CAPN Abstract 2: Jenny Messenger on Borges’ Neoplatonic Poetry

On Thursday 2nd November at the Classics And Poetry Now workshop in Senate House Jenny Messenger will give a paper called ‘Replete with Reception’. It is about the presence of Plotinus in Borges’ poetry. Messenger summarises her paper as follows:

“Much like a twenty-first century classical reception scholar, Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was endlessly intrigued by the familiarity and distance of the classical past. He made multiple allusions to classical antiquity in his work, enfolding far-flung people, places and concepts into the sphere of a single poem or short story.

As Laura Jansen (2016) has argued, Borges was interested in the “meaning in-between” what we know about the past and what is lost to us, rather than the possibility of reconstructing vanished histories. Similarly, recent scholarship within classical reception studies has foregrounded a sense of fragmentation, absence, and ghostly lack in literary engagements with the classical past more generally (e.g. see Butler ed. 2016).

Drawing on comparative literary approaches and the creative act of translation, I instead emphasise the generative, productive role of reception in inspiring literary works. My research, which explores the reception of Neoplatonism in the work of Borges and other twentieth-century writers, deals not only with cultural, temporal, and linguistic translation, but also generic and formal translation, such as the translation of philosophy into fiction. I therefore suggest a model of classical reception that prioritises an abundance of meaning rather than unbridgeable gaps. The imaginative act which forms a new piece of work is full of presence, not absence—making the act of reception inherently creative.

In this paper, I will analyse an allusion to the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus (ca. 204/5 CE-ca. 270 CE) in Borges’s poem “La tarde” (1985), and explore one of the multiple ways in which Neoplatonism was received in twentieth-century literature. I argue that while Borges did not aim for a totalising recreation of Neoplatonism, neither was his approach fragmented—instead, “La tarde” gives us a playful, intellectual translation of Plotinian philosophy.”

Messenger’s paper will draw on and discuss in detail Borges’ poem ‘The Afternoon’:

The Afternoon

The afternoons to come and those that have been
are all one, inconceivably.
They are a clear crystal, alone and suffering,
inaccessible to time and its forgetting.
They are the mirrors of that eternal afternoon
that is treasured in a secret heaven.
In that heaven are the fish, the dawn,
the scales, the sword, and the cistern.
Each one an archetype. So Plotinus
teaches us in his books, which are nine.
It may be that our brief life
is the fleeting reflection of the divine.
The elemental afternoon encircles the house.
Yesterday’s, today’s, the one that is always there.

Jorge Luis Borges, “La tarde”, trans. W. S. Merwin, in Selected Poems, ed. Alexander Coleman (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 2000), 473.

This entry was posted in CAPN. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *