Episode 15: Socrates in Love - Beautiful Disturbances
Episode 15: Socrates in Love – Beautiful Disturbances
There’s something alluring about love and love stories, which is a great clichéd first line for this episode, I guess, but personally, I’m coming off of what has been a surprisingly intense engagement-slash-wedding season. And that means, as you may know if you have ever shared this first world plight, being repeatedly struck with whatever the current wedding related trends are.
Bonus points if you’re Christian or run in the circles of people loosely affiliated with any Christian denomination because then you get to hear 1 Corinthians Chapter 13, verses 4 through 8 over and over and over and over again.
When put in those terms you might not know what I’m talking about. So let me jog your memory.
“Love if patient, love is kind. It does not envy. It does not boast, it is not proud…”
Etcetera, etcetera. I could go on and on, but I’d only be contribution to the problem in so far as this is genuinely a problem and not just a pet peeve of mine. (Pause) It’s probably just a pet peeve of mine.
All of that is a rant for another day, if ever, but for now, I’m going to have to attempt a hard redirect back to my original remark. After all, most of the people I know well enough to be socially obligated to attend their weddinga when possible aren’t often practicing Christians but were raised Christian and the presence of the bible passages I then have to hear are just incorporated into the ceremony to appease their families. In these cases, there’s not much relevant sentimentality for the couple to draw from in their own lives, and consequently, their selections are made hastily.
But even so, that passage comes up far too often to be random, and in fact, you can see those words in other not explicitly Christian contexts if you end up in the right digital rabbit hole.
So yeah, there’s something not just about love and romance but about a romanticized version of love and romance that we are drawn to. And you heard me right. We don’t just like the idea of love and romance as they are but instead, we want to see these things as simple, perfect, and all-powerful forces that make us comfortable or make things easy. Or that it can be easy. That with love, all things somehow work out.
And that may be possible for a deity, but for us? The thought is comforting. It’s beautiful. But I don’t think it’s not accurate.
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Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 15.
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Today, I want to talk about a love story you might not have ever heard of. Probably. Most people I’ve met haven’t of it. It never got around as it should have been or as it deserved to be because while it’s an amazing book, it was originally published in Japan, and it’s incredibly hard to break into foreign markets just to exist in that space never mind get a wide release with all the necessary promotion.
And yes, translating a book doesn’t just happen and the people involved in it need to be financially compensated for their work. I’m not disagreeing with or denying any of that. I’m just lamenting the consequences of it. Because the added expense works as a deterrent and makes it more likely that we will be missing out on some of the truly beautiful stories out in the world, kept from us due to geography and language.
Like—or almost like—Socrates in Love by Kyoichi Katayama. A book many people will never get to read due to these barriers. As for me, I’m not sure how I first heard of it. It happened in college when I was on some sort of used book buying binge. My paycheck from my theatre job had turned out larger than I expected, and I’d been rather frugal the week prior, so I had a small amount of money to burn. And when you buy your books used, that money can go all the farther. So it’s possible that I just found it on one of the websites I frequented.
But at the same time, I remember Socrates in Love coming in its own package. It was waiting for me in the dorm mail room alone in a plastic envelop much too large for it. It had been highly anticipated, as I remember, but I don’t remember why or what I was thinking. It’s one of the many memories that still resides in my mind but in a very disjointed and fragmented way.
I don’t remember how I stumbled upon it or where I purchased it from. But I do remember that it was the title that won me over. Or at least, that’s what makes the most sense. Because at the time when I first read this book, I was just getting knee-deep into what I’m pretty sure will be a lifelong love affair with philosophy. But this was also a time when I really didn’t have enough background knowledge to get too deep into the subject. Thus, while I was working on that foundation, this book seemed to fit right into that little niche in my life.
Of course, this is not the story of the normally serious and uninterested Socrates falling in love with someone or even with philosophy as an art or muse. Rather, it’s the story of high school romance between an ordinary young man and an extraordinarily beautiful young woman. The young man, Sakutaro, was truly the typical teenage boy when he first fell in love. In the book, he starts off a bit cocky, a bit self-absorbed, and dry-witted. He’s not outright cynical, but he certainly has no patience for any sentiments or romantic notions. He’s not cruel about it, but he can be a bit overconfident.
And then there’s Aki. The beautiful high school classmate who is the physical manifestation of warmth and joy and the dreams of all of her male classmates. There’s so much that could be said about her and is said about her in the book. However, above all, she has a good heart: a warm, loving, and open one. And while all the boys have an eye for her, she seems to only have an eye for the concept of love…. Or for Saku-chan.
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In time, they fall in love, and in more but not too much time, illness strikes and that love between them is tested in an almost inconceivable way.
It’s a test most of us cannot fathom taking, and even if it is within the realm of our imagination, we always assume that it’s never going to be our trial to face. It’s an idea but never much more. A worst case scenario whose existence we only humor in a breathless whisper.
Sickness and health, many say in their marital vows, but even if they mean it, what about that unique kind of soul crushing, gradually all-consuming illness that can only lead to death: the literal death of the patient and the figurative death of the observer. What about that agony that can only come from watching the love of your life decay and feeling yourself decay in this abstract but still real way.
As to those, well, I don’t think we know how to deal with them. I think we all rather pretend that that this can never happen or scarcely happens, and certainly not to us.
Of course, when it happens to someone one—preferably someone fictional—it makes for a beautiful love story to read or to watch when we want to go on an emotional roller coaster without having to face any of the consequences. A chance to learn the lesson without the effort.
A chance to question what we think we know without risking our own lives if we fail.
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After hearing all of that, you may be asking where is Socrates in all of this. Well, by some standards, he kind of just got dropped into the title.
Now, it’s not the title others will know this book by. A better translation for the Japanese title—which I’m not including here because I’d butcher it beyond recognition anyway—is Crying Out Love, In the Center of the World. It’s the title Katayama went with after being told that his first choice wouldn’t work. And that first choice, translated into English because of my limited linguistic abilities, is Socrates in Love. But in the English market the original title was more promising, what with our book naming norms being what they are.
And, personally, I’m glad that I get to experience it by that original title. On one hand, this title is what made me pick up the book in the first place, but on the other, this title gets more to the heart of the story’s themes and what the story means to say.
Now, I don’t know how familiar you all are, dear listeners, with Socrates. I spent quite a bit of time studying him in college, and the resulting knowledge is something I take for granted far too often. But at the same time, you don’t need all that information to understand what is going on in this book. So I’ll give you a hasty summary of who Socrates was and what he used to get up to, which might be condescending, but on the other hand, I can then confidently say that we are all on the same page. And I’ll put some additional reading options in the show notes.
By many standards, Socrates could be considered the father of philosophy, and he had the philosophical mind set as a sort of default setting. However, we don’t have any texts written by him only about him by his students and those who knew him.
Conflicting details aside, one thing’s for sure.
Socrates was pretty annoying.
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You see, he didn’t accept anything that he was told. That’s being a bit extreme, but I think I got your attention.
The customs and social norms the rest of Athens had accepted were thing he thought needed to be thought about. And when he couldn’t get the answers on his own, he’d ask other people what they thought or what their thought process was when it came to something like wisdom, for example. And, obviously, most people had never thought about these things in the terms he wanted them to use, so they didn’t have any answers for him. But likely felt attacked in some way or that they were made to feel stupid. Or that’s just a modern interpretation of this experience. I mean, hey, this may be something about human nature that spans all these centuries. You don’t if it’s not.
But you can all see why I said that he was annoying. The go-to expression in this context is to say that Socrates was a gadfly. He was a small creature zipping around whose buzzing disrupted the world everyone else took for granted. And he did this by asking questions that made the recipient realize what little they actually knew about their own lives, making them feel incredibly stupid and foolish for what must have felt like a very long moment. Bonus points when he did this to an authority figure because that’s a very efficient way to get yourself executed in ancient Athens like Socrates did.
However, you might be thinking that if you go around annoying every single person in your city then maybe your execution is a tiny bit earned. Which seems super dramatic when saying it aloud, but if you have ever encountered someone who acts like this that thought has probably crossed your mind at least once. By “like this” of course, I mean those who like to issue some sort of challenge to your way of living or your choices in this really roundabout way. A way that doesn’t make it seem like they are trying to start a fight for their sense of moral superiority, but you know what’s happening because it has happened way too often before. And really, this person isn’t doing this for your benefit, but—like I said—it’s for them. It’s so that they can feel like the smartest person in the room, and such has always been incredibly obvious, and even though you keep shutting them down, they keep trying to get their hits in anyway.
I definitely know people like that, but Socrates wasn’t pursuing these lines of questioning just to feel superior to everyone else. Rather, he was so consumed by his quest for truth as a good in and of itself that he accidently ran people over in his wake. He shifted perspectives that needed to be shifted onto steadier ground. And some people just didn’t like that.
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But Socrates himself was not the type of person to be in love. At least, if Plato’s Symposium is anything to go by.
On the other hand, his style of existence is just like that of true love. By that, I mean true as in actual and real love as opposed to the fanciful notions of what love could be. For one, these notions try to ground all love in a romantic context. Like no other kind of love exists, which is a limitation that I truly hate with every fiber of my being. On the other hand, however, I think authentic or (quote) “true” love is that which is messy, imperfect, and sometimes barely held together by anything more than a string of concentrated stubbornness. It’s not meant to be easy or a journey through a well-worn and clearly defined path. Rather, it’s a roller coaster rides of ups and downs through a never-ending tornado of emotion. Or, that’s how those who are more sympathetic to my viewpoint may be inclined to describe it.
But I want to take it one step farther. Because I think even this depiction that which is more inclusive of those less than perfect aspects of reality isn’t clear enough. It misses the nuance that this book actually hits pretty squarely on the head.
Love should not be destructive, like a literal tornado tends to be. A real tornado will destroy all that it can and level homes in its wake, reducing someone’s entire life to rubble in an instant or two. It’s a literal destruction that takes something and turns it into nothing.
No, this thing that we often want to call a tornado in intense situations doesn’t do that. It doesn’t just reduce a world to nothingness. Rather, it deconstructs and reconstructs your world into something different but recognizable.
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Imagine it for a moment. The storm of love has passed. And now you stand out front of a place you had always resided in. You fled during the storm, but you are back now. You lost sight of your home during the storm, but you are back now. And it is still your home in front of you and not a pile of broken lives and former dreams. It may be dirty, but it’s stable. It’s standing and everything is there. With bated breath, you walk up to the door. You take the doorknob in your hand and hold it for a moment. It feels right in your hand. It feels like it always did. You push the door open, and it moves like it always did. Stepping into the front area feels like it always did, and your feet fall into place, into the same places they always fell.
But when you look around, everything feels different. Larger, maybe. Or maybe the details of the baseboards pop out a little more or the light fixtures shine a bit brighter. Or maybe the place really just feels bigger, somehow, like your home suddenly has a higher occupancy limit, but you don’t remember making any renovations or rearranging any of the furniture. And you can almost hear laughter in the distance or feel an unfamiliar warmth in a space that just tended to be a bit more on the cold side.
You feel all of these things. You believe all these things. You know all these things to be true. And yet, this disturbance of what you knew before and the transformation into this new space, in the moment, can’t be explained. You know it’s there, but you also know how slight it is.
Everything’s the same, but you see it differently. You’ve been made to see it differently. You’ve been made to question everything.
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Saku-chan is still Sakutaro. His transformation isn’t the profound shift you see in some love stories where a hero’s entire self is brought down to the foundation and even that foundation is worked on. And then they must essentially reinvent themselves to the point that they might as well go by an entirely different name from that point forward.
Instead, we see that Aki only softened his demeanor in such a way that allowed him to better fit with those around him. His world hadn’t been levelled but expanded, opened up, and able to accommodate more. First it was only Aki, but she held the door open on her way in.
And it likely helps that the story is told in hindsight. The rumbling of the shift Aki caused has been put in perspective by the passage of time. The earth beneath Sakutaro’s feet has settled, and he has developed a vocabulary or a frame of reference that helps encompass the situation. The whirlwind of emotions has passed. The stakes of the situation aren’t hypotheticals or feel so high that he can’t afford them. And worse case scenarios have proven themselves to be little more than fancies of an anxious mind.
And still, some sort of transformation remains. We are able to see this. We can see Sakutaro’s mannerisms before the romance, and though we can’t truly know what he was like, we can certainly see enough, and perhaps this version of him is still more accurate than what we would have gotten in the moment, considering the effects of youthful bravado and arrogance. Both of which he did have.
But more important, we do get their conversations. We get Saku-chan’s difficulties in understanding his grandfather’s broken heartedness and all the other ways Aki knocks him back into place when he gets too high.
She doesn’t change him. She corrects him, often when he is genuinely wrong. And it’s an important distinction.
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I think the idea of love as completely cleansing or a moment of rebirth is appealing in a variety of ways. To try to boil everything down as simply as possible for the sake of time, it would be great to have a new start, to be a new person free from the faults and sins of our lives beforehand, before we fell in love, before we met this person. To have them be the key to this phase in our lives. It’s a change to live better, to do better, or to just be better without the baggage of the past weighing us down. Or, if you are inclined to be self-loathing, maybe this is your own way of finding redemption, a redemption you believe yourself to be incapable of orchestrating.
Love is something we do—if you’re doing a relationship properly—but it’s also something that seemingly happens to us. In that, it involves components that exist outside of our lives. Namely, other people. Human beings we had no say in enter into our lives and pose a challenge to everything we knew before. If in no other way, that in the five minutes prior to knowing them, we didn’t know that they existed and yet, there they are, proving their existence. And maybe we think we are weak, but their weakness and needs forces us to become stronger than we ever thought we were.
Or maybe we thought we weren’t capable of loving or kindness, but then they came along, and somehow, we managed it.
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There are stories out there that aren’t mine to tell. Of types of love that someone thinks changed them entirely, stripping us down to the foundation and building them up into something new. I can’t tell these stories, only mine. But fortunately, I think mine is enlightening in so many ways.
I mentioned V in my Within the Wires revisited episode: the soul I fell in love with but needs to remain as mysterious as possible because of circumstances. Because V is happy as things are, and though those things don’t include me at all, I don’t want that to change. Consequently, I need to ensure that I can remain as locked out as possible. And some would say that the sacrifice is the thing of note. The idea of pushing self-interest aside for another person’s sake. If people are inherently self-interested, then certainly this is a fundamental change.
But it isn’t. And in so far as there is something to say about that, I won’t say it here. To understand the power of Socrates in love, I need to illustrate one of the changes V did cause in my life, and it wasn’t that one.
When we met, I wouldn’t say that I was going through the motions of my life, but somehow, that’s an accurate expression. Not because I didn’t care, but I tended to lose myself in stories that have not materialized in any way not even in written form.
But more than that, at that point in my life, I had decided to not live my life according to the wishes of everyone else in the realm of existence but to make my own choices. I was going to live my life according to my own desires. The problem is…. I wasn’t good at making choices. And I think I knew this about myself. I mean, when I was in college and I blew through required courses, I didn’t know what to do with all my elective slots. And honestly, trying to figure out what classes I wanted was more stressful than actually registering, which if you’ve been in the American university system at any point in the last few years, is a statement that feels improbably, to put it kindly.
Back then, I knew there was a term for this feeling, but honestly, since my freshman in college, I couldn’t remember what it was. I’d think about it from time to time but never came up with an answer. And then I would get caught up in how little sense that made considering how much time had passed and the question would remain unsolved.
“It’s choice fatigue,” V called it with a smirk. With a smirk, because for once, I didn’t have the upper hand. That seldom happened when we talked because of my desperate need to impress.
And V had every reason to smirk. That was right.
V knew very little about me. I had done that purposely least I accidentally confessed to the ill-advised feelings I was harboring. If I was being obvious about it, I was never called out. So certainly, there was no way to know that this feeling described my whole life at that point. Because sure, having other people making your life choices is problematic, but it makes going through all the other day to day choices more manageable.
At the time, we were standing in a bookstore together, speaking in whispers least we disturb everyone else. I was struggling to figure out what to buy, having limited myself to buying one book a week. This was at a time when I actually stuck to that, which was—admittedly—a very brief window.
“You can have anything you want,” V reminded me. “But you can’t have everything.”
In context, that last statement had a special barb to it, but overlooking that, V was right. The choice was mine, but no matter what I chose, I was going to be missing out on something else. And weighing my options mentally took up energy from other things. I could have anything I wanted, but I had to figure out what I wanted most.
Back then, I was finishing up graduate school and sending out for jobs as one does. But honestly, I couldn’t even begin to tell you want I was applying for. I was all over the board in terms of industries and positions. Anything that seemed remotely interesting, even if it hardly paid enough for me to get by or if the salary would be considered an insult compared to my degree.
I had no direction. I was trying to find one, but sometimes it felt like I couldn’t be bothered to do so. That nothing mattered. That none of it was important anyway.
V and I talked about so much before V got a great job opportunity in a different state, and we went our separate ways. One day, V asked me what I thought mattered in life or specifically what made a good life.
To that, I replied, “Doesn’t George Kateb think that there isn’t a good life that isn’t also bad? That’s kind of more what I think than anything else.”
“When universally applied maybe,” V answered. “But I’m not asking about anyone else. I’m asking what a good life is to you.”
I didn’t have an answer. For a while, a good life was the one that meant doing what I had been told to do, but now that this option wasn’t on the table, I floundered.
“You should have an answer to that,” V said, matter-of-factly.
And desperate to impress, I can up with an answer.
“Can it just be one I like?”
V smiled. And my word, I would have die for that smile.
I think about that conversation a lot. I think about V a lot. These feelings linger even when they have no right or reason to. But that’s neither here nor there. I think that conversation did change me or at least, it made me question the way I lived or thought I was going to live for a long time. Suddenly the job applications going out were more targeted, potentially ill-advised but more targeted. I tempted for a while and turned down job offers for positions I could immediately recognize as destructive or detrimental.
And then I slipped and took a job at a nonprofit that didn’t deserve any of the esteem that I’m sure gets dumped upon it simply because of the internal politics. V wasn’t there for any of that. Call it another thing I don’t want V to know about.
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But in my mind, this slip up just proves my point. I wasn’t fundamentally changed by my love for V or by what V told me. I still had all the flaws I did beforehand and occasionally fell into them, like taking a job that other people liked but left me profoundly miserable. But I could see these flaws for what they were now. So much of what V and I shared was like that.
So much of what people who love each other do is like that. A statement, action, or state of existences that is reflected back by someone who wants to understand or needs to understand this quirk because it’s your quirk. And whether or not they outright love you, they are certainly interested or invested in you and want more of you or to be deeper into your world. They lift up the pieces of you and ask you to explain. And sometimes, you don’t have any explanation.
In that reflection, you see yourself—or what should be yourself—and you make a choice. You improve or you let it sit. But at no point should you cease being you. The best can come up and the worst shelved away. But in terms of the matter of your soul nothing is created or destroyed.
Socrates in Love is a rather short book. It doesn’t focus on the arc of this teenage romance, on the day to day process of failing in love with someone or on being in love. Rather, the emphasis is on the back and forth—the statement and the questioning—that shapes the resulting person. The way conversation between the two teens plays out highlights this greatly, but the tragedy of circumstances catches the eye. Then again, I guess it depends what part of the story you want to see or need to see. I wanted to understand the act of love more than anything else, as someone who had never been in love but dreamed of it and hoped they could do. And so I saw Socrates, but somehow, I don’t think he would mind if he were left to his pursuits, and you instead focused on the tragic love story. Because there is beauty in it. There’s beauty in their struggles.
And maybe in that exchange, we can see something of about ourselves in there, in our need to vicariously confront such overwhelming challenges. But I’m probably just hitting the same point yet again. Because this entire podcast is about the media we love and the idea that it could reflect something back to us.
But it’s also a reason you may want to consider subscribing.
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