Wine and wisdom

The modern dinner party guest would do well to read Plato

Very few great works of philosophy are also great works of art. However, Plato's Symposium is both. It is a vivid invocation of the Athenian polis and its leading characters, including Alcibiades, Aristophanes and Socrates. And it is without compare as a philosophical treatment of sexual desire - a topic that philosophers down the ages have largely avoided, with only Schopenhauer and Sartre venturing the kind of comprehensive account of it that we find in Plato. Ostensibly, the work is merely a report of a drinking party, in which the characters stumble, in their cups, over ideas and emotions that lie hidden in their daily lives.

In that lies its artfulness. There are ideas which appear ridiculous in ordinary conversation, which are nevertheless obvious when drunk. And, by retrieving from the conversation of drunks the truths that wine has revealed to them, Plato is able to prepare his reader to accept what would otherwise appear so fanciful and remote from ordinary human dealings as to be dismissed as a fairy tale. He was able to say something about sexual desire that is as shocking to his contemporaries as it is to modern people - namely, that desire is directed towards another person, but with a hidden goal. This goal is not pleasure, or orgasm, or any of those sensual and commonplace things, but the knowledge of beauty and truth. Sexual desire is therefore more prone to corruption than any other human feeling, and the physical part of it is precisely what is most dangerous to the soul.

Try publishing that in Cosmopolitan or Tatler, and see what laughs you'll get. But, as Plato brilliantly shows, it is a view of the matter to which we all of us tend in our cups, and it is one of the virtues of wine that it turns our thoughts towards a truth that looks ridiculous in our sober routines, and therefore condemns those routines as ridiculous.

We should recognise, however, that wine leads us to such surprising conclusions only when swallowed in the right way, and it is another great virtue of Plato's masterpiece that it tells us how to do it. The symposium was the very opposite of the modern dinner party, in which conversation breaks into loud-mouthed fragments, with nobody pausing to address the table as a whole, and no guest prepared to yield space to a neighbour.

In a symposium the wine circulates slowly, is drunk gradually, and with due libations to the gods. The conversation is general and speakers take it in turns to contribute. Gradually, as shyness is dissolved and the imagination freed, the hidden truths that ordinary life forbids begin to congregate on the horizon, beckoning to the company for wine, as the ghosts in Homer beckon for sacrificial blood.

Try it some day, and you will be surprised to discover what you really think.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher and countryside campaigner as well as an author and broadcaster. Widely regarded as one of Britain’s leading right wing thinkers, his publications include the Meaning of Conservatism. He has also written on fox hunting.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis