CHAPTER 7: The Intellectual World
Meaning is so much a part of everyday life that it has become like the air we breathe: ever-present but never really part of our awareness. Yet, meaning is what drives our lives, and without it, life is hardly bearable. The same is true of a novel. It must be instilled with meaning but that meaning will require conscious scrutiny to discern it. If the novel contains little to provide meaning, it is a jumble of uninteresting events.
Some novels ooze meaning. Dostoevsky’s novels are jammed with ideas, and his characters write papers, letters, notes, and argue the great controversies of their time, ranging from the intellectually sublime to the trivialities of human existence. In The Brothers Karamazov, one of the brothers, Alyosha, is studying for the priesthood; Dmitri is sensual, impulsive and poetic; Ivan, the atheist intellectual; and Smerdyakov, the illegitimate epileptic. The father is a wicked and sentimental old profligate. The interactions of these characters, clashes really, produce an amazingly rich philosophical novel. But even with Dostoevsky, the reader still struggles to identify the author’s ultimate purpose, the overriding meaning behind the novel. A novel must, indeed, have a central meaning, although, as Dostoevsky shows us, the novelsmith should make his reader look for it.
To convey the nature of meaning within storytelling, let’s turn to Giorgio de Santillana. In his prologue to The Origins of Scientific Thought, he gives the following example:
There is an Indian tale to explain the difference between organic and inorganic. The stone and the pumpkin had a quarrel about their respective merits. The stone at last jumped on the pumpkin and smashed it, hoping to prove its point. But right then the offshoots of the pumpkin burst forth in blossom. The price of life is death and vice versa.41
In this short excerpt, de Santillana not only tells a story, but also gives his interpretation of the purpose of the story upfront, and then further interprets it after telling it. This, in a nutshell, is the experience of reading a novel. De Santillana carries his discussion one step further, however, by addressing the very nature of this type of storytelling:
“If we face it [life itself] as a problem, it leads nowhere. As a myth, it carries its own acceptance.
This kind of explaining is surely not science; it implies no theory or definition; but it is a kind of knowledge: mythical knowledge, which means explaining something by telling a tale about it which should show it in the light of an essential truth. The story of Genesis is such a myth.”42
This is what the author is after: to construct a tale that contains within it an essential truth. The novel is a long narrative form that performs the same service as de Santillana’s simple story. At the core of the novel is this bit of “mythical knowledge” that the author exposes as “an essential truth.” This, once again, draws us back to Premise.
The reader experiences meaning within the pages of a novel, both because of the author’s effort, and because of the way he, the reader, interprets the work. The author injects the work with meaning through the use of ideas, storyline structure, and the juxtaposition of ordered events (plotting). And second, the reader contemplates the work, interpreting the information to extract meaning. Thus, the total process is inexact by its very nature, thank goodness, and perhaps allows the reader to interpret the work somewhat differently than the author intended. Consequently, some readers will love it, others hate it, and yet others will be indifferent about it.
In a nutshell, this then is the intellectual world of the novel. It is a world of ideas, and during this short chapter we will explore the intellectual world, and how to create and control it as much as possible. A novel is a storehouse of focused ideas, interrelated by the context of the novel. The author must limit the cast of ideas because extraneous ideas lack pertinence and generate confusion in the reader. Ideas are focused, not just to provide clarity, but also meaning, and the intellectual world of the novel is a “world of meaning.” The novelsmith hones his work to address only those ideas that pertain to the central subject and thus only those of the central conflict.
Everyday events, with their smooth-flowing, continuous action as well as their fits and starts, contain no meaning. It isn’t until the mind interprets the events that meaning is introduced. Meaning exists in that ironic stance that exists in the intellectual mist above the story. Meaning is always present in a story, though, because story comes from the interpretation of life. Even if you don’t intend your story to mean anything, something will still be there in your unconscious piecing-together of the story and in the reader’s mind as he interprets it. Meaning is inherent in the nature of storytelling, in the juxtaposition of events and in the relationships between characters. The initial way you consciously interject meaning into your story is through, of course, Premise.
To convey meaning, the novel must speak on the level of revelation. What constitutes the state of containing meaning is elusive, but a novel starts to lose meaning if, through loosely connected scenes, it becomes episodic as opposed to being driven by cause-and-effect. Working from a Premise tends to keep the novel from becoming episodic, and instills it with meaning since conflict is always center stage and results in cause-and-effect scenarios. Consider this discussion:
“Why did you hit him?”
“Because he offended me.”
“How did he offend you?”
“He spit on my shoe.”
“Why did he spit on your shoe?”
“Because I slept with his wife.”
“Why did you sleep with a married woman?”
“Marriage doesn’t mean a lot to me.”
In this snippet of conversation, we can see cause-and-effect and how the conflict described starts to reveal meaning. The conflict arises because of the differing perceptions of marriage, and it results in a sequence of events that follow a cause-and-effect scenario. The meaning of the story will be revealed by the outcome of the conflict and will make a statement about marriage. As the conflict unfolds, the reader would expect to see the many sides of marriage and perhaps how other marriages relate to the “outside” world. Meaning will come about through the conflict and resolution inherent in the author’s Premise concerning marriage.
Carl Jung believed that, with the birth of an individual, “a question enters the world, to which he must provide some kind of answer.” Of his own life, Jung said:
The meaning of my existence is that life has addressed a question to me. Or, conversely, I myself am a question which is addressed to the world…43
If we return to the analogy of the novel as a life, with a birth and a death, we can now see that it also comes into the world as a question. In the same way, meaning comes into the story through Premise. Though steeped in conflict, its essence is a question. The Premise is an answer to the universal question.
The theme of a novel is frequently defined as “what it’s about,” but as we saw earlier, this doesn’t really say much. Webster’s defines theme as “the subject” of a literary work, but “subject” is also too ambiguous to be helpful. Theme isn’t about plot, but is, in fact, the defining feature of the intellectual world of the novel. Searching for theme is much like searching for Premise. The two are closely related, and we have frequently referred to them as synonymous in this book. You will, at some point, determine your own definition, but I will define theme here as, “The philosophical question presented by the central conflict.”
Now that you’re really confused, and at the risk of leaving you in a terminal state of bewilderment, we’re going to leave the discussion there. The closer you look at some subjects, the more blurred they become. While you’re putting your novel together, just be aware that if you don’t know what it’s about, in the intellectual sense, neither will your reader.
(a) Identify the major idea that is exposed by your Premise. (b) List the secondary ideas you will explore in your novel. (c) Write a paragraph on what your novel means.