Philosophy in the Novel and Theatre after Postmodernism: A Case Study
By Marianne Apostolides
Before I begin a new creative work, I steep myself in the strange language of philosophers — especially those whose thought demands an idiosyncratic mode of writing. Since I’m unschooled in philosophy, I encounter these thinkers without comprehensive prior knowledge, but also without prejudice. I read as a creative writer who senses the urgency of philosophical thought for everyday existence; my expertise resides in creative work, not in philosophy. I therefore feel more free, perhaps, to use philosophy to meet the demands of my work: primarily, the demand that I harness the power of philosophy to drive my narrative beyond plot and character, into the enduring realm of thought.
This paper will explore the relationship between philosophy and two separate art forms — the novel and theatre — in a posthuman age. I will use my work as a case study, providing analysis from within the creative process.
Over five years, I completed two new projects: the novel Sophrosyne, and the play Feast: A Modern-Day Symposium of Daemonic Proportions. These works are twins, conceived and developed in the same philosophical, intellectual, and emotional inputs; they are, however, contrasting creatures. As I wrote, I became increasingly aware that the ‘form’ of theatre and literature invited — and resisted — philosophical explorations in different ways. This paper will explore those differences, using my ‘twins’ as a case study.
Philosophical underpinnings of these two creative works
Both Sophrosyne and Feast explore the posthuman age through the lens of Socrates’s fourth virtue: sophrosyne, which is often (inadequately) translated as ‘self-restraint’ or ‘self-control.’ Unlike the other three Socratic virtues — wisdom, justice, and courage — the word-concept ‘sophrosyne’ has disappeared from our culture. This deficiency in language seemed revelatory of our way of being. It therefore seemed worthy of further exploration.
Wanting to bring sophrosyne into our current predicament, I leapt from the ancients to contemporary philosophers, especially those who discuss the theory ‘posthumanism.’ In my (unschooled) understanding of the philosophy, posthumanism attempts to provide a space within which we can define the ‘human animal’ now, in a world bracketed by three primary developments:
- the absence of a monotheistic God who can punish and protect, providing a framework for goodness and meaning which we — as humans, graced with a conscious mind — can comprehend, alone of all beasts;
- the omnipresence of technology: screens which make the virtual world seem more alive than the physical realm; prostheses and pills which alter biological processes, changing how we experience and regulate emotion, memory, sensory perception, etc.; and machines which radically alter the landscape, extracting resources to fuel the high-tech lifestyles we’ve invented;
- the global environmental collapse — one which is caused by humankind.
Within the resulting space — an opening bounded by those three developments — resides the human. Right now, it’s a lonely, violent and confused place. As an artist, I seek to illuminate that opening, leading society toward a questioning of our current situation.
In my twin creative works, therefore, I wanted to explore how we understand ourselves in a posthuman age, and how the Socratic virtue sophrosyne could help us construct a meaningful life in a world which is rapidly changing. Oh, and I wanted the works to be artistically compelling. (Wish me luck…!)
Philosophy and the novel after postmodernism
Western philosophy and the novel have a unique kinship based on the fact that written language is the constituent element of both. As a novelist, I need philosophers to clarify questions and methods, which I can then ‘complicate’ through the messiness of character and story. Supported by philosophy, I can stretch language between its two poles — rationality/ logic versus rhythm/ sensuality — allowing readers to slide along that line of tension, thereby creating an intellectual comprehension and an intuitive understanding of the ideas being discussed.
This kinship, which opens myriad possibilities for philosophy within the novel, also creates a potential pitfall: philosophical fiction often lands on the page with a deadening thud, in which artfulness is sacrificed to the needful insistence of ideas. To me, philosophy is an electrical force — like the central nervous system of a living creature — but the body, blood, and pulse of a book are its people. No one will care about a philosophical novel if it fails to compel on the ‘human’ level of character and narrative. If the novel’s unique potential — its potency as an art form — is ignored, then the book will fail.
For many years, my manuscript failed. Frankly, my reading of philosophy was killing the book. I lost touch with my intuition, writing purely from my brain. This is not a way to create good fiction! What I needed was time to integrate philosophical knowledge into my body. This ‘digestion’ was not a conscious process. It occurred as I was exploring posthumanism in the works of other artists, whether or not this work was labeled posthumanist (most of it was not).
The most influential art, for me, was photography, particularly the work of David Maisel and Edward Burtynsky. Both these artists take aerial photos depicting the manmade scarring of natural landscapes. Since Maisel’s work is incorporated into Sophrosyne, I will focus on him. What drew me to his photographs was the stillness they commanded. Maisel captures the horrifying desecration of the landscape — a desecration whose implications press on the core question of humankind in an era of change — yet he does so through the seduction of beauty.
Postmodern questioning of coherence within narrative and image — a questioning which once shook us from the narcotizing effects of beauty — no longer awakens us to our changing world. The tropes and traditions of PoMo are now the common currency of popular culture. Avant-garde artists no longer need to shake the public into a realization that singular narratives aren’t trustworthy. Now, we need to rebuild a sense of cohesion — one which doesn’t return to a totalizing narrative, but rather incorporates the lessons we learned through postmodernism while seeking, nonetheless, to construct a sense of wholeness.
This rebuilding of cohesion — i.e., an ethical goal — must come through a different aesthetic. Only in this way can we draw our culture toward its essential questions. The unwavering gaze of Maisel’s photos — the beauty that silently orders us to look and to hold the knowledge of what we’re seeing — provided my first example of a ‘posthumanist’ tone I might attempt to seek in my writing.
I could not find many occurrences of this tone in literature. Most novels labeled ‘posthuman’ still fall within a sci-fi subgenre, especially the books given a posthumanist analysis within the academy. These novels tend toward a dystopian mode, where the narrative is driven by plot and action in a futuristic world. This subgenre can certainly raise questions about the meaning of the ‘human animal.’ However, it works within its own tradition — a sci-fi tradition which sometimes overlaps with the literary novel, but does not arise from the same history. As a result, sci-fi posthumanist books don’t transform the ‘literary novel,’ asking it to shift in response to the radical changes of the Anthropocene.
I’ve encountered a disparate smattering of what I’d consider posthumanist literary fiction — Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro, various novels by J.M. Coetzee (including Elizabeth Costello, but extending further back, from Waiting for the Barbarians through Disgrace), many of George Saunders’s stories in Tenth of December and In Persuasion Nation, and Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis — each of which has a vastly different aesthetic. If I were a scholar, I’d analyze this field more deeply. As a creative writer, I can only assert: the trend away from postmodernism is happening slowly in the novel, alongside other important developments (the postcolonial novel, for example), but this art form still lags behind the trends in society, perhaps because philosophically-minded writers are still too enamoured by the gratifying, self-contained authorial fireworks rewarded by a postmodern mindset.
Although this analysis of posthuman trends in photography and literature boosted my brain, it still didn’t help me shape a successful narrative. I remained exceedingly tight with my writing, attempting to insert ideas in the narrative with laser precision. Even the rhythmic nature of my work — a rhythm which usually leads me into the private world of the book, allowing me to ‘find’ ideas that elude me when I’m thinking outside the context of writing — felt more like a rut than a groove. At this point in the process, I abandoned the book. The demands of philosophy — when paired with narrative — shattered my sense that I could ever complete this book, or any other. So what did I do? I wrote a play. Unhampered by expectation or expertise, I wrote from intuition; in so doing, I returned to joy in the writing process. The result is Feast.
Philosophy in Feast
The ancient Greek philosophers discuss sophrosyne in three realms: sex, power, and food. My novel explores sophrosyne through sexual desire; Feast, by contrast, uses the luscious strangeness of food, appetite, and eating.
Feast is set in the opulent home of ‘the new professor’ who’s hosting a dinner party. Oddly, he hasn’t arrived at his own celebration. As the guests anxiously await his arrival, they begin explore their appetites and the manifold aspects of eating.
I gravitated toward this topic for various reasons, both personal and philosophical. I’m intimately aware of the psychological power of food and eating (my first book is a memoir about eating disorders; my second is a novel, entitled Swim, that uses psychoanalytic literary theory to explore the desire inherent in language, food, and family). This personal sense of the dark allure of food/ appetite/ eating has given me a keen awareness of the ethical, political, and ‘metaphysical’ aspects of the topic.
By ‘metaphysical,’ I’m referring to the fact that human societies — disparate in geography, time, and culture — have used food as a means through which people can communicate directly with the divine. During the ritual slaughter and eating of the sacred beast — the act of in-corporation, into the body, of that which is ‘other’ — the human transgresses the boundaries of the ego-self. Through this transgression — occurring in the ceremonial act of eating — the human is lifted out of the mundane, into direct communion with the divine.
In other words: this act of eating is actually very weird and powerful.
While this topic is inherently fertile for an artist, it has a peculiarly strong appeal for me as I began to write Feast. Not only is eating is embedded in the question I wanted to explore — namely, the meaning of the ‘human animal’ now — it also shares a direct history with the art form I wanted to explore, since ancient-Greek rituals of animal sacrifice (occurring at festivals for the gods) are the origin of Western theatre.
Philosophy in theatre versus the novel
As I workshopped the play, I began to grasp more clearly how theatre — as an art form — shapes the ways that philosophy can be effectively expressed. This enabled me to sense, with more accuracy, how a novel differs from theatre in offering possibilities and pitfalls for philosophy.
The primary differences stem from two intertwined factors:
- the gap between written and oral/ aural language;
- the physical immediacy of theatre, which operates directly on the senses in a way that’s not possible in fiction.
As my script was spoken by actors, I heard unmistakably that my language couldn’t be as dense in Feast as in fiction. Not only does this language lose the audience as it barrels forward on its philosophical trip, but it also falls dead from the mouths of the actors on stage. This doesn’t mean that the language of plays must be completely comprehensible to the audience at each moment: although I don’t want my plays to be obtuse, I don’t feel the need for every statement to be understood at first pass. Instead, philosophical ideas can slip around and through the audience, but only if the play’s atmosphere is potent enough to create an immersive medium — one that sustains both the audience and the ideas.
The burden of creating this atmosphere is borne by the director, designers (lighting, set, sound, costume), and actors — along with the playwright. Unlike the text of a novel, the script of a play is not the entire universe of the work. When I write fiction, my language must bear the full responsibility for idea, emotion, and atmosphere; only my language can suggest, seduce, surprise, or stab. In a play, I must cede that control to other artists. If I don’t, I strangle the work.
With theatre’s potential for physical and sensual immediacy, ‘posthumanist theatre’ might take its baton from the Theatre of the Absurd. Anne Washburn’s madcap, haunting musical Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play is the most successful piece of theatre I’ve seen which incorporates ‘posthumanist’ ideas. As in Fiskadoro, a nuclear disaster sets the stage for Mr. Burns. Washburn morphs the ‘syntax’ of theatrical representation as her musical progresses through its three acts, in much the same way that Johnson alters the syntax of the written word. In Feast, I toy with the audience’s expectations about the play’s syntax — the ‘metaphysical’ rules of the world-space of the play — through the presence of Cook and Waiter. These are two unspeaking characters, played by dancers rather than actors; through their pure physicality, Cook and Waiter subtly stretch the play’s atmosphere beyond the naturalism of the speaking characters. Their movement creates a surreal plane that heightens the delicate dissonance within members of the audience, making them physically alert as they experience the ideas of the play.
This type of theatrical project is rare. There are other, important shifts in contemporary theatre — especially the melding of Western art forms with non-Western traditions — but those projects explore postcolonial thought rather than posthumanism.
Philosophy in my novel, Sophrosyne
After completing a draft of Feast, I returned to the novel. Renewed by the process of writing the play, I was finally able to find the means to explore such a large and abstract idea — i.e., posthumanism and its relationship to sophrosyne — without ‘disrespecting’ the characters whose lives are the blood and pulse of the book.
The voice of Sophrosyne is a twenty-one-year-old student named Alex; as a philosophy undergrad, he’s attempting to define the concept sophrosyne. To make matters more interesting, Sophrosyne is also the stage-name chosen by his mother, a belly-dancer who emigrated from Greece, alone and pregnant, as a teen. In this way, Alex’s philosophical search overlaps with his deeper desire to understand his intense, disturbing — and highly erotic — relationship to his mother.
Throughout the book, I withhold basic plot points — in part because Alex is unaware of certain facts (the identity of his father, for example), but also because I want the book to express the unsayable. The language suggests how Sophrosyne has damaged her son through her uncontrolled eroticism. She’s shattered Alex’s psyche, breaking his sexual impulse and identity, his ability to trust his own desire, and his sense that he can bring his animal appetite into alignment with his ethics as a man. In many cases, Sophrosyne’s abuse comes as she’s grilling Alex about philosophy. Knowledge, desire, and transgression therefore occupy the same, dense, space.
The following is a scene where Sophrosyne describes her father’s method of teaching her philosophy:
And you caressed my cheek. Your palm on my cheek, with the warmth of your tears. That stale and intimate, animal warmth. “My father loved Aristotle,” you said. “Like a god, he loved him.” And you closed your eyes. And your fingers were light on my skin. “He tried to teach me to love Aristotle, too,” you continued. “He was certain I would share in this love.” And you shook your head. You smiled, easy, your hair loose, your body relaxed because I’d understood. I’d sensed what you needed, and this let you go.
“How could I not love him?” you asked. “This pure and perfect man?”
Because your thumb circled atop my temple as I nuzzled your palm. And I was sitting in bed as I nuzzled and pressed. And I paused. Because I followed your rhythm, the pressure of your touch. Your circling, pausing, and I wanted you to stop because it felt too good, to nuzzle like that. To push my cheek against your palm. Your thumb on my temple, our circles moving in opposite directions. Circling, slowing, suspended at the top.
It’s as if the words were creating a hollow — an interior into which the reader’s imagination is inexorably drawn. Instead of providing the necessary information of plot, I’m attempting to create a seduction: the force that draws the reader inside a strange and unfamiliar way of thinking.
This ‘non-familiarity’ is inscribed through the idiosyncratic syntax of this book, which is enforced by its staccato rhythm. Many of the Sophrosyne’s sentences begin with ‘and,’ ‘but,’ or ‘because’ — though these clauses often fail to provide a clear connection to the statements that precede or follow. In this way, the novel constantly interrupts causality. It also ‘frustrates’ the rhythm, preventing the sentences — and the thought — from racing forward, toward their desired end. The reader must ride along the book’s rhythms, tethered to Alex’s thoughts as he lurches forward and pulls back, never arriving at the release of knowing. This type of undermining isn’t the same as a fracturing of narrative typical of postmodern fiction; instead, it’s an undertow which takes the readers inside its logic, allowing them to arrive at an intuitive understanding of the violence that’s occurred to Alex and Sophrosyne, but also of the violent transition that’s transforming the human species in our current age.
To the Greeks, the search for knowledge was a transgression against the realm of the divine. This notion feels ‘true’ to me: as a creative writer attempting to hold the whole of ‘the meaning of the human animal’ in my mind and my body — my pen and my mouth — I certainly felt I was transgressing. This topic seemed too huge to contain in a novel. Alex’s struggle — so evident in many passages of the book — is not divorced from my own struggle, as a writer, to wrestle these ideas into narrative form.
Feast and Sophrosyne join aesthetics with major ethical questions — about what it means to be human right now, in a world that’s rapidly changing. Each work attempts to exploit the potencies of the chosen art form to best convey complex philosophical ideas. While I think these works stand on their own, I also believe they would benefit from a more robust critical culture — both within mainstream media, and in the academy. Artists working in a philosophical tradition require critics who are capable of drawing forth the philosophical underpinnings of their work.
As a creative writer, I’m encouraged by this conference and its spirit of inquiry. I hope PACT can widen the channel between artists and the academy, not only so artists can better comprehend philosophical arguments, but also so their work can reach a broader audience. Philosophers and artists need each other; the ideas are too urgent to remain cloistered.
 Plato. “Charmides” in Early Socratic Dialogues, Ed. T.J. Saunders; trans. D. Watt. New York: Penguin, 1987.
 The primary texts which shaped my understanding of posthumanism are: Haraway, Donna. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. Wolfe, Cary. What is Posthumanism? Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. Callus, Ivan (with S. Herbrechter). “What’s Wrong with Posthumanism?” Rhizomes, 7 (2003).
 Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.
 See, for example, the books discussed in Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
 See Gibson, Damien. “Becoming Posthuman: Subjectivity and Contemporary Fiction.” PhD Literature Review, 2013. This paper is available online, at academia.edu.
 Burkert, Walter: Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth. University of California Press, 1983; and Frances Cornford, From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation. New York: Dover, 2004.
 Burkert, Walter, “Greek Tragedy and Sacrificial Ritual,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 7 (1966) 87-121.
 This perspective differs from that of Aristotle, who prioritizes the linguistic aspects of tragedy over the visual and musical, as described in Poetics. Aristotle, Poetics. Trans. by A. Kenny. London: Oxford University Press, 2013. My ideas (and temperament) tend to clash with Aristotle’s; delightedly, I allowed my characters in Sophrosyne to feel the same way….
 For example, in Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda transforms a conservative, Western art form (the musical) by bringing his own tradition — in this case, rap — thereby expanding the possibility of the (Western) art form itself. For more on Miranda’s work, see Mead, Rebecca. “All about the Hamiltons,” The New Yorker, February 9, 2015.