Plato’s Bedroom: Ancient Wisdom and Modern Love
by david k. o’connor
st. augustine’s press, 301 pages, $28.00
In December of 2013, First Things published an essay by Dana Gioia on “The Catholic Writer Today.” Lamenting the absence of a strong Catholic presence in contemporary American letters, Gioia argued that “Catholic writers must renovate and reoccupy their own tradition.” David O’Connor recalls that charge in a short passage tucked away in the acknowledgements at the end of Plato’s Bedroom. “I wrote this book,” he says, “and for decades taught the course that led to it, sharing the sense of vocation of Catholic writers Gioia invokes at the end of his essay.” Plato’s Bedroom realizes that vocation where Catholics need it most, for it is a startling reimagination and recovery of traditional romance and human sexuality.
At the moment, those of us who would defend “traditional sexual ethics” seem down for the count. Typically, we reach for the theology of the body, or try to dust off the natural law, always anxious that our arguments, coherent as they might be, move only those who are already sympathetic and give our non-Catholic brothers and sisters merely an ever-clearer picture of their hopelessly outdated opponent. O’Connor, a philosopher and classicist at the University of Notre Dame, is uninterested in such a treatise, and instead has written a literary and philosophical invitation, a love letter as intimate as its subject matter.
Plato’s Bedroom does not marshal its chapters in service of a grand conclusion. It recreates O’Connor’s experience of the world, an experience that comes to him through stories and images as much as through arguments (beginning with the book’s cover, a print of Diego Velazquez’s provocative “Rokeby Venus”). For when we talk about love, we “mostly talk about ourselves. … To others scrambling up love’s craggy ascent, we can suggest no holds more secure than the motley of stories, experiences, and desires we used on our own climb.” So an important part of O’Connor’s account of love comes through his descriptions of films and stories. O’Connor is not writing like the stereotypical philosopher, whose mind is all arguments accompanied by cursory, flat, even ludicrous examples. Instead, he develops a recurring set of words and images that lead us farther and farther into a particular conception of romantic love.
This does not mean that Plato’s Bedroom sacrifices any of the precision of philosophy by appropriating the concrete particularity of literature. A reading of Plato’s Symposium is its chief organizing principle, supplemented by lengthy discussions of Plato’s Phaedrus and Shakespeare’s Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Plato—that most Christian of pre-Christian pagans. O’Connor refers, again in the acknowledgements, to his own “rather pagan Catholicism,” but only after slyly concluding his much earlier discussion of Babette’s Feast with the remark that “director Gabriel Axel made an unusually Catholic movie because he made an unusually sacramental movie. But Babette’s Feast can be so Catholic only because it is so thoroughly Platonic”.) Along the way there are masterful retellings of short stories by the Catholic writer André Dubus, of Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice, and of numerous films—in this way, too, O’Connor pays tribute to Plato, who tradition tells us sacrificed success as a playwright in order to become a philosopher. You have a heart of stone if you do not weep at least once, and likely early; he opens with a retelling of Atom Egoyan’s 1994 film Exotica that is a beautiful and heart-rending introduction to the book’s central themes.
And it is the rending of stony hearts that most interests Plato’s Bedroom. We modern lovers shrink from things we cannot control. Even our language betrays this. “The limits of my language are the limits of my world,” wrote Wittgenstein, and O’Connor begins by reminding us that we are prisoners of our contemporary vocabulary. How has it happened that the common Greek word for sexual pleasure, aphrodisia, “the things of Aphrodite,” has transformed itself from something divine into something we manufacture and administer to one another, an “aphrodisiac”? “The things of Venus” have fared even worse, and the day darkens when one’s doctor invokes our contemporary derivative, “venereal.” Our own phrase, “sexual intercourse,” appears first in Thomas Malthus’s famous treatise on the threat of overpopulation; sexual intercourse is the thing men and women do that causes the number of people to increase, and that we will need to control to prevent disaster. But in Plato’s world, Aphrodite and Dionysius are the leading champions of love, and they are divinities.
The exemplary Dionysian experience is to be broken open and swept away, abducted by the god. … The way of love is wonderful: it is by abandonment. We abandon a safer and tamer self, the more to abandon ourselves to the good of love’s exhilarating ecstasy. We leave the limits of a more comfortable world to accept the demands of a new one. Plato’s Symposium, and his Phaedrus too, try to find ways philosophy can promote this reception of the new love. But before we can be open enough to receive, we must diagnose the anxieties and fears that keep us closed, that make us want to control love like a tame cat rather than riding the lion.
Those anxieties are as real for us as they were for Plato, and the Symposium shows us how we avoid the exhilarations and ecstasies of love by clutching to a false self-sufficiency and control over our erotic lives. So the soldier Phaedrus praises love for making us tough, the old man Pausanias praises love for making us want to educate our beloved, and the doctor Eryximachus praises love as the art of finding the perfectly balanced and low-stress environment. Sometimes, our preference for the security of self-sufficiency and control takes a darker turn, and O’Connor develops a potent interpretation of Shakespeare’s Othello as a man who will go to any lengths, even the murder of his beloved, to avoid the ecstatic disintegration of his self-sufficiency. (O’Connor argues, convincingly I think, that Othello and Desdemona never consummate their marriage, a striking reminder of the deeply physical self-sufficiency at stake here.)
The Symposium saves its most seductive speech for Aristophanes, the comedian. When the gods created us, we were round, self-sufficient beings, proud and powerful. But we provoked the gods, and Zeus sliced us in two, so that we are forever seeking the other half of ourselves. When we find that other half we embrace one another, and through the things of Aphrodite we come as close as we can to healing our brokenness. A better description of the dominant conception of love today and its accompanying anxieties would be hard to find. Such romantic couples seek self-sufficiency in one another, and O’Connor illustrates the old Greek’s tale with Patrice Laconte’s remarkable 1990 French film, The Hairdresser’s Husband. “We’ve no children,” says Antoine, “we’ve no friends. What could they possibly add to our lives?” Aristophanes’s ideal of self-sufficiency requires a couple, but it is an ideal of self-sufficiency nonetheless.
“Plato is both literature and philosophy,” says O’Connor, and Plato’s Bedroom displays the same aspiration in a structural detail that reflects Plato’s own composition of the Symposium. The Symposium presents its reader with two centers of gravity. The center of the dialogue lengthwise is the speech of Socrates, a speech that puts ecstasy and procreation back at the heart of love. But Aristophanes is the middle speechmaker, and so the Symposium invites readers to consider these two speeches as the primary rivals of the dialogue. Plato’s Bedroom has eight chapters, and so a two-fold center. Chapter four is the long meditation on Aristophanes. But chapter five takes a break from the Symposium (and so postpones Socrates’s speech for a bit) and instead meditates on the creation of Adam and Eve, Jesus’s commentary on their creation in the Gospel of Matthew, Humanae Vitae, and the development in Peter Jackson’s films of the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings.
Unlike Aristophanes, Genesis and Jesus make romantic love and procreation characteristics of our godliness rather than our brokenness. We never were, and never should be, self-sufficient, and O’Connor’s reading of Humanae Vitae reminds us that the ultimate recognition of one’s lack of self-sufficiency is the openness to new life: “This openness involves a lack of a kind of control, a gesture of optimism to an uncontrolled and open future with children. Pope Paul VI sees that as an interpretation of what our heart most wants when we fall in love with another person, when we want that person to become our sexual partner. So, at least, did the pontiff read the oracle.” How beautiful, then, that Peter Jackson’s writers chose to develop Tolkien’s original portrayal of the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen so as to recognize this. Arwen must sacrifice immortality to remain with Aragorn, and it is only when she sees the haunting vision of their future child, a vision that combines her own sacrifice of self-sufficient immortality with the openness of a living procreative future, that she determines to remain in Middle-earth.
I began by suggesting that Plato’s Bedroom does something important with respect to renovating and reoccupying the traditional Catholic view of human sexuality. It succeeds by starting outside of religion, by unsettling all of us, showing us why our erotic lives are so important and problematic, so beautiful and at the same time potentially destructive, why love and death are never far from one another. (And when Notre Dame chose the undergraduate course upon which Plato’s Bedroom is based for its first foray into free online courses, it became an enormous sensation in China, where the Chinese-language version of Plato’s Bedroom soon followed under the title Love Is Barefoot Philosophy.) Only after this unsettling can the Catholic vision be made startlingly interesting for us once again, for that vision is attractive not because it eases these anxieties, but because it holds them together in an aspirational account of our erotic lives.
O’Connor tells us the short story writer André Dubus “made the truth palpable and delightful.” So has O’Connor. Plato’s Bedroom ends with a simple sentence: “Philosophy begins in wonder, and ends in gratitude.” It is always a pleasure when the discussion of a new book can do the same.
Raymond Hain is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island.