Of Philosophy and Fiction

As I ready myself before heading into the wide world — say, before a plane ride — I scan my shelves for a book, for something to enthrall, engage, and inspire me. And, each time, I turn to a book of philosophy, to Bergson or Guattari, to Leibniz, Bataille, or even Lacan.  I rarely grab a novel.

What is it I want from the experience of reading philosophy? What makes it different than reading a novel?

There are so many similarities. Argument and narrative are related: each arranges disparate elements into a flow that literally makes sense.  Many novels, I believe, borrow narrative structures so they replay familiar tales — of redemption, of discovery, of whatever. And as I am attracted to strange kinds of sense, I turn to philosophy.

Of course, there is plenty of fiction that enjoys strange sense — I'm thinking of Borges, Joyce, Burroughs, Nabokov, Clarice Lispector, Lydia Davis, Maurice Blanchot, Celine. There are hundreds more. And I've read many of them.

But what about characters? I like characters. Ignatius Reilly, Humbert Humbert, Alex Portnoy, Dr. Benway: great characters. Note that we are not asked to identify with any of these characters; we don't find ourselves in them (well, Portnoy aside: I find too much I identify with). On the contrary, they are presented to us as not-us, as difference, as confrontations (even if not confrontational per se).

And the philosophy I read has plenty of characters — and even more character. Nietzsche? Besides Zarathustra and Socrates and Jesus and the warrior and dozens more, the writing itself overflows with character. It's like reading Ignatius Reilly's rants. Kierkegaard? Nothing but characters, Hilarious Bookbinder among them. Kant is more challenging as he tries just to present his ideas. But this, too, becomes character. How about Wittgenstein's Tractatus, a book as close to bereft of character as you can find? But of course that's a ridiculous thing to say: the Tractatus has plenty of character, albeit that of an uptight, pompous prick.

So when I read philosophy, I am looking for much of what I believe others find in novels: the expression of the voice of a character.  I don't brush away the words to find the ideas. I don't ignore the style, tone, timbre, mood, rhythm, and intensity.  That is what I read for!  Which is why, perhaps, I am a rhetorician and not a philosopher.

What, then, separates philosophy from fiction? Not much. Philosophy, as Deleuze and Guattari claim, operates with concepts whereas fiction operates with affect. Of course, all philosophy is affective and all fiction has some relationship to concepts. But be more affective and you become fiction; be more conceptual, you become philosophy.

So I suppose I read philosophy because I like concepts. I even like the concept of affect. But I also like the affect of concepts. And so I read philosophy like it were fiction and I read fiction like it was philosophy — in that most tasty spot where concepts become a life lived and the affect of life abstracts to become concept.


αλήθεια said...

“So I suppose I read philosophy because I like concepts. I even like the concept of affect. But I also like the affect of concepts.”
Lovely! I just loved reading these lines. Whenever I read these lines they roll so well; whether I read them silently, out loud, whisper them, while standing in front of a mirror, or laying down, no matter how I do say them they always take me, my tongue, on a journey full of twists and turns, as if I was riding a small roller-coaster ride! They always come out beautifully! Well constructed article once again. Thank you.

Daniel Coffeen said...

You're kind. This one really was a true essay, trying to feel my way through and found my way back to Deleuze and Guattari. Go figure....thanks, again.

dustygravel said...

Man, Coffeen, I like how this take on philosophical arraignment, combined with your idea of philosophic lenses seems really leibnizian, in that each character/monad make up compounds/text/philosopher, and each text can be read as a conflict of characters, or as a perspectival lens, or one can take up the perspective of any one of the character/monad in the text, and of course this taking up of perspective will make a new world for the reader, where like Kierkegaard’s Abraham the reader feels that they have a subjective duty above ethics or something to that sort. I think the monad is a great character for this one because it changes through perception, but then again maybe the monad doesn't really work because these characters seem like they have memory, I don't know.

I wish you would tell us what Wittgenstein's and Kant's characters are.

ayşegül said...

Yes! Beautifully expressed again. What I immediately thought about when I read this one was to approach the philosophers as characters who have worlds of their own, in other words who create world in which we, readers, also inhabit and explore while reading them. Of course like Deleuze says, we have to dig in and find out what philosophers, their conceptual personae want. What kind of world do they propose? And it is mostly in the air, in the atmosphere that they come together with, that they create but not knowingly (a conscious creation does not exist anyway). In what they don't say as much as in what they do say. There is a whole to be found in their texts, not bits and pieces of arguments. What do they want and how do they go around to make it happen? That is the main question to understand philosophers, to feel them. What kind of dance Nietzsche does? Why Merleau-Ponty limps? Why Bergson is such a careful builder, constantly distinguishing things? Why there is a kind of vertigo effect in Deleuze (it seems to me that he constantly jumps to different heights like on a trampoline, why does he have one and the others don't)? These are interesting engagements, and they require for the reader to enter to that world just like reading a novel and going with the atmosphere and characters there into an unknown world. Exploring...

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Dusty: I'm not sure I immersed myself in Wittgenstein enough to know his characters intimately. The Tractatus is so hilariously repugnant. And the Investigations perhaps stellar — but I think he's such an asshole I find it hard to read him. So, like I said, if nothing else his character is a prick.

Same for Kant — only not a prick. Just a trudging builder. See comments below.

@ Aysegul: Fucking love this. Yes yes yes: philosophers, like all artists, give us a terrain with its own laws and monsters and such. They don't answer questions on the same planet: they make their own planets with their own questions, own mechanics, own logics, own characters.