We usually consider the past as an untouchable dimension, where fixed facts are continuously added to build a growing collection of chronological events. The intellectual and poet J. L. Borges challenges this scenario asking his character Pierre Menard to re-write a verbally coincident novel to Cervantes´ Chisciotte. This trivial task – however – turns out to be impossible: can we reproduce the meaning of an original opus considering that the act of its rewriting is inevitably invested by a different historical truth?
In our mind, we commonly define history as a collection of subsequent facts experienced by humanity since its origin.
The first reported definition of fact is the following: “A thing that is known or proved to be true”.
Sticking to this logic, an event can be considered a fact if it carries a definition of truth.
But what is our perception of truth?
Moving from the definition of history, truth should simply represent a growing accumulation of stated facts.
Indeed, since their birth, in order to survive children are forced to accept some fundamental pieces of knowledge without investigating the content of their truth. They cannot afford to test every given aspect of our culture, as this would cause mental distress. Therefore, first as infants and then as adults, we need to rely on some certainties for the integrity of our psyche.
However, this tendency to consider the past – so each fact that happened before our appearance – as a permanent and unquestionable scenario, places every individual in an erroneous perspective.
To unravel this contradiction, J. L. Borges – an Argentinian poet and writer – imagines a fictional author, Pierre Menard, committed to rewriting a literally identical novel to the Don Chisciotte (1, 2). However, despite the apparent triteness of the task, Menard meets the impossibility to reproduce the exact meaning of the original opus, since the significance he poses in his act of rewriting is – necessarily – invested by a different truth, which he can hardly get rid of.
Here is how Borges defines Menard´s intentions:
“Those who have insinuated that Menard devoted his life to writing a contemporary Quixote besmirch his illustrious memory. Pierre Menard did not want to compose another Quixote, which surely is easy enough – he wanted to compose the Quixote. Nor, surely, need one be obliged to note that his goal was never a mechanical transcription of the original; he had no intention of copying it. His admirable ambition was to produce a number of pages which coincided – word for word and line for line – with those of Miguel de Cervantes.” (2)
To understand the task, we should overturn common sense.
We typically assume that our comprehension of written works fully coincides with author´s original intentions. However, although the literal composition does not change over time – it is indeed stable –, its significance is impermanent and subjected to historical circumstances.
Thus, shouldn´t we rather consider authors´ intentions as crystallized facts, and their products as fluid matrices, whose dynamic meanings depend on contingent thoughts and historical context? While the truth of our contingent environment enlightens historical significance, the written reproduction of events does not carry (itself) any meaning.
So here comes Menard´s inescapable failure: in order to compose the original Chisciotte, he should have been Miguel de Cervantes himself, back in the 17th century.
Perhaps we could go a step further and consider, besides the power of writing, the effect of reading: could the original Cervantes´ intention still be alive, now that we approach the Chisciotte at the beginning of the 21st century?
Doubtless, we should re-think history as a flexible collection of perspectives and opinions, whose meaning changes over time.
Truth is indeed a bubbling magma that constantly redefines our way of sensing reality.
- de Cervantes, M., “Don Quixote”, 1605-15.
- Borges, J.L., “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (For Silvana Ocampo)”, 1939.