Thursday, December 12, 2013

Socrates' Defense

            For the first third of the movie, the parent ignores and turns away from their child because of a committment to work, high causes, etc.  For the latter part of the movie, said parent insists their child be kept away from them while they are in jail because (supposedly) it is too hard for the child to see them in such a place.  Though it is clear the adult in question is simply embarrassed and doesn't know how to deal with the nightmare of parenthood behind bars.
            Then, finally, the parent — a mother as it so happens — gets to have her big moment to put everyone who's judging her in their place:
            "A man leaves his family to go to jail to protect a principle, and they name a holiday after him.  A man leaves his children to go fight in a war, and they erect a monument to him.  A woman does the same thing, and she's a monster."
            Nothing but the Truth is by no means a great film, but it was overall an entertaining one.  The mother in question is a journalist named Rachel Armstrong, who goes to jail to protect a source.  The source, Armstrong says, was promised absolute confidentiality.  The federal government wants her source, as they revealed to Armstrong the identity of an undercover CIA agent.
            And Armstrong has a point when she uses the term "monster."  A woman is, strictly speaking, monstrous when she fails to conform to social definitions of femininity.  But I have to say that when I heard this speech, my first thought was, "Bullshit.  You're not a monster.  You're an asshole, just like the men you're describing."
            Which is all to say, I've never been impressed by the supposed overturning of norms that happens when women enact the more reprehensible traditionally masculine choices and behaviors.

            For clarity's sake, let me mention that the title of this dialogue, "Apology," is a transliteration, not a translation, of the Greek apologia.  Apologia means, in English, "defense," NOT "apology."  As Grube puts it, "There is certainly nothing apologetic about the speech."
            Socrates is defending himself against the accusations of various Athenians.  I have only just recently discovered, at ombhurbhuva, some of the political complexities behind Socrates' trial and execution.  I heartily suggest that anyone interested check out this article.  I'm just processing a lot of that information, so I'm not going to go into it too heavily here.
            What I am going to take issue with here is probably obvious from the above notes on Nothing but the Truth.  Incidentally, it is also something I seem to be alone on.  Namely, that I have issues with idealists.  Idealists, with kids.  Socrates, despite having numerous ways he could have gone about being acquitted, delivers a beligerent defense and, in the Meno, insists that he doesn't want to survive by running away anywhere else.  This, from man with a wife and children.
            On the one hand, I've been experimenting lately with trying to be an asshole.  Or, because I am nothing if not traditionally gendered, a bitch.  Being a bitch is super fun (all ex-boyfriends and pastors totally left that little detail out), and frankly, I'm just getting tired of being perfect.  So I've been pulling something of a Socrates/Lessing; risking, smashing, and/or abandoning human relationships, in an effort to be more radically true to the only compass I have some kind of direct access to.  Namely, my own.
            But there is a violence to idealism which I remain suspicious of.  An attitude which places the ideal human situation well over and above actual human beings.
            And I really start to squirm over this when kids are involved.  Children are just little humans — rather difficult ones, as it so happens, and not ones I'm prone to romanticize — but they are little humans brought into the world completely unvoluntarily.  Involuntary doesn't sound right, because it's not like we can say to a nonexistent being, "Would you like to exist?", get a negative, and drag them into the nightmare with us anyway.  The whole point is you can't ask a nonexistent being if it wants to exist.  And I absolutely do not accept the idea that existence is always obviously better than nonexistence.  We're into making lots more humans exist — we get all those nice warm fuzzies every time we look at a baby — because evolution doesn't give a shit about voluntariness and it is very good at rewarding us.  Nietzsche's abyss only makes sense when there is a something to worry about the abyss.  I'm pretty sure babies that haven't been born yet aren't hovering over some Germanic, post-Romantic, terror-filled pit, just hoping to be saved and brought into this charming pot of melting glaciers, surveillance cameras, and biological warfare.
            So you take a child — a creature which never wanted to be at all — call it into an existence of radical neediness and dependence...and then abandon it?  Are you kidding me?!
            Granted, I'm a nanny, studying to be a doula, hoping to become a midwife.  So, yeah, I'm prejudiced.  But the reason I'm prejudiced is that I spend time with kids.  In other words, I don't get the impression that Socrates has any fucking idea who or what his children are.  That's like, woman shit.
            Socrates spends his life insisting that he is trying to overturn old ways of thinking — questioning the status quo — and still maintains this gigantic blind spot.  It's a blind spot most humans share.  Few and far between are the parents who see their children as more than creatures that exist solely to adore and obey them.  And later, to be yelled at and punished when they fail to do so.
            Socrates has ideals.  He is committed to his ideals, and I can't blame him for that.  But he also has children.  And while he may have been able to rely on friends to raise and provide for his children for him — it seems in Meno and Phaedo that he is confident they will do so — I do not rest content.  Men bring children into this world.  It may feel more conceptual — their link to their offspring is, after all, at a remove — but someone who claims to respect and value concepts and ideas could and should know better.  He could and should have at least taken his children into account when he was having his moment of fame, his "big moment to put everyone who's judging him in their place."


            I feel it worth mentioning that the scene where Armstrong has her little speech fails because it is very hard for actors to convince me of nobilities I don't recognize in real life.  The actress concerned, Kate Beckinsale, is more convincing when she seems flustered and intimidated by the size and scope of the machine she has stepped into.  Her nervous gestures when talking to Pat Dubois, the federal prosecutor, layer on top of a frightened but determined attitude.  In those scenes, I absolutely believed her.


  1. As with so many of your posts, there are three or four different places I could start. So I'll start with the concept of being an asshole.

    This is fascinating to me, partly because it is something I have never deliberately experimented with (accidentally, I'm sure I have, countless times), and I've wondered if I should, because I have the bad habit of letting my accommodation of other people interfere with my quality of life.

    But then there's something recent and raw that hits me: the death last month of Adam Perelman, son of the great essayist S.J. Perelman. After I got to know Adam a little, years ago, I read this bit in his father's Wikipedia entry:

    "Perelman was not much of a father. He generally regarded children as a nuisance, and his son Adam ended up in a reformatory for wayward boys."

    This made me furious. I never looked at old S.J. the same way again. I wanted his pals E.B. White and James Thurber to slap him. Because Adam was so lost, and had such a good heart. And here was one writer who did not necessarily make the world better, no matter how witty his writing was.

    Then I think of my own writing, and how it can only be improved by a certain ruthlessness, and the metaphor of of "kill your babies" that's applied to literary creations. It was Cervantes who introduced this idea, advising the young poet to listen to the feedback from other writers, because we are naturally too attached to our own ideas, like children. So we really have to be assholes to our own writing sometimes, if we want to separate the good stuff from the dreck that will bog everything down.

    So, are there different rules for how writers treat writing and how writers treat people? Sure. I think there should be. But does that mean one should never treat people as one treats bad writing? Depends.

    I can see where clinging family members, controlling lovers, friends without boundaries might need to be pushed away. Robert McKee advised writers "Never go to bed with someone who has more problems than you do." I have violated this rule in almost every lover I have chosen, and the consequences are real.

    So I am left in my typical state of ambivalence on this question. But fascinated ambivalence. So, thank you.

    1. Leigh, I also meant to ask about your remark that "being a bitch is super fun." I wonder if you can comment further. I am genuinely curious about all potential avenues writers may have for liberating themselves, and this one in particular, since I have found it mysterious and daunting.