The formidable extract from Mulhall's book offered by Princeton UP begins with Plato's expulsion of the poets from "the just city, the philosophical republic". The rule was made because, among other things, the poets "engage and incite our emotions while bypassing our rational faculties". Of course, that's why we tend to read poets and novelists rather than philosophers. What's welcome here is that rather than arguing for or against either side of the ancient quarrel, Mulhall (a Post-Analytic philosopher at Oxford) examines the significance of Plato's use of "striking quasi-poetic imagery" and dramatic dialogues "in conveying his message of the superiority of philosophy to literature". He asks:
Is this best understood as an essentially dispensable or ornamental feature of his enterprise? Or as an adroit attempt to turn the resources of poetry against itself, addressing philosophy’s audience in the terms most likely to motivate them in their presently benighted, cave-dwelling state, but in such a way as to bring about their emergence from it, to effect a species of self-overcoming that leaves the literary definitively behind us? Or as a revealing indication that poetry is always already internal to the precincts of philosophy’s republic, incapable of being excised without depriving philosophy of resources without which it cannot achieve its goals?The same questions, turned around, might be asked of Coetzee's recent novels. Coetzee has upset many, including those who should know better, by engaging in overt dramatising of philosophical (or, more specifically, ethical) questions. In Elizabeth Costello in particular, he seems to be moving towards Plato's relegation of reverie because the work appears to be concerned with these questions and not with providing consumers with the customary daydream of storytelling. Why then, in the most traditional literary way, have I been most moved and thrilled by Elizabeth Costello, and left relatively indifferent (though still moved and thrilled) by the earlier, more traditional novels such as Disgrace?
Mulhall's new book might help me to find a fuller and clearer answer than I am inclined to give here (that, as much as any other, critical and philosophical exigencies can and must be part of a new breed of fiction). "How far" he wonders "is Plato's deeply determining way of understanding the relations between philosophy and literature itself determined by certain ideas ... that any genuine philosopher must recognize as themselves open to philosophical question?". Again, the question can be rewritten for the writer: how far is our understanding of the mesmeric shadows flickering on the corporate publisher's cave determined by certain ideas that any genuine novelist must recognise? What Coetzee has begun seems to be continued by philosophy:
The wager motivating this study is that Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello gives us good reason, as philosophers, to open just these ideas and assumptions to question; but that she does so in ways that can properly be understood only if we understand that our primary relation to her is as a literary creation. The Lives of Animals is an attempt by a master of literature to put philosophy in question; and whatever philosophers ultimately come to think is the right way to answer the questions this text poses, they will have failed altogether to meet that challenge if they fail to take seriously the fact that the questions themselves are at once possessed of a recognizable philosophical warrant, and yet irreducibly posed by and through literature.