A Little Bit of Math for an English Class: Reduction and Addition in Fiction
What is “real” and what is “fictional”? What is “original” and what is “imitation”? How do the two interact and which is superior to the other? These questions arise in both Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” and in Semperio’s “She Lived in a Story.” Indeed, both short stories lead us to question in what ways the fictional is inferior to and in what ways it is superior to what we call “real life.”
In the Prologue to Don Quixte, Cervantes writes, “All that has to be done is to make the best use of imitation in what one writes; and the more perfect the imitation the better the writing” (16). This quote places literature, or the fictional, a step below life. The closer the text approaches to real life, the better it is, but it can never reach an equal or higher plane than life itself. The original—life—is always superior to the copy—literature.
Guillermo Segovia in “She Lived in a Story” similarly contemplates his vocation as a writer in terms of imitating life, by moving from reality to the imaginary. Segovia considers his work the opposite of that of the actor, thinking,
In one way or another actors live the text; they do not embody anyone at all. In the theater they live in literature for a brief moment. In motion pictures, some of their moments endure with a tendency toward the infinite. Dramatists have written plays in an attempt to approach the ancient dream of the fiction writer: that human beings live in their texts. Thus, artistic creation transcends the imaginary level in order to achieve reality. In regard to my own concept, the movement is reversed; that is, reality moves toward the imaginary (Samperio 56).
Segovia’s craft, writing, inherently involves signifiers in order to reduce life into words, for writing can never fully express being. Thus, writing is reductive, or to put it crudely, “inferior” with relation to life.
Drama is the opposite of writing in that it turns the fictitious signifiers back into reality. However, dramatization is also reductive (“inferior”) with relation to text, because it negates the ambiguities of the text by concretizing them. For instance, there could be a million different ways a person might read these words I am writing right now. But if a person would actually read this aloud, he would bring to life just one way of reading these words, while eliminating the 999,999 other possibilities. Drama, or life, can never express the infinite possibilities inherent in a text, just as a text can never express the infinite detail and precision inherent in the original reality.
So too with regards to “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” in which Borges posits that Menard’s exact copy of Don Quixote is superior to the original Don Quixote by Cervantes, because it can be read in context of the history and philosophy (such as Nietzsche and James) that Menard, as a twentieth century writer, was exposed to. If, as Cervantes wrote, the closer the imitation is to the original the better it is, Menard’s Don Quixote has achieved perfection in that it is exactly the same as the original. However, this begs the question—if what you have produced is exactly the same as the original, what have you added? If it is an exact copy, it has no new value. The perfect imitation is valueless, while the least imperfect imitation is, according to Cervantes, of the greatest value.
Thus, fiction is at once reductive and additive with relation to life, drama is at once reductive and additive with relation to literature, and the imitation is always at once reductive and additive, inferior and superior, to the original.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “Menard, Author of Quixote.” Collected Fictions Jorge Luis Borges. Trans. Andrew Hurley. NY: Penguin, 1998. Print.
De Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel. The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha. Trans. John Rutherford. Columbus, MT: Penguin, 2003. Print.
Samperio, Guillermo. “She Lived in a Story.” New Writing from Mexico. Ed. Reginald Gibbons. Evanston, IL: TriQuarterly Books, Northwestern University: 1992. Print.