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Life as Literature

I’ve been thinking a lot about my instinctive predilection for writers whose life and work bleed into each other, an attraction I felt long before I was fully aware of their biographical details. The first was Kafka; the second Rolfe; the third Musil; the fourth Mishima and the fifth, Toole. I’ve come to the conclusion that these philosophical novelists speak to me more deeply than the greatest pure philosophers. What’s the theme binds their work? The “spiritual impoverishment” of their age, a phrase I’m loathe to use since its meaning would be vulgarized both by so-called “new atheists” and by their enemies, doctrinal fundamentalist followers.

Here are some Mishima quotes culled for the Paul Schrader’s film (here is the finale), beautifully rendered with Philip Glass’ brilliant score:

In its essence, any art that relies on words makes use of their ability to eat away – of their corrosive function… Words are a medium that reduces reality to abstraction for transmission to our reason, and in their power to corrode reality inevitably lurks the danger that the words will be corroded too.

… (There were always) two contradictory tendencies within myself. One was the determination to press ahead loyally with the corrosive function of words, and to make that my life’s work. The other was the desire to encounter reality in some field where words should play no part at all.

So if you do not acknowledge in your heart the values that surpass yourself, you are in a psychological state where your sole existence is meaningless

A sea of clouds spread out below, devoid of any conspicuous irregularities, like a garden of pure white moss… The silver fuselage floated in the naked light, the plane maintaining a splendid equilibrium. Once more it became a closed, motionless room. The plane was moving at all. It had become an oddly shaped metal cabin floating quite still in the upper atmosphere…

There was no suffocating sensation. My mind was at ease. My thought process lively. If this stillness was the ultimate end of action – of movement – then the sky about me, the clouds far below, the sea gleaming between the clouds. Even the setting sun, might well be events, things, within myself. At this distance from the earth, intellectual adventure and physical adventure could join hands without the slightest difficulty. This was the point I had always been striving towards.

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Fiction and the brain

Here’s a recent article referring to Joshua Landy’s very interesting work. Check out his just released book How to Do Things with FictionsThis blurb alone is recommendation enough:

Witty and approachable, How to Do Things with Fictions challenges the widespread assumption that literary texts must be informative or morally improving in order to be of any real benefit. It reveals that authors are sometimes best thought of not as entertainers or as educators but as personal trainers of the brain, putting their willing readers through exercises designed to fortify specific mental capacities, from form-giving to equanimity, from reason to faith.

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Stories, religion, politics and evolution

Staying with the literature theme of a few days ago and earlier today, here is another write up on Jonathan Gottschall’s new book and an article by JG himself here and a related review article of another book by John Gray here.

Phony philosophy

We love stories as much as we need them, but a funny thing has happened to departments of literature. The study of literature as an art form, of its techniques for delighting and instructing, has been replaced by an amalgam of bad epistemology and worse prose that goes by many names but can be summed up as Theory. The situation seems to call for a story, and one written in the style of Jorge Luis Borges, the grand chronicler of the tragicomic struggle between humans and logic.

Check out this piece in The New York Times by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (Mrs. Pinker).  She of course has in mind departments that where a lack of philosophical culture licences uncritical and obscure thinking.

Theo alone insisted that Theory was no hoax but was intended as the most imperialist of cognitive campaigns, having designs on all the disciplines. Culture owns knowledge, and departments of literature own Culture. It follows (at least if logic can be said to hold constant in the face of frenetic Culture) that departments of literature can legitimately claim dominion over us all.

Consciousness in Literature

From time to time I’m asked to recommend a novel that has consciousness as its central concern. Two that I’ve read are David Lodge’s Thinks . . . and Dan Lloyd’s Radiant Cool. The former is light entertaining fluff (the “new” university setting will be especially resonant for British readers; most readers will recognise the Dennett-like protagonist, only in the sense of a philosophical position and perhaps comportment – there are certainly no similarities in terms of private life); the latter, written by a formidable theorist actually working in consciousness studies, is pretty dense and is chock full of philosophy in-jokes. I’d recommend both.