Frazier and Plato

““I cannot decide whether it is an illness or a sin, the need to write things down and fix the flowing world in one rigid form. Bear believed writing dulled the spirit, stilled some holy breath. Smothered it. Words, when they’ve been captured and imprisoned on paper, become a barrier against the world, one best left unerected. Everything that happens is fluid, changeable. After they’ve passed, events are only as your memory makes them, and they shift shapes over time. Writing a thing down fixes it in place as surely as a rattlesnake skin stripped from the meat and stretched and tacked to a barn wall. Every bit as stationary, and every bit as false to the original thing. Flat and still and harmless. Bear recognized that all writing memorializes a momentary line of thought as if it were final.”

This is from “Thirteen Moons” the book Frazier wrote after “Cold Mountain.” I read it years ago soon after I read “Cold Mountain” and thought it poor. Now I am not so sure.

I have always thought that once on paper the meaning of something written comes from the reader, that the creator has done his part and the recipient gives it meaning. I have noticed even if a writer has some skill, that a reader has a limited ability to reconstitute what the writer was saying, at least not wholly as the writer meant, and brings to the understanding his own experience. We see as through a glass darkly. But the meaning of something written is there, somewhere in-between, and that is what a written thing is.

Plato wrote of writing,

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows. 

Frazier was certainly aware of Plato’s thoughts on writing. The two paragraphs go a little ways along the same path. After Frazier offers his character’s critique of writing he says in the next paragraph, “But I was always word-smitten.”

I think written words add to human existence, help us to stand on the shoulders of those that came before and pass forward emotion and experience. I agree completely with neither Plato or the character of Bear from Frazier’s work. I find no fault with the craft of the writer. Writing simply presents ideas that are defined by the reader.