In many ways, the story of Pierre Menard is representative of the work of Borges, for it is a manifestation of the processes of fictional invention that have made him one of the most influential twentieth century writers. In fact, this story deals with the process itself of literary artistic creation. It is, then, a commentary on what happens as Borges invents his fiction, just as it is an analysis of the creation of the work of art by Menard, or by Cervantes, or by any other artist.
Borges treats this theoretical question with respect to the Quixote in several of his other short fictions and essays included in the first collection of Borges’s work widely available in English, Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (1962, 1964). The essay “Partial Magic in the Quixote” analyzes the doubling of the fictional text through the invention of a manuscript on which the Quixote is based, a technique that confuses the distinction of fiction and history and has been the origin of the concept of metafiction developed by the literary critics of the 1970’s and 1980’s. “A Problem,” which is a parable, pursues further the question of the historicity or fictiveness of the manuscript and its supposed author, Cide Hamete Benengeli. The “Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote” explores the relationship of Cervantes to his character, Don Quixote, a question that Borges also confronts in the narrative about Menard.
The story of Pierre Menard poses a theme that Borges examines in many of his works: the relationship of the fictional world portrayed in the text and the world of real, historical experience. The passages are identical—those of Menard and those of Cervantes—but the difference of three centuries in the experience of the perceivers of the text (the readers and the authors) alters the essence of the fictional reality that arises from the text. The clearest example of the influence of the reader’s perception is seen in Borges’s comments on the language of the two apparently identical passages. Because of the reader’s own linguistic experience, Cervantes’s use of language is rhetorical but contemporary, while Menard’s is archaic and affected.
It is evident that for Borges the experience of reading is a process of transforming the fictional world into an interiorized experience analogous to historical experience. That process is a phenomenon inextricably bound to the circumstance of the reader.
Memory is what is retained (or created, in Borges' terms) in the mind from experience. The theme of memory fascinated Borges, who wrote "Pierre Menard" as a test of his own mental ability after a minor head injury turned serious and gave him hallucinations. Borges' concept of memory roughly parallels that of Marcel Proust, a writer whom Borges introduced to literature circles in Argentina. Proust's landmark seven-volume novel about memory, Remembrance of Things Past (1917), exemplifies the theory of French philosopher Henri Bergson that humans do not experience life when events happen, but later, in forming memories of those events. The processing of memories, Bergson postulated, takes place in the duree [duration], deep in the mind, where the superficial constraints of clock time do not interfere. Bergson's theories of time and memory inspired the Symbolist poets, Marcel Proust, and also Borges among others.
Like Proust, Borges attempted to express his own conception of memory and time in his fiction. At the end of his story "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" the narrator writes, "Already in memory a fictitious past takes the place of the other past, of which we know nothing, not even that it is false." In "Pierre Menard," the narrator postulates memory as a creative act. He compares memory, an act of reconstructing the past from the parts retained in the mind, with...
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