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Saturday, April 12, 2008

"Oracle Night" and Socrate's Dialogue with Ion....

Now, don't mind me for being such a geek--if I am indeed willing to admit to such a title. And if it seems I am making some wild connections here between classical and contemporary literature, I confess I am not doing with ill intentions. Now, a word about Paul Auster: He is indeed my favorite contemporary author, along with Haruki Murakami. I don't think Auster can write a bad sentence even if he tried (although while re-reading "Oracle Night" I found some things that sounded awkward indeed--more on this later). What I suppose has happened since October 2001 (when I discovered Auster--a recommendation from Takami Nieda) is that in reading him I have found a certain rhythm, pace and literaria that I can't find anywhere else. While I don't consider myself an Auster scholar, I have introduced many people to this "seemingly" unknown author. I speak of his work as if I were speaking of Biblical apocryphas, and in a way I have become an interpreter of Auster's work to the "outside" world. And this is why I made the connection to Socrate's dialogue with Ion.

I was in a mad rush the other day to photocopy as much material as possible to prepare my absence from the classroom during my trip to China. Rather than wait for the copy machine to do its work and daydream while inhaling the delicious fumes of toner, I always bring a book to read--something random, not what I am reading at the time. So, the day in question (Wednesday), I picked the W.H.D. Rouse translation of "The Great Dialogues of Plato." I began with the dialogue with Ion because it is the first entry after the introduction. The jest of the dialogue is that Ion believes himself the acme and epitome of all the Homer interpreters. He claims himself to be the best performer of epic poetry and says he can "read" more into Homer than anyone else alive, dead or yet to be born. You can follow how Ion's humility shines through, eh? At any rate, here are some back and forth things that made me think of myself as an interpreter of Auster's work:

"Socrates: I have often envied you reciters that art of yours, Ion. You have always to wear fine clothes, and to look as beautiful as you can is a part of your art. Then, again, you are obliged to be continually in the company of many good poets; and especially of Homer, who is the best and most divine of them; and to understand him, and not merely learn his words by rote, is a thing greatly to be envied. And no man can be a reciter who does not understand the meaning of the poet. For the reciter ought to interpret the mind of the poet to his hearers, but how can he interpret him well unless he knows what he means? All this is greatly to be envied.

Ion: Very true, Socrates; interpretation has certainly been the most laborious part of my art; and I believe myself able to speak about Homer better than any man; and that neither Metrodorus of Lampsacus, nor Stesimbrotus of Thasos, nor Glaucon, nor any one else who ever was, had as good ideas about Homer as I have, or as many."

Ion explains that this is because Homer speaks to him better than any other poet. Which brings me around to claim the same for Paul Auster. It was "The Invention of Solitude" that first broke through to me--my father was in the throngs of death at the time and my friend Takami Nieda recommended the essay "Invisible Man" by Auster. So many of the passages I read were so universally perfect--a prose like none I had ever read from any contemporary. Thus began my relentless marathon to read EVERYTHING by Paul Auster.

I suppose that from time to time we vary what we read. There was a time when reading Hemingway spoke to me, as well as reading Fitzgerald's work. I am certain that when it is time to go back to them, I will and they will appear to me as fresh as if it was the first time. It's part of being human. There are genres I am not quite sure I feel deeply about--mystery genre or sci fi. There are people who swear by these--they've found life's great significance in genres that are mainly associated with mere entertainment. Of course, that's a bad characterization. But I have tried to get into those books and I haven't been able to. I started my education quite late, and at times I still feel I have to catch up in some of my classics; hence no time for Harry Potter, among others. But it is what speaks to us--the author's particular voice as opposed to the topic they write about. Socrates oversimplifies this point:

"Socrates: Then, my dear friend, can I be mistaken in saying that Ion is equally skilled in Homer and in other poets, since he himself acknowledges that the same person will be a good judge of all those who speak of the same things; and that almost all poets do speak of the same things?

"Ion: Why then, Socrates, do I lose attention and go to sleep and have absolutely no ideas of the least value, when any one speaks of any other poet; but when Homer is mentioned, I wake up at once and am all attention and have plenty to say?

"Socrates: The reason, my friend, is obvious. No one can fail to see that you speak of Homer without any art or knowledge. If you were able to speak of him by rules of art, you would have been able to speak of all other poets; for poetry is a whole."

I think I love Auster for its amazing ability to explore the randomness of fate and destiny. True, many other authors have written about those, but there's something to that unique voice of Auster that hypnotizes me. And just like Ion, I do lose interest if the author doesn't reach out and drag me into the plot, or if he is lacking in philosophy (not so much technique). Someday I hope Paul Auster wins the Nobel Prize for Literature (although chances are he never will, since the prize is now a geo-political farce). It would validate much of what I am unable to explain here.

So, Wednesday, the 16th I depart for China. I'll be gone for ten days and there will not be another entry until then. I might even post some pictures when I get back.

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