WE HAVE NOT LIVED THE RIGHT LIFE
Imagine this: In 1956 you fall into a coma, but you miraculously
come out of it in 1999 (the year The Plato Papers was published).
What will you make of late 20th century vernacular? Words
and phrases like trekkie, techie, hacker, hard drive, wordperfect,
Nasdeq composite index, and the world wide web?
Ackroyd, the British novelist who wrote Hawksmoor and Milton
in America and who is also a biographer (Ezra Pound, T. S.
Eliot, Dickens, Blake, and Thomas More) sets out to hazard
a guess, not by parachuting a character--via a miraculous
recovery--from a prior era into our own era, but by giving
a character from the future access to certain puzzling words
and artifacts from our own time.
the world of Ackroyd's The Plato Papers there are four ages:
In the Age of Orpheus (3,000 B.C.- 300 B.C.) myth reigned.
It was "the springtime of the world", an age when
"flowers sprang from the blood of wounded heroes"
and "the gods themselves took the shape of swans or bulls
from the simple delight in transformation". But then
along came the much more grim Age of the Apostles. "The
Apostles propagated a doctrine that the human race had committed
some terrible offense, of unknown origin, which could only
be expiated by prayer and penance; it was not long, in fact,
before pain was valued for its own sake." This was why
the angels rarely touched down for a visit: There was no chance
for intelligent conversation. But this superstitious and psychically
dark age ended c. 1500 A.D. and the Age of Mouldwarp began,
a time of the dimming of the stars and the burning of the
machines. And after the "Collapsophe" that ends
the Age of Mouldwarp, Ackroyd takes us into the curiously
medieval Age of Witspell--an age in which the scientists discover
that the real world is not a material world but a tremendous
world of inner beauty and light, the world of Witspellian
London c. 2300 A.D. - 3400 A.D.
must confess that when I first read the jacket copy on the
inside of The Plato Papers and saw that Plato "lectures
on The Origin of Species by the nineteenth-century novelist
Charles Dickens" I was enraged on behalf of writers everywhere.
How was it possible that no one at Ackroyd's publishing house
had noticed that some idiot of an in-house proof-reader had
allowed the name "Dickens" to replace the name "Darwin"?
But in fact the jacket copy is a preview of coming attractions:
A great deal in the Age of Witspell is complacently misinterpreted
and inventively misunderstood. All this is made clear (in
an absurdist sort of way) as Ackroyd's narrator places Dickens,
not Darwin, on the "extraordinarily named Beagle",
and then goes on to say, "It is the final masterstroke
of irony by Charles Dickens that his character solemnly maintains
the pretence of discussing only birds and insects while at
the same time providing a wonderfully succinct if brutal summary
of the society from which he came!"
narrator (or in this case the heartfelt pontificator) of The
Plato Papers has improbably but usefully been named Plato
and, like his ancient namesake, he is an orator. Wonderful
use is made, in his pronouncements, of the phrase "of
course", in the sense that it almost always precedes
a statement of marvellously misinformed lunacy delivered (or
course) with misbegotten authority. Plato believes that there
was a sort of clown in the Age of Mouldwarp whose name was
Freud--"no doubt pronounced 'Fraud'"--who was the
author of a comic handbook entitled Jokes and Their Relation
to the Unconscious.
like his Athenian predecessor, also makes a journey to an
underworld where he is given a vision of the "real",
and his orations on the subject lead to his being charged
with corrupting the youth of Witspellian London. This Orphic
expedition reveals a London that is, relatively speaking,
much closer to our own time, a city whose inhabitants have
"no use for the present except as an avenue to the future"
even though, as Plato notes, they experience a great horror
of death. This is certainly the truth as we know it, but the
book is mainly dominated by an even more Alice-in-Wonderland
absurdity, with Plato, by a series of loony deductions, arriving
not at the truth, but at the very opposite of the truth. Which
is what happens in one of the book's most enjoyable sequences
when Ackroyd brings the casket of Edgar Allen Poe into the
narrative: "The casket itself had been fashioned from
some unknown metallic substance, and on its side it still
bore the faintly discernible legend, E. A. Poe. American.
1809-1849; when it was opened it was found to contain a text
of black type inscribed 'Tales and Histories'...The eminence
and status of the author are not in doubt. The name, for example,
is not difficult to interpret. Poe is an abbreviation of Poet,
and by common consent the rest was deciphered: E.A. Poe =
Eminent American Poet. It seems clear enough that the writers
of America enjoyed a blessed anonymity, even in the Age of
Mouldwarp. The word 'poet' is known to all of us but as there
are no chants or hymns in 'Tales and Histories' we believe
the term was applied indiscriminately to all writers of that
parlour game, part caveat, part inventive glossary that gives
a new meaning to 20th century words and phrases, The Plato
Papers supplies the reader with new definitions for "sexist",
"wisdom teeth", and "zero tolerance".
Clearly these are meant to be hilarious, but the danger is
that some (and perhaps many) readers will come up with funnier
ones on their own. (Although this could also be, for some,
one of the book's pleasures.) Two examples of Ackroyd definitions
follow, the first one too predictable, the second one more
end: a place where corpses were taken
a word of unknown provenance, generally attributed to litter
competitive reader, I came up with two of my own:
scan: the eye-shading gesture with which a cat looks out to
sea, possibly trying to spot the owl and the pussycat in their
teller: impromptu raconteur
very pleased I was with them, too, as I basked in the pleasure
of one-upping Ackroyd, at least until I quoted them to a friend
who then proceeded to one-up me:
teller: a person who can't keep a secret for even a single
Plato Papers is a pastiche of theories, jokes, and writing
styles. Sometimes I found it entertaining, sometimes I found
it morally complex, sometimes I found it irritating. But perhaps
its real imperative is to act as a lively warning, since it
tells us what, as citizens of our toxic and polluted world,
we can't be told often enough: We are not now living--and
have not lived--the right life.