Philosophy and Literature

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

Philosophy and Literature

Times Literary Supplement, September 28, 1967 (a special issue entitled “Crosscurrents,” containing short articles commissioned from a number of European authors).

Philosophy and literature are embattled adversaries. The eyes of philosophers see through the opaqueness of the world, eliminate the flesh of it, reduce the variety of existing things to a spider’s web of relationships between general ideas, and fix the rules according to which a finite number of pawns moving on a chessboard exhaust a number of combinations that may even be infinite. Along come the writers and replace the abstract chessmen with kings and queens, knights and castles, all with a name, a particular shape, and a series of attributes royal, equine, or ecclesiastical; instead of a chessboard they roll out great dusty battlefields or stormy seas. So at this point the rules of the game are turned topsy-turvy, revealing an order of things quite different from that of the philosophers. Or, rather, the people who discover these new rules of the game are once again the philosophers, who dash back to demonstrate that this operation wrought by the writers can be reduced to the terms of one of their own operations, and that the particular castles and bishops were nothing but general ideas in disguise.

And so the wrangle goes on, with each side confident of having taken a step ahead in the conquest of truth, or at least of a truth, and at the same time perfectly well aware that the raw material of its own constructions is the same as that of the opposition: words. But words, like crystals, have facets and axes of rotation with different properties, and light is refracted differently according to how these word crystals are placed, and how the polarizing surfaces are cut and superimposed. The clash between philosophy and literature does not need to be resolved. On the contrary, only if we think of it as permanent but ever new does it guarantee us that the sclerosis of words will not close over us like a sheet of ice.

This is a war in which the two contestants must never take their eyes off each other, but must never come to close quarters either. The writer who wishes to compete with the philosopher by launching his characters into very profound dissertations ends up in the best of cases by rendering the dizzy spells of thought habitable, persuasive, and everyday, without ever letting us breathe the pure air of the heights. In any event, this type of writer belongs to the first decades of our century, to the era of the rationalizing theatre of Pirandello and all those intellectual conversations in Huxley’s novels; and to us today he seems rather a distant figure. The intellectual novel itself, the discussion novel, is a thing of the past. Anyone today who sat down to write a new Magic Mountain or Man without Qualities would not write a novel at all, but an essay on the history of ideas or on the sociology of culture.

In the same way, philosophy, when it is too fully clothed in human flesh, too sensitive to immediate, lived experience, is for literature a less exciting challenge than is the abstraction of metaphysics or of pure logic. Phenomenology and existentialism border on literature along frontiers that are not always very clearly marked. Can the writer-philosopher cast a fresh philosophic look upon the world, a look that at the same time is also fresh for literature? For a moment, when the protagonist of La Nausée looks at his face in the mirror, this might be possible; but throughout a large part of his work the writer-philosopher appears as a philosopher who has at his command a writer who is versatile to the point of eclecticism. The literature of existentialism fell by the wayside because it did not succeed in acquiring a literary stringency of its own. It is only when the writer writes before the philosopher who interprets him that literary stringency can serve as a model for philosophic stringency, even if the writer and the philosopher happen to dwell together in the same person. This holds good not only for Dostoyevsky and Kafka, but also for Camus and Genêt.

The names of Dostoyevsky and Kafka remind us of the two supreme examples in which the authority of the writer—that is, the power to transmit an unmistakable message by means of a special intonation of language and a special distortion of the human figure and of situations—coincides with the authority of the thinker on the highest level. This also means that “the Dostoyevsky man” and “the Kafka man” have altered the image of man, even for those who have no particular inclination toward the philosophy that lies more or less explicitly behind such representations. On this level of authority, the writer of our times who might be placed alongside those two is Samuel Beckett. The image we have of man today cannot fail to take into account the negative absoluteness of “the Beckett man.”

We are bound to say that the game of giving philosophical labels to writers (What is Hemingway? A behaviorist. What is Robbe-Grillet? An analytical philosopher) is a societal pastime that would be excusable only if it were very witty, which it is not. How many times has the name of Wittgenstein been invoked in discussing writers who have nothing in common except the fact that they have nothing in common with Wittgenstein! To decide who is the writer of logical positivism would be a perfect theme for an international conference of the PEN Club. As for structuralism—after the brilliant results it has attained in various fields, it would be as well to wait until it has given rise to both a philosophy and a literature of its own.

The terrain on which philosophy and literature traditionally meet is ethics. Or, rather, ethics has always provided an excuse for philosophy and literature not to look each other directly in the face, being certain and confident of being able to reach easy agreement about their task of teaching virtue to mankind. This has been the sad literary fate of all practical philosophies, and above all of Marxism: to drag along a literature of explanation and exhortation that tends to make the philosophic vision of the world seem natural and akin to spontaneous feelings. And thus we lose the real revolutionary value of a philosophy, which consists in its being all snags and thorns, in its power to upset common sense and sentiments and to outrage every “natural” manner of thinking.

The definition of “Marxist writer” perhaps applies only to Brecht, who, in contrast to the official ethics of communism, looked not at the surface of “realism” but, rather, at the logic of the inner mechanism of human relations, at the overturning of values, while at the same time flaunting a doctrine opposed to virtue. In Germany today, in Italy, and to some extent also in France, there is in the literature of the “New Left” (which claims descent from Marxism while rejecting the “realistic” and pedagogical explication of it) a tendency that still hails Brecht as a master because he was didactic in a paradoxical and provocative way. For another trend of opinion, on the other hand, Marxism is and has to be purely and simply the awareness of the hell we live in, and anyone who tries to suggest ways out is sapping this awareness of its vital force. For these people, revolutionary literature is nothing but the literature of total negation.

At the same time, it is clear by now that if it is true that when philosophers have interpreted the world they have to change it, it is equally true that if they stop interpreting it for a single instant they do not manage to change a single thing. Dogmatism has lost ground, and the expectation of finding some hidden truth in opposing ideologies now unites ex-sectarians and neo-extremists.

From the point of maximum resistance this situation radiates out on all sides. That literature is once again becoming interested in philosophy is only the sign of a voracious eclecticism. We find writers of a traditional stamp drawing inspiration from reading the latest philosophical works, without causing the least crack to appear in the monochromatic, uniform surface of their world. The philosophical literature of the globe may serve both to confirm and to question what we already know, quite independently of the philosophy that inspired it. It all depends on how the writer penetrates below the surface of things. Joyce, for example, projected onto a desolate beach all the theological and ontological conundrums he had learned at school, things very far from his concerns at the time of writing. Yet everything he touched—old shoes, fish eggs, old pots and pans—was utterly transformed to the very depths of its being.

This stratigraphic analysis of reality is carried on today by writers equipped with more modern and precise cultural and epistemological instruments (I will confine myself to mentioning Michel Butor and Uwe Johnson). And it leads to the questioning not merely of the world (that would be a trifling thing) but of the very essence of the work of literature as well. These are risks one has to be prepared to run if one is to follow this path.

The climate dominant today among young writers is more philosophical than ever, but imbued with a philosophy internal to the act of writing. In France the Tel Quel group, headed by Philippe Sollers, concentrates on an ontology of language, of writing, of “the book,” a tendency that had its prophet in Mallarmé; in Italy the destructive function of writing appears to be at the heart of the quest; in Germany the main theme is the difficulty of writing the truth. However, there are common characteristics that dominate the general situation in these countries. Literature seems to make itself manifest as an austere and impassive speculative activity, as far from the outcries of tragedy as from the fantasies of happiness. It evokes no colors and no images other than the whiteness of the paper and the arrangement of black lines.

So does my original thesis no longer hold up? A frontal collision between two ways of looking at the world seems to have become impossible, since literature appears to have outflanked the positions of philosophy and to have walled itself up in a philosophical fortress that can hold out with perfect self-sufficiency.

The fact is that if I wish my picture of things to be valid not only for today but also for tomorrow, I must include an element that I have so far neglected. What I have described in terms of a twin-bed marriage must be seen as a ménage à trois: philosophy, literature, and science. Science is faced with problems not too dissimilar from those of literature. It makes patterns of the world that are immediately called in question, it swings between the inductive and the deductive methods, and it must always be on its guard lest it mistake its own linguistic conventions for objective laws. We will not have a culture equal to the challenge until we compare against one another the basic problematics of science, philosophy, and literature, in order to call them all into question.

While waiting for this time to come, we have no choice but to dwell on the available examples of a literature that breathes the air of philosophy and science but at the same time keeps its distance, while with a gentle puff it blows away both theoretical abstractions and the apparent concreteness of reality. I am speaking of that extraordinary and indefinable area of the human imagination that produced the works of Lewis Carroll, Queneau, and Borges.

But first I must point out one simple fact, for which I cannot claim to provide any general explanation: whereas the relationship between literature and religion, from Aeschylus to Dostoyevsky, has taken its stand under the banner of tragedy, that between literature and philosophy first became explicit in the comedies of Aristophanes, and was destined to continue to move behind the shield of comedy, irony, and humor. It is no coincidence that what in the eighteenth century were called contes philosophiques were in fact lighthearted acts of revenge against philosophy executed by means of the literary imagination.

But in Voltaire and Diderot is the imagination governed by a precise didactic and polemical intention? Does the author know everything he wants to say from the start? Does he know it, or does he think he does? The laughter of Swift or of Sterne is full of shadows. At the same time as the conte philosophique or, slightly later, the conte fantastique and the Gothic novel unleashed the obsessive visions of the unconscious. Is the real protest against philosophy to be found in lucid irony, in the sufferings of reason (and we Italians think at once of Leopardi’s dialogues), in the clarity of the intelligence (and the French immediately think of Monsieur Teste); or does it lie in calling up the ghosts that continue to haunt our enlightened houses?

Both these traditions persist here and there to this day. The philosophic writer in the eighteenth-century manner sees his most flourishing reincarnations today in Germany, as poet (Enzensberger), dramatist (Peter Weiss with his Marat/Sade), or novelist (Günter Grass). On the other hand, literature in the fantastique tradition was relaunched by the Surrealists in their struggle to destroy the barriers between the rational and the irrational in literature. By means of the formula “hasard objectif” Breton did away with the irrationality of chance. Associations of words and images responded to a hidden logic no less authoritative than what is commonly called “thought.”

As a matter of fact, this new horizon opened up as soon as a certain clergyman, and logic and mathematics don, began to invent the Adventures of Alice. Ever since then we have known that philosophical reason (which “when it sleeps engenders monsters”) can have the loveliest of daydreams, absolutely worthy of its loftiest moments of speculation.

Since Lewis Carroll a new relationship has developed between philosophy and literature. We see the advent of those who delight in philosophy as a stimulus to the imagination. Queneau, Borges, Arno Schmidt—all have different relations with different philosophies, and use these to nourish vastly diverse visionary and linguistic worlds. Common to all of them is the habit of holding their cards close to the chest. Their philosophical sorties appear only through allusions to the great texts, metaphysical geometry, and erudition. From one moment to the next we expect the secret filigree of the universe to be made manifest: an expectation that is alway disappointed, as is only right.

Characteristic of this family of writers is the habit of cultivating the most compromising speculative and erudite passions without taking them entirely seriously. On the borders of their kingdom we may find the following writers: Beckett, who is a unique case, to the extent that his atrocious grimace has been suspected of containing tragic and religious elements, whether rightly or wrongly I do not know; Gadda, torn between the desire to write a natural history of the human race every time he sits down, and the fury that chokes him every time, so that he breaks off halfway through his books; and Gombrowicz, torn between a tightrope-walking levity (as in the wonderful duel between a Synthesist and an Analyst) and the all-devouring concentration of Eros.

The eroticization of culture is a game played between signs and meanings, between myths and ideas that can indeed reveal gardens of visionary delights, but it has to be practiced with the utmost detachment. Here I might mention a book that came out a few months ago in France: Vendredi* by Michel Tournier, a reworking of Robinson Crusoe dense with references to the “human sciences,” in which Robinson quite literally makes love to the island.

Robinson Crusoe was a philosophical novel without knowing it, and even earlier Don Quixote and Hamlet—I do not know with what degree of awareness on the part of their authors—had opened up a new relationship between the phantom lightness of ideas and the heavy weight of the world. When we speak of the relationship between literature and philosophy we must not forget that the whole question begins there.