Platonic Noise brings classical and contemporary writings into conversation to enrich our experience of modern life and politics. Drawing on writers as diverse as Plato, Homer, Nietzsche, Borges, Don DeLillo, and Philip Roth, Peter Euben shows us the relevance of both popular literature and ancient Greek thought to current questions of loss, mourning, and democracy--all while arguing for the redeeming qualities of political and intellectual work and making an original case against presentism.
Juxtaposing ancient and contemporary texts, politics, and culture, Euben reflects on a remarkable range of recent issues and controversies. He discusses Stoic cosmopolitanism and globalization, takes a critical look at Nietzsche's own efforts to make the Greeks speak to the issues of his day, examines a Greek tragedy through Hannah Arendt's eyes, compares the role of comedy in ancient Athens and contemporary America, analyzes political theory as a reaction to an acute sense of loss, and considers questions of agency and morality.
Platonic Noise makes a case for reading political theory and politics through literature. Working as much through example as through explicit argument, Euben casts the literary memory of Athenian democracy as a crucial cultural resource and a presence in contemporary political and theoretical debates. In so doing, he reasserts the moral value of what we used to call participatory democracy and the practical value of seeing ourselves with the help of insights from long-gone Greeks.
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By J. Peter Euben
Princeton University PressJ. Peter Euben
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PHILIP ROTH'S The Human Stain1 is a novel about a light-skinned "black" man named Coleman Silk who opts to pass as a "white" Jew. Coleman eventually becomes a professor of classics and reforming dean at a small New England liberal arts college. But he is undone by a charge of racism when he wonders out loud whether the two missing students in his class are "spooks" and they turn out to be African American women. Since his chosen path to success has meant renouncing his family, symbolically if not literally killing his mother, and rejecting his heritage, one might think he got what he deserved, even if the charge of racism was absurd. In that case, the novel would be a morality play in which a callous, self-serving, and selfish man received an appropriate punishment. One would be wrong.
To dismiss Coleman as merely self-interested is a comforting simplification for the same reason that regarding Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor as a self-aggrandizing, hypocritical power seeker rather than someone driven by love of humanity and created by our desperate need for authority and meaning is one. In both cases it lets us off the moral hook. It is true that Coleman reaps the benefits of the privileges whiteness brings. It is also true that he is traumatized by the racism he experiences beforedeciding to reject his past for a self-defined future. And it is true that passing seems to provide an adrenaline rush he cannot do without. Indeed, because Coleman tells no one (including his Jewish wife) his secret, his life is a constant performance on a stage as large as his existence. He seems to thrive on taking risks and challenging chance (such as having children), then reveling in his seeming triumph (all of them miraculously turn out white). But these risks are taken in the name of the American dream of freedom. It is this more than the privilege of whiteness, the experience of racism, or the pleasure of performance that drives him. Why should he be unable to live the American dream simply because he happens to be "black"? Why should he be precluded from "accepting the democratic invitation to throw our origins overboard if to do so contributes to the pursuit of happiness" (334)? He is the child of chance, not a victim of fate. He leaves the baggage of the past behind him where it belongs.
There is another figure in literature who believed that he was the child of chance, that he had escaped his fate and past and was self-made, Sophocles' Oedipus. So it is not surprising that the epigraph for the novel comes from Oedipus Tyrannos.
OEDIPUS: What is the rite of purification? How shall it be done?
CREON: By banishing a man or expiation of blood by blood.
It is the genius of Roth's novel that it first juxtaposes the myth of American self-fashioning with Greek tragedy and then juxtaposes them with the Monica Lewinsky affair and the impeachment of President Clinton. Thus Coleman becomes a character in a Greek tragedy he teaches. The narrator imagines himself and Coleman watching the latter's life as if it were a play on the southern hillside of the Athenian Acropolis in the theater sacred to Dionysus "where before the eyes of the thousand spectators, the dramatic unities were once rigorously observed and the great cathartic cycle was enacted annually" (314).
The Human Stain is a protest and polemic against purity: the epistemology of it, the culture of it, and the political consequences of it. We assume that our categories capture the world in a way that enables us to be masters of our fate. But given Oedipus, the title of Roth's first chapter, "Everyone Knows," drips with irony and foreboding. As it turns out, none of us know very much about themselves, others, or the human condition itself. We do not know why what happens happens the way it does, what it is that underlies the anarchic train of events, or the uncertainties, mishaps, disunity, and shocking irregularities that define human affairs. Nobody knows, and any claim to such knowledge constitutes a banalizing of experience. "Intention? Motive? Consequence? Meaning? All that we don't know is astonishing. Even more astonishing is what passes for knowing" (208-9).
Later, after Coleman has been accused of racism and resigns in fury at the charge, after his wife has died as a result, after he has taken up with a younger, deeply scarred woman, after they have been run off the road by her Vietnam vet husband, the narrator returns to the theme. "For all that the world is full of people who go around believing they've got you or your neighbor figured out, there really is no bottom to what is not known. The truth about us is endless. As are the lies" (315). Out of ignorance we turn people into abstractions, projecting our moralism onto them in a way that makes us feel safe and knowing. The narrator calls this fantasy of purity terrorism, an ecstasy of sanctimonious self-righteousness and virtue-mongering at once infantilizing and inhuman. To hell with propriety and appropriateness, with making people comfortable with the demands by the high-minded for core values, civic responsibility, WASP dignity, women's rights, black pride, and Jewish ethical self-importance, and with the desire to bring things to closure. "The human desire for a beginning, a middle, and an end . . . is realized nowhere so thoroughly as in the plays Coleman taught. . . But outside classical tragedy of the fifth century B.C.E. the expectation of complete, let alone of a just and perfect, consummation is a foolish illusion for an adult to hold" (314-15).2 The novel's final image in its concluding chapter, "The Purifying Ritual," drives the point home. It is a scene out of Currier and Ives. "Only rarely," the novel concludes, "at the end of our century, does life offer up a vision as pure and as peaceful as this one: a solitary man on a bucket, fishing through eighteen inches of ice in a lake that's continually turning over its water atop an arcadian mountain in America" (361). Except that this solitary man, Les Farley, is a killer. He was taught to be a killer in Vietnam and brought his lesson home by killing Coleman Silk and his lover, Les's ex-wife, whom he had beaten regularly.
One thing all the characters in the book think they know is that Fate is a primitive notion that makes no sense in a land of self-made men and women. We can reinvent ourselves, choose a lifestyle, be all we can be, even if that means discarding our past as excess baggage. Coleman Silk believes this. Though he must ritually murder his mother, the rewards for him are worth it. He refuses to be a victim of racial tyranny whereby a man's color is his fate. Why allow one's prospects to be unjustly limited by so arbitrary a designation as race, allow one's future, his future, to be in someone else's hands? "All he's ever wanted from earliest childhood was to be free; not black, not even white . . ." (my emphasis).3 He thinks of himself as "the greatest of the great pioneers for this 'I' against the despotism of the 'we' " (120, 108).
Like Oedipus, Coleman thought he had it made, that he had beaten the system, though he was conscious of his double life in a way Oedipus was not. As we saw, he challenged chance and won. But he had beaten the odds only to be "blindsided by the uncontrollability of something else entirely" (335), the charge of racism. He had decided to forge a distinct historical destiny only to be ensnared by a history he had not counted on. And it could not be otherwise insofar as one's fate is constituted by one's past deeds and words, which forge an identity and character over time and through action. It is the mother whom he has callously discarded in his reinvention who makes the point. "There is no escape," she tells her son who is trying to make one. "Your attempts to escape will only lead you back to where you began" (140). Like Oedipus's, Coleman's fate is accidentally formed and inescapable. His mother again: "You're white as snow and think like a slave" (139).4
Every one of us is stained: cruel, error-prone, perverse, enjoying the crudest pleasures. The stain is our sexuality and excrement, the trail we leave behind and the imprint we make, our unique smile and look, the thumbprint that distinguishes us from others. It is also our dirty hands, our deeds and words that mark our presence in time and space.5 All animals, including men and women, are driven by preconscious instincts and elemental passions. But humans are the only ones who can make themselves other than who they are. The human world is always out of joint because we are becoming someone other than we were a moment ago, though the trajectories of such changes are both distinctive and allusive. Finally, and most fundamentally, the human stain is our "horrible, elemental imperfections" (242).
Instead of lamenting our sins and imperfections, Roth celebrates them in both the structure and the "argument" of the novel. "Closure! They [a professor is talking about students] fix on the conventionalized narrative with its beginning, middle and end-every experience, no matter how ambiguous . . . or mysterious, must lend itself to this normalizing, conventionalizing anchorman cliché" (147).6 Substantively, Roth refuses to chastise, invite confessions, or endorse self-abnegation, all of which accrue significance only in a murderous Manichaean discourse of purity. Roth's gods are Greek. They are the gods of life, impure and lustful, corrupt rather than innocent, created in the image of man. And men are flawed. That is their condition and a precondition of their nobility. Coleman, like Clinton, moved through the world with mixed motives, imprecise aims, half-blind to the forces that shaped him.
Any revulsion, contempt, or attempt to cleanse the stain is "a joke," like trying to wash the grain out of a piece of redwood. Or it is an act of self-loathing. In the end, "human stain" is a redundancy, and Bill Clinton is accused of being human. His vilification came less from his deeds than from our need for a scapegoat.
It was strange to think, while seated there with all his [Coleman's] colleagues, that people so well educated and professionally civil should have fallen so willingly for the venerable dream of a situation in which one man can embody evil. Yet there is this need, and it is undying and it is profound. (306-7)
There is a sincerity that is worse than falseness and an innocence that is "worse than corruption" (147). The longing for it-for an Edenic utopia before or without sin, the erotic desire for childlike purity and asexual sexuality, for noble actors with clean hands-embodies a hatred for the world and for the activity of politics, which, Aristotle suggests, defines our distinctively human status.
Here is Richard Posner's condemnation of Clinton. It is an example of what infuriates Roth.
[Clinton] committed repeated and varied felonious obstructions of justice over a period of almost a year, which he garnished with gaudy public and private lies, vicious slanders, tactical blunders, gross errors of judgment, hypocritical displays of contrition, affronts to conventional morality and parental authority, and desecration of a revered national symbol. Literally the office of the President. And all this occurred against a background of persistent and troubling questions concerning the ethical tone of the Clinton Administration and Clinton's personal and political ethics.7
The Human Stain is, appropriately enough, a "flawed" novel. There are stilted scenes, stock characters that embody Roth's own vision of political correctness, and a clichéd reading of the 1960s. But the novel does capture a sense of Greek tragedy. "In the tragic perspective," Jean-Pierre Vernant writes,
acting, being an agent, has a double character. On the one hand, it consists in taking counsel with oneself, weighing the for and against and doing the best we can to foresee the order of means and ends. On the other hand, it is to make a bet on the unknown and the incomprehensible and to take a risk on a terrain that remains impenetrable to you. It involves entering the play of supernatural forces . . . where one does not know whether they are preparing for success or disaster.8
Like the tragedians, Roth seems to deny that the relations of human beings to society and to each other, if properly understood and properly enacted, can realize a harmonious identity without profound loss.
More important, Roth brings an ancient text into conversation about contemporary politics and culture in a way I try to do in the following chapters. But conversation is too "nice" a word, for Roth engages the Greeks with the passion and struggle Nietzsche might have admired.
In "Cities of Reason,"9 Oswyn Murray tells the story of how national traditions influenced the interpretation of animal behavior. Animals studied by Americans rush about frantically with incredible energy and at last achieve their desired goal by chance. Animals observed by the Germans sit still and think and finally arrive at a solution out of their inner consciousness. Murray's conclusion is not the obvious one that the character of the observer affects the interpretation of results, but that the character of the experiment itself was "predetermined" by the mental attitudes of the experimenter. His point is that a similar national response to the phenomenon defines the study of the polis. "To the Germans the polis can only be described in a handbook of constitutional law; the French polis is a form of holy Communion; the American polis combines the practices of a Mafia convention with the principles of justice and freedom.10
In some respects, the Greek historian or political theorist has a thornier problem than the behavioral psychologist, since she or he has to "establish the limits of the factual." For example, are political myths evidence of rationality or irrationality? How are such myths related to rhetoric, on the one hand, and to logical argument on the other? Or is the distinction between the two overstated? When and with what consequences is an invidious contrast established between members of cultures who are deemed prisoners of their myths, and more rational societies that possess their culture rather than being possessed by it? How have such distinctions constructed views of agency and contrasts between those capable of autonomous thought and action, and those who, lacking reflective consciousness,11 are fated to live as they do? The answers to such questions concerning the field of evidence determine to a large extent the result of any inquiry into the polis's rationality.
No matter what substantive answers one gives to such questions, the form those answers take is likely to beg the question. That is because our very forms of inquiry presume rationality.
Excerpted from Platonic Noise by J. Peter Euben Excerpted by permission.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments xi
On the Uses and Disadvantages of Hellenic Studies for Political and Theoretical Life 14
Hannah Arendt at Colonus 40
Aristophanes in America 64
The Politics of Nostalgia and Theories of Loss 85
The Polis, Globalization, and the Citizenship of Place 112
Platonic Noise 141
What People are Saying About This
This book contains a deeply felt, often moving meditation on the relationship between the human experience of loss, the redemptive power of politics, and the demands of intellectual life.
Sara Monoson, Northwestern University
Always interesting and provocative, Euben continues and elaborates his project to read classical texts in relation to contemporary political concerns. This book contains innovative and enlightening readings of several thinkers of wide interest as well as of several topics that are central to political theory. His arguments are clear and striking.
Tracy B. Strong, University of California, San Diego