In Honour of Platon

It’s weird; I’ve been wanting to write entries for a long time, on a myriad of issues. Social justice, the recent terrorist attacks, a review of Crimson Peak… but the only thing that gets me off my ass to write is a response to something said by a literary hero of mine, Umberto Eco. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because amidst all this legal reading and writing and analytical thinking, I really miss writing about aesthetics and ideas.

Mullan later quoted one of his favourite lines from Numero Zero – “the pleasures of erudition are reserved for losers” – before going on to ask Eco why he chose to tell the story from the point of view of a thwarted character.

“Because that’s literature,” said Eco. “Dostoevsky was writing about losers. The main character of The Iliad, Hector, is a loser. It’s very boring to talk about winners. The real literature always talks about losers. Madame Bovary is a loser. Julien Sorel is a loser. I am doing only the same job. Losers are more fascinating.

“Winners are stupid … because usually they win by chance.”

Ehhhhhh. I never thought I would disagree, even if conditionally, with Eco, but I’m not in agreement with this point. To a point, of course, I agree: successful protagonists are usually successful through the contrivance of the author, and may seem thus to succeed through providence, coincidence, or ‘chance’, as he mentions.

Does this, however, show that the winner is ‘stupid’? I would argue otherwise, because to admit this is to admit, in essence, that only tragedy produces true art: that comedy, that attempts to resolve conflicts in an emotionally- and morally-satisfactory manner, all have no place. That the truth of art is dismal, and that the only cause for laughter is at our own folly.

It’s a trifle ironic, because as he observes, reality is often more bizarre than fiction — the aberration of ‘victory’ in fiction, despite its reliance on providence, is dwarfed by the anomalous evidence of people who can achieve some real victories in life. Even if they are quotidian, uneventful, utterly mundane victories. While the ‘real literature’ is peopled with Madame Bovarys and Anna Kareninas, real life is just as much peopled with faithful husbands and loyal friends, hard workers and unsung heroes. To be any of those things is a victory, is to be a winner — one doesn’t have to be a Willy Loman to be a good husband or father. Nor does it, I think, require any extraordinary good fortune, besides the grace of an honest upbringing and a true heart.

Perhaps what Eco means is that the stories of underdogs, of those who struggle and experience adversity, are more meaningful? There, at least, we are in concurrence: the struggle against injustice and against ignorance is one of the most uplifting themes art is capable of, both emotionally and socially, for it inspires revolt.

But despair is not the only means by which people may be galvanised. Consider Schiller, or Hesse, beautiful dreamers whose ephemeral aspirations to beauty and justice provoke just as much revolt against the essential ugliness of the world.

Eco invokes Dostoevsky; I invoke Tolstoy: for all that art may lay us down as stones, it should raise us up as loaves, too.


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