White Whale Review: An Online Literary Magazine Untitled Document
WHITE WHALE REVIEW
JOSHUA M. HALL
Joshua M. Hall's poetry has been published in various literary journals including Ibbetson Street Press and Hazmat Review and is forthcoming in editions of LanguageandCulture.net and Mobius: The Journal of Social Change. Born and raised in Birmingham, AL, he holds a M.A. in philosophy from Penn State and is currently finishing his Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University, where he also teaches. He is also a classically-trained violinist and Latin dance instructor and choreographer.

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ECO-AUTHORITY AND MAD-HEROICS: ORTEGA, BORGES AND THE QUIXOTE

Joshua M. Hall

In this paper, we will offer a conception of madness as the hero’s granting authorship to the environment—what we will term mad-heroics and eco-authority—in Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations on Quixote and then utilize this conception to analyze Borges’ short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” We will begin by noting the tension between the imperialistic environment of Ortega’s narcissistic stance towards Argentina and Borges’ performative resistance to and simultaneous deepening of the ecological potential of Ortega’s thought. For Ortega, the hero’s madness provokes her environment to re-absorb her into reality, and this re-uptake is the most authorial aspect of the narrative; the hero’s second-order agency is imaginative stubborn resistance to the reality of an environment whose eventual swallowing up of the hero is the first-order agency of the story. In a way, then, the hero is not the author, or even the protagonist, of his story, but the adversary or counterpart. Similarly, in Borges’ story, Menard

can be understood as the hero who resists three hundred years of history, who stubbornly denies his sociocultural environment, denies his own opinions, and thereby even his reality. The narrator of the essay, too, is heroic in that he resists the pre-conceptions against Menard without any non-contradictory or suspicious evidence. Borges, finally, is heroic in that he resists his ultimate re-absorption into the canon of literature (and consequent exclusion from the canon of philosophy.)

I. Ortega, Eco-Philosophy and Imperialism

According to W. Kim Rogers, “Ortega’s philosophy of vital reason…is the first expression of an ecological approach in philosophy.”1 This is as opposed to the existential interpretation of Ortega’s thought. “What makes Ortega’s approach ecological,” she argues, is “its focus upon the interaction between living beings and their environment…”. In support of this claim, she quotes Ortega as follows: “It is mutual need which defines beings” (509). Organisms need their environment, and an environment needs its organisms; their interaction is the site of


significance, their “being together in tension” (510).

This ecological dimension is more problematic, however, in Ortega’s own life, especially in relation to his attitude to Latin America, Argentina in particular, to which he made three visits (in 1916, 1928 and 1939-1942), and the home of, among others, Jorge Luis Borges. When Borges was asked his opinion of Ortega, he replied, “I met him only once; a rather boring gentleman, I must say” and then allowed that the feeling might have been mutual. Given the tenor of Ortega’s remarks on Argentina, boredom might have been a euphemism for something much stronger, perhaps a dismissive contempt of an unwanted imperialist presence. To take three examples, Ortega accused the Argentine male of being narcissistic, claimed that Argentine writers “subsist on promissory signs, not the hard currency of achievement,” and wrote about the famed Argentinian Pampas as “a symbol of nothing.”2

Even more troubling are his later remarks on colonialism, part of, according to Peter G. Earle, his “persistent theme of a young nation whose future is a question mark,” in which he defines the life of the

colonized nations such as Argentina as “transitory,” “non-authoctonous,” “a regression to the primitive,” and, as Earle paraphrases it, the site for “the greening of sagacious Old World cultures in less civilized and never altogether colonized climes” (482, translation mine). The perspective here is the offensive imperialist one of “a colonialist’s justification of colonialism,” the conquering of an entire environment that makes Ortega’s ecologically suggestive thought seems what in environmental ethics is termed “greenwashing,” giving the appearance of concern for the environment while actually exploiting and crippling it.

Earle accuses Ortega of having a lack of both vision and communication with actual Argentines in his writings on the nation. “Ortega’s view of Argentina and the New World was strongly colored by his intellectual narcissism, which was exacerbated, in turn, by his progressive alienation from the Spanish Republic” (475). Intellectual narcissism seems the complete opposite of the kind of needy openness to being that Ortega’s thought espouses, and is perhaps partially explained as a


result of this alienation—another opposite of happy environmental embeddedness. Another ecological-type flaw Earle finds in Ortega on Argentina is that the latter wrote “as the ‘Spectator,’ the restless witness,” the very opposite of a thoughtful person immersing himself in the circumstances, the environment, in which wrote (477). Perhaps the first ecological philosopher, following Rogers, could only be so while at home in his own indigenous environment, pre-civil war Spain. Earle seems to want to suggest a more thoroughgoing problem in Ortega’s thought, however, noting that “ ‘yo soy yo y mi circunstancia’ [I am I and my circumstance] is not just an existential declaration, it is also a self-reflecting statement” (478). In other words, it is the expression of a narcissist who manipulates any and every environment into a mirror for his own self. We will investigate later whether a thinker from this Ortega-slighted country gets any closer in his own thought to a truly ecological philosophy. But for now, we will turn to Ortega’s text, Meditations on Quixote, to see how, at least at the theoretical level, what we will term eco-authority takes place there.

II. Eco-Authority in Ortega

The meditations are a collection of essays, which Ortega terms in his preamble, “To the Reader,” as “salvations,” the point of which is, “given a fact… to carry it by the shortest route to its fullest significance.”3 What is to be saved is the thing, the fact, the brute aspect of the environment, achievement of meaning for which is nothing other than this salvation. To the “intellectual love” which motivates these salvations, Ortega opposes the hatred of thing, wherein we “place between it and ourselves a strong spring of steel which prevents even the fleeting fusion of the object with our spirit” (32). Love is fusion of organism and environment; hatred, which “captured long ago” “the inner dwelling of the Spaniards,” is separation (32). Could this be an acknowledgement of Spanish imperialist violence, albeit one that stops short of questioning whether the love that seeks to save the loved object by fusing it into oneself is itself a kind of imperialist violence? As Hegel remarks in the Phenomenology of Spirit, “unintelligent love will perhaps do [someone] more harm than hatred.”4

 


Ortega continues to describe love as “an extension of the individuality which absorbs other things into it, which unites them to us” (33). Perhaps in some cases the beloved object is not just an object, and perhaps non-fusion is wanted or needed instead. Ortega describes love “binds one thing to another and everything to us in a firm and essential structure,” but it is unclear how equal this universal binding or bondage is in reality vis-à-vis us and everything else (33).

Continuing to describe these salvations, Ortega claims that, thought they “are propelled by philosophical desires,” they are not philosophy, but “simply essays” (40). One might say that they are the circumstances, the surroundings, the environment into which philosophy extends. (However, despite this disavowal on the part of the author, the meditations have been received by the philosophical community as philosophy; a status still denied to the works of Borges, an issue to which we will return below.)

Ortega then turns explicitly to his well-known philosophy of circumstance, in the following passage which we will consider carefully:

Circumstance! Circum stantia! That is, the mute things which are all around us. Very close to us they raise their silent faces with an expression of humility and eagerness as if they needed our acceptance of their offering and at the same time were ashamed of the apparent simplicity of their gift. We walk blindly among them, our gaze fixed on remote enterprises, embarked upon the conquest of distant schematic cities (41).

To begin, Ortega’s anthropomorphizing of the objects in the world seems problematic insofar as it is not entirely clear that other living beings and perhaps even other persons are to be included in “the circumstance.” One also wonders whether the things around us are essentially mute, or if we perhaps mute them with the very unseeing gaze that first takes them in for us. It is also not obvious that a face, literal or metaphorical, can ever truly be silent—is not a face always communicative in some way, saying or showing us something, even if it is its own lifelessness? Further, are the humility and eagerness perceived inherent and appropriate characteristics of the things, or are they the faces


they adopt with one who could or would not respond appropriately to anything more? A slave’s docility cannot be separated from the functional environment of his or her slavery. And do they seek our acceptance for a gift of which they are ashamed, or is it our imaginative distortion that sees a desire for acceptance, shame, and perhaps even a gift instead of resentment, wounded pride, and an object stolen or prostituted for the powerful? The final sentence of the passage begins to acknowledge a kind of “blindness” and an atmosphere of “conquest,” but without calling into question the language and rhetoric of blind conquest that we have observed in the preceding sentences.

Having laid out the philosophy of circumstance’s stance on or conception of the environment, Ortega then turns to its other half, the hero in this passage, which follows the previous passage immediately:

Few books have moved me as much as those stories in which the hero goes forward, impetuous and straight as an arrow, towards a glorious goal, without noticing the anonymous maiden who, secretly in love

with him, walks beside him with a humble and suppliant look, carrying within her white body a heart which burns for him, like a red-hot coal on which incense is burned in his honor. We should like to signal to the hero to turn his eyes for a moment towards that passion-inflamed flower which is at his feet. All of us are heroes in varying degrees and we all arouse humble loves around us… We are heroes, we are forever struggling for something far away, and trample upon fragrant violets as we go (41-2).

The hero, then, is essentially masculine, “straight” and locked in dialectic with a nameless woman. Just as with the random objects in the previous passage, she is “humble” and “suppliant.” She is white, and she actually seems to worship the hero with her “incense.” She is then reduced to an object in the world, a lowly flower, at the feet of the hero. Again, the last passage attempts to criticize the mentality espoused in the rest of the passage, but stops short of questioning the many problematic assumptions that arguably constitute the very neglect it decries. We are reminded here,


too, of Ortega’s imperialist attitude to Argentina and her writers, oblivious to what they have to offer—but not to offer to him, with whom, in the person of Borges at least, they are bored! Perhaps the hero hallucinates the love of the woman for him. Nevertheless, and perhaps in prophetic preparation for thinkers such as Borges, Ortega claims just below that “one of the most profound changes in the present as compared with the nineteenth century is going to consist in the changing of our sensitivity to environment” (42). And perhaps Ortega belongs to this tradition, in that his emphasis on circumstance paves the way for others who can also perform the sensitivity to which his own thought here lays the groundwork.

Ortega’s position is more complex than it first appears however, made particularly clear after his condemnation of the “political doctrine” of individualism, when he observes that “[i]ndividual life, the immediate, the circumstance are different names for the same thing” (43). What this means is that the hero/environment and I/circumstance and person/society do not stand in perfect analogical relationship. On the contrary, in certain contexts,

the individual person is the circumstance, in the sense of circumstantial or accidental, to the “I” of the society. In other words, the environment can take on agency, become the protagonist, and the individual becomes the circumstance in its oblivious, conquering path—the roles can and often are reversed. We will return to this issue below.

Just before his famous credo, “I am I and my circumstance,” Ortega provides an explicitly ecological analogy for it:

My natural exit toward the universe is through the mountain passes of the Guadarrama or the plain of Ontígola. This sector of circumstantial reality forms the other half of my person; only through it can I integrate myself and be fully myself. The most recent biological science studies the living organism as a unit composed of the body and its particular environment so that the life process consists not only of the adaptation of the body to its environment but also of the adaptation of the environment to its body (45).


In this case, Ortega the historical individual is the organism, the hero, and his geo-political Spain is the environment, the circumstance; and Ortega means for Spain to adapt itself to him, thus transforming itself around his heroic presence.

“I am I and my circumstance, and if I do not it save, I cannot save myself” (45, translation mine). Several things are worthy of attention for our purposes in this short sentence. First, recalling Earle’s post-colonialist critique above, note the order of “I” and “circumstance”; I come first, and define myself by the addition of me and something else. This means, that at the grammatical level, the claim is involved in a kind of infinite deferral. I am I plus (I plus (I plus)… Logically, one never reaches the circumstance. And as for this other half of me which seems forever out of reach, the grammatical feminine Other, I seem to want to save her simply in order to save myself, with naked reflexive self-interest.

There is a crucial historical dimension to this project of salvation: “the death of what is dead is life. There is only one way to dominate the past, the realm of things that have perished: to open our

veins and inject some of our blood into the veins of the dead” (49). Life, then, by logical implication, is the re-animation of the dead. Perhaps because it is dead, Ortega seems to have no qualms about our quest to “dominate” it. And the method: the sacrifice of our own lifeblood, the blending of our materiality into those who have gone before, a kind of transfusion as another example of Ortega’s view of love as essentially fusion of the other to the self. We will observe below how the main character in Borges’ story does the exact opposite of this with his “deliberate anachronism,” injecting the blood of the dead into his own veins to save both the past and the present with the cost of a kind of death or mummification of the hero.

At the end of this preamble, Ortega turns finally to the title-subject of the essays, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and in the spirit of philosophical environmentalism, he claims that the Don “has attracted exclusive attention, to the detriment of the rest of the book and, consequently, to that of the character himself” (50-1). The environment should be taken as seriously as the hero, though essentially only in order to serve the best interests


of the hero. Don Quixote, according to Ortega with further biological language, “is an individual of the Cervantes species” and for Ortega, “the real Quixotism is that of Cervantes… in his book” (52). It is thus the novel as environment which will constitute the focus of Ortega’s analyses.

The environment, however, is not one with which Ortega wishes to live in peace and harmony, but another site of conquest for the hero. Ortega notes that the novel “is reluctant to be taken by force, and only yields to whom it will” (52). Immediately after establishing this atmosphere of sensitive appreciation, Ortega shifts to the rhetoric of the calculating hunter, comparing the novel to the walled city of Jericho from the Pentateuch. “A work as great as Quixote has to be taken as Jericho was taken. In wide circles, our thoughts and our emotions must keep on pressing in on it slowly, sounding in the air, as it were, imaginary trumpets ” (52). It might be helpful to remember, however, that Jericho was a divine gift to, not a human conquest of, the Hebrew’s leader Joshua. We will return to the image of wide circles, however, when considering the concentric circles of mad authority in both the Quixote and Borges’ story about it.

The "Preliminary Meditation" opens with Ortega describing the physical location in which the idea for the book first came to him, on a hill near an old Smithy and a grove of trees, thus reinforcing and setting the stage for the importance of environment in all of what follows. He then proceeds to define the forest as “the latent as such” insofar as “The function of the visible trees is to make the rest of them latent” (61). In other words, the forest of the invisible depth of potentially-seen trees, the background or environment against which any individual tree-organism occupies the foreground.

But it is only through foregrounding the individual tree that the forest can be seen qua forest. There is no special deep way that the forest can express its depth, it can only do so through using the surface. Ortega terms this strategy “the pedagogy of suggestion,” suggesting the truth qua “unveiling” or “aletheia” with a “brief gesture” (67). Another term he uses, borrowing from the visual arts, is “foreshortening,” in which “the surface, without ceasing to be flat, expands in depth” (69). This foreshortening, unlocking the virtual dimension behind the material dimension of the


object, is the work of the subject, the mind making connections in the world.

Ortega brings the figures of forest and foreshortening together when he defines Don Quixote as both “an ideal forest,” and “the foreshortening book par excellence” (70). He also describes Cervantes as the paradigm example of the Latin mind’s clarity of vision. “In Cervantes this power of vision is literally incomparable: it reaches such a point that even without aiming at the description of a thing, the true colors of the thing, its sound, its entire body, will slip now and then into the course of the narrative” (83). Ortega refers to this school of thought/vision as “illusionism, impressionism… It should not be called realism because it does not consist in the emphasis on the res, on the things, but on the appearance of things” (84). The shortcoming of this approach to letters, according to Ortega, is that “invaded by the external, we may be driven out of ourselves… and thus become transformed into gateways on the highway through which a throng of objects come and go” (85). Put differently, the risk of illusionists, Cervantes foremost among them, is to be organisms

that collapse entirely into pure environment, which forecloses the possibility of heroism.

The protection against this complete environment-absorption is the meditative personality, and their primary tool, the concept, which Ortega describes as “the normal organ of depth” and as “an amorous rite” (87, 90). He also uses the metaphor of “cross-fertilization” to describe the interweaving of the world via concepts, and calls the concept (with resonances of imperialism) an “organ of possession” that “completes” the vision of the illusionist (88, 92). But “the depth of something” here referenced Ortega also defines somewhat unorthodoxly as “what there is in it of reflection of other things, allusion to other things” (89). In other words, depth is actually horizontal interconnection, the “net of relationships” that our “attention” casts over things (89).

Due to this illusionism, Ortega notes that “it is a fact that the best products of our culture contain an ambiguity, a peculiar uncertainty” (95). Ortega argues that Don Quixote, too, though it is “the problem of [Spanish] destiny” is also “an


ambiguity” (101). In a particularly lovely image, Ortega writes that “the lanky figure of Don Quixote bends like an interrogation mark, like a guardian of the Spanish secret, of the ambiguity of Spanish culture” (101). Ortega seems to view this pervasive ambiguity as a weakness relative to the conceptual security achieved by the Greeks and Germanics, but, as we will see below, Borges—an inheritor of Spanish culture—would view it as an unqualified strength. Though Ortega asserts that “Spain is a contradiction,” Borges would likely retort for his part that Argentina is a paradox (105). Ortega wishes to conquer, to overcome this ambiguity, establish with security the destiny of the Spanish people. “Cervantes. Here is a Spanish plenitude. Here is a word which we can brandish on every occasion as if it were a lance” (107). But why again violence? Against whom would the lance be brandished, to what purpose?

In the “First Meditation,” Ortega gets closer to an actual interpretation of Don Quixote, beginning with the claim the a literary genre is “at one and the same time a certain thing to be said and the only way to say it fully” (113). This would seem to

problematize any attempt at communication across literary genres, such as an essay attempting to speak with both Cervantes’ novel, Ortega’s essay and Borges’ short stories.

Similarly problematic are several of Ortega’s claims about the inside of the novel. He asserts that Sancho is “uninteresting,” even though a few pages later he writes that “Cervantes sets Sancho against every adventure in order to make it impossible when it happens to Sancho. This is Sancho’s mission” (131, 136). The mission at least seems interesting; why should that not rub off at least a little bit on the character himself? Ortega also asserts, somewhat reductively, that the Don is a “fool” with “a small anatomical anomaly of the brain” (134).

The most interesting aspect of Ortega’s analysis is his conception of the relationship between imagination and reality. The latter, he claims, is “anti-poetic per se” (136). Therefore, with regards to realism in poetry—of which Ortega takes the Quixote to be a prime example—“strictly speaking, it is not reality that becomes poetic or enters into the work of art but only the gesture or movement of


reality in which the ideal is reabsorbed” (140). Another way of putting this would be to say that the environment is the protagonist reabsorbing the hero as adversary; that the hero in his heroic madness alters the environment simply and only problematizing his own re-uptake into the environment. Absorption is inevitable, but the hero denies that fact, and therein lies his or her madness; yet this denial nevertheless forces the environment, the true authority in the encounter, to change in order to assimilate the madness, and this is the heroic result.

To be a hero is, according to Ortega, above all “to be oneself” (149). Yet he later characterizes this as the will “to be what one is not yet,” for which reason “half of the figure of the tragic protagonist is outside of reality” (157). The hero is always being-forward, being-into-the-imaginary, being-the-madness that infuses reality afresh, the rigidity of imaginative ideals that forces reality to act. From these points we reach the end of the first meditation and the book as a whole, wherein are located two of the two most ecological claims in the entire text. First, “It is no longer the organism which moves but

the environment which is moving through it.” This recalls the pitfall of the imaginative soul Ortega discussed earlier, the gateway through which objects come and go. And second, “The environment is the only protagonist” (165). We now turn from this, for Ortega, pessimistic call to action, to Borges, for whom it can be instead an affirmation.

III. Mad-Heroics in Borges Borges’

“Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” is a short story which describes a fictional twentieth century French writer’s impossible project to write passages of Don Quixote from scratch. It opens with the fictional narrator describing his project as correcting the “fallacious catalogue” of Menard’s life works prepared for the “deplorable readers” of a Protestant newspaper, although he acknowledges “it is quite easy to challenge my slight authority.” 5 In the ecological terminology we have been using thus far, the previous catalogue of Menard’s work was a kind of “fallacious” organism in a “deplorable” environment; whereas the narrator is attempting to offer a superior organism-catalogue to his or her presumably superior environment-audience. On


the other hand, he concedes the lack of justification for the entire enterprise, except for the testimony of two witnesses, who are both —suspiciously— included in his “rectified” catalogue as objects of Menard’s praise and affection. It is not difficult, therefore, to think of the narrator’s project, Borges’ story, as a mad-heroic effort subject to the evaluative authority of an incredulous environment of readers.

Almost all of the entries in the narrator’s catalogue have to do with the search for a universal language, including books and essays on a new poetic vocabulary of concepts, Leibniz’ attempt at a pure scientific language, Boole’s symbolic logic, and the metric laws of French prose. In one piece on the game of chess—another kind of universal language—Menard suggests a modification of the game only to refute his own suggestion. Also interesting in his works is a fake criticism of Valéry, and a condemnation of “censure and praise” as being irrelevant to literary criticism (3).

Moving on the focus of the story, the narrator explains that Menard was attempting to produce Chapters 9 and 38 from the Quixote. In the first of

these chapters, which Borges does not mention, Cervantes the narrator breaks off the story to announce that he has come to the end of the manuscript, travels to a village looking for a continuation of the history of Don Quixote, overhears a man there pronouncing familiar names from the story, realizes it is another manuscript from an Arab historian, and commissions from the man a translation from the Arabic. In the latter chapter, which Borges does address, the Don lectures on the superiority of the military over the scholarly life. The narrator confesses, however, that he often read the entire novel “as if Menard had conceived it,” which is an application and foreshadowing of the new reading technique of “erroneous attribution” which technique the narrator later attributes to Menard’s work (6). Clearly Menard’s project is a kind of mad-heroism struggling monumentally against not only an incredulous audience, but also three hundred years of history; we will see below the remarkable results when history as environment exercises its authority in reintegrating Menard heroic effort.

The narrator quotes Menard as comparing his apparently impossible task to producing “The final


term in a theological or metaphysical demonstration” but without the “intermediary stages” (5). In other words, Menard’s Quixote-fragments will be philosophy without the process. For his own process, Menard rejects as “too easy” the one, mentioned by Novalis, in which the narrator dismisses as “relatively simple,” of attempting to “[k]now Spanish well, recover the Catholic faith, fight against the Moors or the Turk, forget the history of Europe between the years 1602 and 1918, be Miguel Cervantes” (5). The narrator explains that, given the obvious impossibility of the project, “of all the impossible ways of carrying it out, this was the least interesting” (6). In this wonderful sentence, Borges suggests the possibility of, essentially, giving qualities to Nothing. As with Cantor’s alephs and the hierarchy of infinities, Borges offers us axiological hierarchies of impossibilities. And the impossibility of choice for Menard is “to go on being Pierre Menard and reach the Quixote through the experiences of Menard” (6). In other words, to write two new chapters of a book, with inspiration and creativity, and drawing on all of his resources and experiences, which will just happen to result in

a manuscript completely identical to two chapters from an existing, three hundred year old novel.

As to why Menard, a French Symbolist, chose Don Quixote for this impossible project, the narrator provides the following quote: “I am quite capable of imagining the world without the Quixote… The Quixote is a contingent book; the Quixote is unnecessary. I can premeditate writing it, I can write it, without falling into a tautology” (7). One wonders if Borges, like Menard a “devotee of Poe,” is thinking here of Ortega’s insistence on the necessity and destiny-status of the Quixote for Spanish culture, subverting Spanish cultural imperialism over Latin American letters by valorizing French and British writers. Menard continues his explanation of his choice of the Quixote by noting that “My general recollection of the Quixote, simplified by forgetfulness and indifference, can well equal the imprecise and prior image of a book not yet written” (7). The environment of the distant past and the unrealized future converge into a fuzzy haze of opportunity.

The narrator then compares and contrasts the two versions of the Quixote, seen in the respective


backgrounds or environments a seventeenth century Spanish author and a twentieth century French Symbolist author, respectively. He finds Menard’s work “more subtle,” “almost infinitely richer,” in ambiguity, because as the narrator asserts, “ambiguity is richness,” recalling Ortega’s comments on the inherent ambiguity of all Spanish literature (8). On the negative side, he also sees Menard’s work suffering “from a certain affectation” due to its then “archaic” language (9). The narrator also finds that Menard “neglects or eliminates local color” to constitute a major (albeit entirely unintentional) innovation in the genre of the historical novel (8). He is also shocked that Menard, living in his environment, would both “decide the debate against letters and in favor of arms,” but ultimately attributes this move to the influence of Nietzsche, and to Menard’s “resigned or ironical habit of propagating ideas which were the strict reverse of those he preferred,” which the narrator terms an “almost divine modesty,” (and which could be legitimately argued to be true of Nietzsche as well) (9). This modesty stands in stark contrast to the narcissism attributed above to Ortega by Earle and perhaps evidenced in Ortega’s attitude toward

Borges’ home. In addition to having become a Nietzschean by writing the Quixote, Menard also becomes for the narrator “brazenly pragmatic” in the tradition of William James (9). And all these changes, all this content, is derived entirely from the work done by the 300 years, the environment working through and under the names of Cervantes and Menard.

The narrator then levels another blow in defense of humility, for the sake of himself, Menard, and all intellectuals, asserting that “There is no exercise of the intellect with is not, in the final analysis, useless.” In light of this claim, the narrator judges Menard to have “decided to anticipate the vanity awaiting all man’s efforts” (10). One wonders again whether Ortega’s alleged vanity, or that of the philosophical community in general, might be being impugned here in particular. Has Borges performed the same anticipation in his work, writing philosophy texts condemned to misrecognition? Could this be his mad-heroism under the eco-authority of the historical academic philosophical community? The narrator begins to close the story by suggesting that we read Cervantes’ Quixote as a palimpsest through which


to decipher Menard’s Quixote, in which case the real becomes the palimpsest for the imaginary, the past the palimpsest for the future. Again, as with Ortega, the real absorbs the imaginary and in this way becomes poetic with possibility.

The narrator further suggests that it would take “a second Pierre Menard” to do such deciphering, and leaves the question open after an ellipsis as to whether the narrator (and/or Borges) might perhaps be just this second Menard. This latter suggestion seems strengthened by the end of the story, in which the narrator distills Menard’s major accomplishments: the new technique of “the deliberate anachronism and the erroneous attribution” whose applications the narrator claims are “infinite… fill[ing] the most placid works with adventure” (11).

IV. Borges, Eco-Philosophy and Imperialism

We will conclude our investigation with a brief analysis of Borges’ brief piece, “Borges and I,” in the context of our previous analyses of Ortega’s thought. We note first that both the title and the body of the text begin with Borges, not the “I,” as

opposed to Ortega’s “I am I and my circumstance.” In this way, the environment in Borges (in both senses) is privileged over the organism. The “I” explains to the reader that although “Borges’” extant writings justify the “I,” “those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to [Borges], but rather to the language and to tradition.”6 Note again the humility, the deference to the environment’s ownership of the organism’s strivings. The “I” claims that “only some instant of myself can survive in him,” meaning that the hero as adversary is only a fragment or an aspect of the environment, and ultimately consumed, as “I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion or to him.” The last sentence takes us to a point of admirable ambiguity with which to end our investigation, calling into question which is the foreground and which the background, which is the hero and which the environment. “I do not know which of us has written this page" (74).

 

Copyright © Joshua M. Hall. White Whale Review, issue 1.2


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