Monday, March 7, 2016

Losing Your Mind in Art by Christopher Morrissey

ion socrates
Plato’s Ion contains an unforgettable image describing artistic experience. In conversation with a rhapsode named Ion, Socrates likens the activity of poets to the operation of a magnet. Ion’s own professional expertise lies in the recitation of the poetry of Homer, and so Socrates says:
“The gift which you possess of speaking excellently about Homer is not an art, but, as I was just saying, an inspiration; there is a divinity moving you, like that contained in the stone which Euripides calls a magnet, but which is commonly known as the stone of Heraclea. This stone not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts to them a similar power of attracting other rings; and sometimes you may see a number of pieces of iron and rings suspended from one another so as to form quite a long chain: and all of them derive their power of suspension from the original stone. In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration. For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed.” (Plato,Ion, trans. B. Jowett)
Like a magnet, the divine power moves the poet, who moves the rhapsode who recites his poetry, who moves us in the audience. All in the chain are transported out of their minds by the divine experience.
This is the characteristic feeling of being “wrapped up in” an artistic experience. For example, the audience is immersed in a world of “make believe” and momentarily takes it as real. The audience members identify emotionally with a protagonist, moved by her fate, and forget to remind themselves that she is a fictional being.
Ion is aware that he himself gets caught up emotionally in his enactments of Homer’s dramatic scenes. Thus Socrates takes this as evidence that “not by art or knowledge about Homer do you say what you say, but by divine inspiration and by possession”; in other words, any truly effective artistic experience demands that the poets, and the audiences along with them, lose their minds in order to feel the divinely inspired experience.
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