Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Audience is Mad

Several years ago, the School of Music where I work put on a production of Monteverdi's Orfeo, the first masterpiece of opera.  On the afternoon I attended, poor Orfeo lost his wife all over again, the act came to a close, and the audience burst into applause.  But I did not clap.  It's not that I disapproved of the performance; I was simply so engrossed that the applause around me startled me as an unexpected intrusion.  I felt bad for Orfeo; what were these other people thinking about?

In Plato's Ion, Socrates talks with Ion, a rhapsode who has just won first prize for his musical recitation of Homer.  The two agree that a good rhapsode must understand and be able to interpret the poem he sings.  But while Ion assumes that his skill is the product of art, Socrates points out that a different source is possible: divine inspiration.

A magnet, Socrates points out, can attract iron and then pass on its power to iron that comes in contact with it, sometimes resulting in a long chain of iron pieces hanging one from another and ultimately from the magnet.  In a similar way, a god can inspire a poet with divine madness (if the god gives the poem, he must be bypassing the poet's mind, and thus the poet is out of his mind, or mad), who then inspires singers with the same madness, who in turn inspire an audience.  Ion admits that when he performs a sad tale, his eyes fill with tears, even though no actual sad situation is present, and madness can be defined as behaving as though the unreal is real.  His audience, he says, often have faces stamped with the same emotions he acts out.

Now I'm willing to buy the idea of inspired poetry, but I don't believe that if and when God inspires, He bypasses the poet's mind.  So while I like the analogy of the magnet, I wouldn't say it's madness being passed on from poet to performer to audience.  Monteverdi's expressed intention was to move his audience to pity, horror, and remorse through Orfeo's story.  It works on me; does that make me mad?

Here's a follow up on Phaedrus: I should not have said that Socrates and Phaedrus were discussing a fellow philosopher's ideas.  Lysias is called a rhetorician, a speechmaker.  In Plato's Gorgias, Socrates says that speechmaking is to philosophy or truthtelling what fine clothes and cosmetics are to exercise.  The first of each pair (viz., speechmaking, cosmetics) is only a flattering pretense which brings about the appearance of health, while the second (philosophy, exercise) brings actual health.  In Phaedrus, though, Socrates begrudges rhetoric some virtue when he says that those who learn what they speak about in order to please God can speak what they know on a good foundation.

I also wrote previously in the middle of the examination of eros love, in sympathy with Socrates' argument that love based only on physical attraction is selfish and ultimately damaging to the beloved.  But after this point, Socrates points out that physical beauty derives from divine beauty, and that when a lover sees divinity in his beloved's face, he will want to serve his beloved and help her (him for Socrates) be more pious, more intelligent, more virtuous.  I agree that the perspective changes everything: when you see your beloved, do you see your possession, or God's?  Socrates says, by the way, that divine love can turn physically intimate without guilt; I guess Platonic love isn't always Platonic.

Phaedrus ends with a diatribe against writing.  Books hurt human memory by making us dependent on them, Socrates says, and they can never touch the soul with the kind of personal impact the spoken word has. Yet the dialog begins with Socrates noticing a scroll in Phaedrus' hand and begging him to read it: "Only hold up before me . . . a book, and you may lead me all around Attica, and over the wide world."  And of course Plato (or one of his pupils) wrote down the dialog.  I'm not sure what to make of the irony, but I know that Socrates has had an impact on my soul even through the written word.

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