On Saturday, as if replying in her own way to Bill Vallicella’s argument on the relative merits of philosophy and fiction, the novelist Rebecca Goldstein (who is also an academic philosopher) listed the five best novels of ideas.
Two names on her list were entirely expected. Saul Bellow is better perhaps than any other fiction writer at putting human intellect on exhibit. Goldstein picked Herzog (1964) as his best, as the best, although she could as easily have picked Mr Sammler’s Planet, Humboldt’s Gift, or even Ravelstein (2000). The last would have been the most tantalizing pick, not only because it was his last novel, written in his eighties (suggesting the endurance of Bellow’s own intellectual powers), but also because its eponymous hero, modeled upon Bellow’s lifelong friend Allan Bloom, is himself a philosopher.
Similarly, the name of Iris Murdoch was no surprise. Murdoch was herself a philosopher, Oxford-trained; she even sat in on Wittgenstein’s lectures for a time. The Black Prince (1973) was Goldstein’s pick for third spot, although (again) a number of Murdoch’s books would have stood out nicely on the list. And, again, had it been me, I might have selected The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), if only for its portrait of John Robert Rozanov, the philosopher (sometimes said to have been modeled upon Michael Oakeshott).
But the coincidence of Vallicella’s reflections and Goldstein’s list got me thinking. In reconsidering Nabokov’s Bend Sinister a couple of weeks ago, I called Adam Krug, the central figure in the novel, “[o]ne of the few successful portraits of a deeply intelligent man in American fiction.” What are the others?
Well, there is The Unpossessed (1934), in which Tess Slesinger catches a group of Jewish intellectuals in the act of founding a radical magazine. There is O My America (1980), in which Johanna Kaplan focuses on just one of the type—a Jewish man of letters who comes to be known more for his political than his literary views. Two novels from 1983, Cynthia Ozick’s Cannibal Galaxy and Arthur A. Cohen’s Admirable Woman, are built around the figure of Hannah Arendt. In John and Anzia (1989), Norma Rosen invents (or reinvents) a love affair between John Dewey and the Jewish novelist Anzia Yezierska. Published the same year, Goldstein’s own Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind features a philosopher who lectures on the “futility of the passions” and longs to be reduced to a state of pure reason (she gets her comeuppance, of course, in a love affair with a younger man).
But the more I think about it, the unhappier I become. It strikes me that the whole question of philosophy and fiction—philosophy in fiction—has been mishandled. The tendency has been to identify the intellectual element in fiction with a character or characters. And it’s hardly astonishing, then, when the “intelligent” or “intellectual” figure begins to spout off in more or less “intelligent” or “intellectual” ways. Even in Vallicella’s original example, Zorba the Greek, the “Zorbatic” approach to life is largely a matter of what Zorba says. “I have so much to tell you,” Zorba says to Basil.
Intelligence in fiction, then, is usually conceived as a variety of Aristotelian dianoia:
But since this conception of character no longer determines modern fiction, the Aristotelian understanding of Thought must be discarded. There is a reason that the free nations dominate the world’s fiction: individualism cannot be repressed, bought off, or charmed away there. But is there, then, a more adequate notion of intelligence in fiction?
But what is the intellectual aspect of a fiction if not its plot? The plot is fiction’s answer to argument in philosophy: it is what connects up and advances the whole. If an argument is the setting forth of the proofs (reasons and evidence) for an assertion, then a plot is the setting forth (that is, the narration) of the events that lead to a catastrophe, the final turn that brings everything to an end.
Indeed, it is in the ordering of events that novelists often display their greatest ingenuity. The most intelligent novels, I am almost tempted to claim, are those that are the most brilliantly plotted, in which every piece locks into place with an audible and satisfying click, and you are persuaded that no other ending is even possible. And that fewer and fewer novelists waste much thought on plot may explain the decline of intelligence in contemporary fiction.
 O. B. Hardison Jr., Aristotle’s Poetics: A Translation and Commentary for Students of Literature (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), p. 243.