Monday, February 14, 2011

On Second Reading of Lyon's Aristotle

On Second Reading of Lyon's Aristotle

When I was in school, Rembrandt's famous painting Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer sold for over $2Million. The picture, which appeared in magazine advertisements, linked twentieth-century readers with nineteenth century English Romantic poets (Keats), seventeenth century Dutch painters, 320 BCE Aristotle, and 800 BCE Homer, a poet who is also still read and studied--his Iliad about the Trojan War, his Odyssey, about Ulysses' prolonged journey home. I see in this painting a comment on how art and the imagination link us through time, or, as John Berger puts it, artists know how "things fit together." Sister Wendy on the Internet suggests that Rembrandt is commenting on the relative values of philosophy versus literature. I'm not that convinced, but she points out that Aristotle is painted wearing a gold chain gifted to him by his former student Alexander after he conquered the world. This chain, she suggests, symbolizes that Aristotle sold out, went for the money and the glory in a way the beloved blind bard of 500 years before him did not. That sounds like a bit of projection to me, the idea that poverty is the ideal and that working for a living, living out loud in the real world, is somehow shameful.

So on second reading, Annabel Lyon's novel about Aristotle, The Golden Mean, made me think of this painting, and the way she was using imagination to make art of Aristotle's story. Is her Aristotle weighed down by the chain of Alexander? Well, in our book club, he certainly was. Alexander received so much more talk time than the teenager in the book warrants. Perhaps this is one of Lyon's points. Movies are made about the unbalanced boy who conquered the world, about the wars and types of action in which teenage boys revel. But who thinks about the teacher? The wise man who attempted to train the conqueror's mind with the same diligence that was spent trying to train his body and to fill his head with military strategy. In Lyon's story, Alexander is one of the specimens, although a beloved specimen, that Aristotle studies. The boy is extreme, reckless, conflicted about his family, and experiences blackouts and flashbacks. Is Alexander's story comedy or tragedy is a question Aristotle asks more than once.

This was what I most enjoyed about Lyon's portrayal of the philosopher. She uses the backstory of how he didn't get the job he wanted in Athens; she shows how networking (having grown up with Philip of Macedonia) led to job offers, pleas to teach the son, opportunities to observe the battlefield first hand. She shows debauchery, rivalries and staff room back-stabbings, the sacrifices bread-winners are forced to make, working in isolation or on long campaigns, far from family. She shows the gap between the women's world of house, home, and children and the men's world of work, war, and court.

Lyon also creates a fully human character, stressing both his strengths and his personal challenges. Aristotle appears to be somewhat uncomfortable at home, passive, confused perhaps. Struggling with the cognitive dissonance between the teachings about women and slaves inherited from his father and his culture and the reality of his interactions with both lesser species. I was shocked to hear that some female readers reject the book because they blame Aristotle for influencing Augustine whose writings were responsible for excluding women from any significant role in the Church. Lyon drops one hint, from the mouth of the witch slave midwife, who said that if Aristotle were to see his wife giving birth, he would feel differently towards her. Perhaps his own desire to see and to know, to experience, to observe the animality of birthing blinded him to seeing women in any "higher" pursuits. If the women in his life are not seen as whole complex individuals, it is because we see them through Aristotle's point of view.

Lyon shows Aristotle as sometimes overwhelmed by his rationalist theories. Perhaps influenced by his feelings for the boy prince, he appears to condone Alexander's hovering at the deathbed and mutilating the body of a friend for the sake of Art (to use the head as a prop in their performance). Later he had to ask the prince whether he hastened the death for his own purposes. The boy's extreme behaviour (reckless, shameless) is addressed in theory rather than in specifics, although others of the court are frequently warning Aristotle to be careful. Lyon's Aristotle also suffers from periods of depression, possibly bi-polar disease, which he treats by forcing himself to focus on some passion, often a close observation of natural objects, or a treatise about one of the subjects which interest him. He also shares that he attempts to treat insomnia by positive visualization.

More than one reader was inspired to look up known facts about Aristotle, to be better able to assess what the novelist has imagined. This too is one of the joys of the book. When fiction inspires us not only to think but also to act, that can only be a good thing. When fiction revivifies the lessons, that too can only be a good thing. Look at the ants. Look at the stars. Close observation. Anatomical drawings. Autopsy. Liberty and self-sufficiency. Order in the Chaos. Balance--the golden mean. Yes!

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