Wednesday, October 26, 2011
THE VISION OF CHARLES JOHNSON
If literature isn't everything, it's not worth a single hour of someone's time. Jean-Paul Sartre.
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Where are our writers like Orwell and Wells? Do you consider yourself a visionary writer?"
This is a question of genuine interest to me. I've spent my entire adult life thinking about and working on the issue of literary and philosophical vision in my oeuvre. In her work of literary scholarship, Charles Johnson in Context (2009), Linda Ferguson Selzer says on page 6, "As a writer whose career has spanned a period of several decades, it is not surprising that Johnson has developed a number of intellectual and cultural interests, or that concerns left unanswered by one pursuit have sometimes been addressed by his immersion in another." (Italics mine) What Selzer is saying about my work did not come about by accident. All the things I've created, and various disciplines I've studied, were part of a very conscious, systematic effort to create an inter-disciplinary, multi-cultural body of work that is broad and deep, inventive and expansive. If we are speaking of philosophical vision in all its fullness, we expect for it to exhibit three things: coherence, consistency, and completeness.
Regarding completeness, you will recall in my longish post on phenomenology, "Creative Philosophy: What You Need to Know" (Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011), that I said, "As one profile (of an object or subject) is called forth, the others recede from view. Thus to reveal (a meaning) is also to conceal (other meanings). To describe an object (to say) is also to show. But that saying or showing renders other things unseen or 'invisible'." In terms of intellectual and creative practice, what that means in terms of my work is that I've attempted to show as many profiles (meanings) as possible across creative works that span novels, short stories, essays, literary criticism, literary journalism, screen-and-teleplays, drawings, etc. (If I have not written about a subject, there is a very strong possibility that I drew something about it.) But we know the field in which meanings unfold has an ever-receding horizon. In other words, we shall as historically situated subjects never be able to describe all possible profiles or meanings for anything. (And that insures that life will always be surprising and full of the unexpected.) However, I have worked during my lifetime at consciously trying to disclose as many profiles for racial and cultural phenomenon as I can. (And my current interest in science fiction---stories like "Popper's Disease," "Sweet Dreams," "Guinea Pig," and "One Minute Past Midnight" as well as the in-progress novel I'm working on with Steven Barnes, A War in Heaven---arises specifically from the need to make a greater presence for contemporary science and technology in my body of work, because phenomena seen from the standpoint of the various sciences reveal a unique meaning, as my dissertation director Don Ihde makes so very clear in his many books.)
In one of my writer's notebooks, I came across this statement I jotted down for myself: "If a writer presents only one side of a problem, one meaning in exclusion to all the others, then that writer is guilty of oversimplification, one-dimensionality, a lack of depth, and an act of violence to the phenomenon itself. He has denied its richness, scaled down the possibilities of being, frozen the process of meaning at a single fixed point, and cheated the efflorescence of meaning. His (or her) work may be emotionally powerful, it may be rhetorically strong, but it does not have the integrity of real thought, which presents an open-ended series of phenomenological profiles, the light as well as the dark." I feel comfortable with standing by that statement.
Something else that should be said is that, in my humble opinion, a body of work should deliver both theory and practice. Thus, you will find stories and visual art in my oeuvre alongside works that are theoretical (Being and Race, "Philosophy and Black Fiction," "A Boot Camp for Creative Writing," "Whole Sight," "Storytelling and the Alpha Narrative," even a very early 1973 article I wrote and illustrated entitled "Creating the Political Cartoon"), i.e., philosophical and critical books, essays, and articles that clarify the aesthetic principles that are the foundation for artistic practice. I recall decades ago my dear literary agent asking me "why" I was writing Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970. Her question was reasonable. Creative writers seldom write works of aesthetics. But my reason for doing it was that, in addition to it being my Ph.D. dissertation, we lacked in our literature a phenomenological aesthetics applied to works of black fiction.
It is truly my hope that when scholars and students (or general readers) examine my body of work they will find interpretations (or creative renditions) that cover a wide range of subjects; they should be able to find something that addresses ontology or metaphysics, the nature of (Buddhist) perception, the nature of the self, theory of knowledge, politics and race and culture, aesthetics, theory of language, ethics, religion, American history, etc., etc. (I should note here that I probably have more yet to do with theory of science and logic because, as Buddhist scholar Richard Hayes once said, ""99.98% of all discourse in the United States is made up of informal fallacies," with the two worst offenders being argumentum ad hominem or an attack on someone's character instead of their argument; and argumentum ad verecundiam, or an appeal to authority.)
In his introduction for Charles Johnson: The Novelist as Philosopher (2007), in the section entitled "Charles Johnson and Western Philosophical Traditions," literary scholar Marc Conner remarks that, "Johnson has long been intimately engaged with the very roots of western philosophical thought: the pre-Socratics, those Greek thinkers who preceded the great age of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle by several generations...Intriguingly, when it comes to the more famous successors to the pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle, John's engagement is much diminished. This is not surprising: for Plato's adherence to rationalism and idealism, and Aristotle's adherence to empiricism and realism, are neither particularly sympathetic to Johnson's own thought."
When I read those words by Dr. Conner, I realized and had to confess that he was right. I've worked with Heraclitus and Parmenides far more often than I have with Plato or Aristotle (and for reasons that he carefully explains). But this "diminished" presence in my body of work, this intellectual weakness, if you will---and Marc pointing that out---mildly annoyed me. So to clear up this matter, I wrote in 2007 a short story entitled "The Cynic," a tale narrated by Plato, who speaks at length about his teacher Socrates, Diogenes, and many other philosophers. Aristotle even makes a cameo appearance as a young student of Plato. In other words, Dr. Conner's critique inspired me to make an effort to fill in this obvious intellectual and creative "gap" in my body of work.
For years now I've expressed (to myself) my particular literary vision in a single phrase that joins together East and West, the ancient and the modern, the rigorously philosophical and the spiritual: phenomenological Buddhism.
And is there more to say on this subject of vision? Well, yes, of course. Much more. But let me conclude with yet another notation from my writer's workbook: "Any discipline or field at any moment has areas where it is both strong and weak, and it is the latter that always makes discovery, innovation, and creativity possible. There are areas in any field that are gray, weak, inconclusive, and uncertain in development---this is a guarantee that a significant contribution can be made in that field."
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 6:32 PM