The Plato Papers
by Peter Ackroyd

First appeared in The Ottawa Citizen
Reviewed by Elisabeth Harvor


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?

Peter 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.

In 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.

I 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!"

The 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.

Plato, 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 civilization."

Part 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 inspired:

dead end: a place where corpses were taken

literature: a word of unknown provenance, generally attributed to litter or waste

A competitive reader, I came up with two of my own:

cat scan: the eye-shading gesture with which a cat looks out to sea, possibly trying to spot the owl and the pussycat in their pea-green boat

instant teller: impromptu raconteur

And 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:

instant teller: a person who can't keep a secret for even a single minute

The 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.

© 2002 Elisabeth Harvor. All Rights Reserved.
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