This week is fulfilling a dream for me: to talk about Plato, Pamuk, and Baldwin together. I only wish we were meeting in person for this discussion! But I will be eager to read your thoughts here, and then to talk to you about all of these things when we return to class.
(Also, that reminds me: A couple of you asked whether you have to respond to my questions when you write on the blog, and the answer is: oh, no, definitely not. I’m posting my thoughts here primarily to provide a frame that will keep the various strands of our conversation together from one week to the next, but if this week’s reading prompts you to a different kind of inquiry, I want to hear about that, too. And if you take off on a tangent, maybe see if you can circle back to think about the ways you are responding, too, to the big questions we’ve been asking in class– about the ethical, aesthetic, and political benefits of literature?
So with those questions in mind:
- What can we learn about the good of literature by reading Plato, Pamuk, and Baldwin together?
- What are the most important analytical questions we should ask about each of these three texts?
- And what are the most important questions to ask about the three of them, ensemble?
We know from our reading last week that Plato (via Socrates!) puts a lot of emphasis on the symmetry between the individual and the polis. The polis is, in some sense, an imitation of a citizen– or, a citizen is an imitation of the polis.
And this language of “imitation” becomes very important to the way he talks about the arts– painting, poetry, etc. (And we know that “poetry” signifies all literary production here, because there were no novels at the time that Plato was writing.) A painting of a bed is an imitation of a carpenter’s bed, which is in turn an imitation of *the form* of a bed. And “form” is the English translation of Plato’s word for that ideal we talked about in class: the image we form in our minds when we think about a thing in the world.
So, Plato has this three-step narration of what it takes to paint a bed, and he uses that narration to lay the foundation for his theory of the politics of art. The section we read together in class provides the beginning of the chapter, but it’s also the beginning of Socrates’ lesson to Glaucon about the dangers of poetry to the nascent polis. But what makes the poets dangerous, and how does he get to that point?
In fact, the passage where Plato banishes the poets from the city is one of the most widely cited “events” in The Republic, but it’s often misunderstood. Let’s see if we can understand it.
Why does Plato want to ban the poets from the polis-– what possible dangers do they pose?
And, then, how could we use this way of thinking about the politics of literary experience to think in a new way about the rest of our reading? As The Republic dwells on the question of literature’s relation to the polis, so do Pamuk and Baldwin dwell on the question fo literature’s relation to the nation and to the world.
We talked a little in class about the ways that reading literature from a distant place can make us feel like we’re learning something about the ways that other people think and live; it might make us better “global citizens,” or something like that. How might we use Plato to think about this potential that literature has to produce good citizenship– possibly in relation to Baldwin, or Pamuk?
Here are some passages that come to my mind as I ponder answers to these questions– and I invite you, too, to find others:
- From The Museum of Innocence: “Having become– with the passage of time– the anthropologist of my own experience, I have no wish to disparage those obsessive souls who bring back crockery, artifacts, and utensils from distant lands and put them on display for us, the better to understand the lives of others and our own.” (pp. 30, near the end of Chapter 9)
- From “Who Do You Write For”: “In the age of global media, literary writers are no longer people who speak first and only to the middle classes of their own countries but are people who can speak, and speak immediately, to readers of ‘literary novels” all the world over.” (pp. 242)
- From “The Discovery of What it Means To Be An American”: “The American writer, in Europe, is released, first of all, from the necessity of apologizing for himself. It is not until he is released from the habit of flexing his muscles and proving that he is just a ‘regular guy’ that he realizes how crippling this habit has been for him.” (pp. 19)
Or you might think of something else, altogether.
I AM EXCITED TO HEAR WHAT YOU THINK.