Bring Me To Life…


In the recent thread discussing Lao Tzu [stderr] commenter obscure1 mentioned Chuang Tze as having “a cast of characters” and it reminded me of a thing that I discovered about myself back in 2008. The market was crashing and people all around me were losing their jobs. Companies weren’t hiring high-priced consultants, either, so I had a lot of free time and decided to catch up on re-reading my shelf of philosophy.

A symposium of one (Peter Greenaway)

I’d always had trouble with Plato’s dialogues. They seemed flat and dull to me, but one day I realized that the reason they sounded flat and dull is because my inner voice is apparently flat and dull! Because I had a drive to make, I bought a set of Audio CDs of the dialogues and fired them up when I hit the road. Suddenly, it wasn’t boring and it made more sense to me; when reading it quietly, a lot of the dialectic sounded over-wordy and tedious. But when I heard it as audio, I realized that there are spots where Plato appears to have put in a few extra bits of wordiness to give time for a piece to sink in, here or there.

Here’s the text:

Euthyphro. Why have you left the Lyceum, Socrates? and what are you doing in the Porch of the King Archon? Surely you cannot be concerned in a suit before the King, like myself?
Socrates. Not in a suit, Euthyphro; impeachment is the word which the Athenians use.
Euth. What! I suppose that some one has been prosecuting you, for I cannot believe that you are the prosecutor of another.
Soc. Certainly not.
Euth. Then some one else has been prosecuting you?
Soc. Yes.
Euth. And who is he?
Soc. A young man who is little known, Euthyphro; and I hardly know him: his name is Meletus, and he is of the deme of Pitthis. Perhaps you may remember his appearance; he has a beak, and long straight hair, and a beard which is ill grown.
Euth. No, I do not remember him, Socrates. But what is the charge which he brings against you?
Soc. What is the charge? Well, a very serious charge, which shows a good deal of character in the young man, and for which he is certainly not to be despised. He says he knows how the youth are corrupted and who are their corruptors. I fancy that he must be a wise man, and seeing that I am the reverse of a wise man, he has found me out, and is going to accuse me of corrupting his young friends.

It’s maybe just me, but I have trouble with that. If you don’t, more power to you. But, now listen to the full cast recording. This is from the David Shaw-Parker, Tom Griffith full cast recording (2006) [amazon] It appears to be unavailable but perhaps there are other recordings elsewhere.

What do you think? Do you find that more consumable?

BBC did a production of The Symposium as a modern piece of people having a dinner party. I think it sort of misses the mark; though it would probably have been wonderful if Peter Greenaway had directed it and it had the production values of The Draughtman’s Contract (and it would make a lot more sense)

Aside from imagining what Peter Greenaway would do with Plato, I wonder what Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of Hamilton could do with philsophical classics. Rapping Marx? Nietzsche as opera (with music by Wagner, of course)?

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PS – I still haven’t been able to handle Dostoevsky. And, oh, boy, now I see audible has a dramatized full cast version. I wonder if it would be as soporific as the text.

Comments

  1. says

    For me it’s actually vice versa. If I have to read texts with extra bits of wordiness, I prefer a written form, because this way I can get over the text faster. My normal reading speed is a lot faster than human talking speed. Depending on the text, sometimes I even switch to my speed reading mode, namely, I skip sentences (or even parts of the text) and slow down to read more carefully only for the meaningful parts. If I’m listening to an audiobook, I don’t want to be constantly thinking “this is boring, I wish they spoke faster and skipped the meaningless sentences altogether.”

    If I have to tolerate wordiness, I at least want the language to be beautiful. Nietzsche’s “Zarathustra” is a perfect example for this. It’s a long text, it’s full of silly ideas, but the language is so beautiful that I’m willing to read the whole thing anyway.

    As for Dostoyevsky, his “Crime and Punishment” was in the obligatory literature list for my school. After reading the first 80 or so pages I was totally bored, so I just read a plot summary and pretended that I have read the whole book during the literature test. My favorite among Russian classics would be “The Master and Margarita”. At least it was fun to read.

    I read what I find interesting. Just because a book was famous over 100 years ago (and is therefore called “classic”) doesn’t mean that I have a duty to read it. And when I had obligatory literature lists at school and university, I just cheated and read summaries for every text I found too boring to actually read it all.

  2. says

    Audio is very difficult for me, I drift off. I had no trouble reading the bit of dialogues you quoted; I find it perfectly understandable. It seems that as years go by, I know more and more people who much prefer audio for all their ‘reading’, from light to serious. I don’t think one is better than the other, whatever works applies.

    As for Dostoevsky, skip Crime and Punishment. I have no idea why the work is so damn vaunted by some, it’s boring as fuck, and positively drowning in “uses 10 unnecessary words for every necessary one”.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    I’ve been reading Existential Comics recently for condensed philosophy. http://existentialcomics.com/ For some reason I find that it helps the ideas to stick better when there are faces to go with them.

    Socrates always seems to be portrayed as a bit of a jerk, though.

  4. says

    Caine and Ieva – it sounds like maybe it’s me. Come to think of it, I love seeing Shakespeare performed but I can’t stand reading the plays. Perhaps it’s something about how I visualize things..? Interesting.

    I try hard not to assume that everyone works like I do; this may be one of those cases where that assumption pays off.

  5. cartomancer says

    Plato was, of course, writing his dialogues for spoken performance. He had a somewhat disdainful attitude towards the written word, and was brought up in a millieu where discussion and philosophical debate were entirely face to face. Writing was seen merely as a tool of convenience to aid the memory.

    In fact, most Greek literature from the 5th and 4th centuries works this way. If Homer could do it then so could everyone else. Every drama teacher points out that plays need to be spoken aloud to be properly appreciated, but when it comes to ancient Greek plays it must also be borne in mind that many of the actors – certainly many of the chorus, who were regular citizens doing a civic duty – would have been illiterate, and so would need to be taught their lines by the playwright, rather than left to memorise them from a script.

  6. says

    Marcus:

    Come to think of it, I love seeing Shakespeare performed but I can’t stand reading the plays. Perhaps it’s something about how I visualize things..? Interesting.

    I think people have different ways of processing stuff that relies on the active use of imagination. For a lot of people, audio literally does bring things to life for them, making it easier to channel what they hear into their imagination, and fly from there.

    When I read something like the snippet of dialogues, that’s all visualised as various people standing about and speaking, that’s what happens in my head. I can hear them in my head. Not all things I read are like that, I have different ways of channeling different material. Perhaps it’s a matter of habit; I’ve had my nose in a book from age three. Audio cues different channels in me, listening, expanse of thought, and interacting. It’s the last two that get me into trouble with audio, to the point that it’s useless for me in regard to books. I might get completely distracted by a turn of phrase, or idea, then I’m off and running thinking, and my impulse is to talk with someone about my thoughts. By the time I remember the book, it’s gone on for some time while I was completely unaware of it.

    Printed material allows for me to highlight, make notes, bookmark, all that. One of the reasons I’m now so addicted to books in electronic form is being able to go a bit nuts on all those things, without having to deface actual books.

    Shakespeare, hmmm. I have a great love of reading the plays, and read them often throughout the years, but I do find a bliss and life in the performance that’s lacking in the reading. I expect it should be that way with plays, though. They weren’t intended for reading.

  7. John Morales says

    While reading a page, one can’t really do much but read. When listening to audio, one can do other stuff but at the cost of some attentiveness. Different media.

    In general, I personally prefer to read — I can process stuff at my own pace, pause to reflect, re-read something immediately, skim, indeed jump around the text quite conveniently. Whether paper or screen, the medium is more amenable for me. But I’m not averse to listening to narrative (e.g. novels) where those advantages are mostly moot.

  8. John Morales says

    Caine @6,

    When I read something like the snippet of dialogues, that’s all visualised as various people standing about and speaking, that’s what happens in my head. I can hear them in my head.

    Wow. I totally lack that ability. To me, it’s just text, divorced from any auditory quality.

  9. says

    To Caine
    As for Dostoevsky, skip Crime and Punishment. I have no idea why the work is so damn vaunted by some, it’s boring as fuck, and positively drowning in “uses 10 unnecessary words for every necessary one”.

    My problem with “Crime and Punishment” wasn’t excess of words, but an annoying plot/main character. The book starts with an obnoxious guy bullshitting about his entitlement, how he’s better than everybody and how it’s OK to murder people. Then he murders somebody. The rest of the book is his whining about his sense of guilt. Whenever I find the main character obnoxious (and this character certainly was), it becomes really hard for me to read a novel, because not only I don’t care what happens next, but I actually find the whole book annoying.

  10. says

    cartomancer@#5:
    Plato was, of course, writing his dialogues for spoken performance.

    I, of course, did not realize that. Because, if I had spent a few seconds musing about literacy at the period, and the high cost of transmitting writing, I would have figured that out. Picture me reading your comment and slapping my forehead, as I have many times when reading your comments.

    In fact, most Greek literature from the 5th and 4th centuries works this way. If Homer could do it then so could everyone else. Every drama teacher points out that plays need to be spoken aloud to be properly appreciated, but when it comes to ancient Greek plays it must also be borne in mind that many of the actors – certainly many of the chorus, who were regular citizens doing a civic duty – would have been illiterate, and so would need to be taught their lines by the playwright, rather than left to memorise them from a script.

    Now I am wondering whether there is textural criticism of Plato or Homer. Presumably, there must be whole trees of mutations that can be tracked. Or, perhaps, people only care enough to do that work when it’s the “words of god” not merely some old philosopher or playwright.

  11. says

    Caine@#6: and John Morales@#8:
    I think people have different ways of processing stuff that relies on the active use of imagination. For a lot of people, audio literally does bring things to life for them, making it easier to channel what they hear into their imagination, and fly from there.

    Definitely! And I hadn’t really thought about it until I did this posting, which is why: there’s a definite sense in my mind that I am experiencing something different. My experience between reading a book and a full cast audiobook is remarkably different. I’m careful here to emphasize “full cast” because there are other audiobooks that are simply read, and I enjoy those but the experience is more like me reading semi aloud.

    I also find that some voices put me to sleep and others don’t!! I have some of the Blackstone audio recordings of philosophical masterworks, and some are narrated by Grover Gardiner, others by Charlton Heston. Now, Heston has such a yummy resonant quintessential American New England voice, it puts me right to sleep. I am not aware of any associations that predispose me to that, but it’s notable. I had a similar experience with an audiobook of Howard Zinn, and I was almost knocked unconscious by Matt Damon’s delivery. Wouldn’t it be funny if I found myself riveted by a version recorded by Ben Affleck? No, let’s not find out.

    Wow. I totally lack that ability.

    Me too! I have different “modes” of reading including a very fast mode where I am looking for familiar shapes of pages (trying to find a quote I remember vaguely), another where it feels like I am watching a movie (how I read novels), and one where I am relishing the language and sentence structure. None of them is at all verbal. But when I write, it’s verbal; I force myself to write and hear my words in my head in my own voice, so I can try to at least capture the flow somewhat realistically.

  12. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#9:
    My problem with “Crime and Punishment” wasn’t excess of words, but an annoying plot/main character. The book starts with an obnoxious guy bullshitting about his entitlement, how he’s better than everybody and how it’s OK to murder people.

    Yes!

    I occasionally encounter books where the characters simply don’t make sense in my own head (often with deeply religious characters) I find myself shutting the book going, “nope.” It’s a translation issue, I think: I have to translate the characters’ motivations into some inner Marcus-form and then I can see how the actions make or don’t make sense. In a character that I can’t follow, I lose them, so the story becomes a mess to me.

    Caine suggested I read some of the Fred Vargas mystery stories, and there is a character in there who resonates so strongly with me, that I felt constant little shocks of recognition, as he did exactly what I expected he’d do in various situations. It was very pleasant. A character whose motivations don’t trigger that sort of feeling – feels like work to read about.

  13. says

    brucegee1962@#3:
    Socrates always seems to be portrayed as a bit of a jerk, though.

    For reasons I can’t explain, that reminded me of a long-ago issue of Mad Magazine, where they were parodying Classics Illustrated comics, including Plato, in which Socrates was portrayed as an annoying protagonist who keeps knocking down his opponents with his witty logic.

  14. jimmf says

    I have a difficult time staying focused on audio and normally much prefer reading to listening. Recently I’ve tried using audacity to speed audio works up a bit. I find the distorting of the voice unpleasant, but remain focused on the content much better.

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