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Borges’ Classical Receptions in Theory

Laura Jansen

The writings of Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges (Buenos Aires, 1899 - Geneva, 1986) have not been considered as a ground for broader theoretical thinking about Classical Reception. With the exception of a study in Spanish in Borges’ translations of Homer and Virgil (García Jurado and Salazar Morales), and despite the interest in modern theory in Borges (e.g. Wood), the question of Borges’ classical receptions in theory remains unexplored. This is possibly because Borges’ engagement with classical antiquity is seldom fully sustained in his oeuvre. Rather, his method is to cite classical references briefly, together with a kaleidoscope of citations from other literatures across time and space. In fact, virtually almost all his fictions, poems, and essays offer the reader an intertextual mosaic of passing, erudite references to the Bible, the Koran, the Odyssey, or The Arabian Nights, to name a few, as well as to the last twenty centuries of Eastern and Western literature, without a specific concern to the orders of literary history. It arguably is this distinct quality to Borges’ appeal to Greco-Roman antiquity which makes a theoretical consideration of his mode of reception challenging. Yet I shall argue that the universalizing content of his works makes Borges a compelling case for exploring this issue beyond the case study. Borges’ idiosyncratic engagement with Greco-Roman antiquity not only uncovers a unique approach to reading the classical past, but also helps us expand the theoretical horizons of Classical Reception itself. Like Kafka, Joyce, or Proust, he draws our attention to provocative, and rarely noted, ways of reading the Classics in our modern world.

A key aspect of Borges’ appeal to Greco-Roman texts is that he regards them,

without exception, as fragmentary phenomena: ‘drafts’ or ‘unfinished texts’ whose complete meaning, texture and context will always already be partial and subject to the passing of space and time. Thus, for Borges, Homer’s Odyssey is as much a draft of its previous oral tradition as the Anglo translations by Chapman (1614), Pope (1725), or Butler (1900) are drafts of the Homeric text itself. In this sense, any subsequent response to the Odyssey becomes as equally authoritative as Homer’s own response to the oral tradition of Odysseus in the first place. And so on ad infinitum. In both challenging the status of a classical text as ‘original’ and reconceptualizing that text’s entity as an unfinished phenomenon, Borges subtly works to decontextualize the centrality of Classics in, above all, Western modes of understanding the reception of the discipline. In the Borgesian literary world and system, a classical text or theme can thus be easily located in any shape or form, whether in Chapman’s translation of Homer, in Kafka’s creative adaption of Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the arrow in his The Castle, or in Borges’ own conceptual identification of Julius Caesar with president Kennedy in his “in memoriam J.F.K.”. The configuration of Classics as fragmentary phenomena in turn underscores another central aspect to Borges’ reading of antiquity: that of Classical Reception without time. By appeal to the Heraclitan river metaphor and to Lucretian allusions to cosmic time, Borges’ outlook on the human literary past, whether Eastern or Western, Classical, Medieval or Romantic, becomes emphatically non-teleological.

Borges’ decentralized manner of reading the Classics in the Western world plays

a key role in contemporary thinking about the future directions of Classical Reception beyond the US and Europe and into the literary cultures of peripheral modernity (Porter

2008) such as those of Argentina. Furthermore, Borges’ reception of the classics as atemporal fragments engages with the theoretical premises of ‘Deep Classics’, the most recent study of the modalities that frame our human approach to the fragmentary past (Butler; Jansen). The aim of this paper is thus to demonstrate the relevance of Borges’ classical receptions in theory and as a topic in current theoretical debates on Reception Studies.

Session/Panel Title

Beyond the Case Study: Theorizing Classical Reception

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