Plato banishes poets from his ideal state, the republic. And for years, I couldn’t understand this ban. With all his dialectical prowess, Plato may have convinced me of the bad influence of “poetry” on the citizens of his “ideal state”, but not for a second did he convince me of the need to banish poets. . Plato had no problem with poets per se; he was just interested in the kind of poetry they wrote – twice removed from reality and all the illusions it caused – and what such poetry meant for his ideal state.
If this was a special kind of poetry that had a bad influence on the citizens of the Ideal State, why not just reform the poetry? After all, with the power and authority of the Ideal State at his disposal, Plato could easily have had poets write poetry he deemed worthy of his citizens of the Ideal State and send the rest to Hades ( with a right of appeal, of course.). At least in theory he could have chosen that route (which he was doing, in the first place). Why this general ban? What was he afraid of?
Also read: What’s trending and not on our shelves this week
And to think that the ban continues to this day, in one form or another. Every once in a while, this or that nation-state has a problem with this or that work of art. And I am not talking about art which outrages the feeling of this or that community, where the nation-state takes umbrage at the breaking of the peace between its ideal citizens, and comes to their aid. I’m talking about how every once in a while a trivial cartoon or a mediocre poem that could at best attract an audience of a thousand people, elicits a powerful reaction from a modern democratic state. For every cartoon or poem that spoils the reputation of such a state, the state could commission a dozen good cartoons and poems (aesthetically speaking) and distribute them to a much larger audience. Why, then, is he afraid of some poor acts of artistic insolence?
Epiphany came to me in prime time, literally. The prime-time debates and discussions that echoed through our home every night during the post-truth apocalypse made me realize the power of a good performance. And any performance was only as good as the story it told. That’s when it hit me, the full power of the Word. The nine o’clock daily news was all about the Word – written, spoken, performed. If professional news readers could do such wonders with the Word, imagine what professional word makers could accomplish.
The Plague Upon, by Shabir Ahmad Mir, published by Hachette India
I now understood why Plato was afraid of poets and why cartoons scare nation states. Power includes power. The philosopher-king recognized his rival. The nation-state has realized the threat to its authority. After all, what is authority if not a tale of power? Of divine power and the social contract. From the enemy to the gates and the burden of the white man. For the greater good and the rule of law…. And whoever was in charge of the story had the power; and, sooner or later, authority.
Poets could be kings. Or, at least, a lasting alternative to a king in the public imagination. And no center of power worthy of the name could support an alternative.
Until now, as an aspiring writer, the best I had thought of myself was something like a Joycean apprentice trying to forge in the forge of my soul the uncreated consciousness of my race. But now, the realization that this learning could give me power of such magnitude that challenged kings and states shocked me. As if a radioactive spider had bitten me. With great power comes great responsibility, I remembered my lesson very well. But responsibility towards whom? To my people? To my aesthetic? Or a compromise between the two?
Also Read: Kalki Koechlin’s Pregnancy Book Is A Raw, Radically Honest Memoir
There is too much blood for good literature in Kashmir, says writer Arundhati Roy. Should I then let my aesthetics reign supreme and dilute the blood? Or should I let the blood of my people wash over my art and reduce everything I write to polemic? Things don’t work that way you might say, these aren’t your only two options, you can always find something in between those extremes. May be. But how do you decide how much blood is too much (or too little)? And what do you do when tombs don’t rhyme with art? What to do when the truth hangs like a rotting corpse and art has this urge to put a garland around its neck and paint its nails bright red? Truth and beauty: should art choose one over the other? Are truth and beauty really separate? Couldn’t it be that these two approaches are different from the same thing? One is the approach of the intellect, the other an apprehension of the senses? Beauty, the ultimate truth of the senses and truth, the ultimate beauty of reason?
There are no answers to such questions. There never will be. There will always be attempts to find answers. But only attempts. My novel, The plague on us, is one such attempt.
Shabir Ahmad Mir is a writer and poet. The plague on us is his first novel.
JCB Prize 2021 is a series with a weekly essay from the five shortlisted authors.