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The Plato Papers by Peter Ackroyd

The Plato Papers (original 1999; edition 2001)

by Peter Ackroyd

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3981126,858 (3.49)9
Title:The Plato Papers
Authors:Peter Ackroyd
Tags:Fiction, Read in 2012

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The Plato Papers by Peter Ackroyd (1999)


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This is a playful intellectual exercise in speculative fiction which postulates a thirty-eighth century scholar trying to understand how people lived in former eras, principally our own, from the snippets of material culture which have been left behind. And he invariably gets it hilariously wrong; the twentieth century's greatest comedian was named Sigmund Freud, the finest source for how Americans lived in the nineteenth century was E. A. Poe, and their favorite comic novelist was named Charles Darwin. He also provides his disciples with a similarly garbled glossary of terms used in the period for their own researches. This is great fun and wildly inventive; the spell broken occasionally by the author interjecting political opinion, presumably his own, and some lackluster interstitial bits which advance a skeletal plot. ( )
  Big_Bang_Gorilla | May 29, 2016 |
I found Peter Ackroyd’s The Plato Papers, his mostly forgotten 1999 offering, in the basement of a Bemidji bookstore. Bought it, put it on a shelf for a couple of years, and having lately finished a re-read of some Plato, thought it a good time to polish this diminutive book off. Well, it’s actually 173 pages but that’s Nan A. Talese’s formatting trick. A small hardcover with giant margins and maximum use of white space at the start (and usually finish) of all 55 chapters. Naturally enough, much of the text is in dialogue. And what does it all have to do with Plato? Next to nothing, actually.

The Plato Papers uses the future as a conceit to talk about the past. In 2299 a "collapsophe" plunges London into a new sci-fi dark age but the city endures and by 3705 the orator Plato is entertaining crowds with his interpretations of 'ancient texts.' When he’s not delivering orations, he’s conversing with his soul. When he’s not on the page, friends with improbable names are discussing him and his ideas.

That’s it. My hopes were not high, as it sounds like a glib work of postmodernism with no greater purpose than to showcase Ackroyd’s cleverness. Some of it does fall into that trap. The Plato Papers can be split roughly in half – while the second half delves into metaphysics, the first is all about the blithely overeducated joke as when Plato offers definitions of ancient idioms.

"dead end: a place where corpses were taken … Those who chose to inhabit these areas apparently suffered from a ‘death wish.’"
"literature: a word of unknown provenance, generally attributed to ‘litter’ or waste."

I mean, come on! These are glorified puns, funny literalisms it can’t have taken Ackroyd more than a second to compile. Occasionally, one hits the mark:

"pedestrian: one who journeyed on foot. Used as a term of abuse, as in ‘this is a very pedestrian plot.’ It is possible, therefore, that in ancient days walking was considered to be an ignoble or unnatural activity; this would explain the endless varieties of transport used to convey people for very short distances."

This is amusing yet reflective. The conclusion is wrong but it feels plausible and the verdict is pleasantly illuminating. It’s also very lightly treated, which sums up my experience with the whole work. Some call it a satire, but it’s not mean enough by half. And as a novel of ideas, it puts all the right ingredients together…in the smallest possible amounts. Throughout, Ackroyd is making a point about the treatment of history, the interpretations we make about 'the wrong ages' (essentially how we always feel about the past). Each new generation unaware that history has them in its gunsights as well.

Madrigal: … But why are the beliefs of our ancestors so ridiculous? I am sure that they were sincerely held.
Ornatus: No doubt.
Madrigal: Perhaps, in the future someone might laugh at – well – you and me.
Ornatus: There is nothing funny about us.
Madrigal: As far as we know.

Of course, The Plato Papers is too diffuse to really impress with its intellect. It flits from scene to scene and all the critical praise adorning the dust jacket can’t obscure the fact that this is foremost a light read. It wants to amuse. Plato’s orations are postmodern routines and they form the bulk of the text. Dickens and Darwin are confuted in the best sequence, offering The Origin of Species as a novel with an unreliable narrator at the helm. Freud (pronounced Fraud, ha ha) is assumed a comedian. Poe’s Tales and Histories is taken at face value as a factual account of the American people. "Its inhabitants dwelled in very large and very old houses which, perhaps because of climactic conditions, were often covered with lichen or ivy. In many respects the architecture of these ancient mansions conformed to the same pattern; they contained libraries and galleries, chambers of antique painting and long corridors leading in serpentine fashion to great bolted doors. … they were a highly nervous people, who suffered from a morbid acuteness of their faculties. They experienced continually ‘a vague feeling of terror and despair’. They were prone to the most extreme sensations of wonder or hilarity and there seems to have been an unusual amount of lunacy among the young."

As Plato talks to his soul, the cheap jokes go by the wayside and Ackroyd gets down to business. History is bent and run through Plato’s Cave. Willful illusion, rather than simple ignorance, becomes a main tenet of human behaviour. The stubborn Ornatus says “Ignorance is better than doubt” and the citizens of London reject Plato’s new and more accurate findings on ancient ways because to countenance them would introduce uncertainty – and require humility. To class your ancestors as ignorant makes you enlightened; to call them barbarians is to make yourself civilized. Plato tests the limits of his world, not by journeying to another, but by admitting his own errors. This makes him a pariah and he is soon put on trial…

In a final prank, Ackroyd chose not to finish his fable with an ending everyone already knows. Perhaps he thought that would be predictable, or would clash with his established tone. Or perhaps he was making the point that, even while unconscious of the past, history does not always repeat and there is hope for the human race. Deeper meaning aside, Ackroyd’s finale is diffuse, anti-climactic and very appropriately the final word in the book is dream.

Yes, there’s a fair amount of artistry on display in The Plato Papers. However, it’s not likely to satisfy many readers with its combination of highly metaphorical sci-fi and postmodern jokery. Sure, it stimulates the intellect, but it bounces around too much to feel really substantial and based on this sample it makes sense that he’s more known for his non-fiction these days. I enjoyed it but I would never claim it qualifies as a necessary addition to the library of any non-Ackroyd fan. The characters are flat, the prose is average, the imagery does not dazzle…and yet the whole concoction is so odd I can’t help but like it. In its favour, it absolutely does have the ability to spark thought. It’s one of those cases where the reviews are a necessary addendum to the book. There’s an excellent essay on it at London Fictions that I direct you to as a case in point. Ackroyd’s erudite. In the end I’m glad I picked it up.

http://pseudointellectualreviews.wordpress.com/2014/04/24/the-plato-papers-peter... ( )
  nymith | Aug 13, 2014 |
Not one of the Ackroyd must-reads, in my opinion. It is stylistically interesting, but seems obscure about the theme of the tale. It uses a good deal of imagery arising from Plato's cave. Perhaps we are dealing with a story about the amount of direct and brutal experience is compatible with normal levels of human comfort. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Dec 30, 2013 |
Peter Ackroyd is best known to me as one of England's finest writers, and an entertaining expert on London and the country it dominates. 'The Plato Papers' is, for me, a brightly illuminating star in an infinitely broader canvas, that of life and its self-perception. All societies seem to throw up outsiders, and the human subject of the society which is here the context is fortunate in having his alien qualities accepted as such without rancour, despite endemic misunderstanding. The setting is a London of the far future, for which present times are pathetically (and amusingly) mistaken, and the character called Plato is found arguing that the accepted world picture of his future existence invites and embraces enlightening comparisons that are unpalatable to this future picture. It is a short novel whose arguments are both clearly set out and startlingly illuminating. A superb book. ( )
1 vote CliffordDorset | Dec 16, 2012 |
A clever short novel set in the year 3700, in a future London where a future Plato orates to the people of the city about the distant, obscured past (including on the novelist Charles Dickens' reviled story On the Origin of Species, the humorist Sigmund Freud, and the Esteemed American Poet known as E. A. Poe. The book ends up being both a playful meditation on misinterpretation of historical evidence and on the nature of philosophical inquiry generally. ( )
  JBD1 | Dec 10, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385497695, Paperback)

In A.D. 3700, London's greatest orator, Plato, regularly delivers bravura public lectures on the long and tumultuous history of what is now a peaceful, tranquil city, secure in the certainty of its own relationship to the past. Particularly fascinated with the dark and confused epoch known as the Age of Mouldwarp, stretching from A.D. 1500 to A.D. 2300, Plato discourses on its extraordinary figures and customs from what evidence remains. These include orations on the clown Sigmund Freud and his comic masterpiece, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious; the African singer George Eliot, apparently author of The Waste Land; and Charles Dickens's greatest novel, The Origin of Species. And then there's E.A. Poe--or rather, Poet:
The eminence and status of the author are not in doubt. The name, for example, was not difficult to interpret. Poe is an abbreviation of Poet, and by common consent the rest was deciphered: E. A. Poe = Eminent American Poet. It seems clear enough that the writers of America enjoyed a blessed anonymity, even in the Age of Mouldwarp. The word 'poet' is known to all of us, but as there are no chants or hymns in 'Tales and Histories' we believe the term was applied indiscriminately to all writers of that civilisation.
Plato also elaborates on the era's strange rites and rituals, including "the cult of webs and nets" that apparently covered and enslaved the population. But then in the midst of these brilliant, precise public performances, he begins a dialogue with his soul. Doubt begins to creep in (Is the past really past? And are the rituals of the present so superior?), leading him on a fateful journey.

The Plato Papers is an extraordinary novel. As with the best of Peter Ackroyd's fiction, it treads a thin line between fantasy and biography, the genre he so elegantly mastered in his now classic studies Dickens, T.S. Eliot, and The Life of Thomas More. Wise and salutary, it is a wonderfully observed satire of misprision and the arrogance of philosophical certainty. --Jerry Brotton

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:51 -0400)

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A novel on the way time deforms reality and the futility of bucking the process. In the 37th century, as a result of an error somewhere over the centuries, academics teach The Origin of Species was not a book on evolution by Charles Darwin, but a novel by Charles Dickens. When the hero questions the accuracy of this bit of history, he lands in trouble.… (more)

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