Notes on Fiction and Philosophy

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symploke 12.1-2 (2004) 96-105 In a very real way, what readers see in a work of fiction is determined by the models they employ as they approach it. There is little possibility that the reader will have an unmediated experience with a text simply because no reader is, ultimately, unmediated; we read from contexts, from positions, and as we read we consider books we've read before, books we've heard about, movies, classes we've taken, people around us, the dog down the street, etc. Probably our biggest difficulty with acknowledging fiction's present involves the insistence of the models of the past, which, like Melanie Klein's part objects, we have internalized and which seem to speak to us from within with a voice of authority. Thus, to move to an understanding of late 20th and early 21st century fiction, the first step is to move out of the 4th century B.C.: to let go of the Aristotelian notions that still dominate most thinking about fiction in writing workshops today. Indeed, one of the paradoxes of the institutionalization and burgeoning of writing programs here has been that most of these programs are much less interested in pointing to fiction's present—let alone fiction's future—than in preserving fiction as an eternal past tense. Discussions of setting, plot, character, theme, etc., their parameters derived from Aristotle, seem hardly to have advanced beyond New Criticism's neo-Aristotelianism; and when a workshop student says "I didn't find the character believable," usually the model for believability is firmly entrenched in 19th century notions of consistency that have probably less to do with how real 21st century people act (not to mention 19th century people) than with specific, and often dated, literary conventions. I am of the opinion that the most authentic service a writing program can do writing students is to give them an aesthetic base, introduce them to different philosophies and aesthetic ideas—current as well as past—making available to them different models for understanding fiction. For, just as what readers see in a text is determined by the models they bring, consciously or unconsciously, to bear on said text, so too the writer's ability to construct and revise his own text is determined by the differing philosophical and aesthetic ideas he has both consciously or unconsciously internalized. What is important is not so much finding the right model—there isn't one—as allowing writers to locate themselves within a field that contains varied philosophical and aesthetic possibilities, and to see their own position as always potentially fluid. Indeed, if there is a future in fiction, I think it lies in the active dialogue that can occur between fiction and philosophy/theory, a dialogue in which each prods the other toward new possibilities, where each poses questions that the other is compelled to answer. With that in mind, I want to begin with a philosophical notion and consider what questions it poses for a fiction writer, how it provokes in a writer what might seem to a philosopher a somewhat eccentric response. I want to start with Heidegger and a concept from one of his lesser-known works and apply a gentle and at times non-philosophical pressure to it. In doing so I'm less interested in either presenting myself as Heideggerian or giving a serious philosophical critique of Heidegger than in simply seeing where one idea can take us, seeing "what happens next." In his book Holzwege [Woodpaths] (1950), Heidegger suggests: They are called "woodpaths." Each goes its peculiar way, but in the same forest. Often it seems as though one were identical to another. Yet it only seems so. Woodcutters and foresters are familiar with these paths. They know what it means to be on a woodpath. For Heidegger, thought is a path proceeding through a dark wood (echoes of Dante here), an unpredictably winding path which can be made neither...

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