Monday, November 17, 2014

House of Leaves and "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"

In chapter V of House of Leaves, Danielewski has Zampano talking about echoes. On page 42, he references Jorge Borges' short story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote." The short story is a fitting example of echoes and their power and is very relevant to the part of the book in which it is placed. It’s also notable that the narrative idea behind Zampano’s The Navidson Record and Menard’s Don Quixote are the same, such as an echo, making the short story relevant to the book as a whole as well.
An echo is, in its simplest, a repetition. But, it is also a reflection. When Zampano and Borges talk about Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quixote by Pierre Mernard, they produce a relevant text from both. “…la verdad, cuya madre es la historia, émula del tiempo, depósito de las acciones, testigo de lo pasado, ejemplo y aviso de lo presente, advertencia de lo por venier”(Danielewski/Borges). “Which Anthony Bonner translates as ‘. . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exampler and lesson to the present, and warning to the future’”(43). The same Spanish passage is repeated word for word, once for each author.
Now, when Zampano brings up the two Don Quixotes, he does so as a footnote after telling the story of the nymph Echo, the origin of the word Echo. In the story, Echo can only ever repeat the last words spoken to her and it leads to every part of her disappearing until only her voice remains. Zampano writes that the “nymph can return a different and more meaningful story, in spite of telling the same story”(42).
In his footnote, Zampano simply claims that Mernard’s is an “exquisite variation” that is much more densely packed with nuance. Johnny Truant, in his note, is understandably confused. He inquires, “How the fuck do you write about ‘exquisite variation’ when both passages are exactly the same?”(42). Zampano doesn’t offer much context in his footnote, but that is required to understand it.
When Borges talks about the quote from Quixote, he writes a full analysis on Don Quixote as written by both authors. His argument of the nuance added in Marnard’s version is the difference in the context with which the stories were written. “Written in the seventeenth century, written by the ‘lay genius’ Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand… 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” (Borges).
The difference between the two passages is that the first author was simply writing what came to him in his natural, contemporary voice, while the second author was writing what came to him with a voice several hundred years in the past and with several hundred years more historical context to reference and add to the nuance. As Borges writes of Marnard’s process, “He did not want to compose another Quixote —which is easy— but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes”(Borges).
Mernard’s version of Quixote echoes the story of Echo in that he repeats the same words with different meaning and context, but it also does so in that he sought to completely erase the origin. Much like Echo’s body disappearing, leaving only her voice, “he did not let anyone examine these drafts and took care they should not survive him. In vain have I tried to reconstruct them” (Borges). This is another reason why Zampano would want to use this as an example of echoes.
Now, there is one aspect of "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote." that I have not really touched on beyond referring to it as a short story rather than a literary essay. It is a work of fiction. Jorge Borges wrote a fictional analysis about a work by a man named Pierre Menard. Pierre Menard does not exist and has never written Don Quixote. Similarly, House of Leaves features a fictional analysis about a work by a man named Will Navidson. That being said, the fictional character of Zampano talks about the fictional character of Menard as though he were real.  Danielewski also adds further layers to this similarity of fiction. The man writing this analysis, Zampano, is also fictional, as is the man who sorts out and edits the analysis into a book, Truant. At one point in "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" Borges brings up the idea of adding an extra character to the narrative in the form of Mernard pretending to be Cervantes, but Mernard ultimately decides against that.

With its same gimmick of a fictional analysis, House of Leaves acts as something of an echo of "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote." In this passage about echoes, Danielewski basically points to the short story as the origin of this device. But, when he does so, he does it by copying it, removing traces of its origin and original context (he never mentions Borges), and adding a new, more nuanced context. This passage on echoes is an echo of a story about an echo. Echo.


  1. Very good essay Rebecca! I thought you brought up a lot of good points throughout the essay, but I think the flow of it could use some work, and is a little hard to follow at times. You make some strong connections back to your thesis throughout the essay, and use a lot of evidence to make your argument. I think the conclusion could be expanded on some to explain why this is really significant throughout the whole book and not this one section. When I was finished I was still a little unsure why I cared that echoes were used and why it was so important in the book, but this could also be because we do not have a full understanding of the book yet and could be expanded on when we finished the book, if you chose to use this as your project. Overall, I thought it was a very good, and complex essay that could be used for a project.

  2. Your last line is clever. Actually, throughout your analysis is clever, but also not as focused as it could be. You spent more time than you really had to summarizing the appearance of Pierre Menard within HOL (some of this was probably fine, but it could have been trimmed), take your time actually saying something about it, then change topics too quickly.

    "but it also does so in that he sought to completely erase the origin. Much like Echo’s body disappearing, leaving only her voice, “he did not let anyone examine these drafts and took care they should not survive him. In vain have I tried to reconstruct them”" -- This is an excellent start to *something*. This should have been more of a beginning, though, and less of an end. Why does Menard's self-obscuring writing process matter? Does it help us under Z.? Johny? Both? Neither? You are touching upon important, interesting material, but don't really develop the most interesting parts of it.