A Dialogue in Two Parts, Part II

EveAs I said a few weeks ago, I’m currently in a class called Poetics and Historiography for which I’m writing a two-part dialogue. Part one was a conversation between Plato, Aristotle, and me. Near the end of that dialogue, John Milton — the blind poet — walked into the pub and interacted with the group. In Part II, the principal characters remain, but with a few fun additions. Without further setup, here’s Part II:

“Well done,” the blind man said, sipping his Woodford Reserve. “Well done. This is going to be a splendid conversation.”

“And by that, you mean?”

“Three removed,” the blind man started, ignoring my question, “is a humor of the highest order.”

“Humor?” the first man asked.

“Yes, humor. Socrates, Plato, the reader. Three removed, you see? And, of course, that doesn’t take into account the medium itself. As it’s read now: the codex. So perhaps what you meant to say, in all of your hilarious absurdity, was that poetry is four steps removed from the form.”

“Abstract,” the second man interjected.

“My apologies,” the blind man said. “Poetry is four steps removed from the abstract. Less horizon and more chasm, a point perfectly made by yourself.”

“Ha! You think cleverly, poet, but don’t pursue evasion from one such as myself. I’ve stated my position and it is with me that you must argue. Neither history nor reception will change what I’ve stated, and by that I stand. You take the gods and make them your playthings. You write as if you’ve seen truth, experienced it, and then, against all reason, you dress it up in anthropomorphic fineries, leading all astray. Your myths, as your methods, are deplorable.”

The blind man sat back and with two hands clacked the metallic end of his white stick. “I’m blind! The only truth I’ve seen is that which lives inside. Or have you forgotten, Demiurge? You, too, have spun myths to shape souls. Yet, your forms—as your ends—are incomprehensible. ‘Where is the square root of two?’ Catch up, Play-dough, all we see and all we know is mediated by cultural units in a constant state of différance and deferral. Neither you nor I can know a thing, anything. Recollection and aporia—ha! Appalling! An asymptotic labyrinth is all there is. Its all there’s ever been. Let the gods scorch the earth. For my justice is not your justice. And my poetry is nothing more than a haven of unrest in a sea of turmoil.”

“Post-structuralism,” the second man said, “has its place, but, for the gods’ sake, John, snap out of it. What you did? It transcended time and space. In its very distension it rearranged tradition. It was an inspired inspiration. Your poetry was and is a deathblow to unlimited semiosis. It’s the very foundation upon which meaning can be built.”

“Hff,” John scoffed. “We’re doomed to repeat our errors. What was post-structuralism if not a return to the New Academy? The approach to knowledge cycles through its countless revolutions while history mocks those caught in its whirl. Knowledge never arrives at its destination. The poet, you see, fumbles through darkness hoping to arrive at bliss. But we’re bound, fettered by our linguistic construction. I know no truth. I’ve communed with no beauty. I know nothing of God. Besides,” John paused, “darkness has no meaning.”

“Get it over it!” a man in the adjacent booth shouted. “I was poisoned with hemlock and still can’t feel my lips, but you don’t see me throwing a fit.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, leaning over the padded seatback. “This is a private conversation, if you wouldn’t mind—”

“Sure,” the man said, “I get it. As a cultural unit, I have no corporeality. Is that it? Well, fine. C’mon Arthur, let’s go,” he said, gesturing to the man on his left.

“Sorry, old chap,” Arthur said sheepishly. “It’s not the right time for me. I’ll just wait here if you don’t mind.”

I returned my attention to John, who was in the process of throwing back his remaining Woodford. “Go on,” I gestured.

“There’s this scene, you see, in my favorite epic where the Rexque Futurus stands at the edge of Rome peering in. Oh! how he deserved it, the Empire. But god—not the gods—said, ‘No.’ He turns, sees the harbinger, and, in a moment, his kingdom crumbles. Violence, greed, power, these were his flaws. And every time his bastard son kills him, I break. Three steps or four; forms or abstractions; imitations or the thing itself—call it what you want, but poetry asks something more of us.”

“What?” I asked.

The blind man turned towards my voice and nodded. “Yes…that’s the question.”

“There is a way!” the second man exclaimed. “One can unveil Geist and commune with being?”

“The moment you name a thing,” Plato said, “is the instantiation of transgression.”

“In other words?”

“In other words, reflection is impossible without mediation. We are linguistically constructed and as such—”

“Might I join you?” a man, middle aged and bearded, asked.

I nodded. “We’ve been waiting for you, in fact.”

“Well,” the man said, dripping in the accents of Southern Italy. “I am here.”

“Reason or poetry?” the second man asked. “Is art imitation or something more?”

The Italian laughed. “An old question, yes? Well, this is what I know: ‘All poets write bad poetry. Bad poets publish them, good poets burn them.’”

“Unconscionable,” John said.

“Perhaps,” the Italian shrugged. “I’ve always enjoyed your poetry, but that’s because I’ve always enjoyed Latin.”

“I fear our time is up.”

“We must go,” Plato whispered, “and crawl back into our books.”

I nodded.

“I have come too late, no? Well, perhaps I can have the last word before time and space—in collusion, those old devils—work to squelch our truth. ‘Books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.’ This cannot diminish what we do, only embolden it. With reason, we often seek to grasp the subject hoping that the words will follow. But with poetry, we must first grasp the words trusting that the subject will follow. Start there, no? Then work your way up to truth. It is possible. But it is not easy. Delve into the secrets of the universe—read, write, think—and then claim mystery. For when we stop believing in gods, Demiurges, being, or even truth, it isn’t that we believe in nothing, it’s that we believe in everything.”

A Dialogue in Three Parts

Plato, Aristotle, and MiltonThis is part one of a three-part dialogue I’m currently working on for a class entitled, “Poetics and Historiography.” Four cheers to anyone who can name the interlocutors in the comment section of my blog. And be sure to look for parts two and three in the coming weeks. Enjoy!

“So what, you’re just going to sit there and take notes?”

“Yep,” I said. “Is that a problem?”

“No. Not at all.” He turned his shining head to the man sitting across from him. “Where were we?”

“You were saying something about imitation. How art is three steps removed from the type.”

“That’s right. I agree with myself.”

“Shocking. Well, I don’t.”

“I’m not surprised,” the first man sighed. “You never did.”

“No. No, I didn’t. You’re concerned with that which is changeless, because, according to you, one must construct their epistemology from permanence. But what’s permanent? How do we access it? You speak of two worlds—a heaven of forms—one of which imitates the other. You say we live in a shadowed land, a false space of sights and sounds and that there is no knowledge apart from the form. Is that right? Well what about Heraclitus? You know as well as I do that you can’t step into the same river twice. Change is fundamental. It’s who we are. In fact, it’s the creative force that births knowledge.”

“No, dammit! Talk to me—me! Not me through Porphyry. He skewered my insights. And then that bastard Lewis introduced entire generations to Plotinus’ ideas and called them mine. ‘Further up and further in,’ he said. ‘This world pales in comparison to that,’ he said. And everyone is running around claiming this and that about the great Athenian philosopher. Because, wouldn’t you know it: ‘I learned Plato in a children’s book about a goddamn wardrobe.’ Listen,” the first man said, thrusting his elbows on the table and leaning forward, “I never said any of that. Don’t read Paul through Luther.”

“Oh, right. Socrates then?”

“No! All either of us tried to show was that Heraclitus and Protagoras were wrong. The claim that one can know something—anything—from perception and change is a lie. Knowledge is contingent upon the ontological reality of abstract ideas. From this, and only from this, can one begin to construct an epistemology—any epistemology for that matter—that’s worth a damn.”

“Abstract ideas, huh?”

“Yes, the abstract. Call them forms, ideas, types, or abstractions. I don’t care what, but allow for them in your ontology.”

“Give me an example,” the second man said, before sucking down his cigarette.

“Okay, well—”

“Because it seems to me,” he interrupted, “that if you allow for these forms, then they have to be somewhere else in a world set apart—outside of the cave, so to speak—and accessible to humanity.”

“Where’s the square root of two?” the first man asked. “Where’s red? Can you point to justice? No. You can’t. And yet you take both for granted. They’re in our world to be sure, but where? You point to Mandela and say, ‘Look, there’s justice.’ And then someone else points to ISIS and says, ‘Yep, and there it is, too.’ And without a measuring stick, who’s to say that anyone else is wrong? I don’t have the foggiest idea where justice itself resides, but I do know that you have to allow for the form, ontologically, in order to say anything about something. And, for the record, the cave was never about a primary world, no matter what Orual claims. It’s a pedagogical parable. It’s about the responsibility of education and the burden that the educated bear on behalf of the plebeians. If you don’t believe me, then ask Glaucon. He’ll tell you.”

“But to say that art is three levels—”

The door, swinging open, clanged its entry bell, and interrupted the interlocutors. A man, wizened and bent, shuffled into the pub while clacking his white cane. “Mind if I join you?”

“No,” I said. “By my guest. Can I get you anything? Beer? Wine?”

“A bourbon, if you don’t mind. I only just discovered it. Wonderful stuff.”

“Sure thing.”

“But to say that art is three levels removed,” the second man repeated, “is to push aesthetics to the periphery of culture. And then what happens? Well, I’ll tell you: society becomes a conglomeration of sights and sounds, of digital whirls and conduits, and of surface meanings and, the gods forbid, meaningless simulacra. That’s what happens. Science, math, medicine—the rational mind—can only ever answer what, but never why. It’s the aesthetic that orders reality, that makes sense from chaos, and that provides access to whatever truth there is. He hasn’t said this yet, but in the near future a man, an Italian, will say that the only thing we can ever really know is the aesthetic. Why? Because, though dynamic, it’s permanent. For the gods’ sake, you and I both know that as problematized as language, perception, and culture have become, there is only one certainty upon which to build one’s foundation: Dr. John H. Watson was Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick. You can’t argue that. It’s as timeless as truth gets.”

“Ha! And this from the great systematician.”

“Well done,” the blind man said, sipping his Woodford Reserve. “Well done. This,” he pointed to the three of us, “this is going to be a splendid conversation.”

To be continued…