Monday, November 24, 2014

Originality, Plagiarism and Pierre Menard, Part 2

Jonathan sets me straight. At least partly. On my reading, Pierre Menard neither "re-wrote Don Quixote without ever having read it" nor "transcribed" it through some unknown process that rendered it an "original" composition of his own. Both ideas are belied by Borges' text. "When I was twelve or thirteen years old I read it," writes Menard in his letter to the narrator, "perhaps in its entirety. Since then I've reread several chapters attentively." Our narrator also tells us that Menard's "aim was never to produce a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it." Jonathan at one point suggests Menard "reproduces or 'transcribes' it through an unexplained science-fictiony device" or alternatively (and I think more plausibly) "memorize[s] sections of it and then sit down to write, but never writing down something unless he felt it as his own". Jonathan emphasises that honesty is the key to this, since in one sense what he is doing is in fact transcribing: he is "writing across" from one text to his own. It's only when he has actually appropriated the words, so that they are no longer Cervantes' but his own, that his project has succeeded. The standards by which one can evaluate this process are of course unknown.

I'm still not convinced this is exactly what Borges, Menard or the fictional literary critic had in mind. I'm entirely willing to play at being "more Borgesian than Borges" as Jonathan suggests, of course. But I need to square my understanding of the text with, especially, this description of Menard's process, provided in that same letter to the narrator:

My [Menard's] general memory of Don Quixote [from his reading], simplified by forgetfulness and indifference, is much the same as the imprecise, anterior image of a book not yet written. Once this image (which no one can deny me in good faith) has been postulated, my problems are undeniably considerably more difficult than those which Cervantes faced. My affable precursor did not refuse the collaboration of fate; he went along composing his immortal work a little a la diable, swept along by inertias of language and invention. I have contracted the mysterious duty of reconstructing literally his spontaneous work. My solitary game is governed by two polar laws. The first permits me to attempt variants of a formal and psychological nature; the second obliges me to sacrifice them to the 'original' text and irrefutably to rationalize this annihilation."

Here the suggestion is that he'll work with his memory of the story, not his memory of the the text, which he insists is as imperfect as a novelist's image of a book he's not yet written. It's out of that imaginary that he will attempt to produce a text that is identical to Cervantes'. The claim is that he succeeded in writing two chapters and part of another.

I'm being pedantic mainly for the sake of making this clear to myself. And also because something Jonathan said reminded me of another remark of Borges' in his "Note on (towards) Bernard Shaw". "The heroic aspect of the feat," says Jonathan, "[is] bridging the distance between the two sensibilities without ever cheating. The exact mechanism ... is deliberately obscure since what matters is the negotiation between the two subjectivities." In his "Note", Borges dismisses a series of literary "devices"—Lully's metaphysical discs, Mill's worry about the exhaustion of the possibilities of music, Lasswitz's "total library" (which Borges successful made his own)—because they turned the problem into "a kind of play with combinations". I think Susan Blum's "folk anthropologists" are in the same category. "Those who practice this game," says Borges, "forget that a book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialog it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory." I think we have to remember that Menard was not trying to do something like those patchwriters who want to know what the minimum amount of changes you have to make to a text is if you want to turn it into paraphrase. He was, as Jonathan says, attempting a "negotiation between two subjectivities" in the most difficult terrain imaginable, i.e., in the mental space that differentiates the meaning of two identical texts.


Presskorn said...

On a small scale, the writing of identical texts written with differing and yet fully authentic intentions is readily imaginable. After all, the sentence "The coffee is hot" can be read as reflecting, at least, 5 or 6 six different intentions or speech acts - depending on context. Context is what can make a tiny thing like intention matter immensely.

But on the larger novel-like scale, it becomes impossible to imagine exactly what Pierre Menard is doing. You write that it is "most difficult terrain imaginable". That terrain is, in any case, so difficult to imagine that I fail. It is certainly not mere sci-fi in so far as sci-fi is exactly suppose to be readily imaginable, only not (yet) real or actual.

Thomas said...

Yes. (It's interesting: I had that identical thought as I was finishing this post, but decided not to open that specific can of worms.) I suppose the difference between duplicates of "The coffee is hot" and even a sentence fragment like "In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived..." is what is at the heart of the plagiarism issue.

It probably is an allegory about plagiarism, just like "A Secret Miracle" is an allegory about literary procrastination.

Jonathan said...

I wonder about that part about trying out small variations and then returning to a text identical to that of Cervantes. That implies a photographic memory or the simple consultation of the text at the end to make sure it doesn't vary.

Instead of a praise for the reader's freedom (the standard interpretation of the story) it is really about the tyranny of the text. The writer can write anything he wants (Cervantes, writing and improvising freely) but the "reader" figure here has cannot deviate from the text by one letter.

Of course, we can read the story literally, or see the entire story Menard as an allegory of reading, translation, etc... So every reader, by reading, creates a new text simply by reading it as herself. That's the standard interpretation that I think if very lazy.

Compare "The library of Babylonia" and "Funes el memorioso."

Thomas said...

I think that's a very important point. I've never liked the allegorical reading of Borges' Library that postmodernists are inclined to. I think you're right that something similar (and, yes, lazy) happens when Menard is made a symbol of the freedom of interpretation. ("Any old text will do.") As Borges says, a book "imposes" itself on the voice and memory of the reader. That suggests both caution in reading (a critical attitude) and care (compassion) in writing.