December 21, 2015

The Thessaly books, art, and excellence

I've just finished The Philosopher Kings, the second book of the Thessaly series by Jo Walton. (The first was The Just City.) They are excellent books, and I recommend them highly, even if I disagree with a number of theological points.

Apollo, who is a major viewpoint character in both books (there's a third, Necessity, coming out next year, which, given the ending of TPK, I shall be fascinated to read), has always been a difficult god for me. These books frame him in a new light, one I rather like, although it has little to nothing to do with the way I honor him in my practice. It does, at least, remind me again that my gods are not what Slacktivites call tri-omni: omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. This means that they do not know or understand all things at all times, although they can understand anything, and that it is therefore possible for them to make errors, to do things they regret, and to later come to understand better. So I'm feeling better about Apollo just now.

I suppose it would be good to give a precis of the premise of the books for those unfamiliar with them. In The Just City, Athene collects three hundred adult speakers of Classical Greek from three thousand years of history, all people who prayed to her to be allowed to help create Plato's Republic. Those three hundred adults then collected ten thousand ten year olds from slave markets, and attempted to raise them on Platonic principles. Now, since Plato only ever intended his Republic to be a thought experiment, and honestly he didn't necessarily understand people all that well, this doesn't go quite as planned.

Apollo, attempting to understand why Daphne would rather be a tree than his lover, decides to incarnate as a mortal in this experimental city, in order to better understand the concepts of volition (of which consent is a prominent part) and equal significance (that every person is a full person, important to themselves and to others).

Two of the great themes of the books are the importance of art and of excellence. The latter is straight from Plato, who used the word arete. For many years, this was translated into English as "virtue", probably because it went through the Latin virtus, from which it derives. Alas, "virtue" is painted with Christian connotations of things like kindness and generosity and piety, which is not actually what either the Greek or the Latin mean (and they mean somewhat different things from each other). So now it's usually translated instead as "excellence", which is at least closer to what Plato meant. For a proper exploration of that, read Plato and some commentaries on his work. It's rather beyond me.

Both art and excellence are words that are so freighted with meaning that I've wanted to distance myself from them for years. Art by snotty art student types who either degrade things they disapprove of as not-art or who take the opposite route and are willing to call anything art if you can put together a moderately convincing argument that it is, including "installation art" that consists of nothing but scattered trash. And if that's what they're into, fine, good for them, either set of them. But don't get any of it on me. So for years I refused to call anything I did art. I finally found a definition of art I liked for my own work and my own way of experiencing art in KJ Bishop's book The Etched City: Art is the conscious creation of numinous phenomena. If you experience the numinous while creating it, and the work causes others to experience the numinous, however they experience that, then that's art. So to the snotty art students, who never consider the reactions of others, something that does not cause them to experience the numinous is not art (and maybe they need to work on understanding equal significance and the experience of others, but they still get to experience art the way they do), but something that does, is, even if it's a signed urinal as a commentary on art itself. They can have fun with that. Neither of those does much for me, either discounting others' experiences of art or those installation pieces, or indeed a lot of popularly acclaimed art from all through history. (Minoan geometrics do nothing for me, for instance, and neither do the Dutch masters.) But making everyday items beautiful does move me, does bring me numinous experiences, though many people deride that as craft, but did not necessarily find the numinous in my own creative works that others wanted to call art. So for many years, I decided it was easier not to argue, and simply sided with craft, and let artists look after themselves.

Recently I've been associating with very different sorts, and am slowly and with some discomfort realigning my ideas of art. I still cling to that definition, but am learning to be more conscious of the numinous qualities of my own work. I'm even beginning to think of myself as perhaps a poet again, something I haven't done since I was thirteen, simply because so many people I value the opinions of refer to the Litany as poetry.

Excellence, meanwhile, I have let my father define for me, though he wouldn't be able to give his own definition of the word, I think. But he means that something has value to him, which most frequently means that it has the potential to make money. So I've rarely thought of anything I did as "excellent", with the exception of The Night Kitchen (which still didn't make money, but which at least had potential to). But even my father, who read the Litany, even though I'd told him it was ok if he didn't, said that it was beautifully written, though he didn't understand the point of it. He recognized excellence in something I did that honestly has very little potential to make me much money. (It still hasn't earned enough on any one platform for it to pay out anything in January.) And I do, in my own way, strive to be my best self, though I define that very differently than Plato would. So perhaps it's time to revisit that word as well.

These books are, to me, both art and excellence. I experienced wonder on a spiritual level reading them, and they are aiding me in continuing to strive to think and reconsider in ways that help me become my best self, and aiding the excellence of others must be excellence in and of itself. So though the books are deeply critical of Plato, I think they do meet those Platonic values which they themselves approve of and strive for. Which makes me happy all over again.