“Certain beings have a meaning that eludes us. Who are they? Their secret resides in the depths of the very secret of life. They approach it. Life kills them. But the future which they have thus awakened with a murmer, divines them, creates them. Oh labyrinth of extreme love!” — Rene Char
In 380 BCE, Plato in Book X of The Republic banished poets from his ideal state by declaring that “poetry feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled, if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue.”
This, according to Susan Sontag, is a watershed moment in Western philosophy because after this, art and poetry had to justify their existence. In her essay, “Against Interpretation,” Sontag declares that the original function of art was “incantatory,” that is something related to hymns, chants, and rhythms.
The earliest forms of poetry existed before the advent of writing and poetry helped make things more memorisable through alliteration, the repetition of stressed and unstressed syllables in established metrical schemes, and by the use of rhymes. In this way, before the written word became commonplace, oral societies used poetry to remember family histories, sagas, the adventures of their heroes.
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Orality, other than being dependent on poetic and pithy expressions, also had another distinguishing characteristic. Orality made people escape accountability. The written word makes bureaucratic scrutiny possible. Interestingly, Plato, who did not like poets and artists, was also against the arrival of writing. He objected against it on the grounds that it would make people’s memories weaker. They would no longer need to remember things because they can always consult the written record.
This makes Plato a confused, confusing, and oppressive thinker. He likes the world of ideas as they exist in God’s mind but does not like the worldly copies of divine ideas. Because of such tendencies in Plato, Karl Popper included him as the first and foremost enemy of an open society in his book, The Open Society and its Enemies (it is this book which is the inspiration behind George Soros’ Open Society Foundation).
Plato, other than being against the poets, was also for preserving the state by making citizens fierce even if it involved making them fight in battles: young citizens “must be taken on horseback within the sight of actual war; and provided it can be done safely, they must be brought into battle, and made to taste blood; just as one does with young hounds.”
What is ironic in all this is that Plato cannot resist the lure of poetry himself while he is recommending banishing poets. He is against writing because it will weaken memory and then when he talks about producing ideal — fierce and battle-hardened — citizens, he cannot resist metaphors and similes, the main ingredients of poetry. Citizens are to be trained like young hounds. While trying to banish passions so that the citizen can serve the state, Plato is arousing the passion for war and blood.
This battle between the forms of reason that seek to serve the state and poetry is being repeated many times in different ages, including our contemporary era. Western modernity has been built on the idea that the public sphere should be governed by rationality. Science will solve all the problems of humanity by putting an end to epidemics, such as plague, tuberculosis, leprosy and the flu.
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Humanity was shocked when the utopian promise of science resulted in World War I. In a period of four years, scientific inventions (weapons and warplanes) helped the human race kill 38 million of its members, which would not have been possible with swords, daggers and other pre-modern weapons. Between World War I and II, Western literature saw the rise of modernist literature, which was essentially anti-modernity or a reaction to modernity.
Virginia Woolf, Kafka, and Beckett were trying to deal with the horrible consequences of the rise of rationality. Then the world witnessed another horror: the invention of the atom bomb and its use on two cities. Rationality had made the future of humanity itself at risk. More than 1,66,000 people died in the two cities. The age of reason had reached its climax.
This global spread of rationality has significantly influenced the rise of different genres of literature and has helped the rise of the novel. It does not mean that poetry is going to disappear. Some of the best novels of the past century have tried to grapple with the horrors of rationality by going back to poetry. Michael Ondaatje’s novels, The English Patient and Coming Through Slaughter are written like prose poems.
Poetry, as a distinct genre, may have been struggling after the dominance of rationality in the public sphere and the concomitant rise of the novel but prose at its best is still dependent on poetic devices. The metaphor is not dead yet. The proof is in the rise of contemporary critical theory as written by French philosophers. Deleuze and Guattari write philosophy as poetry.
Foucault’s doctoral dissertation was considered too rhetorical and sweeping and one examiner remarked that the author “thinks in allegories”. He was asked to change the style of his writing and he refused. This poetic style of writing philosophy made him popular with the criminals of France who would recite his book, Discipline and Punish in French prisons. And the same style of writing intensely poetic philosophy has made him the most cited philosopher in the world.
Plato must be writhing in his grave because now his ideal ruler, the philosopher king, has not only not banished the poets but himself is a poet-philosopher.