The Philosopher's Eye

News and brain candy for the philosophy community

Did Pierre Menard author the Quixote?

In a short story by Jorge Luis Borges named Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote the author recites a fictitious inventory of works belonging to the now deceased novelist Pierre Menard. Of greatest importance amongst these works, according to the narrator, is an uncompleted piece that “consists of the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of the first part of Don Quixote and a fragment of chapter twenty-two.” It was the aim of Pierre Menard, in constructing this particular work, to write the Quixote not by simply writing out passages from the existing text but by creating a new work that just so happens to coincide with the original text.

The result of his painstaking efforts (Menard learnt to write in archaic Spanish style and spent hundreds of hours constructing unusable passages) is considered a more subtle work than the original by Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes wrote about the times that he was a part of while Menard instead chose a setting that was hundreds of years prior and as a result composed a historical novel; Cervantes wrote in the idiom of his time but Menard instead utilised an unnatural archaic usage of Spanish. These differences cause a text to be created that carries with it a meaning far different from the original:

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 judged to have happened. The final phrases—exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor—are brazenly pragmatic.

Even though the resulting texts may look identical it would seem that if we take into account both the differing authorial aims and socio-historical situations of Cervantes and Menard that we actually have two differing works. On the other hand, if we were to ignore the intentions of both of these authors and just focus on the resulting text it might be thought that we simply have one work that has a multiplicity of possible interpretations. Sherri Irvin examines various theories about the relationship between authors, intentions and literary meanings in the article link below.

Related articles:
Authors, Intentions and Literary Meaning
Sherri Irvin, University of Oklahoma
(Vol. 1, March 2006)
Philosophy Compass

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