If a woman chances during her menstrual period to
look into a highly polished mirror, the surface of it
will grow cloudy with a blood-coloured haze.
—Aristotle, On Dreams
- I have been trying to tell myself a story about Aristotle. The story seeks to explain a statement that seems to reflect a shocking credulity, intellectual laziness, or both.
- “Narrative is a process whose function is knowing,” wrote William James.
- Not much is known about Aristotle’s life. Sources describe even his death only vaguely, as due to “a disease of the stomach,” or, more quaintly, “a digestive complaint.”
- In his 1974 commencement address at Caltech, Richard Feynman recounted the cautionary tale of the first scientist to measure the charge of an electron. The scientist measured it incorrectly, but was held in such high esteem that, for many years, other scientists who got different answers figured that they, instead, must be the ones measuring incorrectly.
- While researching Aristotle’s death, I discover his treatise On the Parts of Animals. Here, Aristotle claims that male and female animals have different types of stomachs. One commentator describes this claim as “strange,” and without “anatomical foundation.” Another demurs, stating that, “without knowing the animal models that Aristotle was using, I am not prepared to be so bold.”
- Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides some biographical information on Aristotle, but cautions that much of it is “speculative. Unfortunately, biographers need to rely on insecure, mainly late sources, with the result that sometimes thinly attested conclusions gain credence only by dint of repetition.”
- Personally, I stand ready to gain credence by dint of repetition. It seems to have worked for Aristotle.
- After all, in the two-plus millennia since Aristotle’s death, no one has discovered a species with stomachs corresponding to his description. Yet we “are not prepared to be so bold” as to discount his statements.
- Oscar Wilde wrote that “to reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.” Aristotle left many ideas behind, but no biography, no sense of self. Was Aristotle then an artist?
- It’s not just self-effacement that an artist requires, but self-deception. To quote Philip Roth on writing fiction: “The idea is to perceive your invention as a reality that can be understood as a dream. The idea is to turn flesh and blood into literary characters and literary characters into flesh and blood.”
- Today, Aristotle is regarded as one of the fathers of science. This is because he espoused inductive reasoning, not because he conducted experiments or discovered methods we now would consider “scientific.”
- In harping on Aristotle’s biography, am I trying to turn him into flesh and blood? Am I trying to invent him? To invent myself?
- One of the attractions and difficulties of inductive reasoning: it implicitly allows that the premises, and therefore the conclusions, may be incorrect.
- Regarding Aristotle’s personality, Stanford notes that some sources describe him as “snide and arrogant,” while others paint him as friendly, open, and “tirelessly interested in expanding the frontiers of human knowledge.” But in the absence of contemporary accounts, “we have little basis for adjudicating between” the two views.
- What really killed Aristotle? Was it stomach cancer? An ulcer? A bad olive?
- I begin to feel a little sorry for Aristotle.
Did he like oranges? It is not “important” to know whether Aristotle liked oranges. But when we think about people we’ve lost, people we’ve loved, we think about things like that.
Did someone think of dead Aristotle, think, “I loved how he always whistled between his teeth?”
- Referencing Schopenhauer, Michel Houllebecq writes, “We remember our own lives … a little better than we do a novel we once read. That’s about right: a little, no more.”
And with nothing to work from, we don’t remember Aristotle’s at all.
- It doesn’t do, of course, for me to feel sorry for Aristotle. He is my symbol, a cipher. I other him, I define myself in contrast.
And re-reading his blithe and ridiculous statement regarding mirrors, women, and menstruation, I can content myself that he started it.
- In her essay, “Narrative/Identity,” kari edwards asks: “well if narrative is here to reinforce identity, and identity fluctuates depending on one’s mode of expression and the gaze one receives from others, then there is no such thing as gender or sexual categories … and identity becomes as indeterminate as the narrative … well … doesn't that sort of put the superego on a permanent holiday?”
- “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one,” wrote Albert Einstein. And Feynman again: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”
- If I can pity Aristotle, it is because I have found a way to make him small and uncertain. A man and not a monolith. Human, capable of fooling himself, like me.
- I lied, of course, in saying I’ve been trying to tell a story about Aristotle. I’ve been trying to tell a story about myself. Like all stories, it needed an antagonist.
- That’s a lie, too. My story doesn’t need Aristotle as an antagonist. It already has the antagonism of trying to care enough about truth to abandon all ego.
- In the meantime, here I am shadowboxing a twenty-three-hundred-year-old dead guy. This says more about me than him. Clearly, I’m no artist.
- In the dream, I head home on the metro. I’m not listening to anything, but I have my earbuds in so no one will bother me. Aristotle sits across the aisle. He wears a toga with pockets; they bulge with notebooks and a bottle of Maalox. I could ask where he heard about women and mirrors, whether he ever thought to test the idea, how he came to accept and repeat it. Instead, I keep pretending to hear music that isn’t there, staring distantly ahead.