May 2, 2012
The Philosophy of Malone’s Immortality and the Realm of Ideals in Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance
Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance touches on theories and themes of both Plato and William Butler Yeats. According to Plato’s The Symposium, the sole purpose of life is to find pure love with your other “half” by learning how to look past the beauty of the body and appreciate the lithe form of youth. It is this theory that Yeats ponders in his poem “Among School Children” from which the title of the novel is derived. The quest for beauty, love, and youth featured in Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance is thought to be harmful and demoralizing by most readers and critics. However, the search for these virtues in life is absolutely crucial according to Plato. The search for beauty, love, and youth is what makes life worthwhile and virtuous. If the reader fails to acknowledge the importance of such a quest, the crucial philosophy Malone represents will go unnoticed. Malone truly embodies the virtues that Plato defines in The Symposium and Holleran creates his character to show that the quest is not pointless; he then uses W.B. Yeats’ metaphor for true love in the form of a dancer’s body to blend the fear of growing old with Plato’s emphasis on virtue.
Holleran re-creates the tedious hunt for beauty, love, and youth in Plato’s The Symposium. According to Plato, the origin of man is as follows:
…Each human being was a rounded whole, with double back and flanks forming a complete circle’ it had four hands and an equal number of legs, and two identically similar faces upon a circular neck, with one head common to both the faces, which were turned in opposite directions…Zeus and the other gods debated what was to be done with them…after much painful thought, Zeus had an idea…“I will cut each of them in two…Man’s original body having been thus cut in two, each half yearned for the half from which it had been severed.” (59-61)
This solves the so-called mystery of human sexual attraction and sexuality because it leaves men longing for men and women longing for women. Furthermore, Plato goes on to discuss gay sexuality by saying:
…Those who are halves of a male whole pursue males, and being slices, so to speak, of the male, love men throughout their boyhood, and take pleasure in physical contact with men. (62)
Because the men who are halves of the male whole pursue males, the search for his counterpart is inevitable for the young gay male. It is this very search and theory of sexuality that is pondered by Yeats in the poem “Among School Children”. The difficulty of the search takes a toll on the speaker. The search has taken the place of religion since piety has failed him. We see the failure of religion in the following lines:
Both nuns and mothers worship images,
[…] And yet they too break hearts- O Presences
That passion, piety, or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise –
O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;
Since religion results in heartbreak, the man sets forth in search of a more wholesome love from another man. This places the search for love up to the divine standards that Plato intends it to be. Holleran uses the uncertainty of Yeats and the theory of Plato to shape Malone’s character. The precise embodiment of both Yeats and Plato in Dancer from the Dance is when the narrator confesses that “Love is a career with its own stages, rewards, and failures…A vocation as concrete as a calling in the Church, worth giving a lifetime to” (131). The recognition that love is as “concrete” as the church reveals Holleran’s intention of drawing from Plato’s pious theory on love. Holleran not only draws from Plato’s theory for the plot of his novel, but also defines the themes of love, youth, and beauty in the same way that Plato does.
Holleran creates the character of Malone to completely embody Plato’s theory of love and the process one must undergo to achieve the purest form of love. As Lance Gharavi explains, [Plato] invokes the concept of a “ladder of love”. It begins with a man falling in love with the “beautiful body of a particular male youth”. Then, they ascend upwards and arrive at the “contemplation and apprehension of the undying, unchanging essence of beauty itself – beauty as it exists in the realm of ideas”. The reader follows Malone through his tedious and wild search for the love of the soul, and even the narrator himself believes that Malone’s quest is a failed one: “As a child Malone had consecrated his life to Christ; as an adult, to some adventurous ideal of homosexual love—well, both had left him flat” (221). However, the reader must apply Plato’s theory to Malone’s character and particularly to Malone’s relationship to Sutherland. Sutherland expresses his belief that love is “not like Plato…It’s so hopelessly ordinary—I don’t even think people have souls anymore. And not having souls, they cannot be expected to have love affairs” (108). However, the proof that he and Malone have achieved the purest love is in the plot that Holleran has created because it is exactly parallel to Plato’s theory. In The Symposium, when depicting the ideal form of love when separated halves find each other Plato says:
Is the subject of your desire to be always together as much as possible, and never to be separated from one another day or night? If that is what you want…you shall be one flesh; as long as you live you shall live a common life, and when you die, you shall suffer a common death, and still be one, not two, even in the next world. (63-4)
Given the closeness of the characters of Malone and Sutherland and their “common death”, it is clear that Holleran uses the two men as the prime example of ideal love. Because Malone and Sutherland love each other on a deeper level than physically, we are to believe that they have surpassed the obsession of the body and delved in to one anothers’ soul. Furthermore, Holleran’s exquisite focus on beauty throughout Dancer from the Dance also is drawn from Plato’s theory.
The theme of beauty positively drenches the novel as a whole, and it serves as the first step of the quest for love with all gay men. Physical beauty is the primary substance to all love in the novel. However, as Plato states:
The bad man is the common or vulgar lover, who is in love with the body rather than the soul; he is not constant because what he loves is not constant; as soon as the flower of physical beauty, which is what he loves, begins to fade, he is gone “even as a dream” and all his professions and promises are as nothing. (50)
We see this exact point embodied by Malone. Early on, he loves and cherishes the beauty of Frankie. Very quickly, he is in love with all attractive men he sees and he sleeps with them all. Then, when the physical beauty begins to fade, he begins seeing the same attraction in every single man and realizes that to reach true love one has to delve beyond the surface. The narrator observes this process of Malone and realizes he had
Ceased…to have any identity at all. He was simply a smile now, a set of perfect manners, a wistful promise…and he had been, all those years, just as lost as we were, living on faces, music, the hope of love, and getting farther and farther away from any chance of it. (219)
The narrator observes the transformation in Malone but he does not grasp the importance of it. This anxiety and fear of being “lost” is drawn from Yeats’ aforementioned poem “Among School Children”. Malone, however, has finally reached the point where he can look beyond faces because he has found pure love. He has found this ideal love with Sutherland because once Malone starts looking past physical beauty, his deep friendship with Sutherland blossoms even more and this is a re-creation of another of Plato’s virtues:
The next stage is for him to reckon beauty of the soul more valuable than beauty of body; the result will be that, when he encounters a virtuous soul in a body which has little of the bloom of the beauty, he will be content to love and cherish it. (91-2)
The love between Malone and Sutherland is incredibly strong because they have never slept together and therefore have not solely fallen in love with each other’s body. Sutherland sees in to Malone’s soul and vice versa. Malone’s success with ideal love is pointed out by the narrator but even he cannot see the significance of it in the following passage:
It had come full circle. It was the final proof, the final piece of data that confirmed Malone’s view of the whole world: watching Frankie dance without his shirt, adored by all the people near him, conscious of his beauty…Malone stood with Sutherland on the balcony marveling over the number of them. (225)
Malone and Sutherland finally can look at Malone’s first love and see that his physical beauty escalated their understanding of each other. To Malone, Frankie was that initial physical love—the first rung of the ladder. Now, he and Sutherland truly love each other in spite of beauty. This profound concept of beauty and love goes beyond the comprehension of the narrator and even the other characters in the novel, which proves how difficult the process of love and beauty truly is. This lack of understanding by the narrator is reflected in Yeats’ “Among School Children”, and Holleran does this purposely. Along with love and beauty, the theme of youth also encompasses the novel in its entirety.
Holleran uses the characters’ fear of aging to emphasize the importance of virtue and the search for love. At first, Malone fears growing old because he feels as though his life will be considered wasted and fruitless. However, his life takes on a highly virtuous form and this is why he is continues to live on. Since Holleran creates Malone as a perfect representation of the process of love mentioned by Plato, Malone has “brought forth and nurtured true goodness [and] he will have the privilege of being beloved of God, and [becomes]…immortal himself” (95). We see Malone’s immortality depicted by the two characters who exchange letters at the end of the novel. Their concern with Malone’s whereabouts show just how alive he still is. Because Malone becomes “immortal”, he will be seen as the representation of beauty, youth, and love for generations to come. Finally, the correspondents in the letters reach a final agreement:
We don’t have to do anything with our lives. As long as you are alive, there’s an end to it…Mourn no longer for Malone. He knew very well how gorgeous life is—that was the light in him that you, and I, and all the queens fell in love with. Go out dancing tonight, my dear, and go home with someone, and if the love doesn’t last beyond the morning, then know I love you. (250)
Finally, the two characters in the letters at the end of the novel understand that Malone will live on eternally and they just have to keep dancing in search of love.
Holleran and the narrator’s questioning of the purpose of life and the search for love, beauty, and youth is precisely reflected in W.B. Yeats’ “Among School Children” because Yeats himself ponders and questions the virtuous search and what it means to grow old. Like many of his other poems, Yeats ends “Among School Children” with a question that reflects his obsession with youth and finding love and purpose in life (Bornstein). The speaker of the poem wonders if the quest grows pointless in old age and believes that even the greatest minds (including Plato) fall under ridicule when their youth fades. He compares Plato and other philosophers to old scarecrows in the following lines: “Plato thought nature but a spume that plays/ Upon a ghostly paradigm of things…Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird”. Later in the poem, the speaker professes: “Labour is blossoming or dancing where/ The body is not bruised to pleasure soul”. Here, the speaker places the art of dancing on a virtuous pedestal and in doing so Yeats draws from a very significant passage of Plato’s The Symposium:
Love then is young, and besides being young he is sensitive to hardships…he has a supple form. How, if he were stiff and unbending, could he wrap himself round everything, and be so stealthy in his first entrance into and in his departure from every soul? His very gracefulness, a quality in which he is universally admitted to be unsurpassed – for awkward-ness is absolutely incompatible with Love – is evidence that he possesses a well-proportioned and supple shape. (68-9)
Plato uses the supple, pliable body of a youthful man to represent love. The dancer’s body, then, is a metaphor for love itself. A lithe, physically strong body possesses both beauty and youth; therefore it is the deepest form of love. Yeats’ question at the end of the poem becomes the title of the novel because it addresses the question: will we ever know true love? To know the “dancer from the dance” is to know the deepest form of love in life. It is this very inquisition that haunts every character in Dancer from the Dance. Malone, however, is the one who really finds the deepest form of love. We can see this through his development as a character with his relationships, but we can actually see the metaphor presented by Yeats in Malone’s character. At first, he cannot dance well and his body does not move rhythmically. As the novel progresses and Malone’s understanding deepens, he becomes in sync with the dance and love. At first, “He was a terrible dancer, stiff and unhappy” (110) but then he eventually fell to the sweet ritual of dancing. The narrator describes dance by saying:
How serious it was, how dark, how deep—how aching, how desperate. We lived on certain chords in a song, and the proximity of another individual dancing beside you, taking communion from the same hand, soaked with sweat, stroked by the same tambourines. (112)
As Malone fell deeper and deeper in to dancing and the search for love, he “eventually became a very good dancer” (116). Malone’s search for love and his knowledge of the dance were both escalating. The metaphor of dancing and love is what places the greatest emphasis on the virtue of youth in the novel.
Andrew Holleran creates the character of Malone to show the progression of the process of ideal love. He draws on Plato’s philosophy in The Symposium for his character and expresses W.B. Yeats’ concern with the voice of the narrator. By creating the character of Malone, he creates the “ideal” form of love. This idea of pure love is found in the relationship between Sutherland and Malone; they have never slept together and are therefore in love with each other’s soul. Malone is now “immortal” and exists in all men because he is the purest form of love, beauty, and youth. To know the “dancer from the dance”, an individual knows what it is to truly love the soul of another human being.
Bornstein, George. “W. B. Yeats’s Poetry of Aging.” Sewanee Review 120.1 (2012): 46-61. Project MUSE. Web. 18 Apr. 2012. http://muse.jhu.edu/.
Gharavi, Lance. “Everything is Corrected: Corruption, Terror, Intelligentsia, and the State in Edvard Radzinsky’s Conversations with Socrates.” Modern Drama 52.2 (2009): 168-191. Project MUSE. Web. 18 Apr. 2012. http://muse.jhu.edu/.
Plato. The Symposium. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd, 1951. Book.