Pierre Menard, Author of the Principia
The famous story by Borges Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote deals with a writer that wishes to re-create in the 20th century – word for word – the exact text of Don Quixote. In Pierre Menard, Author of the Principia turning Menard into a scientist of the twentieth century that wishes to re-create lemma for lemma Newton’s Principia has certainly removed an aura of the magical and the unreal from the original story but has raised the plausibility of such an undertaking close to the definite.
But why precisely the Principia? one may ask. The reason is simple. In some sense the original Pierre Menard’s phrasing matches exactly how I feel about the Principia:
«The Quixote ,» clarifies Menard, «interests me deeply, but it does not seem– how shall I say it?–inevitable. I cannot imagine the universe without Edgar Allan Poe’s exclamation: Ah, bear in mind this garden was enchanted! or without the Bateau ivre or the Ancient Mariner , but I am quite capable of imagining it without the Quixote . (I speak, naturally, of my personal capacity and not of those works’ historical resonance.) The Quixote is a contingent book; the Quixote is unnecessary. I can premeditate writing it, I can write it, without falling into a tautology.
(This contingency in a sense applies to the actual story of Pierre Menard itself so in a sense this re-writing can be viewed as quite ironic.).
The questions raised by Pierre Menard author of the Quixote, have to do with the impossibility of translation, the relativity of thoughts and ideas throughout the human history and the – also relative – deconstructions performed by literary criticism on a certain piece of work. Menard, the scientist, – I want to think -deals with the essential substratum of the history of science in a rather unusual manner. Living in the 20th century and trying to re-live (or re-invent) the scientific revolution of the 17th century strikes not as exactly as something impossible any more, but as a hindsight intellectual activity that may even approach the trivial or meaningless. However there are many interpretations to this Gedankenexperiment so there is certainly room for discussion here, both for the scientific thought as such and the scientific thought compared to other intellectual activities like literature. It is certainly up to the reader to decide the importance and influence of… Menard’s work.
I have chosen to keep the original Borges text intact and change just the logic appropriately trying to be as delicate to the handling of the original text as possible. For this I have used the James E. Irby translation and not the Spanish original, although I must admit that re-working it in Spanish would have been much more interesting.