Novelistic Imprecision

Philosophical exactitude is not required of novels, though novels are by nature philosophical.  Precise theories and grand conclusions are suspect in works of fiction in the same way they are suspect in real life: too strictly adhered to they’re symptomatic of willful delusion or at least wishful thinking.  But personhood and experience (being this thing rather than that -and knowing it-, and suffering change over time) are the stuff of novels, just as they’re the stuff of every human life –and these defy systematization.  If there is a final synthesis beneath it all, it tends to elude us, or the certainty of it does.

Perhaps that’s why among philosophers I prefer Montaigne to Spinoza, for example.  Spinoza is undoubtedly the more precise and systematic thinker and his scope is broader than Montaigne’s, but Montaigne is no less keen an observer of human nature while also being an appreciator of those things that don’t lend themselves so easily to system.   Spinoza’s perspective (with faint irony, perhaps) is godlike: all things fall under his gaze, and he is not surprised.  Montaigne has the spirit of a novelist, and his view is the more human: he is surprised by everything.

In Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes writes that “Memory is identity.”  Being a positive statement, it sounds more philosophically definitive than Joseph Butler’s contention (uttered 250 years earlier in response to Locke) that “Memory may reveal but cannot constitute personhood.”  Both are right.  Like Gregory Peck in Spellbound, Barnes’ amnesiac loses his identity along with his memory (“It’s like looking in a mirror and seeing nothing but mirror”).  Despite that loss of memory, however, Butler’s amnesiac is no less himself as a discrete object or package of DNA.  But where Butler, as a theologian and philosopher, describes the view from above, from the perspective of God or science, Barnes as a novelist describes the scene from below, from the perspective of human personhood and experience.

Totalizing schemes of all kinds tend to live only by perpetual expansion, and sooner or later most fall prey to Bonini’s Paradox: in order to accommodate an infinitely diversifying host of disparate facts and observations, they become as unintelligible and unsystematic as the world they want to define. The only perspective natural to us – and the only one finally satisfying – is the philosophically inexact ground-floor view through a smudged window.

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