There I was, sitting in my dorm room, blinking several times as I realized the full import of what I was reading.
“Well,” I said to myself, “I really hope this guy is wrong, because if he is I’m out of a job.”
It was a dialogue out of The Republic by Plato and the argument went something like this (I’m paraphrasing because there are way too many details in the argument to put it down verbatim).
Guy #1: Poetry corrupts people!
Guy #2: No, it doesn’t!
Guy #1: Oh, yeah? Hear me out. When you see a tragedian performing a play, and he’s getting emotional over something terrible that’s happened, don’t you love watching him suffer?
Guy #2: Yeah.
Guy #1: Are you going to wail and beat your breast like he does if something terrible happens to you?
Guy #2: No way!
Guy #1: Exactly! No way! We pride ourselves on bottling it all in, to show self-mastery. Well, it seems that poetry arouses the part of ourselves that likes intense emotions like grief. Furthermore, when we enjoy poetry, we forget self-mastery as we enjoy the emotions. Does that sound like a problem to you?
Guy #2: Yeah.
Guy #1: And it’s not just intense emotions. What about a dirty joke in a comedy? You have no problem with that in the theater, but you wouldn’t dare tell it in public. What about sexual desire, and all the other desires that poetry brings up? Should we be creatures of desire?
Guy #2: No!
Guy #1: Then clearly poetry can’t be allowed!
Before you say anything, I need to clarify something. I am not a poet. In fact, I consider myself a terrible poet. Unfortunately, Plato was not merely referring to the poetry with verse or meter. He also referred to things with narrative. Plato was attacking stories.
The guy wasn’t playing around. He meant what he said. And if he was right, I was committing a crime by writing The Kingdom: The Quest. Not only that, but Homer, John Milton, J.K. Rowling and all storytellers that ever lived have been holding the human race back from self-mastery and enlightenment. All of the indie writers trying to hawk their novel today are a detriment to society.
I read The Republic last year in college. Then, I had a draft of The Kingdom: The Quest, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. Should I polish it? Publish it? Forget it? I certianly couldn’t ignore it. When I read The Republic, I became sure about one thing. Before I made a decision about The Kingdom: The Quest I had to give Plato an answer. I couldn’t publish my book if I thought it would harm people.
It took me a while, but I got something.
First off,, Plato’s suggestion isn’t practical. People get what they want. In the 1930s, alcohol was banned in America. The people still wanted it, and they got it through bootleggers and speakeasies. Desire, in the long run, will always overcome whatever obstacles are in front of it. People love stories. They’ll tear down heaven and earth to read them. It’s impossible to ban stories effectively. People will read them somewhere, no matter what laws get passed.
And I think they have good reason too. Plato prattles on about self-control and ignoring the tragedians and all the stupid blubbery emotions they represent. Maybe we need tragedians. It is important to ensure that emotion and desire don’t consume you. But they can’t be held back forever. What better way to let them out than by telling stories? And reading them?
We storytellers tell stories, in the end, because we’re living them ourselves, and we don’t understand them one bit. We’re trying to understand the human condition by putting human characters through special conditions. When we do that, we make a statement about life. We tap our greatest fears, loves and hates. We pour them out on the page and we mold them into a narrative that can betrance an audience, and show them whatever world we want them to see.
Could we storytellers be harming people? Maybe, but only if we abuse the power of the story. Our readers can choose to overindulge in stories and forget to live. But that’s their choice, and I won’t make it for them.
“Yes,” I decided, “I’m going to keep working on my story. I’m going to make it as good as I possibly can, and I’m going to show it to the world and see what it thinks. Just try and stop me, Plato.”
Thanks a million for reading. Do you want to enter a contest? I posted three possible covers of an upcoming short story (no relation to The Kingdom: The Quest). If you vote for which one you want, you could win a $10 Amazon gift card. VOTING ENDS TODAY, FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 9TH, 2011. The lucky winner will be announced tomorrow, September 10th, 2011.