Schmonzcast #15: Last night was the 28th Annual Alfred Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest. Since discovering it (and the Philolexian Society) as a Columbia freshman in 2005, I’ve attended every year save one. In my statesmanlike role as a past laureate, it is de rigueur that I reliably make a good showing. Here’s the text of my entry and the audio of my performance.
On The Late Elinor Ostrom, Distinguished Professor At Indiana University, Which Is A University in Indiana, Which Is A Place That Exists, At Least Last I Checked, Which Illustrates The Epistemological Limits Placed On Human Knowledge Without Even Having Gotten Past The Title, So Check This, Because I’m About To Blow The Goddamn Doors Off Your Mind: A Premeditated Improvisation
by Amitai Schlair, GS ’09, 2007 Poet Laureate
(inspired by “An Untitled Poem” by Everett Patterson, CC ’06, 2003-04 Poet Laureate)
Elinor Ostrom Ostrom
Elinor Ostrom, you were an economist
Milliner nostrum, willing colostrum
Toast in her oven, osh kosh b’gostrom,
Jellybean estrus, billionaire ostrich
Melon or onion? Colostomy instrument
Excrement increment, Pandora’s boxtrom
Bloomington Bloomington Indianomically
Estimate, aestivate, inner astronomy
Elinor Ostrom, economostrum
Public choice theory phenomenostrom
Nobel Prize winner, per aspera ad astra
Elinor, add sarsaparilla to blossom
Elinor Ostrom, Elinor Ostrom,
Anchorbutt rancorous wankernut rostrum
The budget shows us running Attention Deficit Disostrom
Elinor Ostrom, when you existed, you had been a person
So far as we know.
Compare Aristophanes’ and Diotima’s speeches in Plato’s “Symposium”. You should analyze each one carefully, thinking about the context, themes, structure, images, language, and references to other texts already studied in our class, as well as the role of each passage within the Symposium. From your analysis consider if those ideas have permeated our contemporary conception of love and how. Feel free to use contemporary references such as novels, quotes from movies, news articles such as Modern Love in the NY Times. Notice that both speeches are very rich and you have limited space to write about them: choose the features in them that you find more interesting, and talk about them in detail.
A little love, now and then
Ancient and contemporary Greeks in conversation
The speech of Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium is notable in that its central metaphor survives to the present day. Though people are not generally aware of its attribution, in its genericized form it is part of contemporary discourse. Audiences require no explanation when hearing the title character in the film Jerry Maguire utter “You complete me” to the one he loves. Nor does she, but rather is overcome by the sentiment. It is a poetic formulation, the idea that human loneliness and the need for companionship are borne of estrangement from our original selves and that this eternal dissatisfaction was meted out by a higher power when we overreached our bounds. We had it, we blew it, we lost it. A later formulation of the same idea, the Old Testament tale of Adam and Eve, has achieved even wider cultural currency. In the conceptions of both Genesis and Plato’s Aristophanes, companions share a connection rooted in the physical. Where Adam suffers the loss of a rib as raw material for the construction of his Eve, in Aristophanes the bonds between pairs of humans exist from the outset, as they share eight-limbed bodies, and the pain of their later separation is suggested by the bodily aspects of their forcible disjunction (26, 190E-191A). It is as though Aristophanes is responding to Eryximachus in kind, medical explanation for medical explanation.
Why has this metaphor retained its appeal? Plato’s Socrates knows, because Diotima has taught him that “…we divide out a special kind of love, and we refer to it by the word that means the whole — ‘love’; and for the other kinds of love we use other words” (51, 205B). Today’s discourse works the same way: unless they specify otherwise, two people talking about “love” are almost always talking about romantic love between two people. And Aristophanes’ conception of love, focused as it is on the emotional experiences of individuals and their ideal states, meshes well with Romanticism (a precursor to our lowercased term), even as his story undermines the very etymology of the word “individual.” Upon finding each other, two matched dividuals “are struck from their senses by love, by a sense of belonging to one another, and by desire, and they don’t want to be separated from one another, not even for a moment” (28, 192C). We identify with this description because it is the very same experience we ourselves seek. Love is, by Aristophanes’ lights, “the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete” (29, 193A). It would seem there is something timeless about the notion.
Socrates, speaking last and only after much characteristic self-deprecation, aims for a different sort of timelessness. Rhetorically, if not factually, he gestures away from himself as the source of any wisdom he may possess. Instead, he positions himself as having thought as his fellow revelers do until he received the wisdom of Diotima, prefiguring both the impact he wishes his speech to have and the distinction that speech (in the voice of Diotima) will soon make between the roles of lover and beloved (49, 204C). (Of course, the rhetorical layer of abstraction pointing to itself also points up Plato’s role as the true author of all of Symposium’s speeches.) Diotima’s speech begins, like Aristophanes’ and thoroughly redolent of Aesop, with reference to god and myth. The properties of Love are initially explained as a hybrid of the properties of Love’s parents. The speech’s approach begins to depart from that of Aristophanes, however, when Socrates first interjects to ask a question of Diotima (49, 204B). From that point onward, the speech becomes recognizably Socratic, with the clever inversion of Socrates in the role of the student. Diotima asks so that Socrates might struggle toward the answers himself; as the character doing the speaking at this point in Symposium, Socrates affords the same luxury to his listeners, with the added benefit of providing his own answers moments later (an understandably proferred shortcut — after all, he knows they’ve been doing some drinking).
Aristophanes and Socrates both trade in abstractions, but the nature of the abstractions differs. Aristophanes relies on striking images and metaphors that are pleasurable to essay. That the whole of love can be explained in terms of paired permutations of sun (male), earth (female), and moon (both), that Zeus “cut those human beings in two… the way they cut eggs with hairs”; that Apollo created the navel as a result, is all persuasive in the same way any other origin myth is persuasive — which is to say, better at a glance than under close inspection. Socrates, on the other hand, is ready for his close-up. Once the Socratic portion of Diotima’s speech is underway, the debate begins from definitions and first principles and follows a chain of dialogic discourse and stepwise discovery, along the way subsuming the speeches that have gone before in a symphonic synthesis. Aristophanes, for instance, is quickly deconstructed and dismissed in terms of Diotima’s established chain of logic (52, 205E). This moment in Diotima’s speech is a rich site for comparison between the intellectual capacities of Aristophanes and Socrates; the latter can dispatch the former’s ideas as rapidly as that, and it is because the abstractions of Diotima (which is to say, Socrates) are less for artistic purposes and more for conceptual ones. That is to say, Diotima reaches for abstractions not to avoid confronting faulty logic, but rather when the complexity of an idea demands a level of abstraction, as for example drawing a distinction between the “object” and the “purpose” of love (52, 206B). This prepares the listener as well as possible for her explication of the ultimate progression of love, for the conception of Beauty “itself by itself with itself” with which her speech concludes (59, 211B). Having seen how Socrates makes a detailed logical argument, it is hard upon returning to Aristophanes to interpret it as anything more than a potent metaphor.
When Socrates speaks in the guise of Diotima, he is disguising more than his voice. His view of love places heavy demands of anyone who would try to understand and enact it, as Diotima says: “But as for the purpose of these rites when they are done correctly — that is the final and highest mystery, and I don’t know if you are capable of it” (57, 210A). Socrates attempts, as per usual, to lower his apparent status (and thereby hearten his friends) by having Diotima preface her remarks with “Even you, Socrates, could probably come to be initiated into these rites.” But it remains apparent that achieving such a level of enlightenment is open only to the very few. Otherwise, if everyone could reasonably aspire to direct cognition of abstract beauty, which concrete individuals would be left to engage in concrete acts, to give literal “reproduction and birth in beauty” (53, 206E)? A society consisting solely of the enlightened would have to either compromise or die out. Aristophanes, by contrast, has a more egalitarian view in which any two people (for the most part, of any genders) can potentially be a match and achieve love. End of story.
The novel Middlesex presents several views of love over the course of the last century. In one, a brother and sister move from Greece to America, getting married on the ship over and swearing their only knowing American relative to secrecy. In another, a neighbor’s daughter almost marries a priest before realizing he is the wrong man. Her realization hinges on the romanticized medium of Saturday matinee movies. In one of the movies she sees, a man played by a Claude Barron goes off to war in the desert because the woman he loved married another man who proves a poor choice. She goes to the desert and finds Barron, wounded, to confess her love. His reply, before dying:
‘I went into the desert to forget about you. But the sand was the color of your hair. The desert sky was the color of your eyes. There was nowhere I could go that wouldn’t be you.’ (189)
A few pages later, another film viscerally reminds the neighbor’s daughter of her non-priestly suitor, and suddenly she knows who her other half truly is:
She doesn’t want to be a priest’s wife or move to Greece. As she gazes at Milton in the newsreel, her eyes fill with tears and she says out loud, ‘There was nowhere I could go that wouldn’t be you.’” (193)
This archly romantic phrase figures at one more juncture in the novel, pertaining to the main character, who is born (unknown to anyone until puberty takes a strange turn) with a hermaphroditic condition, thanks to his/her brother-and-sister grandparents. After being informed that she is in fact a he, he runs away to San Francisco to try out his new identity. In this context, seeking and failing to find the self-love of his own other half, his suffering takes on a richer, more harrowing meaning:
Mostly I hung around the mimosa grove, in growing despair. A few times I walked out to the beach to sit by the sea, but after a while I stopped doing that, too. Nature brought no relief. Outside had ended. There was nowhere to go that wouldn’t be me. (473)
Middlesex navigates family, gender, identity, and love — frequently blurring the boundaries of the familial, the friendly, and the romantic — through several generations. In so doing, it illustrates aspects of Aristophanes’ quest for one’s other half, as well as aspects of Socrates’ quest for something more significant than a particular beautiful body. If Middlesex is relevant to contemporary life and love — and the decision of the Pulitzer committee would strongly indicate that it is — then the ideas it explores, old though they be, must themselves also be relevant today.
- Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. Macmillan, 2003.
- Jerry Maguire. Dir. Cameron Crowe. Perf. Tom Cruise, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Renée Zellweger. 1996.
- Plato. Symposium. Trans. Nehamas, Alexander and Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1989.
This may be prolix. I’ve wanted to write since approximately forever, and my mind and heart are awhirl, plus when not reading for class I’ve been reading novels (lately Middlesex and Gilead and a quick review of Goodbye, Columbus). Apologies if I wind up writing one here.
Of all I can be thankful for, the most timely was Thanksgiving break. Mired as I have been in my muck, any time off would have sufficed, but the calendar afforded an especial reprieve with its prod toward gratitude and perspective.
I learned a few things over a relaxing, refreshing, and eventful summer. At KlezKanada I sought to soak up Jewishness for use in my compositions only to realize that it’s been there, always and unavoidably. At the LSA Summer Meeting and Mini-Institute I tried to fall under the sway of the linguistic lifestyle but was insufficiently moved. I won’t be going to graduate school for music either, at least not now. The senioritis that is inconveniently peaking at crunch time got its start months ago, maybe even almost a year ago. I’m ready to be done with academia, ready to be back in the world, ready to enact my plan.
For all the travel and discovery, my Google Summer of Code project suffered. This disappointed me and, I’m sure, others (though I’m hoping to have time for it soon, belatedly). Had I done particularly well, it could have helped my chances applying for a job at Google; it may be that having done poorly hurts my chances, or it may not. If I apply there, we’ll find out. The job hunt is due to begin in earnest over winter break, which arrives in a few short and intense weeks and lasts for a beautiful month. I’m not wedded to New York by any stretch, though I’d stay if the right offer came along (I appreciate having my sister near; also, after four years of a student budget, it’d be nice to try being a grownup here). I have a more than vague interest in moving to the west coast, however, and will be attempting to make that a possibility as well.
Winter break will be lonely but productive and, as such, restorative. I’ll be reorganizing physically and emotionally. I’ve been doing Krav Maga three days a week this semester; over break my schedule becomes amenable to five. I’ll have time for various projects and overdue tasks, time to see friends, time to write music, time to think about how I want my last semester of college to go. Because after this semester, my only remaining requirement is a single social science course. At the moment I’m inclined to register for no more than that, to extend the feeling and freedom of winter vacation right up until graduation, after which my father and I will take a summer vacation in Israel.
Before any of these dreams can come true, I have to grind through the next few weeks. The courses I’m taking (with the exception of piano lessons) are all core requirements, my major having been completed in the middle of last year:
- Earth, Moon, and Planets
- Galaxies and Cosmology
- Literature Humanities
- Asian Music Humanities
- Principles of Economics
None particularly excites me (the astronomy courses are at a sixth- to eighth-grade level), so I’m glad I’m taking them now, when the end is in sight, rather than earlier, when my alacrity to study music and language would have met with such discouraging dullness. Columbia has been amazing — I’m a composer now! — but like I said, I’m ready to be done.
I’m thankful for this journey and for nearing its terminus; for my health, as good as it’s been in quite some time; and for love. After losing some, I’m rediscovering how much I still have.
Last year, as you may recall, I experienced the uniquely ignominious pride of winning a bad poetry contest. In this, my last contest as an undergraduate, I settled happily for dishonorable mention. Good enough for me; I’ve been to the mountaintop. Inspired (such as it is) by material from my Literature Humanities course, here’s my entry:
Recently Uncovered Draft Manuscript of Ascrapius, a lesser poet of Athens
Sing, O Muse, of the varied and sundry accumulated experiences of Herodoklodophopilus, though they be difficult to translate in an elegant fashion, what with the language features of Greek grammar unavailable in English, not to mention the other limitations inherent to the work of translation, plus I don’t actually know Greek at all. So sing, O Muse, loudly and clearly and in a way we over here can understand, if you get my drift. And don’t worry about this little audio-recording doodad. Just pretend it’s not there. Okay I’ll turn it off.
[pretend to turn it off]
Sing, O Muse, of the mild, persistent disappointment
That plagued our somewhat interesting protagonist
In manner nonetheless not unmanageable
Or even memorable. The strong-greaved, rarely-greaved
Herodoklodophopilus himself forgot
Though it be him what at this tale is all up on.
So when you have put away your desire for eating and drinking,
Put away in your minds this other thing I tell you.
Many poets could have been chosen for the recounting.
The muse chose me. What can I say, I gave her some good shit.
Behold! Of all most honorable poets, this is Ascrapius you’ll get.
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for already.
Stay your poisonous, venomous, poisonous darts.
No Aias-crapius to block them am I, with
That big ol’ shield. That you would harm, it hurts me right here [gesture to heart]
It’s okay. I’m good. Story time, motherfuckers.
There once was a man called Herodoklodophopilus
Who liked to stand on top of the Acropolis.
But the Greeks all wore onesies,
Which made it less funsies,
Because noone ever walked around topilus.
This morning, as I watched an elderly black couple board a full subway car, a seemingly unremarkable series of events occurred: a young white woman rose and offered her seat, then a middle-aged Hispanic man did likewise. America at its best, in a nutshell, right? But it wasn’t so long ago that America didn’t work that way — as these two old folks doubtless knew better than I. With the election mere days away, I wondered: what would an Obama presidency mean to them? My emotional response was immediate and shocking. I had to turn my mind away from the thought to keep from bursting out in tears somewhere between 96th and 103rd Streets.
I don’t know anything about these two people, I don’t know how they’ve struggled, I don’t know where their political sympathies lie. Maybe they aren’t Obama supporters; it doesn’t matter: I can easily imagine two more just like them who are, and I can make the leap to imagining that an Obama victory could be the sort of victory that justifies all they went through, that makes it all worthwhile in the end. Because they would have seen this happen, in their own lifetimes, with their own eyes.
Like I said, I don’t know anything about these two people, other than their age and skin color (but I repeat myself). Yet the narrative I facilely superimposed on them acted on me with tremendous force, and if I think about it only out of the corner of my brain, I can understand why. Freedom and justice are two of my most vulnerable emotional pressure points.
My ability to empathize with fictional people notwithstanding, for me Obama represents neither freedom nor justice. I fear his presidency almost as much as I suspect I’d like him personally. (In the interest of fair and balanced commentary: I fear McCain’s presidency far more than I’d probably like him personally.)
I don’t want to be 80 before my country shows signs of offering me the freedom and justice I deserved all along. I don’t want a symbolic shift that’s enough to let me finally die in peace. I want my government to recognize and protect my rights. I want it soon, so that my life can be the better for it. I want my own liberation in my lifetime.
P.S. If you think I’m a jerk for even making this comparison, then you’ve just been a jerk. Don’t presume to tell other people what their oppression feels like, let alone whose is more valid.