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“Someone New to Love”

By (November 1, 2010) No Comment

The Golden Mean

By Annabel Lyon
Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

“You’re better when you have someone new to love,” Aristotle is told near the end of Annabel Lyon’s extraordinary first novel The Golden Mean. Lyon’s Aristotle finds his theory of the “golden mean” through his own experience with “black bile”—what we would call bipolar disorder. “Black bile can be hot or cold,” his father taught him; “Cold: it makes you sluggish and stupid. Hot: it makes you brilliant, insatiable, frenzied.” His nephew Callisthenes hypothesizes near the end of the novel that it’s love, new love, that treats this affliction. Love for Callisthenes himself, once, when he first took him on as an apprentice; then for Pythias, his wife; later for Alexander, Prince of Macedonia, whose tutor he becomes; now for Herpyllis, the woman he loves after his wife’s death. And looming over all these is his love for Plato, when Aristotle was a student at the Academy in Athens.

The novel begins with the arrival of Aristotle, Callisthenes, and Pythias in Pella, Macedonia. They expect to stay only a few days before continuing on to Athens, but they are obliged to settle for several years when the king wants a tutor for his son. Aristotle’s love for Alexander is the focus of the story, though the philosopher interrupts his first-person narrative about his years in Pella with Pythias and later Herpyllis to recall his childhood (“I was a miserable child”) and adolescence (“Sex and books, that was what I wanted from the future”), his father’s death (“grief made me cold”), and his first meeting with Plato (“I too wanted him to love me the most, already, and suspected the way to achieve that was to fight him”). Callisthenes recalls that when he was the new love, Aristotle “always had time for me, always wanted to talk to me. You gave me gifts, encouraged me, made me feel welcome, made me feel brilliant. I wondered for a while if it was sex you wanted. But it wasn’t; you just loved me.” Others wonder if he wants sex from Alexander, but he doesn’t. He wants only the experience of being “close enough to watch him adopt and adapt, to watch his mind fill in.”

The suspicion that Aristotle wants more, however, dominates and derails the one symposium that he hosts in Pella. It’s easy to sympathize with Aristotle’s desire for intellectual conversation, and painful to watch the way his dream falls apart. Despite what he knows of Pella, he imagines that with the right guest list and the appropriate formalities, it will be possible to recreate an Athenian intellectual gathering. He believes he has “thought of everything:” the hymn to Dionysus, the wine, mixed with water in the standard ratio, the “cheeses, cakes, dried figs and dates, melons and almonds,” which have “all been mounded into neat pyramids,” the part Callisthenes plays when he claims to have drunk too much to participate in the speeches, thereby providing a face-saving opening for another guest, or perhaps even two, a chance to opt out.

Aristotle tutoring Alexander by JLG Ferris, 1895

But though we may now see the historical Aristotle as a towering figure of authority, this scene shows him vulnerable and disappointed. Lyon’s Aristotle desperately wants to know everything, yet he can be blind to some of the most obvious things, such as the fact that nearly all his guests are totally unsuited to making speeches at a symposium. They are intimidated by his invitation to discuss “Tragedy…. The good life. What it means to live a good life, and the ways in which that goodness can be lost.” Carolus, who directed a memorable performance of the Bacchae soon after Aristotle’s arrival in Pella, tells his host that “They don’t know how to do that here. You’re embarrassing them.” Lysimachus, another of Alexander’s tutors, arrives—like Alcibiades in Plato’s Symposium—late and drunk, and loudly accuses his host of being “besotted” with the prince: “Dotes on him,” he says, “Poor bastard”; “Just an animal like the rest of us, after all.” Aristotle somehow remains civil throughout Lysimachus’s accusations, offering him food and then calmly telling him not to issue threats, all while acutely aware that the eyes of his guests are on him. He knows what the good life could be, and this is not it.

This riveting scene highlights Aristotle’s disappointment with the society of his temporary home and his appreciation for Alexander’s mind: “It occurs to me that the only person I can think of who would have enjoyed the evening just as I planned it, who genuinely would have tried to do his part, is Alexander.” Even more touching is his conversation with his wife at the end of the scene, when he gives a heavily edited version of the truth about how the evening went. Pythias has invested time, care, and a great deal of her husband’s money in the dinner, and he tells her

about how everyone praised the food and how Lysimachus was more or less the pest I’d thought he might be, and how Antipater gave his best to her specially, and how lovely the house looked and how it had been like having her in the room with me, looking every way and seeing her work there.

Because he loves her, he wants to protect her. When she asks what they talked about, he thinks for a while before answering, simply, that they talked about love.

For all his overconfidence, his belief that it’s his “nature to excel in all things,” Alexander would have tried to do his best, if only to impress his mentors: Carolus first, and then Aristotle. When Carolus charges him with providing a prop for the Bacchae to serve as Pentheus’s severed head, something scarier than the ball of rags the actors have been using, Alexander shocks everyone by bringing the freshly-executed head of the actor who was to have played Pentheus. (He explains later that the actor was so sick he was about to die anyway.) The actors are stunned into giving a gripping performance, and Carolus is duly impressed. It takes longer to impress Aristotle, though in his first lesson, the dissection of a chameleon, Alexander tries to do so by eating the heart of the lizard—this is not a novel for the faint of heart. But of course, the man destined to become Alexander the Great would not have been an ordinary teenage boy, and it is certainly believable that a violent, monomaniacal conqueror would, in his youth, have been capable of such brutality.

However, in the novel, the adolescent Alexander has a more sympathetic side as well, and confesses his shortcomings to Aristotle: “I’m short. I fumble when I talk. I blush. I’m afraid of the dark. I black out in the middle of battle and can’t remember anything afterwards.” He has trouble realizing that the battle is over: as the general Antipater describes the traumatic emotional effects of “soldier’s heart” on Alexander after the revolt at Maedi, “He’s been odd, since they got back. Flinching at sounds, anything metallic. Dead-eyed, drinking too much.”

Lyon sends her Aristotle into battle with Alexander and his father, Philip, serving as a medic. She imagines in vivid detail the medics’ tent, the killing field, Aristotle’s dissection of a dead Theban soldier. The Head medic, despite a degree of curiosity, doesn’t fully understand why anyone would perform such an operation on a dead man.

In my kit I have a tablet and stylus. I roll the Theban back onto his side and unlace the leather corset. It falls away in pieces where the weapon severed it. The lips of skin are plum-coloured. I pull them apart to discover a flap of yellow fat. It’s bone I want; I need my knives, then something to clean my hands on so I can write and draw.

I don’t know how much time passes.

“Here you are.”

“Minute.” I’m teasing out a long thread of something from deep in the cavity.

“What is that?” Head kneels beside me, squinting.

“I don’t know. I’m seeing where it goes.”

“Look at that.” Another voice, another shadow kneeling beside me. The young medic. “All those bits came out of just this one here?”

I’ve laid a lot of viscera out on the ground.

“Are you all right?” the medic says.

“I need more tablets.”

Head nods at the medic, who jogs off. “He’ll find you what you need. What—fuck off.” A stench rises; I’ve hit bowel. “You do this?” he says.

You do this.”

“Not after they’re dead.”

Lyon’s Aristotle is intensely curious about everything from childhood on, telling his physician father that if only “you could cut open a person’s body,” so you could see inside the dead, “you could make a drawing of all the parts, and then know. You could refer to it when you had to perform a surgery on a live patient, and reduce the risk of mistake.” “No,” says his father, voicing the wisdom of the time and anticipating the Head medic’s words, “We don’t treat the dead that way.”

In his youth and as an adult, Aristotle is determined to learn as much as he can about how the natural, the political, the ethical, the literary world works, and yet, like Alexander, he is also complex. In this novel, he is not simply a pedantic teacher obsessed with classifying the world, as we typically imagine the historical Aristotle. Lyon’s Aristotle is intellectually curious, and he is ambitious and driven, but he’s tender and calm with his wife and when he experiences fatherhood for the first time. When his wife and servants praise the baby excessively, he sees that

every household with a new baby goes as foolish fond, and I collect more quietly, and keep to myself, my own talismans: the spider’s thread of milk from wife’s breast to daughter’s lip when they draw apart after a feeding; the abrupt drop of the baby’s brows when something amuses her; the way, at times of greatest distress, she buries her entire face in her mother’s breast, as though seeking oblivion there.

This fictional Aristotle is a man of his time, who believes—in line with the writings of the real Aristotle—that women and slaves must obey the orders of men, but Lyon also shows him here as sympathetic to the lives of the individual women and slaves in his care. When his daughter is born, he decides to begin her education as soon as possible, “though she’s only a girl,” and he believes that he treats his slaves “like family: we’ve had them for years, care for them, would never sell them; you don’t sell your own family.” His compassion for his slaves and his respect for women’s opinions only go so far, however, and when he finds that he has been too soft in his treatment of his wife’s slave Athea—he says “please” before he can stop himself, pleading with her to follow a particular order—he sells her, against his wife’s wishes.

While Alexander and Aristotle are presented as complex characters, a fault in this novel is that the various aspects of Aristotle’s world are divided too neatly into pairs of opposites. Pythias is sexually cold; her successor, Herpyllis, is not only more responsive but also teaches him things about female sexuality that he did not believe possible. His first child is anxious; his second is placid. He tutors Alexander’s older brother Arrhidaeus as well: Arrhidaeus is mentally challenged; Alexander is brilliant. Athens is the ideal; Pella falls far short. Lyon’s Aristotle describes the mean as a “balance between the extremes,” but Aristotle himself, the real one, points out that there are always more than two extremes. In the Nicomachean Ethics he says that “it is possible to fail in many ways (for evil belongs to the class of the unlimited, … and good to that of the limited).” It is harder to find that central point, distinguishing among several extremes, than it is to find a balance between only two extremes.

It’s entertaining to watch for the places in the novel where Lyon integrates the development of Aristotle’s thought and the seeds of his greatest works. In conversation with Carolus, for example, Aristotle asks what makes a good tragedy, and when Carolus finds the question odd, Aristotle gives what he calls his “default” response: “I’m writing a book,” he says. “And maybe I am, suddenly, maybe I am.” When asked what kind of book, he realizes he’s “thinking through my mouth.” It will be an analysis of tragedy and comedy, he decides, and thus we have a plausible scene that marks the beginnings of Aristotle’s Poetics.

In one of their conversations, Aristotle explains to Alexander that he’s been “working on a little treatise on literature,” because, he says, he’s been “wondering, what’s the point? What is the point of it all? Why not simply relate such history as has come down to us in a sober manner, not pretending to fill in the gaps?” Analyzing Plato’s use of dialogue to dramatize his arguments about “the depraved influence of the arts on decent society,” he and Alexander arrive at an answer to these questions that could serve as a defense of Lyon’s fictionalized Aristotle as well. Fiction is “more fun to read than a dry treatise,” says Alexander; “You can convey ideas … in a way that makes the reader or the viewer feel what is being told rather than just hear it,” concludes Aristotle. (Aristotle himself writes treatises nonetheless, having no gift for dialogue or tragedy.)

The Golden Mean gives us a life of Aristotle, and a life of Alexander, that we can feel, rather than just hear. It’s only one possible version of these lives, but then so is biography. Basing her fiction on well-researched facts, Lyon gives us the raw experience of battle, of hunger for knowledge, for experience, for power, for sex, for books. When the novel was published in Canada last year, it was short-listed for the three major Canadian literary prizes, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, which it won, and the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award; it went on to become a Canadian best-seller. Lyon’s powerfully imagined novel deserves its critical and popular success, as it effectively dramatizes key moments in the story of Aristotle’s new loves, and it’s also a lot of fun to read.

Near the end of the novel, Aristotle asks Alexander what he would write about if he were to write a tragedy. Alexander replies that the story that makes him feel fear and pity is their own: “You. Stuck here, with me, when you could be great in the world. Put in a little box by my father and the lid nailed down tight. An animal dying in a cage.” “When you’re done and all the juice is sucked out,” he goes on, “someone will come along and cut open your head and say, here, look at this enormous brain. Look at the waste.” “No waste,” responds Aristotle. In the beginning, Aristotle told Alexander that he was just a “violent, snotty little boy.” In the end, he is impressed with his student, “the boy who knew where to find the head, the heart, the breath, the brain.” Before they say goodbye, Alexander tells his teacher that the two of them are alike: “They look at me, they say, Great warrior, well-spoken, charming, worthy student of the greatest mind in the world. I’m holding on by my fingertips and so are you.” He decides, “Maybe you’ve made me into yourself after all. A fine, fierce surface on the mess underneath.” The active life, the contemplative life: both of them complex and messy but made better by love. This novel is not a tragedy.

Sarah Emsley is the author of Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues (2005), which interprets Austen’s novels in light of Aristotelian ethics. Her review of Patricia Meyer Spacks’s annotated edition of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice appeared in the October issue of Open Letters Monthly.