The Elegance of the Philosophical Novel

On the recommendation of one of my students, I’ve just read Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. A lovely piece of fiction, I think, filled with great generosity & marred only by an occasional sentimental slip-up. Whether its vision of comity across the lines of class is realistic, I am not at all sure; but certainly, imagining such comity is a kind of blessed work.* The narration is split between a precocious twelve-year-old girl, the daughter of a haute bourgeois family, and the fifty-four-year-old concierge who works in their building, an autodidact of startlingly wide reading. The girl Paloma’s contributions are in the form of a pair of journals she keeps that record her alienation from her family and their values and her tone is a sometimes wistful, sometimes viciously satirical in manner; the concierge Madam Michel’s contributions feel more like traditional narrative, though at one point she, too, alludes to the fact that they are a written record of her life. This leads to what, in a traditional novel, would be a point of view problem at the end of the story, but that, here, seems designed to create a paradox for the reader’s contemplation.

The machinery of the interlocking narratives is not terribly subtle, but this is hardly a fault in a philosophical novel, where, presumably, the emphasis is in the reality of ideas rather than the realism of the setting & plot. It is clear from the beginning that the two narrators, living in different worlds in the same Paris apartment building, must inevitably be brought together; the way they come together is, however, both surprising and appropriate to their personalities. I thought the story sagged a bit about two-thirds of the way along, but it recovers itself quickly and rushes on to a surprising and, as noted, paradoxical conclusion. I am perhaps less sanguine than the author about the possibilities for communication and friendship across the boundaries of class and culture, but surely we ought to aspire to such intellectual and spiritual freedoms as this novel celebrates.

*In this, as in other ways, The Elegance of the Hedgehog reminds one of another European philosophical novel narrated in the voice of a precocious girl, Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder [NY Times Book Review, review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog  by Caryn James; review of Sophie’s World by John Vernon]

The Aesthetic versus the Philosophical

It’s a little hard to take seriously the philosophy of a man who could write a story as bad as “The Wall.” I’m pretty much on Sartre’s side & have been since I was seventeen, but “The Wall,” which I hadn’t read since my first youthful enthusiasm for existentialism, amounts to little more than a philosophical shaggy dog story. I picked up Sartre’s fiction again recently because of my more general reading in the European Philosophical Novel from Then to Now, as you might say if you were making up a course. I realize that the story is supposed to shock the reader with the dark comedy of an absurd world, but the irony falls absolutely flat at the ending. The most delicious irony in the story is the setting, wherein a hospital is reconfigured as a prison for anti-fascists awaiting execution. Hospitals & prisons have much in common, from an institutional perspective, of course, however different their fundamental missions, one of healing, one of punishment. Looked at through the lens of irony, though, both hospitals and prisons are designed to confine those sentenced to death. But the graveyard gambit at the end of “The Wall” is not much more than a piece of sophomoric stage business. Sartre’s short essays are probably his best writing. Among the Existentialists, Camus never said too much, writing with great economy in all the genres he undertook, while Sartre almost always ran on & on. Even a short story like “The Wall” is too long by half for the effect it wants to produce.

As a poet I find it hard to take seriously any philosophical doctrine presented is clumsy or unconvincing language. (Sartre of course wrote effective fiction elsewhere, as in the novel Nausea, so the story being discussed here is perhaps nothing but an aberration.) Despite the aesthetic failures of this story, I remain of Sartre’s party, mostly because it offers a materialist like me the opportunity to exercise a certain amount of self-making within the overpowering historical and material forces that shape so much of human existence.

Presentation Tomorrow: Claims for Poetry

I’m giving a presentation tomorrow in my department’s Colloquium Series, in which my colleagues or visiting guests present the results of their research. Since my “research” is poetry, my presentation will be mostly a reading, but I also want to open up my own history & influences, while at the same time saying a few things about what I think poetry is capable of. I’ve spent the last decade, frankly, doubting the value of poetry & trying to write against that doubt. Slowly over the last year or so I have begun to work toward the sense that the value of poetry is to hold judgment in suspense, if not indefinitely, then long enough that judgment be informed with . . . what? If I have to choose just one thing, I would want poetry — all poetry, but my poetry in particular — to suspend judgement long enough for generosity to enter. Perhaps this is just a version of Keats’ notion of Negative Capability: “The ability,” the poet wrote to his younger brother, “to be in doubts, mysteries and uncertainties without irritably reaching after fact and reason.” Not that I’d deny the importance of fact or reason — I’m very interested in them.

My poetic autobiography is pretty mainstream. I have been sympathetic to the revolutions going on around me, but mostly I have followed the poetics developed at the beginning of the 20th century by the great Anglo-American modernists, though I have reached back, too, toward Emily Dickinson & Walt Whitman, a couple of poets Pound & Eliot were suspicious of. So I will lay out my early attachments & my application to the Writers Workshop in order to study with Donald Justice, a poet who would say, late in life, that he regretted not having lived in a time when there was a period style. Don might have envied, I think, the way jazz players have a set of standard tunes they can play individual variations on and in the process work out both a group & individual style. He had studied musical composition as a young man & the only music I ever heard him play was Bach. Don Justice was very important to me and I was distressed to see how he was championed later by the reactionary “New Formalists,” who had to distort his great achievements in free verse in order to make him a hero of metrical verse.

Most of the touchstones of my own poetry were already in place by the time I left Iowa. Some — Donne’s lyrics, Auden, Berryman, James Wright, Williams, Roethke — I’d acquired before going to Iowa, but while studying there I picked up on Elizabeth Bishop (via my teacher Sandra McPherson), Robert Hass, Linda Gregg, Czeslaw Milosz, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Rilke. My appreciation of Dr. Williams was deepened by studying him with Don, the supposed paragon of formalism. No doubt there are many others, but those were & have remained the central figures of my own writing. I am only one teacher away from Bishop & Berryman, with whom my own teachers studied. The only significant influence I came by after leaving Iowa in 1980 is Hayden Carruth, who is now the titular spirit of my poetic house. The one remaining — & more recent influence on my poetry & on my thinking generally — has been several extended periods in Vietnam over the last decade & a half.

That’s where I came from, but what do I believe about poetry? I’ve already mentioned Negative Capability as both a moral and aesthetic pivot in my work. I believe in the reality of feeling & of the affects generally, including mood, reverie, and other states of intuitive knowledge. Surely we poets need not apologize for asserting a strong ontological claim for such states when modern cosmology posits multiple, perhaps infinitely multiple, universes; when string theory supposes the existence of half a dozen extra dimensions invisible to us because they are “rolled up” into the curved surfaces of Calabi-Yau manifolds; when tried & true quantum mechanics makes a strong claim for probability waves, or wave functions, which are not waves of anything or in anything, but finally as far as I can tell, waves in thought. So poets need not apologize for examining human affective states, from the calmest to the most agitated, from the most contented to the most anxious.

One thinks in this regard of Elizabeth Bishop’s great poem, “In the Waiting Room,” in which the poet looks back upon her seven-year-old self at the very moment that she, Elizabeth Bishop, realizes she is a self, “an Elizabeth,” as the poem says. One thinks of the child William Wordsworth have to grip a fence post or a stone in order to reassure himself of the existence of a world outside his thoughts; one thinks of Hartley Coleridge, son of the great Romantic poet & philosopher, who, aged four, when asked whether he had enjoyed a ride in a dog cart, replied that he might have enjoyed it more if he had not “always been thinking of his thoughts.” One thinks of William Blake noting that the balloon of the imagination needs the ballast provided by sacks of earth.

Eliot said that poetry “purifies the language of the tribe,” but surely this is High Modernist overreaching; at best, perhaps, poetry might remind those who are willing to be reminded of the importance of what the historical Buddha called “right speech.” And right speech is speech that pauses, halts, even stutters, on its way to judgment.  Stutterers are often flawless singers, I once wrote in a poem. I also wrote, in another poem, that “knowledge is loved information” & poetry surely is one way though of course not the only way of turning information — especially affective information — into knowledge.

I will expand on those ideas and read illustrative poems by some of the figures mentioned above, along with a dozen or so of my own poetry poems, several finished just this year after what I can only describe as a return to poetry, despite the fact that I never completely abandoned my muse, who I sometimes visualize as a skinny girl with a little bit of a drug problem.


Room by Emma Donoghue

Because I use the theme of childhood & Innocence / Experience in my freshman writing course, I’m always on the lookout for fiction dealing with those subjects. Emma Donoghue’s novel Room came up recently as a recommendation on Amazon, based, I think, on my purchasing history. I’d read a glowing review in the NY Times, so I ordered the book with the idea that it might work in my class. When it came I read the first twenty pages or so, then set it aside when I got busy grading, thinking that the story ran a serious risk of falling into an inevitable form of  sentimentality, given the subject and the point of view.

The story involves a young woman kidnapped and used for sex by an anonymous man who keeps her locked in a garden shed behind his suburban house that he has converted into the self-contained Room of the novel’s title, which is in fact a very effective prison. The young woman is 19 when she is kidnapped and within a couple of years becomes pregnant and bears a son. The tricky and audacious thing about the novel is that it is told in the first-person point of view of this boy when he is five years old. There are plenty of novels in the voices of children, but five years old is pushing against the downward limit of verbal ability for a narrator; still, Donoghue manages the difficulties with a kind of intelligence and grace one wouldn’t think possible, given the narrative situation she has set up for herself.

The narrator’s name is Jack and he is surely a verbally gifted child, but not so gifted as to seem implausible even to a reader (such as me) skeptical of this particular technical choice. The story develops in such a way that Jack’s verbal gifts seem natural: he spends a great deal of time talking to his mother and reading his five books and they also play a game called Parrot in which they watch TV and then the mother hits the mute button, Jack’s task in this game being to parrot back the whole previous sentence he has just heard whether he understands the words or not. They then discuss the words and their meaning. This game is only mentioned once or twice, but in the huge silence that is their lives (the room is soundproofed) language takes on a nearly magical importance. Continue readingRoom by Emma Donoghue”

Wild Lives: Notes for an Essay

1. It is gratifying that whaling regulations have not been eased at the recent meeting of the international commission that oversees the “harvest” of marine mammals, but beyond that news & its egregious metaphor, I was fascinated by some of the information about cetaceans in this NY Times article; specifically, I was struck by the way the scientists quoted were defining personhood, if that’s the right term. Dolphins (& presumably whales) are interested in seeing themselves in a mirror, checking out parts of their bodies they can’t ordinarily see. The mirror test is presumed to to demonstrate self-consciousness, fair enough. My terriers will look at themselves in a mirror, but it’s hard to tell whether they see themselves or an image of another dog. They don’t behave as if they are seeing another dog, so perhaps they recognize themselves.  Birds will peck at their own image in a mirror & the behavior seems pretty complex. How about fish? I don’t know, but I know some fish are territorial & might react as if another fish were horning in on their territory. I’m not trying to find fault with the mirror test, just noting that it is the human observer who views the animal’s interaction with a mirror & makes a determination. We know what consciousness looks like, or personhood. This is more interesting to me than whether this or that animal reacts to a mirror in a certain way, as interesting as that is.

2. The vocalizations of cetaceans is often compared to music, or song, and somewhat less often (& less directly), to speech. They have tribal dialects, apparently, which suggests language & since they can both learn & teach what they have learned, it appears that it might be something we would recognize as a real language, not just a highly elaborate system of communication. And here we get back to the issue of self-recognition. Language, too, is a mirror. I’m far from expert, but in addition to their vocal communications, don’t at least some species of cetaceans produce & repeat long “symphonic” vocalizations and then work changes on them? If so, this would suggest a sense of the aesthetic in whales & dolphins, though perhaps it is only an elaborate kind of birdsong. [Need further information.]

3. Living in the country, Carole & I take delight in seeing & naming: birds (many species, including jays, woodpeckers, nuthatches, hawks, vultures, ducks, geese, several kinds of finches, bluebirds, thrushes. . .), turtles (painted, snapping), frogs & toads, beavers, skunks, porcupines, deer, and occasionally coyotes & bears. What is the source of our delight? Merely a privilege of the bourgeois, or something deeper?

4. Portrayals of damaged humans, usually children, in fact & fiction: Kasper Hauser, Victor (the Wild Child from 18 c. France; various accounts by Truffaut, T.C. Boyle, etc.), Malcolm (from Marisa Silver’s novel The God of War), Christopher (from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime). By looking at what these damaged humans possess, as well as what they lack, we highlight the cluster of qualities that allow a person to create & recognize a self. And connected to these accounts, there is the much more abstract set of arguments in Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind that seem to suggest a special place in the universe for human consciousness. Not sure if I can accept the “fine tuning” of physical laws Robinson suggests (but does not assert), but that is not necessary to appreciate her devastating response to “parascientists” like Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, and the other reductionists who believe that, because the brain is a physical organ, mind & consciousness are epiphenomena, easily dismissed as ontologically inferior the the various tissues and juices of the brain.

5. Mind as extension in the Cartesian sense. Richard P. Bentall’s Madness Explained: Psychosis and Human Nature argues persuasively that “madness” is not one thing and is not separated by a bright line from other “normal” states of mind; in this vein, he sees mental complaints rather than a discrete set of mental illnesses that can be assigned a particular diagnosis. He also brings forward an impressive amount of evidence that strongly suggests mental illness is a bio-social phenomenon.

Further thoughts a couple of days later: 1. Yesterday evening I was watching Jett, our seven year old Jack Russell as he stood on the deck looking down the road toward the river. There were some kids swimming down there & the other two dogs had been barking in that direction, but Jett was focused, his mouth a little open, his nose moving to sense the air almost as a human would feel a piece of fabric to get the sense of it. The other two dogs were excited, but he was calm, completely self-possessed. I’ve watched all the dogs over the years of course & each has his/her ways of focusing on the world & at the same time being themselves. In fact those two things go together — focusing intently on the world and being an animal self. This goes beyond Santayana’s notion of “animal faith,” which is a kind of confidence that the world will be, perhaps roughly, supportive of our being. For the philosopher, “animal faith” is a common ground for animals & humans, something we humans share with animals but also then surpass in all the usually enumerated ways: reason, language, technology & so on.

2.Over the years I’ve had many encounters with animals that have gone beyond mere observation into something more profound and, I believe, reciprocal, though I don’t want to sentimentalize the notion of reciprocity– I understand that the heron I saw 25 years ago on an estuary near the Pacific “understood” our encounter in the same way I understood it, but the bird did look back at me and allowed me to come quite close & was clearly conscious of me. Wild animals are one thing & domesticated animals another. I freely admit to sentimentalizing our dogs, but I also spend a good deal of time just watching them, trying to understand something about the way they understand the world. Their sensory organs filter the world for them in a way different from mine, of course, but there is enough overlap — we’re all mammals – that we can make sense of each others’ sensory worlds. Also, we share a social world of complex personal interactions that allow us to communicate our sense of the world. And of course we observe each other in action and draw conclusions, seeing the world, in imaginative reconstruction, “through each others’ eyes.”

3.So what kind of cross-species identification does it take to get on a jet ski in the Antarctic Ocean to attack a Japanese whaling vessel & through acid at its crew?


I don’t know about you, but to me there is something deeply satisfying in the knowledge that the universe appears to be the result of an imbalance. Those old Navajo weavers were exactly right to put a flaw intentionally into their perfect rugs; the Japanese idea of wabi sabi captures this notion aesthetically, that a slight asymmetry makes for the greatest beauty.