Wednesday, June 1, 2011


  We have never lived enough. Our experience is, without fiction, too confined and too parochial. Martha Nussbaum, "Love's Knowledge."

In an article published thirty-one years ago in Obsidian, "Philosophy and Black Fiction" (1980), I argued that "the final concern of serious fiction is the liberation of perception." I also stated in that article that, "our experience as black men and women completely outstrips our perception---black life is ambiguous and a kaleidoscope of meanings rich, multi-sided, and what the authentic black writer does is despoil meaning to pin down the freshest interpretation given to him. This is genuine fiction. It is also hermeneutic philosophy, in the sense that the writer is an archaeologist probing the Real for veiled sense."

A third of a century later, it still seems to me that the greatest literary art has an epistemological mission. By now this position should be uncontroversial. I'm not talking about mere "entertainment" (though great fiction certainly entertains), or the garden-variety novel, escapist literature, or fiction as a form of recreation. Rather, I am referring to fiction (and all Saying and Showing) that deepens our knowledge and refines our ways of seeing and experiencing the world.
 In her often-cited work "Love's Knowledge" (1990), philosopher Martha Nussbaum says, "In a sense Proust is right to see the literary text as an 'optical instrument' through which the reader becomes a reader of his or her own heart." A similar understanding of fiction is found in William Faulkner's Nobel prize acceptance speech, and in Saul Bellow's essay "Culture Now." Nussbaum continues, saying, "One obvious answer was suggested by Aristotle: we have never lived enough. Our experience is, without fiction, too confined and too parochial...

 "All living is interpreting; all action requires seeing the world as something. So, in this sense, no life is 'raw"..." (In other words, our experience is already cooked by our conditioning, education, intentionality, prejudices, assumptions and presuppositions.) "The point," says Nussbaum, "is that in the activity of literary imagining we are led to imagine and describe with greater precision, focusing our attention on each word, feeling each event more keenly---whereas much of actual life goes by without that heightened awareness, and is thus, in a sense, not fully or thoroughly lived."    
The late John Gardner offered a similar vision of fiction in "On Moral Fiction." There, he states, "In fiction we stand back, weigh things as we do not have time to do in life; and the effect of great fiction is to temper real experience, modify prejudice, humanize...When the writer accepts unquestioningly someone else's formulation of how and why people behave, he is not thinking but dramatizing some other man's theory: that of Freud, Adler, Laing, or whomever. But the final judgment must come from the writer's imagination."

And that imagination, according to Percy Shelley in "A Defense of Poetry," is "the great instrument of moral good." Shelley argues further that, "Poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions...It makes us the inhabitants of a world to which the familiar is in chaos. It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being."

Recently, on April 27, I had the very great pleasure of discussing the above aesthetic positions with philosophers Ron Moore and Sara Goering in a special event, entitled "Moral Imagination," sponsored by the Philosophy Department at the University of Washington. If readers would like to view a tape of that rousing evening discussion, the link is:
Last fall, philosopher Michael Boylan, who is my co-author for the book Philosophy, An Innovative Introduction: Fictive Narrative, Primary Texts, and Responsive Writing (Westview Press, 2010), and I also did an hour-long discussion for Philosophy TV on the relationship between philosophy and literature, on how they are and have always been sister disciplines. The link for viewing this discussion is:
 It should be obvious that such perception-liberating art is the antithesis of ideology, cliched thinking, the unimaginative, and works that do no more than recycle pre-established or second-hand meanings and interpretations of our experience. Real fiction makes the familiar unfamiliar. It shakes up calcified ways of seeing. It activates in us a Beginner's Mind, as Buddhists would say. And we can never again think of a subject, event or experience without recalling the work of art---the gift---that caused scales to fall away from our eyes. So yes, I still stand firmly by the position I took in 1980.

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