December 21, 2015

Thoughts on the Philosophical Novel

Thoughts on the Philosophical Novel
Tolstoy and Dostoevsky
I love philosophical fiction. Every author has his own way of integrating philosophical thinking with a story but it almost always includes some amount of digression. Two of my favorite philosophical novelists are Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Tolstoy loved to editorialize while Dostoevsky tried to naturalize his ideas into the story. These are two basic strategies to storytelling and there are technical term to describe these different techniques. The first is call non-diegetic, the second diegetic. It's an easy concept to grasp: diegetic music, for example, is music that happens in the story. When a character picks up a guitar and plays then the music is diegetic. Soundtracks are usually non-diegetic because the music is heard by the audience but we imagine that the characters don't hear the music. Basically it's inside the fictional universe (diegetic) and outside the fictional universe (non-diegetic).

Most of Tolstoy's philosophical musings in War and Peace take place outside the character's world in the guise of editorial intrusions, for example, his entire epilogue is essentially an essay on the philosophy of history. Dostoevsky's philosophical musings mostly occur within the characters' universein most cases they're spoken by his characters. So it would seem at first glace that we could take out Tolstoy's essays without taking away from the story, while on the other hand if we took out Dostoevsky's philosophical monologues we'd lose an extensive amount of the character's speech; with their speech we'd lose a sense of their motivations, character psychology, and the relationships between them. The relationship between Alyosha and Ivan would be entirely different without the parable of the Grand Inquisitor; Roskolnikov's crime would be so much less compelling and significant without his excursuses on freedom and moral nihilism.

But is it fair to be draw such a distinction between philosophy and story in Tolstoy's War and Peace? Would the novel in fact be the same without his editorial digressions on the question "what moves people"? It's true that the characters wouldn't lose any speech and no action would need to be removed: the story would be the same, or would it? You see the story is changed by the editorial intrusions because the significance of the events are colored by the narrator's philosophical interests. They're not merely events but events that represent (or fail to represent) the ideas the editor advances. The digressions are voiced by the narrator, and even if the narrator's voice isn't as empathetic as the characters' its nonetheless a voice within the novel and as integral as the rest.

Three Scenarios
So let's imagine three scenarios in which a text is published. 1) It's published as a single, cohesive philosophical novel. It doesn't matter if the philosophical reflections are internal (as in Dostoevsky) or external to the story (like Tolstoy). 2) It's published as two separate texts, a set of philosophical essays and a novel. The novel would be less overtly philosophical but it wouldn't be a pulp novel either. If Tolstoy did this with War and Peace the novel would still be philosophical and the essays would be something like an author's commentary. The novel would be whole, the essays would be supplementary. It would be harder to accomplish this with Dostoevsky which is why I'd like to entertain a third scenario. 3) The text is published as a philosophical novel and as two separate texts, the essays and the shorter, alternative novel.

My question is, which is the definitive text? Does it depend on how it's written? What if Tolstoy wrote the narrative to War and Peace separately from his essays and only afterwards integrated the two? Are the separate texts more definitive or the incorporated whole? What if an author writes a single, coherent philosophical novel and before publishing it dis-integrates the philosophical reflections and the story, then publishes them as a novel and a separate set of essays? Is the single philosophical novel more definitive then the published novel and essays because that's how it was first written? And finally, what if an author writes a text with the intention of publishing the entire text as a philosophical novel and a shorter novel and selection of essays both of which are found in an integrated version in the philosophical novel. Or perhaps it doesn't matter how it was written but rather how it was published. In that case, what if the philosophical novel, the shorter novel, and the essays are all published simultaneously?

Different Versions, All Are Originals
These questions might seem moot but I care about the issue because I care about the audience. It's a personal concern because I'd like to write a philosophical novel but I realize that some people might want to read a more simple, less overtly thematic story, and I also realize that some philosophers might be interested in the ideas but be put off by the narrative medium. Because of this I'd like to refuse to answer my own question: which version is definitive? There is, in fact, no definitive version, we only select a version based on what we, as the audience are looking for. The short novel is not an "abridged" version of the original, it's original in its own right. I've avoided the term "abridged" throughout for that very reasonit means that it's partial.

I doubt that I'll be accommodating to the purist, scholarly academic philosophers; I doubt I'll give them a dis-integrated set of essays (it would be contrary to my own philosophical project). But I'd like my novel to be approachable to a wide audience. Admittedly, as a philosophical reader I prefer the more philosophical version of the novel. Even so I'll gladly write an alternative version for the reader who has less interest in the overt philosophical dealings of a metaphysically addicted, prolix author who too often fails to recognize when enough is far too much.