Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Il vaut le voyage: Borges, Jane Austen, Gus van Sant, and the Zombies, or, Truth is stranger than fiction

Posted: Sep 22, 2013 09:09;
Last Modified: Jan 25, 2014 14:01

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I’m slowly working my way through the collected fictions of Borges (in translation, unfortunately), and loving it. I’d never read much of him before, but he’s rapidly becoming a favorite.

Right now I’m reading “Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote,” which is about a minor authors whose greatest work was that he set about to recreate, word for word, several chapters from Don Quixote. The joke is basically a variant on the monkeys and Shakespeare except with a bit of direction. Menard’s idea is that he is going to set down to write the Quixote, not copy it, and produce it word for word:

Pierre Menard did not want to compose another Quixote, which surely is easy enough—he wanted to compose the Quixote. Nor, surely, need one be obliged to note that his goal was never a mechanical transcription of the original; he had no intention of copying it. His admirable ambition was to produce a number of pages which coincide—word for word and line for line—with those of Miquel de Cervantes.

As he says at one point to the narrator, this implies that Cervantes himself had it easy: “I have assumed the mysterious obligation to reconstruct, word for word, the novel that for him was spontaneous… Composing The Quixote in the early seventeeth century was a reasonable, necessary, perhaps even inevitable undertaking; in the early twentieth it is virtually impossible. Not for nothing have three hundred years elapsed, freighted with the most complex events. Among those events, to mention but one, is The Quixote itself.”

Probably the most amusing thing about this story is that the concept is ridiculous, but not fictional. People actually do the easier variants on this. Thus Gus Van Zant tried to pull a Menard right after his success with Good Will Hunting (a movie that my father had a role in and was the math advisor for), by recreating Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho shot-for-shot (of course, Van Zant took the easy route that Menard spurned: a) he copied it rather than actually try to recreate it without following the original; b) he was apparently an obssessive fan (Menard is not really that familiar with The Quixote and b) his version was in colour, incorporating, in other words, some of the events of the time that has passed since the original.

(If Van Zant’s film is not precisely Menardian, however, Timothy Sexton’s appreciation of it on Yahoo, is very much Borgian:

Vaughn has the distinct advantage of audiences coming into the movie already aware that Norman Bates is the titular cross-dressing murderer, so he acquired the latitude to allow Norman to be less normal and more creepily off-kilter right from the beginning.

The construct of the original was dependent upon audience ignorance of what takes place at the Bates Motel in order to achieve the first of its many shocking twists and revelations. As a result, Perkins is hindered in a way Vaughn is not. This disconnect contradicts the idea that a shot-by-shot remake is pointless and serves to point up another aspect of the remake that is superior to the original.

Hitchcock simply could not allow Perkins to play Norman Bates authentically because of his vital role in creating what can accurately be described as a false consciousness. In other words, Perkins’s Norman Bates is required to be a marketing ploy for most of the movie, whereas Vaughn is allowed to penetrate into and reveal more of the true nature of Norman right from the beginning.

The difference here results in the “unoriginal” shot-by-shot remake paradoxically purifying the story of “Psycho” by breaking free from the game of manipulating audience expectations that Hitchcock chose to play. )

The other one is [Pride and Prejudice and Zombies]. Actually, this is a sub-Menardian feat, “one of those parasitic books that set Christ on a boulevard, Hamlet on La Cannabière, or don Quixote on Wall Street.” As the narrator notes, “like every man of taste, Menard abominated those pointless travesties.”

So take that!

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