Jan 222011

Patrick Downes alerted me to this provoking article in the NY Times, provoking because like many myopic American critics this person cannot see beyond the shores of the continental U.S. (except for very, very obvious outsiders like Sartre and Murdoch). I can’t start a list, but maybe I will. Broch, Kundera, Musil, Frisch… Anyway, this is a good example of creeping provincialism in the contemporary c(v)ulture industry.


Can a novelist write philosophically? Even those novelists most commonly deemed “philosophical” have sometimes answered with an emphatic no. Iris Murdoch, the longtime Oxford philosopher and author of some two dozen novels treating highbrow themes like consciousness and morality, argued that philosophy and literature were contrary pursuits. Philosophy calls on the analytical mind to solve conceptual problems in an “austere, unselfish, candid” prose, she said in a BBC interview broadcast in 1978, while literature looks to the imagination to show us something “mysterious, ambiguous, particular” about the world. Any appearance of philosophical ideas in her own novels was an inconsequential reflection of what she happened to know. “If I knew about sailing ships I would put in sailing ships,” she said. “And in a way, as a novelist, I would rather know about sailing ships than about philosophy.”

via The Philosophical Novel – NYTimes.com.

  11 Responses to “The Philosophical Novel – NYTimes.com”

  1. Does this mean philosophy can’t look at anything “mysterious, ambiguous, particular,” supposedly literature’s domain? The writer has such narrow conceptions of both, it’s hard to make anything of what he says.

    I must confess, however, I haven’t read Iris Murdoch. Have I missed anything?

    • I haven’t read her novels. But there are three essays in her book The Sovereignty of Good that explained an awful lot to me. E.g. The Ontological Argument. And more. I recommend it.

      • I read The Sea, the Sea several years ago. What sticks with me is the setting – vivid seaside countryside, pounding surf, fog, rocks – and the characters – fascinating obsession and blindness. Philosophy? I loved the sound as is whooshed over my head.

        • But did it have sailing ships? A novel isn’t any good if it doesn’t have sailing ships. (“And in a way, as a novelist, I would rather know about sailing ships than about philosophy.”)

          • As I recall, there was a boat. Alas, memory. I tried to refresh it but that book seems to have disappeared from my shelves. This is a sure sign that I loved it. All of my favorite books get passed along.

          • Quick post script to my note below (which doesn’t allow for anymore sideways movement): That passing along business does not, of course, apply to living working writers! For those I say “you really must buy yourself a copy of this book – it is wonderful!” 🙂

  2. Nothing against Rebecca Goldstein, but she’s not Nietzsche. Silly NYT.

  3. I love Iris Murdoch’s work.
    Start with “A Severed Head” (it’s short).
    The opening:

    “You’re sure she doesn’t know?”
    “Antonia? About us? Certain.”
    Georgie was silent for a few moments and then said, “Good.” That curt “Good” was characteristic of her, typical of a toughness which had, to my mind, more to do with honesty than with ruthlessness. I liked the dry way in which she accepted our relationship. Only with a person so eminently sensible could I have deceived my wife.

    Another adulterer — in “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine” — makes this delicate philosophical distinction: “I knew a better man would not be in my position, but consoled myself that given my position, no man could have acted better.”

    My favorite of her books is “The Black Prince”, but “A Word Child” “The Nice and the Good” and “The Book and the Brotherhood” are also excellent.

  4. I am not sure Murdoch is really a novelist of ideas so much as a philosopher who also wrote novels.

    Broch’s Sleepwalkers is a great novel (trilogy) of ideas which even contains an extended essay written by one of the characters. Each novel represents a moment in the history of paradigmatic dogma. The third novel is an amazing narrative of what we have become, the c(v)ulture world we live in (and rail against often on NC).

    From Broch Kundera learned the rhythmic use of idea patterning.

    See also the sections in The Life and Times of Captain N called “from Oskar’s Book about Indians” for a similar device.

  5. Vivid descriptions, brilliantly-drawn, complex troubling characters, situations that haunt and inform your life for years after you finish reading … all of that qualifies Murdoch as a full-fledged novelist. Her ideas are the least significant aspect of her books, at least for me.

  6. The distinction the author fails to consider is how philosophical subject matter, or the subjects philosophy tries to consider, might be treated esthetically in a work of fiction. I would think any subject matter is fair game for fiction, though the author seems to think only certain types are suitable. But who wants to read about sailing? Throw that out, too. In fact, I could extend the argument to decide no subject matter is suitable for fiction. Hard to tell where this guy is standing, if anywhere.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.