Sheridan Hough and I have much in common. We studied philosophy in graduate school. We are philosophy professors. We’re interested in 19th-century, European thinkers. I attended the College of Charleston (many, many years ago); she teaches at the College of Charleston. More relevant here, we also write novels. Sheridan and I recently discussed the crossroads of philosophy and fiction.
RC: Sheridan, tell us about your academic background. How did you get interested in philosophy?
SH: Now there’s a story! Off I went to college—Trinity University—at the tender age of 17, and I was determined to be a double major in English and Theatre. My first class on my very first day at Trinity was ‘Ethics,’ and Plato’s Republic was on the menu. So much for my former life-plan! Incoming freshmen who turn up in my Philosophy 101 course as the first class of their college career get issued a warning: this too could happen to you. For some reason, they don’t find this terribly funny.
RC: They might even be horrified! Now, let’s talk a bit about your academic publications first. You’ve done extensive research and writing on the 19th-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Can you tell us something about his thought and why you find it so compelling?
SH: Kierkegaard created a vast and dazzling philosophical and religious authorship, and many of these texts are attributed, by him, to pseudonyms distinct from Kierkegaard’s own voice. Kierkegaard is worried about the meaning of a person’s life, materially realized, and his authorship can be understood as depicting several attempts at becoming a self: the ‘aesthetic,’ ‘ethical,’ and ‘religious’ stages (or ‘spheres of existence’) respectively put pleasure, choice, and a devotion to the eternal at the center of a person’s life. Faith, an infinite passion for one’s own unique vocation, becomes the existential solution to our temporal and finite human condition.
I didn’t always find Kierkegaard compelling—far from it. I’ve always been a Nietzsche-gal, but of course when you teach 19th-Century Philosophy (as I regularly do), you must confront Kierkegaard. One standard practice with teaching Kierkegaard is to stick to the so-called ‘aesthetic’ works, written by his colorful pseudonyms: Johannes de Silentio, Victor Eremita, Nicolas Notabene (author of the wonderful Prefaces, a work consisting entirely of prefaces to books, since the preface is surely the best part!) Some years ago, I traveled to Copenhagen for the first time, and I visited the Fru Kirke, the church that is forcefully present in much of Kierkegaard’s writing. Being in that space made me realize that simply addressing the ‘existential Kierkegaard’ wasn’t enough, and that I should make my peace with Kierkegaard the religious thinker. Truthfully, I found myself so irritated with Kierkegaard’s Upbuilding Discourses—the avowedly Christian works of Kierkegaard, signed with his name—that I decided to do something about it, that is, write it out of my system. A series of articles and a book followed, all evidence of my growing Kierkegaard addiction. I had seriously misapprehended the Kierkegaardian depths.
RC: In addition to your work on Kierkegaard, you’ve also written a book on the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, also 19th century. His work is something of a complement to Kierkegaard’s, isn’t it?
NH: Absolutely. In fact, that book, Nietzsche’s Noontide Friend: the Self as Metaphoric Double (Penn State Press, 1997) turns out to have lots of Kierkegaardian elements in it, although I couldn’t see it at the time. Of course, professional scholarship tends to quarantine these two, despite the tremendous affinities between their respective projects (their shared disgust with what Kierkegaard calls ‘Christendom’ is only the most obvious example). I discovered that many Kierkegaard specialists were quite suspicious of anyone spending time with ‘the atheist Nietzsche,’ and that the good Nietzscheans also looked askance at anyone who would hang out with that crazy Christian. What I call the ‘domestication project’ continues: for example, one question that continues to invite professional attention is whether or not Nietzsche is an epiphenomenalist—that is, are our conscious states causally efficacious? Nietzsche, of course, says all manner of outrageous things about consciousness, but it is absolutely clear that he does think that consciousness is, as he puts it, ‘dangerous,’ hence something with casual power. So why is all this ink continuously spilled in an effort to put Nietzsche in—in this case—a recognizable ‘philosophy of mind’ box? When the scholars strip away (as they often do) Nietzsche’s playfulness, his hyperbole, the irony (many academic authors suffer from ‘irony deficiency’), then you have made him a manageable and indeed domesticated thinker, suitable for an academic article. Not cool, in my estimation.
RC: I agree. These two writers were enormously influential on 20th-century existentialist philosophers and also on writers in other fields. Why do you suppose so many authors–not just philosophers but novelists, playwrights, and poets–have been influenced by them? Is it something about their style? Is it the challenge of their questions about and views on the human condition?
SH: In the 19th-Century philosophical oeuvre, only Nietzsche compares to Kierkegaard in his use of aphorism, metaphor, and—most importantly—perspective. The range of what we might call ‘philosophical dramaturgy’ deployed by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche always frustrates efforts to categorize their works, and no adequate reading of either thinker can ignore the point-of-view that makes possible a particular claim. Kierkegaard’s seventeen pseudonyms (depending on how you count them—there is of course professional squabbling on that score) demand that their ‘life-view’ be taken seriously: from the seducer to the judge, to mermen and worried lilies, love-struck women and apostles: each has their say and their turn, and the reader is confronted with the synthetic task of making sense of it all in terms of her or his particular life. Nietzsche also adopts voices, and is insistent that ‘perspective’ is a key epistemological notion. Really, all of this is simply the most amazing catnip for the eager novelist, playwright and poet. And, yes, we philosophers too.
RC: Do you think that, say, fiction writers, can benefit from reading philosophy, particularly K & N?
SH: That’s what happened to me! I take the lessons of Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms and Nietzschean perspectivism quite seriously. Lots of contemporary philosophical work is also rich and inviting: for example, novelist David Lodge had a great deal of fun some years back (in his novel Thinks…) with his portrayal of how things stand in the philosophy of mind field (or: ‘mine field’?): Frank Jackson and the ‘Mary experiment,’ Dave Chalmers on the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, and eliminative materialism are all playfully explored. I’m currently thinking about Susanna Siegel’s latest work, The Rationality of Perception, and how a Nietzschean character might respond to her compelling arguments.
RC: Let’s change direction a little. I think your first non-philosophy book was a collection of poetry. Have you had literary interests as long as philosophical ones?
SH: Yes, I’ve been scribbling all manner of everything since I could clutch a crayon. I’d published poetry for years, but when I began my life as a professional philosopher I got out of the habit. I never stopped writing poems, though. My poetry volume, The Hide, took shape with a literal hiding. My friend Susan was having a birthday party, and she wanted all of her guests to bring two items to read, poems or prose—so I brought two home-made poems for the occasion. The guests started to read, and I realized that everyone had brought ‘real’ poems: Spender, Yeats, Frost, Bishop…yikes. I hid my manila folder and waited for it all to be over. And then I was caught by someone from across the room: ‘Hey, wait up, I saw her put something under the couch, I think she’s got something to read…’ So I did read then, and that’s what brought me back to the poetry-fold.
RC: As you know, I loved your novel Mirror’s Fathom. Give us a plot summary.
SH: Thanks, Ron. Mirror’s Fathom is the story of Tycho Wilhelm Lund: anarchist, pirate, and thief of a legendary mirror. Tycho is also a (fictional) great-nephew of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and is, when the novel begins, a mild-mannered antiques dealer who is asked to assess the value of some furniture belonging to Regine Schlegel, Kierkegaard’s famously jilted former love. When he arrives at Regine’s home, Tycho—who has no interest in philosophy—finds himself at a meeting of the Kierkegaard Circle, a group faithfully reading aloud Kierkegaard’s works. There he meets, and falls for, Countess Juliana Sophie, herself a passionate follower of Kierkegaard’s thinking and self-appointed mistress of the ‘School for Selves.’ Juliana Sophie’s father, Count Viggo, approves of their marriage, with one condition: Tycho must first lend him his expertise in antiques hunting, and go to London to retrieve a family heirloom, a six-foot tall silver-framed mirror. The novel moves back and forth between the 19th and 21st centuries: the action begins in Malta in 2009, where we find an anxious Maltese housewife, Rowena, desperately exercising in front of the Count’s mirror. Mysteries emerge: how did the mirror get to Malta in the first place, and why is Tycho remembered there as the fearsome ‘Brigand Tycho’? Tycho’s and Rowena’s fates are tangled in a curious way, and the novel follows their stories between the two centuries, each chapter happening in the same setting (111 years apart). It’s a love story, a mystery, and an exploration of Kierkegaard’s philosophical claims about how a human self is forged, and why it is that ‘temporality, finitude is what it is all about.’
RC: Did you set out to write a philosophical novel, or did it become one despite any effort to thwart it? J
SH: So here’s another story: I actually wrote the novel while I was starting work on my professional book on Kierkegaard (Kierkegaard’s Dancing Tax Collector: Faith, Finitude, and Silence, OUP 2015). I kept thinking about how these existential exhortations would work out in an actual life, and how they might ramify over the years…and that’s how Tycho got his fictional start. Meanwhile, I was struggling with my philosophy text; I was using a minor character from Fear and Trembling as a lens for viewing Kierkegaard’s enormous authorship, but I wasn’t happy with the path that the project was taking, particularly Kierkegaard’s conclusions about human knowledge and suffering. As the novel developed, it became clear to me that the philosophy book was also told from a highly specific perspective, and that this viewpoint should have her say. So that’s what I did: the book is written by a pseudonym (‘Sheridan Hough, Lover of the Tax Collector’, or SH, LTC, fondly known as ‘Schultze’ in our house); at the end of the book I wish her and her ruminations well, and walk away. I was surprised that no one—from The Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews to The Times Literary Supplement—seems to have noticed the pseudonymous author at work. But I’m proud of what SH, LTC has done, though I disagree with her on several issues. And I could not have played the role of ‘prompter’ for this narrative voice without the practice of writing fiction.
RC: Readers often describe any novel that raises a big question or two or that has a character whine “What’s it all mean?” as philosophical. My view is that novels, good ones at least, should in part ask big questions, so they sort of lend themselves to dips in profound waters. At the same time, an unskilled writer can try a little too hard and make the philosophy seem extraneous to the plot. Any thoughts on this?
SH: Ah, yes, the dreaded ‘whiny’ question of meaning, not to be outdone by the hipster faux-nihilist approach: both so dreary. Some contemporary fiction is so clever in construction: beautiful cantilevered sentences that seem to raise ‘big questions’, but end up just giving the reader a polished surface to admire. The basic questions of philosophy—who are we? How free are we? What can we know? Are we theists? What does it all mean? The only way to investigate those queries is to let a character who is truly wracked with pain or indecision or grief have a go at it.
RC: One thing I loved about Mirror’s Fathom was how you effortlessly threaded the philosophical themes into the plot without their being intrusive. Can you name a few writers who, in your view, mesh philosophy and literature together well? (Walker Percy comes to mind immediately for me.)
SH: Ron! You are first on my list. Your recent novel about Jesus and his twin (The Gospel of the Twin, Bancroft Press, 2016) is a wonderful example of letting the characters take the lead with these impossible questions.
RC: You’re much too kind.
SH: Walker Percy is great, and so is John Barth—although in recent years I’ve found his The End of the Road a bit too didactic. Virginia Woolf is my hero, and I’m fond of saying (as I once did in an article) that her phenomenological fiction gets us to ‘the things themselves’ in a way that Edmund Husserl’s theoretical account cannot. Jennifer Egan is also a brilliant writer that doesn’t always get the attention she deserves—yes, she gives us beautiful sentences, but she also provides such ingenious ways of thinking about self-identity, temporality, and what it all might mean. Might.
RC: Can we look forward another novel from you soon?
SH: I hope so—I’ve got one that’s doing the rounds (a comic novel for a change), and I’m writing another. Always one more to go!
RC: That’s great news. Thank you, Sheridan.