The Novel As Truth

The cover of the first edition of The Great Ga...
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I’m a big fan of the blog Rationally Speaking, but here I think Julia Galef misses the mark. Part of the reason, I suspect, is because she fails to sufficiently define the premise she’s arguing against, and that leads her into a chain of sound reasoning based on deeply faulty assumptions.

To be clear, if you interpret Bloom’s assertion that literature teaches us about “the way things are” to mean “literature provides empirical observations about the external world,” then yeah, you’re going to be disappointed. That isn’t to say literature can’t do that—I, Claudius contains some factual content about Ancient Rome—but if your intention is to communicate some factual information about a certain place or time, then you’re better served writing a work of straight history.

What literature does is tell us about “the way things are” not in the external world, but within ourselves. If you find the actions of a character in an extraordinary situation—say, Gregor Samsa’s reaction to be turned into a giant insect—to be completely plausible, it is only because you recognize something of your own experiences and though processes in the character.

I’ve written about this a little bit in the past, but if we’re going to talk about it in philosophical terms, I think what the novel does well is a form of a priori thought experiment about the nature of personhood. Of course, the best literature never wraps up in a neat moral or lesson, which was why I found Galef’s references to the “argument” of The Great Gatsby pretty wrongheaded. The point isn’t to instruct through presenting us with an argument, but to instruct by getting us to ask the right questions—about ourselves, our relationships, and our commonalities with others.

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