Plutarch's Table

Literature and the Universal (including comments on books I have and haven’t read) | October 1, 2010

I’ve decided to give Jonathan Franzen’s wildly popular novel, Freedom, a miss.  I am trusting the critics – the critics who I like to read and tend to agree with on literary matters, that is – rather than Time magazine, who featured Franzen on a recent cover celebrating him as “The Great American Author”.  Two recent reviews seem to agree that Franzen does a fair enough job of portraying middle-brow America, but urge us to expect more from art than a mere portrayal of what is (Ruth Franklin “Impact Man” and Evert Cilliers “Are our Writers as Lousy as Our Bankers?“).  A third review warns that my investment would be wasted on a “576-page monument to insignificance” (B.R. Myers “Smaller Than Life”)  There seems to be consensus, then, from writers whose reviews I like to read, so I’m thanking them for their contribution to my time management and moving on to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, which I taught twice last year in my Philosophy and Literature class at the University of Toronto and am re-reading now for a third time, which like the second is an almost entirely new experience.

But these reviews raise an interesting question for me, a question about novels and their relationship to the universal.  The complaint is that Franzen’s work speaks a language that will not survive very long, both literally and figuratively.  Literally, because Franzen is so concerned for his characters to sound like contemporary middle-brow Americans, and figuratively because he doesn’t have anything to offer in the way of universal resonance.  We are taught that to be readable a story must have something to say outside of its context.  Apparently, Franzen’s novel not only doesn’t have anything to say about poor or uneducated or even fabulously wealthy Americans or anyone who is not American, but it sounds as though he doesn’t have anything to say to anyone at all.  To have something to say to any audience, a writer has to not merely hold up a mirror, which is allegedly all that Franzen does, but must smash that image and stab the reader with the shards.  This seems to me to be one important element in distinguishing good from bad art, and yet if this lack of resonance is the result of a work that is too much of its context, I think that there are also works that commit this crime of mere reflection by being too universal in scope.  They may speak about everyone at all times, but there is nothing that can be said about everyone that is going to change anyone.

I used to think that my favourite contemporary novel was Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces. As a poet, and a very good one in my opinion, Michaels can craft a sentence that knocks the wind out of me.  Her words are so hauntingly lovely to read that it is no understatement to say that I fell under their spell, lost in the beauty and ease of the language.  But a strange thing happened when I put it down – my world was not changed one bit.  It remained on my list of recommendations nonetheless, until recently when I started reading Miller rather obsessively and figured out why a work like Fugitive Pieces has no real lasting power for me.  Michaels is a stupendous writer but her writing is only universal in scope; it speaks a timeless message that in its transcendence of the truly gritty details of life speaks to nobody in particular of nothing that we aren’t already capable of understanding.  It captures nothing of the real.  I would still read anything Michaels writes, and anything Michael Ondaatje (who I would describe in a similar way) writes, and I think that the ability of these writers to put into beautiful and lofty words some penetrating insights into how humans have been for a very long time is admirable and gratifying.  But to change us, to be a novel worthy of being called great literature, I think a work has to offer more than a portrait of what all humans can recognize in all other humans under the right circumstances, more than insight into the essence of humanity as it is and always will be.

In fact, I don’t happen to believe that there exists anything so absurd as the timeless essence of humanity.  The life on earth of this species is in constant flux, and it is best captured by exploring the ways in which it resists our attempts to capture it.  Maybe great art can help us glimpse those resistances, and in this lets us see something of the real.  The fragmentary and disturbing in literature always performs an actual experiment on life in a way that the great sweeping treatises that peddle a theory of everything cannot (in my mind this is Dostoevsky the agitator vs. Tolstoy the portraitist).  The universal message is the message about what we are, when Nietzsche (and possibly even Plato) long ago taught us that what we are is nothing but a creature that is constantly becoming something else.  So to say that a novel should speak beyond its context is undoubtedly right, but this is not rectified by speaking a universal language.  The greatest capacity of the literary is that it has the power to undo the image of the human as something static.  In this I don’t know of a great American writer since Henry Miller.



  1. Funny – I just made the very same comparison in an e-mail to a friend a couple of days ago:

    “I finished The Corrections. I enjoyed it. And found it, and find it, strangely not quite satisfying. He’s a virtuosic stylist and his catalogue of social targets is brilliantly developed. It’s such a readable book. And yet for me there’s something unsettling about it. Maybe it’s that it seems to be, in many important respects, a product of the same system he’s critiquing. It comes out of the political left of that system, but it’s still obviously and self-consciously conceived as a commodity, an “entertainment”, a well-made object to be bought and sold. It’s a thoroughly “professional” novel, written by a thoroughly “professional” writer. And if you look at someone like Henry Miller, a limited writer maybe but a deeply authentic one, he’s rejecting much of the same North American golden livestock as Franzen, but he’s doing it in a way that’s completely singular, completely individual – in form as well as content – that’s full of the poetic fire and verve of Whitman, another American doing profoundly what Franzen is doing perhaps more superficially; and Miller never thought his work would be published, make him wealthy, make him famous, his works were banned for a gazillion years in America, he never thought “this is the form that the great American/eminently publishable/wonderfully entertaining novel must take”: he wrote the way he had to. And of course his vision had a social aspect, or maybe it was an antisocial aspect, but he didn’t set out to be a reformer, at least not socially; the only reform he conceivably preached was in and of the human spirit.”

    Terrific TNR review, too.

    Comment by Daniel Karasik — October 8, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

    • I like this contrast that you offer between Franzen as a ‘professional writer’ and the possibility of a somehow ‘authentic’ one – as Nietzsche and friends also deride the professional philosopher (and quite rightly, I think). I am really interested, as well, in this idea of being a reformer of the human spirit rather than a social reformer. How do you see that difference? I see Miller as so profoundly critical of the convention of his time, so I think that his vision must have a social aspect (even if, as you say, he didn’t set out to be a reformer and just wrote because that was what he had to do), but all the same I think there’s an interesting point to the distinction between reform of the human spirit and political or social reform. I’m working on articulating some ideas about it, but would love to hear your own further thoughts on this.

      Comment by Joanna Polley — October 12, 2010 @ 8:16 pm

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About author

My name is Joanna Polley. I am a writer and a philosopher experimenting with ways of practicing and teaching philosophy outside of the university environment. I completed my PhD at the University of Toronto and have taught for several years in the departments of philosophy and literary studies, and am currently exploring ways to bring philosophy out of the ivory tower and into the wider public sphere. My specific research interests have been in the history of philosophy, philosophy of language and culture and the philosophy of literature, but I am interested in any philosophy that helps illuminate contemporary problems and deepens our experience of being alive. You can also visit me at for information about my philosophical therapy services.







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