Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Notes on the Novel

The Pangrammaticon is founded on the idea that language can be used in various ways—that there are different kinds of "usage". In general, there are four kinds of linguistic experience: scientific, political, philosophical, and poetic. Science uses language to represent objects, politics, to represent subjects. Philosophy uses language to present concepts, poetry to present emotions. Now, obviously, scientists, politicians, philosophers and poets are complicated creatures and don't always confine themselves so narrowly. But this only shows that they sometimes lose their focus.

Novelists, I now want to argue, are free to use language however they like. A novel is part scientific treatise, part political tract, part philosophical argument, part poetic declamation. (Ulysses is perhaps most explicit about this multiplicity of aims.) A novel brings knowledge, power, clarity and intensity to the reader in whatever combination the author chooses.

This idea occurred to me when I recently reread Nabokov's "Good Readers and Good Writers", the introduction to Lectures on Literature. "It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science" (p. 6, my emphasis). Now, Nabokov probably meant that partly ironically. He was playing with our expectations: Isn't science the precise thing? Isn't poetry intuitive? But he's actually being perfectly orthodox here at the Pangrammaticon, where we might add "the precision of philosophy and the institution of politics". Intuition is the medium of the immediacy of knowledge, institution is the medium of the immediacy of power. Intensity is poetic precision. Clarity is philosophical precision.

The novelist's problem is not neatly set up by the terms of any particular "language art". Like the poet and philosopher, the novelist will sometimes use descriptions and prescriptions merely for the reader to imagine. Sometimes the descriptions will be there to be believed or understood, and sometimes the prescriptions will be there to be desired or obeyed.

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