B is for Dimunition

| February 17, 2014

When last we spoke, we discussed the archetype of the protoeducational narrative: a descent from the city (an organized public space where rationality and mutual civility prevails), into the labyrinth (a chaotic space of darkness and menace). This descent would be followed by a resurfacing and returning, which formed an ellipsis that became indelible through repetition. I was ruminating on the significance of this primeval geometry as I was in the midst my own daily ellipsis, returning from the chaotic din of the subterranean labyrinth that is the subway, to the placid splendor of my shady lane in quiet Park Slope. A pensée d’escalier (pensée de train?) that came to me on the way home was that this opposition was essentially an illustration of Nietzsche’s Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy. I entertained myself by projecting this same dynamic onto my own life’s daily routine, but I soon resigned myself to the fact that home and “the office” (which for me encompasses both my “job” as well as my endless grad school career) are not as easily dichotomized as the city and labyrinth – the equilibrium between chaos and order on both fronts is mercurial, at best.

Meanwhile, serendipity was plotting something. As I completed my own daily ellipsis, returning home and kicking my feet up on the coffee table, I wayfared across Charles Rafferty’s poem in the New Yorker. And I was dumbstruck

Socrates taught Plato and Plato taught Aristotle and Aristotle taught Alexander the Great, who founded a city that would house the most voluminous library of the ancient world – until it was burned, until forgetting came back into vogue.  The great minds come down through the years like monkeys descending from high branches. Always, a leopard is waiting to greet them – in the tall grass, among the magnetic berries, in the place they should have checked.
-Charles Rafferty, Dimunition

Given the novelty of our conversation (I’d never discussed a “protoeducational narrative” involving the geometry of ascent and descent in all of my grad school meanderings) these words jumped off the page, albeit quietly, as INCREDIBLY PRESCIENT. I just didn’t know quite… how. Rafferty gives us an impressionistic lineage of (Apollonian) knowledge – that of the promethean torch, handed down from luminary to luminary, who’ve descended like monkeys from the light-drenched jungle canopies to fight (or perhaps immerse themselves in?) the darkness of the earthly world, with its seductive fruits and ravenous, scheming leopards.

Klee's "Angelus Novus," which also served as Walter Benjamin's "Angel of History"

So: if the Great Minds are the monkeys in this allegory – agile, yet vulnerable – who are the leopards? Society at large? The rulers that are threatened by disruptive visionaries? Or something altogether more nebulous and abstract – such as grand societal shifts like those imposed by war or new technologies?  Socrates himself is one of many perfect examples of a provocative luminary that society just wasn’t ready for. (See also: Copernicus, Galileo, et al.) I suppose the leopard can be any of these, a Dionysian creature of the darkness.

On to the next symbol. The tragic burning of the Alexandrian Library has come to signify “the irretrievable loss of public knowledge” (regardless of its historicity – it’s argued the library was burned piecemeal rather than one fell swoop). But Rafferty extends this symbol, projecting a cyclicality to the willful expunging of public memory (by who? and why?). The economy of his words (“until forgetting came back into vogue”) is genius in its ability to imply such a recurring arc. As Chris hinted in his Oedipal post, we (humans), with the successive accumulation of generational ennui collecting like a patina on historical memory, collectively relegate age-old lessons almost willfully to the status of quaintness, and it is our educational apparatus that mediates this forgetting. Is this fog of historical memory the tall grass through which the leopard stalks?

Call it a critical copout, but I believe that the best symbols are polyvalent, and impervious to facile reduction. As much as I’ve been scratching my head this week thinking on the seductive berries that would lure the monkeys to the tall grass and their earthly demise, I’ll have to defer to my dream-brain to absorb and process the full resonance of the allegory.

But I’d love to hear your thoughts…