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Faces of the Infinite: Neoplatonism and Poetics at the Confluence of Africa, Asia and Europe

Faces of the Infinite

Night Journey and Ascension' Ahmed Moustafa

In this blog Julian Weiss, strand lead for Travelling Concepts, writes about his experience attending Faces of the Infinite: Neoplatonism and Poetics at the Confluence of Africa, Asia and Europe from 9th - 11th November 2017. 

This was no ordinary academic gathering: the aim was to think about Neoplatonism as it moves from late Antiquity to modernity, linking continents, peoples and languages. Unparalleled in scope, it aspired ‘to generate the first comparative overview of the extent to which Neoplatonist philosophy has permeated poetic forms, styles, themes and figurative language as well as poetic theory in seven principal languages of the greater Mediterranean region’.  To this end, the three convenors (Professor Stefan Sperl, Dr Yorgos Dedes, from the School of Oriental and Asian Studies, University of London, and Professor Trevor Dadson Queen Mary, University of London) invited specialists working in Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Persian, Spanish and Turkish to examine ‘the significance of Neoplatonism as a cross-cultural phenomenon which links the literary traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam’. The announced list of languages did not, inevitably, reflect the actual linguistic diversity of the sources discussed—with their historical and regional variations (ancient and modern Greek, Ottoman and contemporary Turkish, medieval and Renaissance Florentine, and so forth)—or include the presence of Latin and Renaissance English texts. The three-day conference had been preceded by a series of planning meetings to explore and define the scope and aims of the conference, and to ensure that it would not be a one-off event, but the platform for a major publication that would have a broader impact upon the way we practice the humanities.

And for me, this was precisely what lifted the project out of the ordinary and connected it to the inspiration behind Language Acts and Worldmaking and to our strand, Travelling Concepts, in particular. Transcending its philosophical origins in Late Antiquity, Neoplatonism provided a conceptual and linguistic framework that helped peoples of different times, places and belief systems to reflect upon what it means to be human in this world and in the ‘other’. As such, it has also been a form of world-making, as Language Acts and Worldmaking understands the term. The event was also very much in the spirit of the AHRC’s Open World Research Initiative, which promotes language learning as a fundamental means of intercultural communication. Neoplatonism in all its variants and modes may be compared to a language that crosses boundaries of faith, time, and place. It is a language that operates on several axes. As the conference papers showed, philosophers, poets, and writers from the monotheistic faiths exploited Platonic ideas to set in creative tension the material and the spiritual world and to establish a dialogue with others across time and space.

Reflecting on the three packed days of papers, which covered a truly eye-opening array of topics and writers, most of them in languages I do not know, I now understand the challenge and the opportunities implied by what (for me at least) were the two key phrases of the conference’s title: ‘Neoplatonism and poetics’ and ‘confluence’. There were, reasonably enough, two emphases in the participants’ approach.  Some focussed on the philosophy (the extent to which a writer reproduced or developed a philosophical system), while others were more interested in the poetics: how poets exploited Neoplatonic ideas to articulate ideas that could not be reduced to a philosophic system. This was the approach of Walter Andrews (University of Washington), as his evocative title suggests: ‘Ottoman Poetry: Where the Neoplatonic Dissolves into an Emotional Script for Life’.  ‘Neoplatonism dissolved into an emotional script for life’ also describes the papers from other sessions.  For example, in the session entitled ‘Neoplatonism and gender identity in Early Modern Love Lyric’, I examined sonnets by Francisco de Aldana, Catalina Clara Ramírez de Guzmán and Sor Juana de la Cruz, alongside other speakers who discussed verse in Ottoman Turkish, Italian, and English: respectively,  Didem Havioglu (Duke), Abigail Brundin (Cambridge) and John Roe (York). We shared an interest in Neoplatonism’s role in helping Early Modern men and women write and/ or question the social, emotional and spiritual scripts of the age.

More challenging perhaps was the second key word: ‘confluence’. The main languages of the conference—Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, Turkish, Italian, Greek—made the centre of attention that Ancient Middle Sea, the greater Mediterranean area, where the three continents of Ancient cosmography meet. It is true that the term ‘confluence’ was not intended to be programmatic—the conference organizers were not prescriptive, apart from their injunction to open up our individual research interests to a wider audience.  When viewed together, many cross-cutting themes emerged, which revealed commonalities between writers working in quite different historical and sociolinguistic communities.  But did Neoplatonism work to facilitate cultural contact across these linguistic and territorial borders? Or was its main effect to strengthen cultural identities that were located in and identified by a particular time and place? The two are not mutually exclusive. This, for me, remains the most exciting prospect for research and I hope it forms the basis of future discussions as the project develops.

In this respect, I was fascinated by the poem discussed by Didem Havioglu, ‘The Last Word’, composed by the Ottoman poet Mihri Hatun (d. 1506). Mihri used Neoplatonic notions to challenge and subvert patriarchal attitudes (‘A capable woman is much better/ than a thousand incapable men’). She sends her poem out to the ‘Fortunate Muslim Nation’, begging ‘dear ones’ to read her book and to remember her in their prayers.  This is her way of locating herself in the Muslim world and also to reshape it in a way that accommodates a place for learned women.

Other papers also hinted at Neoplatonism’s role in transforming ‘space’ into a sense of ‘place’. Thus, as we continue to explore ‘Neoplatonism and poetics at the confluence of Africa, Asia, and Europe’, perhaps we should also conceptualise the way that space is constructed in language. Perhaps Doreen Massey’s formulation is helpful here:

First, space [is] the product of interrelations; as constituted through interactions, from the immensity of the global to the intimately tiny. [...] Second, that we understand space as the sphere of possibility of the existence of multiplicity in the sense of contemporaneous plurality; as the sphere in which distinct trajectories coexist; as the sphere therefore of coexisting heterogeneity. Without space, no multiplicity; without multiplicity, no space. If space is indeed the product of interrelations, then it must be predicated upon the existence of plurality. Multiplicity and space as co-constitutive. Third, that we recognise space as always under construction. Precisely because space on this reading is a product of relations-between, relations which are necessarily embedded material practices which have to be carried out, it is always in the process of being made. It is never finished; never closed. Perhaps we could image space as a simultaneity of stories-so-far. (For Space 2005: 9)

Perhaps we could imagine Neoplatonism as one of those ‘stories-so-far’ that provides us with a language and concepts to ‘recognise space as always under construction’, and (I would add) to acknowledge the tensions and conflicts in that world-making process.