Last updated: April 7, 2012 12:16 am

What’s the big idea?

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.

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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.

. . .

These thoughts thrummed at the back of my mind during the writing a novel, The Missing Shade of Blue, my own particular take on turmoil. There are no axe murderers – just a philosopher, a painter and a translator – but all of them quietly desperate just the same. The title is taken from A Treatise of Human Nature by the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, who offered it as an example of how the mind in exceptional circumstances might generate an idea without first having been exposed to the relevant sensory experience. This “missing shade” seemed to hold out fictional possibilities: how would a quiet man who had been unsure of love all his life know it if he came across it? The late playwright Simon Gray described his acclaimed The Smoking Diaries (2004) as “not about great matters – just life as it happens, really,” and although my novel flirts with big Humean ideas – the illusory nature of happiness, the dangers of too much thinking, the “sham” of free will – I had in mind a small story, similarly anchored in life as it happens, really. I was, therefore, uneasy when I saw that my publishers had subtitled the novel “a philosophical adventure”. The P-word would surely put people off.

There were no such qualms for Dostoevsky, whose fiction exemplifies what we have come to know as “the philosophical novel” – typically understood as one having a concern with moral values and truth, or with topics of existential significance. It is an established genre, and along with its close cousin, the novel of ideas, occupies a unique position in the literary canon. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy describes it as “that subspecies of fiction which endeavours to present a particular philosophical viewpoint, sometimes metaphysical, sometimes ethical, sometimes aesthetic”. In 19th-century Russia the novel was often a kind of thought experiment, showing a character trying to live an abstract idea, which over the course of the narrative proves to be no match for the rigours of real life.

Today things seem less clear cut. What is the modern equivalent of the philosophical novel? How, if we happened upon one, might we recognise it? Assuming it is not enough for there to be a passing reference to Wittgenstein or Kant, or for pages to be sprinkled with words like “epistemological” and “ontological”, what does it look like?

It is telling that Murdoch is still the author that people most frequently associate with the philosophical novel, even though her books have come to seem rather remote and outmoded. “A novel must be a house,” she wrote in the Yale Review in 1959, “fit for free characters to live in.” But somehow her own characters, so often improbable creations caught up in heavy plot machinery, are not free. Like many of her novels, The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983) is concerned with good and evil, though the pupil of the title is said to be beyond both and closer than other people to “awful aspects of the world”. While this does not absolve him of his part in attempted murder, some of Murdoch’s metaphysics seems to get lost in melodrama, albeit hugely entertaining melodrama. She herself was “reluctant to say that the deep structure of any good literary work could be a philosophical one”, and she spoke of her “absolute horror of putting theories or ‘philosophical ideas’ as such into my novels”.

Milan Kundera, a novelist noted for his own philosophical vision, is similarly wary of what he calls “the novelistic illustration of ideas”, as seen in Camus’ L’Etranger (1942) or in Sartre’s La Nausée (1938). With philosophy and the novel, it seems difficult to get the balance right. But that hasn’t stopped writers trying. Kundera’s own solution, as expressed in The Art of the Novel (1988), is “not to transform the novel into philosophy”; rather to bring to the novel “a sovereign and radiant intelligence”. One can imagine his dismay when The New Yorker published the first three parts of his 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being and left out the passages on Nietzsche’s Ewige Wiederkehr [theory of eternal return] – the concept in which the novel is rooted.

One novel that for me grants Kundera’s wish for a sovereign and radiant intelligence is the recently published All is Song by Samantha Harvey, which tells of the relationship between two brothers – one of them clearly drawn as a modern-day Socrates. “I conceived All Is Song as a modernised, loosely interpreted version of Socrates’s life,” Harvey said in a recent interview. “I wanted to ask what would happen now to someone like that, someone who was relentlessly questioning? And are we, as a society, more tolerant than the ancient Greeks?”

The novel was her medium for exploring such ideas – just as it was for David Mitchell, whose Ghostwritten (“an infinity of paths through the park”, to borrow one of its graphic lines) is a novel about causality, the abdication of personal responsibility and why events unfold as they do. In a similar way the novels of the South African novelist JM Coetzee manage to shine a light on areas of moral life that philosophy, with its systematic approach, can at best merely intimate. Philosophers have long looked askance at storytelling, dismissing it as a form of powerful but illegitimate persuasion. The storyteller’s defence has been to say, “but this is how the world is”.

Writers such as these help disprove Henry James’s notion that the novel in English, unlike its French counterpart, is not “discutable”. But there remains a question of how serious novels can get without alienating readers (or reviewers), and the tipping point is unpredictable. One contemporary novelist who is eminently discutable – perhaps on account of his Francophile leanings – is Julian Barnes, whose output ranges over a variety of philosophical concepts: the meaning of love and our idea of history (A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, 1989), and truth versus fiction (England, England, 1998).

Ideas multiply in his recent Man Booker-winning novel The Sense of an Ending (2011). At one level, it reads like a psychological mystery tale; at another a philosophical meditation on the passage of time and its attendant distortion of memory. It seems to me to be that rare thing: a novel laden with ideas – the subjectivity of memory, the illusory nature of truth, the philosophical rationale for suicide – yet not weighed down by them. But, writing in The New York Times, Geoff Dyer saw it differently. “Plotwise, not a lot happens,” he yawned, before going on to savage the novel for being full of commonplaces. And not even the common sort of commonplaces, but “the kind that dress themselves up in their Sunday best to assume greater weight”.

What for one reader is a novel of ideas is for another merely a simplistic fable. Oxford professor John Carey judged Nick Hornby’s How to be Good (2001) “a very impressive novel of ideas”, while Ian Sansom in the London Review of Books went to some lengths to explain why it was “lite lit”, pure and simple.

It seems the problem for philosophical novels these days is, well, their philosophicalness. Which is a pity, for the novel and philosophy have a great deal to give one another. Indeed, one of the things the novel does best is to depict people – fictional characters but recognisably like us – dealing with morally complex situations. Novelists seek, in Wordsworth’s phrase, to “see into the life of things”. But the novel is something felt and lived, not something theoretical, and storytelling has always been the natural, essential way of making sense of the world.

In Poetics, Aristotle observed that poetry shows us “not something that has happened, but the kind of thing that might happen”. And so it should be with the modern philosophical novel. At its best it provides insights and, yes, “truth” about the human condition, as well as transporting words like “knowledge” and “belief” into a different realm, but one full of illumination.

“One thinks that one is tracing the outline of a thing’s nature,” said Wittgenstein, “and one is merely tracing round the frame through which one looks at it.” To put it another way, the philosopher encapsulates the idea of the nature of things, but the novelist runs with it. Philosophy can state the facts of our own mortality, but perhaps only the novel can explore the hammerblow moment that deprives us of everything that gives sense to our lives. The philosophical novel need not imply tract or thesis.

It was Hume, for me the greatest of all philosophers, who helped me understand this. Which is probably why he is now a benign spirit hovering over my own novel. Hume regarded truth not as some ethereal abstraction, but something to be found in empirical observation. He tried all his life to make even his most abstract ideas accessible through ordinary examples, as if conducting a friendly dialogue with the reader. His concern, like that of the novelist, is with what it means to be alive in an imperfect world, and in his own way he is also a storyteller with a huge emotional range – comedy, compassion, pathos. I like to think that the novel would not be the novel without him.

Jennie Erdal is the author of ‘The Missing Shade of Blue: A Philosophical Adventure’ (Little, Brown)

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Geoff Dyer on memorable philosophical fiction

‘The Magic Mountain’ by Thomas Mann (1924)

Philosophy, as I inadequately understand it, is about asking questions; ideas are questions as often as they are answers, so fictions in which characters debate ideas and philosophise in the drawing room or pub within the unquestioned conventions of a realist novel are deemed ineligible for inclusion here (hence the absence, in spite of her standing as novelist and professional philosopher, of Iris Murdoch). Why, then, do these strictures not extend to The Magic Mountain, in which Mann’s patients seem to have taken refuge in a sanatorium precisely because of the opportunities it affords to yak about big ideas for years on end? Because the form of this, the archetypal novel of ideas, was innovative, deployed as a way of embodying Mann’s thoughts about time and its passing. It remains a peak in the history of discursive fiction – albeit one that seems, at times, cosmically boring.

‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951)

A fictional letter composed by the dying emperor in which “a man who was almost wise” attempts to pass on what he has learnt to Marcus Aurelius. Yourcenar’s masterpiece is nicely summed up by the lines from a letter of Flaubert’s that served as early inspiration. “Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.” The novel brings alive the mind, and tragic architecture, of that historical moment.

‘Ka’ by Roberto Calasso (1996)

Incredibly, Calasso followed up The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1988), his magnificent rendering of Greek mythology, with something even more complex and difficult: an imaginative recreation of the cosmology of Indian myths. Stories and episodes familiar from the Mahabharata are not just retold but freighted with intimations of more recent consciousness until, with the coming of the Buddha, the epic moves to the threshold of history and the birth of the modern mind.

‘Nausea’ by Jean-Paul Sartre (1938)

Don’t remember what the titular nausea was, exactly, but the Penguin Modern Classic edition, with a Dalí painting on the cover, feels like a one-volume embodiment of existentialism for anyone excited and terrified by the theoretical density of his Being and Nothingness.

‘Correction’ by Thomas Bernhard (1975)

Bernhard’s novels enjoy the rare distinction of being among the most philosophically drenched and the funniest ever written. Correction is one of a half-dozen masterpieces in which a narrator itemises his futile attempts to complete, or even get started on, some vast intellectual enterprise that will either save him from suicide (the only philosophical problem, according to Camus) or drive him to it. Warning: Bernhard is dangerously addictive. By the time you are halfway through this hysterical, initially off-putting rant – the entire 250-page book consists of just two paragraphs – you will be desperate for more.

Geoff Dyer’s most recent novel is ‘Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi’ (Canongate)

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