Were we a Dialogue? Diotima at Black Mountain College

Today was my first time in the Wexner Center for the Arts after the end of the exhibition Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933-1957. It was a strange experience as I’d lived with that exhibition in such an intimate way over the past few months. I taught two classes that inspired and engaged with the history and ethos of Black Mountain College and I also helped re-create the mythic Theater Piece #1. I also participated in the exhibition Blueprints for a Past Future in Hopkins Hall gallery as an experimental space for students and artists to work our their own dialogues with the legacy of the college.

I am sure I’ll return to these activities on Minus Plato someday, but for now let me share with you all the ‘script’ I wrote for a gallery talk that I delivered (with commentary) on Tuesday Nov. 1st, 2016, along with some photos documenting the event.

Are we a Dialogue?

COURSE:  in verse: Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing and Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

“For use, now.”

– Charles Olson, Black Mountain College Course Offerings, Fall 1951

Dramatis Personae (in order of appearance)

Morton Steinau (student at Black Mountain College, 1935-1943, took John Rice’s Plato I class)

Diotima (fictional(?) teacher of Socrates in Plato’s Symposium)

Socrates (student of Diotima; teacher of Plato)

John Dewey (philosopher and visitor to Black Mountain College, sitting in on Rice’s Plato I class)

Charles Olson (poet and rector of Black Mountain College, 1951-1956)

Amantha (fictional student of Socrates (or Plato?), the creation of French philosopher Alain Badiou in his ‘hypertranslation’ of Plato’s Republic)

Francine du Plessix Gray (student at Black Mountain College Summer Sessions 1951 and 1952)

Susan Howe (poet, no direct connection with Black Mountain College)

David Weinrib (resident potter at Black Mountain College, 1952)

Morton Steinau:

The classes that [John] Rice ran – the Plato classes – had nothing to do with Plato, and nothing to do with Greek. They were classes in semantics and in running down the meaning of a word: ‘What does it really mean? And don’t bother to use the dictionary. Let’s talk about it.’ A given word – ‘love’ – might be discussed for many weeks on end to see what it meant in people’s lives.


This is what it is to go directly, or be led by another, into the mystery of Love: one goes always upwards for the sake of this Beauty, starting out from beautiful things and using them like rising stairs: from one body to two and from two to all beautiful bodies, then from beautiful bodies to beautiful customs, and from customs to learning beautiful things, and from these lessons he arrives in the end at this lesson, which is learning of this very Beauty, so that in the end he comes to know just what it is to be beautiful.


This, Phaedrus and the rest of you, was what Diotima told me. I was persuaded. And once persuaded, I try to persuade others too that human nature can find no better workmate for acquiring this than Love. That’s why I say that every man must honor Love, why I honor the rites of Love myself and practice them with special diligence, and why I commend them to others. Now and always I praise the power and courage of Love so far as I am able. Consider this speech, then, Phaedrus, if you wish, a speech in praise of Love. Or if not, call it whatever and however you please to call it.

John Dewey:

Nothing could be more helpful to present philosophizing than a ‘Back to Plato’ movement; but it would have to be back to the dramatic, restless, co-operatively inquiring Plato of the Dialogues, trying one mode of attack after another to see what it might yield; back to the Plato whose highest flight of metaphysics always terminated with a social and practical turn, and not to the artificial Plato constructed by unimaginative commentators who treat him as the original university professor.

Charles Olson:

One of the great things was the wars of Black Mountain, which was the wars over living…There always was those wars, that’s normal. Again, it’s one of the reasons why I believe in her. She was as healthy as the University of Paris or Bologna, or presumably, like in fact, we know the condition of Athens under Socrates, which led to his death. I mean, he was tried and found guilty by a city, familiar kind of prosecution, but a nuisance in the agora, as bother in the marketplace. I mean, John Rice was a bother in the marketplace. And I hope Black Mountain was and is only memorable as a bother in this whole nation! Because she was actually doing much more living at the greatest least cost that was ever proposed.’


You know that ‘poetry’ has a very wide range. After all, everything that is responsible for creating something out of nothing is a kind of poetry; and so all the creations of every craft and profession are themselves a kind of poetry, and everyone who practices a craft is a poet.




Nevertheless, as you also know, these craftsmen are not called poets. We have other words for them, and out of the whole of poetry we have marked off one part, the part the Muses give us with melody and rhythm, and we refer to this by the word that means the whole. For this alone is called ‘poetry,’ and those who practice this part of poetry are called poets.




That’s also how it is with love.


Dear teacher, may I make an inappropriate remark?


Isn’t that the role you often play, you indomitable young woman?


It’s just that you haven’t convinced me, either about poetry or the theater. Your target – an art that’s assumed to be the mere reproduction of external objects and primitive emotions – is very narrow, whereas you act as if it represented practically the whole field. Neither Pindar, nor Mallarmé, nor Aeschylus, nor Schiller, nor Sappho, nor Emily Dickinson, nor Sophocles, nor Pirandello, nor Aesop, nor Frederico García Lorca fit into your scheme.

Charles Olson:

One of the parts of Plato’s criticism in the Republic is that he’s frightened of the dogma of the poet. John Rice in some funny way wasn’t.

Francine du Plessix Gray:

Several aspects of my brief past made me somewhat suited to Black Mountain: I’d been a pacifist lefty and World Federalist since my early teens, I was a tomboy who had always identified, in art as in life, with male heroes. Once in college, I’d concentrated so heavily on my philosophical abstractions that I’d never taken a literature course beyond freshman English, thinking I was a smartass enough to read it all by myself; and Olson thought that was particularly fine. “Girl,” he’d say pressing his five fingers hard into my scalp until it hurt, “if you get the high-falootin’ Yurrup and poh-lee-tess and stuck-up schools out of that noggin and start playing Gringo ball you’ll be ok.” That was a lot to get rid of in two months.

Susan Howe:

The epigraph to the Study of Melville is a precarious brilliance. It announces that the grammar and vocabulary of literary history cannot be accepted as given. Time and again I have wondered over these five lines and have been inspired by their oddity to take chances in my writing.

O fahter, fahter

gone among

O eeys that loke

Loke, fahter:

Your sone!

I am a daughter not a son…Are we a Dialogue? Can daughters ever truly respond to factors that come into play in such a patronymic discourse?

Francine du Plessix Gray:

Once more he raged at me during a tutorial, shouting: “Your still writing conservative junk! If you want to be a writer keep it to a journal…” The giant walrus rising from his chair, six feet seven of him towering. “AND ABOVE ALL DON’T TRY TO PUBLISH ANYTHING FOR TEN YEARS!” More censorship into silence, this time, perhaps, for the best. I remained, as ever, an obedient daughter. I again followed Big Charles’ advice.

Susan Howe:

I get tired of hearing that Charles Olson was six foot seven and towered over everyone; Bigmans I and II, the heft of his books in advance. This constant reminder of brute force crosses and confuses his influence.


Francine du Plessix Gray:

I do not adulate Olson or Black Mountain the way most of its members have, feeling ambivalent about the sham and the magnificence of the man, the dangers and the vision of the place. But I thank him every week of my life for his prophetic emphasis on the valor of subjectivity and candor, of disobedience against form and state; and also for that fatherly rigor which eventually enabled me to write at all.

Susan Howe:

I am a poet. I know that Charles Olson’s writing encouraged me to be a radical poet. When I was writing my first poems I recall he showed me what to do. Had he been my teacher in real life, I know he would have stopped my voice. Francine du Plessix Gray [on the other hand]…thanks him for the fatherly rigor which eventually enabled her to write at all.

Francine du Plessix Gray:

At eight thirty tonight John Cage mounted a stepladder and until 10:30 he talked about the relation of music to Zen Buddhism while a movie was shown, dogs ran across the stage barking, 12 persons danced without any previous rehearsal, a prepared piano was played, whistles blew, babies screamed, Edith Piaf records were played double-speed on a turn-of-the-century machine…

This journal not of mine, recording what is said to be America’s first “Happening,” is dated August 1952, Black Mountain College, N. C. I have long felt a need to pay tribute to this visionary community of men and women, and particularly to Charles Olson, the poet who might well be responsible for my becoming a writer.

David Weinrib:

Olson had done this very nice thing where he had written a poem which was in parts, [and] it was given in parts to a section of the audience…[it] had to do with fragments of conversation…all of a sudden somebody would get up from the audience and just say this little bit. And then sit down. And then somebody else in the audience would stand up and say their bit.

Charles Olson (adapted):

What happens between things – what happens between people – what happens between teachers and students – what happens among each as a result of each: for I do not think one can overstate – at this point in time, America, 2016 – the importance of workers in different fields of the arts and of knowledge working so closely together some of the time of the year that they find out, from each other, the ideas, forms, energies, and the whole series of kinetics and emotions now opening up, out of the quantitative world.


Helen Molesworth, Ruth Erickson and others, Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957.

Black Mountain College: Sprouted Seeds – An Anthology of Personal Accounts, edited by Mervin Lane (1990).

Charles Olson Mythologos: Lectures and Interviews, edited by Ralph Maud; rev. 2nd edition (2010).

Alain Badiou Plato’s Republic: A Dialogue in 16 Chapters, translated by Susan Spitzer (2012).

Susan Howe ‘Since a Dialogue We Are’ Acts 10 (1989) 166-173.

Plato: Complete Works, edited by John Cooper (1997).

John Dewey ‘From Absolutism to Experimentalism’ in Contemporary American Philosophy: Personal Statements (edited by George Plimpton Adams and William Pepperell Montague (1930) 13-27.

Martin Duberman Black Mountain College: An Exploration in Community (1972).

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