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?