The Soul of the State

Our stories define us; and how
we tell them is really important.

In his 2019 book The World Philosophy Made, Scott Soames quotes the historian of Greek religion Walter Burkert, who claimed that the epic poetry of Homer and Hesiod was no less than ‘the glue that held Greek society and culture together.’ Burkert says that ‘[t]he authority to whom the Greeks appealed was the poetry of Hesiod and, above all, Homer. The spiritual unity of the Greeks was founded and upheld by poetry – a poetry which could still draw on living oral tradition to produce a felicitous union of freedom and form, spontaneity and discipline. To be a Greek was to be educated, and all education was Homer.’ (Soames, The World Philosophy Made, p.2; Burkert, Greek Religion, p.120)

The very idea of the State was only just beginning to be a thing in the fifth century BCE. Donald Kagan in his excellent Yale lectures on ancient Greece notes that to be Greek was, in essence, to speak Greek. There was no such political entity as ‘Greece’ in any way that we would recognise today. There were cities, and there were leagues and alliances; there were colonies and relationships of dominance. To speak Greek was not merely about a language, but as Plato said in The Laws, to be Greek was to be educated – as Soames points out, Burkert was paraphrasing Plato. But Plato goes further (and Soames also catches this), explaining in The Laws that education is as much about music and dance as it is about anything else. ‘[A]ll education was Homer,’ Burkert had said, and Homer was no mere poem; it was a performative function of Greek society and culture. It had not by Plato’s time been fully transcribed, and the oral tradition remained vibrant. Again, the oral tradition was more than simple recitation – it was chanted, sung, to music. As Soames says, it was too rich for mere writing, which was primitive. Education was art, and art was life! As he says in Book 2 of The Laws, ‘Let us follow the scent like hounds, and go in pursuit of beauty of figure, and melody, and song, and dance; if these escape us, there will be no use in talking about true education, whether Hellenic or barbarian.’

As the State, and some kind of national identity emerged in ancient Greece, it was recognised in what Soames called the ‘imaginative identification with the Gods and heroes of orally performed epic poetry.’ The mode of communication was performative – including music, dance, and recitation. This combination of language and story, of a shared narrative history, was essential to a common ontology, and sense of being. Wittgenstein’s concept of communication as a form of life is here writ large: Greek life was realised – actualised – through these stories, these dramatic, persistent realisations of heroic myth.

Consider, then, modern drama and art in this context. John Berendt’s novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a complex story about a town – Savannah, Georgia – its people, and a murder. It has layers of complexity; the town itself is conservative, though it tolerates a level of both vice and perversion. It is old, and historic, and while pretty for that it is clinging on to a fading way of life. The novel is dotted with people largely disconnected from the plot, and yet they offer some reflected illumination – for the people in the main arc of the story are the product of this same town. Reading the novel leaves the reader with a sense of the place, and its people. That sense informs the judgement one renders on the man who pulled the trigger, a richness that is much broader than the mere description of events as they unfolded.

The film version is different. It is of course abbreviated, abridged, and condensed. Certain characters are composites. The four trials that took place are compressed into one. It is a different telling, and leaves a different impression. The words describing Savannah in the 1980s are replaced with beautifully shot images, and occasional references to architectural provenance when useful. The people are of course dressed to inform, and an entirely irrelevant love interest is added to the story. The thin smirk on Kevin Spacey’s smile, or the quizzical expression of John Cusack each serve to deliver what two pages might attempt in the book.

There is of course a third version – the story of John Berendt himself, who lived through the trials in Savannah, and became one of the characters in his own right. He said of Spacey’s performance in the film that it was poor; that he had probably based his accent and demeanour on the tapes of Jim Williams from the third trial when he had been on valium, and hence played him ‘as if he were in a fog, or sleepwalking.’

None is of course a perfect representation of what happened. Each is both a subjective expression of narrative, and at the sametime a personal engagement with that expression. Some points – the dog, the voodoo, the trees – might be incidental to some readers / viewers, central to others. And yet its popularity (particularly the book, with the possibility of a broadway adaptation also rumoured) provides some reassurance around a common aesthetic appreciation: for the decent person trying to get along; for the outrageous showmanship of The Lady Chablis; for the beauty of the built environment.

These are all attempts to construct a common sense of the world we find ourselves in, a common philosophy. There is some comfort in that sense of solidarity, in the realisation that we are not entirely alone – though some may be more peripheral than others; and that should we find ourselves adrift, there’s an accepted mode for reattachment. That is an essential sensibility, one that grounds us, bonds us, unifies us. These stories keep us together.

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