Monday, March 08, 2010

Plot and thought

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:

Under Thought [dianoia] is included every effect which has to be produced by speech, the subdivisions being: proof and refutation; the excitation of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion of importance or its opposite. Now, it is evident that the dramatic incidents must be treated from the same points of view as the dramatic speeches, when the object is to evoke the sense of pity, fear, importance, or probability. The only difference is that the incidents should speak for themselves without verbal exposition; while effects aimed at in [speech] should be produced by the speaker, and as a result of the speech. For what were the business of a speaker, if the Thought were revealed quite apart from what he says? (ch XIX, trans. S. H. Butcher)What, indeed? Thus intelligence in fiction stands apart from the action; it belongs exclusively to character. For Aristotle, after all, the characters of a drama were “universal propositions, existing independently of the particular series of incidents that the drama presents.”[1] And what the characters say, accordingly, is merely the articulation of the universal that they really are.

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.

[1] O. B. Hardison Jr., Aristotle’s Poetics: A Translation and Commentary for Students of Literature (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), p. 243.


Levi Stahl said...

The Philosopher's Pupil is the only Murdoch novel I've not read--and I've read many of the others multiple times, as she's one of my favorite writers. It's been fifteen years since I made the attempt, so the details are vague, but something about the tone of the opening chapters was incredibly off-putting--sounds like you would suggest I try it again?

D. G. Myers said...

Absolutely, Levi. And believe me, your experience was also mine. You just have to plow ahead, by an act of will, and before you know it the headlong momentum of Murdoch’s plot will take over.

ghostofelberry said...

i had certain ideas about the world which i wanted to communicate in the only novel i've written (perhaps the only one i will). When i jotted down ideas and scenes for the plot, back in 2002, i had notes about certain "philosophical" ideas, which i then worked up into conversations - but they tended to be monologues akin to those of Plato's late "dialogues", where Socrates talks almost constantly, with other people saying "yes, I see" from time to time. They stood apart from the character and the plot, as a jewel stands apart from its setting.

i'm presently rewriting the beast and aiming for a more organic union between ideas and character and plot. Although the monologues were the kind of things these characters would say, they nonetheless seemed crowbarred in, rather than just arising from the character. i think character has to come first; character makes the plot ("a man's character is his fate"); one's sense of the world should just arise from all this.

What of fictions like Notes from Underground, or Camus' The Fall? - i read the latter about 6 times in 3 years before i felt i understood what it was "about". Ostensibly it's a monologue by an ex-left-wing Parisian, a lawyer of fashionable political causes who has fallen inexplicably from his self-righteousness and become a drunk, looking back on his Sartre-like smugness with disgust.

There's no overt message but nonetheless i felt there was a deeper "meaning", a philosophical meaning if you like. Finally, after about 6 readings, i felt it was about a world without real love, about narcissism, made all the more appalling in that the speaker is someone who, in his loveless narcissism, espoused all the right political causes about universal love and brotherhood, etc. - because it allowed him to set himself up as a judge over everyone else.

From what i know of Camus' non-fiction, especially The Rebel, and his falling out with Sartre, i feel this idea was in his mind, but he buries it deep under the surface of the fiction. This means that you can read & enjoy it without getting the "meaning" (which to me, means it's worked as a novel), but the meaning is there, if you're looking.

PHAEDRA said...

I think that La Chute is really about the laying waste of the inmost being of the listener by a man in whom all hope has been smothered. It is a religious book in the same way as Bernanos' M. Ouine, and it also reminds me of a passage from one of Mauriac's works "il y a des ames qui lui sont donnes" (forgive the lack of accents). In short Jean-Baptiste Clamence is the devil himself. Camus' best and most chilling work.

Brandon said...

I like this post. I think the idea that plot is fiction's correlate of argument, besides being appropriate etymologically, is one that has a lot of merit. The novelist who is most often recognized in philosophy as presenting philosophical ideas is Austen (thanks to Gilbert Ryle, Alasdair MacIntyre, and some others); and while there is plenty of dianoia in Austen, it really is the plot that makes Mansfield Park, for instance, a thorough rethinking of eighteenth century appproaches to virtue (Shaftesbury, Hume, etc.). Likewise, it's really the plot that makes Unamuno's San Manuel Bueno, Mártir such a powerful and concentrated vehicle for Unamuno's ideas.

Making dianoia the vehicle of ideas makes more sense in the context of Greek tragedies, which Aristotle would, of course, have had in mind, than it does in the context of novels; in a Greek tragedy it's not uncommon for the major action to happen off stage, and everything is commented on by the omnipresent Chorus. I suspect each kind of writing has its own intellectual strength: novels in their plots, plays in their dramatic speeches (or, more subtly, in the contrasts and similiarities among all the dramatic speeches), certain kinds of poems in their implicit poetic syllogisms, and so on.

I too had difficulty with the beginning of Murdoch's The Philosopher's Pupil; but it certainly became more engrossing as it went on. My favorite Murdoch, though, is The Green Knight.

D. G. Myers said...

Another possibility is a novel that sets out to test a theory. Hemingway said, for example, that The Sun Also Rises was written to discover whether sexual promiscuity was a “moral” way to live (where “moral” means not being left with a bad taste in the mouth). Brett’s decision at the end of the novel not to be a bitch would be, on this showing, conclusive evidence that the test was a failure.

My favorite Murdoch is her second book—The Flight from the Enchanter. So hard to pick her “best,” though.

Levi Stahl said...

Funny; The Flight from the Enchanter is one of my least favorite Murdochs--though my reason looks a bit silly in retrospect: I had trouble believing in the manipulative, evil character at its center . . . who appears to have been based closely on Canetti.

My favorite tends to shift among The Nice and the Good, The Green Knight, and Nuns and Soldiers, with The Good Apprentice once in a while taking the stage. The climax of The Nice and the Good is one of the most wearingly tense reading experiences available, holding up even to re-reading--and it's a great example of how this novelist of intellect and ideas also knew how to write action; the sheer physicality of some of her climactic scenes is stunning.

And now to give The Philosopher's Pupil another try!

D. G. Myers said...

Funny—that’s exactly why I like The Flight from the Enchanter.

R. T. said...

Your distinction between plot and character may pertain to novels, though I do not necessarily agree, but I would argue--though you may disagree--that character rather than plot is the foundation upon which successful short stories must be built. And--to extend the argument further--would you not agree with me that good philosophical arguments can be found in short stories? My reading of Flannery O'Connor and Jorge Luis Borges (to name but two authors) convinces me that such is the case. Perhaps, though, your preference for novels over short stories complicates your consideration of my argument.

Patrick Kaviani said...

Maybe it is a slight misjudgment to hail the importance of a thoroughly organized and ordered plot in philosophical fiction. It suggests - to me anyway - that whatever intended philosophy (I do not mean to resurrect a debate on "authorial intention") in the novel must be hidden and must only be allowed to drip through the real story and the characters. Thus plot is the priority in such fiction.

The main example against this would be Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", which is essentially the thesis of the author, dressed up in the lifelong thoughts of the mentally degenerating protagonist. Yes, there is a plot but it is little more than analogy. It is little more than a philosophical text with a different cover, on a different book shelf. I do not say this to be critical as it is a brilliant "novel" but it serves to show, to some extent, the secondary nature of plot in some philosophical fiction.

Anonymous said...

Hello David,

I think the Murdoch character that was supposedly based on Oakeshott was Hugo Bellfounder from her first novel **Under the Net.** Though I see some resemblance, others contest the identification. I have yet to read **The Philosopher's Pupil.**

D. G. Myers said...

I am publishing the anonymous comment on Oakeshott and Under the Net, because of its informational value.

A reminder, though, that anonymous comments are not acceptable here at A Commonplace Blog.

Anonymous said...

By sheer coincidence, I was just reading Algernon Charles Swinburne's book on Charlotte Bronte, which argues that Bronte was among the 19th c.'s greatest novelists for precisely this reason: she was the rare possessor of a "gift," he argues, "to make us feel in every nerve, at every step forward which our imagination is compelled to take under the guidance of another's, that thus and not otherwise, but in all things altogether even as we are told and shown, it was and it must have been with the human figures set before us in their action and their suffering; that thus and not otherwise they absolutely must and would have felt and thought and spoken under the proposed conditions." (That being said, he also argues that this is a quality of CB's "genius," which he distinguishes from "intellect.")

D. G. Myers said...

The foregoing account of Swinburne on Charlotte Brontë was posted by Miriam Burstein of the Little Professor. Its anonymity, she assures me, was an error.

zmkc said...

Came across this in Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point:
'The great defect of the novel of ideas is that it's a made-up affair. Necessarily; for people who can reel off neatly formulated notions aren't quite real; they're slightly monstrous. Living with monsters becomes rather tiresome in the long run.'