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Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration

Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
Shlomy Mualem
A writer should write with a certain innocence. (Barnstone 1982, 92)
In these red London Labyrinths
I find that I have chosen
The most curious of human professions,
Though given that all are curious, in their way. (
, 351)
In these lines from Browning Resolves to be a Poet (1975), Borges touches
upon the mystery of literary faithwhat Plato calls the spell of poetry.” Poetic
inspiration serving as the one of the wellsprings of this curious entity,
investigation of its nature and scope is an essentially philosophical endeavour
an Aristotelian quest for the
prima causa
of poetry and literature. Forming an
important theme in both Plato and Borges’ writings, the ancient philosopher’s
ideas may shine light on the modern writer’s.
In addressing the issue, Plato appeals to various theoretical fields and
philosophical mythshuman memory and knowledge, the function of traditional
myth, the cultural image of the poet, and the ancient quarrel between
philosophy and poetry. On occasion, his view of inspiration directly contravenes
Former version of this paper was published in: Shlomy Mualem, Borges and Plato: A Game with
Shifting Mirrors, Madrid and Frankfurt: Vervuert-Iberoamericana, 2012, chapter 5.
Por esos rojos laberintos de Londres
Descubro que he elejido
La más curiosa de las profesiones humanas,
Salvo que todas, a su modo, lo son.
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
other aspects of his philosophy. Thus, for example, his assertion of its
transcendent nature is incommensurate with his argument that poetic
constitutes a third-rate duplication of phenomenal reality. This tension remains
unresolved throughout the dialogues.
While it may be difficult to imagine the writer of Pierre Menard, Author of the
”—wherein a twentieth-century French author succeeds in rewriting
several chapters of Cervantes classical workpropounding a mythical nature of
inspiration, Borges not only discusses this theme seriously but also repeatedly
declares his adherence to the “Platonic theory of the muse. His stanceclearly
manifested in his dialogues, essays, and works of fictionis summed up in a
simple statement: poetry is given to the poet. Presuming poetry and prose to be
essentially parallel (Barnstone 1982, 76), we may conclude that Borges also
believes literature to be given to the writer. This ostensibly abecedarian
asseveration serves as the basis for a highly complex, perhaps even ambivalent,
theoretical and personal approach, however.
Let us commence by reviewing the pre-Platonic notion of inspiration that
underlies both Platos and Borges work (Murray 2015, 158175). In its original
context, the Greek term signifying inspiration
signified that
which contains a god (Peters 1967, 57). Belonging to the realm of the ancient
mystery cults (Burkert 1987), inspiration was thus perceived as an essentially
supernatural phenomenon. In traditional Greek myth, it is represented as an
external power that inexplicably takes hold of a person, speaking through his
mouth, frequently being associated with the term
direct communion
For Plato’s and Borges’ theory of artistic mimesis, see Mualem (2015a, 125153).
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
with the god via a human medium (ibid, 113). It was thus a mystical experience
in which a person partakes of a divine or supernatural force—“god (primarily in
reference to Apollo) or the muse.
Presupposing a psychological state of
force majeure
that pervades the poets
entire personality, overpowering and subduing his consciousness and will,
was also often regarded by the Greeks as linked with
(madness). Nothing intervening between the divine source and human medium,
the poet’s utterances directly express rather than represent divine speech. They
are thus unaffected by mimetic imperfection. Nor is inspiration a dialogical
event. While an essentially verbalrather than textual or symbolic
phenomenon, the poet does not customarily converse with the deity, the latter
employing the poet purely as a channel to convey his oracles. As a result, the poet
gained a cultural image as a type of spiritual
mediating between the
human and divine (Eliade 1989; McGahey 1994, 351).
Classical Greek literature is replete with descriptions of poetic inspiration.
From Homer onwards, the poets openly appealed to divine forces, in particular
petitioning the mythological Muses at the outset of their songs. The Muses played
various rolessupplying the poet with genuine knowledge, imbuing his song
with “sweetness,” and aiding in the composition and performance of his poems.
According to Hesiod, they were the nine daughters of Mnemosynethe goddess
of memoryby Zeus. They were thus closely connected to human memory. Each
imparting a particular type of inspiration, a poet’s style was regarded as
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
predetermined by his association with a specific Muse.
The divine source of
inspiration was therefore typically feminine, the human receiver masculine. This
may suggest an erotic element (Breitenberger 2007), the specificity of the Greek
muse (in contrast to the abstract Hebrew concept of the Holy Spirit) meaning
that her human channel was frequently considered to be her messenger,”
herald,” or even “lover or beloved son.
A striking depiction of this relation occurs in the opening section of
Parmenides philosophical poem
On Nature
, wherein the male philosopher-poet
describes his journey into the divine realm, anticipating revelation of the
ultimate truth of Beingmost likely from Dike, the goddess of justice. The poets
passive posture is reinforced by the vigorous activity of the female maidens (the
sun’s daughters) and the goddess:
The steeds that bear me carried me as far as ever my heart
Desired, since they brought me and set me on the renowned
Way of the goddess, who with her own hands conducts the man
who knows through all things. On what way was I borne
along; for on it did the wise steeds carry me, drawing my car,
and maidens showed the way. And the axle, glowing in the socket
for it was urged round by the whirling wheels at each
endgave forth a sound as of a pipe, when the daughters of the
Sun, hasting to convey me into the light, threw back their veils
from off their faces and left the abode of Night.
(epic poetry),
(lyric poetry),
(love poetry),
(sacred poetry
and dance),
(dance and choral
songs), and
(astronomy): see: Tigerstedt (1970).
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
There are the gates of the ways of Night and Day, fitted
above with a lintel and below with a threshold of stone. They
themselves, high in the air, are closed by mighty doors, and
Avenging Justice keeps the keys that open them. Her did
the maidens entreat with gentle words and skillfully
persuade to unfasten without demur the bolted bars from the
gates. Then, when the doors were thrown back,
they disclosed a wide opening, when their brazen
hinges swung backwards in the
sockets fastened with rivets and nails. Straight through them,
on the broad way, did the maidens guide the horses and the car,
and the goddess greeted me kindly, and took my right hand
in hers, and spoke to me these words:
Welcome, noble youth, that comest to my abode on the car
that bears thee tended by immortal charioteers! It is no ill
chance, but justice and right that has sent thee forth to travel
on this way. Far, indeed, does it lie from the beaten track of
men! Meet it is that thou shouldst learn all things, as well
the unshaken heart of persuasive truth … (Burnet)
Although the poet enters the divine realm here rather than forming the avenue
through which the Muse speaks, this passage preserves the idea that inspiration
is a divine gift bestowed by a divine feminine force upon a passive human male.
Despite being a mere channel for divine utterance, the poet is often portrayed
as a skillful craftsman in Greek literature, praised for polishing and refining the
inspiration he receives and fashioning it into an artifact that reflects his own
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
personal voice. He is thus depicted both as a wise man (
) with access to
supernatural knowledge and a “craftsman (
) in possession of highly-
honed skills (
) (Murray 2015, 9).
The pre-Platonic poet being a masterful
man blessed with divine knowledge and human prowess, the notion of
inspiration therefore possesses three aspects: a) it symbolises the poets
command of professional and divine secrets, giving him the status of an artistic
shaman; b) it marks his absolute epistemological and moral authority; and c) it
signifies his total subjugation to supernatural forces. All three facets operating in
tandem, they are complementary rather than antithetical.
Plato engages in a complex negotiation or conflict with the traditional myths
of his time with regard to the notion of poetic inspiration. In the
Socrates asks the poets to elucidate the meaning of their poems as part of his
quest to find a truly wise man, hoping that their artifacts will demonstrate their
divine wisdom and craftsmanship. Their efforts leave him disappointed,
For after the public man I went to the poets, those of tragedies, and those of
dithyrambs, and the rest, thinking that I was less learned than they. So, taking
up the poems of theirs that seemed to me to have been most carefully
elaborated by them, I asked them what they meant, hoping that I might at the
same time learn something from them. Now I am ashamed to tell you the
truth, gentleman; but still it must be told. For there was hardly a man present,
As Murray remarks, “The Greeks had no word to denote those activities that we now subsume
under the term ‘art.’
covered anything from poetry, painting, and sculpture to
shoemaking, carpentry, and shipbuilding, there being no linguistic or conceptual distinction in
the Greek world, or in antiquity generally, between craft and the ‘fine arts’” (2015, 1).
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
one might say, who would not speak better than they about the poems they
themselves had composed. So again in the case of the poets also I presently
recognized this, that what they composed they composed not by wisdom, but
by nature and because they were inspired, like the prophets and givers of
oracles … (22b–c)
Socrates points here to the poet’s epistemological flawshis inability to
understand and explain the significance of his own poems. Implicitly presuming
that poems must have a rational meaning, he shifts the focus to what they mean,
ignoring their emotional and spiritual impact (Sontag 2103). Hereby, he
accentuates the role of the philosopher, who henceforth takes over the role of the
ultimate hermeneutical authority from the poet. In the
, Socrates similarly
observes that despite being divine menpoets do not really know what they are
talking about (99ac). The same argument occurs in the
: When the poet
sits on the tripod of the Muses he is not in his right mind, but like a fountain he
lets whatever is at hand flow forth. Since his skill is that of imitation, he is often
forced to contradict himself, when he represents contrasting characters, and he
does not know whose words are true (719c).
The symbol of the fountain indicates that the poet is merely a passive medium
through which the flow of inspirational speech is channelled. The paradoxical
nature of his professioni.e., the fact that he must speak words given to him by
disparate characters that do not always correspond with one another
demonstrates his epistemological incompetence.
Plato’s most refined treatment of the topic occurs in Socrates well-known
monologue in the
one of Platos shortest dialogues that reflects his “early”
philosophical and philological approach. Of particular relevance to our present
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
discussion is the philosophical myth” it contains regarding the nature of
inspiration. The central figure is Ion, a rhapsode (sewer of poems)i.e., an
itinerant professional who recited and interpreted the divine words of the
great epic poets (especially Homer’s and Hesiod’s) at public civil festivals (Kirk
1962, 312315). Boasting of exceed[ing] all men in speaking of Homer,
Socrates calls him the best of all rhapsodes” in ironic reference to his claim to
understand Homer better than anyone.
In response to Socrates request that he explain the nature of his skills, Ion
confesses his perplexity over the fact that he is able to speak so vividly about
Homer while simply dozing off in relation to other poets. Appealing for
Socrates’ aid to resolve the conundrum, the philosopher assumes command of
the dialogue, asserting the epistemological authority of the true wise man
) over the poet/rhapsode. He then proceeds to propound his
philosophical” doctrine of inspiration via the metaphor of the magnet:
this is not an art in you, whereby you speak well on Homer, but a divine
power, which moves you like that in the stone which Euripides named [in the
] a Magnet, but most people call Heraclea stone [named after
Heracles]. For this stone not only attracts iron rings, but also imports into
them a power whereby they in turn are able to do the very same thing as the
stone, and attract other rings; so that sometimes there is formed quite a long
chain of bits of iron and rings, suspended one from another; and they all
depend for this power on that one stone. In the same manner also the Muse
The Greek claim “I understand Homer” (
Homéron epistemai
) is ambiguous, signifying either
that he can be recited from memory or be fully understood. As the
Plato makes no distinction between poet and rhapsode.
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
inspires men herself, and then by means of these inspired persons the
inspiration spreads to others, and holds them in a connected chain. (533de)
Crediting the Muses alone with inspiration, he argues that only the philosopher
is capable of comprehending their utterances. This new myth becomes an
abstract allegory, the first ring in the chain representing the poet, the second the
rhapsode, the third the audience. Hereby, he highlights the human actors’ total
dependence upon the divine source:
… it is the god who through the whole series draws the souls of men
whithersoever he pleases, making the power of one depend on the other. And
just as from the magnet … one poet is suspended from one Muse, another from
another: the word we use for it is possessed but it is much the same thing, for
he is held. (536b)
Although this metaphor accords with the traditional myth of Plato’s time,
reflecting the tenet that the poet is inspired by divine forces beyond his control,
in highlighting some parts of it over others Plato completely transforms it, the
god becoming the hero, the poet the ”fool.” The poet’s only preeminence over
the other rings lies in the fact that he is the first. This is merely a temporal
antecedence, lacking any substantive status. Hereby, Plato reduces the divine
man to a hollow tube or chain of iron. As Socrates states, in order to
demonstrate that “poems are not human or the work of men, but divine and the
work of gods; and that the poets are merely the interpreters of the gods,
according as each is possessed by one of the heavenly powers,” the gods “sang
the finest of songs through the meanest of poets (535e).
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
Plato also retains the traditional view of the generic limitation of inspiration.
The poet only being capable of singing in a style dictated to him by his specific
Muse-patron, he or she is woefully ignorant of other modes. Here, too, the poet
lacks the philosopher’s synoptic gaze. The rhapsodes puzzlement over his
mastery with regard to Homer alone reflects his innate shortcomings. Here, Plato
implicitly attacks Homers authoritythis criticism becoming explicit in Book X
of the
At this juncture, Socrates concludes his frontal assault on the inspired poet,
asserting that the poet’s stylistic deficiencies clearly evince that he is not a
(craftsman) because he lacks
(skill). In other words,
inspiration is confined to the divine source, the human medium not even being
capable of reworking and refining it. In contrast to the traditional myth, which
portrays the poet as a wise man, Plato thus reduces him to an empty vessel.
In the
, Plato provides a pseudo-biological explanation of this
epistemological inferiority via an elucidation of the liver’s function. The task of
this organ, he argues, is to serve as a bright and clear mirror of the brain. When
it becomes too sweet, man gains the gift of divination or inspiration. In other
words, inspiration is only biologically possible when mans intelligence is
fettered in sleep. It is thus not the task of him who has been in a state of
frenzy, and still continues therein, to judge the apparitions and voices seen or
uttered by himself; for it was well said of old that to do and to know ones own
and oneself belongs only to him who is sound of mind (
72a). Here,
Plato presents divine inspiration and rational judgment as antithetical mental
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
Plato underlines this view in
by drawing an analogy between the poets
and the mystery-cult adherents, positing that the inspired and possessed poems
uttered by the poets resemble the frenzied worship of the priests and adherents
of Cybele and Dionysus.
He then proceeds to reinforce this comparison by
likening the poets to bees:
For the poets tells us that the songs they bring us are the sweets they cull from
honey-dropping founts in certain gardens and glades of the Museslike the
bees, and winging the air as they do … for a poet is a light and winged and
sacred thing, and is unable even to indict until he has been inspired and put
out of his senses, and his mind is no longer in him. (534ab)
The bee, magnet, and fountain all present the poet as a passive, irrational, and
fragile vessel. In the
, Plato explicitly regards divine madness (
as the sole criterion of good poetry. The poet who relies on his own
craftsmanship pales into insignificance beside the one whose soul is possessed
by the frenzy of the muses (245a), ranking sixth on the ladder of the lovers of
the Muses”—far below the philosopher, king, man of affairs, doctor, and seer
Why did Plato take such pains to reorganize the traditional view of poetic
inspiration, highlighting the divine source of inspiration at the expense of the
This analogy associates poetic inspiration with mysticism, recalling William James’ (1959, 369
421) depiction of the three universal fundamentals of mystical experience: passivity (in Plato:
the reception of inspiration), ineffability (in Plato: the inability to give an account of the content
of inspiration), and transience (in Plato: the temporality and arbitrariness of inspiration). Plato
diverges from James’ fourth fundamental, however, which relates to the total noetic value of the
mystical experience, regarding inspiration as a completely and utterly irrational phenomenon.
This image appears to have been drawn from Aristophanes,
, §750.
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
poet’s role? Many of Platos commentators have related these questions to the
ancient quarrel he adduces between philosophy and poetry. Murray, for
example, assumes that the Platonic view of inspirationdivine speech that
annuls reasoning and skillreflects a heavily ambivalent approach (1996, 9).
Havelock (1982, 164) maintains that it embodies the historical tension between
the traditional and essentially oral poetic state of mind and the nascent written
philosophical prose. Tigerstedt (1969, 72) surmises that Platos primary
objective here is to maintain the general scheme of the traditional myth while
undermining the poet’s cultural role.
I would like to suggest that Plato seeks to go beyond the ancient quarrel,”
endeavouring to present a new structure of human life modelled on the rational,
autonomous person vis-à-vis the divine.
the inspired poet who is subject
to divine speech, the philosopher examines and judges god’s will by virtue of his
wisdom. In other words, external poetic inspiration is inferior to the immanent
. Hereby, Plato raises the autonomous philosopher over the traditional
He also reworks the conception of human memory. No longer associated with
the Muses, the daughters of Mnemosyne, he transforms it into an intrinsic mental
faculty that underpins the act of self-investigation, thereby facilitating the
attainment of genuine knowledge. In this scheme, memorizing becomes
(Scott 1987)an inward movement into mans own consciousness
that reveals his innate metaphysical knowledge, totally independent of
externalalbeit divineforces and influences.
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
Overall, Plato thus exhibits a negative attitude towards poetic inspiration,
portraying it as the antithesis of rationality, existential autonomy, genuine
wisdom, and epistemological responsibility.
Having elucidated Plato’s view of inspiration, let us now examine Borges. In
the prologue to
Brodie’s Report
(1970), Borges states:
I have never hidden my opinions, even through the difficult years, but I have
never allowed them to intrude upon my literary production … the craft [of
literary creation] is mysterious; our opinions are ephemeral, and I prefer
Platos theory of the Muse to that of Poe, who argued, or pretended to argue,
that the writing of a poem is an operation of the intelligence. I never cease to
be amazed that the classical poet professed a romantic theory while a
romantic poet espoused a classical one. (
, 346)
Here, Borges contrasts Platos theory of the Muse with Edgar Allen Poes
argument that writing is an essentially intellectual exercise. At first glance, he
appears to contrast the two approaches in order to reinforce his distinction
between literary creativity and the author’s worldview, imbuing the act of
writing with a mysterious aura.
The reference to Poe should not surprise us in this context. Although a
romantic poet and writer of fantastical stories, Poe also wrote theoretical
essays. Here, Borges appears to be alluding to his Philosophy of
Composition”—an exploration of the nature of literary creativity. As Poe
declares at the outset of this somewhat cumbersome piece, his goal is to
depict with scientific precision and lucidity the precise steps in which he
composed The Raven. Rejecting the Greek notion of inspiration, he
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
maintains that the act of writing is purely rational and completely conscious,
lacking any mysterious or transcendental aspect: It is my design to render it
manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or
to intuitionthat the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with
the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem” (1979, 195).
In order to substantiate this claim, he reconstructs the poem’s
development step by step. It began with the search for a word containing the
letters o and r. The initial stimulus was thus essentially homophonic
rather than epistemologicalthe same reasoning also lying behind the
reiteration of the
nevermore. Explaining why this word had to be
repeated at the close of every stanza of the poem, he notes that this led him
to think of an inhuman creature. Rejecting the parrot as too colorful and
inconsistent with the melancholic aura of the o and r, he lit upon the black
raven. Aesthetics demanding that its colour be conspicuous, he imagined a
clear marble. In this way he paints the poem’s emergence before the readers
In Poe’s hands, poetic inspiration is reduced to a highly self-conscious process
consisting of a series of cold cognitive acts of deliberation, pragmatic selection,
technical decision-making, and cynical adjustment. Rather than consisting of
rational, scientific-like procedures, literary creativity demands the exercise of a
purely cognitive skill-set.
Borges vehemently rejects this process, denouncing it as an intellectual joke:
Poe was very fond of hoaxes. I dont think anybody could write a poem that
way (Barnstone 1982, 146). At the basis of this view lies his premise that
literary writing and reasoning are essentially disparate procedures. As he
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
observes in his lecture on Nathaniel Hawthorne, “… the authors intention is a
meager human thing, a fallible thing, books going far beyond it (Alifano 1984,
33). According to this text, authorial intention can never constitute the exclusive
source of literary creativity à la Poe.
This tenet appears to conflict with some of Borges fictional texts, however.
One of the most prominent examples is Pierre Menard, Author of the
(1941), which tells the story of how a twentieth-century French writer rewrote a
number of chapters of Cervantes classic novel verbatim. This achievement
suggests that authorial intention forms the sole driving force behind the literary
artifact, even being reproducible by the readersin much the same way as a
mathematical theorem. In a letter he sends to the narrator, Menard elucidates
the theoretical underpinnings of his enterprise:
Thinking, meditating, imagining, he wrote to me, are not anomalous acts
they are the normal respiration of the intelligence. To glorify the occasional
exercise of that function, to treasure beyond price ancient and foreign
thoughts, to recall with incredulous awe what some
doctor universalis
thought, is to confess our own languor, or our
. Every man should be
capable of all ideas, and I believe that in the future he shall be. (
At first glance, Menard appears to espouse Poe’s rationalism, representing
writing as stemming solely from the writers intention and intelligence and being
replicable by subsequent readers. Should not an author capable of planning
every aspect of his work be able to reconstruct, step by step, the process
whereby other literary artifacts were created?
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
Closer scrutiny of the text, however, reveals a very different tale. As Borges
notes, Menard rewrites the ninth and twenty-eighth chapters of the first part of
, as well as part of the twenty-second chapter of the second.
While these texts are textually identical with Cervantes’, they are semantically
completely different—“almost infinitely richer (more
, his detractors
will saybut ambiguity is richness) (ibid, 94). Borges demonstrates this
divergence by exploring the phrase truth, whose mother is history in Chapter
IX. As written by the seventeenth-century ingenious layman Cervantes, this
sentence is a mere rhetorical praise of history. In Menards twentieth-century
text, in contrast, it defines history not as a delving into reality but as the very
fount of reality (ibid). The identical texts thus possess completely different
meanings because they were written in different historical contexts.
Borges also refers to the temporal aspect of the meaning of words in one of his
Harvard lectures (1968). Alluding to the Homeric metaphor the dark-wine sea,
he remarks:
If I or if any of you … write in a poem “the dark-wine sea, this is not a mere
repetition of what the Greeks wrote. Rather, it goes back to tradition. When
we speak of the dark-wine sea, we think of Homer and of the thirty centuries
that lie between us and him. So that although the words may be much the
same, when we write dark-wine sea we are really writing something quite
In philosophical terms, this is what is known as Leibnizs law or the principle of the identity
of indiscernibles”—according to which two entities are logically identical if and only if
predicate possessed by the first is also possessed by the second. Under such circumstances, they
become indistinguishable. Cf. Wittgenstein’s notion of “language games.”
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
different from what Homer was writing. Thus, the language is shifting
(Borges 2002, 14)
Despite possessing an identical sign set, Menards and Cervantes texts constitute
two distinct semantic objects. Rather than corroborating Poes theory, Borges’
text reduces it
ad absurdum,
demonstrating how meaning cannot be confined to
the writers intention. The words signifying something completely different,
Menard fails to accomplish his goal.
This rejection of Poe’s stance—in both practical and theoretical terms
returns us to Platos theory of the Muse. But precisely how does Borges view the
Platonic doctrine? Significantly, he appears to exercise a highly selective
judgment here. Ignoring both Platos epistemological criticism of the inspired
poet and association of inspiration with madnessi.e., the negative aspects of
Plato’s theoryhe focuses on the quality of “otherness. In this context, he
favours the Platonic definition of the poet as that light, winged, sacred creature,
regarding this to constitute the ultimate metaphorical definition of poetry
(Alifano 37). At the same time, however, he completely disregards its critical and
parodic aspects. This selective reading suggests that the fundamental Platonic
principle that poetry is given to the poet casts an intellectual spell upon Borges.
He examines and develops this idea in his essay Coleridges Dream (1951),
which treats the phenomenon of dreamy inspiration. The illiterate shepherd
Cadimon, commanded in a dream to sing about the origin of created things,
inexplicably recites verses he has never heard before (
, 370). More
mysterious still is the correlation between Kublai Khan’s and Coleridge’s dreams,
both men being commissioned therein to erect a palace. The thirteenth-century
Mongolian emperor builds an edifice in accordance with his vision, the English
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
Romantic poet writing a poem about it in the words given to him in his dream,
not understanding the palace to be a dream element. Compared with this
symmetry of souls of sleeping men who span continents and centuries, remarks
Borges, the levitations, resurrections, and apparitions in the sacred books seem
to me quite little, or nothing at all (
, 371).
Proceeding to offer some possible explanations for this dream symmetry, the
final Platonic one he adduces is the most formidable: Perhaps an archetype not
yet revealed to mankind, an eternal object (to use Whiteheads term), is
gradually entering the world; its first manifestation was the palace; its second,
the poem. Whoever compared them will see that they are essentially the same
(ibid, 372).
While Plato highlights the irrational aspects of poetic inspiration, Borges thus
accentuates its mysterious quality, portraying inspiration as an eternal task
pervading time and human souls. In an interview, he frames it in terms of
dictation, representing the writer as a type of an amanuensishere the writer
serving as the source of his writing, the content of inspiration
transcending human intention and will.
Borges is more hesitant regarding the source of inspiration, especially in
reference to his personal experience: I know for a fact that I accept my
inspiration, but I am not sure where exactly it comes from (Barnstone 1982,
88). In the prologue to
Obra Poética
(1967), he speaks of three possible founts:
But all poetry is mysterious and nobody knows for sure what has been given to
him to write. The dreary mythology of our time speaks of the subconscious, or,
what is even less lovely, of subconsciousness. The Greeks invoked the Muse, the
Hebrewsthe Holy Ghost; the meaning is the same (1998, 3). Here, Borges
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
suggests that recognition of the fact that inspiration transcends the writer’s
intention and that literary creation originates outside the writer’s consciousness
is more important than identifying its source.
He thus intimates that he regards
it as transcendent (i.e., external) and mythical (i.e., irrational) in nature.
While Borges believes inspiration to lie beyond the writer’s sphere, he also
maintains that its content is bestowed fragmentarily rather than whole, the
writer therefore being tasked with distilling the raw material he receives. On this
view, inspiration can (must?) be moulded by its receptacle, the writer working
out the details of his text on the basis of his personal experience and polishing it
by means of his literary skill. In a fragment entitled How a Text is Born (
nace un texto
) (1985), Borges (like Poe) sets out his own personal experience
and process in this regard:
In the case of a story, for instance, I receive the beginning, the starting point,
the end, and sometimes the general idea. But then I should discover, through
my very limited abilities, what happens between the beginning and the end.
And thereafter there are other problems to solve; for instance, whether the
plot should be told in the first person or in the third person. Then it is
necessary to find the time and place [in which the plot takes place]; now, for
my part (and this is my own personal solution), I believe that for me the most
comfortable solution is to place the story in the last decade of the nineteenth
century ... (Ferrari 2005, 67)
In his opinion, modern psychoanalysis forms another mode of mythical explanationa sort of
“dreary mythology” rather than an alternative scientific account.
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
Here, writing involves impersonal inspiration as well as idiosyncratic technique
and reasoning. In a symposium entitled “Borges on Writing,” held at Columbia
University in 1971, he provides an even more detailed account, too, attributing a
mysterious” nature to his writing process:
This is a kind of central mysteryhow my poems get written. I may be
walking down the street, or up and down the staircase of the National Library
... and suddenly I know that something is about to happen. Then I sit back. I
have to be attentive to what is about to happen. It may be a story, or it may be
a poem, either in free verse or in some form. The important thing at this point
is not to tamper. We must, lest we be ambitious, let the Holy Ghost, or the
Muse, or the subconsciousif you prefer modern mythology have its way
with us. Then, in due time, if I have not bamboozled myself, I am given a line,
or maybe some hazy notiona glimpse perhapsof a poem, a long way off.
Often, I can barely make it out; then that dim shape, that dim cloud, falls into
shape, and I hear my inner voice saying something. From the rhythm of what I
first hear, I know whether or not I am on the brink of committing a poem, be it
in the sonnet form or free verse ... All this boils down to a simple statement:
poetry is given to the poet. I dont think a poet can sit down at will and write.
If he does, nothing worthwhile can come of it. I do my best to resist this
temptation. I often wonder how Ive come to write several volumes of verse!
But I let the poems insist, and sometimes they are very tenacious and
stubborn, and they have their way with me. It is then that I think, If I dont
write this down, it will keep on pushing and worrying me; the best thing to do
is to write it down. Once its down, I take the advice of Horace, and I lay it
aside for a week or ten days. And then, of course, I find that I have made many
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
glaring mistakes, so I go over them. After three or four tries, I find that I cant
do it any better and that any more variations may damage it. It is then that I
publish it. (Borges 1994, 7273)
The core of the first phase is attentive receptiveness, the inspiration being a
sudden feeling of occurrence he attempts not to temper. The given content is
fragmentary (a dim cloud”), the process strictly speaking being launched by the
experience of a “revelation”—a word he says he “uses modestly and not
ambitiously elsewhere (Borges and Ferrari 2005, 7). The second stage involves
his skills, decisions, and preferencesthe choice of genre, followed by setting
the text in a specific time and place. Borges personal experience and his
theoretical outlook on literary creativity thus coincide. While the idea that
“literature is given to the writer accords with Plato’s theory of the Muse, the
secondary phasein which the fragmentary inspiration is expanded, elaborated,
and polished by the writer follows Poe.
Having noted how Poes theory of composition is reflected in Pierre Menard,”
let us now turn to its manifestation in Borges fiction. In The Mirror and the
Mask (1975), the poet Olan is tasked with commemorating the king’s victory at
the battle of Clontarf in verseacting as Virgil to the royal Aeneas. Ready and
eager to undertake the commission, the poet boasts of his prowess:
I am Olan. For twelve winters I have honed my skills at meter. I know by
heart the three hundred sixty fables which are the foundation of all true
poetry. The Ulster cycle and the Munster cycle lie within my harp strings. I am
An almost verbatim passage occurs in Barnstone 1982, 8182. Cf. also Borges’ view of
Shakespeare’s creativity in “Shakespeare’s Enigma” (1964) (
, 472473).
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
licensed by law to employ the most archaic words of the language, and its
most complex metaphors. I have mastered the secret script which guards our
art from the prying eyes of the common folk …” (
, 451)
The result is a masterpiece, the king lauding him with praise for his
accomplishment and bestowing upon him a silver mirror:
I accept this labor. It is another victory. You have given to each word its true
meaning, to each noun the epithet bestowed upon it by the first poets If the
whole of the literature of Ireland should
omen absit
be lost, well might it
be reconstructed, without loss, from your classic ode ... (ibid, 452)
The mirror is, of course, a Platonic symbol of the mimetic arts, representing a
third-rate shadow of reality. This “reflects” the king’s feeling that, despite its
accuracy, Olan’s work lacks substance: All this is well, yet nothing has happened.
In our veins the blood has beat no faster. Our hands have not gone for our bows.
No ones cheeks have paled(ibid). He thus commands him to undertake another
attempt. This is more modest and hesitant:
The verses were strange. They were not the description of the battle, they
were the battle. In the warlike chaos of the lines there stirred the God Who is
Three Yet One, the pagan
of Ireland, and those who would war,
centuries after, at the beginning of the Elder Edda. (ibid)
The poems form is no less strange, singular nouns governing plural verbs and
propositions being used in contravention of custom. Once again, the king is
pleased, observing: It holds one in thrall, it thrills, it dazzles. He nonetheless
adds: We are figures in a fable, and it is only right that we recall that in fables,
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
the number three is first above all others (ibid, 453). As a token of his thanks, he
gives the poet a golden mask.
The third attempt resembled nothing prior to it, the poet himself being
different, something that was not simply time having furrowed and
transformed his features, his eyes seem[ing] to stare far into the distance, or to
have been rendered blind (ibid, 453). He refuses to recite the poem, only
speaking at the kings insistence, both men now having “paled” as the king had
hoped they would. Together, they mouth the poem as though it were a secret
supplication, or a blasphemy. The baffled king inquires of the poet what sorcery
has imparted the poem to him: At dawn, the poet recalls with deep awe, I
awoke speaking words that at first I did not understand. Those words are the
poem. I felt I had committed some sin, perhaps that sin which the Holy Ghost
cannot pardon (ibid, 454). Identifying this as knowledge of eternal Beautya
gift forbidden to mankindthe king places a dagger in the poet’s hands, with
which he kills himself, the king proceeding to leave his palace to become a
beggar, wandering the roads of the Ireland that had once been his kingdom.
This final attempt is associated with the Holy Spirit and the view of inspiration
as a gift from outside and above. This poem is thus the product of purely oneiric
inspiration in accordance with Platos theory that the poet partakes of madness.
Such purity is
, trespassing into the divine realm. The poets personality
must therefore be annihilated, pure acts of inspirationif attainablebeing
inhuman and destructive.
The Circular Ruins, published in
(1944) tells the story of a
magician who dreams a man in painstaking detail, imposing reality him upona
task that while not impossible was clearly supernatural (Borges 1962, 58).
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
The idealistic parallelism between existing and dreaming is a prominent feature
of Borges work. Here, it is clearly reflected in the motto—“and if he left off
dreaming about you …” This is drawn from Lewis Carrolls
Through the Looking
, in which Alice encounters a king whose dream maintains her existence. In
light of the link between inspiration and dreaming, the magicians task may
represent the process of literary creativitythe act of imposing a dreamed man
upon reality corresponding to the writers attempt to share his inspirational
vision with his readers.
Borges nonetheless represents the magician’s first mode of creativity as active
and self-aware. He dreams that he is standing in the centre of a circular
amphitheatre which was somehow the ruined temple; clouds of taciturn
students completely filled the terraces of seats (ibid). Seeking a soul worthy of
taking his place in the universe, he lectures to his phantasmagoric students,
asking them questions, and pondering their answers. In doing so, he realizes that
he has failed in his mission, apprehending that the task of molding the
incoherent and dizzying stuff that dreams are made of is the most difficult work a
man can undertake, even if he fathoms all the higher and the lower spheres
much more difficult than weaving a rope of sand or minting coins of the faceless
wind (ibid, 59).
His first creative attempt being too intentionalalmost mathematicalhe
undertakes a second attempt. Like Olan’s, this is much less ambitious and far
more modest, attentive, and receptive: The few times he did dream during this
period, he did not focus on his dreams; before resuming his task, he waited until
In the prologue to
Brodie’s Report
(1970), Borges thus defines literary creativity as “guided
dreaming” (
, 346).
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
the moon’s disk was perfect (ibid, 60). Like the Greek poets, he evokes divine
forces in uttering those syllables of a powerful name that it is lawful to
pronounce. Then he lies down to sleep, dreaming of a beating heart while
carefully maintaining his receptive approach: He did not touch it, he only
permitted himself to witness it, to observe it, and occasionally to rectify it with a
glance. He perceived it and lived it from all angles and distances (ibid).
Eventually, he accomplishes his assignment, sending his dreamed son away and
imposing his dream upon reality.
The magicians second attempt clearly reflects Borges compound view of
inspiration. In both cases, creativity begins with attentive reception followed by
careful formation. The Circular Ruins therefore symbolizes Borges return to
the pre-Platonic image of the Greek poet as the inspired
or, as
Borges entitles his text on Homer, The Creator (
el hacedor
). Borges thus views
literary creativity as integrating both reception and reasoning, external content
and personal craftsmanship. Hereby, he dialectically blends Plato’s “theory of the
Muse” with Poe’s philosophy of composition. As he notes in the prologue to
Unending Rose
(1975): “Apart from isolated cases of oneiric inspiration, it is
obvious that both doctrines [Poe’s and Plato’s] are partially true, unless they
correspond to distinct stages in the process [of literary creation]” (
, 343).
If indeed the two theories are related chronologically rather than being
identical, the first stage of creationthe reception of fragmentary content from
outside/aboveis always the Platonic according to Borges, the second following
upon it as a self-conscious and intentional form of fashioning, revising, and
completing the initially-imparted content. Just as the first phase is impersonal
and external, the second is autonomous and idiosyncratic. In Borges’ view, Poe’s
Borges and Plato on Poetic Inspiration
and Plato’s theories in and of themselves are thus insufficient.
Borges insists that inspiration is the sole
prima causa
of literature;
he maintains that the author must wield his own pen. This conception may
explain the tension between Borges’ conception of inspiration and his belief that
the reader plays an active role as co-author of the text, the role he assigns
memory in the act of creation, and the historicity he attributes to literary words.
These aspects form part of the secondary phase of the process of creativity,
which occurs in time and rests upon human culture and convention. If the writer
can shape the material of his inspiration at will, there is no reason why the
reader cannot do the same.
Borges’ preference for Plato’s “theory of the Muse” over Poe’s “mathematical
precision” reflects his conviction that all literary artifacts originate in external
inspiration. Plato’s inspiration is logically prior to Poe’s self-aware
craftsmanship, prompting the entire process. In combining both theories,
however, Borges ultimately transcends Plato’s approach, regarding
to be the first requisite in the process of creativityclosely
followed by the
. Hereby, Borges effectively returns to the pre-Platonic
mythical tradition that the Greek philosopher sought to undermine.
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