Is Grand Theft Auto Our Aeschylus?
Or, could Call of Duty: Black Ops take precedence on syllabi over The Illiad? This question has fresh relevance when considering Charlie Crist’s current dilemma: to pardon, or not, the late Doors singer, Jim Morrison. Morrison was a poet, after all. And the question of whether Morrison’s hip thrusts will be seen in retrospect as less threat and more Homeric seduction isn’t so separable from the question of whether video games can claim parity with classical poetry. These questions would be absurd, or simply dull, but for the provocative way in which Princeton professor Alexander Nehamas recently posed them.
In the current Princeton Alumni Weekly, the Princeton Professor of Philosophy and Comparative Literature takes it seriously. Among other things, he causes us to consider what separates our cultural assumptions and creative inclinations from those of centuries ago? Is there reason to re-consider the boundaries we arbitrarily draw between contemporary art forms? And what about censorship?
It turns out that Sarah Palin had a powerful predecessor (assuming what she might say about provocative poetry): Plato. Nehamas reminds us that Plato saw poetry as not only dangerous, but vulgar; it was Plato who kept fans from knowing Homer—or Plato who tried to.
What is really disturbing is that Plato’s adult citizens are exposed to poetry even less than their children. Plato knows how captivating and so how influential poetry can be but, unlike us today, he considers its influence catastrophic. To begin with, he accuses it of conflating the authentic and the fake. Its heroes appear genuinely admirable, and so worth emulating, although they are at best flawed and at worst vicious. In addition, characters of that sort are necessary because drama requires conflict — good characters are hardly as engaging as bad ones. Poetry’s subjects are therefore inevitably vulgar and repulsive — sex and violence. Finally, worst of all, by allowing us to enjoy depravity in our imagination, poetry condemns us to a depraved life.
This very same reasoning is at the heart of today’s denunciations of the mass media. Scratch the surface of any attack on the popular arts — the early Christians against the Roman circus, the Puritans against Shakespeare, Coleridge against the novel, the various assaults on photography, film, jazz, television, pop music, the Internet, or video games — and you will find Plato’s criticisms of poetry. For the fact is that the works of both Homer and Aeschylus, whatever else they were in classical Athens, were, first and foremost, popular entertainment.
So, whether you prefer to spend time on Red Dead Redemption or The Paris Review, the question of cultural parity in the Long Tail remains—at least in academic circles—open for debate.