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Noah Buckle’s Essay

NCH London | June 30, 2020

‘We should not judge past literature by the standards of the present.’

Noah Buckle


“And thus a change of époque, which is a change of reader, is comparable to a change in the text itself…”

~ Paul Valéry


Contemporary literary analysis, echoing D. A. Winstanley’s dictum that “nothing is more unfair than to judge the men [sic] of the past by the ideas of the present,” believes itself an extension of the juridico-political apparatus. Attempting to delineate precisely the aesthetic and moral bases on which we are to assess literature, then, has become a matter of justice; the collective distaste for ‘presentism’, we are informed, is (ironically) an expression of our civility and integrity. But it is also a matter of truth: “We should not,” maintain the ‘anti-presentists’, “judge past literature by the standards of the present, because the standards by which literature is judged ought to be objective.” The apparent modesty of those who would circumscribe criticism of a text within the perimeter of its respective epoch, it therefore seems, manifests at the same time as an unyielding epistemological ambition – and it is the nature of this ambition, either utopian or necessary, which we have determined to treat here.

In perhaps his most famous work, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, Jorge Luis Borges presents the image of a (fictitious) French polymath seeking to rewrite Cervantes’ 17th-century epic – not, that is, “to compose another Quixote,” but, rather, “to produce a number of pages which coincided – word for word and line for line – with those of Miguel de Cervantes.” And it is precisely through this task, through the humourous impossibility of this labour which is neither transcription nor revision, that Borges begets a solution to the given problematic. In the figure of Menard, the extent of that great cliché of literary theory, of la mort de l’auteur, is played to absurdity; the meaning of the text no longer presents itself as the object of a ‘semantic paleontology’, but rather is constituted in the very movement of the hermeneutic, such that, while the text “of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical … the second is almost infinitely richer.” Thus, the concern of Borges’  discussion (and our own) is principally a question of ontology – namely, of how the meaning of a text stands in relation to the circumstances of its creation.

With irony, Borges condemns the “relatively simple” solution of the anti-presentists, who would, in their efforts to exhume the corpse of a master-signifier from the Quixote, “learn Spanish, return to Catholicism, fight against the Moors or Turks, forget the history of Europe from 1602 to 1918 – be Miguel de Cervantes.” To understand and appreciate Cervantes, or Cicero, or Chekhov, is not to emulate the imperfections of the life of a Spaniard, a Roman, or a Russian, and such exercises in “running against the walls of our cage,” to appropriate Wittgenstein’s phrase, in fact betray only the arrogance of any endeavour towards ‘objectivity’ in literary analysis. Indeed, if Borges’ efforts in the literary sphere bear any historical precedent, it is to be found in the pages of the Philosophical Investigations, in the notion of the ‘language-game’ and the sentiment that “to imagine a language is to imagine a form of life.” For both Wittgenstein and Borges, the sole means available to us in the ‘making sense’ of language, whether this implies the untangling of the words of a “lion [who] could speak” or the “subterranean … interminably heroic production” of an invented 20th-century novelist, is that which immediately confronts us, culturally and practically, through our social milieu.

At this juncture, it is necessary to recognise that, if we are to preserve the integrity of our original project – to apply some “standards” to literature, to somehow “judge” it – we must at the same time deny ourselves the quixotic (or is it menardic?) pursuit of truth. By surrendering the ultimate claim to a comprehensive ‘epistemology’ of an author, we instead obtain a certain carte blanche as regards the compass of interpretation, which is to say, we are no longer inclined to follow one. It is here, of course, that the genius of Borges’ proposed method lies, but from it an outstanding complication arises: if we lack the anchor of a single historical prism through which to ‘read’ a text, by what “standards” do we judge the validity of a given reading? Against this objection (to which both Borges’ precursors, including Nietzsche, and descendants, such as Derrida, are no strangers), 2 it is imperative to acknowledge that, if Borges’ proposal is one of total contextual relativism, this relativism in turn comprises a kind of judgmental relativism. In other words, if we are to permit that what one sees in a work is only what one is capable of seeing in it, given the circumstances of its ‘viewing’, it follows from this that these circumstances attest to the legitimacy of this interpretation, insofar as they themselves have produced it (and, moreover, without them it could not possibly have been produced). An unorthodox methodology or conclusion cannot subtract from a text any more than a blind man in the Louvre has destroyed the Mona Lisa.

That we cannot conceive of an interpretation except as existing has, therefore, a multitude of further consequences: we cannot express numerically the totality of the legitimate interpretations of a text, nor can we hierarchise these interpretations, either by proximity to an idealised authorial intent (for the author, we must recall, remains firmly dead) or textual evidencing; what can, instead, be performed is an exploration and a transplantation of the material into a potentially infinite number of foreign contexts. To amend our earlier declaration, it is not that truth per se has been obliterated, so much that it has been subsumed under the category of judgment, taken not as a necessary evil of the political and moral kind – as the mere application of the “standards of the present” – but as a creative process in and of itself, which births a new Urtext with each successive literary engagement. Judgment ceases to imply a prohibition or a permission, according to which Heart of Darkness may either be revered (by Watts) as “one of the greatest works of fiction” for “its criticisms of racial prejudice,” or condemned (by Achebe) as the penmanship of a “bloody racist,” but never these simultaneously. Rather, judgment is now to be understood as a free association of observations, ideas, emotions, thereby liberated from the question of which yardstick “should” or “should not” be employed.

In closing, it is worth finally considering, by way of illustration, Borges’ infamous exegesis hinted at above (in which Menard replaces a catalogue by Cervantes which begins, “…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time…”, opting instead to write, “…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time…”), because the juxtaposition of these passages, and the justification given for their wildly disparate appraisals, is not intended to vindicate the framework sketched; the point, for Borges, is not to ‘prove’ (or disprove) the opinion that we should – or, more accurately, should be able to – “judge past literature by the standards of the present,” but to entertain it, and to play in lighthearted fashion with the extremes of literary theory. Unlike that of Cervantes, Borges’ story does not feign sincerity, or attempt to resolve conclusively the debates into which it enters. Fundamentally, the purpose of ‘Pierre Menard’, if it must be ascribed one, is to articulate a deeper premise, disclosed by the eponymous titan himself:

“There is no intellectual exercise that is not, ultimately, meaningless.”



Achebe, Chinua. ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.’ Massachusetts Review. 18, 1977. In Heart of Darkness, An Authoritative Text, Background and Sources Criticism. Pp.251-261, 1961. Ed. Robert Kimbrough (London: W. W. Norton and Co., 1988)

Borges, Jorge Luis. Obras Completas, 1923-1972. (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1974)

Sokal, Alan; Bricmont, Jean. Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. (New York: Picador, 1998)

Valéry, Paul. ‘Au sujet d’Adonis.’ Variété, Œuvres. (Paris: Gallimard, 1957)

Watts, Cedric. ‘“A Bloody Racist”: About Achebe’s View of Conrad.’ The Yearbook of English Studies. 13: 196–209. (Modern Humanities Research Association, 1983)

Winstanley, Denys Arthur. Lord Chatham and the Whig Opposition. (Cambridge and London: Cambridge University Press, 1912)

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker, Joachim Schulte. (New York: Prentice, 1999)