четверг, марта 29, 2007

Pharmakon 2: Socrates and Phaedrus

Socrates and Phaedrus were in conversation.

‘I agree,’ said Socrates, ‘only so long as an argument which endorses speech is based on the appreciation of speech as an art. Here and there I’ve heard some saying that speech leads to spoken falsehoods – lies, if you prefer – and rather than being an art, speech is considered artless. I have a Spartan friend fond of saying: “Without truth, there can never be an art of speaking.”’

And Phaedrus replied: ‘We need this argument. Let us bring some to hear what they have to say about this.’

Thereupon Socrates stood and hailed his noble brood, and called upon them to convince Phaedrus that he would never become a competent speaker unless he paid closer attention to philosophy. And he called upon Phaedrus to respond.


For the sake of convenience, we have been working in metaphor. But we can see that the metaphor belongs to a system. If spoken wisdom has a father, this is because it is a living being, an animal born, growing, and belonging to our emerging, abiding, swaying existence. This understanding permits us to regard the spoken word as a living being which conforms to the needs of the immediate situation, to the questions and demands of its interlocutors, capable of adapting in order to maximise persuasiveness and control.

Spoken wisdom is not merely a living creature, it is a created organism. It requires a head and a tail, and neither heads nor tails can be written down. This can be seen in the continuation of Socrates’ and Phaedrus’ dialogue.


‘Well Phaedrus,’ said Socrates, ‘I am ignorant of how to write. It seems to me that the writer simply writes down whatever springs to mind. Do you know how the writer arranges thoughts into some kind of order? What is the structural principle behind composition?’

Phaedrus blushed.

‘Really,’ he said, ‘it’s very kind of you to think me capable of such an accurate insight into the method of writing.’

‘True enough,’ said Socrates, ‘though surely you will agree that spoken wisdom requires a head and a tail, as well as all other parts which comprise a created organism?’


Here we can see that Socrates insists that a speech must have a beginning and an end, and it must begin at the beginning and end at the end. He was clearly dissatisfied with Lysias, who had attempted to swim on his back upstream through the current of his own speech. He began with a lover’s speech, which should have been delivered at the end. The significance of this is enormous, but as it is obvious, we will not belabour it. Hence, spoken wisdom behaves like a person, who is at once present and has an origin.

среда, марта 28, 2007

Pharmakon 1: Yamanu and Djeheuty

Yamanu received his old acquaintance Djeheuty, who had come all the way from Naucratis to show Yamanu his latest discoveries. Among these was a concoction derived of various herbs and fluids which had the curious property of improving memory and wisdom. And he pulled out a flask and offered Yamanu an appraising swig.

Yamanu looked sceptically at the flask, and said: ‘Why should I? There’s nothing wrong with my memory, and I should think nobody would question my wisdom.’

‘True enough, on the face of it,’ replied Djeheuty. ‘But this will improve your ability to write down your instructions.’

‘Instructions?’ said Yamanu. ‘What instructions? What writing? I need no writing. My word is Law.’

‘No,’ said Djeheuty. ‘My master’s word is Law. Your words are merely an interpretation of the Law. You must write them down, or you are liable to forget them.’

And Yamanu figured that this was probably true, after all. He nonetheless regarded Djeheuty with some suspicion.

‘Is it poisonous?’ he asked, gesturing at the flask.

‘Very possibly,’ replied Djeheuty. ‘It is not just a concoction, it is both artwork and artefact.’

‘Well, that may be,’ replied Yamanu, ‘but I am receiver of this gift, and it will be I who decides the value of your discovery.’

‘You speak like my father,’ said Djeheuty. ‘I did not like him. All he did was reject, belittle, abandon, disparage. He, like you, was suspicious of writing.’


From the tale of Yamanu and Djeheuty, it should be obvious to all that the articulation of wisdom belongs to a father, much like a son belongs to a father. This is no metaphor. A father speaks; writing is only necessary in his absence.

Let us note some of the ways a father can be absent: he can die of cancer or be hit by a car while riding his bicycle. He can be stabbed several times in the lungs by a stranger and lie in the street watching his lifeblood bubble from his chest, his child can take revenge and push him unsuspecting from a cliff. And then from whence will we find our wisdom? Or must we get by without it?

It was Socrates who pointed out that the writing down of wisdom is misery, whether pitiful or arrogant. But I will add that this is born both of the distress of the orphan who has no father to speak wisdom, and of the perfidy of the orphan who sought wisdom beyond the father in the first place.

Hence Yamanu’s suspicion was legitimate: the gift of writing is poison.

But really, it behooves us to acknowledge that the orphan, whose welfare cannot be assured, is the same as a letter of the alphabet: this letter, once it is inscribed on paper, is no longer a son. It has no origins. But the same letter when spoken has a father. It lives through this father, while the letter written down is half-dead. The spoken letter has no thoughts of murder or revenge.

The tale of Yamanu and Djeheuty proves that the responsibility for wisdom belongs to those who accompany the father; that is, the letters he speaks. They protest, they answer questions and – unlike wisdom written down – they respond when their father is present.

понедельник, марта 26, 2007

среда, марта 21, 2007

Would You Believe Me If I Said:

'This is My Love'?

An Ode to Canadian Love

My love, when I first saw you,
You wore a crumpled jacket over a spine like a koleso,
You wore a baseball cap and scowled at the world from beneath it,
You smoked too many cigarettes and sang songs to yourself
From a dank Aeroportian room.

O my love, I didn’t like you then:
You were too fearsome and spoke in cant,
But one day you did a funny little dance for me,
And then another one, and you sang a song,
And smiled like a child and almost charmed my pants off.

My love, my pravoslavnyi Jewfuck,
Do you remember that strange orange day last summer?
When you called me ‘sexy-legs’ because my legs were sexy
And I called you ‘hot-haunches’
Even though your haunches weren’t particularly hot?
I loved you that day; you bought me a beer
But refused to drink one yourself:
You said it felt wrong for your body
To be corrupted with toxin
When your soul was filled with
A pure, clean

Then you lit a cigarette and winked at me.

My love, can you forgive me?
When I said I came to Russia to study weather patterns I lied,
I came looking for you and a good shaverma
I found one of them, my love.
Now I’m ready to go home
To where the snow is much whiter.

вторник, марта 20, 2007

четверг, марта 15, 2007

bunny boy, to be illustrated by max

Bunny was very sad.
He did not like being a bunny.
His mother made him eat cooked carrots every day.
He had far too many brothers and sisters.
And his ears were very big.
"I don't want to be a bunny anymore," bunny boy said to his folks.
And Bunny left home.
The first place he went was to a family of Turkish crocodiles who had just moved into the neighbourhood.
“I’m sick of being a bunny,” he said to them. “Do you think I could be a crocodile with you guys?”
“Yeah, of course, anyone can be a crocodile,’ papa crocodile said. “All you have to do is eat little girls and smoke.”
Bunny thought about it for a while and then decided to give it a try.
“I don’t like girls,” he said, “and I’ve never tried smoking, but I’ll give it a try.”
He didn’t like it. He couldn’t bring himself to eat little girls, even if he didn’t like them, and smoking made him feel sick and uncool.
So he hopped away.
After a while he came to a family of sloths who were having a nap in the afternoon shade.
“I’m sick and tired of being a bunny and a crocodile, can I try being a sloth?”
He waited for a response for a long time but never got one.
So he hopped away.
Next he came to the elephants. They squirted Bunny with water and laughed. It was fun for a while, but at night he got cold and shivered. And he just wasn’t strong enough. And he wasn’t tall enough. Basically it just didn’t work at all. So he left.
The bear family was very nice, very nice indeed. Mother bear went to loads of trouble trying to teach him what to do. She showed him how to find berries, and how to catch fish in the river, and how to climb trees properly, and nagged him constantly about picking up his socks and putting away his toys and kissing her good night and eventually Bunny got pretty sick of that too. So he left.
The camels were cool, but he didn’t like when people got onto his back.
The birds were friendly enough, but Bunny didn’t like they way they were always pushing him out of the nest. He was covered in bruises.
At the end of the block there was only one more family. He was afraid to go there. His father had always warned him that they weren’t reputable. Bunny didn’t know what that meant, but his father looked serious when he said it.
“Disreputable,” he said, squeezing up his eyes.
It was the family of rats.
They lived in the dump where all the city animals threw their garbage.
“Hey you disreputable rats!” Bunny said. “I’m sick of being a bunny and a crocodile and a sloth and an elephant and a bear and a camel and a bird! Especially a bird! I think the rat life is probably pretty exciting in a dirty way, can I give it a try?”
“Yeah dude!” All the rats squealed and screeched.
Bunny loved it. You never had to wash. And you could eat garbage all day long.
It was all a bad little boy bunny could want.
But after a while even eating garbage stopped being cool. Not to mention the rats being rude all the time. Being rude was ok if you knew it was wrong, but the rats didn’t seem to know that.
So Bunny didn’t know what to do. He’d been everywhere – where else could he go!?
All the other animals were strange! And they didn’t seem to understand his specific needs.
Bunny spent the next years wandering through the countryside alone.
He searched for something to make him happy but he couldn’t find it.
He climbed mountains and trees. He swam in mountain rivers and waterfalls. He hunted for food and when he didn’t catch anything he ate leaves. But nothing satisfied him.
Nothing, until one day there it was on the side of the road.
It was a girl bunny, and a carrot!
“Mama Mia!” he cried. “That’s it, that’s what I need!”
And they lived happily ever after and had lots of little bunnies, and ate carrots every day.
It was perfect. Just what Bunny needed.

понедельник, марта 12, 2007

Smolny sobor

Next morning, I brave the cold air and board a bus that takes a group of students to Smolny Cathedral. It’s a massive blue and white building, badly deteriorated, which would have been truly lovely were it not for the scaffolding that covers it. I’m sure it’ll look even better once the restoration is finished, but I don’t think that will happen while I’m in Russia. We circuit the cathedral, and enter the ex-monastery behind it.
An abrupt, business-like Russian woman gives me an evaluation test and places me in a class. She turns back to her desk, evidently expecting me to leave. Foolish woman. After twenty seconds passes and she realises I haven’t moved, she snaps:
‘That is all!’
‘No,’ I reply, with a wistful sigh. ‘No, I don’t think it is.’
She looks half puzzled and half pissed-off.
‘What? What?’
‘Well, y’see, me old mucker,’ I say in English, ‘I’m not taking group classes. I’m taking individual tuition. So, I think you’ll have to make a few changes here and there. Sorry to be a bore.’
Of course, she can’t understand most of what I said, but she does understand the vital bits. She makes a flustered phonecall downstairs, then tells me that I’ll have to wait until 2 o’clock – two and a half hours away. I ask her if she wants to play cards. She looks confused, and I explain it a bit more simply. Good lord, the woman actually smiles. She tells me she has work to do. I tell her I was only joking.
I leave Smolny and make my way west a few blocks to the statue of Dzerzhinsky, who set up what would eventually become the KGB. The statue has become known in recent years as a rallying point for some of the more nostalgic authoritarians such as the neo-nazis, but it’s deserted today, apart from a lone Russian feller, who slips up on the ice and takes a spectular fall onto his arse. I offer a hand, but he is embarassed, and hurries away. I continue on to the yellow Tauride Palace, built by Catherine the Great for Potemkin, but better known to me as the place where the Provisional Government and Petrograd Soviet unwittingly plotted each other’s deaths. I guess you could say the Petrograd Soviet won by remaining influential longer, but while most members of the Provisional Government fled to Western Europe, many original members of the Petrograd Soviet were executed for ‘treason’ or committed suicide to avoid this fate.
I eat a cheese and berry pastry, drink a strong and mildly disgusting black coffee at the Karavay bakery, and watch the people hurry past. There are people walking everywhere in this city. I have yet to walk much further than twenty metres without passing someone, even when it’s snowing.
Back to Smolny through through the Institute gardens where a bust of Engels angrily glares across the way at a bust of Marx, who scowls back with equal ferocity.
I finally corner the administrator, who confesses that she has lost the correspondence where I claimed to want individual tuition, and has also lost my HIV test. She rewrites the contracts, then rewrites them again after I point out several fundamental mistakes, and having signed them, I depart for home.
Emerging from Primorskaya, I see a pack of twenty dogs idling about in the middle of the intersection. All the traffic patiently waits for them while they sniff, yip, and snap at each other. I realise they are literally a pack of stray dogs, wandering the streets looking for food. One of them barks loudly, and they all trot off down towards the Smolenka river. They’re having a great old time. Dogs love dogs.