Does Fiction Need Philosophy?
American writers rarely seem to have any formal philosophical training, wrote David Joiner to me recently (I am paraphrasing). Reading Flanagan’s biography of Yukio Mishima, he had been struck by how strongly and consistently the Japanese novelist’s work had been infused with his ideas, which amounted to a coherent philosophy concerning beauty, purity, and honour. Joiner, who is himself an accomplished novelist (Lotusland, Guernica Books, 2015), speculated that all great fiction probably has an underpinning of philosophy. Since I had been thinking along similar lines myself, and have in particular been considering the free will vs. determinism problem and how fiction writers deal with it, I have been gnawing away at this idea, and this essay is an attempt to relate my conclusions, or at any rate the questions I have posed myself.
First of all, is it true that American fiction lacks the philosophical foundations of the literatures of other cultures? My immediate reaction was a gut impression: that American literary fiction, like American humour, is focussed on the emotions, and is less intellectual than British or European fiction. That wouldn’t necessarily make it inferior. The emotional life of human beings, in all their bewildering complexity, would seem to be as ripe a subject for fiction, and perhaps a riper one, than their intellectual life, which can hardly be considered deeper, in the case of most people. But is it even true? Poe is obsessed with intense and repressed emotions. That would seem to be true of Melville too. There’s a mystical current in Moby Dick, but that’s not necessarily the fruit of a coherent philosophy. Rather it seems an attempt to describe the ineffable and perhaps the unknowable—a spiritually valid exercise, but not really a logical response to the deepest philosophical questions. With Hawthorne, Twain, James, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Steinbeck there are plenty of ethical concerns (as indeed there are with Poe and Melville) and of course Ethics has been one of the principal branches of philosophy since Socrates. All of these novelists interrogate the prevailing values of their societies and their characters have to decide whether to conform to them or not. And yet in few of them, if any, does one see evidence of systematic philosophical enquiry. I’m not suggesting that that is the natural province of the novelist, but it’s certainly worth pausing to consider whether philosophical knowledge might have been beneficial to the fiction. I am guessing here, since I don’t know enough about the education of most American writers to be able to state whether they had philosophical training or not. One imagines that Henry James did, or at least had read fairly widely in the discipline, since his brother William was one of the most important philosophers of his day.
It strikes me that all these classic American novelists, and for that matter their successors too, did have at least an implicit philosophy, whether they had consciously pondered it or not, and that was that human beings have free will, and therefore are responsible and accountable for their actions. This is the belief that underlies western legal systems, after all, and it might be argued that fiction would be very dull without it. If people are playthings of the gods, fate, or whatever, how interesting can their actions be? Still, it’s my impression that most of these novelists have not seriously examined the problem, even though some of them must at least have had a passing acquaintance with Nietzsche and some of the later ones with the French existentialists, particularly Camus. It might be said, indeed, that twentieth century fiction laboured under an existentialist flag, whether consciously or not. (And existentialism is above all an ethical philosophy, I would argue, though less so with Heidegger.)
If I am right, and American fiction has largely assumed the existence of free will, and declined to deeply delve into other metaphysical issues, is this an exclusively American phenomenon? Is British fiction, for instance, any different?
One can find plenty of British novelists whose concerns are largely ethical, and equally implicitly reliant on a belief in free will. Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, Conrad and Forster would seem to fall under this category. Hardy is an interesting exception: he shows his characters as helpless victims of fate, particularly in the later novels, from Tess of the Durbervilles onwards, although I’m not convinced that his fatalistic thinking was all that profound; rather it springs, apparently, from a pessimistic temperament. Still, there are other interesting cases of British novelists who do have a philosophy, however unoriginal or second-rate. (And I don’t mean this pejoratively. It would not be fair to expect a novelist to also be a first-rate philosopher. It’s been said of Herman Hesse that as a thinker he is second-rate, but never less than that.) Lawrence, for example, is clearly influenced by Nietzsche, and develops a philosophy of obedience to nature and instinct. Graham Greene’s Catholicism is apparent in all his work, as it is in Flannery O’Connor’s, and both the Englishman and the American woman very subtly explore the ethical and indeed theological quandaries of their characters—in Greene’s case, often very consciously (Scobie in The Heart of the Matter, for instance, or the whisky priest in The Power and the Glory), O’Connor’s usually unconsciously. On the other hand, it strikes me that British novelists are not obviously much more influenced by formal philosophy than their American counterparts.
The true ‘philosophical novels’ or at any rate those that are known as such, come largely from the Continent: Tolstoy, with his obvious debt to Hegel and the historical dialectic, Dostoyevsky, who seems to anticipate Nietzsche, and the constellation of great German early twentieth novelists—Musil, Broch, Mann, Hesse, the latter most influenced by Jungian archetypal psychology—and of course Camus and Sartre in France, both philosophers in their own right (and in Sartre’s case, never much more than a philosopher who wrote fiction as a pretext for airing and illustrating his ideas, much as Plato did with his myths.) Milan Kundera, like Tolstoy, is concerned essentially with a philosophy of history, and again like the Russian, with how the individual can thrive in an authoritarian, repressive environment. In fact the themes of most of these writers is either that of individual freedom or of societal pressures or how they interact. Not many novelists, even great ones, have obviously metaphysical concerns. The one exception who springs to mind is Kafka, the greatest novelist of the past century or so. In The Trial and The Castle we encounter protagonists who, however hard they strive, are powerless to influence the course of their lives, not only because of a powerful and inscrutable bureaucracy, but even more tellingly, because they are subject to an implacable fate—almost, one feels, in spite of Kafka’s Judaic background, a fate made inevitable by Original Sin. (And Camus is interested in the Fall too, although his conclusions are more optimistic.) In short, Kafka is the novelist who most clearly and subtly explores a perspective that is deterministic both politically and metaphysically.
But what about Mishima and other Japanese writers, who, one might suppose, having been exposed to a Buddhist upbringing directly or indirectly, might also be expected to embody a deterministic viewpoint in their fiction? I am not sufficiently well-read in Japanese fiction to answer the question authoritatively, although, having read Soseki’s The Three-Cornered World recently, with its almost total absence of plot and action—it concerns a painter who goes to a spa and is attracted to a widow there, but does nothing but talk to her and fails to paint any pictures except in his mind—I would say that this is a good example of what Buddhist fiction might be. It concentrates on a moment-by-moment description, one might almost say meditation, on the fleeting thoughts and impressions of the protagonist. Kawabata, who was also a Buddhist, has more action in his novels, at any rate the ones I know, Snow Country, The Lake and House of the Sleeping Beauties—but like Soseki, pays great attention to detail, as haiku does, not for its own sake, but for its potential for satori, the instantaneous enlightenment of Zen. I may report more on the Japanese in these environs when I know them better. I don’t see the aesthetic or indeed metaphysical and ethical preoccupation with karma in western Buddhist novelists like Lawrence Durrell, although admittedly I have not read him lately.
One might say, naturally, that all fiction is inherently ethical, since by inviting the reader to step into someone else’s skin, we inevitably become more understanding and compassionate. This is a cliché and a truism but no less valid for all that.
One could add that a great deal of recent fiction, particularly American fiction, has been strongly influenced by postmodern philosophy. Barthelme, Barth, Gass, Pynchon, Foster Wallace, DeLillo, Auster: one can see the emphasis on relativity, the concern with intertextuality and pop culture, the fascination with language. Whether postmodernism is a real philosophy, or merely a declaration of the impossibility of formulating one, I must leave for another time.
Still—and I’m aware how superficial this survey has perforce been, and that I haven’t fully answered my initial question—I remain intrigued by the possibility of fiction that is deeply grounded in philosophy, and particularly in the philosophy of Schopenhauer (which has been too long neglected, in my opinion) and in the latest neuroscience, which strongly affirm that free will is illusory: our actions can be attributed to our genes and social conditioning. What would a fiction that takes this into account look like? So far, apart from Kafka and perhaps some of the Japanese, I’m struggling to come up with fiction writers who have seriously explored what could be a very fruitful avenue. Might there not be an incredible liberation from the past and the future in deterministic fiction? Why feel guilty about past actions, or anxious about future events, if one knows they are beyond one’s control? Would that not free the artist for more transcendental and immanent meditations? Could a truly metaphysical fiction be created? Why not?
It may be that as novelists we are feeling too much, and not thinking or simply seeing enough—although if Buddhists, Schopenhauer and neuroscience are right, that might be unavoidable.
But to return to my original question: Does fiction need philosophy? Of course it does.