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Philosophy and Literature

Franz Kafka Metamorphosis, Raymond Chandler The Big Sleep, Toni Morrison et al.

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, Song of Solomon, and Paradise are the books I have been reading since my last post. I have enthusiastically taken on board Ray Bradbury’s advice that one must read to write. I love to read so much that the writing is constantly being postponed. I now hope to resume writing. This coincides with some LAMP development I ‘m involved in. It’s always the same.

I also read Sol Stein’s Solutions for Novelists and the excellent How to Write A Damn Good Novel II by Jame N. Frey. These two books are both beautifully written, inspiring, and motivational. James N. Frey’s text is especially lucid, for me in any event, he gets straight to the point and offers useful practical advice for the blocked (loafing?) writer.

Kafka is an interesting chap, born in Prague he wrote in German and we read the translations. The stories are good in the volume I have been reading. Metamorphosis is a story I had heard of but never previously read. I must say thet the characterisation that Kafka manages is amazing and the gentle rise in tension and unexpected ending made for a challenging read. On first impression it struck me as a study in difference, but then I extended this idea to reluctant or forced individualitiness, which in turn reminded me of the idea of “being found”, as an analogy for existence,  considered by Heidegger. In this story the family, for whom Gregor had cared selflessly, gradually turn on him after his transformation. The individual is the transformed Gregor, also favoured by Jean Paul Satre over the “herd”, is shown to be weak in the face of the established order of the family; “the chief”, Gregor’s unforgiving boss, is a metaphor for authority that intrudes suspiciously while remaining essentially unknown. The idea of an unknown and vague organisation whose authority is recognized by the populace without question is further considered in The Great Wall of China. This story follows on from Metamorphosis and is in turn followed by Investigations of a Dog. For me Investigations of a Dog is the strongest story in the collection; the idea of starvation in the face of a nameless crowd is echoed in Paul Auster’s City of Glass.

The ideas considered by Kafka in this collection, influenced as they are by Existentialism, are further developed in the ideas of Post Modernism. Science, especially in Investigations of Dog, and it’s Philosophical parent Empiricism, is sceptically analysed from the point of view of the dog when he hilariously considers the origins of food. 

Philosophical Theories: Existential or Postmodern?

Sunday, November 4th, 2007

Existentialism argues against the idea that the only reality we can be certain of is our own consciousness. Existentialism asserts that as conscious beings humans will always find themselves in a world with a prior context and history. This is received by the consciousness: humans cannot think away that world, it is inextricably linked to consciousness. Only this reality can we be sure off: “I think therefore I am”.

Reality is not being “thought conscious” according to Heidegger, it is “being in the world”. This idea radicalizes Brentano and Husserl’s notion of intentionality, which asserts: Even in its barest form, all consciousness is a consciousness of something.

Empiricism argues truth or knowledge are capable of measurement and proof, Pythagoras and Aristotle began the idea. This led to a philosophy of science, an empirical discipline dependant upon proof: mathematics uses logic to prove a truth.

Rationalism is a theory “in which the criterion of truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive” (Bourke 263). Bourke, Vernon J. (1962), “Rationalism”, p. 263 in Runes (1962).
Absurdism is a philosophy stating that the efforts of humanity to find meaning in the universe will ultimately fail (and, hence, are absurd) because no such meaning exists, at least in relation to humanity. The word Absurd in this context does not mean “logically impossible”, but rather “humanly impossible”. A literary consideration of Absurdism is to be found in Paul Aster’s The Music of Chance.

Nihilism (from the Latin nihil, “nothing”) is a philosophical position, sometimes called an anti-philosophy, which argues that the world, especially past and current human existence, is without objective meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. Nihilism was rejected by Nietzsche, author of The Antichrist and Superman.
Nihilists generally assert one or all of the following:
• There is no reasonable proof of the existence of a creator.
• “True morality” does not exist.
• Secular ethics are impossible.

For Nihilists life has no truth, no action can be preferable to any other.
Being called nihilistic is now considered by some a pejorative term.

Postmodern thought is coloured by the perception of a degeneration of systems of epistemology and ethics into extreme relativism, something especially evident in the writings of Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida. These philosophers deny the grounds on which Western cultures base their ‘truths’: absolute knowledge and meaning, a ‘decentralization’ of authorship, the accumulation of positive knowledge, historical progress, and the ideals of humanism and The Enlightenment. Often described as a fundamentally nihilistic philosophy, nihilism is open to postmodern criticism: nihilism claims a universal truth: the proposition “existence lacks meaning” is true. Postmodernism rejects this idea.

Lyotard argues that rather than relying on an objective truth, or method, to prove their claims, philosophers legitimize their truths by reference to a story about the world which is inseparable from the age and system the stories belong to, referred to by Lyotard as meta-narratives. He defines the postmodern condition as one characterized by a rejection of meta-narratives and the process of legitimation by meta-narratives. Examples of meta-narratives are The Bible, The Koran, Mao’s Red Book.

Lyotard says,

“In lieu of meta-narratives we have created new language-games in order to legitimize our claims which rely on changing relationships and mutable truths, none of which is privileged over the other to speak to ultimate truth.”

The proposition that there is no stability of truth and meaning leads, for some, towards nihilism, though Lyotard does not endorse Nihilism.

Jean Baudrillard, a postmodern theorist wrote briefly of nihilism from the postmodern viewpoint in Simulacra and Simulation. He stuck mainly to topics of interpretations of the real world over the simulations that the real world is composed of.

Meaning is an important aspect of Baudrillard’s consideration of nihilism:

“The apocalypse is finished, today it is the precession of the neutral, of forms of the neutral and of indifference…all that remains, is the fascination for desert like and indifferent forms, for the very operation of the system that annihilates us. Now, fascination (in contrast to seduction, which was attached to appearances, and to dialectical reason, which was attached to meaning) is a nihilistic passion par excellence, it is the passion proper to the mode of disappearance. We are fascinated by all forms of disappearance, of our disappearance. Melancholic and fascinated, such is our general situation in an era of involuntary transparency.”

– Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, “On Nihilism”, trans. 1995

Postmodernism envisages a blurring of reality and fiction, a scepticism of accepted history, a rejection of grand narratives as a basis for reality. The blurring of reality and fiction leads to a blurring and eventual loss of identity. These issues are considered in texts such as Paul Auster’s City of Glass, Moon Palace, and Tales from The Scriptorium. Films such as Blade Runner and The Departed consider issues of reality, perception and a fragmenting of identity.

Such texts often use meta-fictional devices. These are especially evident in Moon Palace and City of Glass.