Watermark (Joseph Brodsky)
We are reverse-engineering a "Republic" for electracy, first identifying the poetics of Plato's version, and then proposing an allegory of our own. We continue to work within the frame of literacy for now, using heuretics to imagine a work native to electracy that models the education we already are performing. A basic device of Philosophy is to create a "conceptual persona," a person in a situation, to dramatize how to live according to the speculative theory. "Socrates" is the conceptual persona created by Plato, based on the historical figure of his mentor, whose historical life was appropriated and fictionalized to represent the world view being invented in the Academy. Our candidate for an electrate conceptual persona could be any artist, in principle (such as Jana Sterbak), but given our allegory the ideal figure is Joseph Brodsky. As was the case with Socrates, the persona is not a figure simply to observe, but to emulate. The practices of literacy or of electracy are for everyone, and we study the persona to learn how to generalize his or her conduct into a practice of education. It will not be a written dialogue defining the properties of an ideal city, however, demonstrating along the way a particular form of argumentation and logic, as in the case of the Republic.
How will we encounter our paragon in an electrate way? Plato's purpose was not necessarily to have his students learn to write dialogues (although some did), but to learn dialectic (the new logic made possible by alphabetic writing). The equivalent of the dialogue interface that brought students into relation with "Socrates" for us is a filmic treatment of Joseph Brodsky in Venice, perhaps a screenplay adaptation of Watermark, the lyric prose autobiographical portrait Brodsky wrote in the latter part of his life. Brodsky was born (1940) and raised in Leningrad, later St Petersburg. In 1964 his poetry got him convicted of "social parasitism," and sentenced to five years in a labor camp. In 1972 he was exiled permanently. It is appropriate in our context to pick up the transformation from literacy to electracy with an exiled poet, considering Plato's exclusion of poets from his city. It is ironic, also, that Socrates was executed by Athens for "corrupting the youth."
Once settled in the United States, where he found work teaching, Brodsky visited Venice nearly every year, going in the month of December, the winter, time of high water. He went there simply "to be" for a time, and (if fortunate) to write a few poems. "And I vowed to myself that should I ever get out of my empire, should this eel ever escape the Baltic, the first thing I would do would be to come to Venice, rent a room on the ground floor of some palazzo so that the waves raised by passing boats would splash against my window, write a couple of elegies while extinguishing my cigarettes on the damp stony floor, cough and drink, and, when the money got short, instead of boarding a train, buy myself a little Browning and blow my brains out on the spot, unable to die in Venice of natural causes" (41). The tone and sentiment at once express the romance and irony of his state of mind. The relevance of this particular work for us is that it is not poetry, but the life of the poet, that is put forward (albeit manifesting the craft of great poetry).
Why Venice? He reported a childhood memory of receiving a gift of a copper gondola, brought back by his father from a trip to China. He dreamed of traveling to Venice as a child. In exile, the resemblance between the cities--their geographical situation in marshland, the presence of canals--made Venice a place of "rememoration." Rememoration, or "arbitrage," is a condition in which the object itself is not remembered, but the memory of it, applied when the place or thing remembered is a composite (Boym, 303). This composite memory is fostered in mystory (the electrate genre we will be practicing), to access not only the GPS of our physical navigation, but also the EPS or existential positioning system of our wayfinding. It is worth sketching in Brodsky's mystory briefly, to note the four levels of our allegory (countering the four levels of Plato's analogy of the line). This gift of the gondola represents the Family story. The importance of the gondola is indicated by the fact that it was one of the items present on the bookshelf, documented in the photograph taken of his room the day Brodsky went into exile. For Community history a good candidate is the Soviet Sputnik program, building up to sending men into space by putting dogs into orbit. Brodsky used these dogs shot into space as a metaphor for what it is like to live in exile (your capsule is your language, and soon you realize that the trajectory is not back to earth, but out into outer space).
As for mythology (entertainment narrative), Brodsky himself describes the relevant work, a novel (a series of three novels in fact) by Henri de Régnier, published in the later 1930s, with one entitled "Provincial Entertainments," set in Venice in the Winter. He read these books, characterized as picaresque detective stories, with the usual plot of love and betrayal, in his early twenties. They were not great literature, but he learned from them that what makes a good narrative is "what follows what." For some reason, he adds, he came to associate this sequence with Venice (38). He leaves unspoken his own experience of a broken heart, a betrayed by his beloved with his best friend. The point for now is to note how Brodsky imagines his experience through the frame of a certain kind of B movie, even classifying its genre as "melodrama," with the overtones that this classification carries for us.
The scene includes a Proustian involuntary memory, triggered by a smell that Brodsky identified as that of frozen seaweed, reminding him of his childhood home on the Baltic, and despite admitting that his childhood was not happy, the sensation at that moment gave him a feeling of utter happiness (the happiness experienced biting into a tea biscuit started Proust on his search for lost time). In any case, Brodsky on his first visit to Venice imagined himself in an adventure narrative. "So I lifted my bags and stepped outside. In the unlikely event that someone's eye followed my white London Fog and dark brown Borsalino, they should have cut a familiar silhouette. The night itself, to be sure, would have had no difficulty absorbing it. Mimicry, I believe, is high on the list of every traveler, and the Italy I had in mind at the moment was a fusion of black-and-white movies of the fifties and the equally monochrome medium of my métier. Winter thus was my season; the only thing I lacked, I thought, to look like a local rake or [carbonaro] was a scarf. Other than that, I felt inconspicuous and fit to merge into the background or fill the frame of a low-budget whodunit or, more likely, melodrama" (4).