“Men of Athens, let us investigate this question!” Vladimir Korlenko’s “The Shades: A Phantasy”

Week 42 of the 2014 Deal Me In Challenge brought me to Vladimir Korlenko’s short story, The Shades: A Phantasy. I own it as part of the collection Best Russian Short Stories, edited by Thomas Seltzer.

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(Above: Socrates; below: Hemlock)

 

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2,413 years ago, one of the most well-known philosophers in human history met his end. Socrates of Athens had been tried for “impiety” and “corrupting the youth” of that city. Found guilty, he was sentenced to death, a sentence to be carried out by drinking hemlock. It is after this verdict is issued that Korlenko’s story takes place.

We learn that, due to the Delian festival (where no blood may be shed in Athens) taking place, Socrates’s death sentence is delayed for thirty-two days. This gives his accusers and condemn-ers time to second guess his conviction. Not enough time, though, as the sentence is carried out, despite the efforts of many on behalf of Socrates.

After Socrates’s death, one of his most devoted students, Ctesippus, is understandably distraught, and his coping mechanism is to wander aimlessly in the hills. He recalls how often Socrates had eloquently spoke out for and defended those in need while “…when Socrates himself needed a champion, no one had been found to defend him with equal strength. Ctesippus blamed himself and his friends,and for that reason he wanted to avoid everybody – even himself, if possible.”

After Ctesippus becomes lost in the now darkened wilderness (oh, he loses track of time too 🙂 ) he has a vision or perhaps an ordinary dream. In this dream he sees both Socrates and another recently deceased Athenian citizen, Elpidias. As is often the way when a Greek philosopher is involved, an educational “dialogue” ensues, pitting Socrates, a champion of truth, vs. the Olympian gods revered by the superstitious Elpidias, and even the mighty Zeus with his dreadful thunderbolts cannot win a debate with the wise philosopher. As Socrates & Elpidias walk and converse “the soul of Ctesippus, released by sleep from its mortal envelop, flew after them, greedily absorbing the tones of clear Socratic speech.” Ctesippus learns a lot (as did I!) and after his experience reports back details to Plato and other members of The Academy. Stunned to a reverent silence, the gathering of philosophers sit in awe of Ctesippus’s story.

Finally Plato breaks the silence and says, “Let us investigate this dream and its significance.”
“Let us investigate it,” reply the others.

I thought this was a perfect understated ending to the story, evoking the spirit of inquiry popularized by the classical philosophers. As a Classics Minor waaaay back in college, I do remember the name Ctesippus making multiple appearances in the stories about Socrates (as related by Plato) but I don’t recall if this specific story is reworked from one in antiquity.

I also had not heard of Korlenko (I also found it spelled Korolenko in places) before reading this story but would read him again. Would you like to read this story? It’s available online at http://www.classicreader.com/book/2151/1/

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Above: The famous 1787 painting by Jaques Louis David, “The Death of Socrates”

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Above: Hmm… Did Korlenko himself cultivate “The Socrates Look”? I’d call that a big yes…

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Above: gratuitous pop-culture tie-in – Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure included an encounter with Socrates. Ted immediately establishes “philosophic cred” with the ancient by stating, “Like sands through an hourglass, these are the days of our lives.” On that note I think I’d better stop. Until next week, readers – be excellent to each other! 🙂

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3 Comments

  1. Paula Cappa said,

    October 16, 2014 at 6:09 pm

    This one is totally new to me. Like it a lot!

    Like

    • Jay said,

      October 17, 2014 at 9:04 am

      I think you’d like the “dream sequence” part of the story. There’s a great quotation that I didn’t include about how all the Gods had abandoned the wilderness that Ctesippus found himself in, except for Pan alone, “the mysterious Pan who was hiding nearby in the chaos of nature.” (Or something like that) Awesome line. 🙂

      Like

  2. October 20, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    There is no such thing as a gratuitous Bill & Ted reference…

    Like


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