Friday, February 04, 2011

Gass on writers and philosophers

William H. Gass:

The concepts of the philosopher speak, the words of the novelist are mute; the philosopher invites us to pass through his words to his subject: man, God, nature, moral law; while the novelist, if he is any good, will keep us kindly imprisoned in his language – there is literally nothing beyond.

That is simply nonsense. Gass tries to establish a fundamental difference between philosophers and writers and, in some senses, he may be right. But here he goes too far. A philosopher, if he is any good, will indeed invite us to pass through his words to his subject. But so too, will a writer. Is Moby-Dick a mute example of wordplay, or is it an exercise in the understanding of humanity and human nature? Are Flannery O'Connor's tortured souls, Tarwater and Haze Motes, mutely imprisoning us in a cage of beautiful words, or are they beckoning us to the vision that O'Connor wants us to apprehend? Of course there is something beyond the words on the page. Otherwise there would be no point in either writing or reading them.


Jim H. said...

Nice pull w/r/t Gass. I find this subject endlessly fascinating. I posted some comments on the same topic just the other day here:

If you don't mind my quoting myself:

"Philosophy, no matter what it claims to be about, is about PHILOSOPHY, on the way to which it wants to show why no matter what other disciplines claim to be about, they are ultimately about nothing—unless it's philosophy (however naively).

The novel can portray a philosopher as a bumbler or an idealist or unfeeling lout or whatever, but that is secondary to its main business, which is, indeed, portrayal: portrayal of a specific character, of affect, of choice, of transformation. Generalization to "mankind" and "humanity" and "human nature" is the game readers (a la Ryerson) play.

Where the two may have some common ground (if we can say that they even do) is in the knowledge that they are ultimately about nothing: philosophy is the project to prove that that isn't the case, that there is some there there in reality, while the novel accepts it as given and attempts to create something out of it."

I guess I'm not as favorably inclined to philosophy as Gass, nor as nihilistic about fiction. The vision, to use your word, though, remains illusory—esp. w/r/t to O'Connor.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Jim, thanks for commenting.

I'm not sure I'd be quite so absolute about philosophy's purpose being to show that 'other disciplines ...are ultimately about nothing—unless it's philosophy...'. I like the quote (Plato, I think?) that philosophy has its origins in wonder'. I link it to Eric Satie's instruction to 'wonder about yourself'. That's what both philosophy and literature do for me.

I'm intrigued by your final comment about O'Connor. She's someone I have a true love-hate relationship with.