01 February 2011

Novel Ideas

Christopher Higgs over at HTML Giant is working a series of posts on "What Is Experimental Literature," part 1, part 2, part 3, wherein he references this article by Brian Evenson: Notes on Fiction and Philosophy. Higgs misses the Barthesian point that the idea of of what Lyn Hejinian calls "closed" fiction is simply that: a fiction. (see S/Z)


James Ryerson's point in his essay, The Philosophical Novel, in last week's The New York Times, that "Both disciplines [i.e., Philosophy and the Novel] seek to ask big questions, to locate and describe deeper truths, to shape some kind of order from the muddle of the world," is simply wrong. It is naive about philosophy and grandiose about literature.

Philosophy, no matter what it claims to be about, is about PHILOSOPHY, on the way to which it wants to show why no matter what other disciplines claim to be about, they are ultimately about nothing—unless it's philosophy (however naively). Discuss.

The novel can portray a philosopher as a bumbler or an idealist or unfeeling lout or whatever, but that is secondary to its main business, which is, indeed, portrayal: portrayal of a specific character, of affect, of choice, of transformation. Generalization to "mankind" and "humanity" and "human nature" is the game readers (a la Ryerson) play.

Where the two may have some common ground (if we can say that they even do) is in the knowledge that they are ultimately about nothing: philosophy is the project to prove that that isn't the case, that there is some there there in reality, while the novel accepts it as given and attempts to create something out of it.


Over at The Guardian, Laura Miller wants to show us how novels are finally getting around to coming to terms with the internet. Victoria Patterson is having none of it.


What's the point of writing novels anyway? Does it matter?


Turns out 20th Century propagandist novelist Ayn Rand "believed that the scientific consensus on the dangers of tobacco was a hoax. By 1974, the two-pack-a-day smoker, then 69, required surgery for lung cancer." The perils of ressentiment, no?

Famous for her broadsides against the moochers and leeches of the middle classes and the working poor for their assault on the integrity of the heroic individual, she opted for Medicare and Social Security benefits to pay for her treatments under the name of Ann O'Connor. A closet socialist? Heavens, what a hypocrite! She didn't have the courage of her own convictions, to accept the responsibility for her free choice, to die for her own 'big idea'. Such is the real relationship between philosophy and the novel.



christopher higgs said...

Hi, Jim.

Thanks for linking to my posts at htmlgiant. I'm thrilled that you reference Barthes's S/Z...one of the future posts in the series will discuss that distinction he makes in the introduction between "readerly" and "writerly" texts.

But I'm assuming your comment is directed more at the idea that all texts are open, which I suppose depends on how you're defining those terms. I think that for Hejinian an open text means something different than it does for Barthes. Would be interested to hear your thoughts.



Frances Madeson said...

“Philosophy, no matter what it claims to be about, is about PHILOSOPHY, on the way to which it wants to show why no matter what other disciplines claim to be about, they are ultimately about nothing—unless it's philosophy (however naively). Discuss.”

No, Jim. I prefer to discuss Evenson's second footnote, and I quote:

“Indeed, the thinker, it might be said, is he who follows animal tracks through the forest of Being. There is something bestial about thinking. …”

It goes on, but I couldn’t. Cue the Tarzan yodel.

Jim H. said...

FM: I have no idea what Evenson's talking about. Any time anyone starts borrowing jargon from Heidegger, my brain begs me to shut it down. Heidegger makes my head hurt. I open my Being and Time to a random starred passage: "That wherein Dasein already understands itself in this way is always something with which it is primordially familiar. This familiarity with the world does not necessarily require that the relations which are constitutive for the world as world should be theoretically transparent. However, the possibility of giving these relations an explicit ontologico-existential Interpretation, is grounded in this familiarity with the world; and this familiarity, in turn, is constitutive for Dasein, and goes to make up Dasein's understanding of Being. This possibility is one which can be seized upon explicitly in so far as Dasein has set itself the task of giving a primordial Interpretation for its own Being and for the possibilities of that Being, or indeed for themeaning of Being in general." (I.3 86, p. 119).

Apparently at one time I thought I understood what he was saying. And what's more I found it important enough to underline.

Frances Madeson said...

We've all lost our way through the forest of Being on occasion. Maybe you were practicing your underlining skills for future intelligible passages; one isn't born knowing these things. Bet you were a talented blackliner in your legal career. I'm not ashamed to admit, I was! Excellent, in fact. And as Professor Elkin wrote in Perlmutter At The East Pole (the title alone is so wonderful!):

"Forty years I had a store in The Bronx," he said, "and I tell you the important thing is the right mark-up."

Another interrupted him. "That's all very well. Of course, mark-up is important--"

"The right mark-up, I said."

"All right, the right mark-up...."