03 May 2017

Realism and the pelvic issues, part 5.1: fantasy, glamour and erotica


Once again, I got some very helpful pushback on my last article in this series from a gentle reader of the blog who wishes to remain anonymous. In short, this reader felt that I cut off far more than I could justify in my attempt to harness Platonic thinking against, er, ‘adult entertainment’. He believes that I ignore the ways in which erotically-charged art, or rather art that is meant to speak to some desiring element in our souls, can in fact have positive effects on our psychē and point us to things beyond itself. He fears that with my particular Plato-inspired complaint about erotica – to wit, that it offers us a simulacrum of reality which dissociates the desiring part of our soul from what can truly satisfy it – glosses too much. In particular, he fears that it would consign to the outer darkness, with much weeping and gnashing of teeth, forms of performance (gymnastics, figure skating, dancing, acrobatics, acting), representation and storytelling (especially fantasy literature) that do speak to the desiring part of our soul and yet should be preserved.

First of all, directed against my read of Plato, this might be a fair complaint – particularly if I was being careless in my argumentation and too-sweeping in my characterisation. But against Plato himself, that seems like a tall order. After all, in order to get Glaucon to come around to his point-of-view concerning justice, Plato’s Socrates has to both entertain and enlighten him with not just any old story, but a myth, a flight of fantasy. The tale of Er is apparently Plato’s pure invention, and it creates with loving and colourful detail an entire world corresponding to the afterlife and the fates of the great personages of Greek history and epic poetry. It’s hard, in fact, not to see in the tale of Er a prototype of the great speculative works of Tolkien and Lewis! But this færie tale which Plato tells, is clearly not an exercise in mere entertainment or ‘enchantment’, but is aimed at an end: which is to bring the desiring part of Glaucon’s soul, the dangerous appetite Glaucon has for the tyranny which he himself illustrates with the myth of Gyges, into agreement with the noetic part. The grandiose, panoramic vision of the many-coloured eight wheels of the universe, governed by the Fates Lachesis, Clotho and Atropos, and the migration of souls before them, joining themselves to their new lives. This vision clearly does have an sensuate, even erotic aspect to it – sublimated but still very much present. The eye of desire is lifted upwards by this tale, into alignment with that of the nous.

The goal of this færie tale is worth keeping in view. Socrates, a story-spinner who can be likened to the painter of couches he lambastes the very book before, is presenting Er’s epic, ‘high-fantasy’ vision of the afterlife not as mere escapism, nor as a vehicle for the consumption of anything. No – Glaucon’s erotic urges are much more sublime (and much more dangerous) than that! In the beginning of the Republic he objected in the strongest terms to Adeimantus’s first ‘city of necessity’, which served only the needs of the belly, rejecting it as a city of swine. What he desires – or rather, what he thinks he desires – is glamour: those fineries of the city that can service the need of the human soul for beauty beyond the satiation (including sexual) of the proximate bodily desires. It is only from the basis of this desire for glamour that the need for an auxiliary class arises – and thus, it is only from within Glaucon’s more fevered city that the philosopher (or the king who can philosophise) can truly emerge. The desire for things beyond the merely animal is indeed the vantage-point from which Socrates attempts to direct these dangerous youths – like Glaucon, Agathon and Alcibiades – to the really real in the first place: transcendental forms like beauty and truth and good.

I think from the Platonic perspective, then, there is certainly a place for ‘high fantasy’ (whether in literature or in theatre or in film) and other art forms that can indeed direct people to reflection on the really real. To give one example: can one look at the Russian Olympic women’s synchronised swimming team in last year’s competition, and not think on what sobornost’ can look like in physical motion, or what love of neighbour can look like? In his critique of the poets, Plato’s Socrates is far from denying their power (or indeed borrowing it for himself!); he instead excoriates the abuse of their gifts for directing the desiring part of the soul, for the purposes of cheap entertainment or, worse yet, for confusing people as to the nature of the good in themselves. It is not a denial of the poet’s art (or the painter’s art, or any other artistic craft) in its entirety.

But to clarify: my primary critique of erotica in my previous piece was precisely that it was dissociative as well as imitative. In disingenuously presenting the airbrushed fantasy of sex as ‘real’ – that is to say, in passing off a shadow on the wall of the cave as the object itself – it directs the desiring part of the soul away from the noetic part. The unrealistic expectations it arouses within the viewer makes sōphrosunē impossible to achieve, and may even make it prohibitively difficult to maintain a normal relationship. Given Socrates’ polemicisation against Homer for appealing to the spirited parts of the souls of his audience, and making the sanguinary Achilles an object of emulation to be rationalised, how much more then would he object to the lowering of the nous to the service of the many-headed beast, in a way that is yet more dissociative?

But fantasy (and that includes performative as well as poetic storytelling) does not have to be, and in most cases is not, dissociative in this way. No one reads Lord of the Rings expecting to go out and find elves and orcs in the real world when they put the book down. But in my own experience, Tolkien fans do take to heart the idea that maybe – just maybe – even a small act of commonplace decency and courage and justice, done by an ordinary person, can perhaps stave off the darkness for one more day. And if the færie tale of Er’s voyage into the afterlife left an impression upon Glaucon – indeed, if Socrates’ ‘tale was saved and not lost’ (which he clearly meant in more ways than one) – we may perhaps infer that Plato felt the same way.

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