The Henry James Review 18.3 (1997) 213-216

Why We Need Fiction: An Interview with Arthur C. Danto

AQR: There are many people who feel that contemporary philosophy has no connection with the broader culture and, more alarmingly, neither with the culture's intelligentsia: artists, writers, journalists and the like. Do you agree with that?

Danto: I think it's a justifiable complaint. It has been a long time since philosophers wrote in ways in which nonphilosophers, whether they're writers or poets or whatever, would find interest in them. Probably the last one that has reached across in that kind of way, at least from among what we think of Anglo-American philosophical tradition, would be Ludwig Wittgenstein. He really continues to excite artists and writers, I think, because of his imagination and imaginative way of writing, and probably because of the unfinished character in what he's doing. You get the sense of somebody really thinking through questions--somebody who maintains a certain distance from philosophy, and tries to think about philosophy in an open and pictorial way. So, Wittgenstein would certainly be, I guess, the last of the great ones.

AQR: What about some of the current Continental philosophers, for example, Jacques Derrida, and other post-structuralists and deconstructionists, who appear to have influenced literary critics and theorists?

Danto: One thing I really admire about my American philosophy peers is that they're not easily bamboozled. I think almost every academic discipline in the humanities has simply crumpled in the last twenty years under the onslaught of interesting, but bad, ideas from the Continent. For some reason, the Anglo-American philosopher has been immune to that. There is a positive and negative side to that. As a discipline, philosophy has managed to carry on its investigations and its writing without just slopping over things the way almost everybody in other disciplines, it seems to me, has done. It's hard to read criticism any longer, because you get disgusted with the pretentiousness of it. But, you never feel that way about philosophy. It's as though philosophers felt they had a moral duty not to be pretentious. [End Page 213]

AQR: Well, if the complaint is that philosophers are no longer connected to the broader culture, no longer "write with their blood," as Nietzsche would have it, then, is it possible, let's say, for a fiction writer to profit by reading it? Could they profit stylistically, but also substantially, in the sense of coming away with some vision of things which could then serve as an inspiration for their own writing?

Danto: I think philosophers, when they do write well, write better than anybody. For example, writers could profit by reading contemporary philosophers such as Willard Van Orman Quine, who is a great stylist. In philosophy today it's still a place where clarity and concision are prized qualities. Philosophy is a poetry of thought, if you like. And when it's done in a professional way, I suppose there's as much value in it as there is in watching great athletes perform. If you really want to see what thinking is--real thinking, then you want to go to the philosophers, and it almost doesn't matter who you read from that point of view. Although there are thickets of formalism in any of them, I think one could read them as writers with great profit because of those extraordinary virtues, as well as their civilized wit--which you don't find much in writers these days. The exception is perhaps Milan Kundera, who has that kind of urbanity and is naturally a philosophical writer, I mean a novelist who is really thinking philosophically and thinking about philosophical questions.

AQR: Could an apprenticeship to a significant classical philosopher help the fiction writer?

Danto: I think if the fiction writer really wants his mind to be a philosophical mind, then there's no alternative to doing the dry, hard work, so to speak, of philosophical analysis and learning how arguments hold together, and how you know when you're right, and what a counter example looks like, and how somebody overcomes a counter example, and you witness those little logical dramas that are enacted in every page of a good philosophical journal, then I think you can use philosophy in your work. You get a sense for structure which you can't get if you were to read Derrida--that's like going swimming in the ocean. You get batted this way, batted that way. You get swamped. You don't know where you are. You don't have your feet on the ground. But, of course, that can work also with a somewhat drier philosopher than Derrida.

AQR: Let me change the perspective of our discussion a bit and ask you this question. Do you think there's anything unique about fiction writing, writing a novel, so that it can do something that nothing else can do? Or let me put it this way, could fiction, for example, be replaced by something nonliterary, like psychology or sociology?

Danto: No, no. For me, I still, I'm afraid, read fiction in order to put my own life in perspective. Of course, I do read it for distraction and to a degree for entertainment. But, the things that really affect me are things that put my life in a certain perspective. I think we've all even admired that state. I still have things to learn. I read Henry James's The Ambassadors in my fifties when I was between marriages--how does an older man conduct an affair?--I couldn't have gotten that from any psychologists in the world. I certainly couldn't have gotten it from a sociologist, and it's not the kind of thing that people talk very much about. But, James felt deeply about that sort of autumnal relationship between Strether and [End Page 214] the woman. Again, a bit later when I did marry again and had the task of my marriage and my older daughter's marriage, I got great solace and guidance from The Golden Bowl. There's probably no text that deals with those kinds of questions the way James does. And, the writers I admire are all somehow or other like that. Donald Barthelme was a good friend of mine, and I saw that all his novels were about his predicament, and his predicament was not so untypical as a father, as a husband, as an artist, and the rest of it. I do think that the really great fiction is so far ahead of where psychology is, and, probably, psychology will never catch up with it. Art manages to make certain things vivid and mysterious. It restores the mystery to them that psychology tries to take away. At any rate, Freudianism gets to be so formulaic. I don't know if one has to salute it, but I think it's done more fundamentally to flatten out our understanding of human behavior than it has enhanced it, and I would go to novelists any time.

AQR: That reminds me of a funny story. There was a group discussion about Kafka, and one of the participants was interested in analyzing Kafka from a Freudian perspective. Another got very upset and said, "Why should we analyze Kafka from Freud's point of view? Kafka was much more intelligent than Freud."

Danto: That's really true. I read a piece in the Times Literary Supplement by Kundera on Kafka, complaining how many interpreters tried to make Kafka a religious sort of figure, and Kundera talks about the sexuality in Kafka. He feels that if you really want to understand sexuality, you've got to take passages like those of The Trial, a scene where they're making love on the floor behind the bar. Kundera thought that this was an extraordinary metaphor for sex--that Kafka had almost perfect pitch when it came to describing things like that. And, I agree Freud had a tin ear. I mean a guy who gives up sex at the age of forty as Freud himself did in his own life is not somebody I really want to trust in understanding the relationships of the flesh.

AQR: Kafka had a wonderful way of making metaphor literal.

Danto: That's right. That's exactly right.

AQR: You talk about this in your own work as the story being a kind of metaphor for anybody--

Danto: That's right. I've always felt that. I cannot help but feel that. And, I think it doesn't matter whether it's about men or women. I felt strongly that Anna Karenina was a metaphor for my life at certain points, and I think it would be a very poor life for which Anna Karenina was not a metaphor. I think that's true of all great fiction that I've read.

AQR: If the human sciences can't replace fiction, do you think that philosophy could?

Danto: No, because it's so immediate. I think fiction is about the person who reads it in a very immediate and direct way. That occasionally is true of philosophy. I think it's perhaps true of Plato. When you read it, you feel that it's about you in a way that recognizes something deep and personal and almost hidden in you. But, philosophy mostly doesn't do that. Philosophy is too intellectual for that to be true. It has its place. It just wouldn't be a substitute for fiction. I think fiction reaches you in ways that nothing else can. This is true for even very old fiction like Homer. I don't know a single piece of philosophy that could have done what [End Page 215] Homer achieves in that last scene where Priam is going across the plain and back to Troy with his son's body. Everybody is going to have a loss in his life, and there's not a piece of philosophy I can think of that would help you face that loss the way Homer can. I have a great friend who's in a bad way with multiple sclerosis, a brilliant man, an editor of a great magazine, who's just publishing his autobiography, and he said, "You know, I'd like to read some philosophy on death. What do the philosophers have to say about death?" I think that he's somebody who's contemplated at various points suicide. I said, "I can't think of a single one. I don't know anybody." You could read The Death of Socrates. You could read the Phaedo. You could read the Crito and so forth. It wouldn't give you anything like the insight that reading Homer would. So no, I think that they've got different jobs to do. I don't think that literature can do what philosophy does. I don't think philosophy can do what literature does.

AQR: Is fiction necessary for you as a philosopher?

Danto: I'd feel sorry for a philosopher who didn't feel the need for fiction. I'd wonder about that person's life. I think that it would be a very ordinary and barren sort of person indeed. I think that's part of what Martha Nussbaum was getting at in her book Love's Knowledge. That there's a kind of cognition, almost, that literature gives that philosophy can't, and that life can't, but that everybody needs.

AQR: So, again back to the first question. It seems like those who complain about philosophy not being connected to a broader sense of the human life are expecting too much or expecting something that philosophy is not capable of giving?

Danto: Yes, not capable of giving it. I think that only fiction is capable of giving it. If you read it in the same spirit with which you'd read fiction, it's almost inevitable that you're going to be disappointed. Of course, there have been great visions in philosophy, and I've read where World War I soldiers took Henri Bergson into the trenches. That was the image that I had. That it might give you the kind of solace that religion could give you, but it doesn't give you the kind of understanding that fiction could give you. And, I think if you look to it for understanding, you won't get that kind of understanding--that life itself won't give, alas--and that is why we need fiction.

This interview originally appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review 10 (1992) and is reprinted here with permission.

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