Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Selected Dialogues of Plato

Translated by Benjamin Jowett

Revised & with an Introduction by Hayden Pelliccia

Includes Ion, Protagoras, Phaedrus, Symposium & Apology.

In the “Apology,” preparing to defend not so much his life as his manner of living, Socrates prefers to, sensibly enough, “…begin at the beginning…” A couple weeks ago, I was walking through the aisles after work and looking for a book. I’d wanted to pick up some Plato ever since talking with Abby about him a couple months back, but I didn’t really know where to begin. Maybe something hefty? “The Laws?” “The Republic?” Maybe something slender, so I could find my bearings? – “Crito?” “Gorgias?” I scanned the backs of various titles, thinking I would go with one whose subject interested me. Okay, I thought, the Modern Library “Selected Dialogues” has two pieces dealing with poetry and interpretation. It sounded good to me.

I was shocked, then, when I took the book home and started reading. It wasn’t so much the ostentatious “subject matter” of the text that contained the real force of the dialogues, but the manner in which each dialogue is constructed. The discourse itself, the discourse’s incessantly inward turning eye as it considers itself, is what captivated me. Socrates in the Platonic dialogues is himself a displacement of intent from the “author” of the text – Plato! And here in “Phaedrus” we see Socrates (at least one degree of displacement already) saying he remembers Prodicus (another displacement!) saying, “…that a speech should be neither long nor short, but just right.” Oh! And what a statement, that it should then find its way thousands of years later (always in displacement and the act of being displacing) in Robert Creeley’s adage that “Form follows content.”- and doesn’t that statement itself come to us through the displacement of Charles Olson’s essay, “Projective Verse?” How Socratic then, that one of the points which Olson’s essay pivots on is not even Olson’s! Like Socrates, he seems to be saying that “…I am well aware that I know nothing...,” so the knowledge which one wishes to apply must be sought elsewhere.

Plato, utilizing the figure of Socrates, is seeking knowledge through a series of displacements. This also involves irony, sarcasm, and diversion. These displacements are the accruement of knowledge, though also potentially of ignorance and folly. Look at the “X told Y told Z” train of retellings which frame “Symposium”: Apollodorus, not Socrates, is the primary speaker of the dialogue, and neither is it Socrates who told him of the party that constitutes the famous work. Instead it is “…the same person who told Phoenix..,” but Apollodorus can only “try to give you the exact words of Aristodemus,” who was at the party in question. The important word is try. One can only attempt to impart what transpired, as a literal transcription would be impossible to obtain.

Does Plato see such displacement as a problem? Is knowledge necessarily lost through this give and take? Mind you, Plato belongs to the culture whose great Classical works, the Homeric epics, began as an oral tradition. In fact, Plato is more skeptical of books, of exactly what is lost through stabilizing words to text. The written word is suspect, because it can only simulate discourse while not engaging it. The concept of a written canon narrows inquiry instead of provoking it –the opening of the field of intent. Plato’s sentiments against writing are, as much is in Plato, laced with irony. Writing against writing contains its obvious paradoxes, but of course it also has its logic. Plato, through Socrates, is skeptical of “…books [because] they can neither answer nor themselves ask questions…” The staid fixity of text is only rivaled by the instability of context – content can change, even if the text is the same. Think of Borges’ story of a different author writing a different Don Quixote than Cervantes, but using the same words. Think of the promiscuity of words, “…they promiscuously knock about the world anywhere at all, among those who understand them, and equally among those for whom they are completely unsuitable…the book cannot protect or defend itself.” The written word is a fallacy because it is not the thing itself, but an image of it. Phaedrus asks Socrates if “…the written word might properly be called no more than an image?” Yes, it can, and image is but the appearance is but a resemblance of a thing.

No things on the page.

But then, Plato couldn’t foresee blogging and the technology yet to come that is certain to improve on the possibilities of the Kindle? Socrates rests by a brook with the young Phaedrus and says that he believes “…that the cicadas chirruping in their customary manner in the heat of the sun over our heads are talking to one another and looking down on us.” Here is not just people in discourse, but a world in discourse. Words, through the medium of the blog, the kindle, you know, the Internet, are not stones, but cicadas. They are movable and reactive and engaged in a real-time discourse. And aside from bestowing upon the written word something of the speed and assertiveness of the spoken word, the Internet also fosters community; it’s our “global village.” Community is something else to look at in Plato’s dialogues.

How different is the sense of an intellectual community in Plato any different than the casual fraternity of Frank O’Hara and the New York School, or the collaborative spirit of the Grand Piano project, an ongoing exercise between many of the major Language poets? Plato uses the intellectual community that was all around him in Athens, as well as other elements hewn straight from the personal, and incorporates them into his dialogues. Socrates was a personal associate of Plato, his teacher, but the dialogues are replete with famous figures, both those who were known to his contemporaries, as well as those who are known to this day.

Socrates is a philosopher of the city, who says that he is “…a lover of knowledge, and the countryside and the trees decline to teach [him] anything, whereas people in the city do.” It is people, and not words in and of themselves that provide him opportunities to pursue knowledge. And when Socrates is done discussing matters, he says “…I think we have played sufficiently with the subject…” That is, thought itself is an Ashbery-esque play, it is in the game where the heart of the matter lies. Look at the supreme joke at the close of the “Symposium.” It isn’t until towards daybreak, when “…there remained only Socrates, Aristophanes, and Agathon…drinking out of a large goblet, which they passed around, and Socrates was discoursing to them…that the genius of comedy was the same as that of tragedy, and that the true artist in tragedy was an artist in comedy also.” This aphoristic and encompassing statement of aesthetics comes off both casual and urgent.

And that this is something tossed off towards dawn at the tail end of a night of hard-drinking, that is the context, might be as much the “content” of the statement as the content itself. How a thing is said means as much as what is said. Perhaps it’s better to say that how a thing is said means the same thing as what is said. The working of the mind, as well illustrated in Plato, isn’t a thing to separate or quarantine from the affairs of life, but it is inherent in living itself, which includes play. Especially play. This is the same thing as Frank O’Hara talking on the telephone while writing a poem about talking on the telephone, isn’t it? I was working myself up in the bookstore trying to figure out which book of Plato’s to start with, but isn’t that just a joke? I should do as I like, read whichever one strikes me, and have fun with it. That’s the game.

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