21 June 2017

Realism and the pelvic issues, part 5.2: où est la différence?

It should come as no surprise to readers of this blog that yours truly has more than several weaknesses – several vices – several flaws, both intellectual and moral. Part of the reason writing this portion of the series on realism and the pelvic issues has proven difficult is that it does explore several of my vices in depth and rather lays them bare. But a young man who aspires to be a lover of truth, and who thus allows himself to be interrogated by Plato’s Socrates (or, indeed, by Christ!), must eventually run up against the limits of his own nature, personality, habits and thinking, and be confronted with the questions his own soul poses to him. The questions must be put forward honestly.

I put forward the argument in the previous section of this series, that sexually-arousing and -exploitative images and scenarios are examples of dishonest mimēsis that substitute themselves for reality, that present themselves to the ‘belly’ in ways which directly bypass the discursive faculty. In addition to degrading the displayer, they also thus make sōphrosunē impossible to achieve for the viewer. But as, for example, a listener of heavy metal music, what right have I to make such a claim? Isn’t that kind of distorted, asymphonic music an even greater danger to the soul, particularly in light of Simmias’s argument to Socrates in the Phædo (and one no less intuitively true for Socrates having found its flaws) that the soul is a dynamic harmony? Is it not also a mimēsis that distorts reality, bypasses reason and engages the ‘belly’? Plato himself, after all (if we are to take his indictments of the poets, musicians and rhapsodes in the Republic and Ion at all seriously) understood quite well the effects that music can have on the impressionable soul.

Let’s continue, then, with our assault upon metal as a genre, and play it in its heaviest and most downtuned possible key (pardon the riffs). Music – the name itself, deriving from the Muses, the givers of an inspiration which is not the result of ratiocination or physical practice, but instead of a form of ‘divine madness’ (compare Phædrus) – is a gateway to the soul that likewise bypasses reason in the listener. Plato understood this. In the Republic Socrates argues against the presence of lyres (or of any other such many-stringed or curiously-harmonised instruments) in the beautiful city, because ‘rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful’. If musical harmony will impart grace and self-control, inward harmony, to the soul, need it be spelt out what the asymphony, bombast and anger of heavy metal music will do? When put this way, how is a transgressive aural titillation of the wrathful thumós any better at all than the transgressive visual titillation of the epithumía?

Personally, I’m not sure it is. I find I have but few grounds for preferring my own vices to those of anyone else. The best I can do is point to the honourable exceptions: to those bands which specialise in deeper, complex harmonies and themes which speak to those higher, philosophical aspirations of the soul than the expression of anger and extremity of pain. (And in heavy metal, at least, those bands are not few.) I’m thinking here of Threshold, Tang Dynasty, Hammers of Misfortune, Edenbridge, Queensrÿche, whose music may stand on its own harmonic and lyrical merits without any need of a defence from me.

But would there not be exceptions to the realm of erotically-charged art, as well? I would not deny the possibility. In fact, going all the way back to my rapidly-escalating tiffs with Mr Cal P— in the comments section of my very first entry in this series, I showed myself more-than-willing to make exceptions even where erotic depictions were concerned. Can certain sensually-appealing, physically-beautiful examples of the human form arouse us to an awareness of the higher things? I would actually argue, yes. In fact, I might even go so far as to point to Plato himself – to the Symposium – for an argument to the same. It’s not enough, as commentators on Plato from Jowett to Bloom have made clear, to look only at what Plato’s Socrates says, but also what he does. And Socrates does erotically admire sensual, physically-attractive young men: Alcibiades, Charmides, Agathon, Glaucon and Adeimantus. He is not averse to seeing them naked in the palæstra, and remarks on the physical beauty of Charmides’ body before he proceeds to make his soul known by questioning him on the nature of sōphrosunē. And then, what are Socrates’ speeches in Phædrus if not a kind of new, philosophical love-poetry to replace the older, self-serving odes? Could we not imagine also a new, philosophical form of sensual art, one that directs our vision upward rather than downward? (And would not some of Plato’s own myths and depictions of the afterlife count?)

As I attempted to make it clear before, Plato is not a hater of erōs or the physical body as such. The example and lifestyle of Socrates shown in the Symposium ought to be ample proof of that, even if it is followed by the Phædo! He is, after all, a realist, not a prude. He understands that in the harmonised man, the reasoning part of the soul must dialectically convince (not bludgeon or starve or suppress) the willing and desiring parts of the soul, and bring them to an agreement. I don’t think he’d object in a blanket way to sensuality or eroticism in art, but I think he would absolutely question the purposes it serves, even (and especially) in those instances where a more noble aim is intimated. And so should we. I’m more than happy to grant a small handful of ennobling exceptions. But when a hundred-billion dollar industry – fuelled by drugs, torture, emotional and physical abuse, and leaving behind it the human detritus of shell-shock, impotence, divorce, emotional flight and worse – those questions of what corporate eroticism and titillation is doing to our souls, both individually and as a polity, become pressing.

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