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EXITSThe four essays in this collection revolve around a basic question: after the shocking and irredeemable acts of genocide in the mid-20th century, do we now live in the twilight of one of the main platforms that inform western philosophy? Has the Platonic legacy (and its influence on a wide range of disciplines from science to the arts) exhausted itself, or is it simply undergoing a recalibration, adopting a different face as it searches for a means of escape from any accusations of blame? If it is indeed looking for an exit, then where will such a doorway lead?
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© Noel Gray 2015
Book cover: original photograph by Natalia Y. (on unsplash.com), digitally altered by Ondina Press
THE POETIC EXIT
THE CHAMELEON EXIT
THE POISONED EXIT
THE DIVINE EXIT
Exits is the first book in a series that covers a period of twenty-five or more years of academic writing by the author. Some essays in this series have previously appeared as book chapters in other scholars' publications, while several appeared as articles in numerous American, Australasian, Middle Eastern, and European academic journals. Other essays originated as conference papers, and several as invited responses to keynote and conference speakers; a few have been re-drafted from guest lectures given by the author. The last in the series, Screens, is a scaled-down version of the author's doctoral thesis in which he initially developed his early ideas concerning the philosophy of geometry. Other elements from the thesis also appear throughout the rest of the series.
The themes included in the entire series range from philosophy to geometry, from aesthetics to cultural studies, and from science to fine arts. Many have either as a central or as a cursory element the role that geometry, and by extension, the image, play in the production and construction of meaning in both the sciences and the humanities. Others touch on the truth claims made by various disciplines, while some seek to examine obliquely the porous nature of what many disciplines consider their boundaries. The role and mercurial nature of specific metaphors is also a recurring theme in many of the essays.
In most cases, the texts have been wholly or partially trimmed of their original academic format in the hope of making their contents more appealing to a wider audience.
Janus: One of the oldest of the Roman deities, and god of all doorways and passages, of beginnings, transitions, and ends. As such, his name is the first to be invoked in prayers to all other gods. The first month of the year is named after him, and he is usually depicted with two faces, one looking to the future, the other to the past. The double doors of his temple were left opened during times of war, and closed during times of peace. When open, citizens could enter to seek solace and comfort. The doors were closed only three times during the life of ancient Rome.
The four essays in this collection (and to varying degrees throughout the series) revolve around a basic question: after the shocking and irredeemable acts of genocide in the mid-20 th century, do we now live in the twilight of one of the main platforms that inform western philosophy? More precisely, has the Platonic legacy (and its influence on a wide range of disciplines from science to the arts) exhausted itself, or is it simply undergoing a recalibration, adopting a different face? Is this legacy now involved in a theatre-of-masks, one that is desirous of saving its elevated position and relevance in the scheme of western thought? Or is it simply morphing into a ghost, a haunting and loitering presence immersed in a drama of denial and forgetfulness, all the while casting its gaze around for a means of escape?
If it is indeed looking for an exit, then where will such a doorway lead? Will it be to an end, or to a new beginning? Equally, tantalising, is the conundrum that the end of the beginning is also the beginning of the end. The seeming resolution of this riddle is some middle plateau that morphs out of one and into the other. However, defining the character of this interface leads back into the conundrum. Hence, the ancients' wisdom in praying to Janus, a deity that looked both ways simultaneously; an other-worldly power that no doubt would still be considered an ideal gift by those inexorably driven by fate to either exit the ethereal realm of Platonic reason replete with its ideal forms, or erect barricades in its defence.
Modern philosophy has many procedures for forgetting, for putting its troubles behind it. Of these, none is perhaps as interesting or as alluring as the poetic exit. To slip quietly through this magic door of fantasy - with philosophy hoping, yet then discovering it is unable to leave its unwanted baggage behind - takes but a slight exercise of the imagination to see the appeal in such a journey.
Nietzsche, in his Birth of Tragedy, gives us an image of an ancient process, which in our time, and peculiarly, has become this exit:
The Platonic dialogue was, as it were, the barge on which the shipwrecked ancient poetry saved herself with all her children: crowded into a narrow space and timidly submitting to the single pilot, Socrates, they now sailed into a new world, which never tired of looking at the fantastic spectacle of this procession. Indeed, Plato has given to all prosperity the model of a new art form, the model of the novel…which may be described as an infinitely enhanced Aesopian fable, in which poetry holds the same rank in relation to dialectical philosophy as this same philosophy held for many centuries in relation to theology: namely, the rank of ancilla. This was the new position into which Plato, under the pressure of the demonic Socrates, forced poetry. Here philosophic thought overgrows art and compels it to cling close to the trunk of dialectic. The Apollinian tendency has withdrawn into the cocoon of logical schematism.
Of more recent date, we can witness Michel Serres, in his Genesis, explaining yet another perilous voyage:
As I was sailing along that summer, under a dazzling sky, and drifting lazily in the wind and the sun, I found myself, one fine morning, in the green and stagnant waters of the Sargasso Sea, at a mysterious spot where thousands of tiny sparks, all shapes and all colours, were glimmering crazily in the early morning light. Bearing off, I was dumbfounded to see an area almost two hundred and fifty acres square entirely populated by dancing bottles. There were countless little vessels, and each one no doubt bore its message; each had its freight and each had its buoyant little role, ballasted with sea-rack and rockery; each carried its hope and its despair. The coiling winds had compelled them all there, from far and near, from a thousand different quadrants. Their constant and perilous collisions made for an acute and cacophonic carillon, and this noise mounted heavenward, wafted to the horizon, it filled all space with giddy ecstasy.
The following night, a wide Sargasso put me in danger of shipwreck. I just about foundered. Swiftly I made a raft of some of the bottles, they worked well as floats and bladders, and thus did I make my way back to Bordeaux.
Forgetfulness is at work between these two suppliants of poetry. In Nietzsche’s account a barge rescues the shipwrecked survivors of ancient poetry. The pilot of this barge is none other than Socrates. The price for rescue is high. Poetry must take the position of ancilla; the handmaiden to philosophy. It must forget its past; forget that time before it became shackled to philosophy.
Then, incredibly, centuries later, philosophy is again sailing these treacherous waters. This time it is philosophy adrift and in danger of being shipwrecked, entangled in Nature's kelp-gloved grip. In his contemporary barge the captain, Serres, sees countless dancing bottles brought together not by the messages of hope and despair they might contain, but by the wind. It is clear every message is disjoined from its neighbouring bottle; yet each bottle bangs against the other, making a racket; the noise of their clashes rises skyward, drifting to a distant horizon; a platonic image, of sorts – one staying true to Serres’ cultural heritage.
There may be a rhyme in this collection of bottles, but no reason. They are only together because of the wind. With rhyme but no reason, an image of these bottles as poetry and her children is irresistible. Then, in one of the most extraordinary passages in the history of philosophy, the captain tells us he knows his ship is in peril and to survive he must make a raft of these bottles. He uses it to support his endangered vessel, and thereafter heads back to the shore and safety. How does he do this?
He (presumably) lashes the bottles together to form a raft. Presumably their clashing cacophony is stopped by the lashings – a tying-down that is so easily conceived as a logic schematic, or a binding into a certain order. The errant bottles have now become little more than a glass collar; a life buoy, with their internal messages still unread.
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