What Borges Learned from Cervantes
On Language, and the Thin Line Between Fiction and Reality
Borges reinvented Don Quixote as a playful novel, full of surprises and unexpected anticipations of the way we read today. Across genres and over decades, his varied meditations opened new paths for readers. The following conversation took place during January 2016 between Ilan Stavans, Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, author of Quixote: The Novel and the World (2015), and publisher of Restless Books, and William P. Childers, Associate Professor of Spanish at Brooklyn College and author of Transnational Cervantes (2006).
William P. Childers: Cervantes’s characters entered popular culture right away. In literary circles, though, to unleash its full potential his book had to escape association with European realism. Juan Montalvo tried; his prologue to Chapters That Cervantes Forgot (1895) is a declaration of cultural independence from Spain. But his satire is too tied to local circumstances in 19th
Ilan Stavans: Borges wasn’t only a devoted reader but also a passionate one. In “An Autobiographical Essay,” published in the New Yorker in 1970, in collaboration with Norman Thomas Di Giovanni, he describes the way he read Don Quixote at an early age, first in English, and when he came across it in the Spanish original, it felt to him like a bad translation. He wrote “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939), arguably his most influential story and—I don’t believe I’m over-inflating it!—perhaps the most important one of the entire 20th century. He also has the essay “Partial Magic in the Quixote,” included in Other Inquisitions (1952). There are several poems he wrote about it. Plus, he wrote a pedagogical piece on how the novel’s first sentence functions and another one on the last chapter.
WC: “Pierre Menard” is one of Borges’s first texts on Cervantes. It came to be read as a manifesto of postmodernism—for example, in John Barth’s 1967 essay “The Literature of Exhaustion.” Modern individualism overrates originality. Inventing a writer who contributes nothing to the text except putting his own name to it, as Menard does, makes a mockery of the concept of authorship.
IS: Elsewhere, I’ve wondered if Menard is nothing but a plagiarist. The narrator in Borges’s story builds a belt of meaning around his achievement. Stripped of that belt, he is nothing but a second-rate copyist. I’m being facetious but only partially. What if I took a parable by say Kafka, one of the least known, and published it under my name?
WC: Another way of thinking about Menard’s text is as a translation from Spanish into Spanish, as Georgina Dopico Black has proposed (Cervantes 31 : 27-49). Menard becomes a figure for what happens when the “same” text appears in another cultural locus; which really means every time it is (re)read, since, à la Heraclitus, you cannot immerse a text twice into the same mind.
IS: Plus, you can’t really be yourself twice.
WC: The narrator argues that what you call his “belt of meaning” makes Menard’s text richer than Cervantes’s, because of the recontextualization—it was “written” in the 20th century. This is a hilarious send-up to the scholarly pretense of “finding” meaning in a text, rather than admitting it is always bestowed in the act of reading. Yet Pierre Menard (Borges) could have chosen any work to repeat. Why Quixote?
IS: The answer is simple: El Quijote is at the heart—of better, what William H. Gass called “the heart of the heart”—of Hispanic civilization. In Borges’s view, no other work comes even close to articulating what we, los hijos de España, are about. The fact that Borges chooses Cervantes’s novel ought to be seen from another perspective, too. Latin America, the choice implies, was made of a series of European colonies. Culture (high culture, at least) was an import from the Old World. That import, the story suggests, has been not only appropriated but also recycled through a new prism. That an Argentine, one living in Buenos Aires, that is, “at the end of the world,” is able to rewrite, through the pseudonym of Pierre Menard, the sacrosanct oeuvre that justifies the existence of the Spanish language, means that the geopolitics have shifted from the center to the periphery. Or better, that the center no longer holds; it has been replaced by a plethora of other decentralized centers. This is, in my view, what the ideology of Menardismo, as described in Quixote: The Novel and the World, is about: the displacement of Spain as the fountainhead whose water irrigated its outposts. Originality, in the New World, is based on turning European aesthetics upside down, refreshing them, making clones based on it that are more original than the original. Call it the revenge of the natives!
WC: “The center cannot hold”—appropriately Yeats comes into play here, an Irish poet also writing from the periphery, apocalyptically announcing the end of colonialism. But what of the Argentinian background to this appropriation? What antecedents are there to Menardismo?
IS: Paul Groussac, a French native who was one of Borges’s predecessors as director of Argentina’s National Library, wrote eloquently, as well as polemically, on Cervantes and Don Quixote. He was a merciless critic. In his view, Cervantes’s style was clumsy—and, needless to say, he was right. Groussac also engaged in a polemic with Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo on the Quijote of Avellaneda. Rubén Darío, the leader of the co-called Modernista movement, dedicated “Coloquio de los Centauros” (Prosas profanes y otros poemas, 1896) to him. Borges frequently quotes Groussac, including in the essay “Partial Magic in the Quixote.” Then there is Leopoldo Lugones, another Modernista, who in his book Romancero (1924), invoking El Quijote, suggested that “el arte no presenta las cosas como son, sino como debieran ser,” art doesn’t present things as they are but as they should be. And, among Borges’s non-Argentine friends, whom he meets in Buenos Aires, are the Dominican essayist Pedro Henríquez-Ureña and the Mexican polymath Alfonso Reyes (who said that Groussac, French, taught him how to write in Spanish, a statement with tangible echoes in “Pierre Menard”), also wrote about El Quijote. Nevertheless, none of these references amounts to much when it comes to the weltanschauung of Menardismo, which is strictly Borges’s creation.
WC: “Pierre Menard” was no one-off. Borges read Cervantes all his life, and his reflections cut across genres: essays, lectures, fiction, poetry, interviews, memoir… He was the first to take a serious interest in the metafictional aspect of the narrative. “Partial Magic in the Quixote” uses that neglected dimension of Cervantes’s technique to frame the postmodernist dilemma concerning the relationship between subjectivity, language, and the world: “Why does it disquiet us to know that Don Quixote is the reader of the Quixote, and Hamlet is a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the answer: those inversions suggest that if the characters in a story can be readers or spectators, then we, their readers or spectators, can be fictitious.” Fiction and reality are interchangeable; neither can be shown to be more than a representation.
IS: I find it exquisite that Borges, in his essay, used El Quijote as well as Hamlet to make his case. Shakespeare’s play, composed sometime between 1599 and 1602, is almost an exact contemporary. (The First Part of Cervantes’s novel appeared in 1605.) There is much in common between them, the metafictional device being only one aspect. In my view, The Bard, Cervantes, and Montaigne invited us to see introspection—individualism as a life strategy, the reach of our dreams, the clash between thought and emotion—as the defining factor of modernity. Borges, the inveterate reader, also sees Hamlet and El Quijote as evidence that we, humans, are mere characters in a larger, inscrutable cosmic narrative.
WC: Exactly. Speech is not produced by an autonomous, freely self-determining intention that magically inserts itself into language. Language and the mythic structures that undergird it give rise to subjectivity. Borges’s found these late-20th
IS: One of the most delicious facets of Borges not often explored are his interviews. As he became increasingly blind (it was a congenital condition), he depended on others for help. That included using conversations to get his ideas out.
WC: As Ted Lyon noted, Borges gave hundreds of interviews, converting the practice into a performative literary genre full of irony and humor (Latin American Literary Review 22 : 74-89). He frequently returns to Quixote, usually repeating three points: 1) the specific adventures don’t matter, they are just a way to get to know the character; 2) Cervantes’s modest style facilitates emotional connection with the protagonist; and 3) in Part Two, characters who have read Part One become Quixote’s accomplices, positioning that book—which Borges prefers over Part One—at the in-between of realism and the fantastic.
IS: I love the format of the conversation. I have learned from Borges. He conversed with friends and strangers alike, in public and private. He had a portentous memory, which enabled him to quote at length from say John Milton and José Hernández. Some of his most insightful arguments are developed in this tete-a-tetes, reminding me of tangos. In his conversation with Antonio Carrizo and Richard Burgin, he talked about El Quijote.
WC: Cervantes’s achievement, for Borges, was to have created, out of words, an individual personality, larger-than-life and existing beyond language, beyond the representation used to convey awareness of him. This overturning of the ontological privilege of the real over the fictive challenges all “realities.” Cervantes’s masterpiece became the perfect illustration of Borges’s own theory of literature.
IS: For me El Quijote isn’t only the miraculous creation, out of words, of a magnificent pair; it is also a book at times inconsistent in style and overly episodic in structure. The same might be said about Shakespeare, by the way. This semester I’m teaching a course in the Hampshire County Jail, in Northampton, Massachusetts, called “Shakespeare in Prison.” I’m focusing on some later plays, especially Hamlet, King Lear, and The Tempest. There used to be a time when The Bard was seen as a genius, almost a freak of nature, whose talent was supernatural, that is, beyond this world. Our opinion has changed. His plays react to specific political, social, economic, and military events of the time. He also collaborated with an assortment of others. And the First Folio was a collective endeavor. In some way, his oeuvre shares some element, in terms of originality, with the King James Bible. All this to say that some Shakespearean plays are superb (Hamlet, for instance, although heaven knows it has its detractors) and others (Two Noble Kinsmen, Cymbeline, etc.) are of inferior quality. Inferior in him might be superior when compared even to Ben Jonson.
WC: Borges’s appropriation of Quixote marks a before and after in literary relations between Latin America and Europe. It provides the counterweight to strong readings of Cervantes as quintessentially Spanish appearing after the loss of Spain’s remaining colonies in 1898. Unamuno made Quixote a figure for Spain’s tragicomic role in history. Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations on Quixote (1914) initiated a Spanish intellectual tradition of philosophical reflection on Cervantes. Their reclaiming Spain’s most renowned writer as a national monument is a reaction to the impact of Latin American high Modernism, when Rubén Darío was so imitated in Spain. Don Quixote was their nationalist bulwark against the reversal of four centuries of cultural imperialism.
IS: Darío used anniversaries as inspiration. In 1892, a few years before the Spanish-American War, he wrote a diatribe about Christopher Columbus. And in 1905, he published “Letanía de nuestro señor Don Quijote,” to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of Cervantes’s novel. Darío describes Don Quixote as a religious figure to be admired yet one incapable of redeeming modernity from its multiple perils.
WC: Though each puts him to different use, Unamuno and Darío share a half-ironic presentation of Quixote as a saint. Borges kept in view the frail human person—Alonso Quijano, Miguel de Cervantes—underlying the mythic figure of the knight. This contrast is most evident in his poetry, where he uses it to meditate on the banality of life and the power of imagination. I’ve counted six short poems: “Readers” and “A Soldier of Urbina” in The Self and the Other (1964), “Miguel de Cervantes,” “Alonso Quijano Dreams,” and “The Witness” in The Unending Rose (1975), and “I Am Not Even Dust” in The History of the Night (1977). In Dreamtigers (1960) there are two prose pieces, similar to Kafka’s fables, called “Parable of Cervantes and Don Quixote” and “A Problem.” (The ‘problem’—how would Quixote react if he actually killed someone in one of his encounters?—pits the inconsequentiality of fiction against the ineluctability of death.)
IS: In my personal library there is a small book collecting all of Borges’s pieces on El Quijote. What I like most about it is its broken (e.g., fragmented) nature, which, needless to say, is Borges’s most lasting contribution to literature. One of the qualities seldom acknowledged is his passion for manuals and how-to volumes. He wrote introductions to Buddhism, to Germanic, British, and American literature, to mysticism, and so on. He also edited anthologies of Argentine literature (with Henríquez-Ureña), imaginary beings, fantastic literature (with Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo), etc. Thematically, he devoted an entire book to Dante’s Divine Comedy (Nueve ensayos dantescos, 1982). And I have his two-volume compendium (again with Bioy Casares) of Poesía Gauchesca (1955). Yet the volume I have on El Quijote was done after his death under the auspices of his widow María Kodama. My point is that Borges didn’t set out to study Cervantes’s novel in a systematic way. Instead, he returned to it in search of inspiration whenever he needed.
WC: Recently, I found online a recovered lecture Borges gave on Don Quixote at University of Texas in Austin in 1968. He was wildly popular. They gave him a tremendous ovation.
IS: He had received (along with Samuel Beckett) the Formentor Prize in 1961. It came along with a commitment by publishers worldwide to translate his oeuvre. (The prize was also known as the International Publisher’s Prize.) His ascent to global stardom thus takes place from the sixties onward. He first set foot in Texas, and in the United States, in 1961, though the lecture you’re referring to dates to another trip in 1968.
WC: His primary theme on this occasion was our friendship with Don Quixote. He addressed the issues of “Partial Magic”: fictional characters are just as real as we are, and we are just as fictional. But it’s charming that he does this an intimate way, closer to the feeling of the poems. An uncharacteristically sentimental Borges arrives at a moment of convergence with the author when discussing the character’s death. Where the narrator flatly states, “he gave up the ghost. I mean to say, that he died,” Borges argues Cervantes could not find adequate expression of his grief at the death of Don Quixote, so he resorted to a clumsy sentence, knowing the reader would understand no eloquence could fill that void. He ends the lecture with a moving gesture of his own, paralleling the one attributed to Cervantes: “Don Quixote… is essentially a cause of joy. I always think that one of the quite happy things that have occurred to me in my life, is having become acquainted with Don Quixote.” When asked to read something of his own after the lecture, he recited the sonnet, “To a Soldier of Urbina.”
IS: In Borges’s poem, Cervantes, trumpeting his military career, wanders through the landscapes of Spain looking for something to justify his life and accidentally stumbles upon the eternal couple that are the novel’s protagonists. I italicized the word because Cervantes is unaware and unworthy (“indigno,” a favorite Borges expression) of his own discovery. This, as you know, is a leitmotif in the critique of El Quijote. Miguel de Unamuno, for instance, also believed Cervantes to be unworthy of his achievement. Borges’s trickster style, a kind of “literary” Tourette syndrome, depends on countless, sometimes bogus quotations. He is constantly paying tribute to an ancestor, and, along the way, reconfiguring traditions. I find it bizarre, therefore, that in 2011, Kodama stopped the publication of El hacedor (de Borges), a remake by Agustín Fernández Mallo published by Alfaguara in Spain, that used—abused even—Borges’s quotations to create a postmodern collage. Her argument: intellectual copyright needs to be protected.
WC: How ironic that the “Pierre Menard” author’s widow should protect his copyright so tenaciously! As he wrote in “Borges and I,” “It is no effort for me to confess that he [Borges] has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition.” He made sure that was true of Cervantes.
IS: The last segment of that sentence is a kind of mantra for me: what we do isn’t really ours but rather, it is part of the larger, all-encompassing stream we call culture. I’m glad you mentioned copyright. It is a rather peculiar concept: owning an idea, a design, a set of paragraphs. A byproduct of the Enlightenment, copyright is a rather recent term. In the United States, it came into being as a legal concept in the late 18th
Feature image: still from Don Quixote: The Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha