[Melville House; 2010]
by David Backer
The Socratic dialogue Alcibiades ends with the following lines:
Alcibiades: Yes, that’s right. I’ll start to cultivate justice in myself right now.
Socrates: I should like to believe that you will persevere, but I’m afraid—not because I distrust your nature, but because I know how powerful the city is—I’m afraid it might get the better of both me and you.
At this moment in the dialogue Socrates has convinced the precocious politician Alcibiades that he doesn’t know anything about justice or leadership. Socrates tells him that the only way out of this ignorance is to cultivate himself by getting to know his own soul. But then at the end, just when Alcibiades—also Socrates’s boy beloved—commits himself to this project, Socrates says “Well, go ahead and try, but you’ll probably fail—and so will I.”
Tao Lin’s new novel Richard Yates is a similar kind of conversation. It occurs between two lovers, one older than the other. After hours of conversation the older lover convinces the younger lover that she can’t live without his advice. Then the older lover, pushy and dominating but meaning well, imparts that advice. The younger lover attempts to put it into practice. The older lover constantly doubts that the younger lover will be able to do this.
Obviously Richard Yates is a different scene: the conversations take place over email, cell phone, and Gmail chat as well as in the analog. The characters eat vegan food and fly planes and drive cars and go to Georgia and Texas and New York and New Jersey.
But what happens in both texts, Greek and contemporary, is eerily similar. There’s a slow unfolding of personalities through dialogue that exposes us to the strengths and weaknesses of two people. After seeing this interaction the reader is left with a question: How do we get to know—and then be—ourselves?
Towards the end of the middle of the dialogue Alcibiades gets uncomfortable with Socrates’ tone and method and says “Stop pushing me around!” Alcibiades feels this discomfort because Socrates has shown (told, convinced) him that he’s doing everything wrong and that if he wants to achieve anything he needs to follow Socrates’s guidance and change his entire life. Socrates replies, “No, in fact I’m going to push you around…”
This is Haley Joel Osment’s attitude toward Dakota Fanning, Tao Lin’s two main characters. It’s Haley’s project to change Dakota, though Dakota rarely—if ever—complains as forthrightly as Alcibiades. (She protests in her own furtive way.) Haley tells Dakota what to do and how to do it. His general plea is that she do what she wants without considering his opinion. He wants her to be herself, demands it. This constantly frustrates him. In one such moment of frustration Haley gives Dakota this example:
“It’s like there is a blue pen, a blue and red pen, and a red pen in front of a person and they say they like the blue pen most. But they always use the red pen and then say ‘sorry, next time I will choose the blue and red pen.”
Dakota says she wants to work harder, to be better, to choose her favorite color and be herself, but somehow she always falls short of Haley’s expectations. Just after he gives her this pen analogy Haley says, “I know it’s hard for you to change.” He continues demanding and she continues failing.
The problem here is a riff on stock romantic tension: X tries to change Y but X finds out that people don’t/can’t change. Lin’s version of this is much more elegant and complex. In the novel X tries to change Y by forcing Y to betwhatever Y wants to be. But the force and the freedom cancel each other out here. There’s no way for X to force Y to be free. Freedom is a quality of our purely individual will, untainted by the wills of others. If Y follows X’s order then she’s not free by definition. But if Y doesn’t follow the order, she can’t behave as X demands. It’s Lin’s Paradox.
Haley wonders to himself why he gets so upset when Dakota doesn’t follow his orders, why he orders her around at all. He eventually finds a certain peace with this and helps Dakota improve–cultivate–her life. But the novel ends in confusion, just like the Socratic dialogue. Haley seems to wonder whether or not he’s been doing the right thing by demanding this of Dakota, whether it will work, whether it can work. The answer is (impeccably, tragically) no.
Late in the dialogue Socrates tells Alcibiades: “If the soul is to know itself it must look at a soul, and especially at that region that makes a soul good…” We see this happening in both the ancient dialogue and Lin’s novel. We see the effect two souls can have on one another when one soul wants the other to be something other than it is; to wit, itself.
We learn that this is impossible. A soul can only ever be itself. And if we force it into other clothes, if we define ourselves by the extent to which we can “change the world” into something it’s not, we’re tragic. At the end of our conquest we’ll find we’ve been monstrous, or that we’ve exposed our loved ones to monsters from which we can’t protect them. We’ll find ourselves vulnerable and confused like Camus’s conqueror, like Haley or Socrates, confronted with the fact that despite our best efforts we’re just weak human beings among other weak human beings, all of us terribly free and forever unsure of what’s to come.