The Philosophical Novel

I’ve been trying to think of all the truly philosophical novels I’ve read, and I must admit, I’m coming up short. Very short.

Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is always the first to come to my mind. I consider this truly a philosophical novel as the concepts are illustrated by the story, inextricably integrated:

“Why does my action strike them as so horrible?” he said to himself. “Is it because it was a crime? What is meant by crime? My conscience is at rest. Of course it was a legal crime, of course the letter of the law was broken and blood was shed. Well, punish me for the letter of the law…and that’s enough. Of course, in that case many of the benefactors of mankind who snatched power for themselves instead of inheriting it ought to have been punished at their first steps. But those men succeeded and so they were right, and I didn’t, and so I had no right to have taken that step.”

It was only in that that he recognized his criminality, only in the fact that he had been unsuccessful and had confessed it.

He suffered too from the question: why had he not killed himself? Why had he stood looking into the river and preferred to confess? Was the desire to live so strong and was it so hard to overcome it? Had not Svidrigailov overcome it, although he was afraid of death?

In misery he asked himself this question, and could not understand that, at the very time he had been standing looking into the river, he had perhaps been dimly conscious of the fundamental falsity in himself and his convictions. He didn’t understand that that consciousness might be the promise of a future crises, of a new view of life and of his future resurrection.

Raskolnikov holds the philosophy of Nietzsche, Thrasymachus, and Callicles—might makes right. In other words, moral law is upheld by the weak for the weak as a mere social convention. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with killing someone for no reason, it’s just a matter of having the ability to get away with it.

So Raskolnikov kills his landlady for practically no reason; he steals a few items, but this effort is feeble…he picks through her pouch and throws the crosses back on her corpse, a symbolic gesture that has no pragmatic purpose and could compromise his deed. Then he’s forced to kill another, to escape getting caught.

His punishment comes to him from within, just after this killing. As he’s running out the door: “…it is very possible that he would have flung up everything, and would have gone to give himself up, and not from fear, but from simple horror and loathing of what he had done. The feeling of loathing especially surged up within him and grew stronger and stronger every minute. He would not now have gone to the box or even into the room for anything in the world.”

He can’t understand why he feels what he feels because his moral philosophy (or lack thereof) contradicts his emotions. He becomes ill, the deed sits like a poison in his body and soul. Eventually the sickness is too strong to bear and he recognizes the “fundamental falsity in himself.”

Without this “might makes right” philosophy in the character of Raskolnikov, the story simply wouldn’t be what it is.  It’s Dostoyevsky’s conviction that moral conscience exists in us, whether we want it or believe in it. As Socrates argues in the Republic, “…the just is happy and the unjust miserable” (354a).

Only Dostoyevsky brings Socrates’ argument into a detailed psychological illustration that far surpasses dry argument in its ability to persuade. The power of fiction drives a clear concept, elucidating it, making the ‘dry’ argument even clearer. To me, this novel perfectly encapsulates the fusion of philosophy and fiction and demonstrates what the marriage of these can do, how far such an alliance can go.

I yearn for more of these novels. I used to read only classics (that is, if I read fiction at all) but since I’ve started writing fiction I’ve felt compelled to read contemporary stuff, mainly so I don’t sound so damned ignorant in my writer’s group, but also so I can get a sense of what most people are reading, a sense of our culture.

I’m finding even really well-written contemporary novels somewhat empty. If I start listing the titles of those novels I’ve read that I think fit this category, I’m sure to have people up in arms. I like to think I’m not being nostalgic…I don’t feel the same way about movies, for instance. I think we’re producing way better movies nowadays (and I’d like to talk about Her in my next post…it’s fantastic and I urge you all to watch it.) I would like to read a novel—not necessarily philosophical—that has substance. I want a higher standard. I don’t want to read an award-winning novel and put it down thinking, “Well I could have gotten that wisdom from a few paragraphs of X non-fiction book.” I want the close emotive connectedness of the novel—it’s persuasive power—put to good use, a necessary handmaiden of an interesting idea. Anyone else feel the same way?

I hope I don’t sound like a snob. I see the need for a “beach read,” but the novels I’m complaining about are classified as “literary” and awarded great critical acclaim.

Besides, why can’t we expect more from a beach read? Why can’t a novel be easy to read and substantive? In fact, I hope my novel turns out to be a beach read, in this sense.

So what do you think?

What makes a novel philosophical?

What makes a novel worth reading?

Do you read fiction? If not, why?

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27 thoughts on “The Philosophical Novel

  1. Stanislaw Lem wrote several books that could be called “Philosophical Fiction”. Solaris, Golem XIV, The Cyberiad, His Master’s Voice, and several other books he wrote are philosophical works besides being works of fiction. Definitely it is very different from Dostoyevski. Lem once said, in a TV talk show, that there are two kinds of books, those that contain feelings and those that contain ideas. His own books contain ideas.

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  2. Definitely agree with you here, I don’t read much (contemporary) fiction for the same reasons you note, and in terms of philosophical media, it seems the strongest and most provocative instantiations of it, as of late, have come from cinema. For my money, some of the best non-academic philosophy of recent years has been Christopher Nolan movies, particularly his handling of issues relating to memory, externalized cognition, and personal identity in Memento and The Prestige.

    Maybe it’s cheating, but I do enjoy my Sartre novels when it comes to philosophical novels.

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    • I totally agree with you about cinema. I’m going to re-watch “Her” tonight so I can do an analysis tomorrow or soon. I was really impressed with the concepts in it. There is much to be discussed. Have you seen it? If you haven’t, I hope you will so we can talk about it. It’s definitely a conversation-generating movie.

      I haven’t seen “The Prestige” but I have seen “Memento”…it was one of the first, I believe, to mess with time in that way. When I saw it a long time ago, I didn’t think it was possible to have such a lack of memory and retain reasoning capabilities at that level. At the time I didn’t know much about dementia and how that works.

      Sartre’s definitely not cheating! I read Nausea, and the WWII trilogy back in high school. Nausea made me a little…not nauseated, just bored, but the WWII trilogy was engaging. “Troubled Sleep” comes to mind. So does “The Age of Reason”. Anyways, I did like those. I thought the passivity in individual’s minds helped explain how events evolved the way they did.

      Nausea really does count as a philosophical novel, I would say. The ideas put forth are clearly exhibited by the plot and characters in an integrated way.

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  3. I read very little fiction. I have written about the reasons here: http://asifoscope.org/2013/03/27/some-thoughts-about-myself/
    I generally prefer non-fiction, like essays and things like that. And also Lyrics. Most of the fiction I like might be a bit strange. The reason, I think it has something to do with the kind of personality I am. In the Myers-Briggs classification of personality types, I come out as an “INTP”, and it really fits. The typical main stream fiction is not written for people like me. 🙂
    For me, what makes a novel worth reading is if it contains some interesting ideas. There are some novels I love where I cannot really say why I love them. For example, I do not get tired rereading “Tempyoo no Iraka” (The roof tile from Tempyoo) by Inoue Yasushi. The reason might be that this is a kind of prose at the border between novel and essay.

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  4. Crime and Punishment sounds interesting. I started to read it in school, but never finished it, despite being mesmerized by the story.

    Most of the fiction that I read is science fiction, the best of which often get philosophical, although probably nothing like C&P or books by Sartre or other philosophers. Classics like Dune (don’t judge it by the movie adaptations), The Forever War, and Hyperion are worth checking out. More recently, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, which just won the Hugo Award for best novel, was fascinating for its anthropological awareness and its exploration of the self.

    I agree with the discussion on the Chris Nolan movies. He did a nice job on the prisoner’s dilemma in The Dark Knight.

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      • Hmmm. Not sure what I’d recommend as a first sci-fi book. Hard core sci-fi can be a shock for someone just getting into it. I started young with movie and TV show novelizations then gradually moved into the more literary stuff. Usually I’d recommend something more like John Scalzi’s Old Man War as a starter.

        That said,you’re starting out with pretty sophisticated tastes, so you might do quite well with either Dune or Ancillary Justice. I think I’d recommend scanning the opening preview for each of them on Amazon (or wherever you shop), and going with whichever one draws you in more. Ancillary Justice is very fresh for me and easy to recommend as perhaps the first preview to look at.

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        • I will definitely do that. Sci-fi will be interesting to get into for many reasons, especially from a writer’s perspective. I’ve heard discussions in a writing class that the sci-fi genre allows for “information dumps” (these are a big no-no in most fiction). I’ve been wondering if my novel is a bit “information dumpy”…maybe I can get away with it if I learn how to do it properly?

          I’ll let you know when I get to the reading. I’m heading to VT very soon, so I don’t want to order it quite yet. Looking forward to discussion with you!

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          • Info dumps are a matter of debate in some sci-fi author circles. Classic sci-fi is loaded with them, and sci-fi readers are used to them, and usually tolerant, as long as the author doesn’t get too carried away. It can be a balancing act deciding how much to reveal and when.

            Some authors think they should be be absolutely minimal with the setting only being revealed when a viewpoint character has a plot reason to think directly about it. But as a reader, I find that authors who try too hard with this end up putting a lot of work on the readers. I personally find it irritating when I as the reader don’t have important knowledge about the world that the viewpoints characters do have.

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          • Yeah, I don’t mind making readers work, but I do agree that all the information has to be there. I hate when I’m watching a mystery and trying to puzzle things together only to find out at the end that there was no way I could have figured it out. That’s just cheap!

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  5. A possible parallel I see to “Crime and Punishment” is Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, which is a non-fiction account of the Hickock and Smith crime. In both cases, blood was shed for an insignificant gain, and the criminals suffered from dysphoria soon after. While the motivation may have been different, you get an insight into Hickock and Smith’s mental states, which may be helpful for understanding other philosophical texts.

    Isn’t dissonance interesting?

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