Friday, July 11, 2008

Poem of the Week 7/7/2008: from Plato's Phaedrus

from Phaedrus

SOCRATES: And I must say that this saying is not true, which teaches that when a lover is at hand the non-lover should be more favoured, because the lover is insane and the other sane. For if it were a simple fact that insanity is an evil, the saying would be true; but in reality the greatest of blessings come to us through madness, when it is sent as a gift of the gods. For the prophetess at Delphi and thepriestesses at Dodona when they have been mad have conferred many splendid benefits upon Greece both in private and in public affairs, but few or none when they have been in their right minds; and if we should speak of Sibyl and all the others who by prophetic inspiration have foretold many things to many persons and thereby made them fortunate afterwards, anyone can see that we should speak a long time. And it is worth white to adduce also the fact that those men of old who invented names thought that madness was neither shameful nor disgraceful... [a discourse follows on the connection between mania and mantike (which, significantly, uses the root mn, for mind or attention), both of which signify a higher form of prophecy than augury. I do not know exactly what this distinction means, but would guess that it bears on the root mn]... Moreover, when diseases and the greatest troubles have been visited upon certain families through some ancient guilt, madness has entered in and by oracular power has found a way of release for those in need, taking refuge in prayers and the service of the gods, and so, by purifications and sacred rites, he who has this madness is made safe for the present adn the after time, and for him who is rightly possessed of madness a release from present ills is found. And a third kind of possession and madness comes from the Muses. This takes hold upon a gentle and pure soul, arouses it and inspires it to songs and other poetry, and thus by adorning countless deeds of the ancients educates later generations. But he who without the divine madness comes to the doors of the Muses, confident that he will be a good poet by art, meets with no success, and the poetry of the sane man vanishes into nothingness before that of the inspired madmen.


I find this passage incredibly provocative, and also in line with much later work about poetic composition, notably Milton's discussion of the Muse visiting him at night. It's so hard to even begin to write about it; the necessity for madness appears in the works of Foucault, the hymns of the Rg Veda, the poetry of Blake and Rimbaud, and the fiction of Nerval, to name only a very few. What does it mean to go mad, and what is the divine form of madness Plato is talking about?

Well, in the dialog, Socrates lists three qualities to this madness, though he says that he might be able to put some more into operation. Fiurst, this madness is a form of prophecy, and has guided countless persons on small and large scales. Second, it has a kind of healing quality, the capacity to dispel not disease, but "ancient family guilt." And third, it produces the most majestic poetry in the world... it is a wellspring of poetic composition, of life and well-being.

But what is it? Later in the dialog, we learn that our "right minds" are the sane ones, but that those are merely the products of human life, and that the madness is really the divine half of things. What if madness is nothing other than the loosening of the corset strings of ego and partition, forgetting and deception? I would guess that it is not merely expression, the crazed release of appetite (which is, perhaps, only the other side of the human side of sanity), but rather the subtle and ranging release of dreams. Perhaps madness is freedom, madness is a river, is blissful release and flight. What if it is the complete release of any sense of control over our lives, or complete submission, whatever that means? I suppose then the right question is how might we begin to strive for this kind of holy insanity, a divine drunkenness? Is this what it is, even? Do we all have tastes of it? How crazy does one have to become?

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