22 September 2009

a little more on Plato

I know there's been a lot on this blog in the past about Plato's metaphysics and their implications for the arts. But I'm taking a class now in which we read snippets of Plato and Aristotle and wrote a tiny response. So, here's my response, to remind us of the ongoing struggle between the earthly and the divine -- and th pressure both put on the poet.

Response to selections from Plato & Aristotle

Plato and Aristotle, two foundational philosophers in the history of “Western” thought, are a bit of an odd couple. Their minds work similarly, by means of investigation and logical progression, but their assumptions, conclusions, and practical applications are extremely dissimilar. I find this comparison/contrast fascinating, because I am (in theory) a Neoplatonist, but resonate more sympathetically with Aristotle’s literary conclusions.

The introduction to our reading selection from Aristotle’s Poetics gives a convenient comparison between this writer and his teacher, which I paraphrase here.

considers poetry in comparison to forms/ideals
thinks art is propaganda
says that poets are skillful LIARS
thinks analogically
considers poetry as a general category
stresses the similarities among all arts
focuses on content/subject matter
all art is COPYING
writes poetically, eloquently, dramatically

considers poetry itself
thinks art is…art
says poets are SKILLFUL liars
thinks analytically
considers generic categories
stresses the differences between works of art
focuses on artistic form
all art is CREATING
writes dryly, technically

To this list I add some observations of my own.

likes, but condemns, Homer
wants to dry up emotions
considers art in the ideal world
poets have no access to the Good
relevant only for philosophers and great men

praises Homer as a great example
wants to evoke fear and pity
considers art in the real world
poets communicate Universal Goodness
relevant for everybody

It might not be an exaggeration to summarize these differences thus: Aristotle is actually interested in poetry (he loves the gritty metrical details of it, the rhythm and swing and sway of it); Plato is not (he looks beyond it, with a vague look of distraction in his eyes, to the shapeless invisible Forms in the eternal world). Plato, of course, banishes almost all art from his Republic. But then, he does feel great regret over this action, and gives poetry a chance to defend herself. And Aristotle does rather analyze poor poetry to death, dissecting it, sorting the severed limbs into neat little piles and labeling with a Sharpie in clear, stubby capitals. So this dichotomy is not, perhaps, as neat as I might like it to be.

Which makes sense, given my own artistic and theological struggles. I’ve written a lot about the pleasures and pains of my own Platonism. I’ve rejoiced in how it provides artistic motivation—always striving to express the true Form, knowing that all failure here is only a weak copy of some success in the other world, longing for the multi-dimensional reality that will be that much more beautiful than even this achingly lovely terrestrial existence. I’ve been relieved to find how it helps make theological sense of suffering and imperfection by the promise of the Ideal, Incarnate, finally ruling in a complete kingdom without spatial or temporal boundaries. Indeed, that’s how I’ve reworked Platonism to fill in some of the holes in the Allegory of the Cave etc.: by reinterpreting the Realm of Pure Forms into (now) the Mind of God and (future) the final Kingdom of God (heaven/new earth). This is all very C. S. Lewisian, of course, and Charles Williamsian. No wonder: I was raised on the Inklings as well as Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. They were my baby food, my childhood meats, my mature sweet wine of the soul.

But then there’s the other side: the terrible body-soul dichotomy that arose throughout Christendom as a result of widespread misapplication of Hellenization. If the body is only a copy of an Ideal one, and a poor sickly shadowy copy at that, and (furthermore) if the “flesh” is the residence of sin, then the body must be the house of evil. Hence all kinds of abuses in the historical Church, both of oneself and of others.

And this has artistic consequences, too. The simplest to relate came up in a workshop just a month ago. My fellow poets chided me thus: “Nothing ever actually happens in your poems. It’s always going to happen, or speculation about what might happen, or what could or should, but it’s never actually happening in the poem. You never feel or experience anything in the poem itself.” Indeed. That is the problem. But I suffer from an overdose of Plato, which Yoda expressed so well: “Never his [/her]mind on where [s]he is, what [s]he is doing.” Precisely. This is the result of Plato’s moratorium on creation, his denial of true invention.

So Aristotle is kind of a breath of fresh air, for all my love of the Ideal. Even though he is dry enough to put anybody to sleep at any time of day (hurrah! a cure for insomnia!), he’s kind of bracing compared to Plato. There’s something there to chew on. Lots of nice earthy, solid, papery examples to analyze. I tried last night to write a poem in which something actually happened and in which the narrative persona actually felt something. It ended up being mostly a list of anatomical terms for the physical sensations of climbing a mountain. But maybe that’s a start. At least my narrator made it to the top of the mountain. If the mountain was really there!

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