Ambiguity is richness

I’m currently reading Jorge Luis Borges short story collection ‘Fictions’ (1944). In one of the stories, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote‘, Borges reviews the – fictional – rewrite of ‘Don Quixote’ by the – fictional – author Pierre Menard. It’s a typical Borges piece, it leaves you wondering whether all is made up, or just parts of it, while being highly entertaining for both mind and humour.

In the story, Borges goes to great length to create the stage, listing other works by Menard and describing his efforts to not only translate or rewrite, but to re-create the story in its 17th-century Spanish, while himself being a French author of the 20th century. Borges has high praise for the depth of Menards work compared to Cervantes. This might be surprising, given that “Cervantes’ text and Menard’s are verbally identical” (emphasis by me) however, as the author concludes “the second is almost infinitely richer.” (p.40)

For a tester, this shouldn’t be too foreign – don’t we know that context matters? And Borges illustrates this nicely quoting a passage of the two works:

It is a revelation to compare Menard’s Don Quixote with Cervantes’. The latter, for example, wrote (partone, 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 judge to have happened. The final phrases—exemplar and adviser to thepresent, and the future’s counselor —are brazenly pragmatic.

The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard—quite foreign, after all—suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time. (p.40f.)

This story is only about ten pages long, I would recommend reading it – or any other Borges, really.

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About Karo Stoltzenburg

Software Tester in Cambridge. Views are my own.
This entry was posted in I've read a thing (or two) and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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