Monday, December 22, 2008

700th post, on Coetzee and the question of philosophy and fiction

I hope the recent flurry created by Two Paths for the Novel, Zadie Smith's landmark NYRB review-essay, is a promise of more to come. More from Zadie Smith and more from the critical ferment her apparent Kehre has begun. Not, of course, that it would be anything new. As Stephen Mulhall explains in The Wounded Animal, subtitled J. M. Coetzee and the Difficulty of Reality in Literature and Philosophy - another must-read due in the early days of 2009 - the difficulty is as old as Western thought.

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.


  1. Congratulations on your septua- er, 700th post, Steve, and hope you have a peaceful Christmas.

  2. That last quote near chocked me up to tears, and it's morning and I haven't had a damn thing to drink but coffee and OJ. That touched a nerve that is endlessly starved for touch.

    Now if I can find Mulhall's book someplace besides Amazon...

  3. I loved this post, Steve. And congratulations on #700!

  4. Thanks for 700 wonderful posts, Steve, and the generosity of spirit and readerly intelligence behind them.

  5. Thanks John, Jacob, Richard and Edmond. Much appreciated here.

    Jacob, try The Book Depository next year. Princeton's site says February is the date for publication.

  6. Anonymous2:34 pm

    I was a little underwhelmed by Diary of a Bad Year, but I thought Elizabeth Costello was wonderful. The difference is that much of the "philosophy" in Diary of a Bad Year adopts the simple conventions of newspaper op-ed columns. Elizabeth Costello is more effective for being more oblique.

    Related to your post, I recently read a book called "Philosophy and Animal Life" by Cora Diamond, Ian Hacking et al., which seems to address the same themes as the Mulhall book. It specifically concerns this "difficulty of reality" in relation to animals.

    In short, the thought is that the transformation of conscious beings into packaged meat is something we cannot easily conceptualize. There is some horrific gap where an organized being has to be reconceptualized as an inert commodity, and we cannot fully grasp how this transformation is possible in reality -- in the same way that we cannot really grasp what it will be like to die. Realizing this limit on our understanding lets us see something we and animals have in common -- vulnerability.

  7. Thanks for the comment. Cora Diamond's work is addressed in the extract from the book so it seems to follow the same themes but extends to literature.

    On Diary of a Bad Year: the op-ed nature of the essays is, as I said in my review linked to in the blog, necessary to the narrative; it includes the vulnerability of which you speak. The commanding spirit of the writer - his mastery over the world in the form of a book - is thereby put in question.

  8. Anonymous9:12 pm

    I think the concept of Diary of a Bad Year is wonderful -- but is that concept best executed with so many essays for so little narrative? I'm not sure. I think part of the fun of writing this for Coetzee was the chance to jump on a soap box and let rip. If his goals were only literary, some of the op-ed columns could have been cut.

    And is this theme of the vulnerability of the writer (or, more generally, the ethical thinker) really developed beyond the wonderful exploration it gets in Elizabeth Costello? To some extent, Diary of a Bad Year is retreading old ground.



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