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Last Word: Marianne Apostolides on ancient virtue

One of Socrates’ key ideas – along with attention to rhythms of prose – gave shape and meaning to my latest novel, writes Marianne Apostolides

What do you want this book to do?” my publisher asked. I paused. My pause began to sound like panic. “Take your time,” he said. “You’ll figure it out.”

That was two years ago, after three years of writing. At that point, my manuscript reminded me of the Tasmanian devil from the old Warner Bros. cartoons: this thing was hungry, panting, spinning, and totally out of control. And really not very pretty, either.

I took my time with it, supported by the faith of my publisher. I grappled with this beast until I’d given it coherence and calm. Unfortunately, I still hadn’t given it a title. With two days before the catalogue was due, I met with my editor in a dark café; I drank bitter coffee and read him a list of 23 potential titles.

He rejected each one.

Then he wrote a word on a piece of paper and slid it across the table.

“I can’t call it that!” I said. “It isn’t even an English word!”

“It isn’t exactly a typical book.”

Sophrosyne. (Pronounced SOPH-roh-SEEN-ee.)

What is sophrosyne?

It’s a Socratic virtue that’s usually translated (rather inadequately) as “self-control.” Self-control, self-restraint, modesty, temperance: all these words fail to convey the lusciousness of that ancient concept and its import for the 21st century.

For Socrates, sophrosyne wasn’t the denial of desire; that dude didn’t deny himself much. Instead, it is the ability to feel desire without immediately acting on it. When we feel an impulse, it might be a surface reaction – a spasm that dissipates as quickly as it arrives – or it might settle within us, abiding in our core. In the latter case, we can move from a place of potent stillness, which contains the power to hold our full desire prior to any action or response. In other words, Socrates’ notion of virtue arises not from the shackling of the physical, but from its embrace, feeling and learning from all our sensual responses. The body is, after all, our primary means for understanding the self and the world.

Great. Fine. But I’m not a philosopher, I’m a novelist! So how do I turn these ideas into a narrative? Apparently, one way is to write an intense book about a highly erotic relationship between a mother and a son, the mother being a belly-dancer whose stage name is Sophrosyne; the son being a student who’s writing his senior thesis on … you guessed it!

I didn’t set out to write this particular book; I’m not even sure there was a step-by-step process through which the novel took shape. Instead, a constellation of ideas/
images/illuminations came together to create this story.

The first star in the constellation is philosophy. I often meander through the “great works”: they charge up my brain, make me feel over-full – an abundance of thought that I channel into fiction. Five years ago, I stumbled across the dialogue in which Socrates attempts to define sophrosyne. I was immediately intrigued: sophrosyne is one of only four Socratic virtues, and yet it’s completely disappeared from our vocabulary and, therefore, from our consciousness and thought.

At the same time, I was playing with the rhythms of my writing. I’d just completed a novel, Swim, whose language is stylized – long-arcing and backward looping, mimicking the rhythms of the body as it swims. The problem was, every time I picked up the pen to write, I wrote in that same style. It was incredibly frustrating. I therefore gave myself a writing exercise: I’d write in staccato sentences, interrupting the flow of thought, abutting ideas that didn’t seem to connect.

That’s all fine as an exercise. But it’s not very effective over the course of a novel. Unless the aesthetic serves the story itself.

Ah, yes. Another star in the constellation started to shine. I realized that my main character, Alex, was attempting to say things that can’t be said – not just about philosophical thoughts, but also physical experiences. Namely, what happened between him and his mom. That’s a coy way of saying the book is supremely erotic, involving illicit desire between a mother and her son. Sophrosyne is not so much Fifty Shades of Grey as 5,000 Shades of Pulsing Magenta.

I would sometimes sit back from a writing session and wonder where the hell the writing came from. I think philosophy is to blame. In the best philosophical writing, thoughts aren’t stated directly. That’s not an obscuring tactic, merely a recognition that people can’t absorb the exquisiteness of ideas through a straight line of prose. We must therefore invent an idiosyncratic language, seducing the reader into a state of heightened awareness, attuned to every shift of logic, every turn in the physical argument. Language sculpts landscapes in the reader’s imagination. This type of writing lures us toward a whole new way of thought – a way of language, of perceiving the world.

“What do you want this book to do, Marianne?” my publisher asked. I want it to get sophrosyne in people’s minds and on their lips. Simple as that.