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I'm a junior English/Philosophy major who's looking forward to my senior year and looking back on the path that led me here

Monday, July 31, 2006

Pilgrimage II: The Symposium

I'm still working and thinking through the end question, "what does Socrates think?", but hopefully the rest of the essay is helpful.

At the last St. Francis conference I attended, Eavan Bolan, an Irish poet, was the keynote speaker; she claimed that her poetry, like all poetry, was meant to offer a truer "history," the stories and happenings of what really happened in relationships of power, oppression, silence. She is from a colonized country, so she speaks from experience. When I asked her if the poet had a responsibility to the historian - of getting the story "crooked" for the sake of what really happened, for the sake of justice - she claimed that the poet had "no responsibility to anyone," and went on a long talk about how everyone hates the poets, poets are beholden to no one, that "even Plato hated the poets." When I came across this in the Symposium, I thought "get her, Diotima; hit Bolan where she lives":

"After all, everything that is responsible for creating something out of nothing is a kind of poetry; and so all the creations of every craft and profession are themselves a kind of poetry, and everyone who practices a craft is a poet." (205B)

Creation, the act of poesis, is something that Diotima sees everything and everyone participating in - the cycles of reproduction, the continuation of life, the Lover and the Loved as active pursuers and not the unmoving, passive recipients of some other, unnamed and unknowable action. And how interesting - Socrates speech is a recollection of a coversation with a woman, a recreation of a character that is reimagined for the listening men. It's not so much the fact that Socrates is talking to a woman that interests me - rather, the way in which he reconstructs the argument, the conversation, is interesting. There is an ascent there - Diotima's talk itself carries an ascent/descent motion, and it serves as the high point in the dialogue itself, with the prior speeches being steps and Alcibiades' entrance being the descent. And Diotima's description of Love as being between mortal and immortal makes me think that Love is a relationship of contraries itself, yet still something whole. It sounds like Love is also caught up in being loved, that Love is caught up in the Beauty and the Good, that there is an overflow of the One's self in the nature of Love's makeup (resource and need) that includes us as lovers, as pursuers.

So: is poetry in and of itself a contrary? Something coming from nothing?
Is the world itself, reality, a contrary?
Craig Mattson's question to me at OPUS - what does it mean to transcend the self? Are we made up of contraries as well, always living in tension? (that's probably the weakest question)
Is poetry a route to madness, to desire? Even as it is rooted in the specific, particular experience, rooted in the things themselves? Is poetry a way to understand non-escapist transcendence?
And is the One something that participates in Itself with us, not just a lofty goal?

Something that I keep returning to in my reading, and slow summer thinking, is my inability to move beyond wanting to establish the neoPlatonists as continuing Plato, not just adjusting him for Christian convictions (which can be pretty aligned with Plato's!). Plato's understanding of reality, the really real and the material and the steps between them, shows that the really real and the material are not just linked by a linear chain, or separated by binaries of body soul, similar/dissimilar (these are actually more connected than they seem), or that the material is a shadow of the form, but that material reality and the One, the bodily and the Beautiful, participate in each other, in circularity, in communion with one another. I hear this in Diotima.

I recently had a conversation with a fellow philosophy student who, when I described this project to him, said "Isn't that just neo-Platonism?" I've had others ask me that as well. And there is some thinking in the Symposium, not by Socrates, that suggests that contraries are more binary than not; Pausanias' begins his speech by declaring that there are two kinds of Love - common Love and heavenly Love, one born of Zeus and Dione, male and female (dissimilar), and one born of the god Uranus, motherless, unitary, the "similar" in contrast to common Love. Pausanias admits that in following thses distinctions in the "identities" of Love, we are actually understanding the essence of action:

"no action is either good or bad, honorable or it comes out depends entirely on how it is performed. If it is done honorably and properly, it turns out to be honorable; if it is done improperly, it is disgraceful...Love is not in himself noble and worthy of praise; that depends on whether the sentiments he produces in us are themselves noble." (181A)

What interests me is this division of Love - Pausanias lays out these contraries, which have interested me all summer, and states that commom Love, the vulgar Love, is the attraction between men and women, while heavenly Love, "transcendent" Love, is the connection between men and men, women and women. Calvin Seerveld is my philosophical great-grandfather, and I do feel his convictions rising up in me every now and then: isn't the vulgar Love the Love to be praised? Hearty, robust, earthy?

But is there something else worth critiquing here?

"Love is not in himself noble and worthy of praise; that depends on whether the sentiments he produces in us are themselves noble."

What Pausanias has said here, and what is reiterated in every speech besides Socrates' recount of Diotima's words, is an inversion of transcendence, an inability to look beyond self, a incapacity to understand Love and Desire and longing and the One. It's an incapacity because everyone is still so drawn into themselves, so bent downwards into self that they can't stand straight;

For Pausanias, Love's worth and movemnt is entirely dependent on what it brings out in us, as if we could control the direction Love would take us.

For Eryximachus, Love is entirely the matter of a balance between the divine and the human - there is no pursuit, only prescription.

For Aristophanes, Love is what melds us to the " young men that are meant for us," (193B) Love is what brings us to the ones we are looking for, and we get caught up in Love...but there is still something unsettling, for me, about this kind of transcendence.

And we think that Agathon gets it right when he claims that all the previous speeches did not praise Love itself, but humans in love, the effects of Love: he still misses something vital about madness, about desire, about poesis and transcendence:

"Love is neither the cause nor the victim of any injustice; he does no wrong to gods or men, nor they to him. If anything has an effect on him, it is nevery b violence, for violence never touches Love. And the effects he has on others are not forced, for every service we give to Love we give willingly. And whatever one person agrees on with another, when both are willing, that is right and just; so say the "laws that are kings of society." (479C)

How does desire work unless it works on us? How can Love be sovereign unless ther is some sort of violence, some sort of push, something that pushes us to desire? Something that helps us recollect?

And do we recollect willingly, or is it birthed in us?

Agathon's claim that our service to others is like Love's effects on us, is another admittance to a view of Love that places human beings the self, in the center, with Love as an aid, a background noise. This is not poesis - there is nothing new created here, nor is anything really cultivated or refined. In all these descriptions of Love, no one really describes human nature and divine nature as contraries that are caught up with each other, and Love becomes a tool for a transcendence that is self-satisfying, but not really transcendence.

And Diotima gives us a story about Love, his parentage, his wiles, that would make Wordsworth jealous.

I don't really know where to go from here - but I still can't shake this feeling that the poet and the philosopher sit in each others' skins much more than we think they do, than Bolan thinks.


Anonymous rz said...

Hm. 'Is poetry a way to understand non-escapist transcendence?' For what very little I understand about all this, my inclination to answer this question is to say- yes. At least, in my experience of the creation of poetry (though I'm uncertain if it is created 'out of nothing') the process of writing itself seems a sort of transcendence because I must get outside myself in order to more clearly look inside. And yet, as removing as this process is, I'm always grounded somehow- I always return from how I write (descriptions) to that which I am writing about (identification). (Return from my relationship with the object to the object itself?...) When I read the question I immediately felt 'Yes, yes!' almost as if my writing of poetry could help me get a better glimpse of what you're trying to say.

I don't know if any of that really made any sense. I appreciate your pilgrimage, Allison.

12:08 PM  

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