How we read and how we respond

Every now and again I think about a short story I read for the first time about 25 years ago, Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”.  It is a humorous account of a pompous, middling French poet whose magnum opus is a reimagining (of sorts) of Don Quixote.  The entirely credulous narrator — a friend of Menard defending the poet’s legacy — notes how Menard began to learn 17th century Castilian at the outset of his Quixote project.  However, the poet considered it “too easy” to “be Miguel de Cervantes” (91) by recreating the Spanish writer’s language and life.  Instead, Menard decides to reconstruct some chapters of the epic entirely in his own head.  Here are the results, according to the narrator:

It is a revelation to compare the Don Quixote of Pierre Menard with that of Miguel de Cervantes.  Cervantes, for example, wrote the following (Part I, Chapter IX):

…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.

This catalog of attributes, written in the seventeenth century, and written by the “ingenious layman” Miguel de Cervantes, is 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 staggering… (94)

Part of the humour here lies in the narrator accepting and arguing for Menard’s claims of producing a verbatim version of Cervantes’ work simply through deep thought!  Another aspect to the humour, though, is the notion that Menard’s version takes into account all of world history, literature, philosophy, and science that has occurred in the 300 years since the publication of Don Quixote (93).  Somehow that 300 years adds something to this latest version/facsimile, though the words of the reproduced Quixote represent no change from the original. The narrator reads Cervantes’ text and concludes it is “mere rhetorical praise of history” and “archaic”; he sees Menard’s exact copy and comes to an opposite conclusion of “striking” to the point of “staggering” (94).

All of this seeming absurdity is nonetheless suggestive of more sober judgements in the Graff and Manarin papers.  Graff writes about relativism in undergraduate textual interpretation:  “Such relativism is indeed entailed by the theory that readings are produced by readers without being grounded in the text… to argue, as I do, that no text tells us what to say about it does not mean that we can legitimately say anything at all about it” (72).  Manarin adds:

This focus on a reader’s response … is ubiquitous … Scholes places our failures to teach close reading in the context of ‘the death of the author, reader-response criticism, the self-deconstructing text, and the symptomatic readings of cultural studies, all of which, in various ways, undermine the notion of authorial intention as a feature of the reading process’” (288).

Borges’ short story takes to an extreme the relativism that Graff and Manarin observe, showing us in fiction how absurd textual interpretation can become when authorial intention is disregarded.

Having written all of the above, I am still convinced there remains a place for centred interpretation of texts — an important place.  I was reminded of this at the Free-Exchange conference last weekend.  I was one of three panelists discussing collections (a session chaired by our colleague, Shuyin).  All three panelists constructed interesting, detached arguments about collections, citing relevant scholars.  Yet, when we made personal, centred observations, the audience really sat up and listened.  When I mentioned that I was “conned all along” in assembling a collection of woodworking magazines, people chuckled;  several of the questions asked of me afterwards concerned my personal opinions about woodworking.  Another panelist spoke of hirs mother’s collecting that led to hoarding.  When ze told everyone of the toll this took on the rest of the family, it was one of the most powerful, compelling moments in the entire conference. Decentering is important — to make close reading more like distant reading (Manarin 291) — but centred interpretation, when handled well, can offer extraordinary learning moments.  “Pierre Menard’s” eccentric narrator does not grasp this requirement for balance, but in the real world of teaching that we occupy with Graff and Manarin, we need to help our students come to a better understanding about appropriate moments to centre and to decentre.  I plan to keep this in mind for my own reading and interpretation, too.

Work Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis.  “Pierre Menard,  Author of the Quixote”.

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3 Responses to How we read and how we respond

  1. fhalpern says:

    Thanks for a very interesting post. Do you think that we (professional literary critics) use the personal in different ways from the ways that students do? How do they tend to use it (we can look at Manarin for examples) and how did you and the other panelists use it at Free Exchange? I think it would be really helpful to understand the fine distinctions so you can show that to students.


  2. Jon Rozhon says:

    It is a good point that students use the personal in different ways. When they arrive at university, they are still teenagers, and we as parents know how solipsistic teenagers can be! I think there can be much intellectual value gained from teenage experience — rap music lyrics understood in their social context, the increasing role of AI in our world that students grasp through their experiences of gaming, etc. But inasmuch as they teach their instructors about their worlds, we need to show them about the worlds they can find within literature and criticism.
    I will think more about the fine distinctions. You are right that there are occasions where a focus on the centre is ok (a personal essay for example) and where personal experience may inform a paper (because it always does) but not be at the core of the argument.

    • fhalpern says:

      I think you’re absolutely right that we always bring in the personal, but how we do it might vary considerably. For example, professional literary critics often foreground a political view of an author they think is potentially liberatory or the opposite (although they don’t come and say so explicitly)–in other words, we often encode our political views in our literary criticism. But we would not talk about how a particular passage in a literary work reminds us of something that happened in our childhoods. So what’s the difference? Part of it might have to do with how much of the personal we leave implicit, but it might also have to do with the fact that the “personal” for literary critics often has to do with literary or political views.
      Yet we do sometimes draw on personal experience in an intro, but we don’t end there: we begin there.

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