Saturday, March 06, 2010

The literary fuzzhead

Bill Vallicella is not impressed by the novelist John Gardner, who once claimed that “at their best, both fiction and philosophy do the same thing, only fiction does it better—though slower.”

Although it is unclear why he is wasting his time on Gardner, Vallicella says some interesting things at the poor writer’s expense. He ends by treating the author of The Sunlight Dialogues and Nickel Mountain (novels that I culled from my library decades ago) as quite typical of the literary mind in its disdain and misunderstanding of philosophy at a high level. “The literary fuzzhead cannot help but think that philosophy done seriously, with patience, rigor, and clarity, is just abstract bullshit,” he concludes.

As someone who has done his share of serious thinking about literature, I naturally take offense. Not all literary minds are fuzzy, I want to protest. But instead of trying to establish the philosophical fides of far better writers than Gardner, perhaps it would be well to examine Vallicella’s own thinking—on fiction.

“It would have been nice,” Vallicella says, “had Gardner told us what the same thing is that both fiction and philosophy do or try to do.” Unfortunately, when he tries to do just that, he himself stumbles badly.

“A good novelist,” he proposes, “has the ability to set before the reader in concrete and memorable terms a believable character who illustrates a certain set of values or a certain modus vivendi.” His example is Zorba the Greek, although he “quotes” the 1964 film out of Twentieth Century Fox and not the eighteen-years-earlier novel by Nikos Kazantzakis.

Nevertheless, “the sensitive reader must ask himself whether perhaps Zorba’s way is the way to live,” Vallicella says, attributing to Zorba the view that “Life is trouble, only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble!”

Now, as it happens, the great philosopher Hilary Putnam has said something strikingly similar, although perhaps more rigorously and clearly thought through. (Disclosure: I quoted Putnam’s remarks in the Afterword to The Elephants Teach.) Putnam argues that, even though the “psychological insights” of a good novelist cannot be described as empirical knowledge, because they have not been tested, fiction can yet achieve knowledge of a different kind:

[I]f I read [Louis-Ferdinand] Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night [1932] I do not learn that love does not exist, that all human beings are hateful and hating (even if—and I am sure this is not the case—those propositions should be true). What I learn is to see the world as it looks to someone who is sure that hypothesis is correct. I see what plausibility that hypothesis has; what it would be like if it were true; how someone could possibly think that it is true. But all this is still not empirical knowledge at all; for being aware of a new interpretation of the facts, however repellent, of a construction that can—I now see—be put upon the facts, however perversely—is a kind of knowledge. It is knowledge of a possibility. It is conceptual knowledge.[1]On Putnam’s showing, the “sensitive reader” does not ask himself whether “Zorba’s way is the way to live.” If the novel is any good, he comes to understand how “Zorba’s way” would look and feel if it were “the way to live.” He understands it as a possibility.

The difference between Putnam’s account of fiction and Vallicella’s is immense. The trouble with Vallicella’s account is that it is limited, although it may not seem so at first. Many novelists do in fact “set before the reader in concrete and memorable terms a believable character who illustrates a certain set of values or a certain modus vivendi,” but not all novelists do. The proposition does not account for Nineteen Eighty-Four or Darkness at Noon, for example, two novels in which the “believable character” is harried by a totalitarian modus vivendi until he voluntarily abandons his own “set of values.”

And the proposition is far too simple to explain the effect of Lolita, in which it is not his way of life but Humbert’s atonement that is “illustrated” (wrong word!). Or Ulysses, in which the modus is everything that happens in twenty-four hours and the vita is an entire city’s. Or Invisible Man, in which the character is not “believable,” at least to the other characters in the book. Or Pictures from an Institution, in which the character is not a character at all but, well, an institution.

Putnam comes closer to an all-embracing (and true) proposition about fiction, when he defines its modality, not as the illustration of a way of life, but as possibility. Some philosophers deal with possibilities too, but this hardly means, pace Gardner, that they are doing the “same thing” as novelists. Philosophers want to show that a possibility is valid; novelists try to make it plausible. The distance between validity and plausibility is the distance between philosophy and fiction, but it does not follow that the one is sharp while the other is fuzzy. They are, instead, as Putnam suggests, merely different approaches to knowledge.

[1] Hilary Putnam, Meaning and the Moral Sciences (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), pp. 89–90. Emphasis in the original.