Plato, Badiou and I: an Experiment in Writerly Happiness

By | 1 November 2016

But I did not enjoy participating in debates, at writers’ festivals and in the media, about history and politics. I felt far too disinterested in topical issues to do with Iran’s nuclear program and the politics of Islamic identity. I found being a social commentator or a public intellectual not only unpleasurable but also rather painful. I found being publicly questioned about the Islamic veil more or less unbearable, not only because I felt that, as a non-Muslim and as a man, I was not really fit to talk on this issue; but also because I came to realise that I was not, after all, much of an ideologue. I could not simply, obediently agree on this and other similar issues with my fellow Leftists and abide by their fealty to multiculturalism and the like. I discovered, to my horror, that I had always been and will always be, first and foremost, an artist.

Did this mean that I would always be unhappy, a captive to the caprices of Desire and a prisoner of the pretentions of Affect?

Plato, as is well known, takes a rather dim view of artists – and of poets in particular – precisely because artists offer the seduction or an impression of Truth through mimesis instead of rationally arguing and reaching Truth through a logical, dialectical discourse à la philosophers. But in Badiou’s new rethinking and representation of Republic, art is not categorically condemned, nor is philosophy viewed as a total devotion to Thought in which Desire and Affect are forbidden. Here, Socrates concludes his dialogue with a rather arresting, if somewhat puzzling, artistic metaphor to illustrate the happy subject.

He asks his disciples to imagine a rather unusual sculpture which has ‘a human form’ and a surface of tarpaulin (Badiou 2012: 312). The tarpaulin is wrapped around three smaller sculptures: a modern ‘composite’ artwork, made of a variety of found materials, which could be said to vaguely resemble an indefinite animal; a ‘magnificent lion’ created by ‘an excellent sculptor of the baroque period;’ and, finally, ‘a human form’ with uncertain gender, ‘made by the greatest virtuoso of classical sculptors’ out of marble (Badiou 2012: 312). Such a sculpture is clearly difficult to picture – and is suitably described by Amantha as ‘goddamn enigmatic’ (Badiou 2012: 313) – but it serves Badiou’s Socrates with an instrument to effectively visualise happiness.

According to this metaphor, the composite animal is a presentation of Desire; the baroque lion presents Affect; and the classical marble figure signifies Thought. And the tarpaulin-coated human subject is the amalgam of these three entities.

As such, a submission to Thought – or the fact that both the overall tarpaulin sculpture and the marble statue within it have a human form – does not mean that the other two animalistic agencies are to be annulled – together, Desire and Affect constitute a bulk of the general figure. These two are to be ‘subordinated’ to Thought (Badiou 2012: 315); and through this subordination, neither Desire nor Affect are moralistically prohibited. They are instead kept in check, so that neither an ‘indulgence’ in ‘the great, terrible beast of protean Desire’ could frighten and weaken the lion of Affect, to produce ‘intolerable cowardice’ in the subject; nor would an excess of pride result in the lion turning into an ape (Badiou 2012: 314). With Desire and Affect as active albeit submissive agencies, we may reach happiness by practicing ‘our capacity to create something that has universal meaning beyond our immediate desires’ (Badiou 2012: 315).


I quite like this last description of Thought as a ‘capacity to create.’ It speaks both to my vocation as a creative writer and to what I see as the fundamentally creative or created aspect of any truth: a truth is not a pre-existing, agreed-upon fact, but a provable new idea which breaks with and transforms a given situation. And I believe that it is through a temperate inclusion of the agencies of Affect and Desire under the aegis of Thought that truths can be created; and it is the pursuit of creating truths which may bring happiness to an artist.

I would characterise my first poetry collection as an object of Desire; my first novel as an object of Affect; and my work of creative non-fiction as an object of Thought. As such, it is easy to see why the writing and publication of neither of these made me happy. With my first collection, my human-shaped tarpaulin-covered self was ripped apart from within by an indefinable, unsatisfiable hunger for poetic success. With my first novel, I aspired desperately for validation and acclaim from the cultural mainstream, surrendering my subjectivity to the painful pathologies of vanity and ego. And with my book on Iran, I quashed desire and ambition under the weight of an impersonal, classical, excessively intellectual project, one which ultimately alienated me from my own creativity and made me apathetic and unhappy.

So what’s to be done?

The next time I speak to my disputatious friend about the origins of writing – among many other things, such as our romantic lives, organic vegetables and parenting – I will tell him about my current writing project.

I will tell him that while I don’t deny the desire to have the book published upon completion and sold widely, and while I do occasionally fantasise about it being praised by others upon publication, my primary aim for writing the book has been to make an important argument.

I am currently writing a historical novel in which I try to prove to the hypothetical reader – and, indeed, to myself – a particular thesis apropos of the philosophy of love. I want to argue that true love rejects both social conventions and sexual promiscuity. I want to propose a new idea about love, and I want to do so as a fiction writer. And I will tell my friend the truth; that sometimes when I work on this novel, I forget to eat or go to bed. That writing this novel makes me lose interest in socialising and there are times when I feel condemned to a life of unending loneliness.

I will also tell him that writing this book makes me immensely happy.

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