the dialogue

“The principal influence on the origin of dialogue as a genre was of course Socrates: his associates wanted to bear testimony to the personality and teachings of a man who refused to write anything himself and whose philosophic ideals – in theory, at any rate – were of cooperative dialectic. Yet tensions between dialogue and democracy are immediately apparent in Socrates’ activities. In Plato’s Protagoras, the character of Socrates insists on conversing by way of short question and answer; yet in the Gorgias, we are told that such a method (brachylogy) is impossible with a large audience and can only take place with a select few. So Socratic dialectic, which arguably could not have flourished outside a democratic context, is nevertheless a pursuit of the leisured elite.

When we consider Plato himself, the most brilliant practitioner of the dialogue genre, the tensions and ironies multiply. Quite apart from the general irony that all dialogues written by a single author are in a sense monologues, Plato was one of democracy’s most implacable critics, and one of the central reasons for his hostility was that the Athenian democracy had put Socrates to death – at least partly, it could be claimed, because of the way he did dialogue, interrogating self-appointed experts and deflating their pretensions to knowledge. Yet Book One of the Republic can itself be read as an implicit critique of the historical Socrates’ style of dialogue (and of course Plato’s works do not just consist of brief question and answer: there are plenty of longer speeches, including, with tongue doubtless in cheek, one in the Protagoras about the origins of brachylogy). Furthermore, to add an extra layer to the complexity, Plato’s own dialogues, including the Republic, would almost certainly not be permitted into the ‘ideally just’ (and certainly not democratic) state outlined in the Republic: they break many of the censorship rules laid down there. Plato’s dialogues, in other words, simultaneously arise from the culture of democratic Athens and offer a robust critique of that culture, and would be banned by the philosopher-rulers whom Plato (apparently) advocates instead.”

(from Angela Hobbs, “Too much talking in class”, review of The End of Dialogue in Antiquity, ed. Simon Goldhill, p. 17 in the 18 & 25 Dec 2009 TLS.)

jon cotner & andy fitch, “ten walks/two talks”

Jon Cotner & Andy Fitch
Ten Walks/Two Talks
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010)

This is a book that I read entirely on public transportation: on the way to a party on Saturday night and making my way back home from a brunch in Brooklyn on Sunday afternoon. This feels wrong, to a certain extent: this is a book, as the title suggests, that’s about walking and talking. It’s difficult to square these pursuits with reading, which for the most part is a solitary activity and one that can’t be done while walking: to read is necessarily to abnegate the outside world. It’s not entirely impossible to combine reading and walking – I remember reading The Recognitions for the first time while on the mile-long walk between work and home one summer – but that was a walk that I’d taken many times over already, and I’m not sure how much I got out of that reading of the book. It was college: maybe it was more performative than not.

This is a small book, consisting of four sections, divided by seasons, each section introduced by a recaptioned reproduction of prints from Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. The first and third contain narratives of five walks from what might be five consecutive days in New York City; told in the first person, the narrators seem to alternate. The second and fourth sections contain transcriptions of two conversations between “J” and “A”, whom we might assume to be the authors: reading these sections, the reader can work out who is responsible for which sections of the walks. Upon scrutiny, the book’s structure becomes less clear: the walks sections are headed “Early Spring” and “Late Spring,” while the talks are “Early Winter” and “Late Winter”. The second talk refers back to the first talk, but the temporal location of the walks is unclear: we might reasonably presume that winter comes before spring, and that the talks are a result of the walks, but there’s no concrete evidence for that. Internal evidence in the walks sections suggest that they happen in March and April of 2005.

It’s in the talks that the project of the book becomes clear: these sections of the book presents a transcription of two conversations, with all the strangeness that appears when oral language becomes written language (as in, for example, Ed Friedman’s The Telephone Book, transcriptions of his telephone conversations). Conversation is a very different thing from a printed interview. Here, for example, is an extract from the first walk, headed “Central Park, 9:10 p.m.”:

J: Sure I’d wanted to cross the park today, but spent hours printing a writing sample for UCSD: a total, maddening loss of time. In fact one guy caught me losing my cool. I explained only printer troubles . . .
A: Let’s move down the mic a bit.
J: make me lose my cool.
A: I got I got caught bowing to the Huddlestone Arch waterfall by this shadowy figure who . . .
J: A scary . . . (p. 23)

Here the mechanics become apparent with the reference to the microphone that’s recording this conversation. The speakers’ voices overlap; punctuation is something that exists in written language, not spoken language. It’s possible there’s a certain amount of self-consciousness that comes with speaking when one knows one is being recorded: subjects bounce back and forth very quickly. (In the second talk, the recorder is switched off at a point when the speakers become aware of those surrounding them; then it is resumed, with the explanation that they’ve moved.) The reader can make sense of most of it with some effort.

Once it becomes apparent how the talks section works, the reader immediately starts wondering about the walks. A representative paragraph, from the last walk; the speaker is near Riverside Park:

A townhouse I otherwise appreciated held patriotic ribbons wrapped around the porch. A dog crossed with its owner calling Stephen, wait! Two Scottish terriers looked less intelligent side-by-side. An old Japanese woman wore a bowler hat. The question Was she attractive? made no sense I was attractive. She needed my gaze and I delivered it. (p. 57)

The speaker here is recording everything he does on his walk; however, this is written language, something not composed in the moment. One can’t very well walk and write at the same time; it’s possible he’s scribbling notes to himself, or using a voice recorder, but his person does seem to be in the moment. One wonders, in passing, if these walks, ostensibly taken alone, were actually taken together, with one of the authors walking and one recording; but that also doesn’t seem like it would pass without notice.

A passage late in the second talk explains the concerns at stake:

A: Yeah as soon as something gets put on paper [Cough] chance I’ll retain it. Or perhaps you know: when the Laotians began to write, which happened, I believe mid-seventies (a French priest designed a print language for them), they lost half . . .
J: Socrates talks about this in the Phaedrus. He refuses to write since it would weaken his memory.
A: Hmmm I’ve heard an implicit anxiety throughout Plato’s work is that, for the first time ap appears the potential for discource to be preserved – to pick up new interpretations the author couldn’t anticipate, interpretation justified by textual proof. And this anxiety leads to conceptions, you know Platonic conceptions of forms (an idealized world; a world more permanent than the written one coming . . .
J: So you think Plato’s disdain for the empirical world derives . . .
A: His . . .
J: [Muffled] books ambiguous?
A: Ambiguous in a way things hadn’t been. A new temporality develops through them, as Plato’s thought becomes our thought. (pp. 82–83.)

The book is an attempt to get back from language what’s lost when put on paper – with the recognition that it has to be a book. What Plato says on the pages of the Phaedrus doesn’t, in the end, matter quite so much as how we internalize it. The discussion then moves to the burning of the Library of Alexandria, and how we presumably lost many of the works of the pre-Socratics there; I was left wondering if the book might not be paradoxically more fragile than the remembered text, though on looking back, that’s not in this book.

In the first talk, we find the reason for the Hiroshige illustrations, in a discussion of how the light brings to mind one of the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo:

. . . . As always in winter months I’ve I value Asian, specifically Japanese art, for training us to recognize the splendor of bare branches.
J: That’s why I go back to Asian poetry and painting, to to track the beauty of each season but not catch myself . . . and escape the trap of longing for summer in the heart of winter. (p. 28)

One senses that this is what this book is attempting to do.

claude lévi-strauss, “tristes tropiques”

Claude Lévi-Strauss
Tristes Tropiques
(trans. Doreen Weightman & John Weightman)
(Atheneum, 1974)

There are books that make one wonder what would have happened if one had read it earlier. What would I have made of this book in high school? There was no one to give it to me then, so this is a rhetorical question. Read then, it might have made me want to run off to be an anthropologist; but I wonder how receptive to the book, or how ready for it, I would have been then. I hadn’t traveled then, which helps to appreciate this book; nor had I read much Surrealist prose, to which this has affinities. Being unversed in anthropology, I can’t really speak to this book’s success or failure as anthropology; but one can’t help but admire this book as part of a continuum that goes back to Nerval’s Aurélia, narratives that try to elude both the reader and the writer.

Start at the beginning. “I hate travelling and explorers” is the famous first line of Lévi-Strauss’s book, though the book the reader continues would appear to be as much about travel and exploration as it is anthropology. This is a book that seems to be running away from itself: not so much in denial, for L&eavute;vi-Strauss realizes that one can never run away from oneself, but more in its realization that the writer can never quite escape the text. Similarly, the photograph on the cover of this edition demands scrutiny: cropped, it is an image of a group of natives who seem to have turned their backs to the photographer and us. The back cover only identifies the photographer, René Silz; turning to the book’s “plates,” it turns out to be an image of a Bororo funeral ceremony. The final section of the book, “The Return,” sees Lévi-Strauss move from Brazil (where he observed the last days of the western Bororo people) to Ancient Rome to Martinique to Pakistan to what would become Bangladesh, with digressions to Paris and New York, seemingly in an attempt to throw the reader off any travel narrative that might emerge. Time is uncertain: a reader with a firm grasp of Lévi-Strauss’s biography could pin down exactly when everything in this book happens, but that seems immaterial. Tristes Tropiques is an investigation of loss, both cultural and personal; and Lévi-Strauss realizes that as a Westerner and as an observer he can’t help but be complicit in that loss.

Lévi-Strauss is always acutely aware of his position as an observer, as someone who’s never quite as outside as he wishes he might be. Visiting a newly independent India he notes, for example, how being surrounded with servants makes the served anxious: it’s exactly the same response I had in Delhi a few years ago, which at the time I chalked up to a Midwestern upbringing. Lévi-Strauss points out that this is natural consequence of the relationship. Or again when he looks at the the ever-present problem of dealing with a huge number of people:

India tried to solve the population problem some three thousand years ago by endeavouring, by means of the caste system, to change quantity into quality, that is, to differentiate between human groups so as to enable them to live side by side. . . . It is tragic for mankind that this great experiment failed; I mean that, in the course of history, the various castes did not succeed in reaching a state in which they could remain equal because they were different – equal in the sense that there would have been no common measure between them – and that a harmful element of homogeneity was introduced which made comparison possible, and consequently led to the creation of a hierarchy. Men can coexist on condition that they recognize each other as being all equally, though differently human, but they can also coexist by denying each other a comparable degree of humanity, and thus establishing a system of subordination. (p. 149)

This is an old book now – it’s fifty-five years old – and the world that Lévi-Strauss was describing was vanishing even then, but sections, like this enquiry into the problem of equality, still feel fresh. Parts resonate more strongly now: in a section on the role of the chief in polygamous society, he wanders into the idea of national health care, which he sees as “a return to the fundamental nature of social and political organization”. And here he describes the historical problem of scarcity, which we seem to be confronting now from the opposite direction:

In the old days, people used to risk their lives in India or in the Americas in order to bring back products which now seem to us to have been of comically little worth, such as brasil or brazilwood (from which the name Brazil was derived) – a red dye – and also pepper which had such a vogue in the time of Henry IV of France that courtiers used to carry the seeds in sweetmeat boxes and eat them like sweets. The visual or olfactory surprises they provided, since they were cheerfully warm to the eye or exquisitely hot on the tongue, added a new range of sense experience to a civilization which had never suspected its own insipidity. We might say, then, that, through a twofold reversal, from these same lands our modern Marco Polos now bring back the moral spices of which our society feels an increasing need as it is conscious of sinking futher into boredom, but that this time they take the form of photographs, books and travellers’ tales. (p.38)

I like the turn that Lévi-Strauss executes in this paragraph: moving from the colonies back to the colonizers, and their own self-recognition, which they almost certainly wouldn’t have stated in the same words. And then to bring it further: to see the same impulse in ourselves, the readers of travel books, including this travel book. We are not exempt: but how do we value scarcity now, when we are deluged with “photographs, books and travellers’ tales”?

Writing itself comes into question: in an extended section, he wonders what writing historically does to people. This isn’t the restatement of Socrates’ position in the Phaedrus, as one might expect. Rather:

The only phenomenon with which writing has always been concomitant is the creation of cities and empires, that is the integration of large numbers of individuals into a political system, and their grading into castes or classes. Such, as any rate, is the typical pattern of development to be observed from Egypt to China, at the time when writing first emerged: it seems to have favoured the exploitation of human beings rather than their enlightenment. This exploitation, which made it possible to assemble thousands of workers and force them to carry out exhausting tasks, is a much more likely explanation of the birth of architecture than the direct link referred to above. My hypothesis, if correct, would oblige us to recognize the fact that the primary function of written communication is to facilitate slavery. The use of writing for disinterested purposes, and as a source of intellectual and aesthetic pleasure, is a secondary result, and more often than not it may even be turned into a means of strengthening, justifying or concealing the other. (p. 299)

This is an astonishing argument, and one that I haven’t seen resurrected in all the present talk about what’s happening to reading and writing in their present explosions. It’s an argument that could be cogently made today: I’d rather see someone arguing from this inflammatory position than from the tired old position that all reading is good reading. Perhaps it’s only an argument that can be buried in a book like this.

Tristes Tropiques is a valedictory book: Lévi-Strauss saw the world disappearing around him. It’s odd to read this book, originally published in 1955, and to realize that Lévi-Strauss would live longer after having written it than he would before: one senses that he never expected that.


“Max smiled. He said, ‘I shall take refuge in the Phaedrus. You remember at the end Socrates tells Phaedrus that words can’t be removed from place to place and retain their meaning. Truth is communicated from a particular speaker to a particular listener.’

‘I stand rebuked! I recall that passage. But it is a reference to mystery religions, isn’t it?’

‘Not necessarily. It can apply to any occasion of learning the truth.’

‘Do you think Hannah – desires the true good?’

Max said after a long silence during which Effingham found himself nodding with sleep, ‘I’m not sure. And I don’t think you can tell me. It may all be to meet some need of my own. I’ve meant all my life to go on a spiritual pilgrimage. And here I am at the end – and I haven’t even set out.’ He spoke with a sudden fierceness, cutting and lighting a cigar with quick precision and moving the ash-tray farther down the table with a loud clack. He added, ‘Perhaps Hannah is my experiment! I’ve always had a great theoretical knowledge of morals, but practically speaking I’ve never done a hand’s turn. That’s why my reference to the Phaedrus was damned dishonest. I don’t know the truth either. I just know about it.’ “

(Iris Murdoch, The Unicorn (1963), pp. 100–101.)

effingham i

(Frank Stella, Effingham I (1967), in the Van Abbemuseum.)

. . . and again

“The generation is unceasing. Beauty, as both Plato’s Symposium and everyday life confirm, prompts the begetting of children: when the eye sees someone beautiful, the whole body want to reproduce the person. But it also – as Diotima tells Socrates – prompts the begetting of poems and laws, the works of Homer, Hesiod, and Lycurgus. The poem and the law may then prompt descriptions of themselves – literary and legal commentaries – that seek to make the beauty of the prior thing more evident, to make, in other words, the poem’s or law’s ‘clear discernibility’ even more ‘clearly discernible.’ Thus the beauty of Beatrice in La vita nuova requires of Dante the writing of a sonnet and the writing of that one sonnet prompts the writing of another: ‘After completing this last sonnet I was moved by a desire to write more poetry.’ The sonnets, in turn, place on Dante a new pressure, for as soon as his ear hears what he has made in meter, his hand wants to draw a sketch of it in prose: ‘This sonnet is divided into two parts . . .’; ‘This sonnet is divided into four parts . . . .’

(Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just, Princeton University Press, 1999, pp. 4–5.)