Sunday, October 19, 2003

Philosophical agendas beyond words
M. L. Raina

Literary Philosophers: Borges, Calvino, Eco
edited by Gracia, Korsmeyer and Gasche. Routlege, London & New York.
Pages viii+248. $ 23.95

THE relationship between literature and philosophy has been the subject of endless debate among philosophers, writers and critics. Socrates used a literary form, the dialogue, to expound his philosophy. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, George Eliot and other classical writers, to say nothing of Sartre and Milan Kundera, have included long digressions on philosophical nature within their fiction. Neither philosophy nor literature is reducible to a single definition; together they become vehicles of deep meditation on reality, on our place in the scheme of nature and social life.

A broad worldview has always been a constitutive element of literature, indeed of all art. However, the writings of Calvino, Borges and Eco are especially noted for the sustained indulgence of paradoxes and puzzles, and for the deliberate engagement with perennial questions that define metaphysics. Not for darkening meaning but for exploring the very mysteries of our being do their novels belie our inherited expectations of what narratives are, and complicate our responses to them in unsuspected ways. These include a peculiar playfulness that they encourage in a reader, leading, in turn, to a cerebral pursuit of philosophical agendas beyond words, story and plot.

Separate as they are in many respects, the three writers have one thing in common: they all share a fascination with labyrinths. Like Robbe-Grillet whose novel The Labyrinth is symptomatic and like Nabokov who enjoys writing in the manner of chess games, they suggest that to lose oneself in mazes is the human condition, and foster an attitude suited to coping with the search for an exit.

They all reflect the fabulist’s delight in problematising language and refuse identification with a single authorial point of view. Strange as this may sound, behind their postmodernist distrust of stability, they all crave, however fleetingly, a vision of a stable order. Their writings constantly negotiate the slippery terrains between contingent reality and immutable myth.

To call these writers mythographers is not to slur over the differences of their temperaments and attitudes or to ignore the variety of critical equipment that the contributors bring to bear upon their enterprise. In fact, the chief merit of these well-researched essays is in showing how these writers face the challenges of modernism in their distinctively personal manner.

Borges, the oldest of the three, wrote at a time when European modernism after Joyce, Lewis and Eliot had entered a phase of defeatist withdrawal and was casting about to account for the exhaustion of what Pound called ‘literature’s repertoire of innovations’.

This led him in search of infinity, of imaginary beings that stand in his writings for the a-realistic devices by which ‘the universal may be embodied and materialized.’ The monster also proclaims uniqueness and unites ‘all that is vast and grand’. It cannot be accommodated into the normal human capacities. Hence, the need for a private mythography, a private labyrinth.

The essays throw considerable light on Borges’s allusiveness, his tendency towards ‘intertextuality’. The best instance, ‘Pierre Menard’, combines a re-reading of Cervantes with a judgment on its relevance today. Similarly, references to the Library of Babel recall Mallarme’s description of the world as a book. Borges suggests that there is a long chain connecting literary creations in different cultures and that the book is the sum total of humankind’s cultural achievement—an insight contrary to the very foundations of postmodernism.

Though Calvino regards literature and philosophy as mutually hostile, he finds their meeting ground in comedy. His writings, more minimalist than Borges’s or Eco’s, create comedy out of concepts and ideas that have a cosmic provenance. In Cosmicomics he inveigles the cosmos itself into his ironic play with worlds and ideas.

His passion for geometric patterns, along with his interest in folk tale, create a body of work that shuns deep psychological analysis, but generates layers upon layers of other narrative implications. His novel, Mr Palomar, is an apt example of his essential method.

Borges thought of a book as ‘an axis of innumerable relationships’. Emberto Eco’s novels use libraries, intertextual cross-references and encyclopaedias as material and produce teasing puzzles of disenchantment and transgression. Readers of The Name of the Rose are up against an array of entanglements as Brother William teaches Adso logic, syllogism and other medieval rhetorical methodologies without committing himself to any final view of things. Eco constructs metaphorical relationships and has fun holding fictional forms upside down.

Language for Eco is technique above all. His novels rework popular thrillers, detective fiction, the gothic romance and medieval allegory. He is, perhaps, the most self-conscious of the three novelists discussed.

This book will stimulate fresh thinking about these innovative writers.