Sunday, February 11, 2007

Favorite Books: Honoring the God: The Pursuit of Ethical Art in The Mask of Apollo

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT. The following is a look at one of my favorite books. If you think you might want to read it, and hate to know anything about a book’s plot in advance, you’ll want to skip this entry. 

Those who know me well know that I avoid ever being pinned down to a single favorite anything, and certainly when it comes to books, choosing one would be like choosing a favorite song, or food. That said, if someone were to insist that I had to answer the question "what book has most influenced you" with only one title, I would, without much hesitation, answer Mary Renault’s The Mask of Apollo.

There is a lot in this novel that struck a chord with me from the very first read (so long ago, I can’t quite remember when it happened, but I think I was thirteen or fourteen), but it is also a book that has grown with me over the years. It’s hard for me now to know what she planted in my personality, and what she merely helped shape, but I look at my life now, and realize that much of what I want from life, as an artist, a responsible citizen, finds expression in this novel.

Set in the time of Plato, with most the action happening in Athens and Syracuse, the book centers on an invented character named Nikeratos (Niko to his friends); he starts the book as a journeyman actor and gains prominence as a first actor (meaning he plays the first roles in a play, and directs the production) by the end of the book. Niko strives to learn his craft, strengthen and improve his art, build a reputation, and career, periodically aided by the oracle of the titular mask. His work and in fact his heroism in the face of danger brings him into contact with Plato, and his friend Dion. The book explores many issues I find valuable, but one of the richest is the way it explores the dynamic confrontation between art and politics.
While devoted to improving as an artist, seeing it as a true religious calling, Niko initially feels it best to avoid politics. "Artists in politics are like the whore’s child at the wedding; we remember things out of season, and get the stick " (p.87) Plato and Dion, on the other hand are firmly committed to the political and philosophical (no difference in the terms really, in their day) goal of bringing about the good life. At their initial meeting Niko recounts,

...Dion had now started talking about plays; and I saw before long that here was a man who could teach me something. Nothing, as a rule, is more tedious than
an amateur ignorant of technique and full of theories; and he was ignorant enough. But what he talked about, he knew. Most of tragedy is concerned with kingship, and the choices it compels men to; and what he said that evening has been of use to me all my life. The theatre, after all, can only teach one how; men as they live must show one why. (p. 68)

Dion becomes a symbol of the good man to Niko, combining wisdom, generosity, physical beauty, strength, bravery and nobility, all in their highest expressions. Initially he derives great inspiration from his very existence, and goes to some lengths to stay in touch with him, always ready to help his cause in any way he can.

This coziness doesn’t last however. Later in the book Niko confronts Dion when he believes he and Plato are working to ban the theatre; the specifics of his information are incorrect, but he discovers there is in fact some truth to the spirit of the accusation. Niko says,

"... I have remembered who I am. I am a citizen of no rank; I don’t understand philosophy; when you were studying, I was playing stand-ins and extras, picking up my trade which you want to take away. But whatever I am, or you choose to call me, one thing I know; I am a servant of the god, and though I honor you and love you, I will obey the god, rather than you." (p 161)

Dion calms them both down, but then continues the debate;

"... What did you mean, Nikeratos, when you said you served the god? Not just that you perform the sacrifices to Dionysus and Apollo, and respect their precinct; but something more?"
‘Surely,’ I said, ‘you don’t need yourself to be an artist, to understand me. It means not setting oneself above one’s poet, nor being false to the truth one knows of men. When one can see that the audience wants the easy thing, or the thing just in fashion and even the judges can’t be trusted not to want it too, for whom does one stay honest? Only for the god.’
‘You hear him speak, and obey him. But could you have heard so clearly, if you had not learned your art from boyhood?’
‘No, I think not. Or not so soon.’
‘Suppose you had been badly trained, and always heard bad worked praised above good.’
‘A great misfortune. But if an artist is anything, sooner or later he thinks for himself. 
‘But others not? Bad teaching spoils them past remedy?
‘Yes, but they are men the theatre can do without.’
‘You mean they can take up some other calling. So they can. But, Nikeratos, all men have to live, either well or badly, as they are taught. If enough are taught badly, the bad will get rid of the good. And you, whether you
choose or not, are a teacher. Young boys, and simple men, don’t go to the theatre to judge of verse; they go to see gods and kings and heroes, to enter the world you make, to steep their minds and souls in it. Can you deny this?’
‘But,’ I said, ‘one plays for men of sense.’
   ‘You keep faith with your art... You will not offend the god with anything unworthy, even though men would reward you for it. But your power stops there. You cannot rewrite your play, though the poet may be doing the very thing you would scorn to do.’
‘That is his business. I am an actor.’ 
‘But you both serve the god. Can his god say one thing, and yours another?’ 
‘I am an actor. He and I must each judge for ourselves.’ 
‘Truly? Yet you have to enter his mind. Have you never once felt you were entering a false world, or an evil one?’ 
I could not lie to him, and replied, ‘Yes, once or twice. Even with Euripides, in his Orestes. Orestes has been wronged, but nothing can excuse his wickedness. Yet one is supposed to play him for sympathy.’ 
‘Did you do so?’ 
‘I was third actor then. I should have to try, I suppose, if I were drawn for it.’ 
‘Because that is the law of the theatre?’ 
‘But, my dear Nikeratos, that is why we want to change it.’ 
‘I understood ...that you wanted to destroy it.’ 
‘No, not so.’ He looked at me with kindness, as if I were a decent soldier he had beaten in war. ‘Plato believes, as I do, that an artist such as you, who can portray nobility, has his place in the good city. In some such way as this: that the parts of base, or passionate or unstable men should be related in narration, while only the good man, who is a fit example, or the gods speaking true doctrine, should be honored by the actor’s imitation. In such a way, nothing evil would strike deep into the hearers’ minds.’
I gazed at him, solemn as an owl. If, having begun to laugh, I could not stop
  which seemed likely, he would despise me for instability. I told myself this, sober up. Not that I feared his displeasure now; as I had said, he was just a man. But the man was dear to me.
‘You mean,’ I said, ‘that in the Hippolytos, for instance, where Phaedra reveals her guilty love, and where Theseus curses his son in ignorance, all that would be narrated? Only Hippolytos would speak?’ 
‘Yes, just so. And we could not admit evil being caused by Aphrodite, who is a god, to a just man.’ 
‘No, I suppose not. And Achilles must not weep for Patroklos nor tear his clothes because that is a failure of self-command?’ 
‘No, indeed.’ 
‘But do you think,’ I asked at length, ‘that any of it would strike deep into the hearers’ minds? You don’t think it might be dull? 
He looked at me, patient, not angry. ‘As wholesome food is, after those Sicilian banquets that have made us the scorn of Hellas. Believe me, our Syracusan cooks are artists too, in their way. Yet you would not lose your figure, health, and looks to please one of them, would you, even if he were a friend? And is not the soul worth more?’ ‘Of course it is. But...’ It was no use, I thought, against a trained wrestler of the Academy. I had learned my art by asking how, rather than why. (pp. 161-164) 
There, in a nutshell, is an argument we’re still having every day, in relation to theatre, music, art, television and film. Is representing human behavior at its ugliest a dangerous action? Does it encourage others to emulate it? Are there good and bad ways of representing the worst of humanity? Is portraying violence, hatred, evil, bestial behavior the same as condoning it? Is it celebrating it? If these troublesome behaviors can be portrayed in ‘responsible’ ways, who decides what that is? And does ‘responsible’ or ‘moral’ art end up being anything other than didactic? Is it nothing more than illustrated sermons? Will it always just be plain boring? 
I love both these men, and appreciate the depth of feeling they each bring to their points of view; I believe they both have the good of others at heart as they debate, though they disagree. I don’t think Niko challenges Dion’s argument very effectively, but my sympathies still lie more with his side. To some extent it may simply be an issue of free speech for me. I don’t think people always behave responsibly with their language or art, but I fear much more the slippery slope of a nanny state when it comes to public discourse. Once we start censoring, I don’t trust us to be able to stop. History is painfully clear that when we start with good intentions and ‘common sense’ regarding censorship, we pretty quickly devolve into the espousal of a single, unquestioned world view, and suppression, often brutal, of anything that doesn't fit that view. 
The two men leave this confrontation feeling the personal rift between them is more or less patched, but each believes his view is unchanged. Later, during a play however, Nikeratos finds himself needing to wrest control of a performance away from those who would abuse it for their own aims, their principle goal being to dishonor, ridicule and, they hope, destroy Dion. I couldn’t possibly sum up that scene, but it is brilliantly realized, and uses one of my favorite plays (Euripides The Bacchae) to do it. Niko honors the god, and his art, and in doing so manages to defeat the people who would have abused the play and Dion for their own ends. Though I don’t think he realizes it at the time, he manages to find the path that honors both his and Dion’s (and Plato’s) views. 
It’s not until later that he discovers how Plato, Dion, and the Academy have affected his thinking. He is rehearsing a play in Syracuse with his friend Thettalos; after rehearsal one day he says to him,

"my dear, I said nothing before the others; but what are you doing with Thersites?’ 
He met my eye in a way I knew, which mean he was going to try to talk me round. ‘Don’t you think it would be new, and in the spirit of the times, to play him for sympathy?’ 
‘What times? The play is about the Trojan War.’ 
‘Well, but it’s true Achilles did kill Patroklos, or cause his death. In Homer, the first thing you hear of Thersites is that he stood up to Agamemnon when he was in the wrong. Who else did?’ 
‘Achilles. Diomedes, Chryses. Odyssesus.’ 
‘Well, Thersites spoke for the common people.’ 
‘No, my dear, just for the mean ones. He is the voice of envy, which hates great good worse than great evil. In this [the playwright] has followed Homer. Penthesilea is the part to play for sympathy; Thersites offers you contrast.’
‘It’s in the modern spirit,’ he said. ‘It’s anti-oligarchical. Let us show the common man rebelling; they can do with that in Syracuse.’ 
‘God help the Syracusans, if they recognize themselves in Thersites. They have forgotten greatness; all the more reason to remind them of it. Achilles’ anger lasted a few days of his life, but scarcely a dramatist has stepped outside them. It is quite bold of [the playwright] to show him at his best; why be afraid of it?’ 
‘O Zeus!’ he said. ‘I believe you think I want to steal the scene. Do you think that?’ 
‘No indeed. I know you. You want to create what your mind has seen. I could do an Achilles to that Thersites; full of nothing but his own importance, indulging his own grief because it’s his, and killing Thersites just for showing him up. It’s not in the lines, but one could put it there. "Who knows? The audience might eat it.’ 
‘Well, then, why not?’ 
‘I suppose because men could be more than they are. Why show them only how to be less?’ 
‘One should show them true to life.’ 
‘How not? But whose? Truth is to reckon on Achilles as well as Thersites... There is truth even in Patroklos, who couldn’t pass by a wounded man, and whom the slave-girls wept for because he never spoke them an unkind word. The world is not Thersites’, unless we give it him. 
‘Dear Niko, I didn’t mean to put you out. Don’t think of it again. You are directing, and I promised to be good. I just thought it would freshen the theme a little.’ 
As he walked on, I wondered how much of what I’d said I had picked up from the men of the Academy, even while rejecting their views. (pp. 261-262)

Thettalos does keep his promise, and begins rehearsing the role as Niko sees it, though at first he seems to swing too far the other way, removing all humanity from the character. Niko knows this is not intentional on his part, and simply leaves it for Thettalos to ‘settle down’ in the role. Then Thettalos meets Plato for the first time, and sees him at his best, while surrounded by enemies, mostly the mercenary troops of Syracuse, determined to destroy him. Once he and Niko have gotten to safety, he says,

‘Well, you have won, you monster. I will have to reconsider Thersites.’
He was a great success. Whether the troops would have recognized themselves I am not sure, but the audeince left them in no doubt. [The playwright], terribly putout, said it would have been as much as any judge’s life was worth to give the play a prize, and we thought I better to leave the city before dawn the next day. (p274)

The book puts a fictional character in historical events, and doing so may give weight to one side of the debate between Niko and Dion; thus it may be unfair of me to leave with the answer I do, but I usually end up finishing the book feeling like Niko’s world view, while no less idealistic (indeed I think he and Dion agree on more than they disagree), is somehow more resilient. Throughout the book Dion is present as strong, but unyielding, even to rigidity, and I think this is his undoing. Niko says himself that he will be forgotten long after Plato and Dion are still celebrated and he’s right... but I can’t escape the feeling that he somehow gets closer to the good life they all seek. At the very least I feel like his idealism is still intact by the end, having perhaps been built on a more solid foundation from the beginning. I realize this assertion is pretty vague, but that's in part because I don't want to give away too much of the book's ending. I'm still hoping to convince some of you to give it a look for yourselves. 
The book is not without its flaws, of course. There is a casual sexism at times which, while quite true to the time period, may grate on some readers. Even this is not without its mitigation, however, though I won’t say more about that now. Niko is also more given to using ‘theatrical metaphors’ than I care for (you know, like those commercials where the speaker tells us she’s a teacher and says things like "I give Advil an A!"), but I also appreciate how he often uses them to deflate the pomposity of a situation. When it was first published, Renault (a classics scholar, one of the first women to graduate from Oxford), was credited with her remarkably detailed portrayal of 4th Century Greece; I know now that some scholars question her accuracy, but I feel her vivid portrayals of living people is still undimmed. I come back to this book pretty often, and always feel inspired when I do. If you've read this book, I'd love to know what you thought of it, it would be great to discuss it with someone. I'd also be curious to know of any books you find yourself returning to on a regular basis.


Jeff Wills said...

Of course, you are the only reason I have read this book, Patrick. I'm abashed to admit that reading it while in Italy (and in large part while feverish) may have skanted my perspective on it. I should probably read it activity I almost never engage in. So no promises. I feel, all that aside, that Niko comes out on top, idealogically speaking, but that it's in part because, as an artist, he of necessity maintains a certain distance of perspective on events as they unfold around him. Whereas the politicians and philosophers around him are forced to stand in representation of their views, he gets to stand in presentation. That's not to say he's not held accountable; he is, and his loves influence him as much as the populace influence Dion. But, like most artists, part of Niko's power (lent to him/us by god[s]) is the ability to stand outside and say something without being killed for it. We hope.

Patrick said...

First off, I never expect people to read the books I give them ONCE let alone twice (gifts, not homework, remember?)so no promises are expected or required. Reading this book while in pain, and feverish, I can't imagine that makes it an appealing experience to return to. I'm curious though about your habit of not returning to books. Is that true for plays as well? I know it's not true for movies for you. Just curious, but that's for a different discussion.
I agree that the stakes for Niko are significantly lower than for Dion/Plato; he even says himself, but I don't think I agree with the idea of him being 'at a distance'. Even before Dion tells him 'you're a teacher whether you accept it or not', he is already well aware that his artistic choices have repercussions in the larger community. Only later does he start to see them in political terms. I think he sees art as a way to engage with the issues that matter to us as people, communities, and cultures, and he starts to recognize the responsibility that gives him. I think he, Plato, and Dion all recognize that not everyone comes up to their standards of responsible citizenship, and they engage the issue with differing amounts of paternalism at times. Maybe this is one of the hardest aspects to deal with in any democracy. In general I feel like Niko is less surprised than the other two when people fail to respond to noble actions by rising to their own nobility. This is part of what I think gives him greater resilience; he knows people can let you down, and he doesn't let that demolish or control his moral choices. He isn't leading an army, or a government, so like I said, his stakes are lower, but I don't think this means he's standing outside the situation.
You're helping me refine my view of the book; part of what I love about it is the portrayal of an artist who sees his work as entertainment, religious calling, and moral exploration, with no one part being more or less important than the others. The recognition of this fact is part of what made Plato address the issue of theatre in his Republic in the first place. It's also why theatre is routinely one of the first things banned when a dictatorship takes over. I like your structure of artists standing in presentation of something, while leaders/philosophers stand in representation, but he and Dion agree that it is still up to him to decide what he chooses to present, and that is a moral responsibility he should (and does) take seriously.