Guest Writer: Terence Netto


Terence Netto is the moderator for our panel discussion on “Literature as a Guide to Human Nature” (2:30pm on Saturday 15 Sept).


If there was any idea that inaugurated the modern world, it was  the Latin equivalent of this line “Cogito ergo sum.”

I think therefore I am.

Formulated by Rene Descartes, a French mathematician and philosopher at the beginning of the 17th century, Descartes separated the thinking self from the extended world of things.

Cartesian bifurcation was fruitful for the development of natural science. The Cartesian man brings a single talisman – pure reason – to the effort to master and possess nature. All truths become to the pure reason as clear as the truth of an arithmetical sum.

About the same time that Cartesian man was unleashing the sciences, the novelist Miguel Cervantes produced Don Quixote, a book that inaugurated the era of the novel, an art form that obliged readers to face not a single truth but a skein of contradictory truths.

Either Don Quizote is the perfectly beautiful man or he is a ridiculous, woolly idealist? Either Teresa D’urberville is a tragic heroine or her creator Thomas Hardy’s melancholic view of human life as the plaything of casual forces and dim wayward impulses had rigged the fates against the purest of madonnas?

Either Anna Karenina is the victim of a blinkered tyrant, or Karenin is a victim of an immoral woman? Either Jay Gatsby is a dupe for desiring the superficial Daisy Fay or he is great in his deep yearning for something just out of reach?

In contrast to Cartesian certainty, the novel posited the wisdom of uncertainty, the “either-or” encapsulation. As science led man into thinking that he is the master and possessor of nature, to the extent scientists now envisage that Artificial Intelligence (AI) can invent and solve complex problems by processes that replicate those of the human mind, we see the truth of what the philosopher Martin Heidegger warned about “the forgetting of being.” By this Heidegger meant man’s concrete being, his “living world”, soon to be eclipsed and forgotten – yes, there you have it – by machines powered by data and algorithms.

This is the point at which you need the novelist to stand athwart the relentless juggernaut that eclipses our humanity and reduces us to integers in an equation. At that point, we need someone like DH Lawrence to remind us of the optimism of William Faulkner, who is his address to the Nobel committee upon conferment of the award for Literature in 1949, said that man would not only survive, he would prevail.

Faulkner’s optimism is echoed by the amazing praise Lawrence heaped on the novel:

“The whole is greater than the part. And therefore I who am man alive is greater than my soul, or spirit, or body, or mind, or consciousness Or anything else that’s part of me … For this reason  I am a novelist. And being a novelist, I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet, who are all great masters of different bits of man alive, but never get the whole hog.

“The novel is the one bright book of life. Books are not life. They are only tremulations of the ether. But the novel, as a termulation, can make the whole man alive tremble, which is more than poetry, philosopher, science, or any other book – tremulation can do.”

Over four centuries now, fromDon Quizote to Remains of the Day  by Kazuo Ishiguro, Lawrence’s “bright book of life”, with its plethora of indelible characters, has come to be our bulwark against the “forgetting of being.”

Literature, with its depiction of human nature, with its creation of indelible character, and with its delineation of “either-or” situations, will resist the reduction of man to a mere thing before the forces of technology, politics or history.

That resistance can only come from more additions to the “great book of like” composed of unforgettable characters and the irreplacable uniqueness of individuals.

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