Tuesday, June 14, 2011


I do not wish to argue that a novelist or any writer should be a trained philosopher. But I will say categorically that I believe anyone in the western world who wishes to be a serious writer (or thinker) should be acquainted with the geography of Western intellectual history (as trained philosophers are).

The basis for this argument is a no-brainer. Writing does not take place in a historical vacuum. If one hopes to make an artistic or intellectual contribution to Western literature, it follows that one should know what has come before, i.e., what one is making a contribution to, and what our predecessors have thought and achieved. Or if you prefer  Matthew Arnold's phrasing, "the best that has been known and said in the world." What they have left us is our intellectual inheritance. 
Even if a fiction writer limits himself just to reading "stories" (and I can't imagine why someone would do that since our greatest literary predecessor's didn't), he will find that they plunge him into the history of ideas. Can one fully comprehend and appreciate Voltaire's Candide with no knowledge of Gottfried Liebnitz; or John Gardner's Grendel and Richard Wright's The Outsider and "The Man Who Lived Underground" without some understanding of existentialism; or even Charles Olson's poetry with no knowledge of Alfred North Whitehead's "process philosophy"? 
 I will cop to the fact that over the last forty years I've known a great many fiction-writers who were egotists, loved to hear the sound of their own voice only, seemed to feel the cosmos rotated around their wonderful selves and, like far too many Americans, didn't feel they had any need for intellectual self-improvement. Perhaps that comes with the territory of being a writer---a large ego in order to sustain oneself during the vicissitudes in one's career. But there is a truly annoying arrogance and naivety involved when someone says, usually defensively and in an effort to protect his ego, that he doesn't need to know what our ancestors and contemporaries of all races, backgrounds, and cultural orientations have thought and felt. Or when someone believes that his limited personal experience during 80 or 90 years of living (which is preposterously brief given the 4.5 billion-year-old history of the Earth) can take the place of two or three millennia of intellectual or philosophical discourse. 
 Furthermore, most of the ideas expressed by writers today are not new. Far too many writers are simply unaware that an idea they believe is original was actually thought and expressed---and presented with eloquence and sophistication---more than 2,000 years before they were born. Writing well is thinking well. That necessarily involves knowing---and caring about---the best thoughts of others. The kind of writer I'm talking about needs not just "personal experience" but also years of systematic study and, most important of all, a sense of humility: that is, the knowledge that better minds than his own have probably addressed the problem or experience or question that he is wrestling with today, and done so memorably, with sophistication and subtlety. You don't need a Ph.D. in Philosophy, I'm saying, to write well. But you do need to have an open, inquisitive mind, one eager to learn what others---as many intelligent others as possible---have reported down through the ages on the very human question you are trying to clarify.
When thinking about this matter, I always find myself remembering writer Julius Lester's essay collection, Falling Pieces of the Broken Sky (1990), and especially what he wisely says in one lovely piece entitled, "The Cultural Canon." Let's listen to his historically important voice for a moment: 
        "The function of education is not to confirm us in who we are; it is to introduce us to all that we are not. Education should overwhelm us to such an extent that we will never again assume that our experience as individuals or as part of a collective, can be equated with human experience. In other words, education should impress us with how vast creation is and how small we are in the midst of it; and in the acceptance of that is the beginning of wisdom.
          "My education did not confirm me as a black man; it confirmed me as one who had the same questions as Plato and Aristotle. And my education told me that as a black person, it was not only right to ask those questions, it was even okay to put forward my own answers and stand them next to those of Plato and Aristotle. The cultural canon was presented to me in such a way that I was thrust into that vast and complex mystery which life is; and I graduated from college with an intense and passionate curiosity, which led me to study that which my formal education had omitted---namely, black history and literature and women’s history and much, much more.
         "It is the function of education to introduce the student to the terrifying unknown and provide not only the intellectual skills to make known the unknown but the emotional stability to withstand the terror when the unknown cannot be made known. Such an experience gives the student the self-confidence to go forth and face that mystery which lies at the core of each of us: Who am I?"

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