What follows is an interview by Samara Michaelson.
A few months ago, I asked scholars John Gibson, Magdalena Ostas, and Hannah Kim to have a conversation with me about art and literature. Each of us brought a different perspective to the conversation. We discussed the difference between artistic and philosophical or historical modes of knowledge production, how art engenders or generates meaning, and the relationship between meaning, sense, and “aboutness” in the experience of art.
After sending along a list of questions over email, the four of us met over video and spoke together for an hour and half – and could have talked even longer. Below is an edited version of this conversation, which contains some disagreement, some consensus, and above all, inevitably, more questions than answers.
Samara: I’m interested in the ideas of ambiguity and elusiveness. I wonder whether or not a work of art or literature can refuse or resist being known and in what ways that can be true. And, if it can be true, what is its intention or purpose as an audience-directed object?
Magda: For me, literature’s reluctance to bring resolution or closure or to bring messages or ideas is a big part of its power to engage in central philosophical questions while leaving the answers to those questions as complex and as messy as life itself is. So, in other words, it actively sustains and animates the ambiguities that characterize and populate life, which is part of its power. It may be that this is one way that literature is different from traditional philosophy. It may be, I’m not saying it is, but that’s one possibility.
John: I think that Magda is precisely right. If we believe that life is a messy and ambiguous affair, often paradoxical or even nonsensical in respect to the kinds the experiences it makes inescapable for us, and if we see literature as especially apt at highlighting these aspects of experience, this helps us understand why literature can be such a powerful mirror of life. Philosophers can have trouble thinking about these things as values. We’re trained to value clarity and coherence. But I think that literature’s – and especially poetry’s – ability to make ambiguity and paradox productive is exactly how it offers an alternative to philosophical forms of thinking, but in a way that shows that it reaches the same destination: an engagement with this messy thing called life.
Hannah: I’m reminded of a Billy Collins poem, “Introduction to Poetry.” It talks about the speaker wanting to teach students how to engage with the poem – how to see its colors, hear its sounds, get lost in its maze, wave at the poet’s name while riding the lines’ waves – but instead students tie the poem to a chair and try to beat meaning out of it, as if reading were an interrogation. The poem struck me because I see this phenomenon from time to time, especially when I try to put literary works in front of philosophers. I ran an Asian philosophy reading group for a while, and at some point I was surprised to find a colleague totally baffled by the first chapter of The Zhuangzi. I had a lot of respect for him, but he simply didn’t know what to do with the text because it “didn’t make any arguments.” That was an eye-opening experience for me. Some of the best philosophical and literary works aren’t in the business of asserting things, and in that regard I appreciate works that are ambiguous.
Magda: I’m struck in our conversation more generally about ambiguity, and about how much we’re emphasizing ambiguity in literary works where for me, so much of what literature does is actually bring coherence to the world and bring form to the world and bring shape to it and bring meaning to it and bring significance to it. This isn’t at all ambiguity or unknowableness, in fact, quite the contrary. Literature lights things up about the world rather than takes things away from us. I thought of Virginia Woolf immediately and something that she said in a diary somewhere: nothing makes a whole except when I am writing. Nothing is coherent for Woolf until she writes. So, it’s not that literature is full of ambiguity and nonsense; it’s that the world is full of it and literature is what gives it shape and form and meaning and significance and all the things.
Hannah: I have a question. Let’s compare history and historiography to literature. People point out that much of what historians do is cast a narrative framing around human events so that the causal connections, stakes, and motivations surrounding pivotal events form a coherent story. When Magda was discussing literature’s ability to create coherence and meaning and significance, a question I had was this: How does literature go beyond what history does?
John: We sometimes speak of poetic forms of knowing and narrative forms of understanding. What I think we often mean by this is that, in certain cases, the form of a poem or novel can organize a way of thinking and feeling about not only its subject matter but the world beyond the work. History and philosophy often bear cognitive value because they make a very fine general point, draw a conclusion, or articulate a set of important fact. Novels and poems don’t usually work this way. The form of a poem often tries to aestheticize our thinking and perception, and, by doing so, poetry can naturally open up aesthetic possibilities of seeing or understanding the world, perhaps transforming our understanding of it a little in the process.
Magda: I have something brief to say about that: What if, instead of transforming, we say that literature doesn’t transform anything at all but rather creates something. So instead of transforming, we thought of literature as creating or revealing or illuminating something rather than, as you’re suggesting, going back to older tropes of mirroring or reflecting or capturing something. What if we think of literature as purely generative of things rather than reflective of things?
John: This opens up to a much larger question: How can artists use the resources of art to represent the world – which we all just ten minutes ago acknowledged is often catastrophic, nonsensical, or just really blah – without falsifying it? The old worry is that art, because it is art, inevitably bestows forms of beauty and meaning on the features of life it represents that are in excess of what it naturally bears—proudly ambiguous poetry notwithstanding! There are interesting general philosophical answers to this question (think of Nietzsche on tragedy), but I think that what’s really interesting is how specific works of art negotiate these worries and imply an artistic answer to these questions.
Samara: If we do think of literary works as sense-making objects, how do we conceive of the ethics of sense and nonsense?
There are certain events in life that we say just don’t make sense, and that to make sense of them is perhaps unethical because it gives a reason when there is no reason. In other cases, there are authors and theorists who resist narrativization for narrative’s presumption of a clear beginning and end, and so a containment of its objects that otherwise cannot be appropriately contained within such logic.
Hannah: The way you talk about the nonsensical as something that should not be imputed with meaning makes me think of what are called “brute facts,” facts that have no explanation, or even the absurd. The important thing to do is to recognize that there’s nonsense – in the sense that there’s no way of putting the nonsensical into a coherent explanatory scheme. In that vein, the ethics of nonsense is to know that some facts are just brute facts and other facts are facts to be explained. The hard part is to know which is which, especially because we can’t help but try to impute meaning.
John: If somebody responded to the murder of George Floyd by saying it was deeply ambiguous, that would not just be wrong but also, in a sense, deeply unjust. Likewise, if you’ve ever suffered a great tragedy and somebody says to you that everything is going to be absolutely fine, they seem be to be not only misinformed but also irresponsible. What I adore about lyric poetry is that there is often a perfect achievement of voice that expresses just the right amount of sense and meaning and no more with respect to its objects of expressive interest – as Hannah said, to impute just the right degree of meaning. Or nonsense, as the case may be. When a poet gets this just right, it often seems like not only a cognitive but an ethical achievement: a way of demonstrating respect for, and responsibility to, the rough business of life.
Hannah: Magda, how does literature deal with that tension? We were talking earlier about how reading itself or literary experience itself is a sense-imputing experience such that nonsense feels more at home in philosophy than literature. But now we’re saying, “Wait – there’s a way to do too much of that, such that it becomes an ethical failure.” I’m curious to tie it back to the earlier point that we engage with literature in this deep way because we’re trying to make sense, but is there a way to do that and also recognize brute facts, nonsense?
Magda: I like your emphasis on the act of reading a lot. I was thinking about it in preparation for our conversation about the relationship of belief to literature. And instead of belief, I thought of a couple of, let’s say, alternative ways of conceiving the act of reading and the experience of reading. Words that I especially like: absorption, engagement, or entanglement. For me, it configures reading as a kind of a whole activity. We often use the idiom, “I can’t get into it.” I love the idea that we literally tread in a different space when we read something so that we’re literally transported across realms. We buy into the work whole. We go all in. It may not work out, but we go all in. You have no choice but to believe everything about the work and then you see what happens. But you read it with that kind of commitment.
John: One thing that’s helpful to think about when you’re talking about works of art is that they often have a kind of twofoldness of communicative content or meaning: they produce or bear meaning on at least two different levels. We apply meaning to discrete bits of a poem, for example to a phrase, line, or stanza – that is, to its parts. But what we’re usually interested in is the kind of meaning we affix to the poetic whole – work meaning, you might call it. Work meaning is what we try to specify when we attempt to state what a work is “about” and not what this or that element of it means. And literary “aboutness” at this level is often something like the sense a work seems to ascribe to the features of human experience it has as its target. I think that when you pass to that broader level of meaning, questions of nonsense become a lot less pressing, often because we have already answered them to our satisfaction. We don’t pass to that level unless we’ve already given ourselves to a work and immersed ourselves in its project.
Hannah: I’m thinking back to experiences, watching movies that might be described as nonsensical in a work-meaning way. Think about Mulholland Drive or Donnie Darko or Rashomon. You watch these movies and you’re like, wait, what just happened? And it feels like nonsense because you don’t know how much of what you saw actually happened, whether there was a dream sequence or an unreliable narration or portrayal. What struck me while listening to John was even when we get something that looks like nonsense at the work level, we are really unwilling to lay things to rest. Instead, we get obsessed. There’s a website with dozens of different interpretations of Mulholland Drive, for instance! I think this says something about who we are and what we value and why we bother to create art and consume it – and why the point might be engagement and not extraction. The point is to go in there and wrestle with it. Maybe that’s why we think of ambiguity or evasiveness as an aesthetically good quality because it encourages, or even forces, that.
John: I agree that what we value is engagement and not extraction. It’s the making of sense that we value here, with all of the emphasis on “making.”
Samara Michaelson is a writer and independent researcher based in Brooklyn, NY. She’s written for Frieze and the Cleveland Review of Books, among other publications, and is most interested in the intersection of aesthetics, ethics, and epistemology.
John Gibson is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Louisville. He works primarily in aesthetics, philosophy of literature, and philosophy of self. He is currently working on a book on lyric poetry, metaphor, and meaning.
Hannah Kim is an assistant professor in Philosophy at Macalaster college You can follow her at @thisishannahkim or learn more at https://www.hannahkimphilosophy.com/.
Magdalena Ostas is a Lecturer in English and Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley. She works at the crossroads of literature, philosophy, and the arts and has written on a range of figures at this intersection. She is a contribute to Oxford Studies in Philosophy and Literature, Cambridge Studies in Literature and Philosophy, and Teaching World Literature, among other collections.