Can a novelist write [well] philosophically?

“Can a novelist write philosophically?” begins the essay The Philosophical Novel in the NY Times Book Section last week. It’s an old question. The conflict is the long-held (hello, Plato) notion that philosophy is a dry, precise search for truth, heedless of aesthetics while novels tell stories to create illusions and explore imprecise, untrue things. It goes on to discuss philosophers who wrote well like novelists (Nietzche) and novelists who write like philosophers (David Foster Wallace), and whether either of the disciplines suffered for the mixture.

The questions are not unlike the series of lectures bound up in The Naive and Sentimental Novelist (2010) by Orham Pamuk. Pamuk’s love of reading and the craft of writing is a great read, all spun around the famous concept of Schilller: naïve writers write “spontaneously, almost without thinking, not bothering to consider the intellectual or ethical consequences of their words” while the sentimental writer is “thoughtful” and “troubled” and “exceedingly aware of the poem he writes, the method and techniques he uses, the artifice involved in his endeavor.”  The sentimental poet can be called philosophical. Pamuk himself writes–and reads– both naivelly and sentimentally at times. As a reader, he claims we all juggle the same differing mindsets, between the suspension of disbelief and the analytic understanding of what we are reading.

 Friedrich Schiller’s On the Naive and Sentimental in Literature (1795) is a paper on poetic (more generally artistic) theory, in which he as the reflective sentimalisch writer rather envies Goethe, a naive writer who never doubts whether the words that stream out of him are accurate and true. Schiller’s influential oppositional and psychological views have been very influential on later art history criticism and psychoanalysis. Within this dialogue is also the opposition of the Classical and the Romantic

While I imagine the Romantic poet as driven to pour out his heart unselfconsciously, ala Keats, and Wordsworth, Schiller himself felt the opposite. Classical poets like the Greeks were naive writers for whom there was no struggle to reach a natural state. Romantic writers suffered the anguish of trying to recapture their lost ideals, and doubt as to whether their words actually did. So inspired by all these connections, I’m trying to recapture the lost ideal that is my ability to focus on philosophy, and actually site down and read beyond the introduction of On the Naive and Sentimental in Literature. Surely these oppositional groups are more nuanced than they seem, and hopefully a novelist can find the teetering, tottering edge between the philosophical and the story, the naive and the sentimental.

3 thoughts on “Can a novelist write [well] philosophically?

  1. You wrote about Scarlett Thomas recently, no? I’ll have to follow up on that.

    Lorenzo! So nice to see you again. I am picking up breadcrumbs as we speak.

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