Conquests

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FICTION JULY 19, 2011

Conquests

The Golden Mean
by Annabel Lyon
Knopf, 304 pp., $17.50

THE QUESTIONS RAISED by The Golden Mean will be familiar to readers of The New Republic and The Book. What is the relationship of intellectuals to politicians? More broadly, the book asks the old Faustian questions: what is it in the human psyche that drives us to want more power, more territory, more knowledge, or just more? And can we maintain sharp distinctions between exploration and domination?

Annabel Lyon’s fictional account of the relationship of Aristotle and the young Alexander the Great provides a moving and thought-provoking evocation of these issues. Near the end of the novel, Alexander demands of Aristotle, “To make the unknown known, isn’t that the greatest virtue, the greatest happiness? Isn’t that exactly what we’re talking about?” Aristotle demurs: “You conflate pleasure and happiness, real enduring happiness. A few thrills, a few sensations. Your first woman, your first elephant, your first spicy meal, your first hangover, your first ascent of a mountain no man’s ever climbed, and your first view from the top to the other side. You want to string together a life of thrills.” But Alexander responds that this is no different from what Aristotle himself wants: “You and I can appreciate the glory of things. We walk to the very edge as everyone else knows and understands and experiences it, and then we walk the next step. We go places no one has ever been. That’s who we are. That’s who you’ve taught me to be.” In the context of the novel, it seems clear that Alexander is right, though Aristotle is reluctant to admit it.

The novel is narrated in the first person by Aristotle, who emerges as a strange, gloomy man, prone to fits of melancholy and weeping that he ascribes to his excess of black bile. But in the world of this book Aristotle is the closest thing we can get to the engaged, practical philosopher, the intellectual who cares about the “real world” of bodies, sex, women, politics, and blood. Aristotle himself is trained in youth by one model of the failed intellectual: Illaeus, an alcoholic would-be tragedian with writer’s block, who has never been able to live up to the promise he showed as a student under Plato. Plato himself, who remains a fairly shadowy presence in the novel, provides another counterpart: the metaphysician who tried to replace a tyranny in Sicily with a government of philosopher-kings, but returned home in failure to focus on the abstract realities of numbers and Ideas. Unlike either of these figures, Aristotle—the son of a doctor—is deeply interested in the workings of the body.

In a gripping, gruesome scene early in the book, the young Aristotle accompanies his father to the bedside of a young girl in labor, whose baby is in breach position. The doctor calls for four attendants to hold the mother down while he slices her open to remove the child, who, surprisingly, survives. The mother herself, of course, will not survive; Aristotle and his father leave in the knowledge that she will soon bleed to death. Caesarian sections, so named from the fact that an ancestor of Julius Caesar was supposed to have been born that way, were well known in antiquity, but no mother survived the operation until at least the sixteenth century. In the novel, the scene is a potent image of the dangers and glory of applied science. The doctor manages to save a baby who would otherwise be dead, but he does so only at the cost of extreme violence and pain inflicted on the mother. It is no coincidence that we are shown two men using their scientific knowledge, and their knives, to kill a woman. Science is presented here as something that men do to those weaker than themselves: to animals and women.

The bloody birth is also a moment which reveals how extreme Aristotle himself is, even in the context of ancient Greek medical science. The title of the book is, in context, a paradox. This philosopher recommended the moderate virtues that lie between the extremes of vice, as courage lies between rashness and cowardice; but there is no “golden mean” between ignorance and knowledge, and no limit to Aristotle’s desire to know more and more. The father cuts the girl open only in order to save the child, and insists that anatomical knowledge can be attained only by feel: it would be impious to cut up dead bodies simply in order to find out how they worked. Aristotle, by contrast, is “bored” by his father’s profession: science, not piety, pity, or love, guides his engagement with all the bodies he encounters, both animal and human, both living and dead. Yet this Aristotle is also, fascinatingly, aware of the damage such desires can cause. “I thought of the girl whose baby my father had delivered that day, who would die, or was dead, and the map of her all sealed up in her skin. We had killed her by breaking that seal.”  

The lyrical imagery invites the comparison that will run through the novel, between Aristotle’s work and that of Alexander, who will break the seal of the world by marching his Macedonian army all the way into Persia and India, sacking cities as he goes. Aristotle knows that Alexander is not guided by an idealistic vision of a unified Graeco-Persian world, but by something much darker: the desire to know, which is also a desire for killing, violence, and death. He recognizes himself in Alexander’s plan for investigating the Persians: “You’ll have to destroy their world just to get into it.” Although he tells his pupil (in the context of an experiment in which an octopus died) that “you can learn without conquering,” the novel hints that this may not be true, either for Alexander or Aristotle himself.

Historically, Aristotle’s thinking about the natural world was not guided exclusively by observation. He adopted views which could not possibly have been confirmed by observation. Lyon is well aware of this, and her narrator teasingly reminds the reader of some of Aristotle’s more notorious empirical mistakes: when Alexander begs, “tell me some more facts,” Aristotle obliges with a list of notorious Aristotelian errors: there is no blood in the brain; bear cubs are licked into shape by their mothers; some insects are generated by dew, and some worms generate spontaneously in manure.

It is implausible, and a little unfair, to list these mistakes all together. But Lyons wants to mock the pretentions of reason, and also, more interestingly, to explore the difficult question of whether her Aristotle really does or does not want to learn new things. Which is deeper, the desire to know or the desire to be in control? And are they really different? Aristotle is rightly presented here as the forefather of modern empirical enquiry into the workings of the body. He did indeed perform dissection on animals, although probably not on humans; human dissection, and even vivisection, was practiced for a short period after Aristotle, in Hellenistic Alexandria. In the novel, Aristotle’s devotion to observation is precisely what makes him such a morally ambiguous figure. He is obsessed with cutting bodies open to see what is inside; it is a regrettable side effect that the sliced flesh will die for the sake of science, if it was not dead to start off with. Alexander learns this lesson from his master all too well.

Aristotle deals with the living flesh of his wives just as he does with the dead flesh of his animals. He inspects it, and has no expectation that it will be able to respond to his pokings and proddings—though he has twinges of regret and melancholy at the harm that his desires must cause. There is a pseudo-Aristotelian aphorism that “every animal is sad after sex” (post coitum omne animal triste est). In Lyon’s book, Aristotle is subject to a melancholy that hits him not only after sex, but at any odd moment of day or night.

This Aristotle is a Romantic figure, whose strange fits of grief are somehow connected to his Frankenstinian desires. In the opening sentence of the book, “my wife Pythias” is introduced with the gloss, “who last night lay with her legs spread while I took notes on the mouth of her sex.” We learn a little later that this research will play a part in the larger project of “my work on generation.” Aristotle sees his much-younger wife as an object to be studied. He has glimmers of guilt at the fact that he “went at her like a stag in rut. Stag, hog”: “I was thirty-seven then, she fifteen.” He realizes that she has no pleasure in it, and tells himself that this, like her ignorance and her passivity, are the natural qualities of a woman. But here, too, Lyon’s Aristotle is aware that there may be more going on than he can fully understand: “she wasn’t stupid: thoughts flickered in her eyes like fish in deep pools.”  

There is nothing in Aristotle’s extant writing remotely like this. One reason is that the more stylistically polished parts of Aristotle’s oeuvre are lost, and what we have is composed in crabbed technical language, perhaps designed as lecture notes. More substantively, it seems implausible to imagine the historical Aristotle as subject to, and able to articulate, the kind of yearning and regret that Lyon’s character experiences, all these “muddled, mud-coloured emotions.” But perhaps he did feel and think this way: after all, it was Aristotle who classified metaphor as “the mark of genius.” There is something inspiring, as well as genuinely Aristotelian, about the value the novel gives to the particular, to the god that lives in the details: the Golden Mean, Aristotle assures Alexander, is not about mediocrity, but about finding the truth: “that which is not a caricature.”

In any case, historical plausibility is hardly the point, since “Aristotle” is the name of a character that Lyon finds good to think with. The central dilemma of the novel is the relationship of lyrical intuitions about human depths, about fish that can never be speared out, filleted, or skinned, to the more obviously “Aristotelian” impulses which lead our hero to act as if there is nothing that he cannot understand, nothing that cannot be categorized, no question that cannot be answered, either from observation or “logical” deduction.  

When Pythias dies, Aristotle finds a new woman, their maid-servant Herpyllis. The relationship, coming near the end of the book, is an important counter to his curious, insensitive proddings of Pythias at the start. Herpyllis tries to teach him about “the categories of pleasure” in a way that he assumes, thanks to his father’s teaching, must be “not physically possible”: that she herself, a woman, can experience pleasure “like honey ... like a drum.” The relationship with Herpyllis is a challenge to the philosopher who thinks he understands the natural world so well. We never see the people of Alexander’s conquered cities talk back to their conqueror, but this woman provides an example of how the dominated may be human, or how the observed object may correct the observer. When I first read Lyon’s novel, I found it unsatisfactory that Aristotle entirely fails to do anything with the new information; it seemed inconsistent with the earlier depiction of this character as a committed student of the physical world, to see him so dismissive of the new truth, when it was contradicted by inherited wisdom. But as I mulled it over, I found the contradiction more plausible, and suggestive. Clever and curious people often have precisely this kind of blindness.

More importantly, Aristotle’s intellectual limitations are a mark of how he, like Alexander, lacks an ability to see what he sees, especially if it is alive: he thinks too hard to love straight. Aristotle asks himself about that “needy little monster” Alexander, “Shall I continue to pose him riddles to make him a brighter monster, or shall I make him human?” He knows, or at least half-knows, that being human is not something you can make. Aristotle is, throughout the novel, uneasy in his relationship with Alexander; the brother he really warms to is Philip, the half-wit older brother—to whom he is far nicer than is really plausible, because the non-rational human being is an important possibility for Lyon’s theme. The trust in “reason” prevents Aristotle from sexual vision and generosity, but he is still able to value the moments with the “idiot prince” when they are clowning around, “conducting themselves like people who are simply happy.”       

Sometimes we may wish to fault the novelist for the intellectual failures of her supposedly smart hero. But Lyon herself is clever enough to have woven at least some of these gaps into the fabric of her book. Euripides’s tragedy, the Bacchae, is a recurrent motif in the novel, and this play—about King Pentheus’s rejection of the wild, irrational cult of the god Dionysus, and the god’s terrible, violent revenge, in which the king’s head gets torn off by his own crazed mother—acts as a constant reminder of the futile human desire for control, and of the limits of merely human understanding. Aristotle himself is something of a Pentheus, a character who does not really want to know things that might shatter what he already thinks he knows: he seems to turn his head away from the killings and mutilations that his pupil will conduct in his name. Alexander goes further than anyone in his commitment to the Bacchae. When provincial actors are performing their Euripides and failing to rise to the occasion, Alexander provides a prop that makes them all look lively: instead of a molded plaster or wooden head (for the decapitated Pentheus) he brings along a real head, taken from an actor in the troupe who has just died. Taught too well by his tutor, he has no fear of the human body, even, or especially, when it is dead.

We leave Aristotle as he departs with his family to Athens, to found his philosophical school and write and study, having rejected Alexander’s pleas to accompany him in his travels to conquer the world. Lyon suggests, in a fine paradox, that Alexander’s journey is really the more introverted one: Aristotle looks forward to a life “alone in a quiet room where, for the rest of my life, I can float farther and farther out into the world; while my student, charging off the end of every map, falls deeper and deeper into the well of himself.” Two ponds, with the same breed of fish. This deeply pondered and very beautiful book provokes much reflection from its reader. Lyon’s own densely metaphorical, present-tense narrative invites us to realize the importance of observation, and of looking before we think, before we delve in with the scalpels and the knives.        

Emily Wilson is an Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her books include The Death of Socrates: Hero, Villain, Chatterbox, Saint (Profile/ Harvard UP, 2007) and a translation of Seneca’s tragedies (Oxford World’s Classics, 2010).

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