Friday, May 27, 2016

The Essence of Truthiness

Reading the works of Martin Heidegger, two things are readily apparent. 1) It makes perfect sense he was a Nazi and 2) Plato has a lot to answer for.

That second may not cover his entire oeuvre but it's front and center in The Essence of Truth, a book compiled from Heidegger's lectures on Plato and the Allegory of the Cave. Over two hundred pages of Heidegger doing a close reading of Plato's dialogues, teasing out all the implications and constructing brick by brick a complex definition of Truth - that just so happens to coincide with his fixation on Being but hey, Western Philosophy - however it is all rooted in a single word: ἀλήθεια.

That's "aletheia" for y'all without too much book learnin'. Heidegger translates it as literally meaning "unhidden" though I asked my Hellenophone wife and the modern translation is simply "truth." We'll get back to that in a minute, but it's worth examining not just the implication of Truth being that which is un-hidden but the presumption that it would be hidden in the first place.

This is more than simply the idea that Truth must be reached through investigation, though that is a part of it. Rather, owing to Plato's Theory of Forms, it follows that the Truth of things cannot be perceived or empirically determined, but rather arises through a more intuitive process. Just as all of physical matter reflects a perfect metaphysical abstraction, so is Truth understood only through the direct revelation in the soul of the philosopher.

This is the heart of the Allegory of the Cave, that humanity in general only experiences a flawed shadow of the Truth. Or at least the Truth as conceived by Plato. From this follows Plato's political philosophy of benevolent dictatorship, where the best the ignorant masses can do is agree to be ruled by the select few who can walk outside the cave and into the light - though Plato also claims these enlightened few, when trying to spread the Truth to the dunderheads in the dark, suffer resistance and ridicule. A less charitable reading would call this rationalization for oligarchy sprinkled with the angsty teen's lament of "You just don't understand!" but it has undeniably had a far-reaching effect throughout history and all of Western Civilization, from political theory to theology.

But what if Plato is wrong?

What if Truth is much more self-evident? What if it can be determined in a more methodological rather than intuitive approach? What if it is painful and disturbing? That last question is at the heart of Existentialism, as it inverts the usual Platonic model of essence before existence. You're certainly free to believe either but believing as Plato that the universe follows an understandable and humanity-friendly order is going to cause you some anxiety when you experience the chaos and indifference of the cosmos. This might lead you to reconsider your assumptions about life, the universe, and everything.

Or you'll need a scapegoat.

See what I did there!?!

There's not much in the Anglophone media about the current Greek crisis as it's experienced by actual Greeks. Probably because it would hurt the narrative promoted by the bankster class that it's all due to Greek inefficiency and laziness. So what luck for all of us that Sophia Nikolaidou's The Scapegoat is in English!

Ostensibly about the sovereign debt crisis that kicked off in 2010, the novel actually bounces back and forth through history, contrasting a previous era when Greece found itself caught between the maneuverings of Great Powers. Specifically, the murder of George Polk in the middle of the Greek Civil War. Of course that "Civil War" was less about Greek politics and more about the US and UK pitting their proxies against the Soviet proxies in the Democratic Army of Greece.

It's always for the sake of "democracy" when wealthy nations kill...

Anyways, Nikolaidou fictionalizes the events and persons surrounding Polk so she can say what she wants without getting lost in the chaotic minutiae of history. And what she says is exactly that you can't rely on that chaotic minutiae to provide the Truth.

This is where the modern storyline of The Scapegoat comes in, focused on too-cool-for-school Minas Georgiou. Really, his very first lines in the novel are about how he's sitting out the infamous Greek university entrance exams because, well, "Fuck this shit, bruh." University is a big deal in Greece, inspiring cram schools and gut-twisting anxiety that should be familiar to every teenager in China, and Minas wants none of it, to the everlasting horror of his mother.

Enter Marinos Soukiouroglou - hereafter referred to as Souk because Holy God - the eccentric history teacher who forces the kids to think rather than just regurgitate data. On the urging of Mama Georgiou, he assigns Minas a special research project on the murder of Jack Talas - the fictionalized Polk - and the hapless Manolis Gris who got sent to prison to keep the US foreign aid flowing.

Nobody actually believes Gris is the guilty party. Not in the modern storyline and not even in his own storyline. As Minas soon learns, the government and police knew very well Gris wasn't the guilty party but saw him as a convenient sacrifice to the bruised egos of their American allies, best exemplified when some high muckety-muck from the Ministry of Justice tries to cajole Gris into signing a confession. He talks about honor and duty to his country, to which Gris responds:

-Sir, why don't you ask your son to sacrifice himself? To have his name go down in history as a benefactor of the nation? My family has already paid a high enough price. I lost a brother in the war. My mother can't bear to lose another child.

Everyone is scandalized. "The Minister let loose for a while and then stormed out, slamming the door behind him, and [Police Commander] Tzitzilis vowed to punish the prisoner's audacity." It's a synecdoche for the entire case: It's not that the authorities are actively conspiring to punish an innocent man, they just don't care who suffers as long as they keep their phony-baloney jobs. Parallels to the ECB are as obvious as a kick in the goolies.

Had she stopped there, Nikolaidou would have crafted the definitive novel of her time. However she clearly possesses the obsession of the true artist because, as the novel and Minas's project reach its climax, she skewers the righteous self-satisfaction of every character and likely her own audience. The Gris affair is perfect conspiracy fodder for the conspiracy-obsessed Greek culture, which can always find some reason to blame "The Government" for every personal misfortune. Even the otherwise enlightened Souk falls into this, demanding that Minas present some alternate theory as to who killed Polk, whether the Greek government or the Communists - or even a British foreign services officer, as hinted in an aside late in the novel.

But Souk has taught Minas too well and the boy refuses to claim any un-hidden Truth. With the neutral rationalism of the best historians, he simply reports the facts as they are, and leaves interpretation to his audience. This outrages Souk, who harangues Minas before the entire school - which prompts the other students encountered throughout the narratives, from the overachievers to the muddling fuck-ups, to rise in defense of not-knowing. It's a microcosm of a generational conflict, between the old guard scrambling to find someone to blame, some scapegoat, the Truth that remains hidden... and the generation growing up in the financial crisis who face the much starker challenge of simple survival. The harsh realities of the world certainly follow chains of causality - whether ECB demands for austerity or US demands for a scalp - but even when this process is transparent, the results are unavoidable. The kids listening to their elders lecture on the importance of a university degree or "what really happened" in a murder case from half a century ago are still living with austerity, no matter who is to blame.

Generational conflict is in fact the great unrecognized theme of The Scapegoat. The confrontation between Minas and Souk is even foreshadowed by Minas venting over his proudly literary grandmother:

Grandma calls it the Socratic Method. She considers it the highest pedagogical technique. I call it cornering a person. Instead of just telling you what I want you to know, I ambush you with questions. You try to escape, but you can’t. You can run whichever way you like, but in the end you’ll fall right into my trap.

It's an overdue critique of Plato's heavily scripted "dialogues." A criticism Mikhail Bakhtin would likely appreciate, as he identified the essence of dialogue being not just the exchange of ideas but that those ideas are forever informing and influencing each other. This leads to much more mutable truths as opposed to Truth, something that a budding Existentialist like Minas - and all his peers - are much more comfortable with than their meaning-obsessed elders.

The Greek intellectual tradition stretching back to Plato offers both a sense of meaning and order to the universe. An explicitly hidden meaning, requiring interrogation and reasoning to ultimately arrive at, but a meaning nonetheless. Minas and the Austerity Generation, perfectly capable of such philosophical investigation, have discovered the self-evident Truth that there is no meaning to any of this. They can reject this perfectly rational conclusion, insist as Souk and the US and the ECB does that someone is to blame... or they can move forward and make the best of this indifferent world.

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