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Pierre Menard

November 7th, 2005

First in what I hope to be a long series of rambling commentaries on magic realism, my favoritest genre that is not a genre.

Can one do what any author from any previous era has done? Can a writer be, say, “the Voltaire of his time” for any purpose beyond that of a book jacket blurb? Of course not. Even Pierre Menard, who undertakes the epic task of rewriting the Quixote word for word, begins from the assumption that he can never be Cervantes, and further that if he could it would mean nothing. And he fails utterly. And he himself is no more than a fictional shadow of Borges’ own inadequacy.

But can even Menard, who admits his task’s futility before he begins it, keep from trying? Can Borges keep from trying, who writes not novels, but the fragmented legends of long lost novels by authors who will never exist? No. Nor can I. Why should I?

My second cousin moved when he was nineteen years old to an utterly undeveloped section of forest in Leverett, MA. He began by living in a tent, and built everything he now has himself: cabin, barn, farmhouse, garden, swimming hole. For fifteen years he lived alone without plumbing or power. I can’t even begin to assay what that took. He has lived by some of my highest ideals. Yet as he pointed out to me himself, what is that compared to the same act performed on a thousand times the scale by pioneers on this same land a mere two hundred years ago?

My grandfather constructed a telescope. He spent a year grinding down the lens by hand. He built the casing himself. When I asked him about it he took out a piece of paper and sketched the entire process in ten minutes.

But now I’m just taking unfair credit for my genes, when the object was quite the opposite: to begin, like Menard, at humility, at abjection. The point is made: my grandfather is neither Galileo nor Prospero. My cousin is not John Muir; he is not Eärendil. I am not Borges.

Yet I have no intention to cease my attempts to do what Borges did, no matter how often I am advised to desist for my own sake. Like the Sorcerer, I am ready to die knowing I have been nothing but some other man’s dream–so long as I have been given the chance to create my own lasting illusions.

What constitutes this futile aping of another place and generation’s genius? What is this thing I love in my own writing, the thing so many others justly despise? Call it a willingness to hold a narrative at arm’s length, to evaluate it as one would a historical event or a dirty diaper, from angles unexpected by those whom the narrative immediately involved. Often a fiction of Borges’ takes the form of a memoir or biography. It has the style and feel of an old man recalling the greatest mistakes of his life to his peers. In “The Library of Babel” there is not a single line of dialogue. “Pierre Menard” is written as a literary criticism, not as a story. These are what at Odyssey I learned to call distancing techniques. But “The Library of Babel” depicts a universe composed entirely of a single library the limits of which have never, perhaps can never, be explored. Does a metaphor of such complexity, resonance, pure monolithic immensity, require dialogue to elucidate it? Does it require a story?

But that’s not the question. I’m posturing–pretending to aim an arrow I’ll never let go because I’m not quite fool enough to waste it. The real question is: how does one create such a metaphor, save by living it–to wit, by being Borges? By growing up in Argentina in the first half of the twentieth century, by slowly going blind, publishing jounrnalistic writings, criticisms, slipping in the occasional impossibly far-fetched yet somehow plausible fiction into print among the rest.

At the one hand, context, genius. At the other, aspiration. Can an author aspire to honest magic realism without immersing himself in the context of fiction-as-fact, literary and existential slight of hand?

My great friend and cowriter Michael Purpura has drawn around himself such a context. I don’t believe I’ve shared in this venue the glorious tale of the two Michaels and the dream stone. I’m not sure this is the moment to do so, if he’d even permit me to enter such a thing to public record. Let me just say it’s one of my favorite things that ever happened to me. The moment Michael put that stone in my hands possessed one hundred percent of the atmosphere, the trappings, elicited one hundred percent of the emotional responses I associate with a fantastical occurrence (responses I am most commonly acquainted with experiencing in dreams)–while from any rational perspective possessing no fantastical element at all. I’ve had other experiences along these lines–Why I Wandered… is the account of one such–but none to equal that intensity. Michael, I am sure, has had many, though undoubtedly he experiences them in a different way.

So there it is, such as it is: a magic realist context, just for me. An authenticity of experience from which I may postulate real, honest magics. Meager, perhaps. And not exactly the sort of context that sets one on a trajectory towards blind poetude, nor even towards middlingly believable abstract journalistic fictions. But maybe it’s enough. I don’t know enough about the biographies of the other towering figures of my magic realist consciousness to say whether they all had to find those trappings of magic in their own lives before they could proceed with fictions. Those who knew Borges, certainly, had but to interpret what they saw in him. Bioy Casares, Garcia Marquez. Castaneda certainly had some kind of real experience that he made a career of converting into fiction.

Maybe that means I ought to be following Michael around with a palm-frond fan and a notebook. Not that he’s Borges, or Don Juan. But I’m only aspiring to be a little teeny magic realist.

I do believe there are metaphors to be had, perhaps even such monolithic metaphors as might satisfy a reader of Borges, in a space as slim as that between the eye and the computer screen. Metaphors we’ve never seen and may never see unless I sit here and stare at it until my eyes go cross. They won’t be Menard or the Library of Babel. But perhaps they’ll be like them, at least enough for me to respect myself in the morning.

Best way to find out is to get cracking.

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11 Comments »

  • Justin says:

    Michael,
    You have a lot of bewildering ideas here and are probably suffering under the weight of twice as many unspoken ones. I’m curious as to what you hope to get out of this dialogue, or is just entering into it the most important thing?

    I for one often feel the weird burden of suffering under the idea of timeless books: There is no progress and nothing can be dated, because whenever I pick up Dickens and read him, I transport him to the present. So, with this on the one hand and the notion of one author influencing another, you kind of have to embrace paradox.

    It would be possible to be the “Borges” of our time, by cultivating the same sensibilities either learned from him or one’s own life. I do believe the world resembles a giant ink-blot more than it doesn’t, and we only grow accustom to viewing it one way as opposed to another. What that sentence has to do with the one before it I don’t know, but I don’t understand how one could believe they COULDN’T be the magic realist of everyday life.

    In other words, I think you’re thinking too much.

  • Michael says:

    Well, Justin, I understand your immense distaste for intellectualism. I do. I even share it. Man, you should have seen how mad I got when this psychoanalytic theory professor I once had tried to convince me to equate any attack on intellectualism with complacent, prejudiced stupididy. The problem was, even had I been educated enough to argue with him on his own level, his argument was formulated in such a fashion as to undermine the very language with which it was conveyed, thus making it impossible to answer in any meaningful fashion.

    I hated that. Alas, I wouldn’t have been in the class in the first place had I not already bought into it a little bit.

    So, to answer your question. What do I expect to get out of this? I find a certain amount of critical theory useful in writing fiction. I like to break rules, as I think you know. How can I break them without knowing them? I also believe some kind of platform of ideas to be absolutely essential to the style of writing I’m attempting to emulate. The monolithic metaphors of Borges are based on ideas. So what I’m doing here is working out such a platform–an aesthetic framework.

    This is getting us dangerously close to another place I think you and I disagree, which is our attitude towards the literary in fiction. Again, I am in a complicated sort of hate/worship relationship with ‘literary fiction’. So, surely, are you. You like Dickens. He’s literary. Do you like Borges? My guess would be no–purely because the joy and wonder I get out of reading him come in great degree from thinking too much about what I’ve just read.

    But you’re right. I do have a lot of bewildering ideas about this whole subject that have yet to be spoken. Hopefully I will get to those soon.

  • Justin says:

    Can you strip your question down to one sentence? It might help to have something a bit more concrete to discuss. Is this platform of ideas coming from without or within? Are you taking them from Borges, let’s say, or finding your own and realizing they overlap with his?

    I like Borges but I don’t like the uses college professors put him to, which isn’t his fault anyways (and I know you don’t like that, either). He’s not as important to me as he is to you. I can read his stories, but I don’t get crazy about the flavor like I do with other authors. This could be a rock road vs. french vanilla kind of distinction. But that doesn’t help us come up with an aesthetic framework.

    Literature in fiction? We might not disagree. I will say I find that worrying about these things to be a form of self-torture and not something we can exclude from the writing. Right now, I’m reading Robert Aickman who can be said to have written “literary horror”. I’d really like to hear what you thought about him. I think you’d like him a lot. Maybe I’ll make some photocopies and send you some… Also, if you get a chance check out Raymond Queneau. He’s a bit like Borges meets the Marx Brothers.

    I wish some other folks would say something and add to the confusion.

  • Michael says:

    I agree with Justin’s second most recent comment: Boil your question down.

    Don’t let the comments of your relatives weigh upon you. There are few true “pioneers” anymore in any field. But for a field to keep advancing, for a pyramid to continue growing, there has to be an apex in some form, and the base must continue to grow.

    I will not claim to be remotely as well read as yourself, nor most of the other people who post; yet the unspoken cliche remains… Greatness not truly achieved in their own lifetime.

    The thing that others despise? You are not in line. Why are they following the lemmings off cliff, myself perhaps included? And you seem to be skipping in a different line, one that is not heading into the cubicle…
    You have chosen to pursue what few ever even try to do – your dreams.

    Or maybe you should listen to my Dentist.

    “Michael, you need to drink more!”

    I know The Waning Moon Tavern makes a pretty nice Morgan’s. :))

  • Justin says:

    The esteemable Dr. Ridler just quoted this to me in an email:

    As the Haiku master Basho said, do not imitate the great masters, but seek what they sought.

  • Michael says:

    I believe the good Doctor sent that same quote to me. It is indeed a great piece of wisdom, which I intend to take to heart. Attempt to see the world with a Borgesian eye, yet write about it with my own pen. Anyhow I suspect that any attempt to imitate Borges, on my part or anyone else’s, would wind up looking a lot more like an attempt to imitate Lovecraft. But more on that in the next post.

    And yeah, more drinking certainly couldn’t hurt.

  • MJP says:

    “Maybe that means I ought to be following Michael around with a palm-frond fan and a notebook.”

    HAHA! That’s okay, I take my own notes 😉

    “his argument was formulated in such a fashion as to undermine the very language with which it was conveyed, thus making it impossible to answer in any meaningful fashion.”

    You’ve got the crux of it right there. The difference is in the way people language things to themselves and to others.

    This appears to me as your main question: “Can an author aspire to honest magic realism without immersing himself in the context of fiction-as-fact, literary and existential slight of hand?”

    You language it as one question, and I language it as two.

    ‘Can an author aspire to honest magic realist without immersing himself in the context of fiction-as-fact?’

    and

    ‘Can an author aspire to honest magic realist without literary and existential slight of hand?’

    But I can’t answer those until you explain to me what you mean by a ‘context of fiction-as-fact’, by ‘literary slight of hand’, and by ‘existential slight of hand’.

    Those turns of phrase are all too abstract for us to mean the same thing by them–so, to a lesser degree, you are guilty of doing what that professor did, and I can’t answer in a meaningful fashion until you form your questions more precisely or use specific examples.

  • MJP says:

    I hope that excerpt I sent you is worth rereading.

    In the same way that I am a Dreamer, You are a Writer. It is your path to perfection. Give it a purpose, and it will activate.

  • mjd says:

    Use of initials–much preferable to everybody signing “Michael” and confusing the bejeezus out of each other. Well chosen, mjp.

    I believe ‘fiction-as-fact’, ‘literary sleight of hand’, and ‘existential sleight of hand’ to be interdependent concepts. A perfect example of fiction-as-fact is the difference between ‘magic’ and ‘magick’–the word’s long, convoluted etymology aside, the former is understood by pretty much all to connote fictitiousness in a contermporary context, whereas the latter is understood (at least by me) to connote exactly the same thing, only veiled about by the heavenly glories of self-important pretension. That trailing ‘k’, which in the time of the Witches’ Hammer, the Inquisition, and the Pile of Stones on Your Chest as Reward for Looking at Your Neighbor Askance, *belonged* to that word, has since been commandeered by the Golden Dawn, Neopagans and Voodoo Capitalists as a means to denote “realness”. Now–none of these three contemporary examples, by my estimation, can quite be referred to either as literary or existential sleight of hand. They are sleight of hand of the usual kind–the distraction used to call your attention away from your suddenly lighter pocket. To designate any abstract, metaphysical thing ‘literary’ or ‘existential’ (as you probably know if you’ve ever had a good conversation with me) is one of the few sure ways to garner my approval. But no, I’m not just proposing these lovely big adjectives merely as means to distinguish aesthetically pleasing bullshit from ugly bullshit. Let’s say, rather, that literary sleight of hand is a piece of fantastic literature which is so appealing and at the same time so believable that I am willing to allow myself to be deluded, at least temporarily, into thinking it is not fiction–something like what Castaneda does in making up all that about Don Juan–and existential sleight of hand is achieving the same effect, but through a profound action or gesture rather than via the written word, for example whatever the hell Don Juan actually did to make Castaneda believe him, or, you giving me that damn moon rock on that particular cold March afternoon.

    Does this clear anything up, or only make things worse?

  • Justin says:

    It makes things plenty worse for me.

    Is Don Juan a literary character or not? If he is, how can he do anything that is not the result of the author’s (intentional or uninterntional) actions?

    PS –
    I plan on boycotting Prentara until you update your blog with tha Lovecraft post you threatened a few comments back there.

  • MJP says:

    A further clarification…

    What is the distinction between magic-realism and fiction-as-fact? What is magic-realism? is, I guess, the question I forgot to ask.

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