Although the vast differences in scale, style, economy, and subject between Borges's and Joyce's work argue against a positive flow of Joycean ideas through Borges's work—Borges was no parasite of Joyce—in this essay I argue that the “death of the novel” theme Borges seems to have associated with the baroque style of Ulysses did help to elucidate for him a set of literary problems involving the relation of erudition to art. Indeed, Joyce may have revealed to Borges the possibility of uniting two schismatic impulses: the avant-garde desire to “make it new” in the modernist spirit, and the baroque desire to explore and exhaust the old, to have truck with the murmuring voices he had grown up with in his family's library. Borges, however, was faced with a literary problem that the writer of Ulysses did not have: the precedent of Ulysses itself. On the one hand, Borges seems to have perceived in Ulysses a late attempt to negotiate a treacherous middle path between the creation of a “narrative art and magic” conscious of the “overwhelming disorder of the real world” and the disillusioned mood of modernity. On the other hand, Borges's admiring comments about Ulysses eventually become tempered with a growing aloofness and skepticism as he begins to turn against what he believed to be the various avant-garde excesses of Joyce's massive novel.
As a result, I argue, the allusion at the end of “Pierre Menard” to a “parasitic book” that is highly reminiscent of Ulysses functions as a key to this narrative's hermetic meaning. With sly irony, Borges's story derides the “parasitism” of the mythical method associated with Joyce while eulogizing other modes of literary parasitism. Pierre Menard's description of Joyce's book focuses our attention on both the parasitism of Joyce's mythical method and Joyce's larger approach to literary parasitism, an approach which (unlike Borges's) emphasizes both lexical and stylist appropriation. The avoidance of Joyce's imitative flamboyance in favor of an austere, consistent, rigorous style becomes, then, a cornerstone of Borges's solution to the problem of creating a post-Joycean literature of erudition.
Likewise, although the drafts of Menard's Quixote are, like Joyce's novel, parasitic on an earlier text, they are, unlike Ulysses, parasitic directly on the “universal Form” of the earlier text rather than (in Menard's case) the actual novel written by Cervantes. This would suggest that for Borges the least perfect kind of parasitism is the sort of erratic and idiosyncratic intertextual borrowing that Joyce performs. Menard, on the other hand, has produced a literal instantiation of an eternal Platonic object, the synecdochal exemplar, or “part,” that represents the inherent parasitism of every conscious mind's continuous, groping efforts to apprehend a vast unitary “whole” that comprises my Reality, Borges's Reality, and your Reality. Far from being a “literature of exhaustion,” then, Borges's parasitism is at once a new classicism, an old idealism, a baroque artifice, and a literary solution of major interest, inspiration, and enrichment for generations of readers and writers to come.