Monday, August 20, 2012

Encounters with Philosophy in Novels

Frankly, I am not very interested in philosophy. It's too abstract for me. I can't even bear the philosophy blog in the New York Times, (The Stone: "a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless") which I think is intended optimistically for those who are as challenged as I am by abstractions.

However, by some chance and a library visit, I recently read several novels with philosophy integrated more or less into the narrative. In the most simple-minded view, each of these novels explores a philosophical problem through both the actions and the conversations of the characters. I was very interested in how the authors handled abstract ideas and integrated them into the plots, and in the similarities between these highly different novels.

After Many a Summer Dies the Swan by Aldous Huxley (published 1939) is concerned with the finality of death and by extension what the idea of death does to those who obsess about it. The book includes both satirical and semi-serious themes, so it's a bit hard to discuss. One central character is a Los Angeles real estate millionaire (that's a lot of money in 1939), who despite ownership of a highly profitable Forest-Lawn-type cemetery is terrified by death. Using his vast wealth, he hires a scientist to find him a cure for mortality, and also hires a typical English scholar to go over some papers he's obtained that might record an earlier attempt at immortality. In addition to these men, there's a beautiful 22 year old bimbo (not called that) who tries to make him feel young while enjoying the luxury he offers her. It's a very male book.

The scholar, the scientist, and another convenient scholar in the neighborhood have endless discussions about philosophy of death. Alas, the conversations are not satire. I found it tempting to skip the philosophy and just enjoy the comic parts. Sometimes Huxley takes the scholars more seriously than other times; unfortunately not a single one of the characters is in my opinion at all sympathetic. This is a flaw in the book if you ask me.

Before philosophic discussions bored me to death, I felt that the plot took off, so I read the whole thing without flagging. At the end the scientist and the rich man travel to England where World War II is breaking out, though I couldn't figure out its relevance. Philosophical discussions are abandoned as they find that the centuries-prior experimentation with a cure for aging had made two people immortal; however, it also turned them into a sort of apes. So what they searched wasn't in fact exactly what they wanted -- except the foolish rich man, who is sent-up one more time by saying the ape-like existence didn't look that bad. The ending makes the philosophy seem even more tacked-on than it did during the novel.

Conclusion: this particular novel is not very successful as a philosophic platform.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (2011) focuses on scientists searching in the Amazon for a drug that will make women fertile for their entire lives. They are studying a tribe whose tree-bark-eating habits have this effect. The scientists have a lab in the jungle and are experimenting with turning the bark into a marketable drug for the pharmaceutical company that pays their way. The central character visits the lab (with great difficulty) because she is searching for a colleague who has died; the plot centers around how she learns from her experience -- to put it bluntly and oversimplify.

Patchett incorporates a number of philosophic ideas into the novel, but rather than conversations, these ideas come up as the characters' moral dilemmas. The scientists in the jungle constantly have to deal with questions about the value of what they do, and about their responsibility for interactions with the tribe they are living with. Should they introduce Western medical treatments and antibiotics when their hosts are ill or injured? Should they communicate other Western ideas? Share their canned and processed food? Learn the local languages? Each dilemma comes out of a carefully-presented situation, and the characters have strong ideas on what is ethical and moral.

Finally, the characters have to face the most fundamental question: would it even be ethical to enable women to bear children all their lives? The way this dilemma arises is the most adroitly written part of the book. Again, what they are looking for doesn't quite turn out to be what they really want. These are highly sympathetic and beautifully realized characters, and the plot is complex. I wouldn't have skipped a word.

Conclusion: this novel beautifully embodies ideas and what I would call philosophy along with character development and suspenseful events. Especially wonderfully, it contains one extremely well-presented and memorable character, an elderly woman doctor who is leading the jungle experimental station.

He, She, and It by Marge Piercy (1992) is science fiction set in 2059, in a post-nuclear distopian world. The scientists in this world are computer and robotics experts who have created a golem; that is, a machine that can think, feel, and possibly act with free will, and who successfully mimics humans physically, mentally, and emotionally. The main story of the novel is about the creation and development of this creature, his role in the characters' struggle with their enemies, and about the terrible world that has emerged from human errors of the past.

The events of 2059 are interspersed with the story of the original Golem of Prague, told with wonderful imagined details by one of the characters in the book. Plot and characters in both story lines are developed in a way I find compelling, though I don't feel like writing a summary here.

In my view, the increasing parallelism between the two golem stories as they unfold is one of the most enjoyable features of the book. Both stories end up asking the same question, a moral question embodied in both: is it right to make a creature that is aware of itself yet created to serve its creators? The interrelated stories also ask about the dangers of such a creature to its creators. And again, as in the other books, the modern scientists/medieval kabbalists got what they were striving for, but learned that it was not truly what they wanted.

Conclusion: like State of Wonder, plot and characters in this novel beautifully embody the ideas and questions that it explores. I'm impressed by the successful embedding of the older tale in the sci-fi like future story.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (2012) isn't so much about any philosophical ideas as about late adolescents who drop the names of modern philosophers. It's beyond pretentious. Maybe there could be a book about name-dropping that doesn't suffer from too much name-dropping, but this isn't it. Eugenides constantly seems to be trying to demonstrate his bona-fides as a knowledgeable reader of deconstruction, not just writing a novel. I've only read around 100 pages and I'm fed up.

Would I like it better if the adolescent characters discussed (or even thought about) the ideas in their college philosophy classes? Doubtful. Am I just unable to cope with a book about young people? Well, I do like Jane Austen a lot. And the Harry Potter books. And even sort of liked The Hunger Games. And many others. In fact, I really liked Eugenides' earlier book, Middlesex, about a very young central character. I'm not guilty of wanting everyone to be old.

I can't believe the number of people I've read of or talked to who have started but not finished this book, and I might have joined them. It's really, alas, a tedious read, and I can't make myself care if the characters want something or not, much less to find out if they get it as in the other books. If I go back to reading the book, I will append something here.


Jens Z said...

Thanks for these reviews... they will save your readers lots of time.
Also, I share your annoyance with the philosophy blog in the New York Times. I've read a number of them; I don't find them instructive or rewarding in any way. Meh.

Jeanie said...

All of these look fascinating. Not ones you whip through but certainly interesting.