Thursday, March 29, 2012

Blog #7: Danielewski with Borges (Richard McKita)

On page 42 of House of Leaves, Danielewski makes a curious and obscure reference to Jorge Luis Borges' 1939 short story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote." The fictional author of Danielewski's text-within-a-text quotes a passage from the original Don Quixote, and then an identical passage from Borges' fictional Menard, and comments on the latter's "sorrow, accusation, and sarcasm," prompting commentator Johnny Truant to fly into a fit of rage at the absurd pretension of quoting two identical passages and then commenting on their "exquisite variation."
There are several levels operating in Danielewski's use of Borges' story here. First, there is the simple joke which is obvious to any reader who is not familiar with the Borges story: it's just a funny bit of satire which calls attention to the hollow pretension of some academic writing, poking fun at professional literary critics who literally find meaning even when there is none. This level of meaning is only possible if we take Truant's commentary at face value and refuse to enquire any further into the passage.
A second, slightly more complex but still obvious, purpose is that the passage places Danielewski's novel solidly within a tradition of experimental literature going back to the early part of the 20th century. In writing House of Leaves Danielewski has created a novel which presents itself as a genuine original text by a set of fictional authors (Zampano, Truant, the Editors, etc.) describing a film which only some authors claim is actually real, and citing other works in epigraphs and footnotes which are a confusing mix of real and fictional. The formal connections with Borges' story are obvious here: Borges created a fictional author and connected him biographically to famous real-world figures as well as invented ones, and presents his story as a piece of critical commentary on that author's work rather than as a narrative, exactly as Danielewski has done. Moreover, Borges' story identifies his fictional author closely with Symbolist and Surrealist writers who had a strong influence on the literary avant-garde that gave rise to many of the techniques that Danielewski uses in his book, both in the purely literary sense (metafiction, stream-of-consciousness, etc.) as well as in the more radical innovation of the layout and design of the book itself. With regard to the latter element we can refer specifically to Stephane Mallarme, connected closely with Menard in Borges' story, whose long poem A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance was a major stride in the creation of English visual or concrete poetry as a form, a tradition without which House of Leaves simply couldn't exist as it does. Borges' story, additionally, makes use of articifical footnotes to comment on the work itself, in a rather more minimalist sense than House of Leaves does, but prefigures Danielewski's technique nonetheless.
Third, we have the literal meaning of the passage as Zampano intended it, exactly the meaning which Truant failed to understand in his assertion that "both passages are exactly the same." The "exquisite variation" found between the real Quixote and Menard's version is not there in the text itself, in the characters or their literal meanings, but imparted by the reader who has special knowledge of the source of the texts. The footnote is attached specifically to a passage which describes the way in which an echo, even a perfectly accurate one, can change the meaning and tone of a word or sentence by playing on the listener's knowledge of the person who echoes. Echo, the mythological figure discussed by Zampano as emblematic of the symbolic value of echoes throughout literature, "colours the words [she echoes] with faint traces of sorrow (the Narcissus myth) or accusation (the Pan myth) never present in the original." Of course this is a major theme in Borges' story as well:
"Menard (perhaps without wanting to) has enriched, by means of a new technique,
the halting and rudimentary art of reading: this new technique is that of the
deliberate anachronism and the erroneous attribution. This technique, whose
applications are infinite, prompts us to go through the Odyssey as if it were
posterior to the Aeneid and the book Le jardin du Centaure of
Madame Henri Bachelier as if it were by Madame Henri Bachelier. This technique
fills the most placid works with adventure. To attribute the Imitatio
Christi to Louis Ferdinand Céline or to James Joyce, is this not a
sufficient renovation of its tenuous spiritual indications?"
Zampano's, and Menard's, very basic point is simply that changing the identity of the author/speaker alters the meaning of a text for the listener/reader. The exact passage quoted by Zampano is in fact analyzed by the fictional critic of Borges' story. Written by Cervantes in the original work, we can read this passage in a straightforward manner: truth comes out of history which opposes the destructive progress of time, records famous actions, bears witness to past events, serves as a source of advice for the present, and acts as a warning for the future. However, when written by Menard in the faux Quixote, we cannot assume that he simply means what he says, because he is a modern intellectual with an updated view of the function of truth and history. And so we find that the passage does in fact seem sorrowful, accusatory, and sarcastic, because the act of copying the Quixote represents a denial of truth, history, wisdom, etc etc:

"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 the present, 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. There is no exercise of the intellect which is not, in the final analysis, useless. A philosophical doctrine begins as a plausible description of the universe; with the passage of the years it becomes a mere chapter—if not a paragraph or a name—in the history of philosophy. In literature, this eventual caducity is even more notorious. The Quixote —Menard told me—was, above all, an entertaining book; now it is the occasion for patriotic toasts, grammatical insolence and obscene de luxe editions. Fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst."
So Johnny Truant finds himself the butt of yet another of Danielewski's jokes: in his zealous attempt to "call out" academic pretension, he has actually made a fool of himself and demonstrated that he actually has no grasp on the actual meaning of the text he is editing at all.
If we follow the subject of echoes specifically through Borges back to Danielewski:
"Shall I confess that I often imagine he did finish it and that I read the
Quixote —all of it—as if Menard had conceived it? Some nights past, while
leafing through chapter XXVI—never essayed by him—I recognized our friend’s
style and something of his voice in this exceptional phrase: 'the river nymphs
and the dolorous and humid Echo.' This happy conjunction of a spiritual and a physical adjective brought to my mind a verse by Shakespeare which we discussed one afternoon:
'Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk . . .'"

It's hard for us to see what the short quote about the Turk, from Othello, has to do at all with the quote from the Quixote. It seems as if this nonsense connection is another of Borges' pranks: the second quote doesn't have anything to do with the first, it simply represents the fictional critic obfuscating what really reminded him of Menard, which was the figure of Echo, because the whole essay is built on expounding the virtues of Menard's project, and identifying it as a mere "echo" of the Quixote would be a disservice. So in this reference Danielewski calls our attention to an obscure literary reference to the concept of Echo, the subject of this chapter, as well as the concept of authors as echoes, and finally to the existence of an unreliable narrator. Of course the author-as-echo in House of Leaves has several layers: We have Zampano who, as the editors and one of his transcribers point out, devotes an unprofessional amount of space in his text to simply "echoing" the content of the Navidson Record, and we have Johnny Truant, who in a kind of "echo" is posthumously publishing Zampano's work with his name attached (and, even though Truant's commentary is so central to House of Leaves, we find here a strong connection between the two fictional authors which may help us work out their true identities within the larger world of the novel).

The concept of the unreliable narrator or disingenuous author is central to both House of Leaves and "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote." In Borges' story, it's well-known that Menard often composes texts which mean exactly the opposite of his true thoughts. Among his published works is "an invective against Paul Valéry, in the Papers for the Suppression of Reality of Jacques Reboul. (This invective, we might say parenthetically, is the exact opposite of his true opinion of Valéry. The latter understood it as such and their old friendship was not endangered.)" Later the author describes Menard's "resigned or ironical habit of propagating ideas which were the strict reverse of those he preferred." In House of Leaves, the character most often associated with outright lying and falsifying accounts is Johnny Truant: over and over again Truant describes his habit of attempting to pick up women in bars by concocting fables of adventure and romance, admits that he presented similar tall tales to his high school Disaffected Youth Counselor, and, as his mental state begins to worsen due to his obsession with Zampano's manuscript, has trouble relating actual events to the reader as his panicked fantasies seem to break through into his narratives. In this sense we are subtly encouraged to take even less stock in what Truant tells us in his commentary than he himself seems to suggest. And yet this effect doesn't stop with Truant: since Zampano, and even Danielewski himself, are so strongly tied with the character of Menard in Borges' story, they too are guilty by association of Menard's authorial dishonesty, and the entire book is cast in a strange light of uncertainty.

So Danielewski here uses a very small reference to cast even further intense doubt on the reliability of the text with which we are presented. This is in addition to the two other functions that the quote serves: to place House of Leaves in literary history and to comment upon the theme of echoes which is central to the chapter in which it occurs. What seems at first a minor literary reference in fact explodes into a vast network of meanings, subtexts, and associations.


Borges, Jorge Luis. "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote."

(I can't get the paragraph breaks in this thing to format correctly, sorry if it's difficult to read.)


Caia Caldwell said...


You take a complex topic, and make it understandable using clear and concise language. This is one of the best aspects of your essay. My understanding is that you are looking at a passage in relation to three things: the satire found in the passage, the novel format of the book, and how different authors change the actual meaning of a passage.

You make valid points in all three of these arguments, but I think if you revise this essay into a stronger revision, you should focus on one of these points, giving multiple examples in the book.

For example, if you are going to talk about how House of Leaves mocks the traditional style of literary criticism, then you should provide examples from various parts of the book. While the content worked for the essay, I feel that the three topics you bring up are so dense that a closer examination is called for.

Adam said...

Commenting on your first paragraph by way of Marcuse, I'd argue that one thing that Borges is satirizing is academic criticism which is not interested in truth. Now, for Borges truth might not be dialectical as it is for Marcuse, but the term is still relevant.

The material on Mallarme, etc., is good. It would be easy to make a case that you just should have done that, rather than to try to incorporate it as an aside. I'll also point at, as I always do, that both Borges' and Danielewski's experiments are deeply and authentically rooted in Cervantes, which we need to understand even if we also turn to a more contemporary avant-garde to understand them. Cervantes himself is being experimental, satirical and deeply critical of how history functions in *his* world in this passage, which we should not forget! (Borges is very good on the appalling things that people do with Don Quixote, turning it into a "classic" in the worst sense, to borrow Marcuse's language).

You're very good on the ways in which Johny's incomprehension lead to a perverse, Borgesian defense of academia. To put it simply: we can't read well without context - for which we need something very much like academia.

Your discussion of unreliability is incomplete. If we follow Menard, we should pay attention to the opposite of Johny's apparent thoughts, rather than simply ignoring him - just reminding you of the original thrust of your discussion of Menard. That's much more than simple unreliability - it's more like the kind of multifaceted treachery we see in "Three Versions of Judas."

You're trying to do a lot here - too much, in many ways - such that the ending collapses into being far less than it is, because the strength of your initial insight into Menard is already beginnign to dissolve into something simpler. As Caia points out, there would be benefits to streamlining this - or, maybe better, to articulating the relationship between its parts more clearly, so show us in depth what it means to read Johny through Menard.