The Challenges in Writing a Philosophical Novel

A while back I did some Googling to find out whether someone out there had written a book similar to mine, and in my research I came across Charles Johnson’s novel, Faith and The Good Thing. Too good to be true. He too makes use of the most powerful centerpieces in Plato’s works: The Allegory of the Cave and The Divided Line in the Republic, and Diotima’s Ladder in the Symposium. To name a few. 671564(See this for more on the meaning of Diotima’s Ladder.) I wondered how he turned these theories about the relationship of reality, truth, and beauty into a story that people would be able to appreciate as fiction.

I’ve always felt that Plato’s ‘harmony of the soul’ would make for a great story, if only I could figure out the right angle. I know the phrase sounds antiquated, but if we change the language a bit, we’ll find a remarkably current philosophy of lived experience, a nuanced one that doesn’t ignore all-too-human truths, and, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t ignore the  world we inhabit. But it’s true that Plato’s more concerned about the inner workings of our minds, and for him this needs to be understood before we can make sense of the world. We have complicated emotions and desires that can really mess us up, in so many ways, even intellectually, and we might not realize it. But Plato also says that these are an integral part of us, and necessary for attaining knowledge. Without desire, there’s no impetus to do much of anything, much less study philosophy. And yet, philosophers tend to think of emotion and desire as something that ‘gets in the way’ of reason, if they bother to discuss it at all. Plato plunges headfirst into the mess of the human psyche, and leads us to ask: How do we make sense of ourselves as creatures with noble ideas in a world that doesn’t seem to live up to our expectations? Should we lower our expectations, give ourselves a so-called ‘reality’ check? What if we get it wrong, and don’t realize it? What if  transcendent ideas actually are real? What makes something real anyway? How can something be said to be not real?

I think Plato has meaningful answers to these questions. My challenge is to turn something as technical as the Divided Line into an engaging story, to bring these questions back to life.

I was surprised to find that Charles Johnson and I came up with the same idea—we both independently thought to create characters that represent segments of the line. (Of course, he did it first.) My “Faith” character is also a religious young woman who represents picture-thinking on the line. Johnson’s characterization makes perfect sense to me, obviously, but it might not make sense to those who don’t know the intricacies of the allegory.

But that doesn’t matter. Faith’s plight as a religious young black woman whose mother dies, leaving Faith to roam the earth (well, Chicago) in search of “The Good Thing” makes for an intriguing story. She wonders what The Good Thing is, and so do we. Faith becomes a prostitute in order to survive, constantly searching, constantly changing as she encounters dodgy characters, each of whom represent other aspects of the divided line. She’s moving up the line or ladder, but from her original standpoint as a fairly stable innocent figure (representative of right opinion), moving up to higher levels of knowledge and sophistication is dangerous. Plato would agree, and the events in the novel exemplify what would otherwise be a yawn-inducing epistemological threat. Johnson has shown that the theoretical has serious, material consequences. Plus, there’s an element of magic to the tale, which lends an epic feel to the novel, a bit like John Gardner’s Grendel, (Gardner was apparently his writing mentor.) There’s a surprising merging of science and witchcraft, of art and reason, of myth and truth, and these create a thematic tension that sustains us throughout.

All of these elements make the philosophy come alive, but Johnson may have lost a broader audience was when he had characters dropping references to philosophers/philosophies that the average reader might not understand. What worries me is that I didn’t even notice that these references were problematic until I got feedback from my book group. So much about this novel was, in my opinion, brilliantly successful. Members of my group all agreed that the writing sparkled. And yet, these references were enough to make erudite people, some of whom are professors, dislike the book as a whole. The online reviews echo this complaint. Yet I missed it, so eager was I to make my comparisons and theories. This was an eye opener for me.

My takeaway from The Good Thing:

Don’t reference without clearly explaining. Better yet, don’t reference without being prepared to integrate the point into the plot and theme in such a way as to make the idea come alive on its own, with no need for you to call attention to the reference. OR—reference with such a light touch that readers who won’t get the reference won’t feel that anything’s missing.

Don’t make the characters wooden in order to drive home a theme. Give your reader time to figure out what’s being exemplified, and don’t worry if the philosophical theme isn’t crystal clear from the get-go. Don’t worry if it never becomes crystal clear. If you stick too closely to the archetype, you lose that breath of life that makes fiction fiction. Johnson juxtaposed his children’s fairy tale narrative style with a dark subject about modern life to make his archetypes worth following. But what he did is hard to do. And while I don’t know what segments of the Divided line all his characters represent, I got his overall interpretation well enough to let those details go.

Be funny. Yeah, easier said than done. But humor makes readers more likely to forgive you your heavy ideas. Johnson did just this, and it worked. He had a way of spinning out yarns that I’m incapable of. But there are more ways to be humorous than telling jokes. Consider goofy ordinary things that people do, and bring those into a heavy philosophical moment, grounding that scene in the mundane. Consider the setting and how that can contrast or illuminate the point in humorous ways. If all else fails, just put a dog or a baby in the mix. Interruptions can do double duty by being both funny and revealing, especially if your characters react in different, revealing ways.

 

Don’t be tempted to put all your philosophical ideas inside heads. This is sort of the default for philosophical fiction: dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. It’s a kind of info dump when you think about it. When I don’t know how to convey some idea, I tend to just stick it into dialogue and run with it. Or I have someone thinking about the idea. But that’s lazy of me. Try conveying those ideas with no dialogue, at least as an exercise, and see where that leads. You might be surprised.

Don’t be too brief. If you want an idea to resonate, make it resonate. Don’t whittle it down to nothing out of fear of being boring. More than likely, you’ll make it boring by scraping away the meat of it. There are other ways to deal with dense material than to strip it down to a Cliff’s note. And if you want to let readers get their geek on, but you’re worried you might still be putting out too much info, put the diagrams and equations in an endnote. That way everyone can have their cake.

That said, brief nuggets of wisdom can work well.  Especially when repeated in a certain thematic rhythm. Johnson used a few snappy lines to crystalize various ideas, and the repetition of those lines gave a sense of movement in its own right. Also, these gave a sense of finality: “Don’t be interrupting to ask if the tale is true. Was it Good? Was it Beautiful? All right.”

Use subtext. The best of all possible worlds is when material conflict converges with ideological tension. When one character has something to hide from another, he or she might speak in generalities—in our case, in dry philosophical terms—while really being concerned about something much more mundane, which is, in a sense, more important. Make that mundane worry crystal clear for the reader, make it clear that this worry is bubbling beneath the surface of what’s being said or done, and you’ve virtually given yourself a free pass to go wild with theoretical musings.

For instance, when Faith meets Tippis, one of those dodgy characters she encounters on her travels, he takes her to a bar and drowns his sorrows in pontifications: “Everything you want is an object for the satisfaction of drives developed in childhood, and you, in society, are an object for others, hardly ever yourself…” and so on. This doesn’t feel like a lecture in the context, because they’re at a sleazy bar, and we know Tippis is eager to use Faith as an object for his sexual gratification. Faith realizes this too, and now we wonder how she’ll react to his professed philosophy. We also get a sense of just how pathetic Tippis is, and can feel sorry for him in this sense, just as Faith does, even when she’s powerless to stop him.

Give those ideas relevance by making them a stake in the game. If you can make the philosophical idea a necessary feature of your plot, you’re golden. If the protagonist doesn’t figure out the mind-body problem in time, his lover will literally lose her head. Well, maybe you can tell me how that might work.

By the way, tomorrow I’m going to the Tucson Festival of Books to see Charles Johnson do a workshop. Maybe I’ll get to thank him in person!


Any ideas on how to write a philosophical novel? Or a novel about ideas? What tricks or tools would you use?

Happy Holidays!

Geordie got to visit Santa Claus this year…he looks a bit skeptical here, but I think I’ll convince him in the end. (“Of course this 22 year old kid isn’t the real Santa Claus, but he’s working for Santa. Santa’s busy with your presents right now.”)

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My favorite thing about this photo is the teddy bear who has had just about enough of all this (lower right hand corner.) 

 

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Cranberry-Almond tart for us..

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Gingerbread javelina for Santa Claus…Geordie’s keeping watch. He still doesn’t believe, but he’ll see some pretty solid evidence come Christmas morning. 

The weather forecast says we’ll get snow on the mountain tomorrow, which means a white Christmas (for Tucson.)

Merry Christmas everyone!

It Can Happen Here

And it did.

Maybe we shouldn’t be happy that California and other states have legalized marijuana. At this point, we need every last brain cell just to carry on.

And we have not only Trump to consider, but also the major Republican win all over the map. Who will check Trump? Where’s the balance? I get this sick feeling that somehow this will all go downhill in some insidious twisted way that no one could anticipate, with each player in the game unwittingly complicit. Yet responsible.

The talking heads don’t know what’s going on, and when you watch them ad libbing at 2am, you finally get to see them admit it. Judy Woodruff nearly broke down in tears at one point as she described what could have been, apparently having had high hopes for Hilary. Surprise surprise. David Brooks told us about all the friends and relatives who were texting him, panicking, crying. As the veneer of impartiality was stripped away, their faces grew increasingly pale with each bit of information, and they filled the time by analyzing themselves: Maybe there was something wrong with the polling—Maybe this is about race—Maybe this isn’t about race—This isn’t about the economy—This is in part about the economy—Let’s take a look at college-educated white women in comparison to…—This election has been unpredictable—It seems no one saw it coming, at least none of the smart folks with their numbers and polls. Were people answering honestly? (Did they secretly vote for Trump? Were they ashamed to admit it?)—This just goes to show that there really was a silent majority out there.—Trump was right about one thing, we got it wrong.

I did watch networks other than PBS to see what they were up to. More of the same mind-numbing speculation, as I’d expected, but I was more interested in their emotional reactions. Several looked to be on the verge of puking or punching a wall. This was an interesting moment to watch—the talking heads letting their humanity show, just to kill time. I’m sure they’re wondering what part they played in this outcome, and so am I.

I sense the foundation of our lives has been ripped out from under us. Who do we trust now? The system? Is the world a reasonable place? It’s hard to believe it is.

What will happen next? What do you think? 


Here are some stress-relieving pictures to look at. If you’re one of those millennials who threw away your vote, look away. You don’t deserve any comfort.IMG_1301.JPGIMG_2355.JPG

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Halloween Costumes for The Procrastinators, The Couples, and/or The Underly-Ambitious Yet Self-Satisfied DIYers

You have no time to read. I’ll keep it simple.


A Lunar Eclipse: For Couples (or if you’re going solo, get creative)

The sun. If you have a dog, include dog. Make some sort of sun out of whatever you have on hand. Panty hose make for a nice impromptu stretchy material to attach the sun around your dog’s waist. Or you could tie the sun to a harness.

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If you don’t have a dog, tie the sun around a wrist and hold your arm out for photos. (The sun would go with the person wearing the shadow costume [see below], not the moon. And make sure your shadow costume wearer places the sun in front of the earth.)

Now the earth’s shadow. Wear all black, buy an inflatable earth or use whatever you can think of. I made this hat with wire which I bent into a halo shape, then placed over a black mask.IMG_2625.JPG

If you can’t find an inflatable globe, you could print out an image of the earth, affix the image to cardboard, and tie it to your wrist to hold in front of you.

Now the moon. I found an image on the internet, printed it out, covered it in clear mailing tape and stapled it to a black shirt. (Tip: Staple from the inside or risk getting stabbed a little throughout the evening.) Add black pants, black shoes, etc. Voila. You’re a moon about to be eclipsed. The smaller person in the couple should be the moon and should stand behind the shadow, barely peeking out. This is an eclipse after all.

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Last Minute Costume Ideas

Matching Couple

Retired (Hawaiian shirt, golf club, AARP card, etc.)

If you have a portable musical instrument, be a musician.

If you partake in any hobby that requires a costume, be that. (For instance, I’m wearing my flamenco skirt and castanets for tonight’s party.)

If you have formal wear, pretend you’re at prom. Add pimples and dorky glasses. Or go with a retro look.


More Costumes

Couples or solo, look here for details on these homemade creations:

A jumping cholla, a saguaro.

Fifty Shades of Grey, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Wind, a Tumbleweed (Yeah, people will say “blow me.”)

A Black Hole, A Shooting Star


The Ultimate Procrastinator’s Last Minute Costumes:

An undercover cop. Click here for details.

A Sale of Two Titties. (Print out: $$$FORSALE$$$ and affix to your chest.)

A Tale of Two Cities (Print out: London + Paris, for instance) and affix these to your butt…again, remember, staple from the inside. Or if you’re going to a really fun party, you know what to do. Don’t recommend Sharpie markers for that.

Last year’s last minute costume.


What’re you gonna be for Halloween?

Translating in the Dark

I’m working on a project with Andreas (you may know him as “Nannus”) to translate Frege’s “On the Scientific Justification of a Concept Script,” which is funny since I don’t know much about Frege—close to nothing—and I don’t speak German. Nannus, however, is a native German speaker with a strong grasp of English and logic, so I thought my work would be a simple edit of what he’d already published on his blog. I believe I told him it would be nice to move away from the original German syntax to make the writing more accessible to English readers, and I thought it would take very little work since the article’s so short. Professional translators are probably laughing at me now.

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This has been an entirely new sort of writing project for me. Normally when I write, I craft sentences to approximate the idea I have sitting in my mind, and yet, this act lends the initial idea a distinctive clarity, tethering it in specificity. I can’t say I have no idea of what I’m gonna say before it becomes formulated into words, but the idea is usually cloudy, a mere outline. It’s not controversial to say that writing clarifies thoughts, but we don’t always like to acknowledge that it can uproot an initial idea by displaying, sometimes all-too-concretely, its incoherence. Thanks to the delete button I can contradict myself without embarrassing myself, I can change my mind in private so that by the time my idea comes across to an audience, it seems as though my thoughts have always been relatively clear, as if it were only a matter of putting them on paper. In seeing my ideas so concretely, almost objectively, I can revise them, altering them to make them more logical, qualifying them to soften their rough edges, tweaking them to make finer points that otherwise
wouldn’t be available to me. This is part of Frege’s point (as I understand him)—that “external signs” make more permanent what is otherwise transient, that thoughts would not be what we think they are without written language.

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A bit of doodling from high school which I found as I was cleaning out my mom’s house. I decided to photograph this bit and then throw away the journal. No regrets. I like the photo better than the original, especially that glare in the corner.

I found that this distinctive benefit of writing—the clearing out of cobwebs in one’s own mind—gets lost in translating, which instead forces words into what feels like a jigsaw puzzle, the emerging picture being some mysterious original content, the author’s intent, somehow graspable though difficult to re-articulate. This isn’t a perfect metaphor since there’s room for some structural alteration which a jigsaw puzzle wouldn’t allow. For instance, I could break apart sentences that an English reader would find tediously long, within limits. But this breaking apart sometimes meant changing a word or two, which then required changes further down the sentence often due to seemingly trivial things like syntactical expectations in English. And after doing this sentence-level reconstruction, all this had to be looked at from a paragraph level, and the reformulations had to be altered yet again to form a coherent whole. And so on. Not to mention the odd dynamic here since I couldn’t consult with the original text myself, which felt a bit like I was playing out some inverted version of the Chinese room argument…and of course I would be the one locked in the room with nothing but vapor clouds of propositional content, wasting most of my time wondering about pizza delivery options. Plus, I wanted to make changes in places I felt there was inconsistency or superfluous detail clouding the author’s message, but that was not only not my job, but not allowed. The irony here is that Frege’s article is about the cloudiness of language and the need to create a new form of communication free from equivocation, hidden premises, and mental muck. Good luck with that, Frege. I suppose a thin crust pizza might make it under the door relatively intact, don’t you think?

Do you have experiences of translating other people’s words? Or lost in translation experiences? What did you learn?