Gimmicks & Dialectics: On the So-Called “Novel of Ideas” by Jared Marcel Pollen


Gimmicks & Dialectics: On the So-Called “Novel of Ideas”

by Jared Marcel Pollen

A little while ago, I floated the notion that the American novel has always been somewhat “allergic” to ideas, specifically philosophical ideas approached in the discursive fashion that is instantly recognizable in European (that is to say, continental) literature. This was widely—and I think, willfully—misinterpreted as a swipe at American fiction; as if to say that American novels have no ideas at all: “Are you saying Toni Morrison’s novels don’t have any ideas in them?” “What about Pynchon?” “What about Gaddis?” “Don’t forget Melville!” A claim of this kind naturally sets up the naming of exceptions. But this is not the point. It should be self-evident that there is a difference between novels that have ideas (which one could freely define) in them, and novels that are about ideas, or characters struggling with ideas. A simple comparison of any two contemporaries—say, Dickens and Dostoyevsky—makes this clear.

The indignation is not surprising, however. Novels are a popular form, and are therefore susceptible to populism, and anything that smells vaguely of elitism is easily attacked. More still, it reflects an old antagonism that has always existed between philosophy and the dramatic arts, a conflict that dates back to antiquity. The culprit, we all know: Plato was famously contemptuous of the dramatic and poetic forms and excluded them from his ideal society, believing that they corrupted the soul. There was a practical reason for this. In ancient Athens, the functional role of the arts took their place under the guise of entertainment. Concepts that were structural to the society—birth, honor, nobility, law, justice, citizenship, fortune, fate, ignorance, knowledge, the Good, the True—were all hashed out in public for everyone to see. Plato wasn’t simply objecting to people wasting their time at the theater when they should be studying philosophy. He was arguing against what he saw as an inferior system for the delivery of ideas—ideas in pure form (eidos).

This antagonism has always been a bit contrived. Novels and ideas have always had, in that most dubious of diplomatic phrases, a “special relationship.” Philosophy’s use of literary techniques (staging, dialogue, allegory, imagery, symbolism) and drama’s dialogic form (which makes it suitable for unpacking ideas) places both of them squarely in the same household, even if a line has been drawn down the middle of it, á la I Love Lucy. It is “a strange conflict, with long truces” as Mary McCarthy points out in Ideas and the Novel, and one that often resembles a “family quarrel.” Like a sibling rivalry, the conflict is based on competition, and that doesn’t just mean for the soul of the public. There is reason to believe that in Periclean Greece, drama and philosophy were in actual competition with one another. In Plato’s Progress, Gilbert Ryle argues that the Platonic dialogues originally grew out of staged arguments, or eristic performances, which would have likely been conducted for a general audience, putting them in contest with poetry and theater in Athenian festivals and games. Ryle notes the natural, direct speech of the dialogues (the “human gramophone” style), which do not smell “proleptically of the reader’s lamp.” Some dialogues, like The Phaedrus and The Symposium, which would have interested a general audience, clearly have dramatic staging and would have been fit for public performance. (Ryle even takes it a step further and speculates that Plato himself would have performed in these dialogues, playing the part of Socrates.) Ryle’s claim is contested, but not improbable. Whether the dialogues were performed or written, the point about artifice is surely taken: the Western philosophical tradition began mimetically––as an imitation of “real” arguments, just as the theater sought to imitate the tears and laughter of “real” life. The philosophers, as they would become known, began as “dialectical mimes.”

At its point of origin, the dramatic arts (from which the novel eventually emerged) was understood to be as much a courier for ideas as philosophy. It is strange then that the appearance of discursive ideas in novels is often treated as a contrivance, or a “gimmick,” as Sianne Ngai argues in her book, Theory of the Gimmick (a chapter of which appeared in The Paris Review as “The Gimmick of the Novel of Ideas”). It should be said that Ngai’s assessment of the genre is only a short case study embedded in a larger Marxist critique about our perception of value in relation to cultural capital. A gimmick can take many forms: outdated special effects that no longer impress us, over-engineered Silicon Valley contraptions (like the Juicero Press or the Google Glass). But it is the novel that concerns us here. What is “gimmicky,” according to Ngai, is based on “an extravagant claim to value that is false,” and that we can detect this whenever we suspect that something––in this case a novel––is “working too hard.” Ideas in a novel amount to a kind of schtick, requiring laborious concoctions in order to make use of readymade or “preexisting discursive materials” (Ngai cites Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, or Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet as examples). Within the novel, ideas are thus inherently meretricious, a kind of cheap commodity that are presented at “high price.” 

The underlying assumption is that the novel cannot naturally accommodate ideas; they have to be shoehorned in, where they will always rest a little uncomfortably. This is usually what readers mean when they say that a novel is “trying too hard” (which echoes Ngai’s definition of gimmick tout court). Like sentimentality, ideas in a novel are always at risk of being unearned, and the person most susceptible to them “desires to have the luxury”—as Oscar Wilde said—“without paying for it.” It was exactly this kind of exploitation, which can corrupt our instincts, that Plato saw as inherently untrustworthy in the arts. As with sentimentality—which arose in philosophy as a question of meta-ethics, where feelings were debated as a trustworthy guide to truth—we suspect that novels that attempt to make use of ideas the way philosophers do are somehow fraudulent. That is, they do not have a true style. Ngai argues that idea-driven novels usually require contrivances of some kind in order to get the ideas in them:

“They are: direct speech by characters in the forms of dramatic dialogues or monologues (The Magic Mountain, Point Counter Point, Tomorrow’s Eve, Iola Leroy, Elizabeth Costello, Babel-17); overt narrators prone to didactic, ironic, or metafictional commentary (The Man without Qualities, Tristram Shandy, Elizabeth Costello); and flat allegorical characters (Faith and the Good Thing, The Man without Qualities, Against Nature, Moby-Dick). Also prevalent, to a lesser extent, are experimental formatting (Moby-Dick, Tristram Shandy, Diary of a Bad Year)”

 Any aesthetic net wide enough to catch all these novels and their various techniques is doomed to imprecision. If these things constitute a contrivance, they are surely no more of a contrivance than the novel itself. (This is obvious, but it bears repeating.) Going over the listirony, experimental formatting, direct speech, dramatic dialogues, overt narrators(?)is this not the very stuff of fiction itself?

It is true that novels dominated by ideas often require some kind of stasis, or state of non-event in order to make space for them. The hermetic setting of The Magic Mountain does exactly this. Ditto the remote castles of Thomas Love Peacock’s “conversation novels” where characters sojourn to debate the great questions of the age. Ngai is especially hung up on The Magic Mountain, as it is the example she returns to most frequently, perhaps understandably, as it checks all the boxes of a novel that appears to be working too hard: intellectual longueur, allegorical characters, direct speech, manipulations of space and time, intervention of magical, or unexplainable events. 

Mann—that “big fake,” that “super-essayist” (according to Nabokov)—is a unique case, as his legacy appears to hang more on his arbitration of German cultural and philosophical problems than on his skill as a novelist. But Mann’s novelistic style, as James Wood points out, is deliberately dialectical: “It is through the dialectic that [the] novels justify themselves as novels. In [Mann’s] work, the novelistic is the dialectic.” And that, “The ceaseless motion, back and forth… is shown to find its perfect form not in philosophy but in the novel.” It is this “childlike” dialectic, filtered through Hans’s ignorance (with its embrace of Socratic irony) that proves perfectly Platonic. Much of this is delivered via the conversations between Settembrini and Naphta. Settembrini is a humanist of the Pico della Mirandola-type, a classic liberal who believes in man’s ascendant rationality. He represents the Mediterranean strain in the German spirit, the southward-looking soul that is in conflict with the pagan that pulls north, towards the dark, Nordic forests and the Wagnerian Aryan myths (a conflict that the Nazis identified in their own way and embroidered by fusing these two traditions together). Naphta (whose name evokes explosives) is an image of the 19th century radical, a “Nietzsche militant” (to use Mann’s words), a revolutionary who believes that if humanity is perfectible, it must not wait for its ascension—it must be hammered into shape (which anticipates the experimental manner in which people would be treated under the two totalitarianisms, fascism and communism). 

Indeed, don’t these characters appear to us exactly like players in a Platonic dialogue? Settembrini and Naphta could be professional wrestlers their personas are turned up so high, pounding their fists on the table and cutting promos for their respective ideologies. But all of this, in a way, is for naught, since everyone in the sanitorium has effectively been removed from society and doomed to a life of sickness and death (Settembrini’s loaded phrase for this is “living horizontally”). The education in life then, is an education in death, and vice versa (Socrates again). And mapped onto all of this is Mann’s very conscious (which is to say ironic and parodic) engagement with two German literary traditions—bildungsroman and allegory, which are continuously teased and inverted. One doesn’t need to know these things to enjoy The Magic Mountain (though they help), or defend it against its critics, but a simple explanation of them shows the myopia of Ngai’s critique. 

The Magic Mountain sometimes resembles a 19th century novel that is punching up into modernism. It is Janus-faced, at once retrograde, or dislocated (itself a theme of the novel) while also being swept into the future by the winds of history. It would have gone unquestioned in the century that preceded it––the century of Stendhal, Hugo, Balzac, Dostoyevsky—when the novel was as much a battleground for social and political ideas as any Socratic symposium. Audiences expected novels to report on macro-struggles within the culture, so much so that any categorizing adjectives—social-novel, idea-novel, etc.—would have seemed “tautological,” as Mary McCarthy points out. The 19th century novel, she writes, “was so evidently an idea-carrier that the component of overt thought in it must have been taken for granted by the reader as an ingredient as predictable as a leavening agent in bread.”

Far from being a schtick, the discussion of ideas was very much the business of the novel in the 19th century (at least in Europe), and there was a centuries-long tradition underpinning this. The novel’s contribution has been to show the role that serious ideas have in the realm of play: its treatment of ideas has always been subversive and satirical, which is to say they have been approached via mockery and irony. Gargantua & Pantagruel (which actually opens with a riff on the ironic style of Socrates) ridicules the religious orthodoxy of the late middle-ages and smuggles in its own brand of stoicism; Don Quixote parodies the dated tropes of chivalric romance and its cult of self-glorification; Candide brutally skewers the idiocy of Leibniz’s theodicy; Tristram Shandy takes the piss out of Lockean empiricism, as well as the Newtonian epoch—the classical mechanical world of clocks, cogs, orbits, straight lines and clear trajectories—while Jacques le fataliste (which cadges a good deal of its material from Shandy) appropriates deterministic philosophy to poke fun at the predictability—and sentimentality—of 18th century novels. If allegory, irony, metafictional play and epistemic games constitute a gimmick, then they are as old as—and intrinsic to—the novel itself.

The tradition of the novelistic essay (or the essayistic novel, depending on one’s vantage) is essentially provocative and humorous, where, as Milan Kundera argues, ideas are engaged through “intellectual exercises, paradoxes, games, improvisations, rather than statements of thought.” This gives the novel a degree of intellectual freedom that philosophy rarely permits, and allows novelists to engage with serious ideas in a very “unserious” manner. We see this in Mann, and even in someone as (supposedly) gray as Dostoyevsky: the long monologues and unbearable windbaggery of so many of his characters is itself a parodic response to the prolix ideologies of the time (nihilism, anarchism, utopian socialism) and the didactic novels that acted as delivery systems for them (like Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done?, which Dostoyevsky despised). In Dostoyevsky, perhaps more than any other writer, we see that a serious engagement with ideas and a mockery of them is merely a different register of the same thing. 

Mockery is what saves fiction from becoming a mere tool of ideology. Kundera’s point about play is itself a riff on Musil’s use of the essay form in his novels, which Musil argued was always provisional, always concerned with possibility and not ideology. This is because nothing is affirmed in a novel of ideas. It must not be. There is a temptation, in any argument, to speak the last word, but novels almost never speak the last word. Philosophical systems, like ideologies, cannot permit contradictions, whereas the novel requires them. Irony is the price of entry. Without it, there is no potential for us to accept uncertainty. Another term for this is negative capability, the magnetic field that pulls us back to all great works.


 It was understandable that European novels took on the ideas of their time, as they came out of cultures with long-established philosophical traditions. Or, they came out of crisis-prone cultures menaced by new ideas, as Russia was in the 19th century. Which brings us around, at last, to the American novel.  If the American novel has been lacking in a philosophic strain, it is because American society lacks a robust philosophical tradition. The American tradition, which is classic liberal, individualist, free-enterprising, has always been largely aphilosophical, or anti-philosophical. This may be why America hasn’t produced many great philosophers, and its only real contribution is, fittingly enough, pragmatism. If there is any correlation here, it seems to be that the extent to which American novels haven’t engaged with philosophy is reflective of the incuriosity towards philosophy in the culture at large. (Conversely, European novelists, being immersed in rich continental traditions, have had plenty of ammunition.) Alexis de Tocqueville famously proclaimed that “in the civilized world there is no country less interested in philosophy than the United States,” and that Americans “hardly know [the] names” of the schools of thought that divided Europe for centuries. Most of these—skepticism, existentialism, phenomenology, idealistic metaphysics—are all utterly unAmerican. The same goes for the political ideologies (anarchism, nihilism, utopian socialism). It makes sense then that American novelists were never compelled to engage with them.

American ideas, like the American novel, have always been more preoccupied with notions of self-reliance, self-invention, and self-discovery. This is the kind of thinking that democracies breed. In a democratic society, every citizen is smart because they possess common senseanyone can “figure it out.” The project thus becomes “to search by oneself and in oneself alone for the reason of things,” according to de Tocqueville. (Huck Finn, an American Adam who discovers his own moral code, is a great example.) This, in turn, rules out any person having “any signs of undeniable greatness or superiority”as people“constantly return to their own rationality as to the most obvious and immediate source of truth.” Nowhere are philosophical systems more unwelcome.

This is not a dig at American fiction. To the contrary, this commonness has been the great strength of the American novel for the past two centuries. Novelists, to a certain extent, must be common. Unlike poets, who are singular and not spokesmen for their societies, novelists should represent the laity. W.H. Auden wrote that the poet is “encased in talent,” while the novelist is “plain and awkward” and “One after whom none think it worth to turn.” McCarthy too notes that common sense is “a highly necessary faculty for the novelist.” The novel itself is also democratic, egalitarian, and the pledge is that everyone should be able to read oneand if so inclinedbe able to write one (this is the enthymeme that underlies the old saw that “everyone has a novel in them”). 

Tocqueville attributed the American aversion to ideas to the desire to “escape the spirit of systems” and the distinctions of class, education and tradition, and we see this very clearly in “The American Scholar,” which calls for young Americans to stop being bookworms and regurgitators of European knowledge, and to trust their own instincts. Even in Emerson, who had a somewhat clerical view of the role of intellectuals in society, we find a uniquely democratic approach to philosophy, which exalts the everyman: “Shall I tell you the secret of the true scholar? It is this: Every man I meet is my master in some point, and in that I learn of him.” Voltaire or Hegel wouldn’t be caught dead uttering these words.

Emerson, who was not a novelist, nonetheless belonged to an intellectual avant-garde that did not represent the mainstream of American society. But even among the Transcendentalists, there are cautionary tales. Hawthorne felt encouraged to write books that he knew would appeal to a large audience. After the disappointing reception of The Marble Faun (which incidentally Emerson called “mush”), he wrote to a friend: “It is odd enough… that my own individual taste is for quite another class of works than those which I myself am able to write.” The same goes for Twain, one of the great radicals of the 19th century, who placated audiences with potboilers (mostly to get out of debt) while keeping his anti-theist and anti-imperialist ideas in his diaries and out of his fiction. And probably the greatest exception of them all—Melville (who had no shortage of ideas in his work, and whose lack of success in his own time is well known) had to wait at least half a century for his books to be appreciated by readers.

It was in light of this that McCarthy lamented the obvious aversion to idea-driven fiction in her own time: “Today there is no longer a dilemma. Ideas are held not to belong in the novel; in the art of fiction we have progressed beyond such simplicities.” Lionel Trilling too noted the “intellectual weakness” of contemporary American literature, which he argued was consonant with its emotional weakness: a low tide lowers all boats. Almost an exact contemporary of both McCarthy and Trilling, the great outlier here is Saul Bellow, who sticks out of his century like a skyscraper. Indeed, McCarthy notes, “In the U.S.A., a special license has always been granted to the Jewish novel, which is free to juggle ideas in full view of the public; Bellow, Malamud, Philip Roth still avail themselves of the right, which is never conceded to us goys.” This line, which is slipped in late in her argument, goes strangely unsubstantiated, but it nonetheless contains an important kernel of truth.

In his novels, especially the late novels, which he called comedies of higher learning, Bellow managed to sink all differences. An immigrant from Tsarist Russia to Chicago (by way of Montreal), Bellow hit upon a bright, fluid use of discursive prose in the American landscape, bringing together the big, sweeping scale of the American novel and the intellectual comedy of the European tradition in a brilliant modus vivendi that none since have been able to replicate. In Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift and Ravelstein, especially, Bellow jogs through ideas effortlessly, never causing the reader to pause in pain. Cynthia Ozick, in her review of Bellow’s letters, wrote that his success lay in his ability to “trick the explicit into vanishing into the implicit.” (If ideas are indeed a contrivance, then it is Bellow’s sleight of hand that makes us forget this.) In these novels, we see that ideas are built into the universe, and thus don’t require any scheming to rig up. In this world, tradition simply becomes information, and human opinions form, as de Tocqueville put it: “only a sort of intellectual dust which swirls in every direction, unable to settle or find stability.” Or, as Bellow called it: “the mental rabble of the wised-up world.”

Bellow was wary of the tendency for the novel to abandon its obligations to play and slide into prescription (“No amount of assertion will make an ounce of art,” he wrote in a letter to fellow writer Richard Stern). Bellow understood, á la the European tradition, that the way to ideas is through comedy. The best example of this is Herzog, which delivers most of its reflections on philosophy in the form of “the angry letter” (which itself harkens back to the epistolary form, an idea-delivery system the novel has long made use of)—the kind old men used to send to television stations if they objected to their programming. Bellow takes this especially vulgar practice and has his protagonist pen curmudgeonly letters to dead philosophers. We also see, very definitively, the attempt—and failure—to locate order in a philosophical system, as an analgesic to the common-sense problems of everyday life (like a wife’s infidelity). This is the comedy of a novel like Herzog, which readers are inclined to take seriously as a bildungsroman, when it is actually the reverse—about a man who loses his education after he discovers that the high-ideas he has dedicated his life to fail to serve him when he faces a personal crisis. 

Trilling discussed this built-in-ness in his essay “On the Meaning of a Literary Idea,” from The Liberal Imagination. Literature “by its very nature, is involved with ideas” he says. “Involved” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here, but rightfully so. Novels, more than any other form, exhaustively plumb complex emotions, and the complex ideas that evolve out of them, and it is the self-conscious, self-reflexive component, inherent in literature, that marks “the beginning of a process of intellection or a matter for tears and laughter.” That this would even be debatable is odd. Trilling regarded it as elementary that “whenever we put two emotions into juxtaposition we have what we can properly call an idea.” Ideas, after all, are “living things.” An easy and cynical caricature of an ideas-novel might be one in which a character suddenly starts thinking about Nietzsche while waiting at a traffic light. Even if this was accurate, is there anything gimmicky about it? Is it really so implausible? And are such thoughts not as much a part of life as anything else?

At the close of Ideas and the Novel, McCarthy writes, somewhat despairingly: “Nevertheless, there are a few back doors left through which ideas may be spirited in.” The novel has proven to be a perennially flexible medium, capable of incorporating, and adapting to almost anything. Virtually nothing is beyond it. The notion, therefore, that ideas must be yoked up to a dramatic framework—and that this constitutes not only contrivance, but an intrusion on the novel’s narrative parameters—is false almost on its face, as it is surely no more of a contrivance than the novel itself and the various mimetic devices it has relied upon, which have always been thinly in the service of believability. The idea-novel, the conversation-novel, the philosophical-novel, etc. In its purest form, the novel requires no qualifying hyphenate. Its back doors and front doors are equal and adjacent, and ideas flow freely through both. ♦

Jared Marcel Pollen is the author of The Unified Field of Loneliness: Stories (2019). His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Liberties, Tablet, and 3:AM Magazine. His debut novel, Venus&Document, will be published in spring 2022. He currently lives in Prague. Twitter: @JaredMPollen

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