Unusual Experience and Second-Hand Plato

by Ada Palmer on April 13, 2017

Unusual Experience

a response to Maria Farrell “In Good Hands”

I love micro-autobiography.  I love autobiography too, but micro-autobiographies like Maria Farrell’s essay here, a closely-narrated experience in which you get to know a new human being through what that person shares about a small, relatable experience of real time, are just so tender, and intimate, celebrations of the art that goes into every tiny part of being human, like the little hidden faces tucked between the tracery of a gothic archway, through which the architect shares with every visitor a small slice of play.  That’s why my favorite thing, when I meet a new person who has read Too Like the Lightning is to say nothing beyond some periodic approving “oohs” so as not to interrupt the beautiful flow of this new reader’s unique and beautiful experience.

This is why I lapped up every word of Maria’s essay with a very different kind of eagerness from these other more analytic pieces.  And it’s also why I’m hesitant to say too much in response—why I’m always hesitant to say much at all to someone who has read some and intends to read more.  I don’t want to disrupt that experience, and freeze, the way I freeze when I see a hummingbird at the feeder, and my eyes lock in wonder on the fragile beauty, and my heart skips a beat in fear that I might startle it away.  So I’ll say just a little.

Trust is a great lens through which to consider these books, whether the hands that carry the reader are worthy of that trust.  In many ways they aren’t.  This is a disruptive book, an uncomfortable book, with difficult things, with frightening things, things beyond the edges of what an author usually does to the reader.  I don’t mean frightening in the sense of “A monster jumps out!” but frightening in the sense that the intimacy that I cultivate between the reader and Mycroft Canner through his unusual writing style is pushed on very, very hard when we learn more about him, and in other ways too.  One of my early literary agents told me that, when she got to that reveal about Mycroft which all readers remember, she found herself wondering for days afterward whether she was a morally bad person because she still felt affection for Mycroft Canner, after learning… that about him.  That kind of crisis—one that isn’t about the book, but about us ourselves—is not something we expect in leisure reading, and is not something the warnings on the permissions page can warn against.  Nor is flat out difficulty, or the unusualness of the reading process.  Almost every reader I talks to tells me that they read Too Like the Lightning an unusual pace: unusually slow, unusually fast, taking frequent breaks, taking no breaks, taking notes, annotating, not annotating, a wide variety of patterns but all out-of-pattern, as if the book disrupted the very act of reading, requiring readers to try a new strategy.  Because its relationship with the reader is very unusual.  Its prime inspiration—Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist and His Master—is really the only place I’ve ever found it.  So it is a rich and interesting thing to hear about the pacing of each unique reader experience.

One last quick comment, since I couldn’t help but grin with delight at

My interests skip straight from the prosaic Hobbes to the English late nineteenth century liberals. TLtL made me wonder if this isn’t so much a question of taste as focus. Turns out I care less how an individual should act or even how a society should be than the basic question of how to build and constrain states. TLtL is a post-state world, and a post-religious one, too. I’m too focused on both of those things to relax into the novel’s cool embrace.

To me, of course, a lot of this felt backwards.  “How to build and constrain states” isn’t, for me, a “basic question” it’s a super-mega-high-level question that you get to after working through structures and individuals, the calculus you only start well after mastering arithmetic, and algebra, and trig.  But we all create different hierarchies of knowledge, and much of what different academic disciplines are is things that look at interrelationships in opposite directions, looking from culture TO politics or politics TO culture, government TO art or art TO government, and from the different perspectives of these many disciplines derives the infinite variety, forever un-withered and un-staled.

So I look forward to you reading Seven Surrenders, which is all action, all payoff, while Too Like the Lightning really was all setup, all preparation.  I keep saying I feel as if, in Book 1, I rolled my elaborate rube Goldberg machine out onto the stage, and showed the audience every piece of it, and how they fit together, and then hit the button—and suddenly we cut to commercial break.  In Book 2, everything begins.

And in Book 3, the not-at-all-prosaic Beast of Malmsbury, Thomas Hobbes, will have his day.  I hope, like me, you’ll fall in love with him too.

Second-Hand Plato and the Fragility of Solitary Praxis

a response to

Belle Waring “Gods of This Fictional Universe

I can do little here except offer my applause.  This is a magnificent unpacking of the questions raised by the presence of Bridger on the one hand and J.E.D.D. Mason on the other, and the range of what those presences might mean, for this world’s metaphysics, and its fate.  I don’t want to touch such an analysis at this point, not with two books to go in which all these factors and more will unpack themselves into larger structures like the final inflation of a play-castle which is at the present only a shape upon the ground.

One thing I will comment on is the comparative invisibility of Plato in the narrative, especially compared with the in-your-face presence of Voltaire, Diderot, de Sade, Rousseau etc.  The Platonism is absolutely there, just as Belle Waring has unpacked it, and these readings of the Platonic elements of things are perfect (as is the unpacking of J.E.D.D. Mason’s comments about Pythagoreanism with the set-sets.  Well done!)  The Plato is implicit while the Enlightenment is explicit for two reasons.  First, more of my readers know Plato than know rare works of Diderot.

But second, and more important, this saturation of unspoken Plato is the same unspoken Platonic saturation that saturates the Enlightenment itself.  Voltaire quotes Bacon by name, Locke by name, Newton by name, Pierre Bayle by name, but Plato just oozes out like groundwater, unmentioned, as he does in so many authors throughout the Western tradition.  Once again it is like the Renaissance, though this time backwards.  The Renaissance was having a self-conscious classical revival, so humanists ostentatiously demonstrated their use of Plato, Seneca, Quintilian, Caesar, Varro.  But Marsilio Ficino explaining Platonism to you in the 1470s includes lots of ideas that we would say actually come from Thomas Aquinas, and even if you had a time machine and could tell Ficino that these ideas were really Thomas Aquinas and aren’t ancient at all, he’d remain sure it’s an ancient idea, and show you in which obscure bits of Plato he sees these Thomist ideas between the lines.  Ficino sees Thomism in Plato because his world and educational system were saturated with Thomas Aquinas, though it’s Plato’s name and not Thomas’s that makes it into the title of the Theologia Platonica.  Similarly one of his friends Johannes Reuchlin later wrote a book De arte cabalistica (on the art of Kabbalah), which in its first pages purports to teach the philosophy of Pythagoras, and is also saturated with Thomas Aquinas, Plato, Augustine, Dante and a zillion other sources.  So Mycroft finds himself in what feels to him like an Enlightenment revival, and when he describes this alien new secret world into which he was brought with such traumatic force, he believes that everything he experiences there is Enlightenment.  It is to us to (as Belle Waring and others have) see through that filter to what is Plato, what is Pythagoras, what is biblical, what is Thomas Carlyle, what is the Mardi bash’s reading of a certain way of framing WWI.  So once again here, reading Mycroft Canner’s text is, for us, like a historian reading a period text, and learning what we can through period perspective, which is the same time our tool and barrier to seeing what lies beyond.


Belle Waring comments, very astutely, on how strange it is that J.E.D.D. Mason’s many fathers seem—as Mycroft says at least—not to care very much whether or not He is What He says He is.  Or at least they—and Mycroft—keep worrying about the fate of things like political empires, or individual people, in the face of metaphysics.  That’s insane, when you know things like resurrection and godhood are on the table.  It’s much like how I’ve always said that, in the world of Dungeon’s & Dragons, it’s an act of madness to be anything but a cleric.  There are gods, they listen to you if you pray to them, and they control the fate of your immortal soul; and you decide to specialize in picking pockets?!  And yet… Dungeons & Dragons and similar stock fantasy settings are based… distantly… on the Christian Middle Ages, during which practically everyone (on the history of atheism see my academic work) absolutely did believe in Christianity, an actively interventionist God, and actively interventionist saints.  These things were 100% real to them, and were why it was sanity to spend vast fortunes on relics and cathedrals.  And why 30% or so of the population were monks, nuns, or priests.  But not 100%.  Wasn’t that itself an insane choice?  To not become a priest, in a world where Medieval Christianity was, for you, absolutely true?  Human history demonstrates over and over situations where people believed in great metaphysical things and yet carried on caring about farms, and marriage alliances, and honor.

To look back at my discussion of Max’s essay, belief systems developed a praxis to make it possible for people to carry on with practical and necessary political and economic functions and have this choice make sense to them, but stepping back from that praxis a Medieval Christian choosing to be a lawyer instead of a priest is as difficult to understand as Christianity yielding both Quakers and Crusades.  Just so, each person near J.E.D.D. Mason has beliefs (usually invisible to us and everyone thanks to the system) and a self-created praxis for those beliefs.  The King of Spain’s beliefs and praxis we know a little bit about; MASON’s we know less, but for both of them, and everyone who knows J.E.D.D. Mason’s claims, those claims have to be reconciled, not only with that person’s beliefs, but with that person’s praxis.  MASON has developed a praxis for coping with what J.E.D.D. Mason says He is which allows MASON to continue in his political duties—perhaps comparable to how Roman political figures used Stoicism to justify their political vocations against Epicureanism’s claim that happiness/tranquility comes only from leaving behind the stresses of public life.  But unlike Roman Stoic praxis, which had community to strengthen it, MASON’s fragile and self-made praxis must endure alone against the challenges brought to it by J.E.D.D. Mason and by Bridger.  Whether or not the wall of iron that is Caesar will let us see him sway and buckle is something only the next books can reveal, but I think praxis is a useful term for exposing how all these characters (and any character faced with a metaphysical revelation) has not just had belief struck at the heart, but praxis. And simultaneous blows to belief and praxis can be mutually destructive, mutually supporting, or wholly separate from each other—what they will be for each of the major figures in Terra Ignota must come, as all things come, with time.