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Ideas in Time

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John Potts

Chapter 11. Ideas in Time

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1I commenced this book with reference to Borges’ first published story, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote’; the demands of symmetry lead me back to that story now. Borges’ text is infused with irony; it breathes paradox. ‘My intent is merely astonishing, ’ he has Pierre Menard declare. This intent is not simply to produce a mechanical transcription of the original; it is something far more profound – the production of pages that coincide, ‘word for word and line for line’ with those of Cervantes (Borges 1962: 49). The act of copying is itself unremarkable, but for Borges’ narrator its significance is enormous, even transcendent. Menard’s work is ‘possibly the most significant of our time’ (48); it bequeaths a wholly ‘new technique’ to literature (54).

2But the narrator also informs us that Menard’s project is a failure. It consumes thousands of manuscript pages, most of which end up as fuel for bonfires. Menard’s project is ‘subterranean’; ultimately it does not survive him, because its author does not consider it worthy of publication. While the work is ‘interminably heroic’, in the end it is ‘inconclusive’ (48). It survives only in fragments: Menard manages to complete only two chapters of Don Quixote, and a portion of another.

3What can be so difficult about re-writing a text? The narrator considers the task ‘complex in the extreme’; more than that, it is ‘futile from the outset’ (54). This monumental failure is the culmination of Menard’s ‘heroic’ but unsuccessful attempts to re-write the past. Menard had earlier rejected the idea of deliberate anachronism, a ‘useless carnival’ that attempts to charm the reader ‘with the primary idea that all epochs are the same, or that they are different.’ (48) Another earlier failed method was to empathise with the text’s original author: to know seventeenth-century Spanish, to re-embrace Catholicism, to ‘forget European history between 1602 and 1918.’ (49) This empathetic act is rejected by Menard as ‘too easy’ (and impossible, the narrator declares in an aside); it is a ‘diminution’. Much more challenging, and more relevant, than attempting to be Cervantes, is to remain Menard – citizen of the twentieth century – and to somehow arrive at Don Quixote (49). Challenging – yes; heroic – perhaps, in the Quixotic manner; but ultimately futile, doomed to heroic failure.

4I have been intrigued by this little story by Borges because it addresses – in an oblique, quizzical manner – my central concern in this book. Borges even voices the ‘primary idea’: the contention that ‘all epochs are the same’ or, conversely, that ‘they are different’. Borges’ hero (or anti-hero) promptly rejects this primary idea (or two primary ideas), preferring something more difficult (or impossible): to live as a twentieth century subject, yet produce a seventeenth century text.

5Menard’s ambition is daunting because it aims to fuse the past and the present without eliminating – or discounting – either of these terms. He rejects the (Collingwoodian) possibility of re-constructing or re-living the past through becoming Cervantes, author of the great seventeenth century text. Yet at the same time, his obsession, as the twentieth century Menard, is with this work created three hundred years before his own era. In laboriously re-writing this text, he is preserving it, in an act of homage that consumes a large portion of his career. Yet by this very act of copying, he transforms the meaning of the text: he updates it, he brings it into the twentieth century. This is the lesson taken from Menard’s project by the narrator, a commentator with a twentieth century literary sensibility: Menard’s version, in the context of the theories of William James, is, he trumpets, ‘almost infinitely richer’ than Cervantes’.

6Perhaps the best way to grasp the significance for this thesis of Borges’ paradoxical tale is through the writing of another author familiar with the ‘energising role of the paradox’: Bakhtin. Clark and Holquist (1984: 5) write that Bakhtin, in his ‘several attempts to find a single name for variety, such as heteroglossia or polyphony, ’ ensured that he did not ‘stifle the energizing role of the paradox and conflict at the heart of his enterprise.’ In his studies of the novel as ‘dialogized form’, Bakhtin makes frequent references to Don Quixote. For Bakhtin, Cervantes’ great work has ‘enormous significance in the long history of literature’s assimilation of historical time’ (1981: 165). More than that, Bakhtin describes Don Quixote as ‘the classic and purest model of the novel as genre’, because it ‘realizes in itself, in extraordinary depth and breadth, all the artistic possibilities of heteroglot and internally dialogized novelistic discourse’ (324). Bakhtin finds this text exemplary due to it absorption of divergent discursive forms, all of which enter into a ‘double-voiced’ discourse with the ‘refracted’ voice of the author (324). In a work such as Don Quixote, the author ‘encases his own thought in the image of another’s language without doing violence to the freedom of that language or to its own distinctive uniqueness.’ (409)

  • 1 The subtitle of Bakhtin’s long essay ‘Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel’ is ‘Notes t (...)
  • 2 This is the term used by Sonya O. Rose (1999: 228) in describing Bakhtin’s dialogic theory of langu (...)

7This is Bakhtin’s dialogic principle at work in his analysis of Cervantes’ text: the novel encompasses a series of dialogues within the ‘heteroglossia’ of discourses. Yet for Bakhtin the dialogue goes beyond the confines of the text as composed by Cervantes. Bakhtin’s theoretical model is profoundly historical; his goal was a ‘historical poetics’.1 For him every utterance is ‘history-laden’;2 every dialogue is without temporal limit. Thus the ‘conversation’ between discourses in Don Quixote is ‘unresolved’; the textual dialogue forges an ‘image’ that becomes an ‘open, living, mutual interaction between worlds, points of view, accents.’ (409) As a result, this image enters into history, where it will be ‘re-accentuated’ in successive historical periods. The dialogue, Bakhtin asserts, is open and endless, continued down the centuries. In this way are created the ‘immortal novelistic images that live different lives in different epochs’ (410).

8In this respect, Don Quixote is Bakhtin’s classic example. He remarks that the image of Don Quixote has been ‘re-accentuated in a variety of ways in the later history of the novel’ (410). The alternative interpretations of Don Quixote through the ages are only the logical consequence of the dialogism encased within the novel itself:

these re-accentuations and interpretations were an inevitable and organic further development of the image, a continuation of the unresolved argument embedded in it. (410)

9Thus Bakhtin anticipates the type of dialogue in which Menard is engaged. It is an ‘inevitable’ dialogue, a temporal extension of the dialogue embedded in the text. It is a relationship between the present and the discourses of the past; but this relationship has no whiff of the museum about it. It is ‘organic’, in that the languages of the past enter into active dialogue with the perspective of the present, itself the product of ‘heteroglot’ components. In the process of this dialogue, the older discourses are ‘re-accentuated’, they are ‘creatively transformed’. Menard’s engagement with the text of Don Quixote, then, represents a dialogue through which the discourses of the past emerge, re-accentuated, into the discursive field of the present.

10Bakhtin’s model of dialogue between past and present is echoed in the work of many of the theorists considered in this book. Serres argues not for the ‘expulsion’ of the thought and values of the past, but for a ‘rapprochement’ between them and the thought of the present (Serres 1995: 48). Hodge and Kress construe texts, of all kinds, as ‘intrinsically dialogic’ (Hodge and Kress 1988: 196). Brand writes of the ‘repurposing’ of traditional ideas within the technologised present (Brand 1999: 75). Rose similarly speaks of a ‘recuperation’ of the past, a ‘retelling’ of old stories that modifies their significance in the contemporary context. (Rose 1999: 229). Gadamer and Collingwood both emphasise the ‘conversation’ between the thought of past and present, an ongoing conversation that continuously transforms both partners. Agamben describes the ‘signature’ that ‘displaces and moves’ a sign through time (Agamben 2009: 40).

11All these theoretical formulations resist a simple dichotomy of continuity or discontinuity in intellectual or cultural history. They all embody both continuity and transformation, whether of thought or cultural practice. My approach to intellectual history is consistent with these formulations. I have rejected those accounts of intellectual history espousing unaltered continuity (Lovejoy’s changeless ‘unit-ideas’) or unalloyed discontinuity (Kuhn’s unilateral ‘paradigm shifts’). I have discounted the interpretation of Foucault as a ‘philosopher of discontinuity’, revealing instead a theorist highly sensitive to the ‘multiplicity of time spans’ within history. In the context of intellectual history, this multiplicity constituted for Foucault a ‘tangle of continuities and discontinuities’ (Foucault 1972: 176).

12It is precisely due to the complex nature of this temporal ‘tangle’, that any attempt to construe intellectual history in purely continuist or discontinuist terms cannot be supported. Continuity and discontinuity ‘entangle and envelop one another’ (Foucault 1998: 430); they cannot be disentangled without inflicting damage on the subtle interplay between them. To render the course of intellectual history into a model founded solely on one or the other is to reduce its complexities to the level of caricature. The notion of Foucault as philosopher of discontinuity is one such caricature, against which no-one campaigned more bitterly than Foucault himself.

13The contradictions and complications embedded in the history of thought tend to undermine any attempt to privilege one principle to the exclusion of others. Lovejoy’s unchanging unit-ideas are contradicted by his own method, which recognises change and transformation at the level of idea ‘complexes’. Kuhn’s insistence that previous scientific knowledge is erased in the wake of a paradigm shift is not supported by those post-Einstein scientists (including Einstein himself) only too happy to work with the equations of Newton. Intellectual history cannot be represented either as a dwarf (the present) standing subserviently on the shoulders of a giant (the past), or as the dwarf bashing that giant over the head, banishing it from the world of the living. Neither eternal ideas nor the expulsion of the past; no simple continuity or discontinuity.

14My approach, then, favours the ‘both/and’ dialogic formula over a binary ‘either/or’. A reconstructed history of ideas must incorporate elements of both continuity and discontinuity when considering the historical trajectory of specific ideas. The histories of the ideas of democracy and charisma, as we have seen, may be traced over more than two thousand years, but neither a purely continuous nor discontinuous perspective provides an adequate account of these particular histories. The trajectory through time of both democracy and charisma may be characterised as a ‘discontinuous history of ideas’. The history of both is a broken one, featuring a long period of dormancy as well as a re-invention. There is a discontinuity between the ancient and modern expression of the ideas. Modern liberal representative democracy differs from ancient direct participatory democracy in many respects. Charisma today is a secular concept deriving from Weber’s sociology, whereas in the first century it was a religious concept articulated by Paul.

15In both instances, the differences are substantial; but they are not so great as to constitute a sharp epistemological discontinuity. Both ancient and modern democracies prize the principle of one citizen/one vote and the notion of political equality – and freedom to participate in the political process – that democracy entails. There is a degree of continuity in the history of charisma, through which the idea’s contemporary usage draws to some extent on the mysterious, ineffable aspects of the term’s original meaning, that of the ‘gift’. We consider a charismatic individual to be somehow ‘gifted’ with an innate ability. Yet this idea has been ‘creatively transformed’; Weber dressed it in the secular clothes of the twentieth century; it now flourishes in the twenty-first. In this new context, the idea is expressed differently; it serves a new function in new surroundings.

16I have been alert to the danger of imposing continuities in intellectual history where they do not exist. The difficulties of establishing the range of meanings attached to a particular term in a particular historical period are well established; these difficulties encourage caution when dealing with the ‘tangle of continuities and discontinuities’ of intellectual history. It is not possible to achieve a precise or complete reconstruction of a previous era’s thought; Collingwood’s ‘logic of question and answer’ is a fuzzy logic at best. But it is possible to ascertain something of an idea’s significance in its particular ‘worldly’ surrounds; and it is possible to trace the fluctuations, mutations, constancies, breaks and transformations in meaning and usage undergone by ideas in time.

Notes

1 The subtitle of Bakhtin’s long essay ‘Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel’ is ‘Notes toward a Historical Poetics’. This observation is made by Holquist (1990: 108).

2 This is the term used by Sonya O. Rose (1999: 228) in describing Bakhtin’s dialogic theory of language.

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