The Underground Academy or, The Dialect of Dialectic

What if Plato's Academy survived, underground, for two millennia, and was rediscovered in, of all places (and, really, no place is likely), West Virginia, USA? Would we become its students, or its publishers and editors, and what does that say about us?

Could this really be the Academy, this rather, well, ramshackle shack, constructed (if a word that implies such deliberation is even applicable to this thing) of old car parts, rotting wood salvaged from god-knows-where, pieces of carpet rotted and molded into their burlap backs and even a refrigerator door, nestled in these sullen and slovenly West Virginia hills, peopled with toothless folk from straight out of Walker Evans and William Faulkner? And by the Academy I mean the Academy of Athens, Plato's Academy, which normally conjures images of pristine white marble and wide roads of well-packed dirt filled with intelligent and beautiful young men in conjunction with whom one would like to think of of "pure pederasty," rather than Deliverance and pig-squealing. My long-time and trustworthy friend Mike, who happened, recently, to inherit a hunting cabin less than a mile from the shack in question (thus becoming the nearest neighbor of these people), assures me, however, that this is indeed the Academy. When he first told me that he'd discovered it in this hollar I was skeptical, to put it mildly. "You're full of shit," I told him.

Then, after he explained, in rather great detail for someone who'd never studied a lick of either philosophy or ancient history in his life, that these people here claim that the Academy of Athens had continued to exist underground long after it had been officially banned by Justinian and thought defunct in 529 AD, migrating first to Persia, then Constantinople (hiding within the Greek Orthodox Church, though its enemy) whence it moved to Scotland (where it did the same thing with Presbyterianism) and finally to the part of the colony of Virginia which eventually became West Virginia. "And it's been here ever since," he said. Though far from convinced, his story intrigued me and, as I had a vacation approaching, I decided to visit him and see for myself.

As my trip approached, Mike began to drop the names of some rather esoteric figures in Platonic history, such as Damascius, Simplicius, George Gemistos Pleithon (whence the name of this clan) and Henri Estienne (who is more commonly known as Stephanus) and, as a result, I began to idealize this academy. I imagined that 300 years in West Virginian isolation hadn't affected it, and expected to find white marble temples of learning in this depressed and backwards region of black coal and soot. I imagined that any change in the academy would have been towards a Thoreau-like simplicity. I maintained this illusion until, instead of walking the quarter mile over to the shack, Mike cranked up his four-wheeler and told me to hop on the back for a rather harrowing ride over the hills which ended in a "yard" littered with engines, broken toys, and trash, amidst which I now stand, beneath the blue sky stretching out over the foliage which darkens the already chthonically shadowed earth beneath our feet. Mike knocks on the detritus door and I press the record button on the tape-player in my pocket even though I half-expect it all to be a joke played on me, at best a ploy that Mike concocted to get me to come visit him and at worst the denouement of some diabolical festival of laughter at which I, like Lucius, will be the sacrificial guest.

Says Gem McGemistos (after opening the door, his bleary eyes like rusty springs in his face like old leather boots creased and ripped by years of hard use; his white eye-brows and beard make his face stand out against the darkness of the "room" like the single tooth in his dark mouth which seems to smell of liquor): Hey thar Mak, whar's awp?

Mike: Hey, Gem. This is my friend Bay I was telling you about.

Gem: Yew ain't no sawphist is yew.

Bay: No. I'm sort of a freelance writer now but I just finished a Master's thesis on Plato last year.

Gem (Shaking my hand, whose softness his stone-like calluses embarrass): Good. Causin' I hit sawphists. Bawt jes' causin' yew've rat a piper awn Plato dawn't mean thit yew know anything 'bout phlawsophy.

Bay (Thinking, "can Plato's heir really say 'phlawsophy?'"): You're right about that. The more I wrote the more I knew that I didn't know anything.

Gem: Wult thar may be hope to save yew from the sawphists yit. Thar's a clan of sawphists awver in the next hollar ovar tar, 'n though we've bane havin' a feud wit dem fer lawng time, they ain't th'awnly sawphists rount. The whole Renaissance 'n the rest've merdern Kulcher uz jes' th' capturing of phlawsophy by the sawphists. They turnt phlawsophers int' flawsofars.

Bay (Trying not to appear condescending): And, uh, this is the, um, Academy?
Gem: Yew thank it ain't good 'nough fer yer merdern world? Wult dad the Athenians have plawmin' er cawmputers er anythink awv thit nat'cher?

Bay: Uh, no. (But they didn't have four-wheelers and chainsaws either.)

Gem: Wult who yew thank it is who's so worried 'bout that kina stawf?

Bay: The military industrial complex.

Gem: Naw, yew panko. The sawphists. See, after the Academy gawt clost down in Athens then Damascius and Simplicius toted it Persia 'n then it hid to hide it downt awner grount. When George Gemistos tekt it bek to the West it gawt thieved rale quack by the sawphists who'uz jes' waitin' 'n who'd awlrady done stolt Aristotle 'n even though that theft's whart 'vived the west it also 'vived the worst 'n thatt's the prawblem that the wurlt's in rat now.

So, 'n'order nawt to b'cawm sawphists our selve's the first McGemistos done tekt awf to Scawtlind 'n from thar in 'bout sixteen hunerd 'n sawmpthin' we kem over har. We'd hid plans to set awp a real R'public but lak Plato'm self we dun lernt dit phlawsophy kint be pawblic 'n plitical. That'uz unter t'leadership uv Tetos the second—who I namt my boy after—'n sans then we bane actin' in secret. Les' tek a cawple swags a kern 'n we'll go on down 'n say my boy Tetos. He's the one who's gawna tek over th' Academy ifter I 'tire har soon.

We step into the shack, which is as cluttered and dark and dingy as I had imagined and I take a swig of moonshine which burns my throat and causes me to cough loudly and shake my head. Gem gives me a disapproving look, laughs and then lights up a huge "hawg-leg" of homegrown and we set off, leaving Mike behind, on Gem's four-wheeler down to the river where we're going to meet his son, Tetos, and I'm stoned and freaking out, scared as we roar like maniacs over these tiny mountain roads which are really no more than deer trails and Gem keeps looking around to talk to me but I can't understand a word he's saying over the engine's roar and, holy shit, we almost crash help oh god help, I wish that he'd just watch the trail over which we're suicidally bouncing but he looks back at me—me, gripping on to his worn flannel shirt, shitting on myself—more than he watches the "road." He's laughing at me. Is this all some kind of crazy joke? Is he taking me off to kill me, murder me up in these hills where I'll never be found again, at least not for years and then I'll just be some dismembered decomposing skeleton with a few pieces of black flesh hanging from it like a leaflet loosely placed under windblown windsheildwiper? Did Mike have to sell me out to these hillbillies so that they wouldn't kill him? Finally we pull out of the trees and into the light of the sun; I am nearly blinded by the brilliance of the light reflecting off the white sand on the beach by the wide river throwing blades of light like a circus performer. I made it! But there's a shack, which, little more than a lean-to, makes the other look like a mansion. They could still be waiting to duct-tape my mouth up and rape me and murder me. My knees shake as I get off the monstrous machine. When Gem opens the blanket covering the front of the lean-to we briefly see an immense hillbilly god with a blonde mullet haircut and no clothes on laying on the makeshift floor of the shack with another naked person whose gender I am unable to determine due to Tetos's bulk—much of which is his ass which is pointing right at us.

Gem: Serry Teet. Wull say you litter

Tetos (Jumping up and throwing on his jeans): Naw, naw Pippy. I'm dawn here anyway. Whose this yew gawt har? He ain't no sawphist is he?

Gem: Wult, he's in dinger've bayin' wun bawt I think we kin save 'em.

Tetos: Wult, whyn't yew gown in thar 'n tek carve thangs in thar 'n I'll tawkt him. Yew know how I hit sawphists!

Gem goes into the shack with whoever it was in there and Tetos and I, who are about the same age, talk, somewhat uneasily at first, for a long time and I end up getting very drunk and passing out, a fact for which I am often ridiculed and called "city" during the three weeks I stay there in the hollar. During this period I constantly converse with Tetos and Gem and work around their land, for these people never simply stand around and talk. They're always hammering or planting or chopping wood or fishing or gigging frogs while they practice their dialectic. Later that first night, as we were out in the middle of a pond in a small boat, blinding frogs with a light so that we could stab them in the head with a five-pronged spear, Tetos gave me one of his most concise, and 'colorful' definitions of philosophy.

Tetos: Phlawsophy's a lawt like cawk fightin'. When people fight cawks up har whart they usually do is get the cawk awl drugged up with amphetamines. Wult, that's whart yew gawat do with different idears. Yew get'em awl juiced-awp in tek'em to thar extremes 'n then yew set' em gainst one' nother in the di'lectical ring to rip one 'nuther part.

Bay: Does that come from Plato, or from West Virginia?

Tetos: Both. (He stabs a frog in the head with a swift motion of his wrist and plops it into the teaming darkly amphibious bucket between us.) Curse, Socrates was ridiculed fer his homespun examples. So the metaphor is frawm rount chere—Heidegger says thit one kin awnly phlawsophize in his Black ferst Di'lect er in Greek, bawt ain't no American flawsofars dared to phlawsophize in thar own di'lects. Di'lectics is fundamnetally related to di'lect. Bawt, the technique I done lernt from Plato. He, as well as people lak Zeno, do it awl the time. Tek Plato's Sawphist fer example. His famous "Gigantomachia" ain't nothin' awther than a big-ole cawk-fight tween the frents of the ferms 'n the materialists. He does it awl overt place 'n thet's whart we do when we tawk d'lectic rount here.

(I never actually saw a cock-fight while I was in the hollar, but I did get a terrible case of poison ivy which constantly distracted me and made my body not only the prison of my soul but also its torture chamber. My legs were swollen with yellow ooze-filled blisters which I longed to bust open with my craving fingers. When I was back at Mike's at night, unable to sleep due to the itching I'd often stare at the shot-gun hanging on the kitchen wall and imagine holding its barrel up to my head and pulling the trigger to end this itching with one explosive scratch of my index finger.)

I am now convinced that, even if this is not the original Academy, which it probably is, these people have a lively and legitimate philosophical culture which exists, unnoticed by the now official Academy which has stolen its name, and I am determined to study it and record its ways. Perhaps Tetos was right and the revival of Western Culture would come from these sullen hills.

Tetos writes a great deal in the evenings and sometimes shows me some of the things that he writes. They are all written in his native dialect and as such are exceedingly difficult to read—they approach the obscurity of Finnegan's Wake—until you get used to it and I have offered to include notes and commentary in an attempt to bring to light the world hidden up here in the hollar.

Tetos (from up in the branches of a mulberry tree from which he was shaking down berries into the tarp I spread out below): Naw, man. Nawt now t'least. It'd jes' be stolen by the sawphists 'gain. We gawt our hands fulll've the cawntry sawphists rount char. Th'other city sawphists we ont warna deal wit yit.

Bay: Who are these country sophists? Your Dad mentioned them to me once.

Tetos: The Gergians who live bout a mila way ownt tawpa the hell over thar. Unfertunately the feud wit dem's nawt jes' in di'lectic. Years ago they dunt shawt my awncle Ted 'n kilt 'im 'n den diddy dunt shawt bawncha dem 'n sans then it's bane sawmpthin' awva war goin' on. "Polemou kai maches" them's the werds thit the Gergias sterts wit 'n it speaks volumes 'bout our lations wit these Gergians. Awl out war. Bawt, manly its gawt kina quiet now. Ain't been no trawble ina whalt. They gawt the towns narby on thar sides though, thits fer shar. We don't really go out causin' everybawdy hits aws.

After this I began to run many of the townish errands for the McGemistos family and their small clan of philosophers. One day, at the store in town where I was buying cigarettes and beer the clerk asked me where I'm staying. Fortunately I could say that I was staying with Mike. "Wult, thits awful claws to them McGemistos boys 'n yewd better warcth out. They's damn crazy. Manic, aver one 'uv 'em." Thanks for the info, I said, and went back out to the truck wondering if the woman behind the counter was an actual sophist or simply someone duped by them. When I asked Gem he told me that she was a cousin of the Gergians, but was really just more of a citizen. I thought of going under cover, to go and see these Gorgians and talk to them too, so that I could get a complete story, but I wasn't sure. I thought it might destroy my connection with the McGemistos clan.

My time there was confusing. Were these philosophers really hillbillies or were they rather sophisticated criminals hiding out in the hills? How could I ever know any of this unless I talked to someone other than them? Perhaps by gaining a greater degree of trust from them? Nothing is clear. In the hollar, it feels as if I'm in some kind of alternate universe. While thinking all of this over as obsessively as I thought about my poison ivy, I continued compiling more information and dialogues and helping the McGemistos' with their work.

One night we drank a lot of moonshine, more than normal, for there was a little symposium where we were all giving speeches on "love," just as in the dialogue. During the course of this night I discover that the McGemistos boys are, somehow reassuringly, gay or, rather, bisexual and, less comfortably, that the person who was first in the lean-to with Tetos was Glaucon, a very young cousin of theirs: they see this incestuous pederasty as the purest form of love, whereas modern liberalism, which they call sophistry but to which I am nevertheless attached, sees it not only as deviance but as a crime. It is, in the end, these contradictions, which we find in the figure of Plato himself, that convince me of the family's lineage; for is it possible to read Plato without the strange mixture of charm, curiosity, and revulsion that one sees in the faces of the McGemistos clan?

During the middle of my own speech, which, I think, is going along quite well, there is a knock at the door of the dark and damp fire-lit cabin. There are about six of us inside—the women, whom I would like to get to know better, are unfortunately not allowed to hang out with us at all, they only occasionally come in to offer us coffee or food, and otherwise keep each other company and take care of the children—and Gem gets up to get the door. When he opens it there is a blast which effaces everything else and is followed by an excruciating pain in my neck. I've been hit! I've been hit! Oh god please don't let me die here on this hovel floor, please god don't let me die like this in this filth. There is all sorts of shouting and screaming and running and on top of it all I feel, along with the horrible pain in my neck, the itch of the poison ivy. I'm alive! As long as I feel the itch I'm alive. Oh beautiful poison ivy. Now I hear Tetos.

Tetos: Diddy! Diddy! Tawk to me Diddy! No, no, no! Don't be dead, Diddy! I'm'a gawna kill yew gawtdimnt sawphists!!!!!!!! I'm'a gawna git'em, Diddy!

It turns out that it had been one of the Gorgians at the door who had shot into the room. Gem's whole stomach was blown away, Mike was hit in the leg, and a single piece of buckshot ended up in my neck. This night was the most horrendous thing I'd ever experienced, laying there on that dirt floor in a pool of blood beside a man with no stomach while his hulking son scrambled about trying to save his dead father and avenge him against his killers. It is this incident, however, that causes Tetos to have me begin trying to find a publisher for his writing. We sit sadly one day down by the pond and discuss it over a beer, a fishing line lazily disappearing into the barely rippled brown surface.

Tetos: We can't jes' keep goin' rount killin' each awther. Its time to attack sawphist society at large, 'n that's jes' whart I warna do. Its time fer aws to git outa dis hollar 'n t'whup the sawphists asses di'lectically. T'use our words lak shawtgawns, steada usin' shawtgawns lak words. The Greeks was lucky nawt to have no gawns.

A couple days later—after a cup of coffee in the leaky kitchen with Tetos' long-haired wife with big beautiful brown eyes and a small buttonish nose and the mulberry stained kids who hang around the folds in her quilten dress and whose lot in life I hope will also be improved by the three hundred dollars (half of which I borrowed from Mike) that I slip her—I shake Tetos' calloused hand and get in my car and leave the hollar, driving through a terrible thunderstorm throwing sheets of rain at my windshield. With me I take a stack of manuscripts. I return, perhaps wistfully but with a great joy, to the comforts of what Tetos sees as sophistic civilization, in Pittsburgh, where I set about rubbing ointment on my poison ivy and showering and drinking store-bought whiskey and finally typing Tetos' work which I hope to publish. I will also begin applying for grants in order to continue my own research into the academy. Any money I am able to garner from any of this will be used to help the McGemistos family relocate and thus end the bloody feud and ameliorate the shameful conditions in which they live.

These thoughts are no more than an introduction to the work of Theaetetos McGemistos, which—though they may not, as he claims, revive the Western world and rescue it from the dark age in which it is presently esconced—will certainly call everything that we've thought about philosophy into question. And yet, as I sit, now, listening to Guided By Voices and typing these notes onto my computer, I wonder if I will not be the one (the sophist) who has finally destroyed the Academy in my attempt to help the people who constitute it (or on whose invisible labor it is constituted). Still pondering this question I pick up the phone, invite a friend over and order a pizza, happy I don't have to gig any goddamned frogs and eagerly anticipating my machine-made bed.