Saturday 4 December 2021

On the production of new fables (and songs) for Socmas.

My mind has been set on just two tasks, after which I assumed I'd pour my attention and energy into Socmas.

I had imagined I'd have completed these two tasks by December first.  I have not.  Not yet.

The two tasks are, simply, (1) finishing the revisions to the manuscript for No More Manifestos, and (2) reading two books that are directly related to that revision process (sort of, "fact checking").

Now, I have to respond under a few different headings, here (1) about this song in particular that you've composed, (2) about the broader question of composing songs (a revision to this one, or some number of other songs you may compose), and then (3) the even broader question of the production of fiction and rituals for Socmas.

All three, to begin, are united by one problem: who is singing?  One of the most successful examples of propaganda in the history of the world is a song by Stan Rogers, titled Barrett's Privateers: its strength is this, i.e., that the listener knows very clearly who is singing (i.e., the fictional protagonist, situating us in the historical moment in question).  And, without digressing into matters of mere fact, the song is propaganda, and is telling the audience how to feel about history (it is neither entirely honest nor accurate).  That sense of "who" is sining is --in my opinion-- what makes it possible for many people to join in singing the song (i.e., very much like the most successful Christmas carols, and that's why I mention it here as an example).

Now, this song you've proposed for me has the opposite problem --and it may be an incomplete song, or a first sketch indicating an idea for a song, etc., I am not offering criticism for the sake of criticism, but rather discussing the underlying issues for the sake of whatever may be produced next (and by any one of us --not putting any kind of undue burden on yourself).

Is it really possible to write a song that is performed from the perspective of Alcibiades?  If it is possible, it is probably unwise.

Now consider, by contrast, the strength of a song performed from the perspective of an anonymous member of the jury that sentenced Socrates to death: he (singing) and we (when we sing along) could have the sense of certainty that we were doing the right thing in condemning him to death --and later in the song, we could have some kind of regret, being caught up in the politics of the time (etc.).

Did Alcibiades smash the herms?  We (in the 21st century) do not know, but we can write a song from the perspective of someone on the jury who is certain that he smashed the herms (and that he should be executed or exiled for that reason) --and we can indicate that this certainty is false (later in the song, or that same moment, through careful writing).  This is, so to speak, "the unreliable narrator".  I think that's the only way to handle it: we cannot portray Alcibiades himself as bragging that he smashed the herms.

More broadly, we can't really depict Socrates as anti-religion --we can only portray him as someone who was hated by others as if he had been anti-religious.  Handled carefully, that is the more powerful message.

Who was Socrates and why did he matter?  He had original ideas about politics and religion: these were an unwanted challenge to the society he lived in --and they killed him for it.  That can be made into song (and narrative fiction) from many perspectives, but the most implicitly dramatic is that of the nameless, numberless crowd that condemned him.

His original ideas about politics and religion: were they, in fact, better than those of Pericles or Aristotle?  We'll never know: it is quite possible that the answer is no.

Did Socrates propose an atheist Society?  No, certainly not.  Did Socrates propose abolishing slavery?  Certainly not, nor was he even interested in their "upliftment" in any way, so far as I can see.  Did he suggest veganism or even vegetarianism?  No, and others did, in his era and culture.

The fictional Socrates that is ridiculed in "The Clouds" was more of a nihilist than the actual Socrates; but, in part, he died for that fiction --and, of course, he died in part because he really was attached to a whole cabal of schemers (some of whom dreamt of taking over the government, and others actually did so, briefly).  From our perspective, he died because he opened the door to a set of disturbing questions, that inexorably lead to nihilistic answers --including, very simply, whether or not the gods actually controlled rain, thunder and lightning.

Is Socrates the hero or the villain of the story?  Is Alcibiades the hero or the villain of the story?

I think the modern perspective must be, "Inasmuch as they were trying to destroy democracy, they are the villains, and yet, inasmuch as they were trying to challenge and overturn the city's religion, we would go even further in villainy if we could".

I think that is a very productive "starting position" for the creation of new fables: Socrates as a hero is not terribly interesting, and Socrates as a Christ-like victim is even less so.

Viewing the polity of Athens as the protagonist (i.e., "the members of the jury") we then work with "an unreliable narrator" second to none: the singer of the song can condemn Socrates (and/or Alcibiades, etc.) and can at the same time lament his death, ruefully celebrate particular things he and his followers did, and so on.

But, after all, SOMEONE smashed up the herms: from the perspective of Athenian members of the jury alive at that time, it certainly was possible that it could have been members of the same cabal of freethinkers that Socrates and Alcibiades were a part of that smashed them up… who else?  Oh, but didn't you hear the rumor that it was supporters of the Persians that did it?  The Spartans would never do such a thing, it must have been the Medizers, etc.

The moral ambiguity is this: Socrates didn't die so that the power of the church could continue --i.e., his position is not like Galileo, where his imprisonment (or death) is for the sake of religious authority.  No, on the contrary: Socrates must die so that democracy can continue.  And, unlike religion, democracy is neither right nor wrong, but always changing: for a time, democracy made Alcibiades the most famous and powerful man in Athens --and then the same democracy (the same voters) condemned him to exile (and he was not faultless in this matter!).

I am not really interested in Socrates as the victim of democracy: the death of Socrates, instead, has to be seen as a kind of vindication of democracy.

This song by Stan Rogers, that you may well detest: note how liberally it shifts between seemingly objective statements of fact, and very harsh condemnations of the other historical actors involved ("God damn them all!", etc.).  This device of, "I was told ______" is very powerful: people made up their minds about Socrates (and Alcibiades, and Plato, etc.) on the basis of things they were told --and that they later regretted, to some extent.

I think that's the "ontic range" within which the production of this kind of "new fable" has to exist.