Monday, April 10, 2006

Dignity in not simplifying

I think one has to go over some background materials on Greek culture and history, particularly on the peculiarities of Athenian and Spartan societies, to better appreciate this story by John Gardner. But even without such a review, the material should be quite interesting. The novel begins with the arrest of this funny and weird philosopher-prophet named Agathon and his Sancho Panza-like sidekick Demodokos. While in prison, unaware of the crime that they are being charged with (though I think Agathon has some inkling on this), the two quixotic characters embark on a twisted project to write down their thoughts and the circumstances leading to their arrests. Agathon records his hob knobbing with Athenian and Spartan political figures and his wry comments on the prevailing political dogmas. Interspersed are details of his exploits with friends' wives. At his wit's end because of his master's crazy antics and seeming indifference to their plight, Demodokos or "Peeker" (in contrast to "Seer" which is Agathon's professed title) meanwhile reflects on his deranged decision to join Agathon towards their impending doom. The two write on fresh parchments supplied each morning by the Spartan guards, which are then mysteriously carted away at the end of the day. I also have a copy of Gardner's The Sunlight Dialogues and remember having read it once before. There's a certain mystery and depth about the stories told in these two books. But I think The Wreckage of Agathon comes out as the more witty albeit shorter and less magical piece.

Some interesting quotes: "... to be free does not mean to obtain what one has wished, but only to determine one's wish oneself. Success is wholly irrelevant. If I wish to be free of this stinking cell and I cannot achieve it, I illustrate the common case. The history of a man's life is the history of a failure. That is my happiness." (Thaletes to Agathon) "No, I will not come and help you murder Spartans, and with me or without me you'll fail, die in blood, as even the Spartans will eventually fail, and as we all will die, eventually, become dinner for worms. But I will die with a certain worthless dignity: I did not simplify." (Agathon to Iona)