Self-Knowledge, Narrative, & Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Part 1

“So, it would seem, then, you love this . . . young man?”
“No-no-no! I can’t stand . . . your young man, I can’t stand him!” Aglaia suddenly boiled over and raised her head.  “And if you ever dare again, Papa . . . I’m serious; do you hear? I’m serious!”
And she was serious indeed; she flushed all over and her eyes gleamed. Her father faltered and grew alarmed, but Lizaveta Prokofyevna gave him a sign behind Aglaia’s back, and he took it to mean: “Don’t ask questions.”
. . . [a bit later] “Well, what’s the meaning of this? What do you think?” Ivan Fyodorovich uttered hastily.
“I am afraid to even say aloud,”  Lizaveta Prokofyevna answered as hastily.
“But, in my view, it’s clear.”
“And in my view, it’s clear.  Clear as day. She loves him.”
“Not only loves; she’s in love with him!” echoed Alexandra . . .   (559-560).

In Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, routine social events and conventional loves and hates are depicted with an intimacy that reveals their life and death significance. The reader is pulled into the social situation to accept without question the cosmic importance of a dying young man’s bitterness or a young girl’s prideful and fickle attachments.

As I gave myself to this text I began to muse: is not this dabbling in a bit of vain anthropomorphism, at least from the point of view of the serious minded philosopher and scientist?  At the very least, these romantic, imaginative constructs of the poet do not help get us at the hard science of the human animal, do they?

But I was also reading, it so happened, another book: Strangers to Ourselves (2002), by Timothy Wison. T. Wilson admits that key points of his thesis are considered controversial. For example, his thesis regarding our inability to accurately introspect our own psychological states has received even more skepticism than his sympathy with Wegner’s (2002) wild thesis regarding the illusion of conscious will. This was of interest to me since I took both claims, mildly construed, to be persuasive, and this all without doubt pertained to the more serious issues of science and philosophy – as hard and bizarre as they might be to our comfortable folk conceptions. I was therefore struck – with a chuckle, considering the mild discomfort I felt over Dostoevsky’s anthropomorphic craft – by the seminal role that literature plays throughout T. Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves. These ‘controversial’ claims are introduced, for example, in the very first two pages of the book through a discussion of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past:

These words: ‘Mademoiselle Albertine has gone!’ had expressed themselves in my heart in the form of an anguish so keen that I would not be able to endure it for any length of time.  And so what I had supposed to mean nothing to me was the only thing in my whole life, How ignorant we are of ourselves.”

T. Wilson goes on to talk about a friend, Susan, who thought she was in love with a man, only to realize a year later what her friends had known all along: that she had never been in love with this man.   T. Wilson then notes how Elizabeth, in Pride and Prejudice, could not “exactly define” her feelings for Mr. Darcy (2). Later, a short story by Mary Kierstead is cited (118), involving two cousins that come to realize that they had always hated Topper, a pony, even though they had been, for years growing up, “conned into loving him”. T. Wilson notes William Carpenter’s over a century old observation that young people often have “unnoticed” feelings, powerful attachments “between individuals of opposite sexes, without either being aware of the fact” (129).

T. Wilson admits that these stories are “just anecdotes” and appeals to the empirical evidence “for the idea that people can possess one feeling while believing they have another” (130).  But appeals to literature do not end. A short story by D. Eisenberg (150), and then one by Julian Barnes (163), are made useful.  In Barnes’ narrative, a man and a woman infer from a distance, based on cues given by others, their own love for one another, until their private personal narratives come in contact with a concrete meeting years later, at which time they to learned they did not even know one another (164). Proust is then analyzed further (169-170), and the book concludes with a personal narrative from Joan Didion (219-220).

Indeed, just yesterday evening down the Highway 101, John Perry appealed to an interesting story in answer to Paul Churchland’s question about how private thoughts might play a role-based way of managing information.

So: My tentative conclusion, based also on the continuing analysis of Melville’s The Whale and my more recent opening of Dickins’ A Tale of Two Cities, is this: The human psychology that novelists of 150 years ago took for granted cross-culturally – throwing the mysteries and complexities of the human mind up on stage to probe before a watching world – is now considered by American academics within philosophy, law, and psychology to be novel and controversial.  Given my continued interest – nay! my unfailing commitment as a soldier preparing for battle! – given my interest, I say, in metaphor and narrative, this tentative conclusion places a new shining edge on the old, largely failed battle ax of doing philosophy through literature – whatever this might be intended to mean, precisely.  Hats must be tipped to Martha Nussbaum’s Love’s Knowledge (Oxford, 1990) when noting such an idea, but with some reservation, given her courageous yet curious attempt at arriving at the necessary and sufficient conditions of an emotion in Upheavals of Thought (Cambridge, 2001); and one cannot forget her unblushing reference to ‘propositional content’ either. This result might have been inevitable though, at least after Nussbaum leaves aside Lakoff and Johnson’s revolution of embodied cognition and embraces an obscure and superficial substitute:

. . . we have at least a roughly demarcated category of phenomena before us that can be scrutinized to see what their common features might be, although we should be prepared, as well, to find that the boundaries of the class are not clear and that there are noncentral cases that share only some of the features of the central cases (24).

To my delight, I find something importantly different with T. Wilson, who crucially employees the word ‘narrative’ without trepidation or theoretical baggage when addressing the relation between the conscious and unconscious mind.  One cannot help but think of Lakoff and Johnson’s objectivism while reading T. Wilson’s concluding discussion – surprisingly simple and philosophically cogent – of narrative and truth (216-218).   T. Wilson’s success is found, I think, in the ability to self-consciously approach ‘personal narrative’ as an important analogy (162), and he notes that the “narrative viewpoint is perfectly compatible with the archaeology metaphor” [my emphasis].  T. Wilson makes no reference to Lakoff and Johnson. However, an entire chapter of Metaphors We Live By (1980) is dedicated to these sorts of ‘Complex Coherence across Metaphors’ (97-105), and the last chapter of Metaphors We Live By (four pages before the end of the book) foreshadows T. Wilson’s over-arching thesis:

But any really deep understanding of why we do what we do, feel what we feel, change as we can change, and even believe what we believe, takes us beyond ourselves . . . it comes out of our constant interactions with our physical, cultural, and interpersonal environment . . . The process of self-understanding is the continual development of new life stories for yourself (232-233) [emphasis mine].

And so now I see another error in my thinking that crystallized about five years ago: Nicholas Maxwell led me astray by pitting literature against science according to the tension between the human world and the physical word, consciousness and matter.  But literature is a powerful tool in understanding the unconscious mind as well as the conscious; we perhaps have much to learn from the novelists of 150 years ago who wrestled with the physical complexities of being human despite the availability of a comfortable, conficting narrative of the Cartesian theatre.

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