Monday, June 28, 2010

Borges' Recounting of Don Quixote

The true irony of Juan Luis Borges’ wonderful short story “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote” is that Pierre Menard’s word for word repetition of Don Quixote is in fact an act of criticism of Cervantes’ novel precisely because it is the negative image of that novel. [Note: I recommend Tobias Smollet’s translation.] Pierre Menard’s exact repetition of Cervantes’ novel as repetition makes explicit the formalization of repetition as recounting already in play in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The novel allegorizes the madness of reading as repetitions: it a translation of a text written in Arabic written by a Moor who in turned translated other texts and transcriptions of letters, bills, found manuscripts, handwriting on the margin (727, Smollet). These repeated texts which are only partially recovered (all of Part two is what can’t be deciphered except by an academician (last page of Part One). The novel depends on an economy in which repetition that recounts in a paradoxical manner, adding new material that is repeated and by partially voiding. These various kinds of repetitions constitute the literariness of the novel, not because of it framings (novel within a novel) and self-reflexive modernity. The literariness of don Quixote lies in the way repetitions and recountings always adds on yet one more that is also lacking, unreadable, unmemorized, lost or subject to decay (by worm eating) and destruction (book burning). Some of the texts are unfinished, such as the galley slave’s autobiography. Even Don Quixote may be viewed as unfinished, a third part hinted at in the preface to Part Two put out of its misery in the final chapter of part Two. The novel’s literariness is a function both of its philological self-consciousness and of its philosophical ironization of philology: repetition cannot recover an original, correct errors, emend what has been lost. Rrecounting is always miscounting. But one can only understand this point about the error of repetition by reading the novel as if it could be read philologically, as if it could all add up by recounting it. Borge offers us Pierre Menard’s ‘exact” repetition of Don Quixote as the unacknowledged and misrecognized proof of this truth of Cervante’s novel.

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