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.

Works Cited

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.

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2 Responses to “Response 1”

  1.   salvarez said:

    Nice job ordering some of these thoughts into a coherent mini-essay, but remember you need not worry about forming any sort of thesis or argument just yet. With these short responses, it’s best to focus on constructing some body paragraphs, which could eventually be formed into an emerging thesis, or an argument still to be developed. As it is, you have an argument already in the works here, and I’m interested to see how it will develop through the rest of the texts you’ll read in the coming weeks.

    You wrote the following about how the cited passage from Don Quixote “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 “real life” text, or “reality” text–maybe the “objective text”–falls under the genre of “history.” History though is a narrative, and the novel takes great pains to point out that truth in storytelling doesn’t always matter as long as the story’s entertaining, or even educational. In this sense, fiction and non-fiction can both be histories. What narratology teaches us, however, is that reality and fiction are understood through stories, or narratives.

    I think you have the PIE structure down pretty well, but I would emphasize that it’s important that the biggest part of your paragraphs be the “E” section, as this does most of the weight of your critical application of theory to the texts. For example, in the Samperio section, you cite about nine lines of text. This means you should have about 18 lines explaining what you cite, and performing a “close read” of the lines, looking word for word at how what you cite relates to the theoretical model you’re working with, in this case, Jahn.

    As for the MLA, everything looks good, with the small exception of the Samperio. First, you should be citing it as a periodical, as it is a journal. The citation rules for a journal are (pasted from the OWL):
    An Article in a Scholarly Journal
    In previous years, MLA required that researchers determine whether or not a scholarly journal employed continuous pagination (page numbers began at page one in the first issue of the years and page numbers took up where they left off in subsequent ones) or non-continuous pagination (page numbers begin at page one in every subsequent issue) in order to determine whether or not to include issue numbers in bibliographic entries. The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers 7th edition (2009) eliminates this step. Always provide issue numbers, when available.

    Author(s). “Title of Article.” Title of Journal Volume.Issue (Year): pages. Medium of publication.

    Bagchi, Alaknanda. “Conflicting Nationalisms: The Voice of the Subaltern in Mahasweta Devi’s Bashai Tudu.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 15.1 (1996): 41-50. Print.


    The Samperio story should also have a translator attributed to it (see the last page of the story to find that name).

    You earned 4.8 out of 5 points this round. Nice job.

  2.   salvarez said:

    Hello, I am also sending you here the grade for your blog posts. It seems I can’t leave comments on them because the comment function must be turned off on your dashboard. All the same, you earned all possible 15 points for your posts. Please continue to practice working with some of the Jahn terms, for example “focalization” or “heterodiegetic narrator.”

    I like how you included some dialogue in your fight story. It seems that most of the action happens in the languages the characters speak–this of course makes the action move fast.

    15 points for blog posts.

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