Thinking Through Violence in The Just City and The Philosopher Kings

by Leah Schnelbach on February 5, 2016

The Just City and The Philosopher Kings are two of the purest examples I’ve ever read of “a novel of ideas”. Being novels of ideas means that scenes that would be gut wrenching or stomach-churning in other books are instead only jumping off points for the real work –complex, constant thought, and the moral consideration that comes with it. I wanted to take a few minutes and look at the way scenes of rape and violence are woven into the thoughtfulness of the book.

The Just City opens with a promise of intellectuals from across time founding an ideal city based on Plato’s Republic. Seemingly, everyone is on an equal playing field, and the “Masters” travel through time to collect art and free slaves for the experiment. Within weeks of the founding of the city, however, Pico della Mirandola, who has taken the name Ikaros, rapes a Victorian woman who has taken the name Maia. He refuses to see why she’s angry, and spends the entire first book insisting that her emotions are incorrect. It’s only in the second book that he begins to see other angles on what he did.

Maia “said no in both languages and at great length” but the only view Ikaros can accept is his own, which is that she liked it, because her body responded positively. This breaks the scene apart, pulling us out of the usual narrative surrounding rape. This pushes the theme of the book into an extreme example: here we’re shown a heterosexual rape, an act that is usually about male power and female helplessness, and destabilizes it by making it about the split between physical and mental will. Rather than dwell on the physicality, pain, or humiliation of the experience, Walton focuses on Maia’s thought process. She has to question herself several times to make sure that some part of her wasn’t consenting. This begins a fascinating dialogue in which Maia, who is a proper Victorian virgin, has to interrogate the gulf between her physical self and her mental self. She goes so far as to call her body a “traitor” and begins training to master her physicality as she used to train her mind back in England.

In a different book, the narrative would become either “Maia’s recovery” or “Ikaros’ redemption”, and Walton would track their lives and relationships with this night as a fulcrum point. Instead, it’s one night in their lives, and while it does change both of them, the rest of the narrative continues jumping between Masters and students, and continues focusing on thought and moral development, which allows this scene to mirror Apollo and Daphne at the beginning, Apollo’s assignation with Klymene, Simmea’s experiences on the slave ship, and her later experience with Kebes. By using scenes of rape (or at least questionable consent) as jumping-off points for intellectual arguments rather than emotional repercussions, Walton forces her readers to focus on questions of will and consent. Apollo and Ikaros spend both books gradually learning the idea that even consent does not imply ownership, that humans are truly unique individuals with their own consciousness rather than being players in others’ lives or pawns of fate. Kebes never learns this, but even in the scene that could have been a moral reckoning for him, Walton complicates things enough that he never becomes a villain, and twists the narrative away from the obvious expectation so that when Apollo murders Kebes, it isn’t vengeance.

Kebes’ death falls at the heart of The Philosopher Kings. Given that the book opens with the death of a main character, the reader is braced for violence and what would, in a different context, be tragedy. But even knowing that what comes in the center of the book is startling. Right in the heart of the book, Pythias finally confronts Kebes. Kebes had good reason to hate the Just City. He remained Christian and preferred his old name and personality to the philosophy the Masters present him with. However, rather than finding a way to work within the context of the city, he nurses his resentment the entire time, insisting the Simmea loves him, and that the Masters are monsters, and finally raping Simmea to try to force her to love him.

He is a leader of art raids, and has converted large portions of the island cultures to his own particular brand of angry, vengeful Christianity. In a final act of dishonesty, he plants armed men among the audience of the music competition, and has them attack the crew of the Excellence after he loses the music competition. The competition itself is a rewrite of the story of Apollo and Marsyas. A battle between a few of the Lucians and the Excellence crew follows so quickly that it’s hard for a reader to get their bearings. This section is told by Arete, Pythias and Simmea’s daughter, and it exemplifies the unusual storytelling Walton uses. Arete obviously wants her father to win. However, such is her Platonic dedication that she first muses on the outfits she, Pythias, and her brothers are wearing, wishing that she’d had time to create costumes to show family unity. Then she loses herself in the music, not only her father’s new tune, but even Kebes’. Despite knowing that Kebes will torture her father to death if he wins, her own dedication to excellence means that she has to listen to his music as enthusiastically as Pythias’, which creates a fascinating sort of tension. Where in a normal book, I think we’d be focused on the judges reactions, here we’re able to focus on Arete’s. what if she like Kebes’ song more? Will she admit it to herself? Finally, Pythias finishes the contest by turning his lyre over and playing backwards, as he does in his mythic battle with the satuyr Marsyas, but we’re only given a moment to revel in his triumph, and reflect on Walton’s use of myth, before a battle has broken out. Again, since we’re in Arete’s mind, we follow her eyes as she defends herself and notices fallen friends. We are also in her mind when, after the battle, Pythias chooses to bind and skin Kebes. This is the treatment Kebes planned for him, and also the punishment he metes out to heretics, but Arete is still horrified by it. She doesn’t judge Pythias for choosing to do it, she just chooses to leave, but still takes time to note the amphitheater’s excellent acoustics as Kebes’ screams echo through the space.

In the next chapter we learn why Pythias chose to torture Kebes from Pythias himself. It wasn’t because of Kebes’ rape of Simmea (the obvious answer, and the best mirror for what happened to Maia in the first book) or his role in the art raids. The thing that offended Pythias enough to torture his old rival was plagiarism. As the next chapter opens, Pythias shares his memory of meeting Dionysus in a bar in Berlin, and dancing with him as a band played George Gershwin’s “Summertime”. This is the tune Kebes tried to pass off as his own. Obviously, only Pythias out of the entire audience would recognize it and be able to call him on his deception.

By noting Kebes’ Phrygian cap, Walton calls to mind the idea that Kebes is a freedom fighter, and reminds us that he was being held against his will in the Just City. But, by showing us a dance between Dionysus and Apollo to Summertime, she also unites the two gods against the plagiarist, in contrast to the satyr Marsyas, who is often seen as a Dionysian figure. This removes the two contexts that are usually applied to the battle between Apollo and Marsyas – that Marsyas was fighting for free speech, or that he’s an example of hubris for challenging a god. Kebes has as much power as Pythias in this context, and has no idea that it’s a god he’s challenging (plus as a Christian he’d most likely reject the idea of Apollo’s godhood) so now the battle can only either be a personal fight over Simmea, or a fight about art. And here again, Walton veers away from the most obvious course of Pythias avenging Simmea’s honor.

The conversation between Pythias, Ficino, and Maia, and later between Pythias and his children, make it clear that he’s going into this with the idea of vengeance. He’s planning to kill Kebes quickly as a punishment for his rape of Simmea, and he’s either going to do it as Pythias, if he wins the challenge, or come back to St. Lucia as Apollo and do it after his death. But when the contest begins, and Pythias realizes Kebes’ plagiarism, he decides to torture Kebes to death. Apollo isn’t settling a personal grudge, or avenging his wife, and Kebes isn’t standing up for free will: Apollo is punishing someone who would claim another’s art as his own. He is standing up for originality and creation, things that Kebes never valued.

Immediately after Kebes dies, Apollo swims in the sea, and reflects on the state of his soul. Since the punishment fell within the law of the St. Lucia, none of the citizens object to it. There is no moral handwringing, just a sense of distaste. Apollo doesn’t regret it. He doesn’t think he should have given Kebes any mercy, and even believes that death will mean Kebes’ soul is free to start a new, better life. But what of the soul of Apollo? Had killing Kebes made Apollo worse rather than better? He meditates on whether he ever becomes “less unjust”, and on the fact that all of his deeds will become art. Rather than a scene of horror, even Kebes’ death becomes a philosophical experiment; torture becomes art, and murder becomes a mirror for the murderer.