Could you talk about the American notion that artists, writers, need to suffer before producing good work?
Sure, we have a cult of experience here, definitely. But we hardly originated it. The artist as lunatic and outlaw has been with us lo these many years. Think of Chatterton, Savage, Byron, John Clare. But it’s not just a romantic notion. Historically, artists have been poor, they’ve lived on the margins of society, prey to the brutalities of the system, and they’ve become injured and angry, and undeceived by official pieties, and they naturally lob bombs over the fence. So there is an ancient disaffection between artists and the institutions they see as their antagonists, the status quo. There’s an offended sense of dignity at work in them, and also a tremendous temptation to self-pity and self-indulgence. And the American version of artist outlaw is very, very heavy on the self-indulgence. The self-pity of being a writer or an artist has been a sovereign excuse for all kinds of baloney. You know, All the sufferings I endure and the terrible things I do to my wife and children are because I’m an artist in this philistine America.
Do you have any wisdom to impart about the craft of writing?
I am the kind of writer who rewrites and rewrites. I am very eager to correct everything. If you look at one of my manuscripts, you can see I make many changes. So one of my main literary methods is “repetition with difference.” I begin a new work by first attempting a new approach toward a work that I’ve already written—I try to fight the same opponent one more time. Then I take the resulting draft and continue to elaborate upon it, and as I do so the traces of the old work disappear. I consider my literary work to be a totality of differences within repetition.
I used to say that this elaboration was the most important thing for a novelist to learn. Edward Said wrote a very good book called Musical Elaborations, in which he considered the meaning of elaboration in the music of great composers like Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Through elaboration these composers created new perspectives.
Happy 75th birthday to Thomas Pynchon. The Penguin Press team heartily supports the Pynchon in Public initiative, which asks nothing more than for us to read V., Gravity’s Rainbow, Against the Day, Inherent Vice, Slow Learner, Vineland, or The Crying of Lot 49 in public.
“What Have We Who Are Slaves and Black To Do with Art?”
(This weekend marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Ralph Ellison’s groundbreaking masterpiece, Invisible Man. Below is an essay on Ellison that I wrote for n+1 in 2008.)
THOMAS CHATTERTON WILLIAMS
Some time ago I came across a skinny little book bearing the title With Borges. It is the recollection of a brief stint in a young man’s life spent reading to the Argentine giant of letters, Jorge Luis Borges. Much in the book was familiar—Borges lived with his mother into his sixties, he devoured books with a fiendish voracity, his blindness in old age necessitated that others read aloud to him—but one tiny passage, an aside, was new and striking to me: in it, the memoirist notes that though the great cosmopolitan boasted a taste for everything under the sun, from ancient Nordic folk verse to kabbalistic number games to cheap Westerns and detective stories, Borges nonetheless remarked that there was absolutely nothing he could find of universal importance in American Negro culture. It was simply too provincial. And because, as he saw it, Negroes had failed to produce a “universal culture”—like that of the ancient Greeks, the English, the Arabs, the Chinese, the Jews—because they could offer nothing of equal worth to the rest of the world, they were therefore in a sense inferior. This was Borges’s view and it is something that I have come to think about often.
In Arnold Rampersad’s recent biography of Ralph Ellison, one thing above all else stood out for me there, too: Ellison dedicated his life to debunking exactly such a view as Borges’s. And it is this, I think, not simply the solitary literary feat of Invisible Man or the subsequent failure to produce a second act or the charges of elitism and snobbery that have long dogged his name, which should be his ultimate legacy.
With Ellison, the work cannot be separated from the life of the man, both point toward a common end: a consistent refutation of a very real and problematic black provincialism, as well as a dead serious rebuke against the naked bigotry that lies just beneath Borges’s (and others’) criticism. Ellison’s life—up from soul-crushing Jim Crow-era poverty in Oklahoma and Alabama to the pinnacle of artistic acclaim in New York City—is tangible proof that African-Americans, with our unique history, with our folk traditions and communal wisdom, our flaws and our suffering, our pride and our ambition, far from inhabiting a space somehow outside the realm of the universal, far from being merely “the lady among the races” (the language of the day), possess a perspective every bit as human and universally applicable as that of the French or the Argentine, the Russian or the Indian. “I am more than ever convinced,” a young Ellison wrote privately, “that as a people our horizon is narrow less because we are intellectually inferior, than because we need to protect ourselves from the chaos and indignities of our condition.” The widening of black horizons along with the concomitant compelling of white recognition for black art was Ellison’s beautiful contribution to the world—the linking, irrefutably, of the Negro experience, through art and example, to the universal—and it was not a small one.
Yet as I read about his life I could not help but think that the work he began has not continued, it has languished; that one of the baleful, unexpected effects of the civil rights movement, and of the ’60s in general, on black culture was precisely to distance us from any commitment to producing work in the highest realms of the human spirit and intellect. Ellison took a controversial intellectual position, in the culture wars of the ’60s and after, by which he lived his life. His side lost.
Since emancipation, a fundamental divide has existed in the black intellectual discourse—a Negro dialectic. On one side there looms the figure of Booker T. Washington with his secular gospel of “Black Calvinism.” “Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands,” he said in his historic 1895 address at the Cotton States and International Exhibition. “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.” Lest anyone be confused as to the Negro’s relationship to culture, Washington makes his point unambiguously clear: “the opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.” Cultural matters such as literature, art, and philosophy are peripheral. Or, in the words of the old Harlem newspaper the New York Age: “When Race Gets Bankbook, its Troubles Will Cease.”
For anyone who pays attention to the contemporary black scene, it is obvious that this is the prevailing ethos of our day. From Harlem, where hustlers pitch coke, all the way down to the Financial District, where Ivy-educated “buppies” and “baps” secure six-figure bonuses, this school of thought is embedded in black consciousness and exacerbated by the wider American consumerist culture. And this entrenched emphasis on the strictly material as the sole means of advancement for blacks in an historically anti-black society has produced many things, among them a sizable home-owning middle-class, a miniscule aristocracy of entertainment moguls like Sean Combs and Robert L. Johnson, a breed of archetypal street legends like Nicky Barnes and Frank Lucas, and virtually nothing in the way of a universal culture as Borges would conceive it.
On the other end of the debate, there has always been a competing, if minority, thesis in W. E. B. Du Bois’s Hegelian notion of bildung, or self-cultivation through cultural education and humanistic learning. In his 1926 NAACP speech on the “Criteria of Negro Art,” Du Bois said:
I do not doubt that there are some in this audience who are a little disturbed at the subject of this meeting, and particularly the subject I have chosen. Such people are thinking something like this: “How is it that an organization like this, a group of radicals, trying to bring new things into the world, a fighting organization … how is it that an organization of this kind can turn aside to talk about Art? After all, what have we who are slaves and black to do with Art?”
Many blacks, both in Ellison’s day and today, have wondered the same thing. In 1967, a Newsday reporter accompanied Ellison on a visit to the University of Michigan: “This past week I have heard angry young Negroes here call Ellison ‘an uncle Tom’ and ‘a house nigger’ and, in rare moments of comparative civility, ‘a man 10 years behind the times.’” While the cities and campuses were exploding, Ellison hewed to a line of absolute artistic independence and even political aloofness. He paid a steep price for this. At a party at Grinnell College, after Ellison participated alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in a panel discussion on “Urban Culture and the Negro,” a leather-clad black militant from Chicago cornered him and got into a “vehement argument with him about Invisible Man.” Rampersad relates the scene: “‘You’re an Uncle Tom, man,’” the militant shouted. “‘You’re a sell-out. You’re a disgrace to your race.’ Conversations stopped in mid-sentence …” “‘I resent being called an Uncle Tom,’ Ralph responded, visibly controlling his emotions. ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about… . What do you know about my life? It’s easy for you. You’re just a straw in the wind. Get on your motorcycle and go back to Chicago and throw some Molotov cocktails. That’s all you’ll ever know about.’ A black student leader … broke up the confrontation,” but Ellison broke down in tears—”‘I’m not a Tom, I’m not a Tom,’ he sobbed.”
Being ostracized pained Ellison, yet he was determined not to let go of his larger vision. “He would not resign his vocation as an artist, and he would not give in to what he saw as the lunacy of the age,” writes Rampersad. When white critics, most notably Irving Howe, publicly questioned his integrity as a black writer who eschewed the call of “protest literature,” he was resolute: “Need my skin blind me to all other values?” he wrote in “The World and the Jug.” “The writer’s real way of sharing the experience of his group is to convert its mutual suffering into lasting value.”
Ellison won that battle: “Probably for the first time in modern American history,” writes Rampersad, “a black intellectual had fought a public duel against a white intellectual and won.” (According to the writer Paul Berman, later in life Howe would concede that, given the realities of the political situation in the 1960s, Ellison was right.) But in the long years ahead, he lost the war. Whereas his closest peer in talent, James Baldwin, who in his landmark essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” entered the black intellectual scene from an ideological space very similar to Ellison’s, would become ever more involved in activist politics over the years, Ellison only dug his heels in deeper. In doing so, he cut himself off, not only from the black body politic, but also from other black artists of his day, especially the younger ones. He became arrogant, prickly, and snobbish. Rampersad, who evinces a personal dislike for Ellison the man even as he produces a sweeping and ultimately sympathetic account of his career, lists all the petty and not-so-petty ways in which Ellison slighted his fellow black artists as they came to him for guidance. There were many such instances.
Partly as a result of Ellison’s extreme lack of charity, such writers as Leroi Jones and Toni Morrison, as well as many lesser names, would turn from fierce admirers of Invisible Man to outspoken critics of its author. A young Nikki Giovanni “spoke for many of her peers in dismissing Ralph,” writes Rampersad. “‘I never wanted to be Ralph Ellison,’ she insisted ,‘… as a writer Ellison is so much hot air…’” Mostly, though, it was his politics that repelled other black writers. As Black Power, Black Nationalism, and Afro-centrism swept over black America, Ellison became an island in the storm. The reduction of the novel to the question of whether or not one may be served at this or that café, for Ellison, would always seem “obscene.” Though time, from an artistic vantage, has in a sense taken Ellison’s side—what black novel has stood up to Invisible Man?—the political debate and all the ill will it generated took its toll on Ellison.
Invisible Man is a great and thoroughly black book full of slang and folk knowledge—it turns the particular quirks of southern black culture into universal art, creating the very thing that Borges in his casually racist remark claimed could not be done. Yet Ellison was doomed to be only partly successful in deflecting the deeper implications of Borges’s charge, if that charge is interpreted to mean not that black America is incapable of producing, here and there, individual geniuses who create universally resonant work, but rather that the culture, when taken on the whole, operates primarily on the level of the provincial. Because the terrible truth is that black America has never—not even during the Harlem Renaissance—produced a whole class of mature cultural elites working and consuming at the very highest standards. In the figure of Ellison we can see, on the individual level, the tremendous odds against breaking through the local. Unlike his friend and peer Saul Bellow, who wrote prolifically, using his Jewishness as a launch pad from which to set out into the world beyond and in the process make the Jew a mainstream figure, Ellison was practically excommunicated from the black community. Charles Johnson, a National Book Award-winning black novelist whom Ellison once overlooked for a MacArthur grant, furnishes Rampersad with an especially poignant anecdote that hints at the extent to which Ellison was uprooted: “Johnson, then a student at Southern Illinois University, remembered asking a librarian in the new black studies program for a copy of Invisible Man. ‘We don’t carry it,’ she told him. ‘Really? Why not?’ ‘Because Ralph Ellison is not a black writer.’”
But let’s forget literature and readers for a moment: Even jazz music, the most widely respected and acknowledged black contribution to world culture and one of the great modernisms of the 20th century, was not primarily consumed or supported by other blacks. The poet and critic Lorenzo Thomas has noted that black artists and jazz musicians were measurably isolated from the wider African-American community and therefore subject to overwhelming outside influence from white critics: “Neither black audiences nor the musicians themselves seemed to be able to control the aesthetic or commercial direction of [jazz].” Harold Cruse described this problem most powerfully in his classic 1967 book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual:
The Negro intellectual has never really been held accountable to the black world for his social role [because] the black world cannot and does not support the Negro creative intellectual. The black bourgeoisie does not publish books, does not own and operate theaters or music halls. It plays no role to speak of in Negro music, and is remote from the living realities of the jazz musician who plays his nights in the effete and soulless commercial jungles of American white middle-class café culture.
In order for jazz to properly connect the black experience to the universally human one, it would first have to be autonomously black. Without the adequate black cultural institutions and reciprocal engagement with the form, this proved impossible.
It was Ellison’s explicit hope to single-handedly change the image of his community, his readers, in outsiders’ eyes, to write the American Negro into history once and for all, as Joyce had done for the Irish. “He looked beyond himself to make Invisible [the unnamed protagonist of the novel] an Everyman in whose face the world might see its own,” writes Rampersad. Or in Borgesian terms, he sought to render Harlem an aleph, through which all else might be visible. And in fact Invisible Man demonstrates that Harlem, like Dublin or Buenos Aires, is also the world. What Ellison could not do was change his community of readers. Harlem has not kept up its end of the bargain.
We live today in the era of hip-hop, when all about both politics and serious culture has fallen by the wayside, where the dominant ethos amounts to little more than the Booker T. Washington school of thought stripped of context and carried away to the point of absurdity. It is an era that can be summed up in Kanye West’s play on Malcolm X: “Buy any jeans necessary.” Kanye is being witty, of course, and the line is at least partly ironic. But mostly it is merely self-aware, criticizing black materialism even as it parades its garish embrace of it. It does not begin to transcend the problems of materialism. To be sure, this is by no means a uniquely black phenomenon. From Benjamin Franklin to Paris Hilton, white America has genuflected most ardently and most often at the altar of materialism. And with the institution of slavery whites hit rock bottom, reducing man himself to mere commodity. The problem for black America, then, is not one of kind but one of proportion: whereas white America has produced its William Faulkners, Frank Lloyd Wrights, Ralph Waldo Emersons, Harvard Universities, Edmund Wilsons, New Yorkers, etc., to serve as hefty counterbalances to the Lindsay Lohans, Donald Trumps, and John D. Rockefellers it creates—i.e., there is a small but healthy highbrow tradition set in place—black America is all too skewed in the direction of P Diddy and the vulgar, without the benefit of adequate opposing forces. Anyone willing to spend an hour in the company of Black Entertainment Television or to venture into the “Urban” section of the bookstore could argue that today black culture has lapsed into a greater provincialism than ever before. It would not be hard to argue that.
What, then, is to be done? W. E. B. Dubois, answering his own question posed above, urged blacks to pursue a universal culture by means, in the Hegelian sense, of a heightened slave consciousness:
We black folk may help [mankind] for we have within us as a race new stirrings; stirrings of the beginning of a new appreciation of joy, of a new desire to create, of a new will to be … and there has come the conviction that the youth that is here today, the Negro youth, is a different kind of youth … with a new realization of itself, with new determination for all mankind.
Ellison’s answer to the question of how to reconcile the local with the universal was to build on Du Bois’s idea of the talented tenth, to argue for “a corps of artists and intellectuals who would evaluate Negro American experience from the inside, and out of a broad knowledge of how people of other cultures live, deal with experience, and give significance to their lives.” But he also insisted that it was a mistake to dwell on the seeming unfairness of Negro life. To do so would be to live a life fueled by resentment, which is really not to live at all. Blacks are “in such haste to express our anger and our pain,” he told Harper’s in 1967, “as to allow the single tree of race to obscure our view of the magic forest of art.” The emphasis on suffering instead of on visions of life’s beauty as glimpsed through black eyes is “where assumptions of white superiority, conscious or unconscious, make for blindness and naiveté.” Only through the freedom and discipline of art, Ellison believed, could blacks unequivocally transcend their local social reality.
Things have changed since the publication of Invisible Man (though perhaps they have not changed enough). Since those early post-war years blacks have had a profound and alienating experience in the great American cities, an experience which the rest of the world has primarily learned of through rappers and entertainers. This experience has been alluded to, sometimes with skill, in the fragmentary poetry of Grandmaster Flash, Nas, Gang Starr, and so many others—but as the pools of critical ink that continue to spill over the long-deceased rapper Tupac Shakur might indicate, the field of genuine description is still very much open. Who will describe this experience in something more than mere fragments? Who will piece this complex black reality together at the highest level of art?
Among the many aspects of our cultural and racial situation brought to light by the historic presidential campaign of Barack Obama, one in particular holds real significance for today’s black artists: This is the chasm that divides the black community between an ascendant black middle- and upper-middle-class, heirs to the civil rights movement and a more egalitarian post-‘60s educational system, and the large minority of black citizens who continue to feel that for them there is no hope. A few months ago, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., writing in the New York Times, cited an “astonishing” Pew Research Center report that found that 37 percent of African-Americans felt that “‘blacks today can no longer be thought of as a single race’ because of a widening class divide.” The report also found that a vast majority of blacks believe that while poor and middle-class blacks are growing further apart in their values, most blacks feel blacks and whites are growing closer together. Class, in other words, is actively trumping race. This is simultaneously very encouraging and very depressing.
It may explain, too, why so many poor blacks have been so reluctant to embrace Senator Obama, and why, dismayingly, this past Martin Luther King Day, the Reverend Calvin Butts of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.‘s own Abyssinnian Baptist Church in Harlem endorsed Hillary Clinton as the candidate with “the vision to return [the black community] to a place of prosperity.” The black bourgeoisie and lower class have not only lost the ability to see eye to eye, they have lost the ability to trust each other, too. This development is detrimental to both art and politics: while the lower class cuts itself off from potential leaders like Obama, whose victory would be a deeply symbolic one for all blacks, the bourgeoisie, though economically remunerated and at home in mainstream America, loses touch with its rich local reserves of cultural vitality and tradition. Neither side can complete itself in this scheme. It is the task of the black artist to try to bridge this divide. But will anyone be paying attention if and when he does?
Reading Rampersad’s book, it occurred to me to ask a black childhood friend, a second-year at one of the country’s best law schools, what he thought of Invisible Man. “It’s okay, but honestly I can’t get into some shit about country Negroes in overalls,” was his only reply. My friend is very smart, with both hands wrapped around Washington’s proverbial bankbook. But then the argument was never that blacks couldn’t make fine lawyers.
Is it still possible to write philosophical novels?
At St Andrews University in the early 1970s, philosophy was still a required subject for entry into an honours course. To leave the way clear for reading modern languages, I decided that the requirement would best be dispatched in my first year. Before I knew it, I was hooked and ended up dropping one of the languages in favour of a joint degree in moral philosophy and Russian. For me it seemed the dream ticket. Russian literature was awash with existential difficulties and moral disorder, from the problem of free will in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880) to the meaning of life itself inTolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) – not to mention all the ungovernable passions, suicide, murder and suffering humanity encountered along the way. Philosophy on the other hand, with its categorical imperatives and systematic approach to concepts of right and wrong, would provide a disciplined moral analysis.
It didn’t quite work out that way. What I discovered was that while philosophy and philosophers were good at asking questions and setting out arguments, their engagement with truth was often woefully abstract, and a world away from the stuff of novels, or what we might call “fictional truth”. The two forms are, of course, very different. A philosophical theory sets out its stall in a particular way: first a, then b, in order to establish c. The analytical style rigidly separates reason from imagination, precision from imprecision.
The novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch spoke, in a 1978 interview, of “a certain cold clear recognisable voice” necessary to philosophy, one that has “a special unambiguousness and hardness about it”. She might have added that it is a voice unsuited to reflecting the actuality of people’s lives or “the close connexion of bliss and bale”, as Henry James put it in his preface to What Maisie Knew (1897).
The more novels I read at university, the more I felt that fiction was where truth was to be discovered. I seemed to experience Melville’s “shock of recognition”; which is to say re-cognition, for it was there already, waiting to be reawakened – the knowledge that some things, not least what it is that makes us human, can never be adequately expressed in conventional philosophical prose.
It is not immediately obvious why this should be. From ancient times, philosophers have addressed the question of how best to live; which is also, quintessentially, the concern of storytellers everywhere, especially those engaged in “serious fiction”. The pursuit of knowledge and truth – this too is common ground, and if only Plato had seen it that way, he might not have banned the poets from his Republic. But Plato regarded the poets – the forerunners of novelists – as troublesome and lacking in the right kind of knowledge (not pure enough). They dealt in dangerous emotions – fear, sorrow, pity – all of which weakened the character and led to moral degeneration. Philosophy and literature were set on different paths.
After reading for a degree in both subjects, however, I came to understand two things: that the puzzles and paradoxes of philosophical reflection are not best aired in the narrow, arid corridors of philosophical tracts; and that Plato was wrong to think that literature had nothing to offer philosophy. It is one thing to study John Stuart Mill’s defence of utilitarianism in ethics; quite another to read the passage in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), where Raskolnikov tests utilitarianism to its limits by taking an axe and cleaving an old lady’s head in two. Illustrations of this sort might even persuade us that moral philosophy needs the novel for the fullest possible expression of its aims.
These thoughts thrummed at the back of my mind during the writing a novel, The Missing Shade of Blue, my own particular take on turmoil. There are no axe murderers – just a philosopher, a painter and a translator – but all of them quietly desperate just the same. The title is taken from A Treatise of Human Nature by the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, who offered it as an example of how the mind in exceptional circumstances might generate an idea without first having been exposed to the relevant sensory experience. This “missing shade” seemed to hold out fictional possibilities: how would a quiet man who had been unsure of love all his life know it if he came across it? The late playwright Simon Gray described his acclaimed The Smoking Diaries (2004) as “not about great matters – just life as it happens, really,” and although my novel flirts with big Humean ideas – the illusory nature of happiness, the dangers of too much thinking, the “sham” of free will – I had in mind a small story, similarly anchored in life as it happens, really. I was, therefore, uneasy when I saw that my publishers had subtitled the novel “a philosophical adventure”. The P-word would surely put people off.
There were no such qualms for Dostoevsky, whose fiction exemplifies what we have come to know as “the philosophical novel” – typically understood as one having a concern with moral values and truth, or with topics of existential significance. It is an established genre, and along with its close cousin, the novel of ideas, occupies a unique position in the literary canon. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy describes it as “that subspecies of fiction which endeavours to present a particular philosophical viewpoint, sometimes metaphysical, sometimes ethical, sometimes aesthetic”. In 19th-century Russia the novel was often a kind of thought experiment, showing a character trying to live an abstract idea, which over the course of the narrative proves to be no match for the rigours of real life.
Today things seem less clear cut. What is the modern equivalent of the philosophical novel? How, if we happened upon one, might we recognise it? Assuming it is not enough for there to be a passing reference to Wittgenstein or Kant, or for pages to be sprinkled with words like “epistemological” and “ontological”, what does it look like?
It is telling that Murdoch is still the author that people most frequently associate with the philosophical novel, even though her books have come to seem rather remote and outmoded. “A novel must be a house,” she wrote in the Yale Review in 1959, “fit for free characters to live in.” But somehow her own characters, so often improbable creations caught up in heavy plot machinery, are not free. Like many of her novels, The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983) is concerned with good and evil, though the pupil of the title is said to be beyond both and closer than other people to “awful aspects of the world”. While this does not absolve him of his part in attempted murder, some of Murdoch’s metaphysics seems to get lost in melodrama, albeit hugely entertaining melodrama. She herself was “reluctant to say that the deep structure of any good literary work could be a philosophical one”, and she spoke of her “absolute horror of putting theories or ‘philosophical ideas’ as such into my novels”.
Milan Kundera, a novelist noted for his own philosophical vision, is similarly wary of what he calls “the novelistic illustration of ideas”, as seen in Camus’ L’Etranger (1942) or in Sartre’s La Nausée (1938). With philosophy and the novel, it seems difficult to get the balance right. But that hasn’t stopped writers trying. Kundera’s own solution, as expressed in The Art of the Novel (1988), is “not to transform the novel into philosophy”; rather to bring to the novel “a sovereign and radiant intelligence”. One can imagine his dismay when The New Yorker published the first three parts of his 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being and left out the passages on Nietzsche’s Ewige Wiederkehr [theory of eternal return] – the concept in which the novel is rooted.
One novel that for me grants Kundera’s wish for a sovereign and radiant intelligence is the recently published All is Song by Samantha Harvey, which tells of the relationship between two brothers – one of them clearly drawn as a modern-day Socrates. “I conceived All Is Song as a modernised, loosely interpreted version of Socrates’s life,” Harvey said in a recent interview. “I wanted to ask what would happen now to someone like that, someone who was relentlessly questioning? And are we, as a society, more tolerant than the ancient Greeks?”
The novel was her medium for exploring such ideas – just as it was for David Mitchell, whose Ghostwritten (“an infinity of paths through the park”, to borrow one of its graphic lines) is a novel about causality, the abdication of personal responsibility and why events unfold as they do. In a similar way the novels of the South African novelist JM Coetzee manage to shine a light on areas of moral life that philosophy, with its systematic approach, can at best merely intimate. Philosophers have long looked askance at storytelling, dismissing it as a form of powerful but illegitimate persuasion. The storyteller’s defence has been to say, “but this is how the world is”.
Writers such as these help disprove Henry James’s notion that the novel in English, unlike its French counterpart, is not “discutable”. But there remains a question of how serious novels can get without alienating readers (or reviewers), and the tipping point is unpredictable. One contemporary novelist who is eminently discutable – perhaps on account of his Francophile leanings – is Julian Barnes, whose output ranges over a variety of philosophical concepts: the meaning of love and our idea of history (A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, 1989), and truth versus fiction (England, England, 1998).
Ideas multiply in his recent Man Booker-winning novel The Sense of an Ending (2011). At one level, it reads like a psychological mystery tale; at another a philosophical meditation on the passage of time and its attendant distortion of memory. It seems to me to be that rare thing: a novel laden with ideas – the subjectivity of memory, the illusory nature of truth, the philosophical rationale for suicide – yet not weighed down by them. But, writing in The New York Times, Geoff Dyer saw it differently. “Plotwise, not a lot happens,” he yawned, before going on to savage the novel for being full of commonplaces. And not even the common sort of commonplaces, but “the kind that dress themselves up in their Sunday best to assume greater weight”.
What for one reader is a novel of ideas is for another merely a simplistic fable. Oxford professor John Carey judged Nick Hornby’s How to be Good (2001) “a very impressive novel of ideas”, while Ian Sansom in the London Review of Books went to some lengths to explain why it was “lite lit”, pure and simple.
It seems the problem for philosophical novels these days is, well, their philosophicalness. Which is a pity, for the novel and philosophy have a great deal to give one another. Indeed, one of the things the novel does best is to depict people – fictional characters but recognisably like us – dealing with morally complex situations. Novelists seek, in Wordsworth’s phrase, to “see into the life of things”. But the novel is something felt and lived, not something theoretical, and storytelling has always been the natural, essential way of making sense of the world.
In Poetics, Aristotle observed that poetry shows us “not something that has happened, but the kind of thing that might happen”. And so it should be with the modern philosophical novel. At its best it provides insights and, yes, “truth” about the human condition, as well as transporting words like “knowledge” and “belief” into a different realm, but one full of illumination.
“One thinks that one is tracing the outline of a thing’s nature,” said Wittgenstein, “and one is merely tracing round the frame through which one looks at it.” To put it another way, the philosopher encapsulates the idea of the nature of things, but the novelist runs with it. Philosophy can state the facts of our own mortality, but perhaps only the novel can explore the hammerblow moment that deprives us of everything that gives sense to our lives. The philosophical novel need not imply tract or thesis.
It was Hume, for me the greatest of all philosophers, who helped me understand this. Which is probably why he is now a benign spirit hovering over my own novel. Hume regarded truth not as some ethereal abstraction, but something to be found in empirical observation. He tried all his life to make even his most abstract ideas accessible through ordinary examples, as if conducting a friendly dialogue with the reader. His concern, like that of the novelist, is with what it means to be alive in an imperfect world, and in his own way he is also a storyteller with a huge emotional range – comedy, compassion, pathos. I like to think that the novel would not be the novel without him.
Jennie Erdal is the author of ‘The Missing Shade of Blue: A Philosophical Adventure’ (Little, Brown)
“The real inspiration was the experiments of Alain Aspect in 1982. They demonstrated the EPR paradox: that when particles interact, their destinies become linked. When you act on one, the effect spreads instantly to the other, even if they are great distances apart. That really struck me, to think that if two things are connected once, they will be forever. It marks a fundamental philosophical shift. Ever since the disappearance of religious belief, the current reigning philosophy has been materialism, which says we are alone and reduces humanity to biology. Man as calculable as billiard balls and completely perishable. That worldview is undermined by the EPR paradox. So the novel was inspired by this idea of what could be the next metaphysical mutation. It has to be less depressing than materialism. Which, let’s face it, is pretty depressing.”
- Michel Houellebecq discussing his novel, The Elementary Particles
Too Much Information
BY JOHN JEREMIAH SULLIVAN PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD BURBRIDGE
One of the few detectable lies in David Foster Wallace’s books occurs in his essay on the obscure ’90s-era American tennis prodigy Michael Joyce, included in Wallace’s first nonfiction anthology, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Apart from some pages in his fiction, it’s the best thing he wrote about tennis—better even than his justly praised but disproportionately famous piece on Roger Federer1—precisely because Joyce was a journeyman, an unknown, and so offered Wallace’s mind a white canvas. Wallace had almost nothing to work with on that assignment:2 ambiguous access to the qualifying rounds of a Canadian tournament, a handful of hours staring through chain link at a subject who was both too nice to be entertaining and not especially articulate. Faced with what for most writers would be a disastrous lack of material, Wallace looses his uncanny observational powers on the tennis complex, drawing partly on his knowledge of the game but mainly on his sheer ability to consider a situation, to revolve it in his mental fingers like a jewel whose integrity he doubts. In the mostly empty stadium he studies the players between matches. “They all have the unhappy self-enclosed look of people who spend huge amounts of time on planes and waiting around in hotel lobbies,” he writes, “the look of people who have to create an envelope of privacy around them with just their expressions.” He hears the “authoritative pang” of tour-tight racket strings and sees ball boys “reconfigure complexly.” He hits the practice courts and watches players warm up, their bodies “moving with the compact nonchalance I’ve since come to recognize in pros when they’re working out: the suggestion is one of a very powerful engine in low gear.”
The lie comes at the start of the piece, when Wallace points out a potential irony of what he’s getting ready to do, namely write about people we’ve never heard of, who are culturally marginal, yet are among the best in the world at a chosen pursuit. “You are invited to try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something,” Wallace says. “At anything. I have tried to imagine; it’s hard.”
1. This is not or not purely a tribute footnote but an actual editorially defensible appendage to this piece: I was supposed to write that Federer essay, for Play, the sports magazine published for too few years by The New York Times. Like Wallace, I played tennis in school and had continued to follow the game. It was an easy answer when Play called saying they had access to Federer at Wimbledon. GQ wouldn’t let me do it, though. Turns out I’d signed something my agent described as a “contract” that forbade me from writing for other mags. Also, in fairness to GQ, I’d been slacking for a couple of months, maybe blew an assignment or two, couldn’t really argue. At the end of the last conversation with the guy who would have been my editor, after telling him it was a no-go, I suggested he contact Wallace, which to me was like saying, “Why don’t you call the White House?” The editor was forced into an awkwardness. “Well,” he said, “actually, we called him first. He couldn’t do it.” Wallace must have had a change of heart, however. Several months later, there was his essay on my kitchen table. Reading it gave me complicated feelings. On one level it was gratifying to see that he’d made a case I had vaguely imagined making, that the greatness of Federer lay in how he evolved his elegant all-court game from inside the unforgiving speed and brutality of the power-baseline game. But Wallace had explained it all with an accuracy and effortlessness that I knew I wouldn’t have achieved or seen as possible. In this humbling there was a strange intimacy. I got to feel, for a woozy instant, exactly how Wallace’s brain would handle a subject I’d held in my own, in a vacuum, before knowing that he would take it up. Anyway, that’s my contribution to the Wallace oeuvre, his last magazine piece. I don’t begrudge the reader for feeling the world of letters benefited by the substitution. Just saying you’re welcome.
2. Wallace often preferred it that way. Recall that he got himself invited onto a David Lynch film set by assuring Lynch’s people that he had no actual desire to interview the director. Early in 2008, GQ asked him to write about Obama’s speeches or, more largely, about American political rhetoric. It was still a somewhat gassy idea as presented to him, but Wallace saw the possibilities, so we started making inquiries to the Obama campaign, and even made reservations for him to be in Denver during the convention. Our thought was to get him as close to the head speechwriters (and so as close to Obama) as possible. But Wallace said, very politely, that this wasn’t what interested him. He wanted to be with a worker bee on the speechwriting team—to find out how the language was used by, as he put it, “the ninth guy on the bench.” It also seemed like maybe a temperament thing, that he would be more comfortable reporting away from the glare.
What’s strange is that this was written in 1996—by then, Wallace had completed his genre-impacting second novel, Infinite Jest, as well as the stories, a couple already considered classic, in the collection Girl with Curious Hair. It’s hard to believe he didn’t know that he was indeed among the hundred best at a particular thing, namely imaginative prose, and that there were serious people ready to put him among an even smaller number. Perhaps we should assume that, being human, he knew it sometimes and at other times feared it wasn’t true. Either way, the false modesty—asking us to accept the idea that he’d never thought of himself as so good and had proposed the experiment naively—can’t help reading as odd. Which may itself be deliberate. Not much happens by accident in Wallace’s stuff; his profound obsessive streak precluded it. So could it be there’s something multilayered going on with sport as a metaphor for writing—even more layers than we expect? It does seem curious that Wallace chose, of all the players, one named Joyce, whose “ethnic” Irishness Wallace goes out of his way to emphasize, thereby alluding to an artist whose own fixation on technical mastery made him a kind of grotesque, dazzling but isolated from healthful, human narrative concerns. Certainly Wallace played textual games on that level.
Here’s a thing that is hard to imagine: being so inventive a writer that when you die, the language is impoverished. That’s what Wallace’s suicide did, two and a half years ago. It wasn’t just a sad thing, it was a blow.
A Sontag Sampler
Art Is Boring
Schopenhauer ranks boredom with “pain” as one of the twin evils of life. (Pain for have-nots, boredom for haves — it’s a question of affluence.)
People say “it’s boring” — as if that were a final standard of appeal, and no work of art had the right to bore us. But most of the interesting art of our time is boring.
Jasper Johns is boring. Beckett is boring, Robbe-Grillet is boring. Etc. Etc.
Maybe art has to be boring, now. (This doesn’t mean that boring art is necessarily good — obviously.) We should not expect art to entertain or divert anymore. At least, not high art. Boredom is a function of attention. We are learning new modes of attention — say, favoring the ear more than the eye — but so long as we work within the old attention-frame we find X boring … e.g. listening for sense rather than sound (being too message-oriented).
If we become bored, we should ask if we are operating in the right frame of attention. Or — maybe we are operating in one right frame, where we should be operating in two simultaneously, thus halving the load on each (as sense and sound).
I don’t care about someone being intelligent; any situation between people, when they are really human with each other, produces “intelligence.”
Why I Write
There is no one right way to experience what I’ve written.
I write — and talk — in order to find out what I think.
But that doesn’t mean “I” “really” “think” that. It only means that is my-thought-when-writing (or when- talking). If I’d written another day, or in another conversation, “I” might have “thought” differently.
This is what I meant when I said Thursday evening to that offensive twerp who came up after that panel at MoMA to complain about my attack on [the American playwright Edward] Albee: “I don’t claim my opinions are right,” or “just because I have opinions doesn’t mean I’m right.”
Love and Disease
Being in love (l’amour fou) a pathological variant of loving. Being in love = addiction, obsession, exclusion of others, insatiable demand for presence, paralysis of other interests and activities. A disease of love, a fever (therefore exalting). One “falls” in love. But this is one disease which, if one must have it, is better to have often rather than infrequently. It’s less mad to fall in love often (less inaccurate for there are many wonderful people in the world) than only two or three times in one’s life. Or maybe it’s better always to be in love with several people at any given time.
On Licorice, Bach, Jews and Penknives
Things I like: fires, Venice, tequila, sunsets, babies, silent films, heights, coarse salt, top hats, large long- haired dogs, ship models, cinnamon, goose down quilts, pocket watches, the smell of newly mown grass, linen, Bach, Louis XIII furniture, sushi, microscopes, large rooms, boots, drinking water, maple sugar candy.
Things I dislike: sleeping in an apartment alone, cold weather, couples, football games, swimming, anchovies, mustaches, cats, umbrellas, being photographed, the taste of licorice, washing my hair (or having it washed), wearing a wristwatch, giving a lecture, cigars, writing letters, taking showers, Robert Frost, German food.
Things I like: ivory, sweaters, architectural drawings, urinating, pizza (the Roman bread), staying in hotels, paper clips, the color blue, leather belts, making lists, wagon-lits, paying bills, caves, watching ice-skating, asking questions, taking taxis, Benin art, green apples, office furniture, Jews, eucalyptus trees, penknives, aphorisms, hands.
Things I dislike: television, baked beans, hirsute men, paperback books, standing, card games, dirty or disorderly apartments, flat pillows, being in the sun, Ezra Pound, freckles, violence in movies, having drops put in my eyes, meatloaf, painted nails, suicide, licking envelopes, ketchup, traversins [“bolsters”], nose drops, Coca-Cola, alcoholics, taking photographs.
This material is excerpted and adapted from the forthcoming book “As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980,” by Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff.