Tag Archives: Plato

FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT

During lockdown, the Melbourne Jewish Book Week conducted its annual gala on-line. The theme this year was Fake It till You Make It. Each of the 6 performers wrote and performed a piece. There was poetry, non-fiction, and music. I wrote a short story which I have posted below. I had quite a lot of fun writing it, and even more performing it.

FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT

Cleo, goddess of poetry and epic fiction, surveyed the Fake Room from her office on the mezzanine floor. It was Thursday, and the Fake Room was already crowded. She anticipated an uncomfortable crush come Sunday, just before the room was emptied out in preparation for the new week. How times had changed. At this rate there might need to be two clean-outs a week – a situation unknown and unimaginable throughout the entire history of humankind.

Cleo thought fondly of the days when weeks could go by with scant occupancy of the Fake Room, allowing her to get on with her epic poetry. And when people did come in, such a different type of man from the current crop. She remembered Clinton, who DID have sexual relations with Monica; the charm of the man, it wouldn’t have been out of the question that she, Cleo, would have engaged in a bit of canoodling herself. And Hawkey, who did NOT give up booze and Blanche despite what he said, she always looked forward to his visits to the Fake Room. Caesar had been a favourite, and a Byron week was never a disappointment, and Bellow – well, despite his five marriages or, perhaps, because of them, he was a man to love.

The Fake Room is actually the Room for Liars, but ‘Fake’ sounds so much more benign than ‘liar’. As the muse of epic poetry and fiction, Cleo is, in a very real sense, mistress of the word, but she does report to a higher authority. If left to her, she would be calling a spade a spade (so to speak). But don’t be fooled: in the contemporary era, fake is most certainly a synonym for lie and liar. 

From her cubby, she surveyed the current rabble. All the usuals were there, indeed, they might as well change their address permanently. Trump, formally of the White House was chanting ‘Make ME Great again’ while he negotiated with Putin for a new Trump towers in St Petersburg – and his return to the White House in 2024. 

‘Or perhaps Don Junior,’ he said with that peculiar pursing of the lips which reminded Cleo of porn films. 

Boris was covering sheets of paper with pithy slogans to replace ‘get Brexit done’ given Brexit was done – on paper at least. He shouted out each possibility and gauged the response: make Britain great again, he said, (Trump glared); better than French (Le Pen glared); British beer for the Krauts (in the absence of a German, the Austrian Freedom Party leader, Norbert Hofer glared). 

While Boris pursued his next pithy statement, Scott Morrison was putting his hopes in thoughts and prayers, as he juggled how good is coal with how good is gas with how good am I. None of the internationals took any notice of his efforts, but that didn’t bother him; seems Nero Morrison lacks more than the empathy gene; in fact, he doesn’t care about the opinion of the rest of the world: they don’t vote in the Australian elections; and, as a marketing man, he knows the importance of identifying the target audience and feeding them what they need to hear. With his handling of Covid he had the Australian people on side and how good was that? But now, with the vaccine roll-out he is struggling, and the recent spate of sexual accusations is sorely testing him. Jen is doing her best to help him understand (‘Imagine it is your daughter’), but his recent obfuscation about what he knew and when he knew it, coupled with the vaccine fiasco, has, in recent weeks, provided him with a permanent seat in the Fake Room.

Cleo again found her thoughts turning to the old days. The company was extremely good back then and she was happy to leave her desk and mingle with the throng. Aristophanes, Lenny Bernstein, Rilke, Dante – this is a men’s club, not exclusively but overwhelmingly, and it would seem that every man has at least one whopper in him. But today’s rabble is all mindless, narcissistic fakery and there’s no charm nor engagement in that. And the dearth of originality in their lies beggars belief – although belief itself, belief based on sound research seems to have become redundant. For these men with their cravings for power, no lie is too bombastic, no conspiracy theory too bizarre.

What strikes her as extraordinary is the greatest lie of all: so many of these men have pledged themselves to public service, yet they don’t give a damn about the public.

In the modern era, the Fake Room requires so much work. 

Back in the old days, emerging from some excellent conversations, her own fiction and poetry progressed through the pens of Dostoyevsky and Dante, her fellow countrymen Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and many other notable luminaries. Eleanor Roosevelt came a couple of times (the incomparable Eleanor and how Cleo wished she’d had come to stay more often). Fortunately when Eleanor did spend time in The Fake Room – it was that issue with the girlfriend – it was not during the same weeks as her husband. Ted Hughes, Philip Roth, Jean of Arc, the list goes on. These days, the goodies have mostly been forced out. 

And the dramas and highlights of the old days. There were some doozies. Like the time Plato lobbied, ex post facto, to get Homer a prolonged stay in The Fake Room for certain fabrications in the Iliad– no anachronism here as time is not linear in the Fake Room. Plato failed, but it took all Cleo’s ingenuity to get him to back down. Plato was not a good listener, he preferred to orchestrate all dialogue, making him a hard man to convince, and Cleo’s being a woman certainly didn’t help – you will recall not a single woman participated in his symposium. Fortunately though, being a woman, Cleo’s reason was tempered with patience, and she brought him round in the end.

One day during the Covid lockdown when truth-telling, one would think, was more important than ever, and yet the Fake Room was so full that social distancing was impossible, Cleo was watching the boys playing ‘mine is more powerful than yours’. And gradually it dawned on her that there was a way of stopping them, of restoring this place to what it once was. 

The solution had been staring her in the face. 

Cleo, the muse of poetry and epic fiction, had always known about the power of fiction to expose, illuminate and generally bear truths. 

It was time to act.

From that moment on, apart from marking the roll, Cleo left the Fake Room occupants to look after themselves. These guys were never going to make it, not if her plan worked. For several months, she lived on coffee and Red Bull while she wrote and revised, read and reread. When satisfied with her work, she sent the manuscript – quite a hefty tome, to her agent, who had been waiting millennia for it. 

THE BOYS LAID BARE, by Hannah Luxenburg, was published simultaneously in a dozen territories throughout the world. The media for the book was Trump-sized, it was an overnight sensation: the revelations fuelled conversations across the globe. 

Hannah Luxemburg, it seemed, had come out of nowhere. But appear she did. Immediately, the fixers, the lobbyists, the official spy agencies, the mum-and-dad conspiracy spooks got to work, striving to outdo one another in uncovering the author’s dirt – to do unto her as she had done in the BOYS LAID BARE to so many others. Because dirt there must be; politically speaking there is always dirt. And when they found no dirt, they faked dirt. But Cleo was the woman who had talked Plato round so these guys didn’t stand a chance.

After millenia of managing the fake room, Cleo knows more about faking it than the fakers. She knows that you can fake it all you like, but that’s not the way to make it. 

No, not at all. 

Call her old-fashioned, but Cleo is a gal wedded to honesty. And, with a mind full of curiosity and a pen in her hand, she has learned there’s nothing like fiction to reveal the truth.

READING DANTE

It is 1960, Melbourne. There’s a shed down the end of the garden. It is empty save for a bench on which sits a child with a book. There’s a musty smell overlaid with the tang of pine. The door to the shed doesn’t close and the soughing of the wind in the huge pine tree cushions the silence that surrounds the reading child.

Another scene. The same child reading a different book is sitting on the floor in a corner of a large attic room. The attic smells of dust, old smoke and neglect. There are battered suitcases and boxes, there are rickety chairs and fold-up tables, and a chest filled with ancient photos and theatre programmes. Down one end of the attic there’s a small door that opens into the roof. The child sits as far from this door as possible, yet must keep it in view, must keep a watchful eye on the demons and spirits that lurk in the roof’s blackness. And watch she does, periodically looking up from her book. But after a while it seems she has forgotten about the demons because her gaze no longer lifts from the page. She’s given herself over to fiction.

A third image. The same little girl as before is stretched out on her bed in the room she shares with her sister, an open book propped against her pillow. Beyond the bedroom family life whirls about. There are voices calling, a radio blaring, a barking dog. The child is immune to it all; she’s lost in her book.

******

Reading for me has always been a private affair. As a child growing up in the crowded world of the family, reading was my sanctuary and a time of necessary solitude. My mother valued reading so, if I had a book in my hands, I was left alone. With the book of the moment I would be whisked away to other times and places and into the lives of people very different from those who filled my ordinary days. It was the making of me as a writer. Those hours spent reading, those hours spent in a deep and prolonged immersion in the imagination is what gives rise to creative work. Reading took me into a world of make-believe. Here life was real, it was authentic, but it was made up. And even if it were not real – as a very young child I loved Enid Blyton’s fantasies and the tales of King Arthur and his knights – it seemed as if it could be.

In fact, I learned very early that fiction could convince me of just about anything.

As a very young child, I enjoyed being read to. But as soon as I learned to read independently I wanted to keep the pleasure all to myself. It was not only the stories that held me in thrall, there was the utterly seductive effect of reading itself. A unique intimacy was created between me and the characters, and through them with the imagination of the author. There is no intimacy to compare to this sort of imaginative coupling.

I never felt the need to discuss the books I read. They were part of my private world, a world that shaped my understanding and my desires. I harboured the sense that to reveal how important these books were, would both taint their effect as well as betray the life I secretly longed for, which was, in fact, the secret life I was actually living.

I grew up. Books still filled my days and still I guarded them closely. I found in them security, I found excitement, I found curiosity, I found endless stimulation, I found illumination. I did not want my reading to be public. I did not want my reading to be touched.

Then several years ago I changed the pattern of a lifetime. I asked a small group of people to join me in reading Plato’s Dialogues. Over the years I had dipped into several of the dialogues, but I had arrived at a point where I found this unsatisfactory, and all my attempts at private study had petered out long before the task was finished. The group provided the necessary structure I seemed to require.

At first I found it difficult to discuss what I had read. Being public, being in a group, felt like working against the current, trying to run with stiffened limbs. And it was difficult to listen to others with my own reading reverberating in my mind. And the pace of discussion could be irritating. You set your own pace when reading, but a discussion will sometimes pull you back or push you forward faster or slower than you would choose for yourself. But in time I adapted and came to enjoy our meetings. After a while we moved from Plato’s dialogues to Montaigne’s essays. And then, after a year or two, life with its demands and its deaths intervened, and the group stopped meeting.

Next week will see the first meeting of another group: three of us have decided to read Dante’s Divine Comedy, three cantos for each monthly meeting. Years ago I read Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation of The Inferno, and I always planned to read Purgatorio and Paradiso but never got round to it. As with Plato, a group seemed the way to proceed.

I’ve been preparing for our first meeting by a full reading of The Inferno. I have several translations at hand but have focussed particularly on those by Robert Pinsky (for the poetry), Mark Musa (for the lucidity and the detailed notes) and John Ciardi (a looser translation but very lyrical). I also have a quarto-sized book containing the hauntingly beautiful plates of Gustave Doré’s illustrations for The Divine Comedy. I love the focus of this reading, the detail, I love the study. And yet I know that if not for the group I would not be reading Dante in this way or at this time.

Antaeus - Descent to the last circle. Inf XXXI

What is happening here? Why a sharing of what has always been a private activity?

It seems to me that some books are so layered and so complex that to be fulfilled by them – and to find them fulfilling – requires study and discussion and the richness that comes from other minds, other thoughts, other understandings. But there’s something else as well, and it concerns the type of reading involved. When I open a novel, a novel that is the right book for the time, I find myself drawn inside the fictional world. I experience understanding from the inside; I become one of the initiated. This does not stop me from reflecting as I read, making connections between this novel and other books (novels, poetry, history, philosophy) but as soon as I start reading again I am pulled back into that imagined world.

This is not how I read Plato’s Dialogues, nor is it the way I read Dante. Here the reading is infused with study. I am grappling to understand from the outside. I am grappling rather than being immersed. Even with Dante, who has told a gripper of a story, I am not pulled inside the narrative in the way I am with, say, Jane Austen or Elizabeth Strout or Justin Cartwright.

It is reading for study rather than reading for creative life. It’s reading to know, rather than reading to be. That is not to say I won’t glean fundamental understandings from Plato or Dante, of course I will, but it is the act of reading of these books that is so different from my fiction reading.

I expect many others would want to disagree.