Monday, April 14, 2014

Learning an Art (or, Learning AND Art?)

I'm still reading Anna Karenina, but now I am closer to 700 pages in. I just finished reading one of the two more poignant scenes to me so far. This scene, like the earlier one that struck me, is a vivid illustration of a philosophical idea Tolstoy apparently believes in and expresses through his characters and their conversations.
The earlier situation involved, through the evolution of more than one chapter/scene, the character Levin's development of his theory of how Russian agriculture might be improved. Through various interactions with people, witnessing of strangers' reactions to the work, and ideas clicking during conversation, Tolstoy outlines Levin's progression of thought on the subject. The more recent scene that moved me involves the inner workings of a natural-born artist (Mihailov) as compared with one who admires and studies and attempts through "technique" to, well, mimic, this unteachable instinct (Vronsky). Mihailov's creative process unfolds in the scene, from an attempt at a sketch, to a remembrance of a stranger's facial features, to the deep feeling of an emotion the artist was trying to convey. Then, when visitors come to admire his most recent painting, on which he has been working for three years, the artist agonizes over the expectation of their critiques as though the work were his child. Tolstoy writes from an obvious understanding of the artist's inner instinct (I noticed it because it not only describes how the creative one absorbs and "files away" things noticed for future paintings, but I have experienced the same kind of unintentional absorption of ideas for future writing. Tolstoy's description of it is perfect!)
After I read the scene, I was pondering the process and the author and the role of his knowledge and beliefs in his writing. It caused me to wonder, is one of the (primary?) objectives of writing fiction the goal of presenting a visual of one's personal philosophy/ies? I decided to root around and see what others thought of this question, which I found has of course been asked before: Can a writer use a novel to express philosophical views? (In my opinion, Tolstoy certainly seems to do exactly this, and to do it masterfully.)
In this New York Times article, James Ryerson points out the differences between the two disciplines: "Philosophy is written for the few; literature for the many. Philosophy is concerned with the general and abstract; literature with the specific and particular. Philosophy dispels illusions; literature creates them." He then summarizes that many answer the question at the beginning of this paragraph with no, including such novelists who have degrees in philosophy and seem to express it in their novels (like Iris Murdoch).
Others (like David Foster Wallace) answer yes. Still others (Rebecca Newberger Goldstein) admit to intentionally addressing philosophical issues in their novels. Of Goldstein, Ryerson writes, "Still, she says that part of her empathizes with Murdoch’s wish to keep the loose subjectivity of the novel at a safe remove from the philosopher’s search for hard truth." I agree; one's philosophical search for hard truth is, after all, fluid and progressively matures (similar to the theological idea of progressive sanctification). For this reason, I think a novel is perhaps a perfect medium for expressing one's philosophical process and leanings.
[Just for the fun of it and because it touches on an area of personal interest, I'll include here how Ryerson continued regarding Ms. Goldstein: "But she has become convinced over the years of what you might call the psychology of philosophy: that how we tackle intellectual problems depends critically on who we are as individuals, and is as much a function of temperament as cognition. Embedding a philosophical debate in richly imagined human stories conveys a key aspect of intellectual life. You don’t just understand a conceptual problem, she says: 'You feel the problem.'"]
However, in my philosophizing, I don't want to forget another undeniable and more important (?) aspect of creativity - that of the natural-born artist...the one who is unconsciously and unintentionally inspired with the idea and the creative ability (trainable, perhaps, but I wonder if it is truly teachable...?) to birth a classic work of fiction. What comes forth is beautiful and admired (even if posthumously) and studied by those who would learn "technique".... Like Tolstoy's artist Mihailov, I would guess the fiction-producing masters of old did not care to set down their words by a learned technique, but simply to express the thing that came to life inside them of its own accord.
But what about when a master endeavors to use technique, too? Take for example Picasso, who studied and perfected cubism in his art that was already original and masterful. I think perhaps Tolstoy exemplifies this quality in the writing of fiction embued with philosophy. I think I read one other (lesser known and much shorter!) of his novels quite a few years ago, but I've never read anything about the author himself. I will have to see what others have said about him (if anything) on this subject.
But what do you think (especially you writers)? Is one of your aims in writing fiction to express your philosophical views? Or is this just a consequence of the writing? Or...something else?

[P.S., if you do want to learn more about including philosophy in fiction, here is a handy-dandy guide I found that is pretty informative on the technique. ;)]

4 comments:

  1. I think presentation of philosophical thougts and views is the main purpose if literature. At least its a major measure U use when I choose books to read it not to read. I wanna read books that present nontrivial ideas, because I can do the trivial thinking myself.

    Tolstoy was conserned with social and economical development for the peasants and lower class. Though he was from a noble family, pictures show him dressed in peasant clothing on his old days >:)

    Cold As Heaven

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  2. You should borrow my Tolstoy biography. I got it from some Russian students when I visited Leningrad many years ago (when it was still the Soviet Union)

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    1. Honestly, I find that fascinating. The more I read into this book, the more I love it. I think I would really like to read that biography as well!

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  3. Following from Blogging AtoZ.
    I'm writing "Things My Husband Has Broken" A to Z at http://AMomsPointOfView.com
    Come by and check it out.

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