Oscar Wao: The United (Mis)States of América

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“bedside,” licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

“And Manhattan, before fading from our Universe, replies:

‘In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.'” (331)

America is mistaken if it thinks that whiteness is a focal feature within its own literary tradition. Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a narrative that pushes back against the notion of the fixed tradition-genre-audience relationship. To do so, Díaz presents his novel through the biased lens of the macho, hotheaded, misogynistic Dominican male, Yunior. It is evident that Díaz—“consciously writing not from the genre but about it”—represents Yunior in such a way as to render an analysis not only of the narrator and the text’s characters but more significantly, the reader as well (Miller 92).

Just as the novel calls attention to itself within the genre of fiction, it also rhetorically calls attention to the reader as an active participant. Díaz’s novel, therefore, stimulates a reflection of the self.

In order to explore this, I will first grapple with the reader’s experience of Yunior’s narration in Oscar Wao. Then, I will analyze Díaz’s use of footnotes. Finally, I will argue that through constant plot obstruction, Díaz forces the reader to analyze him or herself and by doing so, reveals that an American literary examination of Dominican-ness is not exclusively for the white gaze.

To begin, it is apparent that the text “challenges readers with significant amounts of untranslated Spanish, continual references to often obscure sci-fi fantasy culture, and a crash course in the worst of twentieth-century Dominican (and American) history” (O’Brien 75). In other words, with code switching, vulgarity, misogynistic slurs, and constant references to science fiction and comic book texts, Oscar Wao makes no attempt to accommodate the reader’s experience. For example, the practice of reading is obstructed throughout the text as Yunior recalls certain dialogues between characters: “She was very guapa, I said casually. Abuela snorted. Guapa soy yo. Your mother was a diosa. But so cabeza dura. When she was your age we never got along” (75).

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© Tasha Guenther

For a Spanish reader – though the reading experience is jagged and uneven – the meaning is not entirely lost. For an English reader, however, deriving full meaning is impossible. Sometimes a reader may pull significance out of the words by wading through the surrounding text and orienting him or herself within the narrative, but this is not always possible. For example as Sean O’Brien argues:

In some case, context proves helpful: when Yunior explains that an infatuated Oscar would ‘call out to passing women—Tú eres guapa! Tú eres guapa!’ it is obvious that he is basically catcalling (13)…But other times, crucial information is communicated in slang-filled Spanish that cannot be deciphered through context clues. (79)

Examples of this slang-filled Spanish obstruct the reader’s ability to fully connect with Yunior as a narrator. Though it is clear that he seeks to relay the story—though perhaps only as his “own zafa…to ward off any fukú”—Yunior also seeks to distance himself from the reader (89).

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© Tasha Guenther

When he describes Beli and the Gangster’s “first trip together” and says “for those capitaleños who never leave the 27 de Febrero or who think Güaley is the Center of the Universe: Samaná es una chulería,” it is clear that he is trying to make the reader feel disoriented and uncomfortable (132). Through this, an individual’s relationship to the text as the reader is realized.

Since the reader is given an excess of informational footnotes – to the point where they almost become a burden to read – the notion that the reader is an active participant in the reading experience is evident. For example, as T.S. Miller argues, “such comments as ‘For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history’ suggest that Yunior intends to educate an audience presumed to lack detailed knowledge of the Dominican Republic, perhaps implying an audience with a traditional Western background (2)” (92). Other examples of this such as, “if you look in the Dictionary of Dominican Things” (20) and “a common story you hear about Anaoana in the DR” contrast starkly with Yunior’s use of Spanish slang, as mentioned above (244). Though Díaz is clearly calling attention to the white man and his Western tradition here, this does not remain an exclusive feature throughout the novel. It is, in fact, quite the opposite.

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“Junot Diaz @ Strand Bookstore,” licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Aside from code switching from English to Spanish, there are numerous times when Yunior shifts the tone by directly speaking to Dominicans. For instance, Yunior calls attention to Beli’s “classic mistake of telling these Dominican hombres about the new love of her life, how happy she was,” while she is in a relationship with “the Gangster” (131). Then, Yunior turns his attention to the Dominican reader by saying, “Sisters: don’t ever do this” (131). As well, within the footnotes he directs his attention to, “those of you who know the island (or are familiar with Kinito Méndez’s oeuvre)” and how “[those of you] know exactly the landscape I’m talking about” (256). Yet, in the next sentence, Yunior explains the said landscape in great detail. Why, if Díaz’s narrator constantly obstructs the reading process through almost impossible references, does he present such detailed information in the text and subsequent footnotes?

The novel seems to conclude “not so much that genres and their boundaries should be collapsed, but that each reader already collapses, internalizes, and reassembles them to create his or her own account” (Miller 104).

Even as O’Brien argues, “readers of Oscar Wao, in being forced to decide so frequently what knowledge they will marginalize through decisions they make about researching or simplifying each intertextual reference,” come face to face with a reflection of self (89). This reflection of self comes from the force put on them to actively participate in unfolding the knowledge being projected, obscured, or hidden within the text. Readers “are encouraged to consider to what degree their choices reflect or differ from those that have led to the kinds of personal and political situations depicted in the novel” (89). With this, it is evident that the relationship between reader and text is of the utmost importance. Thus, the reason Díaz does not accommodate the reader’s experience is because he expects the reader to accommodate him or herself within the reading practice. The reader, when given the task of reading Oscar Wao, is forced to understand and reflect on the act of his her own reading. At the same time, however, the white reader will undeniably struggle with the text more than the Spanish or Dominican reader. This, again, reveals the notion that American literature is not exclusively for the white gaze.

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Díaz undeniably calls attention to an American reader’s biases and tendencies within his or her own reading experience. Throughout the novel’s duration, however, these biases and tendencies are exposed and reflected back onto this reader. Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a narrative that pushes back against the notion of the fixed Western tradition and white audience relationship. He explores a blending of genre, narration style, and the audience whom is being narrated to and focused on. All the while, he presents his novel through the biased lens of the chauvinistic Dominican male, Yunior. In giving his narrator such a makeup, he allows his reader to analyze the text in layers – first the characters being narrated, then the narrator himself, and finally, the reader as… a reader. By calling attention to the reader as an active participant, Díaz’s motives are exposed. His novel stimulates a reflection of the self, no matter who that self is. Importantly though, he marginalizes his English-speaking, white reader. With this, he unfolds the American literary tradition’s mistake in upholding the belief that exclusive rights belong to the white, English-only reader.

Bibliography

Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Penguin Group, 2007. Print.

Miller, T.S. “Preternatural Narration and the Lens of Genre Fiction in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.Fiction Studies. 38.1 (2011): 92-114. 8 June 2015.

O’Brien, Sean. “Some Assembly Required: Intertextuality , Marginalization, and ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association. 45.1 (2012): 75-94. Web. 8 June 2015.

GLORIFIED GLORY IN SNYDER’S 300

Before I begin, I must say that I never saw this movie when it first came out in the mid-2000s. I think that if I would have seen it during its peak (and buzz) I would have enjoyed it much more. And because I studied this film for one of my classes, I saw the movie differently than I would have if I had watched it with friends in the theatre. So, without further ado, here is my analysis (and opinion) of Zack Snyder’s 300. 

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Contemporary Western society encounters a plethora of glorified portrayals displaying violence, war, and bloodshed. This hyper-intensity is brought to [us] in part by the visual arts, media, literature, and film. Often the most aggressive of these modes, however, is the Hollywood movie industry. With this, Snyder’s 300 serves as a representation of the historic Spartan bloodshed within the context of the Battle of Thermopylae.[1] Yet, since it is clear that Snyder is not the only artist bent on exploring the infamous Spartans, I must ask, why the obsession? The movie’s underlying message calls forth America’s own realization of its willingness to sacrifice within a context following 9/11. Therefore, contemporary society remains fascinated by the gruesome yet idealized Spartan way of life as a way to render a reflexive analysis of itself. Such an analysis reveals an idealized culture willing to shed human life in the name of valour, bravery, and sanctity. Tamara Neal’s notion of bloodshed, within the context of war in ancient Greek culture, is an imperative source when exploring Spartan values around violence. As well, Geoffrey Eley’s assertions reveal that, regarding cultural history, Snyder’s cinematic vision of the Battle of Thermopylae is a reflexive tool for idealizing contemporary warfare.

Snyder’s vision of Sparta is one well known to most of Western society – even before the film’s release. The cinematic, superhero-esque depiction of King Leonidas and his 299 allies is, of course, Snyder’s rendition of the graphic novel series written by Frank Miller. Miller, himself, drew his inspiration from the 1962 American “Cold War propaganda” film directed by Rudolph Maté, The 300 Spartans.[2] With this, it becomes evident that Sparta is a useful tool for reflecting on Western society – spanning back to the Cold War era. Of course, the previous question raised is why? To answer this most thoroughly, I turn to the notion of bloodshed.

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Like Miller and Maté before him, Snyder’s glorified vision “assaults the screen with blood, thunder and awe.”[3] Blood stunningly spews from men’s necks, stomachs, arms, and legs in a highly aesthetic dark red hue.

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Instead of intestines spilling out of open gashes, we see blood. Instead of broken bones, we see blood. Even the decapitation of a young Spartan is cut away, hidden from the viewer’s eye; only a slow motion flying head followed by a visually pleasing trail of blood is presented. The whole film is a bloody aesthetic experience. Blood is the only thing we see. For Snyder, blood is brutal and brutal is beautiful. Neal argues, “bloodspill functions as a badge of honor, a highly visible adornment attesting to a hero’s mortality and his willingness to sacrifice life for glory.”[4] This, of course, holds true with the Spartans, who were the martial people of Greece. When blood is viewed as a badge of honor, Snyder’s representation of King Leonidas is an accurate match-up. Though it is hard to ignore Snyder’s gross idealizations of manliness and chivalry in 300, it is apparent that the film’s obsession with blood holds historical weight. The “close association of blood with nonfatal injury” on a Spartan soldier, “coupled with its exclusion from death, indicates that bloodspill has [an extremely] special value” in 300, as in Greek society.[5]

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For Snyder, blood is brutal and brutal is beautiful.

Snyder’s 300 puts a heavy emphasis on the importance and value of blood, and we see this most clearly through his artistic representation of it. The Spartans, as depicted by Snyder, are always in steady preparation, not only for war, but also for glory. Consequently, they never retreat and never surrender. Interestingly however, as Elizabeth Langridge-Noti points out, “Sparta fascinates us in the West, representing both a place with a common past and a place that is different enough to insist on distance and a certain mystique – the Spartans are like Us, yet they are certainly not like Us.”[6] In other words, the “bloodlust” of the Spartans coupled with their willingness to shed their own blood is fascinating to contemporary viewers.[7] It is this idealized, almost fetishized, brutality that makes the Spartans so captivating to watch. Yet, the notion of community – in the phalanx formation – is one that contemporary society can align itself with in reality.

This hunger for bloodshed merges seamlessly with the desire for collectivity in contemporary culture. What is created from this synthesis is the West’s glorification of sacrifice. Gerard Butler’s famous line, “This is Sparta!” in the early part of the film resonates strongly with U.S. (and Canadian) nationalism.[8] Coming out less than a decade after 9/11, the movie’s underlying message calls forth America’s own realization of its willingness to sacrifice in the face of intrusion and terrorism. It is revealed in this cultural ideal that Snyder’s cinematic portrayal of the 300 Spartans up against the godlike King Xerxes is a reflexive tool for idealizing contemporary warfare in the face of terror. In other words, parallels are drawn between Sparta and the U.S., and the Persians and the Middle East. Accordingly, an Iranian government spokesman declared that, upon pirated release of the movie, it was an “act of ‘psychological warfare’ that was intended to prepare Americans for an invasion of their country.”[9] Here, we see a dichotomy unfold in 300: glory versus terror. Though the Spartans keep slaves, brutally kill their fallen enemies, and build walls upon walls of dead bodies, they do it in the name of glory. The Persians on the other hand, do much the same thing, yet their actions are portrayed in a reign-of-terror-like manner, seemingly deprived of any meaning.

Xerxes chops off head of Leonidas with axe in 300 Rise of an Empire

Following this, Geoffrey Eley’s article concerning cultural history centers most strongly on the notion of identity and meaning. He argues that “the rise of” the masses in all areas of life, including the arts and education, has allowed for wide-scale distribution of information.[10] With this, the concept of cinema becomes important since, in it, a mode for reflexive analysis of human action is not only possible, but is possible on a large scale. Thus, politically driven ideologies can be distributed through an artistic lens to a culture that is consuming at an exponential rate. Snyder’s glorified vision of Sparta is, thus, let into society for consumption. In which case, an individual is then able to circle back and reflect upon what he or she has watched in order to derive meaning in the identity of his or her own society. However idealized that reflection may be, Eley argues the purpose of the interplay between past and present (such as seen in 300) is to understand the identification of self and experience with others.[11]
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Contemporary Western society has remained fascinated by the gruesome yet idealized Spartan way of life. In doing so, it has found a way to render a reflexive analysis of itself. Such an analysis has revealed a culture willing to shed human life in the name of valour and sanctity. I suspect that, as our sensitivity to these images wavers,  our cultural glorification of the Spartans will continue to grow.

300: Rise of an Empire. 1

  1. 300, directed by Zack Snyder (2006; Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., 2007), DVD.
  1. Peter Green, “Review: Responses to the Persian Wars,” The Classical Review 59, no. 2 (2009): 610, accessed May 17, 2015, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40600754
  2. 300, DVD (cover).
  1. Tamara Neal, “Blood and Hunger in the Iliad,” Classical Philology 101, no.1 (2006): 33, accessed May 17, 2015, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/505669
  1.  Ibid., 18.
  2. Elizabeth Langridge-Noti, “’This is Sparta’: Recent Publications on Sparta and Laconia,” American Journal of Archaeology 116, no. 4 (2012): 751, accessed May 17, 2015, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3764/aja.116.4.0751
  1. Neal, 30.
  1. 300, DVD.
  1. Mustapha Marrouchi, “Neither Their Perch nor Their Terror: Al-Qaida Limited,” Callaloo 31, no. 4 (2008): 1336-1361, accessed May 17, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27655 002
  1. Geoffrey Eley, “What is Cultural History?” New German Critique no. 65 (1995): 29, accessed May 17, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/488530
  1.  Ibid., 33.

Bibliography

  1. 300. Directed by Zack Snyder. 2006. Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., 2007. DVD.

Eley, Geoffrey. “What is Cultural History?” New German Critique no. 65 (1995): 19-36. Accessed May 17, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/488530

Langridge-Noti, Elizabeth. “’This is Sparta’: Recent Publications on Sparta and Laconia.” American Journal of Archaeology 116, no. 4 (2012): 751-5. Accessed May 17, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3764/aja.116.4.0751

Marrouchi, Mustapha. “Neither Their Perch nor Their Terror: Al-Qaida Limited.” Callaloo 31, no. 4 (2008): 1336-1361. Accessed May 17, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27655 002

Neal, Tamara. “Blood and Huger in the Iliad.” Classical Philology 101, no. 1 (2006): 15-33. Accessed May 17, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/505669

La Nouvelle Vague

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“Oh, I lie now and then, I suppose. Sometimes I’d tell them the truth and they still wouldn’t believe me, so I prefer to lie.” – Antoine Doinel

La Nouvelle Vague or the French New Wave that swept through France in the late 1950’s resulted in a number of acclaimed films made by a handful of talented young filmmakers. Of these artists, François Truffaut entered the cinematic stage with his feature film, Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows) in 1959. The film portrays Truffaut’s childhood, as a preteen, recreated. As played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, the film’s protagonist, Antoine Doinel, comes to us as this re-imagined figure. Throughout the course of the film the young character becomes isolated and misunderstood by his parents, schoolteachers, and, subsequently, the rest of society. The 400 Blows follows the story of an adolescent boy and his unlucky positioning in his relationships with authority figures. Antoine is not the only schoolboy to misbehave; though it seems as though he is the only one to get caught. Even Antoine’s comrade, who accompanies him on many of his defiant escapades, is never reprimanded.

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Through experimental camera angles, extended shots, and naturalistic lighting, Truffaut explores an almost cynical, yet extremely realistic journey of a young adolescent and his “gradual disaffection” from his family and society (Croce 35). Truffaut’s ironic visual representation of juvenile curiosity, naïveté, and rebelliousness reveals to his audience the corruption and humiliation French society forced on its youth.

The irony in Truffaut’s depiction of Antoine is clear from the first scene of the film and becomes representative of Antoine’s isolation within society. In this early scene, the camera looks down on the children, panning over them to follow the transfer of a pin-up photo from boy to boy. Of course, it is Antoine who gets caught with this photo, marking the beginning of his bad luck on camera. As Henry B. Maloney argues, “Truffaut tells his story with a screen full of ironies” (563). In his review of The 400 Blows, Maloney successfully catalogues these ironic points in the film where:

[Antoine leaves] the abandoned factory where he had intended to spend the night after running away from home. He dispiritedly walks by a window with “Joyeux Noel” lettered on it. He is expelled from school for plagiarism because he has read Balzac so intently that he memorizes a section of it. He is caught, not while stealing a typewriter, but while attempting to return it (563).

Antoine’s isolation is the affect of his overwhelming misfortune of getting into trouble; yet Truffaut’s cinematic focus on Antoine heightens the audience’s sense of this isolation. There are scenes in the film where Antoine is silent, his parents are yelling at one another, and yet the camera remains focused on him. The long, extended shots focused on Antoine serve to put the audience in the perspective of the boy, realistically and without any interruptions. Having said this, The 400 Blows “isn’t sentimental,” as Arlene Croce points out (35). Though the film’s point of view is almost always fixated on Antoine, it is for purpose of realism over melodrama.

In his interview with Paul Ronder, Truffaut states that, “I made [the] film in a very instinctive way… much of the film was essentially a documentary, and this necessitated an enormous neutrality on my part” (5-6). He continues by asserting: “The film I made was without form, neutral – since my direction of it was as objective as possible and corresponded almost to a self-effacement” (6). The 400 Blows is, therefore, a modest representation of adolescence. Truffaut’s “simplicity” allows for the underlying message to take center-stage, without disruption (6). The film is a harsh reality in itself; it is a portrayal “about the suffering an average schoolboy must endure if he has the bad luck to be considered a criminal by both his family and the state,” and because “he represents the burden of an impossible marriage, he is [condemned] to the vice-ridden world of adults” (Croce 35).

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With this, Truffaut effectively speaks out against the society in which Antoine lives. The conflicting groups of authority in the film put extreme pressure on Antoine to fit in and stay compliant. Though The 400 Blows remains focused on Antoine, the film’s message speaks to a wider social issue of the time. While within the context of the film Antoine seems to be the only child to get caught, it is clear that Truffaut’s reasoning of this is to create a cinematic aura of isolation over importance. For example, Antoine isn’t the only child to misbehave and he is in no way ‘special.’ An interesting scene in the middle of the film shows a gym teacher with his whistle blowing and students following or at least, so the teacher assumes. As “[t]he camera falls back to a distance shot, presumably from atop a building, [it watches] contentedly as boys sneak out of line in twos and threes while the teacher trots along waving his arms, oblivious to anything except the satisfaction of his own exertions” (Maloney 563). It is in this scene that the audience comes face-to-face with the reality of Antoine’s dilemma and how easily it could happen to any child within the same context.

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Antoine “is a straw tossed by twin hurricanes: his family and society. His crime is trivial; his capture is ironic. The treatment he receives is heartless and unreasonable” (Shatnoff 4). Antoine’s reality in the film was the reality in… reality. As Truffaut puts it, “I will never again find a subject as direct, as strongly felt, nor one which provides me with so little choice” (Ronder 6). France – especially at the time of the New Wave – was experiencing back lash from the war: “French law [was] brutal and perverse: a man is guilty until he proves himself innocent; a man can be held incommunicado for days in one of those clever chicken-cages, shown in the film, in which young, old, murderers, maniacs, pickpockets, traffic violators, are thrown together indiscriminately” (Shatnoff 4). The construct of society at this time made it plausible for a child’s innocence to be completely defeated; in contrast to heartwarming coming-of-age stories, The 400 Blows is brutally realistic.

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The infamous revolving drum-scene “injects the first disturbing note,” and may signify an allegory for the chaotic shifting of authoritative responsibility over Antoine within French society. Antoine’s parents are both figures of authority, but each one disagrees with and blames the other, and conflict arises when neither parent can discern who holds responsibility over who in giving Antoine money; teachers comment amongst themselves regarding parents’ lack of authority over children; police officer A shifts his authority over to police officer B because police officer A wants to go home; and the judge, seen near the end of the film, blames the mother and father for Antoine’s predicament. This infamous drum-scene “is, perhaps, a presentiment of [this] brutalization. A small, blurred figure flattened on the side of an enormous whirling cylinder, and the cylinder turning in the expanse of the widescreen – for a moment the film itself seems to be out of control” (Croce 36). And yet this chaotic, constrained scene emulates the perfect contrast to the final scene of the movie.

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The infamous revolving drum-scene… may signify an allegory for the chaotic shifting of authoritative responsibility over Antoine within French society.

In this last scene, it seems Antoine is finally able to break free from all restraints of society. The film’s protagonist is beautifully captured running in an extended shot for 3 minutes and 43 seconds to the same music that is played during another extended shot of Paris’ streets in opening credits of the film. The parallel between the opening and final scene of the film perhaps signifies the relationship between Paris as the city and Antoine as an adolescent free from that city – a city filled with corruption, immorality, and humiliation. Here, Truffaut is possibly suggesting that “a society which has always prided itself on its rational base, is really inhuman; that to fear this society is not paranoiac, but logical and necessary” – to run from this society, as Antoine does by the end, is the only way to achieve freedom (Shatnoff 4).

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Truffaut’s reformation of his own childhood serves not as a cinematic parade on ego, but rather a simple, yet brutally raw story concerning the relationship between adolescence and society. The film’s dark and natural lighting, long shots, and brilliantly fresh acting by Jean-Pierre Léaud attribute to the height of the overarching message in The 400 Blows. Although the film’s shots are focused mainly on Antoine, Truffaut shows his audience the extreme possibility that any child in French society could be exposed to isolation and immorality; thus, the camera steadily scans over the disobedience of the other children in the film and then pulls in the audience’s attention to Antoine.

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By the end however, it is not the audience’s attention that is drawn to Antoine but his attention that is drawn to the audience. In the final scene, Antoine looks at the viewer in a chilling moment that reveals the severity and scope of the issue. Truffaut’s brilliant masterpiece, The 400 Blows, leaves the audience with no room to sigh, only to think. We are left with a young boy, beaten down by his society, staring at us in the eye. The only thing that is left to question is: Have we done this?

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Works Cited

Croce, Arlene. “Review: Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) by François Truffaut.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 13, No. 3. University of California Press: Spring 1960. 35-38. Web. www.jstor.org (accessed January 27, 2015).

Maloney, Henry B. “Especially for Teachers.” The Clearing House. Vol. 34, No. 9. Taylor & Francis, Ltd.: May 1960. 563-564. Web. www.jstor.org (accessed January 27, 2015).

Ronder, Paul and François Truffaut. “François Truffaut: An Interview.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 17, No.1. University of California Press: Autumn 1963. 3-13. Web. www.jstor.org (accessed January 27, 2015)

Shatnoff, Judith. “François Truffaut: The Anarchist Imagination.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 16, No.3. University of California Press: Spring 1963. 3-11. Web. www.jstor.org (accessed January 27, 2015).

Plato’s Republic, Book X and Ion: the Never-ending Dualism

Boldini Giovanni's Reading in Bed

Boldini Giovanni, Reading in Bed

The poet is like a painter who, as we have already observed, will make a likeness of a cobbler though he understands nothing of cobbling; and his picture is good enough for those who know no more than he does and judge only by colours and figures (Republic Book X).

And what they say is true, for a poet is a light and winged thing, and holy, and never able to compose until he has become inspired, and is beside himself, and reason is no longer in him (Ion).

As in Plato’s Republic, much of the Ion seems involved with undermining the poet (or painter) as an individual, and the process of poetry (or painting) as a whole. Either the process is imitative or it is not a process at all, and it is surely not a valid human endeavour. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates simply shuns poetry as an art, calling it an imitation of a copy of the truth; Plato’s Ion, however, esteems the poet (the ‘good one,’ anyway) as the individual who contains the gift of being “inspired, possessed” (Richter 41). Still though, poets are left hanging amidst the stigma that they do not really do any work. Sure, you have a gift, says Socrates, but your gift is that of possession “by the divinity to whom [you] are in bondage” (41) – i.e., as a poet, you are never able to do anything until that moment of inspiration (which again, is not your own intrinsic doing) when you transcend and may begin spewing out ideas, experiences, and occurrences that aren’t really your own. These ideas are mere interpretations of the gods thanks to your gift.

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Just so the Muse. She first makes men inspired, and then through these inspired ones others share in the enthusiasm, and a chain is formed, for the epic poets, all the good ones, have their excellence, not from art, but are inspired, possessed, and thus they utter all these admirable poems (Ion).

Now, while I sit here with a clenched-tooth grin recalling the various people who have shared the belief that art and literature are superfluous and of little value to society, I must remember my own experiences as a creative individual: inspiration is true enough – that single, brilliant idea or premise holding a piece together – but as a creative writer, I view poetry, prose, etc. as a process…

It is a process that requires long hours, multiple revisions, and work. That “precious revelation” holds a weight of its own of course, but it takes training and technique to turn that revelation into a literary experience that is worthwhile (41). And with the mention of worth, the question of value comes up. We are made to ask: Is art practical? Does it need to be? What is of value? What is useful? (today’s world seems to be straying farther and farther away from the arts). Socrates’ aim at answering this, however, creates the infamous dichotomy.

Through Plato’s depiction, Socrates acts on his dualistic tendencies and splits the human soul into two – the rational and the emotional – by asking: “Then that part of the soul which has an opinion contrary to measure can hardly be the same with that which has an opinion in accordance to measure?” By which we are supposed to answer, “Certainly.” Further Socrates asks, “The part of the soul which trusts to measure and calculation is likely to be the better one?” And again we are supposed to answer “Certainly” (35). But call me irrational because I get more from reading Thomas Hardy or T.S Eliot than measuring the length of a stick.

Works Cited

Plato. Republic, Book X. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 30-8. Print.

— Ion. The Critical Tradition:  Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. Trans. Lane Cooper. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 38-46. Print.