Poesis and immortality

What is behind the urge for making? I’ve always suspected it is something to do with our mortality and the desire to be around for longer than strictly possible, as well as just feeling like something that one needs to do. Plato’s Symposium, written around 360 B.C., considers a tea party dialogue on the meaning of love between Socrates and his mates, with the wise seer Diotima having issued advice on immortality to him. Her first point of this Benjamin Jowett-translated text  seems clear enough:

Mortal nature is seeking as far as is possible to be everlasting and immortal: and this is only to be attained by generation, because generation always leaves behind a new existence in the place of the old… Those who beget children – this is the character of their love; their offspring, as they hope, will preserve their memory and giving them the blessedness and immortality which they desire in the future.

She also saw a different sort of immortality as part our constant renewal as our knowledge constantly disappears:

Even in the life of the same individual there is succession: a man is called the same, and yet in the short interval which elapses between youth and age, he is undergoing a perpetual process of loss and reparation – hair, flesh, bones, blood, and the whole body are always changing. Which is true not only of the body, but also of the soul, whose habits, tempers, opinions, desires, pleasures, pains, fears, never remain the same in any one of us, but are always coming and going; and equally true of knowledge… The departure of knowledge, which is ever being forgotten, and is renewed and preserved by recollection. The mortal body, or mortal anything, partakes of immortality; but the immortal in another way.

The desire for fame is not a new thing, but it is worth considering just what sort of commitment is required here for a name to endure:

You will wonder at the senselessness of their ways, unless you consider how they are stirred by the love of an immortality of fame. They are ready to run all risks greater far than they would have for their children, and to spend money and undergo any sort of toil, and even to die, for the sake of leaving behind them a name which shall be eternal.

Diotima then considered those who produce “children” of a different sort; those who desire to create, seek wisdom, order and justice – who give to the world many noble works and are parents of virtue of every kind:

Souls which are pregnant – for there certainly are men who are more creative in their souls than in their bodies conceive that which is proper for the soul to conceive or contain. And what are these conceptions? – wisdom and virtue in general. And such creators are poets and all artists who are deserving of the name inventor. But the greatest and fairest sort of wisdom by far is that which is concerned with the ordering of states and families, and which is called temperance and justice. And he who in youth has the seed of these implanted in him and is himself inspired, when he comes to maturity desires to beget and generate… The children who are their common offspring are fairer and more immortal.

So there are plenty of options to work towards an immortality triple whammy.

But why is all this relevant? Perhaps for an artist, considering this might just take the pressure off the development of a body of work. We have a lifetime to ensure that creative outputs with the necessary qualities survive us – and to ensure those which do not have, do not.

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