By Anna Prisco
Elena Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan Novels not only presents us with a beautiful coming-of-age bildungsroman, but a really compelling (and Socratic) account of how we come to value. Importantly, the way she envisions us coming to value is not the ideal apprehension of courage or piety that we see in a more traditional dialogue, in which we see Socrates trying to understand the ideal and whole form of a value. Rather, her protagonists learn the most about value out of boredom, out of idleness, and without an explicit intention to get at value. I think that this is ultimately a more faithful picture of how we begin to acquire value, not by any form of abstract apprehension, but ‘falling into them’ through boredom. I’m using the phrase ‘get at value’ to describe the process by which we come to acquire a certain value, whether it be a Socratic one like courage, or simply an appreciation of a form of art or literature.
The first book in the series. My Brilliant Friend, is set in impoverished Naples, and follows the story of Elena and Lila as they grow up. Towards the beginning of the novel, Lila and Elena meet in the cellar to play with their dolls Tina and Nu. The dolls never play together, but instead Elena imitates Lila; she tells “I overheard what Lila said to Nu and repeated it in a low voice to Tina, slightly modified. […] If Nu played hopscotch in Lila’s arms, I soon afterward made Tina do the same” (30). But when Lila throws Elena’s doll Tina to the bottom of the cellar, Elena is pressed with a fascinating problem; Ferrante writes “I was as if strangled by two agonies, one already happening, the loss of the doll, and one possible, the loss of Lila” (54).
The framing of this problem for Elena is indicative of the nature of their friendship; Elena feels a pressure to respond to Lila’s brash action, fearing that otherwise she would appear less in Lila’s eyes and begin to lose her as a friend. So she throws Nu down the cellar as well, telling Lila, “What you do, I do” (55). If we examine Elena’s motives in this situation, it’s hard to name any virtue among them. She fears Lila thinking less of her, so reciprocates her action in order to prevent this from happening. Similarly, when Lila demands that Elena retrieve her doll from Don Achille, a feared quasi-mystical character that they believe to lurk in the cellar, Elena demands “If you go and get mine”. (55) On their way up to stairs to Don Achille’s, Ferrante writes in Elena’s voice; “at every step I was on the point of turning around […] I still felt Lila’s hand grasping mine and I like to think that she decided to take it not only because she intuited that I wouldn’t have the courage to get to the top floor, but also with that gesture she herself sought the force to continue” (65).
What happens in this passage might seem at first glance like a normal instance of childhood rivalry, but I think that it’s actually a very telling picture of how we come to value. It starts with “lower” sorts of motivations, born out of the boredom of a childhood game played in a cellar. But in this process they learn a sort of courage; their image or approval focused motivations end up providing them with access to a virtue that they didn’t have before. Importantly, these processes are born out of boredom, stemming from the childlike games they play while trying to spend idle time. For them, it is a sort of transformative point in the novel; Elena learns that when Lila pushes her to do new and terrifying things, there are rewards for both of them in the end.
This process happens over and over throughout the Neapolitan Novels, only ending in old age in the last novel when Lila mails the lost doll back to Elena, solidifying the end of their friendship. And the process, the sort of which we are bound to recognize playing out in our own lives, is not without its philosophical backing. Socrates’ arguments in both the Phaedrus and the Diotima support this account; it is our non-rational soul that pushes us towards value. To gloss Socrates’ rather puzzling account in the Phaedrus, the human soul is made up of the rational soul (the charioteer), and its non-rational components (the horses pulling the chariot). While our rational soul might have a sort of intuitive grasp of value, it is unable to contemplate value in its whole rationally. It is the non-rational part of our soul that can see beauty in its perceptible form, and drives us closer to it. In Socrates’ account, the bad horse is the one that initially takes a step towards value, it is him that, “giving all manner of trouble to his companion and the charioteer, whom he forces to approach the beloved and to remember the joys of love” (254A). Intuitively, I think that this leaves us with a really faithful picture of how we come to value. Diotima leaves us with this rejoinder;
“If someone got to see the Beautiful itself, absolute, pure, unmixed, unpolluted by human flesh, or colors or any other great nonsense of mortality, but if he got to see the divine Beauty itself in one form? Do you think it would be a poor life for a human being to look there and to behold it by that which he aught, and to be with it?”
I think it is central to our ability to get at value that we don’t conceive of it in its entirety; rather we get at it through our lower instincts; through jealousy, through pride, and even through boredom.