Peter Lamarque on Literature and Truth: Indulging Philosophy’s Worst Tendencies
Harold Bloom, one of the greatest Shakespeare scholars of all time, once remarked “I know that Shakespeare created us, to an altogether startling degree.” In his comment, Bloom captures the essence of the view that life imitates art rather than vice versa. This underrepresented viewpoint has been articulated by Oscar Wilde and Percy Shelley, among others, but seems to lack the traction of the more “common sense” view that art is a reflection of life. Wilde notably uses the fog of London as an example, arguing that it is the painter’s depiction of this natural wonder that brings it into our comprehension. That is to say, to recognize the beauty of the fog (which has literally existed prior to the painting) we require art as a guide. Wilde makes the distinction between “looking” and “seeing” which follows the pattern of the well understood distinction between “hearing” and “listening.” Shelley couches his argument in the terms of imagination, but his argument is substantively much the same. Thus, it is art which gives us the “vocabulary” to understand what we “look” upon in life.
In my mind, this is a fairly compelling argument. And it is worth noting that I just spent a paragraph articulating an aesthetic theory drawn from two literary authors. Lamarque raises questions as to the wisdom of the basis of my endeavor, despite to a degree supporting my main point — that art’s primary function is not to “reveal” truths but actualize reality as we live in it. Applied to Shakespeare, we find ourselves in Shakespeare not because he predicted us but because he created us. The modern disposition is a product of Shakespeare’s prevalence in the western world. For Lamarque’s part, he takes issue with the idea that what we “discover” from literature can be considered “truth.” Lamarque makes an intellectual pole vault over the question of “what do you say to those individuals who find their lives reflected in literature?” by alluding to Bloom and Shelley, but never really doubling down on the idea that art can be generative in a metaphysical sense. Lamarque challenges the notion of “truth” in literature by making a sharp delineation between “authors of fiction” and “philosophers and psychologists.” Needless to say, that self-congratulatory conflation deserves some parsing — or perhaps it is immediately obvious how “true” it is that philosophers and psychologists don’t generally have a great deal in common. Philosophical arguments, after all, are rarely confined by the empirical.
I challenge the wisdom of many of Lamarque’s fundamental assumptions. Are literary authors and philosophers really that different? Lamarque contends that literary authors rarely, if ever, make an argument in the philosophical sense. In my view, an author is certainly a far closer relative to the philosopher than the psychologists. Though the three roles are sometimes occupied in tandem by particularly savvy individuals, an expression of literary work often articulates a philosophy backed by arguments which are exposed by the work of literary critics. One needs to only take a brief glance at the complex epistemologies of postcolonial fiction and African-American literature. Though I agree with Lamarque’s skepticism about the presupposition that every literary work “exposes” some aspect of “human nature” or life in general, I would argue that the creation of behavior patterns, the establishment of new personality patterns and subjectivities (thanks, Shakespeare), and the critical vocabulary to “see” rather than “look” is the creation of a new truth. Ultimately Lamarque’s argument seems unduly focused on establishing divisions between literary authors and philosophers based on a concern for categories. Lamarque’s concern seems both odd and unnecessary (and, perhaps, self-indulgent) based on how often these categories are upended by philosophers who write novels or novels which have spawned complex philosophical views. Lamarque argues that literature is not done justice if it is considered simply a vehicle for articulating “truths.” What he fails to account for is how his own interpretation of literature’s value, rather than being relegated to fostering a healthy imagination, indicates that literature creates powerful subjectivities and social structures. In a word, truth.