Jason Wirth’s Introduction to Sophrosyne

Introduction to Sophrosyne by Marianne Apostolides
By Jason Wirth, Professor of Philosophy, Seattle University
February 16, 2015

It is my pleasure and honor to welcome you to an evening with the wonderful and refreshingly thoughtful and bold Canadian writer, Marianne Apostolides, author of five novels, including her most recent, Sophrosyne, a remarkable evocation of the problem of desire, in both its monstrosity and its enervation, in our age of post-humanism.

One of Plato’s four cardinal virtues (along with justice, wisdom, and courage), sophrosyne generally comes down to us in its Christian adaptation as self-control and temperance. The Temperance Movement in the United States, for example, sought to solve the problem of our monstrous drunkenness by prohibiting alcohol and, more generally, the enterprise of temperance sought to temper the unwieldy darkness of desire by attacking it at its monstrous root. “Self-restraint as a form of self-denial” (55).

But this world and its implacable moral compass has departed. “If God is dead and the earth is dying . . . if man-made technology was never alive . . . then what about us? How are we supposed to live with the knowledge of what’s occurring in the world around us, the impulse inside us? Because nothing holds us anymore” (158).

In Euripides’ Bacchae, the Theban king Pentheus does not heed the blind sage Tiresius’ counsel to come to terms with the power of Dionysus, only to fall prey to the blind passion of his mother, Agave, who, in the Dionysian rapture of the Maenads, is unable to recognize her son, and pulls him apart limb from limb, only to discover later, as her rapture subsided, the horror of what she had done (42-43). To what do we turn when the prohibitions against the Dionysian are no longer convincing?

Sophrosyne was not, however, as the later tradition had it, to deny, ignore, or extirpate desire. Rather, as Nietzsche understood it, and as Alex’s professor at Princeton pushes Alex, recoiling with horror at his own desire, to see, it is the transfiguration of the “place without logic or beauty” (75) into the serene sculptural composure and beauty of Apollonian form. In this respect it is like the Zen inspired calligraphy that Meiko introduces to Alex, which expresses the vast sea of emptiness (ku) and an infinitude of nothingness (mu) beyond yes and no, all in a single gesture. In the forms of sophrosyne, against the unmeasured runaway of ceaseless media distractions and a global ecological catastrophe, one senses—in both senses of sense—the possibility of a transfiguration of the monstrous into the possibilities and exigencies of new forms of life. “Because nothing holds us back, except this desire itself. Our desire to feel ourselves rising along this pulsing arc that has no end: Sophrosyne . . .” (158).

The language of Marianne Apostolides’ novel embodies this transfiguration of desire amid the new technological and climatological Maenads of our otherwise rudderless post-human age. Her writing is a measure of the power and pleasure of the infinite: “To ask a sincere question, to sense the pain of the answer” (110).