Sometimes … Literature ≥ Philosophy

Song of the Day: ‘Down on you’ by Dems


There are parallels to be found in so many fields, and literature and philosophy are not any different. There is a dialogue between literary and philosophical studies. That is, there is always a constant source of fresh, stimulating ideas in the aesthetics of literature, theory of criticism, philosophical interpretation of literature, and the literary treatment of philosophy. Great literature is often deeply philosophical, and great philosophy is often great literature, sometimes in the form of fictional narrative. Perhaps we can learn many of the same lessons from philosophy and literature.

So, if you’re like me — and why wouldn’t you be? — who is blown away by the questions: Can the methods of philosophy and literary criticism be combined? Are the truths they shed light upon complementary? You should read the following books.

  1. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.
  2. American Gods by Neil Gaiman.
  3. The Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold. (Start with Cordelia’s Honour, then Young Miles.)
  4. The Principia Discordia by Malaclypse the Younger.
  5. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.

You may have noticed that all five (well, six) are either science fiction or fantasy. This is entirely appropriate, because it’s in the realm of speculative fiction that we can best explore the cultural and philosophical implications of our society. American Gods explores our spiritual desolation:

‘This is a bad land for gods,’ said Shadow. As an opening statement it wasn’t Friends, Romans, countrymen, but it would do. ‘You’ve probably all learned that. The old gods are ignored. The new gods are as quickly taken up as they are abandoned, cast aside for the next big thing.’

Cat’s Cradle is a parable on emptiness and the absurdity of love:

Man blinked. ‘What is the purpose of all this?’ he asked politely. ‘Everything must have a purpose?’ asked God. ‘Certainly,’ said man. ‘Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,’ said God. And He went away.

The Principia Discordia responds with both mysticism and a call to chaos:

‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘Why does Pickering’s Moon go about in reverse orbit? Gentlemen, there are nipples on your chests; do you give milk? And what, pray tell, Gentlemen, is to be done about Heisenberg’s Law?’ He paused. ‘SOMEBODY HAD TO PUT ALL OF THIS CONFUSION HERE!’

Snow Crash offers a stateless dystopia full of metaphysical confusion and low-level heroism:

‘Wait a minute, Juanita. Make up your mind. This Snow Crash thing—is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?’ Juanita shrugs. ‘What’s the difference?’

The Vorkosigan books give us whole worlds, with vastly different human cultures, but always return to backwards, neo-feudal Barrayar, a planet some of us might actually love:

‘Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself. Guard your honor. Let your reputation fall where it will. And outlive the bastards.’

There’s far more to all of them than this, of course, and if you are unconvinced I’d be thrilled to discuss at length. In the meantime, take my word, they’re well worth the read.

Till next post!

PS: Now isn’t that the best way of getting out of writing six reviews and still tell you enough to recommend the books? I know, lazy me!


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