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Reading, Writing, Thinking
The first few articles in this issue look at literature and its contributions to ethics, to political philosophy, and to our understanding of the nature of language. We asked the very philosophical novelist and short story writer Tibor Fischer to kick things off with a few words about the relationship between philosophy and literature.
In the beginning was the word, so in the beginning there was little difference between literature and philosophy. Heraclitus and others were poets, Empedocles wrote in metre. Plato, well, Plato wrote brilliantly but didn’t like others doing the same … Confucius was mighty polished. Then, then the ideas were good, but the writing got flatter until Nietzsche, who confused you, but made you think, which is what the biz is mostly about.
One thing I’ve learned in my various jobs as a human being, teacher, journalist and writer is that people don’t like the truth (see my last work, Possibly Forty Ships). Jack Nicholson overstates it in his magnificent rant in A Few Good Men. People can handle the truth, but they’d rather not. They are more often than not aware of it, but they don’t like it; it’s the unwelcome guest at the soiree you’d rather not to talk to.
In search of truth, philosophy has become a march to precision, and it may be because of this that a separation has occurred between it and literature. The essence of literature is that it’s slippery, you can cradle it, but you can’t hold it; when you want to grasp it, it shoots out of your grip. A novel can never be analysed in the way the molecular structure of a diamond can be (or can it? I wonder. Damn you, philosophy). It is a more sophisticated (perhaps the pun is intended) way of telling the truth. It’s a herd of Schrödinger cats.
I’ve seen some excellent films about the lives of Johnny Cash, Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Betty Page, but not one that I’d consider great. Why these bio-films don’t really take off I can’t be sure, but I suspect that in art, sticking to the facts too closely doesn’t work.
You need marketing. You need something for the T-shirt. This is why I salute x-phi. Never say experimental philosophy, say x-phi, because that fits nicely on a T-shirt and might just spawn some animation around the water-coolers. Superhappiness, that fits nicely on a T-shirt too.
Literature without ideas rarely amounts to much, but ideas without style meet the same fate. In the end, as in the beginning, both philosophers and writers are physicists. Nature is our business. We are about seeing and thinking, the Great Game.
© Tibor Fischer 2013
Tibor Fischer’s debut novel Under The Frog was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His novels since then include The Thought Gang, a story about a philosopher who becomes a bank robber. As well as five novels, he has published two collections of short stories.