Thursday, March 13

scraps of life and truth and such

last week I was losing sleep over a ridiculous little essay about Plato's take on Socrates' take on a mysterious woman named Diotima's take on our deepest, most irrepressible human instincts and motives. that Plato buries his opinions three layers deep in this dialogue probably means something interesting, but I didn't focus on that. I took the words on their own and teased them apart into a giant fraying mess of ideology and metaphor. and then I tried to weave that mess into four thoughtful pages of inexact philological interpretation. maybe this isn't true for everyone else, but when my writerly self is losing sleep over such things, those things usually read like overly-obvious watered-down drivel.

I decided to title this four pages of watered-down drivel "A Supreme and Treacherous Pursuit: Creativity and the Endlessly Cyclical Quest for Immortality," which reads like what it is: a quite wordy and slightly pompous title. I like the contrast there hiding right in the space where Supreme and Treacherous seem to overlap a little. our many grand ideals, so lofty and pure-seeming--how often do they betray us, or turn out not to be so lofty after all?

whether I found whole premise of my essay hiding there in that overlap too, or whether I am only trying to cram my premise by merciless force into the space I thought maybe might be big enough, I am not sure. re-reading the essay now, one week later, lets me see, along with a few pesky typographical mistakes, that it might not be so greatly watered-down as it seemed at 2:29 a.m. the other night.

if you haven't ready any Plato lately, there's a handy translation of the Symposium here for you. the section I tore apart for this class, Diotima's second-hand ramblings on Love and Beauty, as reported to the gathered party by Socrates, come in about two-thirds down. what struck me about this section was its odd emphasis on creative (and procreative) processes.

immortality and endless copies... are those things the same? if we design the technology to make copies of ourselves and our things forever, will we have somehow unlocked the fountain of youth?

I don't quite ask those questions in the essay. I only had four pages. another bit I didn't end up having room for was this tangent into popular biology or genetics or whatever field it is. I wrote and scribbled and excised the following:
This deeply-rooted and almost irrepressible need for continued existence brings to mind Richard Dawkins' allegory of genes and memes. As human genes desire to perpetuate themselves via sexual reproduction, so ideas might be said to desire a similar avenue toward immortality. Dawkins famously introduces this concept in The Selfish Gene, saying,

“Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. […] When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.” (192)
what would Plato think, seeing me compare him to this raving evolutionary biologist fellow? who knows? I think it works though, even if just barely. there's something in us that seems to be forever stretching to get out, to reach farther, to be more. maybe it comes from Plato's unchanging Form of Beauty or from the stardust in our DNA. I'm not Plato and I'm not an evolutionary biologist either. what do I know?

just for randomness, I'm throwing in a handful of excerpted and carefully un-contextualized sentences that actually did make it into my wordily titled conference paper. I can't decide if they sound better or worse or more or less watery without all the quotes from Plato and associated criticisms stitching them together.
Our desires, which spur us toward the good and beautiful, are themselves spurred by this yearning for an identity and influence beyond the limits of our own. 
To be mortal almost by definition involves ceaseless wanting. 
The desire for immortality prompts a unique and paradoxical creative journey: supreme in the sense that it leads us to ever greater and purer understanding, yet treacherous in its demands for never-ending, Sisyphean progress. 
Somewhere between strength and weakness, between good and bad, progress and learning take place. Desire and pursuit flourish in these middle spaces, spurred by elements on both sides. 
To begin, we must realize and appreciate the times when we are not so ignorant as to have no desire for wisdom, but neither so wise as to have no room for learning. We must remain somewhat stranded between mortality and eternity, in order to sustain the potential for unlimited growth. The processes of meaningful creativity involve recognizing both the inevitability as well as the irrelevance of limitations to this transformative work.
I sound like such a grad student.

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