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J.A.A. Purves

All is Song (2012)

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All is Song is Samantha Harvey's second novel (The Wilderness being her first, which I have not yet read). It was Jonathan Cape's book review in The Scotsman that persuaded me to give it a try.

Cape writes:

... Her publishers choose not to mention it on the book jacket, but All Is Song is a very loose, modernised interpretation of the life of Socrates. For the endlessly questioning Athenian, read William Deppling, relentless examiner of his own life – and those of others – in a way which puts him firmly at odds with modern society ... All Is Song is uncompromisingly a novel of ideas in which the drama is contained within philosophical debate. As such, it is a bit of a risk – but it is one she has been thinking about for a long time.

Harvey’s fascination with Socrates began while studying philosophy at York. In that brief scoot through the minds of the founding fathers of western thought, there was something about Socrates’s that stuck in hers. For the next 15 years, as she studied philosophy at a postgraduate level before studying, and then teaching creative writing, the idea of writing a novel about him refused to go away. If Socrates were alive today, she wondered, what would he do and what would we do to him.

“What I always liked about Socrates,” she says, “was his insistence on questioning things for the sake of reaching some sort of clarity – even if it is only clarity about the gaps in our knowledge. I think we often live at a surface level and that ends up with us in a lot of difficulty because we just function on assumptions and second-hand knowledge.

“Socrates just cuts through that lazy, fearful mindset, and makes us ask basic questions about what we really know. And that appeals to my heart as well, because I am also looking for ways to live more effectively and richly. So it seemed that of all the philosophers I studied, he was the one who had something practical to say to me.”

And here's two excerpts I found striking from the beginning of the novel:

pgs. 50-51 -

... but he believed, for he'd said it to Leonard himself - that the only tool that could begin to pick apart life with any degree of accuracy was language, and the only form of language that was fit for the task was the spoken word. Where the written word lay prone and pinioned on the page, the spoken word probed deeply and flexibly through the dimensions, and the sung word was acrobatic, sylphlike, vaulting. And philosophy was the pure song, the purest of songs, heard only with training, and hanging at a pitch outside of the common range. Too easily obscured by other sounds, be they traffic, be they Bach; so he said, and Leonard had thought that was noble, but had struggled with it.

But what do you like and dislike? Leonard had often wanted to ask his brother. For we're animals first and humans second - what about your appetites and the things you just happen to want? Within William's impassioned tastes things were either hated or loved, and they were hated or loved on principle; thus he hated meat because he hated the cruelty of animal slaughter; he loved to give and receive gifts because he loved to find humanity generous and beautiful, even where it erred; he loved Carlos Puebla because he loved to hear a voice lifted in protest. But who knew if, beneath those principles, he liked the taste of meat, or liked the gifts he received, or liked the music or Carlos Puebla? Of course, where basic tastes ended and the world of complex preferences began was unclear and available for inquiry in anybody's case, but the question couldn't even present itself for William; his moral stances had consumed his basic appetites. To any outside eye at least, his appetites had stopped existing for themselves, as basic, needy things. Human first and animal second ...

pgs. 67-68 -

... Leonard gave a short laugh and scrubbed at the gravel again with his foot, thinking at once that what his brother said was true - for blame was there in everything, and everywhere in himself - and wondering also why all this contemplation mattered. What seemed to matter was having a job and feeding one's children and the price of fuel, and if there was sin or no sin, one's children still had to be fed, one's tank filled, and eighty per cent tax was still probably too much ...

He said, "Jesus as man, then, is real. Jesus as saviour is spiritual myth."

William replied, "Myth? It's an interesting word." He stooped as if pushed physically by consideration of things. "Well, it's no myth that Jesus lived truth and exposed truth. And it's no myth that the living and exposing of truth is a form of life-saving - not to be underestimated, though we do underestimate it all the time." He paused, then said, "But yes, Jesus as saviour has become mythical to us. All stories become mythical given time - they're myths because they've endured and not because they aren't true. And in that sense, yes, Jesus the saviour is a spiritual myth, but in my humble view the deepest, most beautiful spiritual myth we have."

Leonard smiled his surprise. "And yet of all the ones I teach, the Christian one has always seemed the least beautiful, the most crude and blood-drenched."

"The most misunderstood, even by Christians" ...

I had other plans for the rest of the day, but they have been interrupted.

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