Friday, 29 January 2016

The Parable of Pierre Menard

"Thinking, analysing, inventing are not anomalous acts; they are the normal respiration 
of the intelligence. To glorify the occasional performance of that function [...] is to confess 
our laziness or our barbarity. Every man should be capable of all ideas 
and I understand that in the future this will be the case."
Pierre Menard*

In an effort to salvage the legacy of Pierre Menard from an obscurity deliberately authored by his detractors, Jorge-Luis Borges elucidates the heroic and immeasurable labour the polemicist took upon himself in the latter part of his career. Though little of the work survives, there is no reason to doubt Borges that Menard was successful in reproducing verbatim, some 450 years after the original masterpiece and with only scant knowledge of the work, through sheer creative discipline, two or more chapters of Don Quixote.

Menard's work was not, however, carried out with the self-fulfilled innocence of the student who repeats ideas she has never heard before, radiant with certainty in her own originality. No, Menard relished the part of the teacher's role that requires us to deny our students the self-confidence of blissful ignorance. It is in that spirit that he assailed Cervantes's magnum opus, but Menard was not a teacher.

It is no wonder that, at the last, he burned his notebooks, and wonder less still that others have attempted to erase him from the memory of mankind. There were those who said it simply couldn't be done and risked their reputations upon his failure. Others said it was sheer folly, and in the name of reason turned their backs upon the evidence of his genius. Some saw value in his effort, and thereby proved their inability to grasp his meaning. All, in their own ways, would have granted Pierre Menard his dying wish, and I am forever grateful to Borges for bravely betraying him by testifying to his existence.

Knowing of Menard's Don Quixote, one can only gape at the paucity of the original, conceived as a self-contained masterwork. Cervantes merely engaged in a novel act of satire; Menard, in a satirical work of novelty. In Cervantes, knowledge of contemporary Spain and its burgeoning colonialist ambitions is silently presumed; In Menard, that knowledge is presumably silenced. We read Cervantes today and do not know what we miss; We read Menard and miss what we do not know.

As a teacher, I have often imagined rewriting the profession's standards from scratch, perhaps aided by others, perhaps alone. I have wondered whether I would fare better than the government has. In fact, I cannot deny that I have simply not tried. I have indulged this novel act of satire and allowed its colonialism of my professional life to remain silently presumed through nothing more than a prosaic fear of the unknown.

Thankful though I am for Borges's testimony of Menard's Don Quixote, I cannot agree with his final analysis that the Frenchman was satisfied of having achieved his aim. On the contrary, it is my contention that Menard could not bear the weight of his work. A nihilist, he had hoped to prove by his efforts that all human endeavour was a futile tilting at windmills. I believe that he came to the realisation that he had created proof of the opposite: The two Don Quixote's would forever derive meaning from each other, and neither would be forgotten.  

What explanation can there be for his attempt to destroy what he had created, and for his defenceless intellectual capitulation to his critics and inferiors? The simplest and most satisfactory is that the realisation of his power - to have imbued a work he had little regard for with value, and to have laboured himself at something of worth - did not sit comfortably with Menard's nihilism. 

I imagine a teacher of the future, held to account for her adherence to new teacher standards. They are the very same, word for word, as those we are subject to today, yet they are written by teachers. Teachers preside over this constitution and often seek to amend it, but each amendment yields no change to their stubborn language. Are they perforce futile? Menard has proven to me, though he would have hated to know that he had done so, that they are not. Despite their wording, these imagined standards are a work of novelty in which every silence is pregnant with the beautiful risk of freedom, and every unknown is a prompt to learn. 

How far into the future does my imagined teacher live? And how much of our nihilism will have to be overcome on the way to that future? How many times will we be tempted to burn our work in merry bonfires, and to run back to the safety of polemics?

I hear you now, Sancho Panza. "Now look, your grace" you say, "what you see over there aren't giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone."

"Obviously," I reply, "you don't know much about adventures."

*Borges, Jorge Luis et al. Labyrinths. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1979, p.70  

1 comment:

  1. Thought provoking read - we face the same obstacle in so many spheres- how to counter the nothing of postmodernism - perhaps attempts to define a unified structure is the issue - by trying to have a whole world framework we end up fudging details to fit the framework beyond the limits of reason to hold the whole together.


Thanks for engaging. I aim to respond to all the feedback I get because that's why I write: To share ideas.