The Quest for Truth: the Novel and Philosophical Criticism
TO TALK OF PHILOSOPHY IN THE NOVEL may at first blush sound ludicrous if not incongruous. Such a preoccupation necessarily comes to grips with certain difficulties associated with the old quarrel between the thinker and the poet. But the topic becomes altogether legitimate when one considers that philosophy and literature are in fact dynamically connected to each other. And taken in the broad sense as a particular frame of mind, a mental outlook fashioned by the human intellect with respect to the problems of living, philosophy ceases to be the monopoly of the big system builders and lends itself to the purposes of the creative writer. It, therefore, does make sense to look into the shape of philosophy imaginatively bodied forth in a work of fiction if only to know the cast of thought, the climate of ideas, or the human values at work in it.
If creative literature is truly an artistic representation of life, an ordered description of experience, and if the essential contour of experience includes the fact of ideation, then the writer of fiction cannot look askance at ideas if his view of life is to be comprehensive and true enough. For one fundamental thing about human beings is their predilection for speculation as to what things might be. This applies equally to the intellectual in his ivory tower as to the ordinary man in the street. So there is little question of ideas playing an important part in the life of the individual. Living, says Emerson, is what a man thinks about all day. His everyday world takes on a reality shaped according to his mental constructs of it.
Philosophic idea in the context of this essay refers to one generated through the general process of intellection which includes both rational thought and intuition. By whatever path it is arrived at, dialectically or intuitively or even imaginatively, the idea, or better yet idea-feeling as it plays an important part in the novel is my chief interest. Philosophical criticism necessarily operates on the theory that in the novel discursive statement of idea can exist side by side or along the same continuum with concrete literary expression. Idea and story can in fact be successfully blended in an artistic synthesis as evidenced by the masterworks of major novelists. Aldous Huxley, for instance, has written a fine novel embodying his serious philosophical concerns. In Time Must Have a Stop philosophy and narrative are fused. Probably the best-known works exemplifying the integration of story with idea are those by Albert Camus. Through the thoughts and sensibility of Meursault, Camus meant to convey his philosophy of the absurd, and in the plague as the central symbol in another novel of that title, he concretized his conception of the irrational forces and evil in the human situation even as he used dialogue and symbols in putting across his abstractions.
It should nonetheless be stressed that in philosophical exegeses ideas are not given premium over and above other novelistic components. If that were so, the criticism stands to suffer from over-intellectualization or what David Daiches calls as the ‘’intellectual fallacy’’ where the central fact about human beings is thought to be the states of their mind rather than of their heart, or again what Wellek and Warren refer to as the intellectualist misunderstanding that mistakes the functions of philosophy and art which are akin but not identical.
The modern critical theory influenced by I. A. Richards and T. S. Eliot does not endorse the out-and-out use of philosophy or abstract ideas in literary works especially poetry, for they are believed to have a debilitating effect on the aesthetic texture of experience. This theory has become a sacrosanct canon of modern criticism and has been carried over to the novelistic craft. Richard’s insistence on the emotive nature of literary language finds no room for pale generalizations of cognitive values in art. And Eliot would in like fashion require ideas to be transformed into concrete images as a precondition of their use in the domain of art. The apogee of literary achievement as far as he is concerned is the successful telescoping of concept and image in a happy equivalence so that the former blends with or is steeped in the latter.
My difference with Eliot and like-minded critics lies precisely on that score when it comes to fiction. For while I do not presume to impugn the general value of Eliot’s literary theory being what it is, it is my considered position that the idea, expressed discursively, can be integrated in the novel. As a genre it is a freer form than poetry, and therefore, can accommodate plain, conceptual statements of meaning without necessarily doing violence to the novel’s artistic integrity.
The American critic Lionel Trilling, in The Liberal Imagination, argues in the same spirit and practically to the same effect. He contends: ‘’I would claim for the right and the necessity to deal with ideas other than that of ‘objective correlative,’ to deal with them as directly as it deals with people or terrain or social setting.’’ That indeed must be so, for literature is an expression of life which is essentially relational, and where relationship is, there idea is also. The very process of thinking and feeling arise in relationship. ‘’The most elementary thing to observe,’’ continues Trilling, ‘’is that literature is of its nature involved with a man in society, which is to say that it deals with formulations, valuations, and decisions.’’ This, I suppose, is undeniable. And in a novel, what is a character but a bundle of ideas and emotions or lack of them. Appreciation of a character entails of necessity the understanding of the interplay between its thoughts and feelings or what it feels and thinks about the world around it. Besides, the pattern or quality of ideas that defines a character in a given novel serves as a key to the constitution of the represented world in which it moves and lives and has its being.
To speak, therefore, of ‘’philosophy in the novel’’ or ‘’literature of ideas’’ need not invite the execration of those who would assert the autonomy of art for the sake of art. They are certainly not misnomers but labels that convey the relevance of ideas as constituent ingredients of literary creation and thus a legitimate point of departure for philosophical exegesis. Neither are they reductive terms denoting the treatment of literature as anything but itself. Nor is it here suggested that all true novels are novels of ideas, especially in the sense of Edouard’s conception of them in Gide’s Counterfeiters. Edouard sees the proper object of the novel to be ideas more than characters that serve only as mouthpieces for the ideas. If that were the case, then that would unnecessarily circumscribe the range of novelistic possibilities. What is here urged is not a poetics of the novel in which ideas are of paramount importance, but rather one in which they are acknowledged as pertinent.
The procedure of philosophical criticism endeavours to clarify or crystalize the signification of the theme in the light of philosophy even as it looks into its bearing on the formal structure. For form and substance, theme and structure are inextricable features of one and the same artistic unity. At the center, then, of the task of philosophical criticism is the unravelling of a unifying thread, or central idea if you will, which coherently knits together the different parts of a purposeful work like the novel. This done, the artistic pattern will shape up into the meaningful, organic whole that fiction is.
From what we have said thus far, there could be no doubt that the investigation of philosophy (logos) in the novel (mythos) is a legitimate area of critical inquiry. Mapping the groundwork of truth in fiction could prove to be a rewarding interpretative exercise. But of course it will not do to ignore the fact that while the harmonies and aims of philosophy sometimes coincide with those of art, the particular techniques and modes by which philosophy and literature exist are far from identical. Still, philosophy can be beneficially present in the novel when there is a great degree of artistic integration. The novelist copes with such elements of fiction as character, plot, point of view, dialogue, setting, theme, symbolism, etc. in bodying forth the shape of meaning. The view of life the story reveals can be then analysed for the insight it affords into truth or its philosophical import.
It is the philosophical approach thus far described that can be productively applied in the critical interpretation of novels. A comprehensive and integral critical frame that would encompass the crisscrossing and sometimes divergent lines of thought running through the works is however imperative. The concept of the Quest for Truth could serve just that end even as the meanings of the novels being the subject of study gravitate towards the truth in the same way as the proverbial rivers all flow home to the sea. Thus, one novel may be concerned with socio-political vision, another novel may be engaged in intellectual or moral quest, still another with spiritual quest. Whichever way it is, the particular works run in the direction of truth-seeking, the end-all and be-all of living with which serious novels address themselves. It could even be in this sense whereof Henry James said that all serious novels are philosophical because they are concerned with truth and life. That is, truth in human terms, truth in the plural like the truths of heart spoken of by Faulkner. For human truth is the dominant concern of the writer. Only as truth—or facets of it—is glimpsed does it become possible to live in beauty and freedom.