Socrates tells us that truth exists only in conversation, that once we’ve written it down, we’ve lost the thread of it. We only know he tells us because his student Plato wrote all that down, so there may be some value to the scribing, too. Even a society as small as Classical Greece or Classical Athens couldn’t preserve knowledge by oral tradition alone.
I’m a believer in the implied process of the Socrates-Plato duality—find the truth in conversation, in informed, exploratory, Socratic debate, and then write as much of it as you can honestly preserve. There’s a clarity to the Socratic dialogues that’s lacking in, say, the work of any given German philosopher. It exists because Plato preserved (or, maybe, recreated, or, maybe, invented) Socrates’ dialogic process in each conversation. If you look at the end result of The Republic, an authoritarian, communist, caste-delineated music-less society dreamed up in order to define ‘the good,’ it’s zany. If you were getting it from Kant, it’d also be impenetrable. But, through Plato, Socrates leads you there point by point. Revealed truth by talk.
Which is all to say that I think my brain is melting. Dying, frying, dribbling out my ears. For want of talk. Some of you might have noticed the blog’s been sparse for more than a month now. A symptom.
Let me roll it back. I don’t mean just any conversation. The summer after college, I worked as a waiter and lived with five guys a year my junior who I hadn’t met before I moved in. Five of the smartest guys I’d ever had the good fortune to know, as it turned. Once we’d warmed to each other, we discovered a mutual enjoyment of hookah and that one roommate had smuggled a quality pipe, coal, and tobacco back from the Orient. Two or three times a week after I got off work, we’d go out on the porch and breathe wreathes and talk.
When I say these guys were smart, I mean smart the way I’m smart, words and philosophy and politics and maybe above all rhetoric—an ability to express and debate cogently. I’ve known brilliant people who can’t get two sentences out without hopping topics; productive conversation has to go somewhere. You have to follow it through. What’s more, these guys were concerned, involved; we’re the 2008 Great Recession generation and our sense of the world is millenarian, that it’s in decay. And those talks, night by night, were about fixing it.
What to do about Syria and Iran and Israel (Georgetown being a haven of Arabists, Persianists, Orientalists of all stripes) and Egypt’s ongoing brouhaha with the Brotherhood; American foreign policy, the merits and complications of intervention; our stagnating and polarizing domestic politics. How to create an informed electorate at home, what to do about the trillion-plus national student debt weighing on our cohort, whether Occupy could be revived and whether it’d be worth it, whether any non-violent protest movement could be fruitful at home, on and on. By July, we’d gotten so far along that any newcomer needed an hour-long primer to catch up.
Stuck up to say or not, Georgetown’s a good place for this kind of thing—by fiat we all get a year of philosophy and a year of theology for starters and nearly everyone gets years of history and political science. Conversation clips when everyone’s got the same foundation, when you can pull in Nietzsche and Potsdam and the French Revolution without missing a beat. I’ve never had a sense of the problems of the world, of the global situation, as such an unbroken, interconnected totality as the one we created that summer.
You can only get there through talk, threads branching and reconnecting until you’ve painted the whole picture. It’s a fragile, intricate thing, and although I put down snatches of it in my better early posts on this blog, at the end of the summer we stopped and the structure we’d built word-by-word disappeared.
It’s our loss, but at the time it was unbelievably exciting. This was what I’d imagined college would be, what I’d failed to find in time. And it made me sharper, brain charged, crackling with energy, boiling over with ideas and the self-reinforcing desire to know more, talk more, reveal more. That energy begat this blog—my best posts are compulsive, they get me out of bed, make me sit at the typewriter, demand to be put down. I was never more convinced I could be a writer than during that summer because with all this going on inside my head, how could I not? I could feel myself getting smarter in a way I’d only gotten a glimmer of in any class in school. And then the summer ended and the halcyon days with it.
I’m starved out here, and it’s a confluence. Trey and Janessa are gone, James visits but infrequently, I’m almost out of leave. And even with volunteers around, it’s not quite right—all my fellow travelers are intelligent, many moreso than I am, but they’re math people, engineers, everything but what I am, and the translation between us is slow. I don’t have their foundation and they don’t have mine and things get lost in explanations and circumlocutions. What’s more, the rare times when we are together, I’m not trying to drag everyone into an esoteric talk we won’t be able to follow up anyway.
The chasm’s wider between me and my Mexican coevals. There’s the language, which isn’t as much of a barrier, at least in small numbers, as you might think, but we’ve even less of a shared foundation and Mexican university is more career-oriented, so nobody’s got a whiff of literature or philosophy or polisci in their background. The campaigns in the Sierra are up and running now, but it’s more a politics of patronage and personality than ideas out here, and in any case heated political discussion is outside a volunteer’s rightful purview. More, once you’ve got upwards of four people in discussion, following the cross-talk and the slang becomes all but impossible even for guys like James, whose Spanish is leaps and bounds ahead of mine.
It’s a bit of desert and it’s beginning to show. I talk to myself more now and write less. You can track the times this blog’s been most productive, and they all fall after periods of long contact with conversation. October through December of last year—All Vol, then ten days with a fascinating coterie of expats (and a GU alum), then a Vol-clogged conference Janessa set up. January through March of this year, after chatting with my folks though a week’s worth of college football. The months after Early in-Service Training when I came out with this stuff. And that summer after graduation, too.
I’m fallow now, have to dredge my brain for topics when they’re all around me, when they should be keeping me up nights. There’s nothing the Peace Corps can do for you so well as teach you about yourself, and I’m learning—chatting to myself in the dark, going slackjawed learning. Trying to fight back, too, adding more Didion and Arendt to the reading list, going over and above to be talking, usually in Spanish and usually about the weather, studying for FSOT and the GRE, trying to loosen the mental fog. All else and all that, I’ll hold it together until the next volunteer arrives in June.