SWF 2013: writing & philosophy

Brooks_Conversation_webCross-posted on the Stoffers blog.

At the Sydney Writers’ Festival last week I went along to a session on writing and philosophy, and I thought a summary of the insights (and work of the panellists) might be of interest to some of you.

The moderator was Joe Gelonesi from ABC Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone and the panellists were Damon Young (Philosophy in the Garden), Scarlett Thomas (Our Tragic Universe) and David Brooks (The Conversation).

Thomas’ books are fiction, but based on philosophical questions. In her latest, Our Tragic Universe, she asks whether it’s better to put ‘a neat narrative framework’ around ‘big questions’, or whether it is better to leave them open. She described herself as being oriented toward both the iPhone and the cave (simultaneously social, current, and reclusive). Her latest book ‘asks about philosophy without the characters sitting down and talking about philosophy’.

Brooks’ The Conversation is a discussion of love and life with philosophical underpinnings. It follows one five-hour meal, but took about nine years to write (!).

philosophy-in-the-gardenYoung’s nonfiction book is a more direct look at how writers are affected by philosophy. Why does Proust have a bonsai beside his bed? He says Proust is a Kantian. In Proust’s world, objects are a gateway to Kant’s noumenal realm, to the past, and to childhood.

For Thomas, fiction is indeed built out of small details, the material concrete moments upon which we can build up big concepts, such as ‘time’. Brooks said these small details have also made up his life as a poet. Small details have a double function: they anchor the world, but also, because they are chosen and focused upon (by the author/poet), they have an aura, a ‘poetic dimension’. He said, however, that you’re not completely in control of the writing, of choosing these details, and that is part of the magic of writing. Thomas mentioned TS Eliot’s ‘objective correlative’ regarding these details: if the artist renders them properly, the reader gets to feel it too. Young mentioned Whitehead’s idea of philosophy being a flight, taking off and landing, taking off and landing. The palpable details are what you take off from, and come back to.

9781847670892Good fiction, with its small details, can provide this point of take-off and return, and can also dramatise ethical questions for readers who may not indulge in more explicit philosophical reading. Thomas said that drama is a central element: ‘Nobody is happy with what they’ve got. And therefore fiction happens’. Questions about life and how to live are always going to be there. She also mentioned Aristotle’s idea that fiction should be both predictable and astonishing. Young continued the idea that something that is ‘interesting’ (in fiction, but also generally in art, science, philosophy) is both novel and plausible; there’s a sweet spot between novelty and the familiar.

Other aspects discussed included the idea that ‘the animal’ (including the human animal) is where philosophy is currently most deeply challenged. All three panellists are or have been vegans. They also said that all of their relationships are informed by their writing. A favourite philosopher on the panel was Nietzsche.

Did you get along to any sessions at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year? If not, you’ll find a good deal of audio and video at the Radio National website.

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