Sunday, September 17, 2006

How to Read a Book

When I first read philosophy, as a teenager, I didn't know what it was. I did not know, for instance, that you could question what a great philosopher said, or that you should only believe it if the arguments worked. To be honest, I didn't know that these books contained arguments. My reaction to Russell on Our Knowledge of the External World was not scepticism, but shock that, despite all appearances, this is how it must be: I was constructing my whole system of the world from echoes and two-dimensional discs of colour. A miracle!

There are other ways to read philosophy: as poetry; as fiction.
[No] novelist has created a more dashing hero than the handsome Absolute, or conceived more dramatic extrications – the soul's escape from the body, for instance, or the will's from cause. […] Novelist and philosopher are both obsessed with language, and make themselves up out of concepts. Both, in a way, create worlds. […] But the worlds of the novelist, I hear you say, do not exist. Indeed. As for that, they exist more often than the philosophers'. Then, too – how seldom does it seem to matter. Who honestly cares? They are divine games.
This extraordinary passage was written by William H. Gass, in an essay called "Philosophy and the Form of Fiction". Unlike him, I do care that philosophy is not a game, any more than it consists in lessons from the Oracle. The more interesting question runs the other way: how far is the novel a form of philosophy?

For Gass, the answer is: not, for the most part, in proposing a metaphysics, but in presenting a world of which some metaphysics holds. The business of the novelist is creation not depiction; and the business of the critic – at least, the properly philosophical critic – is to lay bare the principles of the created world.
The role of chance or of assumption, the recreative power of the skillful reader, the mastery of the sense of internal life, the forms of space and time: how much is known of these? The ontological significance of the subordinate clause, […] or new words, or inversion – all passed over. […] The novelist has, by this ineptitude, been driven out of healthy contact with his audience, and the supreme values of fiction sentimentalized.
This theory has a certain purity; but it is a recipe for misprision, since it matters to the metaphysics of some novels that they are ways of understanding this world. In order to read a book, you need to know what kind of book it is – as I learned from my experience with Russell. (This point is developed with both insight and generality in Kendall Walton's "Categories of Art".) It would be a mistake to read Jane Austen as science fiction – which is, in effect, what Gass would have us do.

It is, correspondingly, no mistake to be baffled by a novel, like Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, that defies generic thought. The uncanny passivity of the characters: is it something we must simply grant – like the native English of beings from outer space? Or is it a picture of ourselves? For Gass, only the first response is warranted, and the friction of the book is planed away.

Even to focus on the characters is confused, on his account: it is the activity of the sentimentalist, someone who believes in them as people she has met, who forgets that "novels [are] made of words". Or rather, she resists this recognition, in distress:
It's as though you had discovered that your wife were made of rubber: the bliss of all those years, the fears…from sponge.
The parody has a point: that even at their best, the "people [of fiction] have less spontaneity, are less intricate, less free, less full" than anyone's parents, or children, or friends. But the same is true of the worlds in which they live. Are we more justified in speculating on the form of cause and the elementary particles of Beckett's "Ping" than on the reasons for Cordelia's silence, Iago's treachery, or Hamlet's delay?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Are we more justified in speculating on the form of cause and the elementary particles of Beckett's 'Ping' than on the reasons for Cordelia's silence, Iago's treachery, or Hamlet's delay?"

It seems to me that a good literary analysis is not speculative in the way you suggest. The idea is not to explain "away" a problem. (A good one is too hard to find.) Attributing Cordelia’s silence to Shakespeare’s “strategic opacity” is an exciting "solution," but is that all there is to say? Wouldn’t you learn more about “Ping” from a well-executed analysis of the repetition of "ping," for example, than you would from a piece on how Beckett’s troubled relationship with his mother might account for the seeming lapses in his prose?

Then again, it depends upon what you mean by "justified." Interpreting literature by looking for causes in the life of the author is a dirty business, but that doesn't diminish its entertainment value and it's a surer way to attract publicity and cash, the only means to *real* food.

12:57 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

I think you may have mis-read the post on Shakespeare's opacity. The point of the final paragraph was not to suggest a biographical explanation of the motivational gaps in his plays, but to comment on the peculiarity of looking for that explanation. (The perils of biography had been the theme of the previous post.)

I was thinking that the proper response to "strategic opacity" is precisely not to regard it as a solution, but as the acknowledgement of a problem. There is no ordinary motivational story about these actions; interpretations that look for one are bound to fail. What other kind of interpretation can we give? It is a virtue of Greenblatt's book to raise this question, and a defect that he doesn't attempt to answer it.

In this context, the sentence you quote does not imply that we are justified in speculating about Cordelia's motives, but that the indeterminacy that frustrates such speculation would also attach to the project of extracting a systematic metaphysics from "Ping". That project is possible, but limited, like the project of interpreting people in books that Gass derides as "sentimental". I think he is wrong to see a contrast here. The fact that novels are "made of words" places bounds on their interpretation – but does not prevent them from saying anything about us.

7:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Surely, you meant to write, "Hamlet's apparent [or alleged] delay." To call it "delay" is to beg the question being asked. What the play reveals is the moral courage of equivocation, in Bloom's nice phrase.

And, there are perhaps other ways to read philosophy besides as poetry or as fiction. How about as anthropology (a report by an explorer on a journey s/he has taken) or as mathematics (the working-through of the logical consequences of some given assumptions)?

4:29 PM  

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