What Would Plato and David Foster Wallace Talk About? A Conversation With Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

In Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, Plato comes screaming into the 21st century. What Goldstein does in this college course of a book is quite audacious and charmingly goofy; she imagines what it would be like if Plato were on a book tour, today, in our modern world — and it would be quite a journey: sparring with fake Tiger Moms at the 92nd St. Y, fake Bill O’Reillys on Fox News, and giving out agony aunt advice to the lovelorn.

But the book is not just a WWPD? bracelet, as there are formidable essays on Plato’s life, philosophy, and his journeys in writing about Socrates on trial, love, or any other subjects that fascinated his great mind. Despite the questionable title, Plato at the Googleplex is a book to luxuriate in and to put on your bookshelf. Provocative, funny, and sharp, Goldstein makes an argument for the necessity of philosophy, of examining why we are here, while burnishing Plato’s reputation at the same time. I chatted with Goldstein, philosopher and novelist (awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant for her speculative fiction), about her thoughts on what kind of discussions Plato could have with writers like David Foster Wallace and why we should always be asking questions.

In Plato at the Googleplex, you’re imagining Plato as he would fit into the world today, and I was curious what your thoughts would be, since you’ve channeled Plato, what Plato and David Foster Wallace would have to talk about.

I think that it’s very important to remember that Plato wrote in dialogue form — this is art, it’s not only extremely important philosophy — he’s really kind of creating the field, the paradigmatic questions of all of the different parts of philosophy. But he did it artfully. And this is something that’s been given up; philosophers write for the most part for philosophers, [and] it’s not accessible. I think that’s a big mistake. I think that all of us think about philosophy all the time. Philosophers should have something to say about this, and I want to just say that in some senses there are fiction writers who are continuing to do what Plato did, and they’re raising important questions in ways that are accessible and in ways that really involve us and bring out how emotional these issues really are.

David Foster Wallace was one such person. I think one of the things that Wallace and Plato would agree on is that it is really hard to live a life. We find so many ways to tranquilize ourselves. Whether it’s drugs or whether it’s entertainment — you know, the movie that’s so entertaining ­­­that is going to kill you in Infinite Jest. We find so many ways to escape the sheer pain of living a fucking human life. It’s extremely hard. And I think that that is something Wallace certainly knew, and that Plato and he would be able to talk about.

And probably the most famous passage from all of Plato’s writing is the Myth of the Cave, in which the lowest level of consciousness is we’re chained inside a cave and watching the projection of images and that’s our entire reality. It’s confused, it’s completely out of touch, it’s ungrounded with what’s out there. And it’s many things, but in one sense it’s an exploration of that form of consciousness which is completely ungrounded, and in fact it will kill you in the sense in which Plato really meant. You live a whole life having never really dealt with living a life, having never really gotten to grips with anything. That’s one of the topics I can imagine them talking about.

With Plato, it seems that it’s all about asking questions.

It’s all about asking questions. You know, Plato can be pretty annoying. There’s his elitist side, there’s his Puritanism. But the one thing that makes me think that he is the spirit of philosophy is exactly what you said: always keep asking questions. And when you think you reached the truth, think again. You haven’t. You haven’t.

And I think questions are really key to the fiction that lingers with me. You know? Because it’s wrestling with something.

Exactly. And it’s not just pure — I mean, one of the things that Plato knew, he mistrusted emotions and he mistrusted art. He really worries that artists are going for the big effect, and they’ll do it irresponsibly. They’re just doing it for the big effect, and so he mistrusted artists. But [Plato] is an artist, and again, there’s a paradox there. His art is used in the service of waking us up and getting us to open ourselves up. And as painful as it is to live with our uncertainty, then that art [from that struggle] is good.

In the book, Plato’s sparring against people, like the Tiger Mom, who are interested in ideas, but their focus is also on branding themselves in this modern age, where the sort of beautiful paradox of Plato is he wrote a bunch of stuff that’s mostly about Socrates.

It’s true, we know a lot about [Plato’s] contemporaries — in particular, Socrates — and partly because of Plato. Of course, Socrates is a fictional character in Plato’s hands, and some people make the mistake of  seeing Plato as a note-taker for Socrates. Plato was a great, great philosopher, and the character of Socrates is used for his own exposition, for a very complicated exposition.

And that’s also some people’s take on the Bible in so far as it just “came” to the people that were note-taking for God. And maybe that’s a sort of idea on the divinity of inspiration.

Yeah, interesting. Because Plato reverses some stuff. What you learn in Philosophy 101, Plato’s ideas, Theory of Forms, blah blah blah.  Well, no, because he actually subjected Theory of Forms to a lot of criticism. It’s really the process of questioning that we can associate with Plato. And one of the things he maybe reverses himself on is inspiration. When it just seems to come to you, and it has that sense of authenticity and undeniability, and should we trust it?

It happens in religion and it happens in art. And he even associates it with romantic love. It’s just this thing that possesses you — it possesses you! — just like the gods. Should we trust that, or should we only trust the views that we can give justification for and that we can make our reasons for holding these views clear to other people, and not just to “I know it because I know, and it’s just undeniable”? Actually, he’s divided on that. Sometimes he’s on one side and sometimes he’s on another side. One of the dialogues he reverses himself on so much is the Phaedrus; a lot of people, including me, think that he might have been in love when he wrote that. Which is really sort of fun to try to [figure out]; you know, it’s kind of like detective work. Was he in love, and who was he in love with?

Did Plato ever do drugs? Would he have been interested in drugs?

I think not. He didn’t like anything, I would think, to cloud with his consciousness. But in the Phaedrus, he does talk about the lotus eaters someplace. And he’s pretty disapproving of them. The lotus eaters were the drug addicts of their day. He’s mostly very suspicious of all forms of enchantment; they’re an escape from reality. He’s a reality chauvinist, is what he is. The only way to save ourselves is to get in touch with reality — that’s basically his view. Of course there are those that think that drugs, just like Plato sometimes thinks romantic love, are ways of getting closer to reality. I can see him in that mode in which he reversed himself about love and about poetry, maybe even reversing himself about drugs.

Because these days, you know, more obnoxious young people are like, “I can explain the world through drugs.”

So here’s the proof. It’s like, if somebody who’s out of their mind… If what they say can sort of stand up, if it’s only private to them, and you have to be them and experience what they’re experiencing — because otherwise it just sounds like nothing that is going to inspire other people — then you can forget it. But if some kind of wisdom comes out of it, something that can inspire other people, it’s really in the product and in the fruits of the process that you judge it. So if there were a kind of truth-taking drug, anything that could get us to the truth, Plato’s down with [it].

What did you learn about Plato while doing this, and what are you hoping people take away?

I didn’t start out really in love with Plato. He’s been with me my whole career, and he’s a very, very important figure. But I didn’t like his elitism; he doesn’t trust humans very much. He thinks most of them are a waste of DNA, and that is something that is not very endearing. But by studying him much more closely, my Plato — the Plato that I really grew to love — is the Plato who’s always willing to change his mind. I think that’s the takeaway.

That is — if again, there are so many ways that we have to escape — that we’ve devised to escape from grappling with the uncertainty and the pain of having a very short time here, being alive. And one of them is ideology, whether it’s religious or political or nationalist — or whatever it is, an ideology that closes off any further questions — and… relieves [people] of the agony of living a human life, the thing that DFW was so in touch with.

One of these things is the loss of the “itself” when it becomes an ideology and it closes off any further questions. That’s why Plato is still important and why he still has something to say to us. We’re all playing the same tricks that we always played, that we played back then in Ancient Greece, that we continue to play all the way to the ebb of escaping comfortably questioning ourselves.