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“Mr. Plato. We have a reservation for Mr. Plato. Plato …table for ONE.”
He’s back. He keeps returning, like a ghost haunting my intellectual house. Like an infection. And this time, he came close to nabbing me.
I had a teacher and mentor when I was a young student of philosophy who urged me to read all of Plato, to attempt to absorb some of the information, then to move on to other things with the intent, should I live long enough, to revisit the ponderous Greek in late middle age. When I might begin to understand him.
When I was hired by that same mentor to teach philosophy in the department he chaired (allowing me to become the worst adjunct instructor in the history of American higher education), he had me deal with Plato in introductory classes only.
“The students don’t know what Plato is about,” he said, “and neither do you. You won’t have a chance until you’re at least 40 years old.”
Just like the Kaballah or a triple-X film: No kids allowed.
Okay, I thought, I’ll become an existentialist instead. That way, I get to mope around, be inconsistent and contradictory without fear of reprisal, wear shabby clothes, stay up late, indulge in all manner of intoxicants, paint non-objective paintings, be depressed and write insipid poetry. I like that. Plato is boring; you have to follow ponderous arguments developed in stilted dialogues; you have to think. When reading Sartre, all you need do is adjust your brain chemistry to a state similar to his when he wrote a given piece and, voila, you’re an existentialist mon ami!
This course was easy, and it got easier when I decided to devote time to Nietzsche. There’s nothing more comforting for a guy with a short attention span like mine than an aphorism written by a syphilitic German. You’re in and you’re out, in the blink of an eye
This philosophical strategy worked well for me until recently.
As I waddled into my 60s, I sensed someone lurking over my shoulder. I shuddered.
It was him.
He was asking me to come with him, to join the club.
I have television, movies and the computer to thank for my most recent exposure to Platonism, for this most recent scare.
Were I to become a Platonist, I might have to devote more time to thinking complete thoughts. I’m worried.
I also have some Luddite acquaintances and their half-baked opinions about contemporary information machinery and programming to thank for it.
Let me summarize what happened.
I love television. I am unashamed. I could be a poster child for ADD and television is my medium of choice. My skittery consciousness has been massaged and molded by television for more than five decades, and the cheery flow of photons from the screen is my crackling fire in the fireplace, my cup of warm cocoa, my warm glow in the window as I arrive home on a cold winter night. I don’t care what it is — sitcoms, news programs, sports — I’ll watch it, and lots of it. I am particularly fond of the highest achievement of television art: the infommercial.
I also adore video games and virtual reality computer simulations. I am a sucker for computer games; I got hooked on Space Invaders 30 years ago and I’ve stayed hooked on such diversions since.
I use a computer in my work and I grow decidedly uncomfortable if I am away from my keyboard for a significant period of time. When I switch on the hard drive and hear the familiar clicking and whirring, my blood pressure decreases, my muscles relax, my breathing slows. I am content. The sound of the hard drive is my mantra, the megabyte is my manna.
Because of my association with these machines, I came in touch with fundamental Platonic ideas and, in a postmodern sort of way, I began to understand what the old Athenian coot was doing. I came close to the edge.
It is the Luddites who gave me the boost. It was their smug reactions to technology — to television and computers—— that opened the floodgate and allowed Platonic waters to pour forth. Their heated denial of the value of electronic/digital wonders gave me pause to examine the things I enjoyed so much. If their criticisms were accurate, I should be embarrassed. If they were right, I have squandered countless hours in front of screens, pixilated, mesmerized by light-borne information. They put me on the spot. They put my lifestyle in jeopardy.
I don’t like to be embarrassed (unless I am paid to be) so I began to think about television, movies, computers. It was my attempt to evade criticism that brought me close to disaster.
My Luddite friends refuse to watch television because it “is a waste of time” or “brings so much nonsense into the house,” or “corrupts the kids,” or “takes away from more meaningful pursuits.” Blah, blah, blah.
To them, movies and all the incredible special effects are, “too much, too far out, too extreme.” Computers, aside from their function as tools, are, “evil, captivating, addictive, a disconnect with reality.” Video games cause school shootings and random street violence.
Here was the gist of most of their complaints: that these media were detached from “reality.” Upon reflection, and in search of an excuse to continue with my habits, I realized my friends were reacting to content, bouncing emotionally off the thematic veneer of the media and, as decidedly non-Platonic folks, they missed the point. They were not moving past appearances.
Plato was whispering to me, enticing me.
I put on the thinking cap and I cracked the info-shell of the phenomena produced by television, by movies and their special effects, by computers (which are, more and more, the dynamos at the core of all media). I divested myself of gut reactions to topics and images. I saw that rather than being essentially “unreal,” as the Luddites insist, these media are, in fact, more real than most other things; more revealing of reality than most other experiences.
You might ask: Where were you going with this, Karl?
To the apex, dear reader, all the way to the Demi Urge. I was leaving the back of the cave, moving past the fire that casts shadows on the wall — the shadows we mistake for reality. I was going to stand outside the entry to the cave, squinting, stunned, nearly blinded by the sun.
I was strolling arm in arm with Plato.
Let me give you a grotesquely brief summary of the grotesquely brief introduction to Platonic thought I provided those freshmen years ago.
According to the Big Greek, everything you sense — everything you see, touch, taste, smell, hear — is impure, muddied, relative, in a flux. Unreal. The things of sense experience are imperfect, transitory, ephemeral. The world of sensation is one of uncertainty, a world of opinion, of perspectives, productive of confusion.
If something is absolutely true, however, by definition it must be changeless, immutable, perfect.
Jump ahead. Be Platonic.
The world we sense, therefore, is not real. The objects of our sense experience are mere imitations of perfection that exists elsewhere — Forms and Ideas from which emanate the phenomena we emotional and imperfect beings naively assume to be actual.
The only access to the Forms and Ideas is provided by reason. Emotion and opinion based on the evidence of sensation — an attachment to material things — is a weight that mires us in a world of appearances.
We must think our way beyond appearance, to reality. We must use reason, and the peak of reason is mathematics.
Television and computers provide insight into the Platonic system. As physical entities, the machines are imperfect. As sentient observers, we are imperfect, and absent of reason we are trapped by the literary, content-driven appearance produced by the machines. We are floating on the ever-changing imagistic surface, unaware of the depths.
You sit in your living room in front of the television set. You think you are watching a rerun of the Brady bunch.
If you are really thick, you think you are watching real people in real situations, in real time. A real Brady Bunch.
If you are slightly less dense, you believe you are watching actors, performing before a camera; you recognize amusing situations and Florence Henderson. There is a plot and you form an opinion about that plot. You get emotional when one of the kids breaks an arm or loses a lunchbox.
If you reason a bit, you find you are sitting in your living room observing light as it is radiated from a mechanical device.
If you are a Platonist, propelled by the definition of absolute truth, you know the device, the light, the transmission, do poor service to a set of mathematical equations. You know your living room is unreal and, surprise!, that you aren’t far behind.
Beyond the Brady Bunch, the actors, the script, the machine, and the light are electrons behaving imperfectly in accord with mathematical principles — and it is those principles that connect with something ultimately real, with an immutable realm. The emotional surface of the information that gushes forth on the weak end of those principles, the broadcast you watch, the message you e-mail, the video game you play while you sit on the rug in your unreal house are the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave, transient and weak, mere residue. Imitations.
It hurt me to realize this and I developed a crick in my neck. Attempting to keep up the Platonic pace, I told myself my neck is not real, so. . .
After all this darned intellectual work, I was pooped. When I get tired, I get hungry. My hunger was an illusion, but I was weak. My weakness was an illusion, but. . .
I went to my recipe file to find something to cook.
The stress intensified. I felt Plato’s cool breath, Aegean, fresh, pure.
I realized that recipes are sign posts on the Platonic highway.
Each recipe is a formula for an ideal entity — a mathematical description of ingredients and processes that must occur in order to produce a representation of that ideal. A recipe for macaroni and cheese, for example, is an imprecise description of the Idea of macaroni and cheese. And, since the end product never turns out the same, time to time or chef to chef, it proves that truth and beauty and goodness is in the idea of the dish, not the imitation of macaroni and cheese you mistakenly believe is on the imitation plate you mistakenly believe is real. The ideal dish can never be achieved in this transitory world. The recipe, the product, the eating … all inform us of the imperfection of bodily experience, of the fact that perfection is elsewhere. Perfection is the Idea of chicken Parmigiana, the Idea of hummus, the Idea of satay.
As I stood on the precipice, I realized enough was enough. Whoa, Nellie.
Now, I was really hungry. I’m an old man and, like my dear, departed mentor predicted, I was knee-deep in Plato and sinking fast. I needed food. Transient, imperfect food, something to bring me back. Something to make me an existentialist again.
What to eat to allay this hunger (an imperfect imitation of the Idea of hunger that exists outside of time, somewhere else).
What would it be? Something Greek?
I remembered a trip to Los Angeles (memory — another Platonic adventure) where I went to the Getty Center with its magnificent architecture, majestic stone set on a mountain spine above Santa Monica. I saw an exhibition of Greek statuary and pottery. I recalled the incredible decorations on the urns and amphorae, the bands of black figures making their way round the orange-glazed clay forms, the scenes of banquets and celebrations and revelry. What were they eating? Did the potter know Plato? Did he know Plato had little respect for most artistic endeavors producing, as they do, imitations of imitations?
What did Plato eat as he sat with his friends, collecting the material that would later fill his dialogues. What did Socrates and Critias and Alcibiades and Parmenides eat? What did the guys munch on during The Symposium?
Probably simple things (deceptively simple, considering the articles put into mouths were mere reflections of a formal reality): imperfectly roasted meats, fish, olives, vegetables of the region, fruits, unleavened breads, lots of lemon, vinous products, oceans of wine?
What say I put together a moussaka? Layers of eggplant, ground lamb in a cinnamon-kissed tomato sauce, breadcrumbs, grated hard cheese, and a heavenly white sauce combined with soft cheese, blessed by nutmeg, the layers baked together into a transcendental blend of flavors? As the moussaka bakes, the scent of the spices fills the kitchen. What the nose smells is an illusion?
How about a leg of lamb a la Grecque, the meat impregnated with slivers of garlic, rubbed with oregano, salt and pepper, bathed in lemon then roasted with vegetables?
How about anything prepared with oodles of high-grade olive oil, lemon, mint?
My mouth was watering as I scanned the options — these implications of Forms, of Ideas — knowing I could never realize the Real Moussaka, the Actual Leg of Lamb a la Grecque.
If I went with Plato.
I had to fight it. With food.
I was lured by the promise of ambiguous and temporarily pleasurable sensation. I was being pulled back from the brink. Being a Platonist spoils everything, and food was my siren, about to rescue me.
Plato could wait. I wanted food. I wanted to eat until I burst. The pleasure of eating is undeniable. Satiation is temporary, but wonderful. I wanted to taste, I wanted to feel, I wanted to smell. I didn’t want to attack a prime ribeye with reason.
Food was bringing me back to my senses, back to my imperfections. My glorious imperfections.
I decided to whip up that moussaka so I could taste the cream sauce with the ricotta, so I could see the sheen of oil on the crisp-crumbed, browned surface. I’d feel the heat as I cut and removed a square of the magical medley from the baking pan. I’d linger over the taste of a Sangiovese I would drink with the moussaka. (Retsina could lead to sensory overload.)
I was coming back. I was recovering my delight in the flaws of existence. I left the entry to the cave and returned to my place deep inside the cavern, my back to the entrance, watching the play of shadows on the wall ahead.
I ate my moussaka as I sat on the couch, in front of the television.
I forgot the math, forgot the photons, forgot the imperfection.
Mouth stuffed with spicy ground lamb, eggplant, cream and cheese, I forced my way to the front of the facade of script, actors, multiple takes and canned laughter.
I found Ellie Mae and Jethro and Uncle Jed and Grannie. We were together again. We ate and laughed, down by the cement pond. We played with the critters.I was back. And yet, over there, ducking behind Mr. Drysdale’s house. Was that a man carrying an orange-glazed amphora? Was it a shadow, or was it …