Philosophical Page-Turners

Essay by A. C. GRAYLING

Editor’s Note: Author Charlotte Greig emailed her response to this column, which is appended below, along with A.C. Grayling’s reply.

Philosophy has not merely gone mainstream, it has become sexy. You realise this when you see a few parboiled snippets of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger floating in an otherwise standard bowl of chick-lit stew. The snippets do not add much to the stew, though intended to be present in it as more than mere garnish; but the fact that their being there does not strike one as pretentious or absurd is a mark of the distance that philosophy has come in wider public awareness.

One main reason for this is that philosophy has been growing in popularity as a college subject over the last two decades, not only because professors such as Bernard-Henri Lévy with his flowing mane, unbuttoned shirt, and French accent have made it cool, but because employers appreciate graduates who have learned to think and can handle complex ideas. Employers find philosophy graduates (at least, those who seek work) apt, adaptable, and equipped with a sense of the bigger picture. Those are attractive features.

Also, philosophical pedagogy has made the subject more accessible. College bookstores groan under the weight of jazzy introductory texts and annotated anthologies of excerpts that take the strain out of encounter with the past’s great minds. As a result Phil 101 has left the margins, and romantic fiction for young women can quote Nietzsche with a flourish.

This is what Charlotte Greig’s A Girl’s Guide to Modern European Philosophy does. The best thing about her novel is its title. The novel itself is a commonplace tale told in the first person by an irritating female protagonist with a two-boyfriends problem and a surprise pregnancy to deal with, in the middle of her second year as a college student studying philosophy. Cue insightful quotations from impressively foreign-named philosophers — the aforesaid Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger (whom the protagonist reads out of sequence for some reason) — mentioned, and very sparingly quoted, by the author in what we must suppose is an effort to illuminate her protagonist’s dilemmas.

Thus we move from excruciating passages whose principal aim, surely, is to increase the text’s word count (“I was getting ready to go out. First of all, I plaited my hair into sections and wet them in the basin. Then I dried them with Jason’s hair-dryer and combed them out? I didn’t have a lot of choice of what to wear: it always came down to jeans, platforms, and my old blue velvet jacket, with a selection of about four different kinds of T-shirt. This evening I chose a tight, plum-coloured Biba one, with little buttons all the way down the front?” etc., etc.) to one of fewer than half a dozen quotations from the mentioned philosophers, a couple of them repeated several times: “The free spirit again approaches life, slowly of course, almost recalcitrantly, almost suspiciously. It grows warmer around him again, yellower, as it were?” — this from Nietzsche, perhaps in reference to the free-spirited little buttons.

Needless to say, Nietzsche and the barely postadolescent tale do not connect much, but the big point for present purposes is that he is there at all. For it reminds one that when one turns one’s thoughts to real literature, philosophy and the novel in fact have a long, deep, rich relationship mediated by several pathways of contact, from philosophers who have written novels to novels which are profoundly philosophical. Indeed it prompts one to wonder whether one of the distinguishing features of genuinely great literature is the presence in it of philosophical insight — which is, after all, insight into the human condition and humanity’s shared experience of it.

As soon as one begins to make a list of fiction writers whose work is distinctively philosophical in whole or part, the names come tumbling out: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Robert Musil, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Elias Canetti, Jorge Luis Borges, Ayn Rand, Philip K. Dick. To them one can and should add the likes of Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Milan Kundera, Umberto Eco, Pascal Mercier — this last a professional philosopher who is one of the most recent to write absorbingly philosophical fiction. The doyen of philosophers turned novelists is Iris Murdoch; more recently philosophy professors Roger Scruton and Colin McGinn have produced novels, and Stephen Neal is doing it as well.

To substantiate the point that one of the things that can make for great literature is philosophical insight, think of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Among many other things, this is a work of moral epistemology: Elizabeth Bennet and the brooding Darcy misjudge one another on first encounter, and the novel relates the process of correction that follows in their mutual discovery of moral character and worth. They learn to recognize the elements in each other of what underlies The Good in Austen’s conception of it — which, by the way, is an admirable one. Nothing is wasted in the novel on this score; incident, detail, and the lambent play of irony pick out the threads of moral truth and in revealing it to the protagonists thus reveal it to the reader. This is genius: and it is philosophy.

In fact it is hard to limit the list of names one should include here, from Aeschylus and Plato in antiquity through (skipping the centuries in seven-league boots) Lucretius, Augustine, Chaucer, Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Voltaire, and others who have used drama, dialogues, epic poetry, Utopias, memoirs, and confessions to state and explore philosophical themes. Some of the most outstanding masters of prose in their own languages have been philosophers: George Berkeley, William Hazlitt, Arthur Schopenhauer. In them the literary art serves ideas; in all the rest, ideas serve the literary art — not in any merely instrumental way, but as its substance.

Consider examples: Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Idiot: Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Illyich; Mann’s Magic Mountain; Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea; almost any of Borges’s tales. The point of these works is expressly philosophical. Consider the example of Dostoevsky in more detail. The sequence of three works cited was first spurred by Dostoevsky’s angry response to Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky’s optimistic statement of liberalism in his What Is to Be Done? Chernyshevsky promoted a utopian social ideal where autonomous individuals, acting under the “harm principle” (“do no harm to others”) satisfy rationally chosen desires. Chernyshevsky took the view that the basis of morality is enlightened self-interest and that wrong is only done by those who fail to understand their own true interests.

In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky set out to show that human beings are not fundamentally benign but are very much an alloy, capable of evil despite knowing its difference from good. “I am a sick man. I am a malicious man?. Who was it, pray, who first declared that man behaves like a scoundrel only because he does not know his true interests?. O pure, innocent babe!”

But Dostoevsky wished to do more than assert the possibility of evil in the normal human constitution. He wished to know whether it is possible to transcend everyday morality by acting in a way which would constitute self-legislation in the manner of Nietzsche’s Superman. That is what Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment attempts. “I wanted to kill without casuistry, to kill for my own sake?it was not money I needed but something else?” He fails; after confessing his crime and being sent to Siberia, he agonizingly cannot decide whether it is his own weakness that makes him incapable of bearing what he has done, or a higher and inviolable law.

And so Dostoevsky next tried to work out what would happen to a “positively good man, a holy fool” in the ordinary world — his “Idiot,” Prince Myshkin, modeled partly on Christ and partly on “the knight of the sorrowful countenance,” Don Quixote. He has Myshkin triumphing morally, through what the rest of us might think is an even greater failure than Raskolnikov’s: by leaving the world and re-entering the exile of abnegation.

We are a very long way away, here, from the trivialities of Greig’s girl supposedly guided by modern European philosophy. But the point is that the conscious novelistic invocation of philosophy occurs in both Greig and Dostoevsky, though at very remote ends of a very long spectrum, illustrating my point: that the seepage from the profound end of the spectrum into its airport-paperback end has happened without the latter seeming absurd. Apart from being an interesting phenomenon in its own right, it prompts this thought too: that if some of Greig’s readers were to pick up a volume of Nietzsche in a bookstore because their curiosity had been stirred by his connection with the buttons on the plum-colored T-shirt, that would only be to the good, and could only lead on to better things.

Charlotte Greig’s response via email:

Dear Editor,

It is clear from AC Grayling’s deeply patronising review of my book,
A Girl?s Guide to Modern European Philosophy, that he has not actually bothered to read it all the way through. If he had, he would have realised that it is about a serious issue: abortion. It’s also about how a young woman uses Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling — an analysis of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac — to help her in her dilemma. Instead of giving this serious attention, Grayling simply dips in to the novel at random, dismisses it, and uses the rest of the review to advance his own somewhat unoriginal views about the established literary and philosophical canon. So Plato, Jane Austen, and Dostoevsky are great writers. Thanks for telling us, Mr Grayling, but we knew that already.

I wrote my novel because I believe that some of the great male philosophers, in particular Kierkegaard, have something to tell us about the issues of gender identity and fertility that are so pressing for women at the moment. Yes, my heroine starts out shallow, irritating, and self-absorbed – not uncommon traits in a twenty-year-old – but, by struggling with her moral predicament, using her philosophy books for guidance, she begins to grow up. A commonplace story, perhaps, but hardly a tale of ‘trivialities’, as Grayling suggests.

It?s disappointing to find that so little has changed in the male bastion of philosophy since the seventies, when the book is set. The tone of Grayling’s review reminds me of the dismissive attitudes to women that male lecturers often displayed then. Fortunately, I was not deterred by their pomposity, and continue to maintain my belief that philosophy is not just the preserve of snooty male academics, but has relevance for everyone. Even girls who make silly mistakes. And who like dressing up, doing their hair, and wearing plum-coloured Biba t-shirts with lots of little buttons.

-Charlotte Greig

A.C. Grayling replies::

Dear Ms Greig:

Thanks for copying to me your response to my review of your novel. One of the things I’ve learned from writing books is to separate the review from the reviewer; I used to think that a person who gave me a bad review must therefore be a bad person, but it turned out that was only true some of the time. You have chosen to think I reviewed your book negatively because I must be sexist and snobbish; the sexism charge is by far the readiest, most convenient, but too often laziest charge a woman can think of when annoyed by male critic, but one which is, again, not true all of the time.

The great thing, though, is this: never reply to negative reviews. Learn from them, don’t let them blight your life (it’s a rare book that doesn’t get any adverse reviews at all; and lots of people who never read reviews will doubtless enjoy your novel), just get on and write better books. That you will do this latter I’ve no doubt at all. If your novels are going to have philosophy in them, remember the company they will be keeping, and therefore the comparisons that will be drawn.

As you know, there are a number of extraordinarily powerful explorations of the experience of abortion in literature and film, which open deep insights into the dilemmas it poses. Philosophy very definitely has something to say about them, as with all the tragic choices that ordinary life encounters: what one wants is to see how philosophical reflection really might illuminate the embattled heart as it chooses. I look forward to seeing that in one of your future works.

My good wishes to you –

Anthony Grayling