Philosophy and Literature; or, Proof that Everything Old is New Again…

…even in literary criticism. Reading unsuspectingly along in David Masson’s 1859 British Novelists and Their Styles, I came across this interesting bit:

Before novels or poems can stand the inspection of that higher criticism which every literary work must be able to pass ere it can rank in the first class, their authors must be at least abreast of the best speculation of their time. Not that what we want from novelists and poets is further matter of speculation. What we want from them is matter of imagination; but the imagination of a well furnished mind is one thing, and that of a vacuum is another. [RM: hear hear!] … That a writer may be fitted to frame imaginary histories illustrating the deeper problems of human education, and to be a sound casuist in the most difficult questions of human experience, it is necessary that he should bring to his task not only an average acquaintance with the body of good current doctrine, but also an original speculative faculty. In such cases, the desirable arrangement might be either that our novelists were philosophers, or that philosophers were our novelists.

This is the first such explicitly “interdisciplinary” assertion of this kind I have come across in the 19th-century material I’ve been reading around in, although of course George Eliot’s ideas as well as her novels (most of them later than Masson’s book) work out just such an integration of speculation and aesthetics.

Trying to imagine more precisely what Masson (or anyone) might mean by (or how he might justify) putting such demands on a novelist raises what has always been a niggling question for me when I consider the whole project of literary analysis or criticism–just who do we think novelists are that we care so much about what they say about all kinds of big important issues? We put a lot of weight–or pressure–on the novels we study when we inquire into problems such as “does Charlotte Bronte advocate women’s rights in Jane Eyre at the expense of racial justice?” or “can a middle-class novelist like Elizabeth Gaskell depict working-class grievances without being patronising?” (to give hasty examples of fairly typical approaches in my own field these days). We seem to have high expectations that what Bronte or Gaskell says or does will be significant and thus is worth explicating, and that these explications or interpretations are worth arguing over (and over and over). Is the working assumption that theirs are the offerings of “well-furnished minds”? How can we tell? Is that part of what we’re trying to find out when we study them? What if we end up thinking otherwise? Can aesthetic judgments survive such a discovery? (My preliminary answer accords with what I think Masson would say too, which is, sure they can, but we have to then consider the writer below the first rank–for me, this would be what happens with Hardy, say, whose philosophy I find confused, or at least confusing, but whose novels move and interest me very much.)

In any case, I find I am quite sympathetic to Masson’s emphasis on intellectual requirements for novelistic value. Earlier in British Novelists he remarks,

the measure of the value of any work of fiction, ultimately and on the whole, is the worth of the speculation, the philosophy, on which it rests, and which has entered into the conception of it. . . . No artist, I believe, will, in the end, be found to be greater as an artist than he was as a thinker.

He goes on to explain that the resulting novel need not be explicitly philosophical or speculative, and that the philosophy may express itself indirectly “through the medium and in the language of his art” (as we would say, through its form, not necessarily through its content) and that the artist need not be self-consciously laying out a theory (as GE would say, all the better, in fact, if the novelist does not “lapse from the picture to the diagram”). But that thought, that ideas, (and not just feeling or sound or colour or other aspects) should be granted priority seems to me an admirable standard for deciding which novels really are the most valuable.

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