U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Catch-22: A Novel of Idea(s)

Andy Seal’s recent post about intellectual history and the novel of ideas has been on my mind for a week, and I’m still thinking through the many questions it and the thread that followed it raised. Is the novel of ideas an under-explored realm for intellectual history? And what is a novel of ideas, anyway? Also inspired by Andy’s topic, Peter Kuryla chimed in. What is the intellectual content of a novel, apart from its aesthetic content? What do intellectual historians actually do with their readings of novels, as opposed to what literary studies scholars or what philosophers do?

I must say, I was a little puzzled by the prospect that intellectual historians have neglected novels of ideas. Maybe I see all novels as novels of ideas—or as sources of ideas, anyway–and so need a clearer definition. Christopher Lasch’s books The Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self were my introduction to what I later learned to call intellectual history. These books drew readily on both long- and short-form fiction as sources, along with memoirs and movies and other kinds of works I knew and enjoyed. For better or for worse, Woody Allen’s early collections of short comic writing had rewired my brain in high school, and although I wouldn’t have thought Without Feathers could be considered a source of anything other than sheer, gut-twisting hilarity, the fact that it was mentioned on page 18 of The Culture of Narcissism was likely one of reasons I kept turning the pages of Professor Lasch’s grim book.

This is all to say that the post got me thinking about my own practice. I’ve produced one book—I’m hardly representative. Still, novels, films, poems, and other works of expressive culture were important sources for me. The first scholarly work I did, and probably the inspiration for the book itself, was an interrogation of concepts found in four texts: Albert Camus’s articulation of the absurd in “The Myth of Sisyphus”; Reinhold Niebuhr’s reformulation of original sin in The Nature of Destiny of Man; Gregory Bateson’s double bind theory of schizophrenia; and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. One text was philosophy, one theology, one an odd combination of behavioral science and natural history, and one a novel–a piece of literary fiction–but all were strikingly similar constructions of “impossible dilemma.” All were produced, too, within the same couple of decades. It was as if the concept these four constructions articulated had achieved a kind of critical mass and therefore merited historical attention.

This was my practice, then, to set these constructions next to each other, to compare and contrast them, to interrogate them, to conduct thought experiments upon them, to track down their connective threads.

Of the four, Bateson’s and Heller’s share the closest kinship. Some dictionaries even cross reference the two terms. Often described as “no-win situations” in which all available options are bad, both double binds and catch-22s are better understood as Mobius strips of internal refutation. When the Cretan says all Cretans are liars, he’s either lying about being honest or being honest about lying–back and forth, ad infinitum. Yossarian, the hero bombardier of Catch-22, is either crazy and his request to be grounded from flying missions should be granted, or he’s sane for not wanting to fly missions anymore and therefore must be re-assigned. It isn’t that each available option is bad but that each option traps one inside the conundrum of the other in a never-ending and inescapable oscillation. A catch-22 is a dialectic, if you will, that never reaches synthesis but keeps spinning faster and generating more systemic corrosion.

It was Gregory Bateson’s insight that logical paradoxes, double binds, catch-22s, and self-reinforcing feedback loops shared formal characteristics, and that rather than reacting to them in the predictable way, one might attend instead to the formal similarities.

Jon Voight as Milo Minderbinder in the 1970 film version of Catch-22.

This may have been Joseph Heller’s insight, too. Catch-22 is not a one-off joke in a comic novel but a structural theme which Heller plays again and again, varying tempo and orchestration. Mess officer Milo Minderbinder’s “syndicate” is a catch-22 fully elaborated. Starting with some absurd bureaucratic tick having to do with the camp kitchens, it grows by leaps into a global shadow market, more consequential than the war itself. When pressed by Yossarian to explain its purpose, Milo answers with a mind-bending claim that parodies both the Soviet and capitalist systems: “The syndicate benefits when I benefit because everybody has a share.” Elsewhere, Heller plays his theme faster and cleaner, like the chorus in a pop song: “Major Major never sees anyone in his office while he’s in his office.” With character names, Heller abstracts his melody, reducing its oscillations to tiny bits of binary nonsense: Yossarian the Assyrian, General Dreedle, Chaplain Chapman, Major Major.

Very little of this made it into my final draft. A detailed exploration of Catch-22 took me too far afield from what wound up being my main narrative—the throughline a prospective reader would be signing on for. This speaks to practice, too.

Is Catch-22 a novel of ideas, of the kind Andy and Peter and the other contributors to the thread were thinking of? It’s certainly a novel of idea. Heller’s greatest abstraction is the term itself, which has come to symbolize a complex and seemingly necessary concept. Could that have happened without the novel, the elaborated vehicle which delivered the concept to other minds? Will catch-22 continue to be understood beyond the time when Catch-22 is no longer read? I seem to remember a comment of Jonathan Franzen’s, that he used to assign Heller’s novel to his writing students until he began to be troubled by its treatment of women. I know what he means. I used to like Woody Allen.

In any case, now we’re back to the sort of questions that claimed a good deal of the attention in the aforementioned post and thread–questions of gender, of silencing and inclusion, of whether big heavy statues or thick masculine tomes should be removed, recontextualized, or left to sit like dead weight where they are. If I read Andy correctly, he was holding out hope that intellectual historians might deal with novels of ideas in a way that treats such concerns as critical and yet that isn’t bound up and pre-programed by them. Can we, in other words, do something unpredictable?

20 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Anthony,
    Ever since my (long-ago) English major days I’ve considered CATCH-22 to be the most important American novel of the postwar period; I still believe that, though I must admit that my knowledge of more recent fiction is skimpy. Sadly, the only time I used Heller’s book for a history class discussion (many years ago) it didn’t work; the (mostly freshman) students had trouble finding historical significance beyond the WWII setting, and they were disinclined to search for the sort of intellectual-philosophical meaning you’re making in this post. The main argument that the English professor in my undergraduate “20th-Century American Novel” class made was that CATCH-22 was misunderstood as an antiwar novel (this was soon after Vietnam), instead it was a satire on modern bureaucracy and technocracy. In my adult years I’ve come to think of the book as an existential portrayal of the human predicament. Your examples of the double bind and the Mobius strip are apt, and I’d put things this way: The absurdity of modern life can be understood in that it can be recognized and described (even accepted), but it cannot be understood in that it can be transcended or overcome. In past eras it was possible to “explain” the no-win nature and the internal inconsistencies of life by chalking them up to God’s inscrutable plan; in the late-modern era it’s the same thing, only without God and minus any plan. Nevertheless, CATCH-22 ends on a hopeful note (with Yossarian escaping and declaring he’s not frightened), so I think the message is that we accommodate ourselves to the situation and make the best of things via whatever action is open to us. (As Samuel Beckett put it, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”)

    • Drew, thank you for these insights. Your articulation of transcending conditions intellectually but not in real terms is very much the way Niebuhr puts it. And yes, Yossarian is jumping and leaping at the end of Catch-22. Chief Broom is running, too, at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Rabbit also runs both at the beginning and the end of Rabbit, Run–a novel mentioned in Andy’s post–though the Angstrom series depicts one failed escape attempt after another until Rabbit eventually surrenders.

      These remarks relate to one reason why I think Bateson’s double bind concept stands out from the other three. All of them are word constructions – they’re made of nothing but words – someone sat down at a desk and wrote them. But the double bind concept’s origin is different in that it was a collaborative process, a team of scientists working within the constraints and the necessary defenses of an empirical method. The double bind’s connection to the life sciences offers a different, perhaps a more grounded way to consider about what we might mean by “escape.”

  2. Dear Anthony,

    I am really heartened to learn that a rising generation of intellectual historians (i.e. those who acquired their PhD in the past 10-15 years or so) is turning to fiction as a serious resource for writing intellectual history. This was obviously the case in the earliest stages of the field (Perry Miller, Arthur Lovejoy, Merle Curti, Ralph Gabriel, etc.). But the use of literary works as historical source material does not seem to me to have been very dominant over the last 20-30 years within the subfield of IH. Despite Richard King’s helpful reminder last week about important works written by Hobson, O’Brien, and indeed King himself, I fear that the use of literary sources has become less common in IH practice over the past forty years (1980-2018) than it was earlier in the 20th century (1940-1980). And I am not alone in this belief. The fact that literature (and artworks more generally) have fallen from favor / focus within IH has been noted in several recent discussions of the current state of IH as a subfield. Here are 2.5 examples:

    1) “Ideas about literature and the arts were also prominent components of the field of American intellectual history in the 1950 s and 1960 s, but, as with philosophy, have generated less interest in recent decades, perhaps because of the antielitist tenor of many of the scholars attracted to cultural history. . . . the trend is clearly against attention to the critical discussion of literature and the arts.”

    –David Hollinger, “What is Our Canon?” Modern Intellectual History, 9: 1 (2012), p. 198.

    2) “In the 1970s, the disciplinary interlocutors of intellectual history were, preeminently, literature and literary criticism . . . anthropology . . philosophy . . . the history of art . . . psychology . . the history of science . . . Now the connection to literature is palpably weaker; very few of our essayists is much drawn to poetry, the novel, or literary criticism.”

    –Michael O’Brien, “Afterword,” The Worlds of American Intellectual History, ed. Isaac, Kloppenberg, O’Brien, Ratner-Rosenhagen (Oxford UP, 2017): p. 367.

    2.5) “Literary texts are only one possible source for the historian of sensibilities, and certainly not her specific subject matter. . . Historians are always in the position of having to reconstruct the past from a tiny record of actual human existence; they simply need to find creative ways to use the existing sources. But this does not mean that sensibilities find a special place in literary texts or works of art, and that literary texts and works of art should be the distinctive sources for a history of sensibilities.”

    –Daniel Wickberg, “What is the Cultural History of Sensibilities?” American Historical Review 112: 3 (June 2007): p. 676.

    [Wickberg doesn’t preclude using literature as a historical source, but he does want to challenge the assumption that literary works provide a privileged access point to a historical “sensibility,” a pretty common assumption among historians working in 1940-1980]

    Sorry, this comment is pretty “meta”—about the state of IH as a historical subfield, not the core methodological issues raised by your post, Anthony. My point is simply to note that this desire to use literary sources in IH analysis (a desire expressed and even performed at times on this blog by Andy Seal, LD Burnett, Peter Kurlya, Lillian Calles Barger, etc.) seems like a genuinely new departure for the field (or, at least, a revival of sorts). This kind of approach (combining IH and literary analysis of fiction) happens all the time by those trained in English departments (see recent books like Mark Greif’s _The Age of the Crisis of Man_ or Matt LaMahieu’s _Fictions of Fact and Value_), but I do not know of many emerging IH scholars who incorporate fiction or poetry directly into their historical analysis. If this is in fact the case, then I am extremely excited by the prospect of future “hybrid” work emerging from this new tendency (if that’s the right word) among those trained as historians. I believe that we need more accounts of American intellectual history that include literature among its source material, but that are not written under the (deeply problematic) historiographical assumptions adopted by most contemporary literary critics.

    • Patrick, I appreciate your response very much because I think it serves the greater agenda raised initially in Andy’s post—and I had hoped that my post would help continue that conversation. Your input is so rich that I’ll have to sit with it for a while. It certainly applies to several other questions still hanging … and I hope it will inspire others to weigh in.

      And by the way, the Grief book came immediately to mind but then I thought, oh, that doesn’t count–that’s literary studies. Not a healthy scholarly situation!

  3. Okay, now that I’ve cleared the meta-historical ground, I’ll try to say something about the content of Anthony’s post above. What is the “novel of ideas”? The category seems just as vexed as the “history of ideas,” but I would suggest that the novel of ideas is simply a subset of the (more encompassing) history of ideas. The autonomy of literary history be damned!

    I have often been struck by how often novelists refuse the label of “novel of ideas.” Most literary figures almost seem offended if you suggest that their works contain a major “idea.” I suspect this is a historical effect of the pervasiveness of the “show, don’t tell” school of creative writing; it remains standard practice for creative writing teachers to scold an introductory student for being too “didactic,” too “explanatory,” too “abstract” rather than making characters that are “concrete” or “embodied.”

    But this literary ideology against ideas (!) exerts its force even at the highest levels of literary culture. Notice how strongly Philip Roth resists IH ways of thinking (that novels contain and communicate ideas) in this interview from 2014:

    “Whoever looks for the writer’s thinking in the words and thoughts of his characters is looking in the wrong direction. Seeking out a writer’s “thoughts” violates the richness of the mixture that is the very hallmark of the novel. The thought of the novelist that matters most is the thought that makes him a novelist.

    “The thought of the novelist lies not in the remarks of his characters or even in their introspection but in the plight he has invented for his characters, in the juxtaposition of those characters and in the lifelike ramifications of the ensemble they make — their density, their substantiality, their lived existence actualized in all its nuanced particulars, is in fact his thought metabolized.

    “The thought of the writer lies in his choice of an aspect of reality previously unexamined in the way that he conducts an examination. The thought of the writer is embedded everywhere in the course of the novel’s action. The thought of the writer is figured invisibly in the elaborate pattern — in the newly emerging constellation of imagined things — that is the architecture of the book: what Aristotle called simply “the arrangement of the parts,” the “matter of size and order.” The thought of the novel is embodied in the moral focus of the novel. The tool with which the novelist thinks is the scrupulosity of his style. Here, in all this, lies whatever magnitude his thought may have.

    “The novel, then, is in itself his mental world. A novelist is not a tiny cog in the great wheel of human thought. He is a tiny cog in the great wheel of imaginative literature. Finis.”

    Philip Roth, “My Life as a Writer,” interview from 2014: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/books/review/my-life-as-a-writer.html

    Now, if we took Roth at his word, we’d have to end the project of trying to write intellectual history using literary sources. Roth insists 1) that we should not translate the words of characters into “ideas.” And he adds a second stipulation: 2) character’s ideas do not stand in for the ideas of their authors.

    Fearful as I am to disagree with Philip Roth, I think we should reject both of his premises (though #2 is certainly important) if we want to write good intellectual history. When done carefully, historians can show how ideas are reflective of an author’s biographical circumstances (his or her intentions, beliefs, etc.). Moreover, I believe we are justified (pace Roth) in placing ideas contained in novels in conversation with forms of discourse that are beyond the circumstances of a particular author’s career, and even outside of literary discourse itself. I’ve done this in my own writing, and it strikes me that these assumptions are fairly common among at least some strands of contemporary intellectual history. Daniel Wickberg wrote well about this approach (on “The Present and Future of Intellectual History”) on the blog some years ago:

    “ intellectual historians of this sort are interested in the ways in which ideas within one text can be illuminated by the presence of ideas elsewhere—both ideas that are contemporaneous with the text, but also those established in pre-existing texts that are read and re-read. The job of the intellectual historian, in this version, is to situate texts in terms of what they drew from other texts, assumptions they shared, and ways in which they departed from those other texts. It is a deeply contextualist way of thinking, a way that situates ideas in time, but not necessarily or primarily in terms of authorial intention, social circumstance, or what Kloppenberg calls embodiment.’ . . . . What if abstracting ideas from the lives of their authors allow us to see relations that are invisible in an author-centered context?”

    Wickberg throws down a challenge that I’d like to see others pick up–how to think about ideas emerging from characters / narrators in fiction that are not merely reflective of an author’s biography, but of a whole climate of opinion, an entire cultural sensibility.

    (It’s not as though we don’t have models for this: I’ve been re-reading Erich Auerbach’s _Mimesis_, and he seems to me to be doing just what Wickberg proposes).

  4. Novels written to expose the evils of a particular sphere or sector of society or politics or economy are (or perhaps I should say “were”) classic instances of “didactic” novels of ideas (where didacticism, if handled in a certain way, need not be a glaring defect). An example is Zola’s Germinal (which I read many years ago), about coal mining in 19th-cent. France. (I gather that the mining conditions depicted were some years out of date, but that’s not directly relevant.) Upton Sinclair, some of Steinbeck, Harper Lee’s most famous book, at least half of Dickens, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (though I’ll defer to those who’ve actually read Uncle Tom’s Cabin) would also seem to be partly or wholly in the ‘exposing’ category.

    Then there are what might be called high-fictional treatments of politics, which necessarily involve ideas in some way. (For the 20th cent., start perhaps with C.P. Snow’s The Corridors of Power and go from there.) Everyone can supply his or her own list here. The point, I guess, being that there are more kinds of novels than Roth’s remarks, quoted above by Patrick R., seem to take into account.

  5. Maybe this very moment is when I out myself as a great impostor who only pretends to know/do American intellectual history, but…

    …I cannot tell you the name of whoever it was saddled us with the phrase / term “novel of ideas.” To what literary critic or log-roller do we owe this pretentious and (to me) rather artificial distinction. (Ideas are everywhere, every text contains/reflects ideas, all texts are products of human thought and show human minds/ideas at work, etc, etc, etc).

    I had a couple of reference guides to literary terms / literary history, but I boxed them up and banished them while trying to make room for other books — but this certainly sounds like the kind of term that would have its own entry in the “Britannica Handbook of Literary Criticism” or some such thing.

    My guess here — and it’s just a guess — is that the phrase “novel of ideas” emerged at a time (or at least was put to broad use at a time) when it needed to do similar work to that of identifying the canon of texts that constitute “the American renaissance.” That is, “the novel of ideas” as a category — even if women occasionally write such novels — separates the novel as a worthy literary form from the works of “scribbling women.”

    That’s just a guess.

    Then I googled, and I found this NYT article that references a lament by — of course — Philip Rahv.

    Is it possible that the phrase “novel of ideas” is yet another artifact of the New York Intellectuals that we really ought to set aside as a lens through which to look. Rather, the idea of a there being something called a “novel of ideas,” a characterization for which some novels qualify and some don’t, seems to me that it’s something we ought to historicize.

    And one way to historicize it is to demonstrate its emptiness/uselessness as a categorization. We can do that by finding the ideas running through whatever novel we happen to have to hand.

    Just my two cents. Then again, I just woke up from a nap, and I’m still a little bleary-eyed, so maybe I missed something someone already said on one of these two excellent posts on the subject.

  6. I understand LD’s suggestion to dismiss the whole category. The category may be somewhat inherently elitist, because one thinks, or at least I do, of novels of ideas as containing lots of conversations explicitly about politics or philosophy, say, and that’s usually, though not always, the province of educated, articulate characters. Typically it’s a bunch of articulate characters. Perhaps slightly more unusual is one articulate character surrounded by others who are mostly less so (I’m thinking specifically of the nihilistic, for lack of a better word, Judge in C. McCarthy’s Blood Meridian). Not at a proper keyboard so will stop.

  7. A couple of capsule definitions pop up on a search, but they don’t seem particularly good. One definition refers to novels in which discussion of ideas predominates, while plot, characterization etc. are “deliberately limited.” That sets up a strange dichotomy. For example, Murdoch’s The Book and the Brotherhood (whatever one might think of it) is full of discussions of ideas, but also has lots of plotting. If there has to be a certain amount of high-flown or (a less loaded word) intellectual talking, at a certain level of abstraction, to qualify as a novel of ideas, I’m not sure American fiction after the 19th century, at any rate, is replete with examples. Some, to be sure, but perhaps not a ton.

    • Louis, I thought about Murdoch, too. Then I thought about Ayn Rand. Then the category began to fall apart on me. It felt more solid to think about it historically.

  8. Louis, I don’t mean that we should dismiss the category. I mean we shouldn’t use it as an analytical tool, but should treat it as a historical object.

    For someone at some time the term “novel of ideas” was a particularly meaningful phrase used to distinguish between works of fiction in terms of content (and perhaps, implicitly, “gravitas”). So when did that phrase come into heavy use, and to whom do we owe the very idea of “the novel of ideas”?

    My hypothesis — based on nothing more than a hunch — is that we owe this term to cultural critics some time in the first half of the twentieth century who were anxious to make a qualitative claim that certain authors (maybe contemporary authors of theirs?) belong together in some “canon” of works that are distinguished by how “ideas” are treated in or give substance to their fiction, in some way that is allegedly legible and meaningful right off the bat.

    So I am less worried about whether or not the texts we use to construct our arguments may or may not be said to be “novels of ideas.” What I’m interested in in this discussion is why we take that label as corresponding to some actual (if difficult to define) object in the world that we might recognize if we saw it.

    I’m currently reading Alan Trachtenberg’s wonderful survey of the Gilded Age, The Incorporation of America. (More on this later/elsewhere.) His range of sources is delightfully vast, and he examines salient ideas in Horatio Alger and William Dean Howells alike — indeed, often he looks at the same idea ringing in different registers of cultural production.

    I think to assume that “ideas” — a thing of real value among intellectuals — are more salient or more significant in more “serious” or more “philosophical” works than plain old potboilers and popular narratives is to adopt the aesthetic judgment of mid-20th-century American critics in place of the critical judgment of historians looking for patterns of thought and feeling.

    I’m not knocking Andy and Anthony here — I think their posts are actually doing the same thing I’m suggesting: challenging the whole category as dated or straitened in some way.

    If we do use the term, we should use it ironically, tongue in cheek. Ideas are everywhere, and everybody has them, and every novel conveys them. The novels we choose to look at should depend on the ideas we are looking to understand — and perhaps the extent of those ideas’ circulation.

    That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

    • This conversation went in a lot of directions, and in regard to the ones that most interested me, the distinction between novel and “novel of ideas” wasn’t really salient. I was thinking of novels in general. Now that we are paying attention to the actual term, certain things become clear. “Novel of ideas” says more about its own history as a phrase than it says about novels. “… we shouldn’t use it as an analytical tool, but should treat it as a historical object.” Exactly right.

    • I’m fascinated by LD’s question of the origins of the phrase “novel of ideas.” Where did this term originate? By whom? Why? Someone should write a longer post on this!

      Here are a few notes to follow up on these questions: my sense is that the “novel of ideas” has been treated as a subgenre in U.S. discourse, at least by a certain class of literary intellectual, for roughly the last 60-70 years. To my knowledge, it wasn’t a phrase used much by authors before the 1920s-1930s. Hawthorne, Melville, Stowe, Twain, Henry James or Edith Wharton would not have recognized themselves as writing a “novel of ideas,” whereas Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow did see themselves as writing works of fiction (Invisible Man, Herzog) along these lines. Why?

      I concur with LD’s guess about the term’s origin: probably somewhere in the 1940s around the Partisan Review circle in New York. Both Ellison and Bellow wrote for Partisan Review in the 1940s. Where might they have gotten this concept from? I’d propose Phillip Rahv and Lionel Trilling as two likely sources. I don’t have my Rahv books on hand, so I’ll nominate Trilling’s 1949 essay in _American Quarterly_, “The Meaning of a Literary Idea” (reprinted in _The Liberal Imagination_) as one key text for the invention of this category.

      I also think LD is right to point out the normative values underwriting the introduction of this category (though I don’t think it has much to do with the making of a “canon”). Trilling’s essay is largely a defense of critics (like us) who want to engage intensively with ideas in fiction. He writes in opposition to those (New Critics) who hold strong views of literary autonomy. He explicitly rejects the view of Wellek and Warren (in their influential _Theory of Literature_) that literature must have only an “aesthetic” element with no contamination by “external” considerations like ideas. No, writes Trilling: “Say what we will, we as readers know that we demand of our literature some of the virtues which define a successful work of systematic thought. We want it to have . . . the authority, the cogency, the completeness, the brilliance, the hardness of systematic thought.”

      Trilling also writes as an advocate of a more intellectualized novel than is current in America: “literature is within its proper function in bringing these ideas to explicit consciousness” (my emphasis). LT and the Partisan Review circle sought to popularize European modernism—Joyce, Kafka, Musil, Beckett, Lawrence, Gide, Proust—to what they perceived as a hostile, boorish, middlebrow American public. They invented a new formal category–“the novel of ideas”–as part of that campaign of taste.

  9. LD,
    Sorry to have mis-stated your position.

    My own inclination is to think, even if your hypothesis about how the term originated is correct, that it does correspond to a particular, if somewhat fuzzily defined, kind of novel, a particular kind of text that exists in the world.

    In the long comment thread that followed Andy’s post, I would not have bothered saying that Stone’s A Flag for Sunrise is a novel of ideas unless I thought it possessed certain qualities that make it one. I understand you don’t think that ‘analytical’ kind of approach is perhaps interesting, fruitful or properly historical, and that’s fine.

    My hunch though is that a rereading of Andy’s post will show that he was taking the term as both an historical object *and* an analytical category or tool. I don’t think the subsequent discussion makes a lot of sense on any other assumption. That’s my sense of it, anyway.

  10. Anthony,
    Thank you so much for carrying my post so much further than I took it! I love your Catch-22 reading–although I’d also like to suggest that, in addition to the influences you and Drew mentioned, we ought to think about Jewish philosophy and culture as wellsprings of Heller’s (not to mention Allen’s) thought.

  11. Since my post came up in comments and the original post here and in comments on Pete’s post, I probably should try to clarify some of what I meant. (Sorry, I’ve been on the road off and on over the past week and haven’t been able to keep up with the blog very well.)

    I was being deliberately provocative in saying that intellectual historians have neglected the novel of ideas, although like Patrick I do think that there’s been a noticeable change over the past 30-40 years. I have some thoughts about the reasons for that change that I may save for a separate post, but I certainly didn’t mean to slight the great works that Richard King mentioned in his comment, or any of the other works that have come up. (And I’ll add one more: Robert Genter’s Late Modernism.)

    As for the question of the category of the novel of ideas, I do mean to historicize it, as L.D. says, but I’m also interested in using it as an analytical category–a way to think about certain shared features or problems. These two actions should, I think, work together–and that was the point I wanted to get across in the post. It is a term loaded down with an awful lot of baggage, and Louis is right to call it elitist. But it seems to me that its elitism has historically operated far more to police a gendered and racialized line than to shoo middlebrow men away from the temple of culture. Reclaiming the category of the “novel of ideas” as a frame for talking about works by women and people of color–and insisting that ideas about race and ideas about gender are just as important and complex as ideas about technology or language or consciousness–seems to me like a worthwhile project, and one that intellectual historians can contribute usefully to.

    For me, that means that questions of taste and distinction–which L.D. raises–are less central, and I do think that it is possible and useful to say that some novels are more driven by ideas than others. Ideas are present in all novels, and we as intellectual historians can find valuable evidence in any kind of novel, but to me there is such a thing as a “novel of ideas,” one where in order to discuss it, you have to talk about its ideas.

    Perhaps a little bit more historicizing will help: I think of the “novel of ideas” as essentially an English translation of the German word Tendenzroman or the French “roman à thèse.” (I may have gotten that notion of the phrase’s history from Mary McCarthy, whose Ideas and the Novel I’m planning to re-read soon.) Both of those terms give a better sense of the way that a novel of ideas is driving toward a particular theory or thesis–it is a novel that has a strong programmatic (though not necessarily didactic) element. Sometimes this element is attached to a particular social cause or movement–Louis mentioned Dickens, Stowe, and Zola above–but sometimes it is more diffuse or idiosyncratic. (And for what it’s worth, I think Philip Roth is full of baloney–he certainly writes Tendenzromane: American Pastoral and The Human Stain most notably, perhaps.)

    Here’s an example of the distinction using two recent bestsellers: I would argue that Gone Girl is a novel of ideas while The Girl on the Train is not. To me, the latter had no particular point to make; it operated like a puzzle, where the purpose is to complete it rather than to derive some meaning from the particular ways different pieces fit together. Gone Girl, on the other hand–and this is true of all Gillian Flynn’s fiction, actually–is almost impossible to discuss adequately without forming some kind of theory about its protagonist and her motivations, which in turn requires a more comprehensive theory about who women “really are,” or to put the point a bit differently, what makes women the way that they are. Flynn’s novel demands that the reader confront her ideas about patriarchy and gender performativity even if those concepts are not named in the novel. (This post gets into some of these issues in more depth.)

    I’m not saying that there aren’t ideas in The Girl on the Train. But it doesn’t require its readers to theorize, to offer up arguments or theses about more general categories or problems in order to read it. And that, I suppose, is my definition of a novel of ideas: a novel that requires its readers to theorize.

    • Andy,
      This is very helpful in clarifying and explaining your views. I may not be immediately ready to sign on to your definition of a novel of ideas (my own definition might be a little narrower; I’m not sure), but it is, to repeat, a v. helpful statement. (I was familiar with the phrase roman à thèse but not the word Tendenzroman, though should have been.)

    • Above, I sketched a very brief history of the concept of “the novel of ideas.” But that doesn’t explain whether we should still use this category as readers in the present. Should we toss this category into the dustbin of history?

      For some of the same reasons as Andy, I’m not quite ready to do so. Even if the term “novel of ideas” can’t bear the full analytical scrutiny we give to other genres (“mystery,” “romance,” “pastoral,” etc.) surely it is useful as a heuristic device, right? There seems to me something qualitatively different about reading books that involve long, drawn-out philosophical dialogues between protagonists and books that work their magic through fast-paced plots, minimalism, short dialogue, etc. Hemingway read and admired Dostoevsky, but he doesn’t write like him. Both men wrote books that have ideas in them, but only Dostoevsky wrote a novel of ideas—_The Brothers Karamazov_ is about people who argue with each other about first principles of evil, love, etc., whereas _The Sun Also Rises_ rejects all talk of grand themes as meaningless blather. Hemingway’s novel conveys ideas, but the characters do not possess ideas—they are not friendly to discussing concepts (they are hostile to talking in general—they spend most of the novel drinking too much so as not to talk about their problems). To follow a distinction of Benjamin Moser, from the article LD linked to above: perhaps we need to distinguish between a “novel with ideas” (Hemingway, and any kind of novel, really) and the “novel of ideas” (Kafka, Coetzee, Joyce, Murdoch, Marilynne Robinson, etc.)?

      The definition proposed above focuses largely on the object—the content and style of the novel. Andy’s definition focuses on the subject–on the reader: those fictions that make reader’s theorize. I’m inclined to agree with that shift of focus, but I’d locate it less in how I construct theories when I read than in the type of analytical pleasure that these novels give me. When I read, say, works by Poe, George Eliot, Nabokov, Ben Lerner, or Rachel Cusk, I’m forced to engaged in a type of intense analytical scrutiny just to follow the “plot” of what’s going on in a character’s mind. These are brainy books that require brainy, analytical readers. My experience reading a work of Shakespeare is not that different from reading a dialogue by Erasmus. My experience of reading a long rant against monogamy in a Philip Roth novel is not that different from reading a long rant against foundationalism in a Richard Rorty essay. It’s about taking analytical pleasure in extended acts of philosophical rhetoric. (And by the way, it’s not just in _novels_: this happens in short stories, poems, movies, and plays, too).

      That Trilling essay cited above led me to this position. Trilling says that the pleasure he feels in reading Yeats is difficult to distinguish from the pleasure he feels in reading Freud. “It is the pleasure of listening to a strong, decisive, self-limiting voice uttering statements to which I can assent.” Later, he writes: “We can take our pleasure from an intellect’s cogency, without making a final judgment on the correctness or adaptability of what it says.”

      This is an experience I’ve often puzzled over. How can I take pleasure in the virulent rants of Nietzsche, in the nihilist bluster of McCarthy’s judge, in the pedophiliac musings of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert–esp. when I harbor serious philosophical objections to the position in question? A character’s intellect can be cogent, rhetorically appealing, and yet dead wrong about the principles in question. I think novels are one of the prime vehicles for this peculiar reading experience. It is a strange thing to take intense aesthetic pleasure in an verbal object that directly clashes with your philosophical beliefs.

  12. Just to say this thread is a great discussion (and it’s perhaps not over yet). Anyone who thinks blogs are dead or passe should read it.

  13. This is an very interesting discussion. I don’t have much to add except I intend to double down on the use of literary sources, films, and art for my current project. Obviously, in feminist thought there is so much in terms of fiction and film loaded with political and social commentary. First up is Margaret Cavendish’s play “Convent of Pleasure” (1668) to Ursula Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed” (1991). Even when there is no intention to write a “novel of ideas” authors are swimming in a certain cultural milieu so that their work can never get outside of it. I suspect the “novel of ideas” label is resisted since authors like to think of themselves as creating something new, something creatively subversive, or just a pleasure to read. A Harlequin romance (hugely popular) can tell us a great deal about gender and sexual norms at a particular point and how they have changed over time. What I am trying to get at is that trying to figure out what is a “novel of ideas” is like trying to figure out who is an intellectual. It doesn’t make any difference for historians looking for evidence. Turning to these is not only good and necessary historical work but could open up intellectual history to new audiences. Let’s have a panel or two on this at the 2019 conference.

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