Rebecca Goldstein recommends the

Best Philosophical Novels

The skills of a philosopher and those of a novelist are often in tension, but they have much to learn from each other, says novelist and philosopher, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. She chooses her favourite philosophical novels.

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    by George Eliot

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    by Herman Melville

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    Death in Venice
    by Thomas Mann

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    The Black Prince
    by Iris Murdoch

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    Infinite Jest
    by David Foster Wallace

Rebecca Goldstein

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein graduated from Columbia University, receiving the Montague Prize for Excellence in Philosophy, and immediately went on to graduate work at Princeton University, receiving her PhD in philosophy. While in graduate school she was awarded a National Science Foundation Fellowship and a Whiting Foundation Fellowship. As well as her teaching work she is also a writer whose novels and short stories dramatise the concerns of philosophy.

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Rebecca Goldstein

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein graduated from Columbia University, receiving the Montague Prize for Excellence in Philosophy, and immediately went on to graduate work at Princeton University, receiving her PhD in philosophy. While in graduate school she was awarded a National Science Foundation Fellowship and a Whiting Foundation Fellowship. As well as her teaching work she is also a writer whose novels and short stories dramatise the concerns of philosophy.

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You are quite unusual in having a degree in philosophy, being a philosopher in your own right, but also being a novelist. How did you begin writing philosophical novels?

I don’t quite know how it happened. I never had any intention of being a novelist. I started in physics, then went into the philosophy of science and mathematical logic. I wasn’t even interested in more literary philosophy like Sartre or existentialism. I loved novels but I felt somewhat ashamed, since I was a strictly hard-core analytic philosopher.

My experimenting with fiction might have been to do with what I then considered ‘mushy’ questions that I’d been thinking about when, having been raised in a very religious family, I lost any inclination towards religion. I had also given birth to my first child, and lost my beloved father. I was a young professor of philosophy wondering how to think about all these life changes as a philosopher, and found that the way I had been trained as a philosopher, with my great emphasis on precision, just closed it off.

“Where argument and empirical evidence end, having been exhausted, it’s often our philosophical temperament that swells up to fill the space, delivering to us our deep core intuitions.”

In the midst of these ponderings, I heard this voice, one morning as I was getting ready for work, delivering me my first line: ‘I’m often asked what it’s like to be married to a genius.’ It was not my voice, it was not my story. I was married to a very smart man at that time, a brilliant physicist, but still I was not often asked what it was like to be married to a genius. I simply knew it was the first line of a novel.

I followed that voice, which is something you have to do in writing novels. In philosophy, in contrast, you follow an argument. So by a strange turn of events in my life I started writing novels, and it certainly became a great stumbling block in my philosophical career. I lost a lot of ground that I spent many decades trying to regain. In my early twenties, I was on my way to a respectable analytic philosopher’s career – writing a novel was not the right thing to do.

But I’m glad, at this point in my life, that I did it. I think I have learned more about the kinds of questions I’ve come to be most interested in by writing novels and then returning to philosophy and writing about them in an entirely different way, than if I had stayed on the straight and narrow.

In two of your more recent books, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction and Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, you combine philosophical arguments with characterisation and story. You engage with philosophy through a character (in the case of Plato, one based on a real character with some mythological attributes now attached to him). Both are very philosophical works but they’re better than straight philosophy because of the narrative, the way you get inside the arguments. It’s a bit like Kierkegaard: showing something is far better than simply stating it.

I think there’s room for both. One of the things I’m very interested in is the interplay between character and philosophical intuition. Where argument and empirical evidence end, having been exhausted, it’s often our philosophical temperament that swells up to fill the space, delivering to us our deep core intuitions.

As Hume says, our nature is too strong for argument. Psychology will swell up and fill the space beyond philosophical argument. Only what I’m interested in is not just the intuitions that Hume was interested in, that we all share in common— such as our belief in the uniformity of nature—but the intuitions that vary between us. They are, in some sense, the product of our character and of our outlook on reality and our place within it. That’s why our deep philosophical intuitions vary so much between us.

“You feel the movement of a philosophically sophisticated ethicist moving behind the scenes of Middlemarch 

I’m still a product of my training and very committed to philosophical arguments, but the extra-philosophical, extra-argumentative aspects of our individually variable intuitions fascinate me.

That’s something that I can get at within a novel. I guess it’s the psychology of philosophy that I can get at in fiction, rather than philosophy proper. I’ve just discoursed on it but it’s much more interesting to demonstrate it. That’s one of the many things you can do in a novel.

Your first choice is Middlemarch (1852) by George Eliot, which is visibly philosophical. She’s a highly intelligent, articulate, philosophically sophisticated writer who had actually translated Spinoza into English. She was immersed in moral philosophy and, in a sense, this is a touchstone for the philosophical novel for me. Why did you choose it?

Both the first two books that I’ve chosen—Middlemarch and Moby Dick, by Herman Melville—grew out of their authors’ preoccupations with Spinoza.

George Eliot produced the first English translation of The Ethics. Because of an altercation between her partner, George Henry Lewes, and her publisher, it wasn’t actually published until 1978. Eliot has that intimate, translator’s knowledge of Spinoza, and she takes issue with him on precisely the point that would lead her to write a philosophical novel rather than a philosophical treatise.

Not only is Eliot a great moral thinker—you feel the movement of a philosophically sophisticated ethicist moving behind the scenes of Middlemarch—but it’s also about the use of literature in moving us morally forward. This is an aspect that Middlemarch shares with all the novels I’ve chosen. I began my second career as a novelist in spite of my disapproving philosophical other half. All the five novels I’ve chosen were important in persuading that other half that it had a lot to learn and to shut up and listen.

“There has been a professionalization of philosophical thinking that is completely separate from the question of how we live our lives. So you can be a brilliant ethicist and a complete asshole.”

There are so many ways in which Eliot is a Spinozist and so, for her, the general problem is the same as for Spinoza, which is, ‘What do we do about human nature? We are stuck with human nature. How can we nevertheless make moral progress, become something more, given the smallness of human nature?’

Eliot has this wonderful quotation in Middlemarch: “We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves.” In The Ethics, Spinoza famously says that the only way to move forward is through pure reason: “For the eyes of the mind, whereby it sees and observes things, are none other than proofs.” So there’s his answer to the question that Eliot also addresses.

Spinoza doesn’t discount emotion—in fact to make cognitive progress is to make emotional progress is to make moral progress—they’re all collapsed together for him, as well as for Eliot. But for Spinoza, it has to begin with tracing out and replicating, in our minds, the pure logical connections that constitute the nature of reality. It is this pure logical deduction and objectivity that will transform our emotions and expand us so that we take in more and more of reality, and become less identified with the very small creatures that we are.

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For George Eliot, what is morally relevant is not your making your way into an impersonally objective reality constituted of logical connections, but rather into the reality of others — to gain some insight into what it is like to be them. That’s the knowledge that’s essential for moral progress. For both of them moral progress is cognitive, but the relevant knowledge is different, as is the associated cognitive means.

Eliot makes imagination central, which also makes the narrative arts central. In Spinoza, the arts are not particularly central. They are mere pleasures. He liked theatre and mentions it on a list of innocent pleasures that “none but the superstitious” (i.e. the religious) would condemn: nice clothes, beautiful plants, perfume, and going to the theatre. I think that’s the only time he mentions the arts. But for George Eliot, the artistic imagination is key to the answer she offers to the question she shares with Spinoza: how do we make progress beyond our deplorably small selves? She’s trying to morally transform us through her fiction.

So this is very ambitious literature, coming out of philosophical conviction. It’s not only my favourite philosophical novel, it’s my favourite novel. I teach it again and again and each time I am flabbergasted by what she’s able to accomplish and what my students get out of it.

It seems to me appropriate that Spinoza writes in an objective geometrical way about reason, and logic, and how to deduce how to live, and George Eliot writes in a very specific, character-driven, situational way to bring out the importance of sympathy and the kinds of human connections that are possible: it would almost be perverse if it was the other way around.

Both of them promise us that reading their works in the right way will be a deeply emotional experience. That reading Eliot’s fiction arouses our emotions isn’t surprising, but The Ethics? But actually when you get to Part 5 and the kind of transcendence that it both deduces and induces—viewing things sub specie aeternitatis—you can lose your sense of self in the grandeur of it all, and it is profoundly emotional.

But there is this substantive question that lies between the two books: what is the kind of knowledge that morally transforms us and how do we acquire it? For Spinoza it’s objective reality itself; only reality in its infinite complexity is powerful enough to enlarge the smallness of our nature, and for George Eliot the essential knowledge comes about through the imaginative grasping of others, who are no larger than we are.

“She makes the limits of imagination—not the limits of reason— essential to how much moral progress a character can make.”

Middlemarch is deeply ethical. The differences between her characters are ethical differences which are shown as differences in the limits of their capacity for sympathetic imagination. All of her characters are driven by ‘conatus,’ the drive to persist and flourish that Spinoza talked about. They’re after their own wellbeing, but, for some of them, their characters are such that they are able to imagine themselves into others. They are the characters who undergo moral progress and moral expansion. She makes the limits of imagination—not the limits of reason— essential to how much moral progress a character can make.

Dorothea Brooke, who is her heroine, is a very real, and very flawed, character, especially in the beginning. She undergoes morally transformative experiences, and they’re experiences of imagining the inner reality of others, in particular the sad, small character of Casaubon, whom she marries. He’s a scholar, a dried-up pedant with no imagination whatsoever. Eliot is also demonstrating the dangers of the life of ethically unimaginative scholarship, of sterile pedantry.

It’s a great novel. Every time I re-read it I think, ‘Gee, I know this by heart. Am I going to have the full experience?’ And I always do: I always have the huge experience and find something else to admire in it.

I’m intrigued that you said that your second choice, Moby Dick (1851), has Spinoza lurking behind the story of a young man finding himself, or an older man losing himself in pursuit of a whale who injured him. That doesn’t sound immediately Spinozan.

I actually have quite an idiosyncratic reading of this great metaphysical masterpiece. Michael Della Rocca, a philosopher at Yale, has a new Oxford handbook on Spinoza. He asked me to do a chapter on the literary influence of Spinoza, and it was in the course of writing that chapter that I discovered the astonishing role Spinoza played in literature: German and English and American.

My view of the Enlightenment is that it was seeded by Spinoza, who died in 1677, a hundred years before the Enlightenment. He was pounced on, denounced, he became the most dangerous man in Europe to acknowledge, even after his death, because he thought that ethics could be grounded on purely secular grounds. The two greatest reasons for believing in God—God as giving the answer to why is there something rather than nothing, and also as grounding morality—Spinoza pulled the rug out from.

So he was declared the great Satan on Earth, but, in order to denounce him, everyone was reading him. To get your degree in European universities and your entrance into ecclesiastical circles you had to have your refutations of Spinoza lined up.

“Goethe said that, when he was young, he never left the house without a copy of The Ethics in his back pocket.”

Then in 1785, in the midst of the Enlightenment, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, who was actually a convert to Christianity from Judaism, said that to be a Spinozist is to be an atheist, an immoralist, and a fatalist, and to sign on to the Enlightenment is to be a Spinozist. Ergo, the Enlightenment should be renounced.

This attack on Spinoza, as the essential figure in the Enlightenment, was a huge phenomenon in Germany that then spread to England. It was called the Pantheismusstreit—pantheism controversy—and it put Spinoza front and centre.

First in Germany, starting with Goethe, the German Romantics—the Sturm und Drang crowd—declared, one after the other, ‘If to be for the Enlightenment means to be a Spinozist, then I’m a Spinozist!’ Goethe said that, when he was young, he never left the house without a copy of The Ethics in his back pocket. Then Hölderlin and Novalis declared that they were Spinozists. In the process, Spinoza got transformed—one can say he got deformed—into a figure that a German Romantic could love.

This is all background to Moby Dick. Coleridge was immersed in German intellectual thinking, and, at first, was a Spinozist. But there was an aspect of Spinoza that bothered him. As you make progress in Spinoza and identify more and more with Deus sive Natura—the thing that can be thought of as God or Nature—you lose your sense of identity and personality. He didn’t like that. He said it was the “swamping of personality by Infinity.” And yes, that’s what Spinoza wants for us, for our personality to be swamped by infinity. That’s how we save ourselves. But Coleridge rebelled against this and wrote about it in his intellectual journal, Biographia Literaria.

“It’s amazing to me that the two greatest philosophical novels written in English in the 19th century, Moby Dick and Middlemarch, come out of a preoccupation with Spinoza.”

This was, in turn, read by Herman Melville, on the other side of the Atlantic, and he became obsessed with the same question: If we are Spinozists and persuaded by his deductive argument, what happens to our autonomy? We’re swamped by infinity. That, I believe, is at the heart of what’s going on in Moby Dick. What that great white whale represents is impersonal, logically constituted reality that has no regard for our autonomy, that would swamp us, that would reconstitute our individuality in its image, and it’s an insult to our very beings. It may be reality, but it’s a personal insult.

Ahab is defiantly denying this swamping. If you go back and look at the crazy, nutty things that he is saying—“Talk not to me of blasphemy,” he says to Starbuck, “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me”—he’s defiantly against the Spinozist logic that constitutes all of nature, including our nature. He’s not going to be determined! That defiance is the essence of his character.

The great irony is that it’s his defiant determination not to be determined that determines him and ultimately dooms him. He’s driven by his maddened desire not to be driven.

Spinoza had entered deeply into the literary consciousness by way of the attacks on the Enlightenment that he came to represent. It’s amazing to me that the two greatest philosophical novels written in English in the 19th century, Moby Dick and Middlemarch, come out of a preoccupation with Spinoza.

What about Ishmael? How does he relate to the Spinoza narrative?

All of the crew of the Pequod are doomed. Except for Starbuck and Ishmael, they all yield their responsibility to Ahab. At first they try to fight him, and then they just give up and become instruments of his will. The tricky thing that Spinoza asks us to do is to both have our minds completely reordered by the logical order of reality, while also maintaining responsibility for ourselves, both intellectually and morally. We must hold ourselves accountable, for our beliefs and our actions, even in the face of the most powerful determinism.

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So you both lose yourself and yet can’t lose yourself. This is incredibly tricky, and maybe itself logically incoherent. In any case, it’s what Spinoza requires and what The Ethics is trying to carry us toward. Everybody in the crew gives up their authority, their accountability, their responsibility to Ahab and that’s something you’re not allowed to do. They all go down with him.

Ishmael is the objective observer. He pulls back, he observes and he doesn’t get pulled into the orbit of Ahab’s madness. He maintains his own identity and his own judgement and he is saved. He is the only one who survives the catastrophe.

The way he survives it is also interesting. It’s one of the most amazing scenes in all of literature. There is a casket that Queequeg has prepared for himself, which is scribbled all over with his tattoos. Queequeg is a Polynesian, who at first Ishmael is horrified by. He thinks he’s perhaps a cannibal and he’s also covered with grotesque tattoos. He is the embodiment of the Other. But then Ishmael grows to love Queequeg and his individuality. When Queequeg is deathly ill, he prepares a casket for himself that can float because he doesn’t want to be submerged in the sea. He transfers all of his tattoos—that express his individuality—onto this casket. And that’s the thing that saves Ishmael. So there’s a clinging to individuality. In this extraordinary scene, with the casket floating and saving Ishmael, there is an embrace of individuality in the face of everything and also an embrace of our coming, in whichever strange and unpredictable ways, to the aid of one another. The instrument of Ishmael’s survival is Queequog, Queequog’s casket, inscribed with his superstitious beliefs, yes, but with his individuality, which is precious.

A novelist has got to believe in the moral supremacy of the irreducibly individual. You can’t write novels without embracing the something sacred in individuality.

As with Middlemarch, I could go on indefinitely about the way in which this novel wrestles with very specific philosophical problems.

You’ve described Middlemarch and Moby Dick as great novels — which they are in at least two senses. Death in Venice is a much slimmer book. Why did you choose Death in Venice (1912)?

Now we are going to get into much more idiosyncratic choices. One of the things about novels is our response to them is subjective. A great writer prepares a great experience, but the experience is going to vary from reader to reader. There has to be an elective affinity between the novel and your own preoccupations and character: intellectual, emotional, and philosophical.

I’m really interested in two philosophers who are, in some sense, enemies of literature: Spinoza with his downplaying of the imagination and the sense of beauty and individuality, and Plato. Plato banished the artists from his utopia, particularly the epic poets who were the novelists of his day.

“Philosophy is not a 9-5 job.”

And yet, the great irony is that Plato is the greatest literary artist of the western philosophical canon. He writes his dialogues with characters and scenes and sometimes even plots, particularly in the Symposium.

I’m really interested in novels that are deeply Platonic, and Death in Venice is deeply Platonic. The dialogues of Plato lurking in the background are the Symposium and, even more importantly, the Phaedrus. I love the Phaedrus. I think it is magnificent on every level. It’s so strange. You have to wonder what Plato was going through when he wrote it, because he reverses himself on many things. He actually calls attention to this reversal. He sets it out in neon, because he has Socrates deliver first one speech and then say, ‘No, no, no, everything I’ve said is off.’ Plato has Socrates completely reverse himself and deliver a second speech.

Martha Nussbaum says Plato must have been in love, and I tend to think that’s true. If he was in love—or if some other strange thing had happened in his life—that would make him completely reverse himself philosophically. For a real philosopher, life and philosophical thought are knit together. Philosophy is not a 9-5 job. There’s much evidence that that was true for Plato, and some of the evidence is to be found in the Phaedrus.

“I’m really interested in novels that are deeply Platonic, and Death in Venice is deeply Platonic.”

What he reverses himself about is the philosophical usefulness of certain forms of madness; he reverses himself on whether reason is all that we need to make intellectual and moral progress. In the Phaedrus, he says that we need a certain kind of madness. He calls it being possessed by the gods, but we can call it ‘intuition.’ To be struck by insights that we didn’t get to by way of argument and that we can’t make other people understand by way of argument.

In Socrates’s second speech of the Phaedrus, he says that there is good madness and bad madness. There is religious genius, aesthetic genius, and romantic genius, and all these depend on a kind of good madness, residing in powerful anomalous experiences that yield a new sense of the world. You can’t make the insights you arrive at accountable to others who haven’t shared the experiences themselves, and these new insights bring about a complete discontinuity with the rest of your life. Plato says it’s a good madness, when it opens one up to truth. Truth is what makes the difference. So if you go through a religious conversion, or fall madly in love, or are gripped by an artistic intuition, it can lift you up out of your life. Your friends think you’ve gone mad, and in some sense you have, but that madness alone can channel a certain kind of truth. This a-rational detour that Plato explores in the Phaedrus is quite at odds with the bulk of his arguments, and it provides the context for Death in Venice.

You see, the rub is that, from the inside, you can’t tell whether you’re in the grip of the good madness or the bad madness. With an argument, when you’re reasoning your way to a conclusion, you can put it out there and people can criticise it. If you’re a reasonable person, you’ll be open to their criticisms and revise your beliefs in light of them. That’s what it is to make rational progress — which is a thing that Plato is usually arguing for.

But in this kind of thing that he’s calling madness, you can’t make it understandable to others, because the only way to understand is to be inside the experience, which is, by its nature, unsharable. So there is no way to correct the just as forcefully rendered untruths that are yielded. The good madness opens one up to truth, while the bad kind closes one off in private delusion, but from inside the experience you just can’t tell the difference, and so it’s very tricky. That’s what Death in Venice is all about.

Von Aschenbach has been an artist but a very formulaic one. He’s had great acclaim, but he’s never been struck by the divine madness. And then he is struck. In Death in Venice—as in Plato’s Phaedrus—an erotic madness and artistic madness are merged together; for von Aschenbach the instrument of this merging is Tadzio, a young boy. The mad experience is falling in love with beauty, as embodied in this young boy. What the novel is really asking us to contemplate or judge is: is it the good, or is it the bad kind of madness?

“It’s an incredibly moving novel and I love the movie adaptation by Visconti as well ”

Von Aschenbach writes the most beautiful music of his life in the presence of this boy. But he also behaves in a mad way and also, maybe, in a very irresponsible and reprehensible way, not warning the boy’s family of the danger they are in from the sickness that’s spreading through Venice and that will eventually kill von Aschenbach. There are echoes from the Symposium, too, from Diotima’s speech about how she had saved the city from the plague. Socrates, in the Symposium, puts forth a rationalized view of eros—not mad at all—and he says that he’d learned this view from Diotima. And this is the view that he reverses himself on in the Phaedrus.

This is a problem that I find so very interesting: How eliminable is intuition, even in the most rational pursuits, like mathematics? That’s what Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, which I’ve also written a book about—Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel—are all about. Those theorems offer a proof that we can never dispense with intuitions—which may prove to be faulty, yielding dreadful paradoxes, even within mathematics. Mathematics can’t be completely tamed by formal systems with their algorithmic rules, that purge our mathematics of these intuitions—in Plato’s language, being struck by the gods. Mathematics can’t proceed without this madness, let alone such other aspects of the good things in life, like romance and art.

This is a question that I am terrifically interested in and Death in Venice dramatizes it brilliantly. It’s an incredibly moving novel and I love the movie adaptation by Visconti as well, even though its dialogue gets a bit heavy-handed at times. But it’s able to get to the heart of the Phaedrus-inspired paradox visually, which is an achievement. My students tend to hate the movie, which saddens me. But at least they like the book.

A lot of people see it as Nietzschean rather than Platonic, the Nietzsche of The Birth of Tragedy. There’s the Dionysian versus the Apollonian forces in life at play in von Aschenbach.

That’s true, but Mann actually quotes the Phaedrus several times in the novel, thereby indicating that Plato is there. He talks about the path the cholera has taken—he replicates exactly the Dionysian path in the Euripides play, The Bacchantes—so he is certainly playing with the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy. But then so did Plato play with this dichotomy—not surprising since, if Nietzsche is right, this dichotomy lay at the heart of classical Greek culture.

In the Phaedrus there is a passage where Plato says that if anybody tries to enter the halls of the Muses without the gift of madness, his art will come to nothing. He reverses himself on the question of whether reason alone grants the path to truth in an amazing way, and in a way that, I think, Mann felt very deeply, inspiring him to produce a slim novella that is quite miraculous.

What’s your fourth choice?

This is really idiosyncratic: The Black Prince (1973) by Iris Murdoch. Iris Murdoch means a great deal to me because, though I never meant to be a novelist, I always loved her novels very much, even back when I didn’t tell any of my colleagues that I read novels on the sly.

Again, the feeling, when you read the book, of someone who is philosophically talented and ferociously knowledgeable, and who creates her art out of the tensions that this philosophical talent and knowledge produces. It was encouraging when I fell into writing a novel—and then wrote more of them—that Iris Murdoch had done so, too. She entertained a career as a philosophy academic as well. Her first book was on Sartre.

She wrote about Plato as well, in The Fire and the Sun.

She is a deep, Christian Platonist. To be a Platonist and a novelist is to feel a tension and that really comes to the fore in The Black Prince. It is a deeply Platonic novel so it’s one that I respond to strongly.

It’s also a really good novel, and I don’t think it gets enough credit. I don’t think Murdoch gets enough credit, actually.

The main character is Bradley Pearson. He’s a writer. He’s written very little because he’s the type who thinks of art as sacred and cultivates all this paralyzing solemnity around it. In some sense, if you’re a Platonist you’re a little torn about this attitude of solemnity toward art because yes, there’s great and inspiring art, but there is philosophy, and philosophy is more important. One of the things that I think she’s playing with in The Black Prince is desacralizing art.

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The Black Prince partly utilizes farce to dramatize its tensions. It can turn on a dime between profound philosophical insights into the nature of art, followed by sheer farce – just people behaving crazily. There’s a phrase that she uses, the ‘foul contingency,’ and that is all that life consists of. The narrative of our lives is not written out by logic, but by all of this ‘foul contingency.’ It’s kind of an insult to our intellect, how unpredictable and chaotic life can be and the novel is very interested in that.

It also takes up this great question of when you’re in the midst of a madness—in this case, again, it’s a romantic madness—can you tell whether it’s the good kind of madness or the bad kind of madness? Mann writes a tragedy out of this conundrum, and Murdoch writes a farce, and Murdoch’s is the riskier choice.

So Bradley Pearson has finally got some time to write his magnum opus, and he’s very good friends with this other guy, Arnold Baffin, who is a popular writer. Bradley looks down on him—perhaps it’s envy, perhaps it isn’t—and he tells the story of what happens when this popular writer calls him up because he’s beaten his wife and he’s afraid he’s killed her.

“It’s also a really good novel, and I don’t think it gets enough credit. I don’t think Murdoch gets enough credit, actually.”

Then Bradley falls in love with the Baffin’s young daughter whose name is Julian and is 18. Then you don’t know, through the whole thing, whether this is the good kind of madness or he’s a creepy old man, a pervert who falls in love and has a brief affair with Julian.

There’s also a lot of play with Shakespeare. There are so many things going on and so many literary tricks at the end – there are postscripts by all the characters giving their versions. Everybody writes their own version of the story in which now they are the star and it’s all about them and how do we know what’s really the truth? This includes the editor of the book who signs his name A. Loxias. Loxias is, of course, the last name of the god Apollo. So there’s that playing in the background, lots of things to try to interpret and figure out and a basic preoccupation with the tension between art and philosophy that somebody trained in philosophy, who is also a novelist, feels very keenly.

Do you think that with the first four books you’ve described, a lot of readers will not get the philosophical allusions, will not understand the tensions behind them intellectually? Do you think they miss out when they read them for narrative-character interactions?

The thing you have to be aware of when you’re writing fiction out of your own philosophical preoccupations is that you’re writing on several levels, and it has to be enjoyable on every level. Writing a novel, you have to make it enjoyable; you have to use the literary devices to their utmost: character, plot, scenery, language-play, all that stuff. You have to make it a feast on a literary level. What you’re trying to do, as a novelist, is to prepare the ground for a big experience, the exact nature of which you can’t really control, because your readers are going to bring their own lives and their own characters into it to make it their experience.

That was very hard for me, I have to say, when I first wrote a novel. I would hear people discussing my novel and I would think, ‘What? I didn’t have that in my mind at all, how could they think that?’ And then I realised I had to let it go. You create the groundwork, and it has to be porous enough so that people can infiltrate it with their own inner beings and create something meaningful. That’s what you’re hoping, at least, or you wouldn’t risk your philosophical career by writing novels.

So if there is laid, in the groundwork, this philosophical cogitation as well as everything else, it makes it potentially a bigger and more meaningful experience. Not everybody is going to get it, but you have to prepare the ground so that people can move in with whatever they have and try to get something big out of it.

For me, for all of the novels I’ve chosen, the payoff is big. It’s big on many levels, but the philosophical is very important to me, obviously. And it’s there in these novels, whether people get it or not.

So your final choice is Infinite Jest (1996), by David Foster Wallace. He also studied philosophy. Didn’t he work on time?

Yes, he did. He was an undergraduate major in philosophy at Harvard, his father was a philosophy professor, and he wrote a senior thesis that was about Aristotle’s argument about determinism. The thesis, which I’ve read, got into modal logic and time, tensed and tense-less logic, and then he returned to Harvard as a graduate student in philosophy and dropped out in his first year.

So, like Iris Murdoch and George Eliot, somebody immersed in philosophy, completely confident working with philosophical ideas. Now his essay-writing is fantastic but Infinite Jest is a huge complex book.

It is. I was resistant to reading it, just because it’s so very long and I knew it was going to be a long and immersive experience if I was going to give myself over to it. I teach a course at NYU called ‘The Literatures of Hope and Despair’ about literature that had been influenced by Spinoza—literatures of hope—and Schopenhauer—literatures of despair. Between the two of them you can explain so much that goes on in 19th century literature. Then a dean said, ‘Oh, all of our students are always clamouring to read Infinite Jest. Since you’re doing this course, would you teach it?’ So, at that point, not only did I read it, I read the book during the semester because I wanted to have the same experience that the students were having. I assigned it to myself as well – it only seemed fair. So we were all working under great pressure.

It’s an extraordinary book and I, of course, have my own interpretation about what is going on. I think it’s about recursion. Recursion is a somewhat technical term – we use recursion theory a lot in logic and mathematics. Recursion theory grew out of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. Here’s recursion: When you have an operation that you perform on some element—say a number—and you get a new product as a result, and then you perform the very same operation on that product and get a new product, and then you perform the operation on that, ad infinitum. Ad infinitum is very important because that’s how we generate infinity. That’s how we generate, for example, the natural numbers. You start with zero, you perform the operation of adding one, get a product, and keep applying the same recursive rule.

“It is an ultimate novel of despair, as wildly entertaining as it is.”

The phrase Infinite Jest comes from a scene in Hamlet and, as in The Black Prince, there is also a play with Hamlet. But, for me, the notion of recursion forms the framework of understanding this massive, explosive novel. David Foster Wallace was very interested in recursion. Both he and I had written a book in the same series, Great Scientific Discoveries. I wrote on Gödel and he wrote on Cantor. Wallace’s book was called Everything and More — about infinity and Cantor’s discovery of the different orders of infinity. There’s countable and uncountable infinity, so you can get infinity and then, in some sense, bigger infinity. Wallace was very interested in infinity and the role that recursion plays in it.

One of the things that he is examining in the novel is the various games that we play, many of them recursive. The way we lose ourselves in recursively looping games can drown our sense of isolation and loneliness and misery. They can make us feel as if we’re making progress in our lives. And of course, since recursion generates infinity, perhaps this sense isn’t illusive. Or perhaps it is. Perhaps on the human level it undeniably is. That’s a despairing line to take, and Wallace takes it.

He creates this massive work with all these different, crisscrossing plot lines. Then he gives us something to do to try and interpret it. The book is about the games that we play, and Wallace gives us a game, which is trying to interpret this book, finding the solution that will make all the pieces of it come together, and the pieces don’t really all come together. I think that’s part of the ‘infinite jest’ of the book. You can’t put it all together. But he will give us this massive entertainment to try to lose ourselves in, and that is—again recursively—the very subject of the book. What he gets us so obsessively to do—this game we might lose ourselves in—is itself the theme of the book.

The novel is also about our infinite loneliness. The one game that we play, which is language, should be able to make us understand one another, to relieve our isolation, our solitude. But language, yet another rule-governed game, is too feeble to accomplish this. It can’t deliver us to one another.

“I do think that the kinds of things that philosophers think about have much to add to novels.”

All these games can be a kind of addiction, a way of playing together as if we really are together, but we are not. At the heart of it all is utter aloneness and sadness.

The fact of our utter aloneness is a theme of much literature. And this is interesting, because literature, in doing justice to the commonality of our experiences, is a means of muting this feeling of isolation, you might think. Wallace offers a novel that expresses his scepticism on this point. It is an ultimate novel of despair, as wildly entertaining as it is. Its very entertainment is part of his point.

You characterise it as despair as the intellectual conclusion. I don’t know whether it’s too crass to tie that in to his suicide. But isn’t there also a kind of optimism — that when you’re engaged in the activity of trying to make sense of things there’s a kind of hope there still?

I think that’s true. Because these activities are, in some sense, governed by rules, it is something that we are able to share together. Rules are something that we can understand, replicate in our own minds and play together. So this is a way that we can alleviate the aloneness, in company with others. That’s what games are about, and ultimately, Wallace seems to be suggesting, it’s all games, except for our essential aloneness and sadness. That’s no game.

There is an incredibly heart-breaking scene where the main character, Hal Incandenza, first appears. He’s a tennis player. That’s yet another game given much attention in the book. There’s also, in the novel, a game called ‘eschaton’—from eschatology—that uses game theory and computers to lob tennis balls at targets. In any case, this young boy Hal, who is a great tennis star, is being interviewed for college. He’s not speaking. His uncle, who is head of the private school that he attends—a school devoted to tennis—is talking for him. But you’re hearing Hal’s thoughts and he is brilliant. He has an eidetic memory; he had memorised the Oxford English Dictionary. Then, finally, the interviewers goad Hal into speaking, and we see the horrified reaction. We’ve been inhabiting the inner life where he’s brilliant but if he tries to speak he sounds like an animal or a deranged person. They’re all wondering, ‘Is he having a seizure?’

You realise that something has happened and maybe you’re going to find out what it was in the remainder of book, which all takes place before this opening scene, and maybe you’re not.

Hal has memorised the Oxford English Dictionary, but language completely fails him and he is as alone as it is possible to be. Language hasn’t kept up its promise. And then Wallace offers us a massive multi-plotted novel that makes—among other promises—the promise of explaining why Hal Cadenza has been forsaken by language—but this novel doesn’t keep its promise. That’s not a criticism. Its not keeping its promise is at the very heart of what Wallace is up to.

To philosophers reading this interview, do you think that you would encourage some of them to write novels? It strikes me, from what you’ve been saying, that the strength of a lot of these writers is that the novel is the tip of the iceberg — even if it is a big tip. There’s a huge amount of philosophical thought and wrestling with ideas, in a personal way, behind all of these novels, and perhaps a philosopher would be, in that position, a good person to start writing a novel.

But my hunch is that many philosophers are quite literalist and unimaginative about what a novel could be like. They think very much in terms of telling somebody how it is rather than exploring ideas. Do you think there’s something about studying philosophy that might be good as a preparation to be a novelist?

When I’m writing novels I often have to fight my philosophical training. When you’re a philosopher you want to control the thought processes of your audience. You’re trying to think of every criticism that they can possibly make and answer it beforehand. That’s what it is to write good philosophy. But this letting go and knowing that you’re going to be preparing an experience that you can’t anticipate, it’s a little hard, actually. The two trainings are often in tension with each other.

You have to truly love novels to be a novelist. You have to immerse yourself, not out of a sense of duty, but out of love. You have to have a passion for them. That is the most important thing. You have to have a feel for literature, for character, for individuality. To love novels is also to love the inner world of the subjective. That’s not necessarily something that goes along with philosophical training: to be in love with subjectivity as well as with objectivity.

But I do think that the kinds of things that philosophers think about have much to add to novels. How far can reason get us? How can we tell which intuitions are sound and which aren’t when intuitions, by their very nature, can’t be accounted for? What do we do about reconciling moral responsibility with determinism? How much of ourselves can we get into rules, including the rules of language, and how much is left over after rules? What is the best of us that we ought to work to augment? All of these are questions that we deal with as philosophers and they can make for great literature. These five novels demonstrate that they do make for great literature.

Lots of philosophers seem to think it’s easy to write dialogue, but there are few really good ones.

The voices have to come out of the individuated characters, made real with all the quirks of their individuality. If the dialogue is between disembodied talking heads, it doesn’t work. What’s so amazing is that we trace philosophy to Plato and he wrote, of course, dialogues with brilliant discourse which comes out of character. When Alcibiades speaks in the Symposium, he’s not only giving his counterexample to what Socrates has just stated: that counterargument is coming out of Alcibiades’s character just as Socrates’s previous argument is coming out of his character. This is where it all began and we got very far away from it.

It’s bizarre, really, that this literary way of approaching ideas is so alien to most contemporary philosophy.

There’s a deeper problem with what’s happened with philosophy, which has taken us so very far away from Plato and Aristotle, and this dismissal of literature is a symptom of the deeper problem. There has been a professionalization of philosophical thinking that is completely separate from the question of how we live our lives. So you can be a brilliant ethicist and a complete asshole. To Plato or Spinoza this would be unthinkable. For them, you do philosophy with your whole self. Your philosophical thinking comes out of your character, and it, in turns, transforms your character. There can’t be any separation.

Alcibiades argues as he does, in the Symposium, because he is Alcibiades, and the limits of his character, its ultimate imperviousness to what Socrates had tried to teach him, is what dooms him, and dooms the Athenians along with him. Casaubon’s characterological imperviousness to what Dorothea herself struggles to learn and tries to teach him dooms him.

The interweaving of philosophical thought with character is something to which justice is done in the philosophical novels I treasure. My sense of this interweaving is what drove me to write fiction in the first place, and then my study of the great philosophical fiction of others convinced me further of the myriad and inventive ways that this can be done.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

November 17, 2016

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