturing of Myth.  Above all, if the scribbler can be said to have an ounce of the talent necessary to set the pictures in his head down well on paper, then maybe you've got a good story to work with.  Not all the talent of a Shakespeare would be enough to make this game be any more than a roll of the dice.  You just have to put your money where your mouth is and take your chances.  This is the normal routine of an author trying to have an idea of their own.  Borges takes this basic setup, and asks an interesting question about it?  Can an author ever be inspired by a bad work of fiction?  Not inspired just in the sense of maybe wanting to write something better in response to the possible literary offenses of the hypothetical bad novel, but to want to try and improve the book?

In other words, Borges uses the figure of Menard to demonstrate the very true-to-life possibility of that sometimes writers can be inspired by the objective lack of quality in some works to try and improve them.  As I have said, the examples of this sort of thing can be multiplied to one hell of a great degree.  For those who doubt that such things can ever happen in real life, then I have just one thing to point out: The Snyder Cut.  Allow me to go further and point out how there does seem to be some sort of effort going on to try and make an animated adaptation of Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire Trilogy.  Last, yet not least, you've got the world of fan edits.  Thanks to the advance of digital filmmaking technology, we now inhabit a universe where independent, dedicated cinephiles can take it upon their own initiative to re-cobble or re-edit any film of their choice into what they can at least hope is a better version.  Like, for instance, it occurred to me not long ago that there is enough material in the 1990 Tim Curry version of Stephen King's It where you can basically take all of that footage, and then re-edit it into a narrative order that matches up more or less perfectly with the original 1985 novel upon which it is based.  If you were to just rearrange certain elements here and there, then you'd create a much smoother flowing narrative where neither the adult nor child segments would crowd each other out, and the splicing together of past and present confrontations would help to create a bigger dramatic impact.

Hell, even Terry Gilliam of all people took Borges' original notion of tinkering with the Quixote, and managed to use it to complete a lifelong passion project of his.  I'd have to call the final results of that film something closes to the director's final master's thesis.  It's clear Gilliam means the work to be a ringing endorsement of Romanticism in a disenchanted age.  I'd even go so far as to claim it perhaps deserves to be considered as the perhaps the fourth part finale in the director's Dreamer Series of films.  All you'd have to do is consider The Man Who Killed Don Quixote under the subheading of "The Dreamer Awake", and it's like you've helped complete some kind of narrative circle you never even knew was there.  The hilarious yet key thing to keep in mind about all this is that in being able to finish his passion project, Gilliam has done nothing less than follow Borges' lead and instructions to the letter.  He's taken a work that was fair to middling at the start, and then turned it around into a different work entirely.  The curious thing is how in doing so, the director and the writer have allowed the figure of Quixote to have his complete dignity and dramatic potential fulfilled.  Is the picture becoming clearer now?  Are you beginning to see all the fascinating implications contained within Borges' short story?

What we've got here is a fascinating mental experiment in the form of a narrative.  The best way I can describe it is to claim that the writer has got a hold of one of those notions that is probably a lot more commonplace than even the most devoted bookworms or cinephiles realize.  However, at the time that Borges had this realization, however, there was no such thing as a means for having a wide net of like-minded Tweeps and Sharers with which to discuss the notion of whether or not a story had been told in full.  Most important of all, Borges had no one to give him any feedback on the question of whether or not it was right to try and edit a bad novel or short story in order to make it at least somewhat good?  It's the kind of idea where so long as you limit it to just those works where it can be argued there's any legitimate room for improvement, then it sounds kind of like enough of a no-brainer.  Way back at the end of the 1930s and start of the 40s, however, this idea must have sounded downright radical, even to Borges' creative mind.  It would come as no surprise to me, then, to find out that the Argentine fantasist decided that the only way he could ever feel safe expressing this notion was if he did it in a medium that granted him some form of cover.  A bit of insurance that would guarantee he wouldn't get any flack for daring to attack Olympus, in other words.  That left couching his idea within the artistic confines of an otherwise unassuming short story.  It has to be one of the most daring creative gambles I know of.

If there's any major criticism I'd have to level at a story like "Pierre Menard", then it would have to be that if you're paying close enough attention, it's kind of like you can tell that the story exists more for the point the author wants to make, rather than for its own sake.  In other words, what we're dealing with here is just a creative lecture suggesting an intriguing aspect of the writing life.  One that most of us have had at one time or another.  Borges just turned out to be the one ink-stained wretch out there with the guts to suggest it can sometimes (not always, it makes no sense to try and re-edit Tolkien's novel; and it would be flat-out racism to try and tamper with, say, the poems of Phillis Wheatley and various like circumstances) be at least of interest to see if you can make a sub-par piece of writing into a good one.  The challenge with a short story like this is that the author can always run the risk of boring his audience by selling his soul for a plot full of nothing but message.  The funny thing in Borges' case is that I never came away bored.  Instead, the writer's skill is on full display as he is able intrigue and excite the reader with not just the daring, but also the actual sense of creative potential hidden in the idea that there are still plenty of good story ideas lying around out there.  

Creative notions that could have been either good, or perhaps maybe even great, yet they just never got their chance in the spotlight for want of a talented mind.  That's where the real artist comes.  If you want your shot in the literary trade, then there are still plenty of stories out there wanting the right one to tell them.  That, for me, is where the real entertainment of Borges' story lies.  It all boils down to the shared enjoyment that happens when a fan comes up with an idea that might just be a pretty good one within its limits.  As anyone who has ever existed within any fandom knows, when moments like that occur, And lest you think that Borges is too outside of mainstream pop-culture to ever have anything like true nerd credentials, the man wrote scripts for a Spaghetti Western, and a 1969 Science Fiction film.  Let that testify to the man's taste in popular fiction.  Hell, most of the guy's output is just one long riff on the various tropes to be found in other fantasy stories.  What makes Borges stand out even more from his Magical Realist compadres is that he was the one who was always the most willing to let the stories take flight into their own, idiosyncratic, fantastic realm.  It's this willingness to allow himself to be a traditional fantasist that lets Borges set his stories in worlds where creatures of myth such as gryphons, time slips, metaphysical immortals, and an entire world that is also one big damn library can exist.

To say that the guy was talented is a bit like saying Jimi Hendrix knew his way around the guitar.  He's counts as a Known Commodity, yet in many ways, his reputation might have suffered a bit from its having been embraced by the Ivory Tower (whatever that was supposed to be).  It had the effect of making Borges out to be this daunting and forbidding presence.  The kind of author, in other words, whose writing is so sophisticated that only the few could ever unlock the meaning of his words.  This obscures the fact that the guy liked pulp Science Fiction enough to help make a movie set in that genre.  He also liked telling stories featuring figures from Fairy Tales and Myths.  This is not someone who wants to sequester himself away in the Tower from prying eyes.  Borges counts very much as a popular writer who sort of had his rightful spotlight stolen from him, in a way.  That's kind of a shame, too.  Because a work like "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" very much counts as a work written by a fan for the fans.  It's a fun and engaging "What-If" puzzle that dares the reader to try and think outside the box, or at least see if its still possible to square an incomplete circle.  It's about the fun that can be had in learning how to write, and also the joy that comes from talking about stories with friends.

All of this is enough to make Jorge Luis Borges' "Pierre Menard" a pretty easy recommendation for me.  It's nothing less than a talented writer who is also a fan trying to pass along that enthusiasm to his readers.  His main way of doing it here is by trying to get a discussion going about what is it that makes for a tale well told?  In doing so, for me at least, Borges reveals himself to a pretty cool old cat.  It' clear he cares about stories, and making them good.  It's a joy he wants to share with others.  And I'd argue that a big-hearted sentiment like that is becoming rare, these days.  That's why it's possible for me to say that it's all the more reason for treasuring the message in a story like this.  If I had to sum up what makes this brief fan essay couched in a short story well worth picking up, then I'd have to use words that aren't mine.  They were words that the old English literary critic and mystery novelist G.K. Chesterton used to describe another author.  He once said of Geoffrey Chaucer, "There is nothing he likes better than telling the reader to read books that are not his own (33)".  Borges seems to fit that description well.  He also wants us to wonder if its possible for a bad book to become a good one?

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