The Prolegomena is valuable as a summarization that is intended to be less obscure and suited for popular cons Hieroglyphics: A Reluctant Translation
The Prolegomena is valuable as a summarization that is intended to be less obscure and suited for popular consumption. It tries to compress Kant’s criticism of (all) previous work in metaphysics and the theory of knowledge -- first propounded in the Critique of Pure Reason, which provided a comprehensive response to early modern philosophy and a starting point for most subsequent work in philosophy.
A note on the Edition: This is a wonderful edition to approach the Prolegomena with -- meticulous introductory essay and copious notes. Plus it comes with a summary outline of all the sections! A summary of a summary. What more could you want?
Summing up the Beast
As is well known The Critique of Pure Reason is a notoriously difficult work. When first published, the early readers were not very different from modern readers — they found it incomprehensible!
Kant was a poor popularizer of his own work and when it was finally published in the spring of 1781 (with Kant nearing 57), after almost ten years of preparation and work, Kant had expected that the evident originality of the thoughts would attract immediate attention, at least among philosophers. He was… well… to be disappointed — for the first year or two he received from those whom he most expected to give his book a sympathetic hearing only a cool and uncomprehending, if not bewildered, silence.
What else would you expect for such wild intentions:
My intention is to convince all of those who find it worthwhile to occupy themselves with metaphysics that it is unavoidably necessary to suspend their work for the present, to consider all that has happened until now as if it had not happened, and before all else to pose the question: “whether such a thing as metaphysics is even possible at all.”
He had proposed a “Copernican Revolution” in thinking. He should have known that such stuff cannot come without a user manual.
Soon Kant caught on to this, and started having some misgivings about the fact that he was clearly not getting the reception he had expected for his masterpiece:
Kant is known to have written to Herz expressing his discomfort in learning that the eminent philosopher Moses Mendelssohn had “laid my book aside,” since he felt that Mendelssohn was “the most important of all the people who could explain this theory to the world.”
Mendelssohn later wrote to a friend confessing that he did not understand the work, and professing pleasure at learning that, in the opinion of her brother, he would not be “missing much” if he continued not to understand it!
Kant’s colleague in Konigsberg, Johann Schultz, in the preface to his 1784 Exposition of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, mentioned the “nearly universal complaint about the unconquerable obscurity and unintelligibility” of the work, saying that for the largest part of the learned public it was “as if it consisted in nothing but hieroglyphics.”
As a reaction to this lack of public appreciation for such a vital work that was to have "brought about a complete change of thinking," a great deal of Kant's effort during the decade of the 1780s had diverted away from further development of his system and towards the unforeseen task of clarifying the critical foundations of his system of philosophy that he thought he had completed in May 1781. This work took a number of different forms: the publication of a brief defense and attempted popularization of the Critique in 1783 until, finally, Kant came to think that an overview would be of great value to aid the reading public in comprehending the implications of the Critique. The Prolegomena was the result. We can only guess what more productive use could have been made of this period!
It is sometimes obvious in this work that Kant was pained by the need to summarize his great work (and with the necessity of expending valuable time on it). Only someone who has written an elaborate masterpiece would know how difficult it must be to write a summary of it. And Kant lets it slip often enough (one might even think deliberately) that he is not too amused by having to do so:
But although a mere plan that might precede the Critique of Pure Reason would be unintelligible, undependable, and useless, it is by contrast all the more useful if it comes after. For one will thereby be put in the position to survey the whole, to test one by one the main points at issue in this science, and to arrange many things in the exposition better than could be done in the first execution of the work.
Whosoever finds this plan itself, which I send ahead as prolegomena for any future metaphysics, still obscure, may consider that it simply is not necessary for everyone to study metaphysics; and that in such a case one should apply one’s mental gifts to another object.
That whosoever undertakes to judge or indeed to construct a metaphysics must, however, thoroughly satisfy the challenge made here, whether it happens that they accept my solution, or fundamentally reject it and replace it with another – for they cannot dismiss it; and finally, that the much decried obscurity (a familiar cloaking for one’s own indolence or dimwittedness) has its use as well, since everybody, who with respect to all other sciences observes a wary silence, speaks master- fully, and boldly passes judgment in questions of metaphysics, because here to be sure their ignorance does not stand out clearly in relation to the science of others, but in relation to genuine critical principles, which therefore can be praised.
Kant hoped to hit more than one bird with the Prolegomena:
It was meant to offer “preparatory exercises” to the Critique of Pure Reason — not meant to replace the Critique, but as “preparatory exercises” they were intended to be read prior to the longer work. It was also meant to give an overview of that work, in which the structure and plan of the whole work could be more starkly put across — offered “as a general synopsis, with which the work itself could then be compared on occasion”. The Prolegomena are to be taken as a plan, synopsis, and guide for the Critique of Pure Reason.
He also wanted to walk his readers through the major arguments following the “analytic” method of exposition (as opposed to the “synthetic” method of the Critique): a method that starts from some given proposition or body of cognition and seeks principles from which it might be derived, as opposed to a method that first seeks to prove the principles and then to derive other propositions from them (pp. 13, 25–6).
What this means is that Kant realized that most of the readers were dazed by his daring to start the Critique from a scary emptiness of knowledge from which he set out to construct the very foundations on which any possible structure of knowledge can stand, and also the possibility of such a foundation i.e metaphysics. There he proceeds from these first (newly derived) principles of the theory of knowledge to examine the propositions that might be derived from it that are adaptable to a useful metaphysics.
In the Prolegomena, Kant reverses this and takes the propositions (i.e structure) as a given and then seeks to expose the required foundations that are needed to support such a construction. This he feels is less scary for the uninitiated reader.
It is true. The abyss is not so stark when viewed through this approach, and we can ease into our fall!
Kant’s work is easy to summarize (well, not really — but enough work has been put into it that at there least it is easy to get good summaries) but is infinitely rich with potential for the inquisitive reader. This reviewer has no intention of summarizing and thus reducing a method/system to its mere conclusions. And to summarize the method would be to recreate it in full detail! Instead the only advice tendered would be to explore Kant’s work in depth and not rest content with a superficial understanding of only the conclusions. That is precisely what Kant criticizes (in the appendix to the Prolegomena) his reviewers of doing back in the day. We should know better by now....more
“The conversion of legend-writing into the science of history was not native to the Greek mind, it was a fifth
Hubris in History: A Recurring Terror
“The conversion of legend-writing into the science of history was not native to the Greek mind, it was a fifth-century invention, and Herodotus was the man who invented it.”
~ R.G. Collingwood
The prime subject of The Histories is the twenty years (499-479 B.C.E) of war between Greece and Persia for domination of the Greek world, but he intersperses this main narrative with plenty of personal interest stories, “wonders” about firsts and bests, historical parallels and occasionally his own biased judgements, but always making it clear that he is interested only in presenting a viewpoint — he leaves the act of judgement to the reader. It would be true to assure that it was Herodotus who helped create the concept of the discipline of “history,” in part by stressing and criticizing his sources and accepted traditions. My job is to record what I have been told, make of it what you will that is the dominant warning note wherever H’s authorial voice intervenes in the narrative. That should be the disclaimer all history books should come with.
All the main themes of the book are evident in its beginning and ending, in keeping with the circular narratives that H prefers to adopt. All the intervening incidents act like reinforcements of the overall thrust inherent in the beginning and ending.
The Beginning: The Parallel Rise of Freedom & Empire
We begin with an insecure Hellenic world, just shaking off the shackles of tyranny and tasting real ambition for the first time. Meanwhile in the other end of the world, an existing empire is being shaped into a fearsome tyrannical force by the new Persian rulers. Soon the Persian empire starts to extend ominously outwards and gobbles up most of the known world. This infringes on a core idea of H — the concept of natural limits and over-extension. Persia is meant to fall. “The Small shall become the Big; and the Big shall become the Small.”
As long as empires are driven by ambition, history is doomed to repeat itself.
The gods set limits and do not allow human beings to go beyond them; Herodotus makes it clear that the Persians have to fail in their plan to conquer Greece, because they have overreached their natural boundaries. Xerxes announces his campaign by telling his advisers that he intends to conquer Greece so that ‘we will make Persian territory end only at the sky’ (7.8).
The Middle: The Clash of Civilizations
Then we are taken through the many over-extensions of the Persian empire under a succession of rulers (in Ionia, Scythia, etc), until they are poised to encroach upon the newly non-tyrannical Greek world. Here we enter the climactic middle of the narrative and is drenched in the details of the gory encounter. Many heroes, legends and dramatic material is born here and we emerge on the other side with a clear sense that it was Athens, without the yoke of tyranny, that was able to bring down the fearsome war machine of the Persian empire. David has won out against Goliath. This is achieved due to much luck and much pluck, but in the final analysis H seems to imply that the fault was with the hubris of the Persians.
It needs to be pointed out that: H is quite clear that as human beings Persians are on the whole no better and no worse than Greeks. Structurally, however, Xerxes’ great expedition to Greece stands as a monument to the dangerous blindness of massive empires and grandiose thinking—but it is also the backdrop against which H has been able to present to us the Greeks’ love of their homeland, their valor against incredible odds, and their deep desire to preserve their freedom.
So, even as this main narrative concludes, we are shown what is the inevitable result of Hubris that over-extends its own reaches. And of how tyranny in any form is not going to triumph over people who have tasted what freedom means.
The Ending: A Reenactment of The Beginning
Herodotus could have ended there. But he doesn’t. Instead he takes us to the Ending to rub in the message and to instill that message with its true significance — what is its bearing on the future? For, an investigation of History is meaningless unless it can educate us about the future. And it is the future that H ironically points to as he takes us through the concluding sections of his Histories.
For now it is the turn of the Greeks to over-extend. In the thrill of victory and in the thrall of a thirst for revenge, in the spirit of competition with its own neighbors, Athens and Sparta launch out on its own imperialistic enterprise to mainland Asia. This is to culminate in H’s own day with the Ionians looking upon Athens as the equivalent of a Tyrant.
The beginning of this period saw the triumph of the Greek mainland states over the might of the Persian Empire, first in the initial invasion of 490 and the battle of Marathon, and then in the second invasion of 480/79, with the battles of Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea, and finally Mycaleb in Asia Mnor.
This unexpected victory against what seemed like the mightiest empire on Earth resonated in Greek consciousness through the fifth century and indeed beyond. The Greeks in general, and the Athenians in particular, because they had played the major part in the triumph of “Freedom”, saw these victories as a triumph of right over might, courage over fear, freedom over servitude, moderation over arrogance. It helped crystallize and reinforce Greeks’ attitudes to their own newfound way of life and values, intensified their supreme distrust of monarchy and tyranny, and shaped their attitude to the Persians. And after what they visualized as the great struggle for freedom, the people of Athens entered upon a spectacular era of energy and prosperity, one of the great flowering periods of Western civilization.
In more practical terms, Athens’ naval success in the Persian Wars and its enterprise immediately after led to the creation of the Athenian Empire, which started as an anti-Persian league and lasted for almost three-quarters of a century (479-404).
H seems to imply that Athens should learn from these investigations of the past, see what Tyranny can do, see the dangers of over-extension, understand the need for balance, respect certain international boundaries, and stay its own overreaching hand.
And indeed within fifty years of the Persian defeat the dream had faded, and before the end of the century Athens, over-extended abroad and overconfident at home, lay defeated at the mercy of her enemies, a Spartan garrison posted on the Acropolis and democracy in ruins. Much in the intervening years had been magnificent, it is true, but so it might have remained if the Athenians had heeded Herodotus. He had portrayed the Greek victory as a triumph over the barbarian latent in themselves, the hubris that united the invader and the native tyrant as targets of the gods. The Persian downfall, or at least the defeat of their imperialistic ambition, called not only for exultation but for compassion and lasting self-control.
As should be quite obvious, there is much to learn in this for modern times too, but with an added twist. For Hubris did not end its romp through history there. It took on new wings once history started being recorded. Now every new emperor was also competing with history. Alexander had to outdo Xerxes. Caesar had to outdo Alexander. Britain had to outdo Rome. Germany had to outdo Britain. USA had to outdo Britain, etc. A never-ending arms-race with imperial history and the accompanying Hubris that powers it.
So Herodotus, even as he recorded History so as to blunt its devastating force on the lives of men, also unwittingly added new impetus to its influence, by adding the new flavor of recorded glory to the existing receptacle of legendary glory. Hubris drank it up....more
Why does the Judge-penitent address you directly, as if he has found a kindred soul in you?
In this world responsibility is infinite and The Anti-Christ
Why does the Judge-penitent address you directly, as if he has found a kindred soul in you?
In this world responsibility is infinite and that is why The Fall is inevitable - even for a Christ. But back then Christ made a mistake — he saw (was) the nausea of the world, he saw (was) the complete guilt of each man (and his own) and he decided to redeem man (himself) by setting a supreme example. He sacrificed himself because he found himself guilty. It was only an example, a call to action -- to make men recognize and alter their way of life. He wanted man to see the depravity of his own existence by this one magnificent act. But his sacrifice was merely self-elevating, it could not elevate man. For man cannot be elevated before being shown the depths he roils in currently. And man cannot see faults where he looks to see heroes. He cannot see himself in Christ. Man cannot see man in the Ideal.
No, the faults had to be shown through an anti-hero. That is why the prophesy of an anti-christ was our true hope. That is why Christ had to return as the Anti-Christ. The Anti-Christ has to be closer to man, he has to be able to whisper to him as if he was just another man. He has to be able to make man see himself by looking at him. To make you see yourself as you really are by seeing in him yourself — yourself after The Fall.
That is why the Judge-penitent addresses you directly. He has found a kindred soul in you.
You are personally guilty for every fault that exists in the world. And The Fall is to not acknowledge your guilt — to withdraw from the world into aestheticism (recall Kierkegaard’s A in Either/Or) and make your life’s central concern one of making yourself feel good about yourself and thus about the world.
By the time Jean-Baptiste’s confession is over, you should realize that in fact the Judge-penitent is you. The story was yours. It is time to begin your own confession. It is time to stop being Kierkegaard’s A, and to be the B. To polarize yourself. Time to take responsibility and stare into the abyss.
Of course you might let someone else take The Fall for you, but from then on you would have to worship him. You would have to worship the guilty. You would have to worship the Judge-Penitent. But in this modern religion, to worship is to laugh at The Fallen.
That is the true role of the modern Christ. To take The Fall for you, so that he becomes the mirror in which you see the horror of your life.
This necessary and continuous fall is the theme of the novel. It is one unforgiving, vertiginous descent. It is not a story of gradual discovery and ascent as in Sartre’s Nausea. In Nausea you see the picture that you should be painting of yourself. In The Fall you see the anti-thesis that you should use as your anti-model, as the one point which gives meaning to your picture by not being painted.
Here you are made to continuously disagree with a person who goes more and more towards that abyss. You are made to define yourself in your disagreement, to define yourself as a negation. And by doing that you are the one who discovers the nausea of such an existence, even as the narrator finds ingenious and pathetic ways to avoid it. And you are the one who moves away from the abyss.
You are the hero of the story, or at least the would-be hero — the one who is going to have the transformation that will change your world. The polarization is external to the novel.
Jean-Baptiste is one of the most powerful anti-heroes of literature, but you never root for his redemption. Instead you root for him to fall and fall — to Fall as horribly and as deep into the abyss as possible. Because that is the only way to root for yourself. Because the more he falls, the more you can see of what consists the abyss, and the further away you get from it. His Fall will save you. Mon cher, he is your personal Christ....more
This is supposed to be the only one of his lectures that Sartre regretted seeing in print. This was primarily because Existentialism is an Essentialism
This is supposed to be the only one of his lectures that Sartre regretted seeing in print. This was primarily because it became accepted as a sort of manifesto piece and thus tended to reduce the original themes. Sartre repeatedly implies that he will not admit to this essay/lecture being considered as an introduction to his philosophy. Again, this is because treating an 'explanation' as an essential component (or worse a summary) of his complex system of philosophy did not sit well with him.
However, by framing the core of the philosophy of existentialism as it applies to the most urgent walk of life - human freedom - he does clarify the core purpose of his philosophy: How mankind can live "as if there were no God." And this is extremely valuable for any student of his work.
It also redefines Humanism in a very basic way and makes it primarily about human freedom, choice and the dignity therein. So the freedom that attacks the reader as an Anguish in Nausea is reframed here as a great and true liberator of the individuals' truest tendencies. This is absolutely in keeping with the core themes of B&N.
He puts your future, your potential and the entire future of humanity in your limitlessly capable hands. That is the freedom we have to deal with. That is the responsibility of this humanism. It is central. It is unbearable. It is glorious. It is the only attribute of a human being. It is an essentialism
And even if only for this glorious vision of Humanism, this small lecture should stand as an important monument. Any insights into Sartre's philosophy it might provide is only an added bonus.
Except for the comically inadequate introduction by Harold Bloom, this book is a window to a whole new way of seeing the literary universe. In scope a Except for the comically inadequate introduction by Harold Bloom, this book is a window to a whole new way of seeing the literary universe. In scope and depth, it is an epic and no matter how cynically you approach it, Frye is going to awe you with sheer erudition and immaculate schematics. For anyone with a Platonic bent, Frye's work has the potential to become an immediate Bible.
It might take a while to get through and it might require you to convert a lot of Frye's work into shorter notes and diagrammatic notations, just to keep up with the density of the text, but at the end of it you will be exposed to an almost cosmic vision of Literature, comparable to that at the end of Paradiso.
It is worth the effort just for the sheer ambition of the work and for the bit of that ambition that will rub off on you, even if you reject everything else contained here.
Only Joyce might be able to teach you about the scope of literature in a more inspiring fashion than this poet-critic....more
Many animals, especially mammals, have evolved social mechanisms to aid in survival. But a few exceptional species, such a OBSERVING THE HUMAN ANIMAL
Many animals, especially mammals, have evolved social mechanisms to aid in survival. But a few exceptional species, such as wasps, bees and ants, have taken this to the extreme and these are the species that dominate the planet today. They can only be termed as "UltraSocial”.
Humans can also be included in this elite list of earth conquerors. After all, we live in the ‘Anthropocene’ now.
Wilson asks us to view humans as not an completely exceptional species, in spite of their great achievements and in spite of the natural bias that arises from the fact that they are our own species. If we truly want to understand the human species, understanding that they form part of a continuum in nature is essential - socially, cognitively and genetically.
If they are truly unique, then they are a lost cause.
Instead, being extra humble and situating the human emotions and social inclinations (including violence) in a larger framework of ‘possibilities,’ is what Wilson proposes to do in this book. By ‘possibilities’ he means behavioral and social options/range that has been exhibited by the many species - identify this entire range and then try to understand where the human species is situated. Even if precariously!
"Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function" than to keep intact the genetic material.
To Wilson, morality, altruism, generosity, self-sacrifice and even pleasure, and all other human ‘virtues’ are evolutionary outgrowths of the structure of the human brain, which itself was evolved as a survival mechanism. Since all social structures, including political structure and religions, then evolve from this basic raw material, they are all manifestations of our basic nature. (Further discussion of Cognitivism & Religion. Linked.)
However, even as they are manifestations of our basic nature, Wilson tells that they are not direct manifestations of our genetic imperatives, as it is the ‘super’ insects. Instead, our ‘extreme’ social traits are in fact hypertrophied versions of our instincts. The social instincts exist but our societies take them to either extremes - achieving heights of classical civilizations and also the depths of cannibalism in the same ‘civilization’. This is due to the fact that our ‘Ultrasociality’ is not natural. It is an uneasy amalgam of hypertrophied traits and needs to be propped up with care.
The Impatient Species
It is this uneasy Ultrasociality that makes human societies a tough act to pull off consistently. We are not naturally ultrasocial. Unlike ants who evolved it genetically, over millions of years, we went part of the distance genetically, then got impatient and went on a fast-forward culturally.
The leap to agriculture and state societies some 8,000 years ago represented a rare but highly successful evolutionary transition to “ultrasociality,” a type of social organization seen in only a handful of species, including ants and termites. Ultrasociality is characterized by a full-time division of labor, specialists who do not aid in food production, sharing of information, collective defense, and complex city-states.
So we end up with an even more organized structure than what the ants have, but have not their ultra-instincts that make it a breeze for them to keep up their ultrasociality. We are not wiling to submit our individuality for the group. Of course, we have a strong tendency to do so — Experiments have shown that it is shockingly easy to elicit a sense of solidarity among a group of strangers. Just tell them they’ll be working together as a team, and they immediately start working together as a team, all the while attributing to each other a host of positive qualities like trustworthiness and competence. But in spite of our team-building capabilities, we always think of number one eventually.
[ On the other hand, Ant societies don't go into massive societal/cultural collapses and dream of the past glories of their own Roman Empires of yore. ]
Also, we are not consistent in defining our groups - unlike ants who base it on strong evolutionary grounds, our cultural evolution has allowed us softer more nebulous decision-making capacities about group-formation. So we can define arbitrary ‘others’ and launch wars, and can even defy our own in-groups and go psychopath against our own societies!
This analysis points to the source of constant conflict in human societies — of ‘us’ vs ‘them’ and more importantly of ‘us vs ‘me’. And in the final analysis, what human conflict cannot be slotted into these two categories?
Science as a Substitute for Instincts
All this leads us to the depressing analysis that we cannot depend on cultural evolution alone to solve our problems. While an optimist like Pinker can point to statistical evidence to show that violence is ‘declining’, we should also realize that humans have a historic record of violent pendulum swings in violence - and this ties in very nicely with Wilson’s thesis that social evolution tries to reign in individual genetic tendencies with a variety of means but eventually they reassert themselves and civilization breaks down again. So the famous ‘Fear of Decline’ that we mock scholars/historians of having could very well be a natural tendency of human societies - because our social instincts just cannot match up to our social ambitions!
What hope then?
The best alternative would be to initiate sufficiently thorough investigation into these very instincts and evolutionary predispositions. So that we can build our societies in a more informed fashion. Stressing the virtues of cooperation can be a more nuanced approach to human nature than the “selfish gene”/economic man worldview, but the dark side to human cooperation must be understood if we are to realistically assess our present circumstances.
This is where a discipline like Sociobiology is of great value - The best way to correct mistakes in our social evolution is to understand our mental evolution and the best way to do this is by accepting ourselves as animals and conducting comparative studies through the discipline of Sociobiology… We should figure out what level of social and institutional complexity our brains (instincts) can tolerate and take a step back and build our future societies around that.
The sociobiological perspective put forward by Wilson is quite sound and holds up well even decades after being canonized as a classic work. If any criticism can be leveled, it would have to be at his refusal to use politically correct language. This is deliberate because Wilson considers there is no scope for political correctness in science, especially when the need for a harsh and unalloyed look at Human Nature is more urgent than ever.
This book is a must read precisely because it fully lives up to that highly ambitious title!...more
One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of my favorite novels. Which is why, when I started reading Love in the Time of Cholera, one of the things I noticed immediately was the lack of the subtle brand of magic that I had so enjoyed. I missed it and was on the lookout for it. I wanted it badly and went around every corner with the expectation of a cheerful reunion. But it was not to be.
As Pynchon says: the “reality” of love and the possibility of its ultimate extinction become Love’s “indispensable driving forces,” whereas magic in all its guises and forms becomes peripheralized or “at least more thoughtfully deployed in the service of an expanded vision, matured, darker than before but no less clement”.
Why this marginalization of the extraordinary? Why this deliberate move towards realism? Why no Magic?
I kept asking myself this as I read, and beyond. Was I to understand that it is because Love in itself is Magic? That was too cheesy, even for Márquez who never shies from telling me a cheesy sub-story if it needs to be told.
Or is it because Love in the Time of Cholera is to seen as the product of a more experienced author, who no longer needs the resources of magic realism and hyperbole to surprise the reader?
One thing was sure, Love in the Time of Cholera is not only about Love, even when it pervades every page. Indeed, it covers, through its characters’ wide amorous and business interests, an entire era and all the social classes, spanning over fifty years of Latin American life, from the last decades of the nineteenth century to the first two or three of the twentieth.
Love in the Time of Cholera, while on a much smaller scale than One Hundred Years of Solitude, deals with the Colombian civil wars of this period and the violence left in its wake. Márquez however wants these historical and political concerns to be passed largely unnoticed by the reader. While One Hundred Years of Solitude disguises the political themes through the uses of myth, fantasy, hyperbole, and magic realism, Love in the Time of Cholera disguises them through its depiction of an eternal, sometimes exasperating, almost unrealistic love affair, one which flouts the conventions of every love story the reader might have come across.
Love in the Time of Cholera is often quite bleak due to this veering towards stark Realism, to this occasional historical invasion of the narrative. Much of this realism arises from Death and Decay - the central themes of the novel. However, Márquez does not completely give up on Idealism either. In fact he is neither an Idealistic or a Realistic author - he is just a supremely eloquent voice speaking from the vantage-point of his own old age and wisdom.
To me, Love in the Time of Cholera is a magnificently gloomy novel though Márquez’s masterful sorcery masks it well, with his verbal cascades of descriptions and his narrative’s seductiveness.
Márquez’s novels are almost invariably gloomy. They are apocalyptic. They are decadence distilled.
Then why the popularity? Why do we love them? Why are we uplifted? Is it because of Márquez’s enthusiastic exuberance?
I think it is because of the Quixotic Heroism of the people who populate these doomed worlds.
It is this heroism that veils the Apocalyptic forebodings that pack so densely like storm clouds throughout the firmament his novels.
After all, Consider how during the entire time he waits to talk to Fermina again (fifty-one years, nine months, and four days) Florentine Ariza is dauntless and never ever gives up even the slightest sliver of hope. Nothing could shake this man:
“And how long do you think we can keep up this goddamn coming and going?” he asked.
Florentino Ariza had kept his answer ready for fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and nights.
“Forever,” he said.
The Heart of Darkness: Death & Decay
There is so much I would like to say about this amazing novel. There are so many themes that could be explored. But in this review I will try to focus on the Beginning and the Ending of this intricately structured novel, and try to tease out the the thread that explains the absence of Magic.
The whole novel is too broad a canvas to be explored in a review. For this, I limit myself to the broad themes of Death, Decay & Redemption, and allow the political, ecological, societal and personal aspects of these themes to play themselves out below the current, so to speak.
The Institutions of Love: Inventing Love
He was aware that he did not love her. He had married her because he liked her haughtiness, her seriousness, her strength, and also because of some vanity on his part, but as she kissed him for the first time he was sure there would be no obstacle to their inventing true love. They did not speak of it that first night, when they spoke of everything until dawn, nor would they ever speak of it. But in the long run, neither of them had made a mistake.
The theme of Juvenal’s love story is about the incompatibility of love and social convention, the conflict between desire and social life. It is quite easily the crucial conundrum the novel wants to solve - the 'other' to the novel's essence. Security, order, happiness - can these when added together in the right proportions provide an equation for Love?
For the sort of Love that can stop the decay that seems to have beset the entire world? Apparently not. It is not enough.
Through Juvenal’s invented Love, Márquez is not simply criticizing the institution of marriage, instead he is criticizing the very illusion that allows this - the illusion that the world and the worldly goods and pleasures can produce Love.
Instead Márquez wants to show that it is Love that can create (or recreate) the world.
Ultimately Love is love of Love itself, not merely the desire for its actual attainment or even the act of its fulfillment. Passion is its own object.
Pitted against such an impossible ideal, all convention or institutionalization obstructs love’s ultimate goal, which is to forestall death and decay.
The ultimate goal of Love is to save the world, to create it anew.
Gerontophobia & Ecocide: Destroying Love
So why is this world so much in need of saving?
The cosmic decline in Love seems to be the cause for alarm, the cause for the pervasive decay that invades the world of the novel:
Everything in this novel, from the environment, to the city, to the rebels, to the civil wars, to the people, to the pets are ancient - as if they were part of this earth from the very beginning, but everybody is in the throes of love. And everything ancient is also decaying, sliding slowly towards the final end of death - so is the sadness and the conventional love represented by Juvenal.
But it is not just about the human lives. Márquez writes as much about places as about people. This one is also about the death of a river, of a town, of a society… or murder, rather. Of Nature’s Old Age inflicted prematurely by youthful humanity.
This is the ecological sub-theme of the novel - It is the river, finally, the Great Magdalena (in Spanish, the “river of life”) that highlights this for us. The abundant nature that surrounds the town is caught in a process of irreversible decay. Alligators, manatees, monkeys, and birds disappear from the jungle; toward the end, the riverboats have difficulty finding enough wood for their boilers. While the political urgency of this topic is clear, cosmic decline in Love in the Time of Cholera has a different meaning and is linked to the theme of the interruption of love discussed before.
Paralleling the old age of his characters with the decay envisioned by this ecological wasteland (of their own making), Márquez is pointing out to us the true nature of Decay - of Humans and their self inflicted sufferings bringing the decay of old age upon themselves and upon the whole of nature.
This is the central tenet of the novel - Love in the Time of Decay.
However, there is more. And Márquezis not afraid to set this counter theme out in the very opening scene itself:
The Sweet Smell of Bitter Almonds
Counter to the dark theme of decay that is to be developed for most of the rest of the plot, early in the novel, an act of brave revolt against this inevitability establishes the counter-current against the steady march of decay.
Jérémiah de Saint-Amour (soon forgotten and never again mentioned) takes this revolutionary step (again drawing our attention the continuous revolution in which the political life of the novel is set) by choosing to die before decay sets in. This act initiates the long debate that runs throughout the novel about Love and its objective - are we to preserve Love at the expense of Life or to preserve Life through Love? By raising this question so early, by calculating his suicide long beforehand, by choosing to end the world than to let it go to rot, to see it rot, Saint-Amour stays alive through the rest of the novel, haunting it.
Being a witness to the decay of love was the most unbearable to Saint-Amour, the Saint of Love?
What we see dramatized at the end of the book, however, is the possibility of genuine passion and romance in old age. There is a clear contrast between Saint-Amour’s suicide and the protracted love life of Florentino Ariza, but it is a contrast that conceals a profound affinity. Saint-Amour kills himself to preserve his body from decay, to fix its image, as it were, through death.
Love and decay, then, constitute the double focus of this novel, the former being present in countless ways throughout.
Love in The Time of Cholera: The Post-Apocalyptic Paradise
… his mother was terrified because his condition did not resemble the turmoil of love so much as the devastation of cholera.
Every page of this novel is rammed full of love, beyond the capacity of any reader to fully comprehend. Love is in the air like Malaria; and in the water, like Cholera - its infections are inescapable!
All aspects of love are covered in exquisite detail - from teenage love to old age; from sexual to rapine to platonic; from formal courtship to marital to unconsummated; to unrequited love to the excesses of suicide and adultery; from the mundane normalcy of love to the incestuous abnormalities.
The reader has to consider carefully in the midst of this overwhelming abundance and variety the treatment that Márquez gives to love in this novel. Love in the novel is not the purely romantic love -carefree, easy flowing, spontaneous, and idealized.
Instead, the novel’s great affirmation of romance, is in the face not just of a hostile or prosaic world, but of the darker side of romance itself.
It is Operatic, Quixotic & Dionysian Love that is celebrated. It is Love as the Second Coming!
Sailing The River of Love: The Voyage of Re-Birth
Youth, Love, Old Age & Death - The Four Unknowns. This should have been the order of Life.
However, in this world of Márquez, the only ages that can hope to be able love/live seem to the Young and the Old. In between lies the desert - the only time we are allowed to live - when not capable of love. It is a paradox on which the very survival of this fictional universe seems to depend on.
Love and Life cannot coexist then - The solution is to give up the life they know for Love. To take the ultimate leap of faith.
So hoist a yellow flag on the Ship of your Life (Second Fidelity) and sail on the Great Magdalena (in Spanish, the “river of life”) in a State of Emergency! Let Love in the Time of Cholera be the entirety of the River of Life. Love should now destroy that earlier Life instead, just as Cholera can squeeze it out. And then be reborn, afresh.
The novel ends with the central characters challenging their entire social world and the very conditions of their existence by their grand romantic gesture, by their final, and what seems like eternal, trip on the Magdalena river. This is the necessary reaction to the decay that is fast on the route to complete extinction, to death.
Love and Cholera will both go extinct otherwise, rooted out by Life.
Love is shown as the redeeming force that saves both humanity, nature, culture and history. It appears as a divine force that defies everything. As if in biblical terms, the novel seems to assert that it is not yet too late to stop the end of humanity and to reach out for grace and happiness.
Most importantly, never allow the Yellow Flag to be questioned. Sustain the ardor. Maintain the symptoms of Cholera/Love. The pestilence is to be maintained at all costs! Only then will the world let you sail on.
Of course, the novel ends with the reader wondering if Fermina and Florentino will ever be able to come ashore and exercise their second chance.
We are left to question this act for ourselves: How do we save the world? By Escape into an Unrealistic Fantasy? Or is love more real? The answer, at least inside Márquez’s world is quite clear.
This final triumph is exquisitely multi-layered. Fermina and Florentino will remain isolated from the real contagion of their earlier Life by allowing their Love to be disguised as Cholera.
They are not rejecting the world, they are allowing the world to reject them instead.
The quarantine is really against love, the sickness that society will not, can not tolerate, the sickness that society fear as much as a deadly epidemic, the sickness that the society fears will wipe it out.
Instead it is that very sickness, which is recognized by conventional society as its biggest scourge, that saves the characters from extinction, along with the manatees, the alligators, and the monkeys.
It is Love that saves all in the end - at least we are left to imagine that possibility. Now, in this Post-Apocalyptic Paradise, age is of no consequence; Life has been transmuted and preserved by Love, like Saint-Amour’s Love by death.
Life has been reborn in the Second Coming of Love!
Love, in short, will always be in the time of cholera, under the Yellow Flag’s protection.
THE INFINITE CAPACITY FOR ILLUSION: The Will to Lyricism
So, now we can come back to the question we started with - of the Absence of Magic.
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the apocalypse came in spite of Magic, in Love in the Time of Cholera, redemption comes despite its absence!
Unlike the death that starts off One Hundred Years of Solitude, here that death, the suicide, is ultimately sublimated into love - and decay is arrested in its unreality!
In fact reality has instead been reinvented in their own terms, where previous reality was rejected outright.
The capacity for illusion is magic enough to save the world, and our souls. This Infinite Capacity for Illusion can bring on the required apocalypse and we can live as if the Kingdom of Heaven/Cholera was already here on earth, under that banner of protection!
“The Classics, it is the Classics!” William Blake is said to have exclaimed, with pointed reference to Homer, “tha TROY VI: THE INVENTION OF ACHILLES
“The Classics, it is the Classics!” William Blake is said to have exclaimed, with pointed reference to Homer, “that Desolate Europe with Wars!”
Blake's exclamation might not be as atrocious as it sounds at first. There might be some truth to this, a universal truth.
Significantly however, this is not how the ancients understood it. They understood war as the catastrophe that it is.
Strabo, the Roman geographer, talking about the Trojan wars, puts it thus: “For it came about that, on account of the length of the campaign, the Greeks of that time, and the barbarians as well, lost both what they had at home and what they had acquired by the campaign; and so, after the destruction of Troy, not only did the victors turn to piracy because of their poverty, the still more the vanquished who survived the war.”
It is in this spirit that I chose The Iliad as my first read for The World War I centenary read.
However, over the war-hungry centuries throughout the middle ages and right till the World Wars, this sense of the Epic was twisted by manipulating the images of Achilles & Hector - Hector became the great defender of his country and Achilles became the insubordinate soldier/officer - the worst ‘type’, more a cause for the war than even Helen herself. Of course, Achilles’ romance was never fully stripped but Hector gained in prominence throughout as the quintessential Patriot.
Precisely because of this the Blake exclamation might have been more valid than it had a right to be.
This is why there is a need to revisit the original tragic purpose of the Epic - most commentators would say that (as above) this original purpose was against ALL wars. But there is much significance to the fact that the epic celebrates the doomed fight of two extinct peoples.
The Iliad starts on the eve of war and ends on the eve of war. Of a ten year epic war, the poem focuses its attention only on a couple or so of crucial, and in the end inconclusive, weeks (for it does not end with any side victorious but with Hector’s death).
In fact, it opens with both both Hector & Achilles reluctant and extremely ambivalent towards war. And closes with both Hector & Achilles dead - by mutually assured destruction!
In that clash of the Titans, the epic defines itself and creates a lasting prophecy.
However, before we explore that we need to understand Hector & Achilles better and also the Iliad itself.
In Medias Res
The Iliad opens in medias res, as it were, as if the epic-recitation was already on its way and we, the audience, have just joined. It is part of Homer’s genius that he creates a world already in process. The art of Iliad is then the art of the entrance, the players enter from an ongoing world which is fully alive in the myths that surround the epic and the audience.
The poem describes neither the origins nor the end of the war. The epic cuts out only a small sliver of insignificant time of the great battle - and thus focuses the spotlight almost exclusively on Hector & Achilles, narrowing the scope of the poem from a larger conflict between warring peoples to a smaller one between these two individuals, and yet maintaining its cosmic aspirations. So the important question is who are Hector & Achilles and why do these two heroes demand nothing less than the greatest western epic to define and contrast them?
The Long Wait For Achilles
In Iliad, how single-mindedly we are made to focus on Hector, but all the while, the Epic bursts with an absence - that of Achilles!
After the initial skirmish with Agamemnon and the withdrawal that forms the curtain-raiser, Achilles plays no part in the events described in Books 2 through 8; he sits by his ships on the shore, playing his harp, having his fun, waiting for the promised end.
“The man,” says Aristotle in the Politics, “who is incapable of working in common, or who in his self-sufficiency has no need of others, is no part of the community, like a beast, or a god.”
Hector is the most human among the heroes of The Iliad, he is the one we can relate with the most east. The scene where Hector meets Andromache and his infant son is one of the most poignant scenes of the epic and heightened by Homer for maximum dramatic tension.
On the other hand, Achilles is almost non-human, close to a god. But still human, though only through an aspiration that the audience might feel - in identifying with the quest for kleos, translated broadly as “honor”.
‘Zeus-like Achilles’ is the usage sometimes employed by Homer - and this is apt in more ways than the straight-forward fact that he is indeed first among the mortals just as Zeus is first among the gods.
Zeus and the Gods know the future, they know how things are going to unfold.
Among the mortals fighting it out in the plains of Ilium, only Achilles shares this knowledge, and this fore-knowledge is what allows him (in the guise of rage) to stay away from battle, even at the cost of eternal honor. Fore-knowledge is what makes Achilles (who is the most impetuous man alive) wiser than everyone else.
Hector on the other hand takes heed of no omens, or signs, nor consults any astrologer. For him, famously, the only sign required is that his city needed saving - “and that is omen enough for me”, as he declares. He is the rational man. He is the ordinary man. Roused to defense.
But everything Hector believes is false just as everything Achilles knows is true - for all his prowess, Hector is as ordinary a soldier as anyone else (except Achilles), privy to no prophecies, blind to his own fate. Elated, drunk with triumph, Hector allows himself to entertain one impossible dream/notion after other, even to the extent that perhaps Achilles too will fall to him. That he can save Troy all by himself.
Hector & Achilles: The Metamorphosis
Like other ancient epic poems, the Iliad presents its subject clearly from the outset. Indeed, Homer names his focus in its opening word: menin, or “rage.” Specifically, the Iliad concerns itself with the rage of Achilles—how it begins, how it cripples the Achaean army, and how it finally becomes redirected toward the Trojans. But, it also charts the metamorphosis of Achilles from a man who abhors a war that holds no meaning for him to a man who fights for its own sake.
On the other side, it also charts how the civilized Hector, the loving family man and dutiful patriot Hector becomes a savage, driven by the madness of war.
Before that, an interlude.
The Other Life Of Achilles
One of the defining scenes of the Epic is the ‘Embassy Scene’ where a defeated Agamemnon sends Odysseus & co to entreat Achilles to return to the battle. That is when Achilles delivers his famous anti-war speech. This speech of Achilles can be seen as a repudiation of the heroic ideal itself, of kleos - a realization that the life and death dedicated to glory is a game not worth the candle.
The reply is a long, passionate outburst; he pours out all the resentment stored up so long in his heart. He rejects out of hand this embassy and any other that may be sent; he wants to hear no more speeches. Not for Agamemnon nor for the Achaeans either will he fight again. He is going home, with all his men and ships. As for Agamemnon's gifts, “I loathe his gifts!“
This is a crucial point in the epic. Achilles is a killer, the personification of martial violence, but he eulogizes not war but life - “If I voyage back to the fatherland I love, my pride, my glory dies . . . true, but the life that's left me will be long . . . “ (9.502-4)
Hector & Achilles: The Battle Royale
Notwithstanding Achilles’ reluctance and bold affirmations of life, slowly, inevitably, Homer builds the tension and guides us towards the epic clash everybody is waiting for. But though it might seem as preordained, it is useful to question it closely. The confrontation is crucial and deserves very close scrutiny. We must ask ourselves - What brings on this confrontation?
On first glance, it was fate, but if looked at again, we can see that Homer leaves plenty of room for free-will and human agency - Hector had a choice. But not Achilles - instead, Achilles' choice was exercised by Patroclus.
This calls for a significant re-look at the central conflict of the epic: it might not be Hector Vs Achilles!
Patroclus and Hector instead are the real centerpiece of the epic - Achilles being the irresistible force, that is once unleashed unstoppable. It is a no-contest. Hence, the real contest happens before.
This is because, that unleashing depended entirely on Hector and Patroclus - the two heroes who only went into battle when their side was in dire straits - to defend. Both then got caught up in the rage of battle, and despite the best of advice from their closest advisors, got swept up by it and tried to convert defense into annihilation of enemy - pursuing kleos!
It is worth noting the significant parallels between Hector and Patroclus, while between Hector and Achilles it is the contrasts that stand forth.
Hector, instead of just defending his city, surges forth and decides to burn the Achaean ships. Now, the Achaean ships symbolize the future of the Greek race. They constitute the army’s only means of conveying itself home, whether in triumph or defeat. Even if the Achaean army were to lose the war, the ships could bring back survivors; the ships’ destruction, however, would mean the annihilation—or automatic exile—of every last soldier. Homer implies that the mass death of these leaders and role models would have meant the decimation of a civilization.
Which means that the Achaeans cant escape - in effect, Hector, by trying to burn the ships is in effect calling for a fight to the death!
This decision was taken in the face of very strong omens and very good advice:
In the battle at the trench and rampart in Book Twelve, The Trojans Storm the Rampart, Polydamas sees an eagle flying with a snake, which it drops because the snake keeps attacking it; Polydamas decides this is an omen that the Trojans will lose. He tells Hector they must stop, but Hector lashes out that Zeus told him to charge; he accuses Polydamas of being a coward and warns him against trying to convince others to turn back or holding back himself.
Hector is driven on by his success to overstep the bounds clearly marked out for him by Zeus. He hears Polydamas’ threefold warning (yes, there were two other instances too, not addressed here), yet plots the path to his own death and the ruin of those whom he loves.
Thus, sadly, Hector pays no heed and surges forth. Which is the cue for the other patriot to enter the fray - for Patroclus.
And thus Hector’s own madness (going beyond success in defense) in the face of sound advice brought on a crises for Achaeans to which their prime defender and patriot, Patroclus responded - and then paralleling Hector’s own folly, he too succeeded and then went beyond that to his own death. Thus Patroclus too shows that knows no restraint in victory; his friends too warned him in vain, and he paid for it with his life. By this time Hector had no choice, his fate was already sealed. Achilles was about to be unleashed.
The most important moment in Iliad to me was this ‘prior-moment’ - when Hector lost it - when he lost himself to war fury: Hector’s first act of true savagery - towards Patroclus and his dead-body. “lost in folly, Athena had swept away their senses, “ is how Homer describes Hector and his troops at this point of their triumph.
Yet, Homer gives Hector one more chance to spurn honor and save himself and diffuse/stall the mighty spirit of Achilles that had been unleashed on the battlegrounds. In his soliloquy before the Scacan gate, when he expects to die by Achilles' hand, he also has his first moment of insight: he sees that he has been wrong, and significantly enough Polydamas and his warnings come back to his mind. But he decides to hold his ground for fear of ridicule, of all things!
So even as all the other Trojans ran inside the impregnable city walls to shelter, Hector waited outside torn between life and honor (contrast this with Achilles who had chosen life over honor, the lyre over the spear, so effortlessly earlier). Hector instead waits until unnerved, until too late. And then the inevitable death comes.
Thus the Rage was unleashed by two men who tried to do more than defend themselves - they tried to win eternal honor or kleos - the result is the unleashing of the fire called Achilles (his rage) which burns itself and everything around it to the ground. What better invocation of what war means?
I ask again, what better book to read for the centenary year for The World War I?
The Last Book
The last words of The Iliad are : “And so the Trojans buried Hector, breaker of horses.”
Thus, fittingly, Homer starts with the Rage of Achilles and ends with the Death of Hector. This is very poetic and poignant, but it is time for more questions:
Again, why start and end on the eve of battle? Because that is the only space for reflection that war allows. Before the madness of the fury of war or of disaster descends like a miasmic cloud. To use Homer’s own phrase, “war gives little breathing-room”.
Thus, we end the Epic just as we began it - in stalemate, with one crucial difference - both sides’ best men are dead. The two men who could have effected a reconciliation , who had a vision beyond war, are dead.
It is made very clear in The Iliad that Achilles will die under Trojan roofs and that Hector will find his doom under the shadow of the Achaean ships - or, both are to die in enemy territory.
Though Iliad leaves us with full focus on Hector’s death and funeral, there is another death that was always presaged but left off from the story - That of Achilles’ own. Why?
Achilles' death is left to the audience to imagine, over and over again, in every context as required. The saga of Hector & Achilles, of the doomed-to-die heroes, leaves one death to the imagination and thus effects a very neat prophetic function.
Once Hector committed his folly, once Patroclus rushed to his death, and once Achilles is unleashed, the rest is fixed fate, there is no stopping it. So Homer begins and ends in truce, but with destruction round the corner - as if the cycle was meant to be repeated again and again, stretching backwards and forwards in time - Troy I, Troy II, … to Troy VI, Troy VII, … where does it end?
Homer knows that the threshold is crossed, the end is nigh - even Troy’s destruction is not required to be part of the epic - with Hector’s death, the death of Ilium is nigh too and so is Achilles’ own death and past the myths, the death of the Greek civilization, and maybe of all civilization?
The epic leaves us with the real doomsday just over the horizon, horribly presaged by it, in true prophetic fashion.
The Pity of War
The pity of war is The Iliad’s dominant theme, but it uses themes such as love, ego, honor, fear and friendship to illuminate the motive forces behind war. In another ancient epic, Gilgamesh, the death of a friend prompts a quest which ends in wisdom and an affirmation of life; in The Iliad, the death of the fabled friend leads to a renunciation of wisdom and a quest for death itself! In Gilgamesh, the hero learns the follies of life and rebuilds civilization; in The Iliad, Achilles comes into the epic already armed with this knowledge and moves towards seeking death, choosing to be the destroyer instead of the creator.
The Iliad is an epic of unlearning. It mocks optimistic pretensions. In The Iliad, the participants learn nothing from their ordeal, all the learning is left to the audience....more
“One had best state this matter very plainly: To recover the comic splendor of The Merchant of Venice now, you need to be either a scholar or an anti
“One had best state this matter very plainly: To recover the comic splendor of The Merchant of Venice now, you need to be either a scholar or an anti-Semite, or best of all an anti-Semitic scholar.” ~ Harold Bloom
See how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change places, and handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? ~ King Lear (IV.vi.151–4)
“Which is the merchant here? and which the Jew?” ~ The Merchant of Venice
The traditional interpretations are usually on the lines of ‘accept the play as what it is - a comedy that utilizes stereotypes’ or on ‘Shakespeare managed to use a stereotype and yet humanized him and created one of the great characters in theatre’. Truly, the scope and diversity of theatrical interpretations of the Merchant are extraordinary, and there have been many new and exciting attempts at understanding the play over the centuries. In addition, its racism has often been reversed in performance, converted into an eloquent plea for human equality. Indeed, in some ways the play has been instrumental in changing people’s perceptions of the Jewish community, and it therefore occupies a valuable place in world culture.
It is said that Merchant of Venice is one of the most performed plays of all time and has continuously been in production for over 300 years now. Is there a reason why it is so popular? It is partly due precisely to this breadth of interpretation that is possible, and partly due to the immense challenge thrown up by the character of Shylock.
Shylock can be interpreted in many ways on the stage. He can be seen as a simple comic villain who occasionally reveals sympathetic qualities. Or he can be a tragic hero, a spurned and battered victim of oppression, who tries unsuccessfully to challenge the society that oppresses him. Similarly, the Christians can be saintly personifications of charity and mercy, or hypocritical money-grubbers. It may seem strange that a play can produce such divergent readings, but they are, in fact, a result of the complexity of Shakespeare’s writing.
It is a play that is curiously capable of moulding itself to our present, we only have to project the current OTHER into the role of Shylock - as many directors over the centuries have done.
It allows reinterpretation as per this current Other - and can then be a vehicle for showcasing a sense of how a historic wrong is ripe for correction!
What this sort of interpretation of Merchant of Venice misses is that both Venice and Shylock were ‘The Other’ to each other. They were both incomprehensible to the other.
The Directorial Debut: A World Without Belmont
Keeping this in mind, now, if I were to direct the play today, I would focus on these things:
1. The risky speculative nature of Antonio's ventures.
2. The twisting of the laws by Portia to ‘bail out’ Antonio and to make Shylock bear the brunt of Antonio's speculations.
In a bit more detail, this would be my approach towards the production:
Shylock: Shakespeare uses ‘Jew’ and “Shylock’ in the play depending on whether he wants to humanize him or not. ‘Shylock’ is used where involvement in his feelings is indicated; and ‘Jew’ is used when Shakespeare sees him purely as a moneylender, as a stereotype. It is significant that at the very end, in the Trial Scene, ‘Shylock’ is used by Shakespeare and not ‘Jew’!
I would extend this to its extreme - humanize Shylock completely, strip him of his 'monstrosity' status and of his usurer brand and make him the common family man, downtrodden occasionally, trying to get by.
Antonio: is given no real reason for nobility in the play except his Christian credentials - I would strip him of those and make him just what he is, a speculator with many failings with no cushion of Christianity to fallback on. A quintessential Wall-Street figure.
I might or might not keep the personal enmity between Shylock and Antonio. That would add dramatic value, but serves no purpose as far as my core message is concerned.
Belmont: An outlandish element of this most realistic of Shakespeare’s plays is Belmont - the land of magic where casket-tests and ring-tests determine 'true love' and fidelity, where pure love always wins - a fairy tale land. It is a world where money has no role, where no class differences occur (or are not allowed since only the privileged enter!) because the oppressed don’t have a role (notice, no Jews in Belmont!), which might have been an impossible but still acceptable dream for much of human history (Voltaire-like), but which crumpled maybe around the middle of this century, with our disillusionment with European dreams of any poised land. We don't have a place for such a trope in our production.
The Merchant of Venice is a very serious play - Shakespeare made it a romantic comedy by nesting the parallel story of Belmont and its idealism, its fairy tale caskets, the Jason-like Quest etc.
But we don’t have to take it with the same levity. We can take it more seriously. We can consider a world without Belmont!
My play would then be set in this “World Without Belmont”.
Shylock, even back then, is a controversial figure for villain and has not been accepted as such for a long time now. Shall we have another villain for ourselves? - Let me present to you, Antonio!
Here, Antonio becomes a Speculator who uses borrowed money to finance risky expeditions on a false sense of self-assurance, in spite of being warned right at the beginning of the play by all his friends - ignorantly over-confident, and rather stupid because he is so lacking in common sense.
When they do choose,
They have the wisdom by their wit to lose.
Shylock becomes the common man who was assured that his money would never be risked (a ‘merry bond’ sold to him??) and Bassanio becomes the Aristocracy who meanwhile uses the public money for self-indulgence and exotic adventures.
If you sympathize with Shylock, then you must turn against Portia.
~ E. E. Stoll
Portia: Portia, in my production, becomes the conservative defender (who is also not above some blatant racism!) of these values who would try to get the state to sponsor these extravagances and is even wiling to twist the law - a complete Deux Ex Machina - are we really to think Shylock, and anybody else, did not know of these laws that Portia presents? To me Portia has used their assumption of her competence to full advantage. The only way to explain it would be ‘Poetic Justice’ or more crassly - Cheating!
Portia does this 'twisting' to try and make the poor Shylock shell out even more of his personal fortune, who is almost struck dumb when the State and Law that he had placed his belief on turn on him - “Is that the law?" is all he can ask. He was absolutely certain that his trust in the law was inviolate. The Law and the State that he believed to be so solid crumbles before him. He sees what power privilege has in this world.
And I beseech you,
Wrest once the law to your authority.
To do a great right, do a little wrong,
And curb this cruel devil of his will.
Thus making Shylock representative of the common man, who is a mirror to the society’s worst atrocities - by trying to take exacting revenge on the Wall-street speculator Antonio; and by trying to point out the many wrongs of his society, such as slavery back then or enforced poverty today. The common man, whose tax dollars and life-savings are used to finance the risky ventures of the Antonios and the Bassanios.
Of course, they don’t have to worry, the conservative state represented by the Duke (talk of an impartial judge - he starts the trial by calling Shylock names! And proceeds to threaten to annul the whole thing when Shylock seemed on the verge of winning) and by Portia, who will, with her ingenious manipulations of the law, ensure that Shylock not only loses but also accepts their value systems! “I am content” he says and disappears from the play, into the black-hole that is the State - an Orwellian vision.
Portia: Art thou contented, Jew? What dost thou say?
Shylock: I am content.
In this ‘World Without Belmont’, we have to notice that the upholding of Justice is done not for nobility or any love of justice for its own sake but to ensure that the ‘too big to fail’ establishments are not allowed to sink - just as “The trade and profit of the city” of Portia’s Venice depends on the confidence foreigners have in Venetian law. Thus it is not love of justice for her own sake, but mere self-interest, that keeps our play’s world within the law.
Thus, going from the ‘New Comedy’ aspect of Merchant of Venice to a full blown Tragedy, I would end my modern production with this Shylock slighted and stolen of his possessions, the Antonios and Bassanios happy in the thought that they can continue their indulgences at the expense of the public, while strictly following the letter of the law, no less… and a dark foreboding of when this whole structure will collapse, no matter how well hedged by class distinctions and 'just' laws.
Encore: “Which is the merchant here? and which the Jew?”
The hopes of all men and of Man, being reasonable, must get drunk;
The best of life is but intoxication:
Glory, the grape, love, gold, in these are sunk
The hopes of all men and of every nation;
Without their sap, how branchless were the trunk
Of life's strange tree, so fruitful on occasion:
But to return,—Get very drunk; and when
You wake with headache, you shall see what then.
~ Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto II, Stanza 179.
If we offend, it is with our good will.
That you should think, we come not to offend,
But with good will. To show our simple skill,
That is the true beginning of our end.
Consider then we come but in despite.
We do not come, as minding to content you,
Our true intent is. All for your delight
We are not here. That you should here repent you,
The actors are on hand; and, by their show,
You shall know all, that you are like to know.
The Lightweight Satire
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is often viewed as a lightweight play, but it is much more than that. It is one of Shakespeare’s most polished achievements, a poetic drama of exquisite grace, wit, and humanity. It has perhaps become one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, with a special appeal for the young. But belying its great universal appeal it might be a stinging social satire too, glossed over by most in their dreamy enjoyment of the magnificent world Shakespeare presents and also by the deliberate gross-comedy in the end that hides the play from itself.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an Archetypal play where charm, innocence, violence and sexuality mix in giddy combinations. In this fantastic masterpiece, Shakespeare moves with wonderful dramatic dexterity through several realms, weaving together disparate storylines and styles of speech.
It offers a glorious celebration of the powers of the human imagination and poetry while also making comic capital out of its reason’s limitations and societies’ mores. It is also perhaps the play which affords maximum inventiveness on stage, both in terms of message and of atmosphere.
The Course of True Love
“The course of true love never did run smooth.”
1. In some ways Lysander’s well-known declaration becomes one of the central themes, as the comedy interlocks the misadventures of five pairs of lovers (six if one counts Pyramus and Thisby) - and uses their tribulations to explore its theme of love’s difficulties.
2. Also central to the play is the tension between desire and social mores. Characters are repeatedly required to quell their passion for the sake of law and propriety.
3. Another important conflict is between love and reason, with the heart almost always overruling the mind. The comedy of the play results from the powerful, and often blinding, effects that love has on the characters’ thoughts and actions.
4. Third antipathy is between love and social class divisions, with some combinations ruled out arbitrarily, with no appeal to reason except for birth. This when combined with upward aspirations and downward suppressed fantasies form a wonderful sub-plot to the whole drama. Represented best by Bottom’s famous dream.
Each of these themes have a character representing them that forms the supporting cast to the lovers’ misadventures, defining through their acts the relationship between desire, lust and love and social customs:
1. The unreasonable social mores is represented by Egeus, who is one character who never changes. (Also perhaps by Demetrius who appeals to the same customs to get what he wants)
2. Unloving desire by Theseus who too never changes, and also perhaps by the principal lovers (H&L) in their original state. (Helena could be said to represent ‘true’ love but Shakespeare offers us nothing to substantiate this comforting assumption. It is also important that the women's loves not altered by the potion, which is very significantly dropped into the eyes, affecting vision - i.e. it can affect only superficial love.)
3. Lack of reason, though embodied in all the lovers, are brought to life by Puck as the agent of madness and of confusion of sight, which is the entry-point for love in Shakespeare.
4. Finally, class aspirations and their asinine nature by Bottom himself
Out of all these, every character is given a positive light (or an extra-human light, in the case of the fairies) except Egeus, who is the reason for the night-time excursion and all the comedy. In fact, Shakespeare even seems deliberately to have kept the crusty and complaining Egeus out of the 'joy and mirth’ of the last celebrations - he disappears along with the over-restrictive society he is supposed to represent - of marriages, reasoned alliances and ‘bloodless’ cold courtships.
Hence, it is social mores that compel the wildness on love which is not allowed to express itself freely. When freed of this and allowed to resolve itself in a Bacchanalian night all was well again and order was restored to the world.
This reviewer has taken the liberty of assuming that this is the central theme of the play - which is also deliciously ironic since it is supposed to have been written for a wedding. What better time to mock the institution of marriage than at a wedding gala?
So in a way the four themes - difficulties of true love, restrictions by propriety and customs, and the comical unreason that beset lovers, and class differences that put some desires fully into the category of fantasies - are all products of social mores that impose artificial restrictions on love and bring on all the things mocked in this play by Shakespeare.
In fact this is one reason why Bottom could be the real hero of the play (as is the fashion among critical receptions of the play these days) - he was the only one comfortable in transcending all these barriers, at home everywhere and in the end also content with his dreams and in the realization that he would be an ass to try to comprehend what is wrong with the world.
The Subtle Satire
The lovers’ inversions of love could be taken to be a satire on the fickle nature of love but I prefer to see it as another joke at the expense of social mores - of the institution of marriage and courtship, in which each suitor professes undying love in such magnificent lines until he has to turn to the next and do the same. This is reinforced by allusion to how women are not free to ‘pursue’ their loves as men are since social mores allow only the man to pursue and the woman has to chose from among her suitors. It is quite telling that it wasBottom who accepted love and reason seldom go together and expresses the hope that love and reason should become friends. His speech echoes Lysander’s in the previous scene. Lysander, the aristocrat instead is just another attempting to find a way to understand the workings of love in a rational way, the failures emphasize the difficulty of this endeavor. Lysander thus ends his speech by believing/claiming his newfound love for Helena was based on reason, quite absurdly, but yet quite convinced - representing most of mankind.
By taking the lovers to the enchanted forest of dreams, far from the Athenian social customs and into land where shadows and dreams rule, and then resolving everything there, even allowing Bottom a glimpse of aristocratic love, Shakespeare seems to say that it is the society that restricts love and makes it artificial - all that is needed is bit of madness, a bit of stripping away of artificiality - throughout he cupid’s potion. Again the need for a bit of madness (lunacy, mark the repeated moon ref). It is almost an appeal to the Dionysian aspects of life - see alternate review on Nietzsche for detail. (Also see these two Plato-based reviews for important and balancing takes on 'rational' love - Phaedrus & The Symposium
Puck Vs Quince (or) Diana Vs Cupid (or) Art Vs Entertainment
Significantly the final words of the play belong to the master of misrule, the consummate actor and comedian, Puck. In some sense, Puck, with his ability to translate himself into any character, with his skill in creating performances that seem all too real to their human audiences, could be seen as a mascot of the theater. Therefore, his final words are an apology for the play itself. Also mark how Puck courteously addresses the audience as gentlefolk, paralleling Quince's address to his stage audience in his Prologue.
Thus, the final extrapolation on the theme could be that Shakespeare ultimately points out that though a bit of madness and wildness is needed to bring love back into the realms of the truth, it can also be achieved through great art, through sublime theater - not by bad theater though! This could be a statement that Art and thus Theatre is a substitute for the madness of love that is needed to escape the clutches of society (and live the fantasies away from the constricting artificial 'realities') and find yourself, to rediscover yourself away from ‘cold reason’.
When the actor playing Puck stands alone on the stage talking to the audience about dreams and illusions, he is necessarily reminding them that there is another kind of magic - the magic of the theatre. And the magic it conjures is the magic of self-discovery. Continuing the play’s discourse on poetry, Puck defines the poetry of theater as an illusion that transports spectators into the same enchanted region that dreams inhabit. Thus the spectators have not only watched the dream of others but have, by that focus of attention, entered the dream state themselves.
This ‘finding yourself’ seems to be the most essential part of love and as long as you are constrained by imposed restrictions, this is impossible. That is why Shakespeare has made it easy for us and created an art-form of a play that allows us to dream-in-unreason and wake up refreshed. But there is a caveat too, highlighted by the parallel prologues of Puck and Quince - A ‘Crude’ entertainment like ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ might only allow one to while away an evening happily. It might not give the transport and release and inward-looking that is necessary to achieve the madness that true art is supposed to confer. So Shakespeare uses the play to educate us on what is needed to find ourselves and then the play-within-the-play to also show us what to avoid.
Lord, What Fools Mortals Be
“Art, like love, is a limited and special vision; but like love it has by its very limits a transforming power, creating a small area of order in the vast chaos of the world . . . . At the moment when the play most clearly declares itself to be trivial, we have the strongest appeal to our sympathy for it. . . .” ~ Alexander Leggatt
“I will get Peter Quince to write a ballet of this dream. It shall be call’d “Bottom’s Dream,” because it hath no bottom.”
In one of the most philosophically transcendent moments in the play, Bottom wakes up from his grand aristocratic/magical dream and is disoriented. Bottom decides to title his piece “Bottom’s Dream” because it has no bottom - all literature and art are bottomless, in that their meaning cannot be quantified, cannot be understood solely through the mechanisms of reason or logic. Here it parallels life and love, both beyond reason, limited only by the imagination.
Of course, this is a very simplistic representation of a wonderfully complicated play. It can be read in many different ways based on the viewpoint you chose to adopt. I have tried out a few and felt the need to comment slightly at length on this viewpoint. This is not to diminish the play, which I fully concur with Shakespeare is indeed a ‘Bottom’s Dream’ since it has no bottom in the wealth of meaning to be mined from it.
Lord, what fools these mortals be, Puck philosophizes, mockingly. And perhaps we are indeed fools - for entering into the dangerous, unpredictable world of love or of literature; yet what fun would life be without it?
“Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song. At the touch of a lover, everyo
“Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song. At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet.”
THE SCHOOL OF LOVE
Phaedrus is commonly paired on the one hand with Gorgias and on the other with Symposium - with all three combining and leading towards Republic. It is compared with Gorgias in sharing its principal theme, the nature and limitations of rhetoric, and with Symposium in being devoted to the nature and value of erotic love. The connection with Republic is more tenuous, though it contributes to the criticism of the arts of Rhetoric. Also, the psychology illustrated here by the image of the charioteer and the two horses is fully compatible with the tripartite psychology of Republic and even clarifies an important ambiguity in it.
Socrates and Phaedrus walks out from Athens along the river Ilisus. The conversation that takes place between Phaedrus and Socrates is both interrupted and motivated by three speeches - one by Lysias, and then two extemporized by Socrates himself in response, inspired to employ his knowledge of philosophy in crafting two speeches on the subject of erotic love, to show how paltry is the best effort on the same subject of the best orator in Athens, Lysias, who knows no philosophy.
The Three Speeches
The First Speech:
The first speech (purportedly by Lysias), is a shallow, badly constructed piece–a ‘clever’ piece of sophistry designed to establish the implausible thesis that the pursued (loved) should gratify someone who is not feeling love ("non-lover") rather than a true erastēs (lover).
The Second Speech:
Not surprisingly, since in this speech Socrates undertakes to improve on the form at least as much as the content of Lysias’ speech, there is considerable overlap of theme. Ethically, however, Socrates appears to have more genuine concern for the good of the ‘loved’ than Lysias did.
But most interestingly, Socrates takes the dichotomy of Lysias’ speech - of Non-Lover Vs Lover - and inverts the whole argument by subsuming both categories into Lust. It is left unsaid till the Third Speech, but Socrates has now effectively made the argument into Lust Vs Love (Non-Lover also included into Lust). Ever heard of the expression “Platonic Love”? It is far more interesting than its popular meaning!
“These are the points you should bear in mind, my boy. You should know that the friendship of a lover arises without any good will at all. No, like food, its purpose is to sate hunger. ‘Do wolves love lambs? That’s how lovers befriend the loved!’”
The Third Speech (The Palinode):
Lysias’ speech had argued that a lover is to be avoided in favor of a non-lover, and in Socrates’ first speech he seeks merely to improve upon this thesis of Lysias, but in the second he entirely repudiates the content of the first, and he calls this second speech a recantation, or palinode.
The straight-forward opposition of pleasure and the good in the Second Speech, though reminiscent of early dialogues such as Gorgias, is thus undermined in the palinode, where we see that the impulse towards pleasure is an essential part of a person’s motivation, and that if his/her rational part is in control, this impulse can be channelled towards the good.
The Palinode thus gives a less one-sided view of love - a view in which love and reason can go hand in hand, in which love is not entirely selfish but can be associated with educational and moral values, and in which, at the same time, passion and desire find their proper place. In order fully to praise love, Plato felt that he had to explain its place in the metaphysical life of a human being - through a myth, as usual.
The overall movement of the central part of the palinode is that it begins with a vision of the soul’s purpose and ends with an analysis of the human condition of love.
The suggestion is that we won’t understand human experience unless it is put into a much larger context, and that the experience of love is essential for a human being to fulfill his/her highest potential.
After these three speeches, the conversation turns to the value of rhetoric in general, and what could be done to make it a true branch of expertise or knowledge.
On Rhetoric: An Aside
A dialogue earlier than Phaedrus, Gorgias, is devoted to rhetoric and to the contrast between the rival ways of life philosophy and rhetoric promote. In Phaedrus, the question of the value of rhetoric is raised immediately after the palinode, and signals an abrupt change of direction for the dialogue: as to what constitutes good and bad rhetoric, and Socrates suggests that knowledge of truth is the criterion: persuasion without knowledge is denigrated: without a grasp of truth, rhetoric will remain ‘an unsystematic knack’.
Now, this too is a reference to Gorgias, where rhetoric was defined in just these terms. Plato does not really seem have changed his mind about it since Gorgias.
There are two main overt topics in the dialogue––rhetoric and love. Rhetoric is meant to persuade, and a lover will try to persuade his/her beloved to gratify their desires (the Greek word for ‘persuade’ also means ‘seduce’). The lover’s search for the right kind of beloved to persuade is a specific case of the general principle that the true rhetorician must choose a suitable kind of soul with the help of dialectical insight. The lovers are said to try to persuade their beloveds to follow a divine pattern - this is the highest educational aspect of love.
Thus the dialogue is about love and rhetoric, as it seems to be, but they are connected because both are forms of "soul-leading" - both are educational.
So for this reviewer, the question of which to focus on - of Rhetoric or Love - is redundant. A focus on either should serve the purpose, and the focus for the rest of this review will be on Love. Rhetoric got its space in the Gorgias review.
Love: The Guiding Light of Philosophers
The first two speeches raise the question whether or not love is a good thing, and the rest of the dialogue answers the question in the affirmative. Love is good because it enables one to draw near to another person whose soul is of the same type as one’s own, but is capable of becoming more perfectly so. This educational potential will be fulfilled provided the pair channel their energies into mutual education; this is the proper context of the praise lavished on the combination of philosophy and love.
Platonic Love: A Clarification
Before we go further, we need to address the standard criticism on “Platonic Love”: that it is about non-sexual love. More importantly, the even more educated criticism has to be addressed: that it is about Homoerotic love.
For this, we need to take a look at the Athenian society of the time:
First, the Athenians rarely married for love: a wife was for bearing children, while slave-girls were used for extra sex. Love, then, was more likely to be met outside marriage––and it might be a younger man who aroused it. And this goes not just for love, but even for the shared interests that underpin love: the educational potential of a love-affair, always one of the main things that interested Plato, was unlikely to be fulfilled in one’s marriage, since an Athenian male had few shared interests with his wife and would not expect her to be interested in education. Second, with women being seen more or less entirely as sex-objects, Plato clearly felt that it was all too easy to get caught by the physical side of a heterosexual relationship. However, since Athenian society did place a slight stigma on the sexual side of a homoerotic relationship, a lover might well hesitate before consummating the relationship in this way––and such hesitation, vividly portrayed in Phaedrus, meant that there was at least the opportunity for the sexual energy to be channelled towards higher, spiritual or educational purposes.
Moreover, the older man was expected to cultivate the boy’s mind – to be an intellectual companion. It was, in effect, a form of education. Greek education was pitiful: restricted to upper-class boys, and taught no more than the three Rs, sport, Homer and the lyric poets, and the ability to play a musical instrument. In a peculiar way, the Athenian institution of homoerotic affairs filled a gap by providing a boy with a more realistic grasp of local culture and worldly wisdom.
Thus, we can see why homoeroticism is the context - only because it was normal then and not because it was regarded as worthy of special attention against a standard of heterosexuality as ‘normal’.
Transposed on to present society, we can see that the whole enterprise should logically apply now to ‘normal’ or heterosexual relations as well - and is quite in character for the modern times - some would even say that it is the ideal!
Thus, glossing over homoeroticism as a relic of the Athenian society, we need to read instead from our own society’s standpoint. Hence, in this review you will find that the ‘love’ spoken of is directed not at a ‘boy’ as in the Platonic dialogue/society but at the ‘loved’ (as substituted by the reviewer), without discrimination. This is also the most useful (and logical) POV for this reviewer to adopt to understand the dialogue best. Also, please assume the he/she or his/her connotation if the reviewer has omitted it at places.
The Myth: Love as The Window to the Universe
It is often said that Symposium, Republic and Phaedrus should be read together. This is particularly true when it comes to the interconnected Myths that populate these three dialogues.
Poetic and inspiring myths portray the soul’s vision of reality and love in The Symposium as well as in Phaedrus:
In his myth in The Symposium, Plato has Aristophanes present the famous story about soul mates:
The myth in Phaedrus, altering this, is a description of the entire cycle of what can happen to a soul: we hear of the tripartite nature of souls and how it is essential to a winged soul to rise up attempt to see the plain of truth which lies beyond. In the Myth, we are incarnated as humans if the attempt was not fully successful, doomed for thousands of years.
A philosophically-inclined-lover, however, can use his/her memory of Forms, to regrow their wings and ascend again. This Memory is triggered by the glimpse of Beauty in his/her beloved - if his love of truth is enough to leave him with a lingering dissatisfaction with every day life. Beauty alone has this privilege, to be the most clearly visible and the most loved - and thus the trigger for the Quest for meaning.
Love & Memory: Mutual Assistants
Readers and admirers of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance would find this section particularly identifiable. Love as remembrance should also find ready acceptance among Proust readers. In fact, the image of the loved triggering a vision of beauty that unlocks the memory of life’s true purpose is just about as Proustian as it gets. ‘Loved’ then need not be a person at all - it just needs to be a store of memory, personally beautiful enough to trigger the vision of the ‘beyond’ of everyday life, but this is a digression.
In the palinode, love and memory are critically connected: love is our reaction to the half-remembered Form of Beauty (and of Truth). The starting-point is the perception of beauty on earth, and the consequent recollection of Beauty seen before. The beloved’s face acts, as it were, as a window on to the Form.
In short, love prompts recollection, recollection is the precondition for knowledge, and knowledge is the precondition for the right handling of words. In this way, all the major themes of the dialogue tie together.
The Chariot of Life: The Rider & The Horses
The Soul is divided in three at the beginning of the Myth - two parts in the form of horses and the third in that of a charioteer. One of the horses is good, the other not; one white, noble and the aide of Reason, the other unruly, Black and crazed with desire. The difference between the two is that the bad horse’s reasoning is limited to short-term goals (just as Lysias’ non-lover was too), whereas the charioteer aims for and considers the overall goodness of a person’s life as a whole.
This is, in fact, very reminiscent of The Bhagavad Gita with the Senses as the Horses and Reason as the Charioteer.
Philosophy, Love & Lust - An Inventory of Usefulness
Plato chose the term erōs from the range of possibilities because of its frankly passionate connotations. In Phaedrus he gives an astonishing analysis of what, in his view, is really happening beneath the surface of a love-affair, and focuses particularly on its ecstatic aspects - the ability of love to get us to transcend our normal bounds. Notice, then, how far removed this conception of love is from what we generally understand by the phrase ‘platonic love’, which is defined by my dictionary as ‘love between soul and soul, without sensual desire’. On the contrary, ‘sensual desire’ has to be present, because it is the energizing force.
The Two Horses symbolize Love and Lust, in a fashion:
The Black Horse/Lust/Sensual Desire is crucial to the process: It is the one that gets us close enough to the beloved/soulmate in the first place!
Thus, the non-intellectual elements of the soul were necessary sources of motivational energy and that the passions, and the actions inspired by them, are intrinsically valuable components of the best human life. The intensity of the experience of philosophical love, as Plato sees it, is precisely the intensity of the simultaneous presence in the lover of passion.
To return to the course of the myth, we are told in the second part about the development of a human love-affair. The nature of the love-affair depends entirely, we hear, on how removed the philosopher-partner is from the world (how ascetic he is, in a sense): if he is fully mired in his body, all he will want is sex with the beautiful beloved who arouses his love, but if he is a philosopher the vision of worldly beauty will remind him of heavenly Beauty, and his soul will grow wings and aspire to return to the region beyond heaven where he first caught sight of true Beauty. But Plato stresses that the philosophic lover will not want this just for himself: being attracted to someone like himself––that is, to a potential philosopher––he wants to bring out this potential in his partner. Thus, not only does the philosophical lover educate his partner, but he also educates himself: he ascends the ladder only by pulling someone else up on to the rung he has vacated. The educational aspect of philosophy is here properly fulfilled.
The implication is that the kind of lover you are on earth depends, to a large extent, on how philosophic you are, how receptive you are to the vision of Beauty. It depends entirely on you if Love opens the window to Philosophy.
The Academy of Life: Love
Erōs is the Greek word for ‘passionate love’, and in the context of relations between human beings it means primarily ‘sexual desire’, or even ‘lust’. Because erōs in this sense invariably has a sharply delineated object - it is not just a vacuous feeling of warmth or affection - it suits Plato’s purposes, since his major enquiry is to ask what the true object of love is.
Is it no more than it appears to be, or is it something deeper? In Symposium he answers that love is a universal force that energizes and motivates us in whatever we do, because its object is something we perceive as good for ourselves. Its object, self-evidently (at least, for Plato and his fellow Greeks), is beauty.
The ultimate, deepest aim of Love, Plato says, is immortality - self-procreation in a beautiful environment. The highest manifestation of this is not the physical procreation of offspring, but the perpetuation of ideas in an educational environment in which the lover takes on the education of the beloved. This is the position taken for granted in Phaedrus.
There is also a more prosaic and non-mythical way to approach the message in Phaedrus: As Plato makes plain elsewhere, when he says that someone desires something, he means that he lacks something. So when he says that love is lack, we also need to see what it is that a lover’s soul lacks, and it turns out to be the perfection of itself as a human soul - knowledge or self-knowledge. Someone in love has an inkling of his own imperfection, and is impelled to try to remedy the defect.
Though couched in terms of his own metaphysics and psychology, Plato’s description of passionate love will strike an immediate chord with any lover. Love can make philosophers of any of us. Love is important because beauty* is the most accessible Form here on earth and is the primary object of love.
* Note that it is always a very personal conception of ‘Beauty’ being referred to - which only the beloved can see - the whole ‘eye of the beholder thing’, if you please. Everyone chooses their love after their own fashion from among those who are beautiful to them, and then treats the loved like his/her very own god, building him/her up and adorning him/her as an image to honor and worship.
Hence, Love is the best school possible - a place of mutual, continuous, most interested, interesting and truly involved education that one can ever find. There is nowhere else that you can learn more about the human condition. Enroll in the school of love if you would be philosophers, if you would know the meaning of life. Know Thyself, through Love.
“You may believe this or not as you like. But, seriously, the cause of love is as I have said, and this is how lovers really feel.”
Is the attempt to determine the way of man’s life so small a matter in your eyes—to determine how life may be passed by each one of us to the greates
Is the attempt to determine the way of man’s life so small a matter in your eyes—to determine how life may be passed by each one of us to the greatest advantage? (1.344d)
I propose therefore that we inquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them. (2.368e—369a)
The Republic: An Apology
“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
~ Alfred North Whitehead
The Famous Republic
'The Republic' is either reverenced, reviled or just plain ignored. Though it keeps resurfacing, it has been pushed back often, being accused of bigotry, racism, elitism, casteism, anti-democratic nature, the list is endless. But it is beyond doubt, one of the preeminent philosophical works and has been quoted, referenced or adapted by almost all of the major thinkers since.
The ideas of Socrates have had an afterlife that is as long and varied as the thousand year journey envisioned for souls in the famous Story of Er. It is impossible to catalogue the full list of impacts but Whitehead's quote (introductory to this review) gives adequate flavor. The practical influence of Republic is more difficult to gauge than its impact on the theorizing of later thinkers - over the centuries, individuals have discovered in Plato’s works the inspiration for undertaking political or social or educational reform and have used it as the springboard for much revolutionary thought, and deeds.
Republic has inspired in addition to all the expository analysis, also countless creative interpretations, which have shaped our vision of future possibilities, limits and of extremities. Many depictions of both utopian societies and their dystopian counterparts, ranging from Thomas More’s Utopia to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver's Travels to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to George Orwell’s 1984, have their roots in the ideal city brought to life by Socrates, Glaucon, and Adeimantus. Contemporary films such as Gattaca and The Matrix may not owe direct inspiration to Republic, but they participate in a long tradition of artistic works that ultimately trace their concerns back to the political, social, and metaphysical issues raised in Republic.
But in spite of all this, the original work retains a reputation for being difficult and hard to penetrate. This has meant that the scholars have more or less appropriated this brilliantly composed treatise, and that is a pity. There is great suspense in every page as you eagerly try to work your way through Socrates’ arguments… anticipating now, guessing now, failing now, but always on the edge of your seats at the sparkle of his wit and wisdom. The dialogues are constructed with an almost unbelievable care and subtlety. The drama is breathtaking and all-pervading, even in the stock responses to theoretical or rhetorical questions. One is never allowed to sit and absorb passively, but is forced to constantly interact with the dialogue. It is as much fun to read as a Shakespearean drama.
The Offensive Republic
Now, to examine some of the reasons why The Republic offends modern sensibilities:
Much of the contemporary discomfort with Plato’s state arises from his countenancing of censorship, a rigid caste system, etc. But these are in a way unfortunate misunderstandings. A close reading of the text would make clear that these catch-all descriptions of Plato’s state are not as representative as they are made out to be. For example, the caste system that is first to get blamed is hardly a rigid hereditary system, but a strict meritocratic system that is much more equal than anything that we have seen till date. It involves a strict battery of tests (similar to the aptitude tests of today) based on which every individual is to be judged (and opponents of IQ tests may relax - these are meant to be much more practical examinations).
Also, the popular rendering of the title as “The Republic” itself is unfortunate, giving it an obvious political and ideological overtone. In the manuscripts and ancient citations, the title of Republic is given as Politeia (“Constitution”) or Politeiai (“Constitutions”); Peri dikaiou (literally, “concerning that which is just”) is sometimes listed as an alternative title.
The Misunderstood Republic
I had planned on giving a blow by blow defense of the most reviled aspects of The Republic, but that is not the point I wish to make here. The primary mistake in criticizing The Republic is to assume that it was meant to be a political treatise in the first place. It is not. The whole argument begins from a question of identifying what ‘Justice’ is and whether it is beneficial to live a ‘Just Life’. This is the crux. ‘Why’ and ‘How’ to be Just and ‘What’ is this “Justice’ anyway? That is what Socrates wants to explore. He takes detours in this exploration. He uses metaphors - of State (as larger manifestation), of Caves, etc. But they all lead us back to the same basic question.
To identify this basic concern, we need only look at the complex structure of the dialogue itself. Republic’s “narrative” is structured in an almost circular pattern. This circular pattern is complex, evoking the narrative patterns of epic poems such as Iliad and Odyssey. Most basically, the dialogue’s two main concerns (defining justice and ascertaining its relationship to happiness) are treated in two corresponding sections (books 2-4 and books 8-9) that are interrupted by what is nominally a series of digressions in books 5-7, and 10. These nominal digressions, of course, create the dialogue’s most memorable metaphors, but they are meant to be digressions that add to the core. Not the other way around.
At its most basic level, Republic is an effort to forge a consistent and meaningful redefinition of “Justice”. The aretê that is explored lies in nothing outward, but rests solely in the mature reason and regard for what is beneficial to the soul. Not all the details in these allegories stand up to logical analysis, but they are not meant to.
This is made clear by the fact that The Republic’s interlocutors repeatedly draw attention to the incomplete, provisional, and at times unsatisfactory nature of their treatment of justice, happiness, the ideal political community, the theory of the ideas, the cognitive faculties of human beings, etc. The inadequacy of “the method we are employing” is acknowledged at 4.435c-d, at 6.504b-d and in many other places.
The Personal Constitution: A Constitution of the Perfect Life
The Perfect State sketched out (which is the stub of almost all criticism) is only an approximation devised to arrive at the Perfect Man, and that is why the so called bad aspects can be deemed acceptable. The mistake, as stated already, is to see it as a purely political treatise while it is in fact a treatise on justice and how to live the perfect life - the ‘Constitution’ of a perfect life.
"He will look at the city which is within him, and take heed that no disorder occur in it, such as might arise either from superfluity or from want; and upon this principle he will regulate his property and gain or spend according to his means."
In the end, the state is not fleshed out enough to really form a complete constitution for any state that can exist in reality (and not just as an idea). But the psychological part (it is curious how this part has generated so much less criticism, in comparison) is - we return in the end (and all the way in between) to the original question of how an individual should order his life - what his virtues should be. It is a political critique piggy-backing on a personal enquiry and hence any commentary of it cannot treat them differently. Censorship, slaves, aristocracy are all wonderful aspects in an individual but not palatable in a state (to modern eyes). Hence, we can only criticize that the greater to smaller equality is not well realized (i.e. from state => individual). But then Socrates, as above, is always eager to make the point about the provisional nature of his metaphor which is only meant to incite thinking and not as an answer - that is just not the way to deal with true lovers of truth, with true philosophers.
[Cheeky counterproposal by the reviewer's alter-ego: “Or all the personal stuff is just a convenient cloak for the political criticism that is the real purpose! After all, we cannot forget the historical milieu in which Plato composed it. He had enough axes to grind!”]
Indeed, the more we approach certain aspects of the text from analytic and conceptual standpoints, the more we find that Socrates and his companions make innumerable assumptions and leaps of logic that is not satisfactory or fully justified. Each of these can be fairly scrutinized and contested, and have been. We may raise any number of questions about its relevance to our experiences and value systems. Much of Republic, especially its political philosophy, argument for Censorship and Social structuring, is at odds with modern ideals; some readers will doubtless be dissatisfied with, among other things, its unapologetic elitism and naive (almost laughable) confidence in the integrity of “philosopher-rulers.” Some, however, may find that its critique of ancient Athenian society opens the door to meaningful questions about contemporary cultural practices and priorities. And even more meaningful questions on how to organize our inner impulses and constitution.
Philosopher, Be Thyself
We need to understand that the Platonic Dialogues, in principle, are not meant to represent a simple doctrine that can be followed, they instead are meant to prepare the way for philosophizing. They are not easy guide books to follow. They require work from the reader, above and beyond the ideas presented. That is one of the reasons for the dialogue nature in which they are structured. Plato’s overarching purpose in writing the Republic was to effect a change in his readers similar to the change that Glaucon and Adeimantus undergo at Socrates’ hands in the fictional world of the dialogue. This purpose can be summed up in the word protreptic, from the Greek protrepein, which means “turn (someone) forward,” hence “propel,” “urge on,” “exhort.” Plato uses literary art, which in his case includes but is not limited to philosophical argument, to move his reader toward a greater readiness to adopt a just way of life.
The dialogues are thus intended to perform the function of a living teacher who makes his students think. One must philosophize to understand them. One must look at the microcosm of the dialogues as well as the macrocosm of the world that we inhabit simultaneously to understand them. It is in this process that the dialogues assist, insist and themselves provide a training in.
We can only conclude by asking questions, in the true spirit of the dialectic method:
Can we then say that we are convinced, that justice, as defined by Socrates, is something intrinsically valuable? Are we convinced that the just man can be “happy” even if he does not enjoy a reputation for justice, nor any other material benefit, in this life or after?
Have Socrates and his companions persuaded us that the ideal city-state they describe in Republic is truly the best political community possible? Do we believe that Socrates himself thinks so? Is that what we take away from such a deep examination of how to live our lives? Or do we let the Story of Er guide us back to the truer motives of the interlocutors?
"I really do not know as yet, but whither the argument may blow, thither we go."
“Why did I dislike him so much, she asked herself? Where humans were concerned, the only emotion that made sense was wonder, at their ability to endure; and sorrow, for the hopelessness of it all.”
~ Dina, A Fine Balance
Lear’s Patchwork Quilt
A Fine Balance is a true modern epic, built on the ordinary. If one could read only one book about India, this would make a very good choice. On city, one village, one town, three families - this is the tight canvas in which Mistry paints, or rather, is the quilt that he weaves. They fit together to form a Persian carpet that captures within it an entire country’s desolation. As the characters move from distrust to friendship and from friendship to love, Mistry creates an enduring panorama of the human spirit in an inhuman state, at once unsettling, pitiful, and maddening in its clarity.
Never dramatic, never superfluous, the details keep getting added to the quilt, no stray piece left untended, every discarded cloth-piece added and stitched in with exquisite care. Mistry’s quilt is perhaps among the greatest novels composed on modern India, at least in terms of sheer ambition of the construction and the constrained canvas in which it is accomplished.
Every anguish, spread across four generations, every tumult and gasp of a country is squeezed into the harrowing tales of a few poignantly realized figures. Indeed, the whole drama is almost Shakespearean in scope - with distinct echoes of King Lear in it - in the pride and distance of each character; in their imaginary walls, which crumple with closeness.
Lear’s Storm, Writ Larger
Mistry is often compared to Dickens, the archetypal author of the Uncaring State. For me, the comparison that kept forcing itself was with Shakespeare. As I mentioned above, I could hear distinct echoes of King Lear as I was reading this magnificent book. However, I was not sure if I was reading this into Mistry since I had just gone very deep into Lear (in which I was reading too much of Plato, to be honest). I did not trust myself and decided to investigate - and I found (to my relief) that Mistry loves King Lear - he had even made an entire novel out of it (not this one, but ‘Family Matters’). It thus turned out to be a very lucky coincidence that I read King Lear almost in parallel with Mistry.
In any case, I now feel justified in elaborating on this theme - on the logic that a possibility of a King Lear influence having contributed to 'A Fine Balance' cannot be discounted.
I have to confess that once I made this discovery, I became overzealous and did make an attempt to draw the plot of King Lear directly into Mistry’s novel, but Mistry is too much the master for that. I tried to connect the abiding theme of love in both, trying to imagine Dina as an abandoned Cordelia. I tried to think of Maneck as a proxy-Edgar, one who was spared tragedy - but only the obvious hard-hitting ones that we dignify by the word ‘tragedy’, not the creeping disenchantment with life that can be even more cruel. I tried to deconstruct and see if the intermixing story lines of Fine Balance serve the same function as in Lear, the two story lines, the two tragedies mixed into one, joining to form a single base line to the symphony, echoing and reaching the same notes - a ritornello, of sorts. None of this worked satisfactorily.
Eventually, my reconciliation is that Mistry has set his novel in an in-between place - between the lunacy of self-inflicting suffering and the self-wrought tragedy of the end, of Lear. Instead, this epic unfolds in the forest, in the storm, the characters thrown into it directly, with no semblance of a ‘why’ or a question of ‘deserving’ anything. Unlike the Shakespearean tragedy, where there is at least an apparent causation for the tragedies that befall each, the condition of the storm, of wild uncaring nature is the default here. All are equal in this world, the same storm lashes them all.
One of the major themes in King Lear is the path to understanding (and salvation), forged in the wild under this wild buffeting of nature’s storms - where the ships of varying fates are lashed against each other, making them realize the ‘equality of pathetic mortals’, the only salvation allowed to them to be extracted from the whole tragedy.
“You know—things falling apart, centre not holding, anarchy loosed upon the world, and all that sort of thing.”
In Mistry’s world too, the blind force of the Government and the ‘Emergency’ looms large and ominous in the background - affecting these characters, with no personal enmity or malicious intent - almost like a primal force of nature, grabbing, destroying or sparing the lives and joys of the actors - just like wild nature in King Lear.
Mistry also works in a lot of political criticism of the Indian political system. Let us pick a phrase from Mistry to summarize this: A house with suicidal tendencies. The path seems inexorable. Once tyranny makes an entrance, it allows the government to become more and more authoritative, insensitive, even casual in how they treat human lives (and dreams), without any real conscious intent - like the blind pagan gods of Shakespeare. Thus, maybe a step beyond nature then - as powerful, all-pervading and unreadable as the Gods themselves.
It makes one wonder how unreasonably powerful our modern governments are - capable of reaching in and snuffing out even the minutest blooms of happiness, at random. Isn’t it scary to have such gods amongst us?
“Where was God, the Bloody Fool? Did He have no notion of fair and unfair? Couldn’t He read a simple balance sheet? He would have been sacked long ago if He was managing a corporation, the things He allowed to happen …”
Set against this blind force, the characters of Mistry too blunder blindly through the vast forces of ‘nature’ in search of some reconciliation - their lives too seem to present glimmers of hope until the next wild gust, or random malice, sweeps it away - but finding each other, giving what support they can, realizing that the straws are all that matters to the drowning man, finding what little joys they can in the occasional beauty of their fraying tapestry of a quilt.
“But how firm to stand, how much to bend? Where was the line between compassion and foolishness, kindness and weakness? And that was from her position. From theirs, it might be a line between mercy and cruelty, consideration and callousness. She could draw it on this side, but they might see it on that side.”
If you think about it, that is almost a primal question for a civilized society… From asking a question like that to reaching a point in which the line is erased altogether, at least when seen, at a certain angle, from both sides - that is the only trajectory that deserves the name “progress”. Emergency is an almost comical word, but it is poignant since, as Mistry shows, most stumble from one Emergency to the next, uncomprehending. Some may escape the blindness and see each other, but perhaps only in the minds of visionary authors.
All this parallels the distinct evolutionary trajectory of the characters in King Lear too, as the Kings and Nobles realize that underneath their garbs, the thin veneer of civilization, we are all equal. And when fates and ‘higher powers’ tear us apart and smite us with lightening, the poor and the rich can see each other, and their equality, in that fateful flash.
The Finely Balanced
So we come back to this: Indeed, the whole drama is almost Shakespearean in scope - with distinct echoes of King Lear in it - in the pride and distance of each character; in their imaginary walls, which crumple with closeness.
The real fine balance, the real circus act, is the flimsily constructed wall that balances so finely between people, between families, between castes, between classes, between societies - but it cannot stand up to personal acquaintance. Which is why we use emotions of fear and disgust to prop it up.
This wall, a mere figment of imagination, is made up of stories, fictional ones - the moment it encounters real stories, it tumbles down. Authors like Mistry are the modern equivalents of the quixotic hero, trying to crumple these walls, reaching across thousands of miles, through the pages of a book.
Of course, we can see in figures like Nusswan those people who manage to keep the walls of fine balance erected throughout their lives - we see in them ourselves. Can we dare to see ourselves in Nusswan? In a character like Maneck we can see someone who was perhaps lucky to escape childhood without erecting them. In the other poor souls who haunt the book, we see the ones on the other side of our well-tended walls. Then, in Dina we can see the ones who do break free of these finely balanced walls. And we might even aspire to their tragedy - so that we can be free of these walls too.
That is the power of a work like this - it makes us crave even for tragedy, if only to let us escape our self-constructed prisons! How powerful is that?...more