Rereading Masotta

by Nora Joung

I recently reread Jorge Luis Borges short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” The text is styled as an appreciation for a French symbolist poet who set out to become the author of Cervantes’ novel: Menard “did not want to compose another Quixote, which is surely easy enough—he wanted to compose the Quixote. Nor, surely, need one have to say that his goal was never a mechanical transcription of the original; he had no intentions of copying it. His admirable ambition was to produce a number of pages which coincided—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.”[1]

Menard’s “visible” oeuvre is listed in the first part of the text, and consists of an output dominated by paraphrases, translations, negotiations, a transposition into Alexandrines of Valéry’s Cimitière marin, interpretations, and pastiches. The Frenchman’s “subterranean” work, on the other hand, was the undertaking of the task of authoring Don Quixote. By the end of his life, Menard had succeeded in writing two chapters of the Quixote as well of parts of a third. Menard’s initial method, which he eventually rejected as “too easy,” had been to learn “Spanish, return to Catholicism, fight against the Moor or Turk, forget European history from 1602-1918—be Miguel de Cervantes” (p. 91). Eventually, he settled instead on another course: to arrive at the Quixote being Pierre Menard, accepting the psychological and intellectual strain that entailed. The narrator proposes at the very end of the text that Menard has enriched the art of reading by means of the new technique that consists of “deliberate anachronism” and “fallacious attribution” (p. 95). This technique, the narrator claims, encourages us, for example, to read the Odyssey as if it came after the Aeneid and to attribute the Imitatio Christi to Joyce or Céline.

Pierre Menard is often viewed as a text that points to the role of the reader in the production of meaning. Beatriz Sarlo writes in her reading of Borges that meaning “is constructed in a frontier space where reading and interpretation confront the text and its (always ambiguous) relationship to any claim to literal meaning and objectivity.”[2] A reading by fallacious attribution confuses the lines between reading and authoring. For Sarlo, “the process of enunciation modifies any statement.” She elaborates: “this principle destroys and at the same time guarantees originality as a paradoxical value which is related to ‘enunciation’: it comes from the activity of writing and reading, not tied to words but to words in a context.” As a result, the productivity of reading becomes a demonstration of “the impossibility of repetition.”[3]

This is where Borges’ short story became an interesting, albeit confusing, lens with which to look at Dora García’s repetition of Oscar Masotta’s 1966 happening Para inducir el espíritu de la imagen (To Induce the Spirit of the Image) at MUAC-UNAM in Mexico City, in March 2017 (It had been previously repeated at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires in June 2016). Borges’ perplexing theorization of the nature of reading and authorship is of course something quite different from a happening. If repetition is impossible with a text, then it must be doubly impossible with happenings. Even taking into account the contingency of a text’s subjective reader, the very nature of a happening dictates that it depends in part on chance, or luck. Everything is dependent on the success of the logistics: moving people from here to there, communication, the memorization of monologues or scores, the testing of lights, sound, props.

For the audience, if they can rightfully be called that, a confusion concerning their role was the first thing instilled upon entering the space where the happening took place. The punctual witnessed Michelangelo Miccolis (as Oscar Masotta) calling out names from a list and handing out envelopes of money to the actors hired to be the lumpen proletarian that the audience had gathered to see. Backstage transactions are usually there because audiences need not be bothered with or involved in them: they pay for the aesthetic experience, not to see actors getting paid for their labor. Likewise, audiences don’t usually overhear the instructions given to the actors. But this wasn’t theater, as Miccolis/Masotta underlined.

Miccolis/Masotta then turned his attention to us, the non-actors/audience, and after welcoming us told us about the origin of the piece: apparently, a piece by La Monte Young he’d seen in New York City. “I do not hesitate to confess the origin,” he said. But, surely, Allan Kaprow’s name would seem to come more readily to mind in this context? A confession that is simultaneously a smoke screen, or even a fallacious attribution of sorts, obscuring what we might have assumed to have been the main influence of the happening. Miccolis/Masotta continued to reassure the audiences of their safety, inadvertently, or not so inadvertently, implying that the “grupo lumpen” represented a potential danger (something the rich surrounded by the poor admit to thinking each time they lock their car doors at a red light), and further implied by lumpen’s position onstage: standing in line under interrogatory light, they look like they are at a police line-up. Miccolis/Masotta assured us, though, that the situation was under control and, pointing out the twelve fire extinguishers ready to hand, that he’d even thought of the possible eventuality of a fire. If the audience was in any doubt as to whether or not these were actually functional, Miccolis/Masotta emptied one of them in an absurd demonstration, like a school boy’s illustration of Chekov’s gun.

“Then” the happening “began.” The actors huddled onstage. Was the audience still an audience? I’ve rarely, if ever, felt a gaze more commanding than those coming from the actors panning over or fixating on the audience, and rarely have I felt more scrutinized. The most relaxed parts of the audience sat down on the floor of the room, as if preparing to watch a movie. Others scrutinized one another, as if looking for clues, or as if wondering whether the others saw what they were seeing, if they reacted the same way, if they were read the same things into what they saw.

I was familiar with the “score,” Masotta’s after-the-fact description of the original happening. But the description of a happening is not a happening. And familiarity with the “score” did not prepare me for the affect stirred in me during the hour of watching the lumpen watching us. To see the happening, to experience it, we had to repeat it, make it happen again. Would that be reading or authoring?

Was it even a repetition? One audience member, who had been a friend of Masotta’s and who experienced Para inducir in ’66 pointed out that no chairs for or water had been offered during the original happening, as was the case on this March day at MUAC-UNAM. In other words, the 2017 Para inducir was Masotta light. I’m in no position to disagree. However, fifty years have passed since the first Para inducir took place, and the deliberate anachronism enhances the fact that the lumpen are still lumpen and art audiences are still largely from an entirely different stratum than the people they’re looking at. Grievous economic differences have not vanished, and exoticization, or indeed vilification, of otherness, be it cultural, economical or national, is very much alive. The happening didn’t seem dated. Not in its rhetoric, not in its “look,” and certainly not in content.

We could have imagined, looking at Para inducir and looking around us, that it would resonate just as powerfully in 2017. But we wouldn’t have known just how curiously contemporary the happening could be, or how insistently it would address our time, if we hadn’t endeavored to make it happen again, to repeat it, to construct a possibility of seeing it. And to do that, we had to author it.

  • 1. Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, AJorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (London: Viking Press, 1998), p. 91. All other references are to this edition and given parenthetically in the text.uthor of the Quixote,” in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (London: Viking Press, 1998), p. 91. All other references are to this edition and given parenthetically in the text.
  • 2. Beatriz Sarlo, Jorge Luis Borges: A Writer on the Edge (London: Verso, 2007), p. 32.
  • 3. Sarlo, Jorge Luis Borges, p. 33.