Posts tagged lit.
No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.
It was as though some stubborn god spent their time in an immutable and absurd balancing act between life and death, prosperity and poverty.
An intellectual? Yes. And never deny it. An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself. I like this, because I am happy to be both halves, the watcher and the watched. “Can they be brought together?” This is a practical question. We must get down to it. “I despise intelligence” really means: “I cannot bear my doubts.
Life continues, and some mornings, weary of the noise, discouraged by the prospect of the interminable work to keep after, sickened also by the madness of the world that leaps at you from the newspaper, finally convinced that I will not be equal to it and that I will disappoint everyone—all I want to do is sit down and wait for evening. This is what I feel like, and sometimes I yield to it.
As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.
They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are “only doing their duty”, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.
Dostoevsky tackled free will, Tolstoy the meaning of life – but is it still possible to write philosophical novels?
At St Andrews University in the early 1970s, philosophy was still a required subject for entry into an honours course. To leave the way clear for reading modern languages, I decided that the requirement would best be dispatched in my first year. Before I knew it, I was hooked and ended up dropping one of the languages in favour of a joint degree in moral philosophy and Russian. For me it seemed the dream ticket. Russian literature was awash with existential difficulties and moral disorder, from the problem of free will in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880) to the meaning of life itself inTolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) – not to mention all the ungovernable passions, suicide, murder and suffering humanity encountered along the way. Philosophy on the other hand, with its categorical imperatives and systematic approach to concepts of right and wrong, would provide a disciplined moral analysis.
It didn’t quite work out that way. What I discovered was that while philosophy and philosophers were good at asking questions and setting out arguments, their engagement with truth was often woefully abstract, and a world away from the stuff of novels, or what we might call “fictional truth”. The two forms are, of course, very different. A philosophical theory sets out its stall in a particular way: first a, then b, in order to establish c. The analytical style rigidly separates reason from imagination, precision from imprecision.
The novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch spoke, in a 1978 interview, of “a certain cold clear recognisable voice” necessary to philosophy, one that has “a special unambiguousness and hardness about it”. She might have added that it is a voice unsuited to reflecting the actuality of people’s lives or “the close connexion of bliss and bale”, as Henry James put it in his preface to What Maisie Knew (1897).
The more novels I read at university, the more I felt that fiction was where truth was to be discovered. I seemed to experience Melville’s “shock of recognition”; which is to say re-cognition, for it was there already, waiting to be reawakened – the knowledge that some things, not least what it is that makes us human, can never be adequately expressed in conventional philosophical prose.
It is not immediately obvious why this should be. From ancient times, philosophers have addressed the question of how best to live; which is also, quintessentially, the concern of storytellers everywhere, especially those engaged in “serious fiction”. The pursuit of knowledge and truth – this too is common ground, and if only Plato had seen it that way, he might not have banned the poets from his Republic. But Plato regarded the poets – the forerunners of novelists – as troublesome and lacking in the right kind of knowledge (not pure enough). They dealt in dangerous emotions – fear, sorrow, pity – all of which weakened the character and led to moral degeneration. Philosophy and literature were set on different paths.
After reading for a degree in both subjects, however, I came to understand two things: that the puzzles and paradoxes of philosophical reflection are not best aired in the narrow, arid corridors of philosophical tracts; and that Plato was wrong to think that literature had nothing to offer philosophy. It is one thing to study John Stuart Mill’s defence of utilitarianism in ethics; quite another to read the passage in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), where Raskolnikov tests utilitarianism to its limits by taking an axe and cleaving an old lady’s head in two. Illustrations of this sort might even persuade us that moral philosophy needs the novel for the fullest possible expression of its aims.
love Kurt Vonnegut
All this would fit in your pocket now
The photo shows the busy catalog card distribution office at the Library of Congress. There’s no date on the photographic print. Recently, we needed to determine when the photo was taken, so out came my magnifying glass. (LOC: Picture This blog)