MAY 2019

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Picture a Picture of a Bed

Aedicula with small landscape, from the imperial villa at Boscotrecase, 1st century BCE. Fresco, 91 3/4 x 45 inches. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Near the start of the tenth book of Plato's Republic, Socrates abruptly reverts to a point he'd made earlier in his long discussion of the nature of the ideal state—that there is no place for poetry in it—expressing special satisfaction over that prohibition. Glaucon, his interlocutor, is puzzled by this renewed insistence; he asks Socrates to explain. Picture a picture of a bed, Socrates says, and so we are off and running in the usual Socratic way, with banal truths—a picture of a bed is not a bed; a picture of a bed is not the idea of the bed—leading to bizarre, question-begging conclusions. Being a mere imitation of a thing, a picture is a bad thing, and since other forms of imitation, such as epic and tragic poetry, are likewise bad, it is essential that the citizens of the republic not develop a taste for such things, which offer empty distraction and false gratification and will only bring them to grief.

What, I find myself wondering, does the picture of a bed Socrates has in mind actually look like? He doesn't tell us anything about it—this bed has no blanket or bedposts, and its picture has no facture—because to him doesn't matter. That's the point. The picture of the bed doesn't look like anything because it isn't anything, just a show and shadow.

And yet this isn't entirely persuasive. After all, Socrates does tell us something important about the picture—that it is of a bed. Why a bed? A simple thing, but when you think about it, not. A bed suggests sleep and dreams, and as Socrates says elsewhere even good men have bad dreams. It suggests illness and recovery—or not. It is a place to die, as, too, a place to be born. A place for sex. Perhaps two people, naked and beautiful, are very much awake in Socrates' bed. The picture is erotic, even pornographic. And here I want to note that Socrates mentions another picture in passing: of a bridle. These blank pictures unbridle the imagination, and prepare the way, it turns out, for the Myth of Er, that picture of the first and last states of the soul, which Socrates unfolds at the end of this, the last book of the Republic. Could it be that far from dismissing pictures, Socrates—or is it Plato?—is placing them at the center, or end, of philosophizing?

A subtle game is being played, as always in these dialogues, and perhaps the best way to respond to it is to enter into it. I cannot imagine that bed—or I can imagine all too much about that bed—but I know just the bedroom for it, the one from the Roman villa at Boscotrecase, constructed in the last years of the first century BC and now reconstructed in the Met. The bedroom has one entrance, which opened out onto a terrace overlooking the hills running down to the bay of Naples. Its walls are decorated with the airiest of architectural conceits, a decorate cornice like a ribbon that runs behind a series of aedicules, all set against a wall of polished black, which, in the light of wicks or candles, would have teemed with reflections to match the stars in the night sky outside the door. Each of the aedicules encloses a small landscape scene, floating in that black space at an indeterminate distance, close enough to make out but not quite make out entirely, like a picture of the picture on the wall that it is, only to see it slip way into the black depths. Nothing here is sure; everything is alluring. The bedroom at Boscotrecase might be taken to be the Platonic form of Plato's cave.

The villa at Boscotrecase was built by Augustus's right-hand man, Agrippa, the husband of his daughter Julia. She was famously learned, famous for her lovers, a friend of Ovid, and, like the poet, she would be condemned to exile by her father. We can imagine her in that bedroom. The latest lover has left. She is reading. Her thoughts wander and her eyes dwell on those floating unseizable images on the wall. She drifts off. At one point, she wakes for a moment, surprised to find that she has been dreaming that she is Plato, painting a picture of something that has no resemblance to anything in reality, which he calls the Republic. And then she back falls asleep in her bed.

Contributor

Edwin Frank

is the author of Snake Train: Poems 1984-2013 and the editor and founder of the New York Review Books Classics series.

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MAY 2019

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