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The hero is a wanderer through space and time, his quest caught in an allegory which must in the end be fragmentary. – Hermann Hesse
The Blackwell Public Philosophy Series presents a series of books that cover topics of broad public concern under the general title "the love of wisdom" in a welcome attempt to return philosophy to the "public square" for the enlightenment and enjoyment of the general reader. The Series Editor is Michael Boylan, and the book reviewed here is Boylan's contribution to the series, a philosophical novel. The website tells us:
The Blackwell Public Philosophy series takes seriously the idea that there is a need and demand for engaging and thoughtful discussion of topics of broad public importance..
To date five books have been published and five more are on the way. Boylan's is the first work of fiction. There are some three ways one can present philosophy through a literary text. Some texts present philosophers as characters in the story and thus allow them to present a worldview or a philosophical problem as part of the narrative. Socrates might appear in the narrative and speak wisely with several disputants about problems of knowledge or ethics. Another approach is to present the arguments of a philosopher by having a character say what that position has been and what sorts of questions it raises or attempts to answer. A third and more difficult approach is to have the story itself suggest certain philosophical questions or notions. Shakespeare's King Lear comes to mind. The story itself of how a king becomes a man is constructed as a vehicle for the intellectual/emotional investigation of bare unaccommodated man. Two competing visions of the nature of things find voice in the action and dialogue of the story. Either there are gods involved in the human drama or there are not. The story forces us to choose one vision or the other.
Boylan's The Extinction of Desire reaches for the latter approach; that is, he tries to present a philosophical worldview through the characters, actions, and events of his novel. He wants to show us a worldview in its experienced development and not just say that such and such is the case. In his protagonist, Michael O'Meara, he presents a character as a vehicle for a worldview, a character that will learn about life and love through experience. Key to this notion of showing instead of saying is that we must come to accept Michael as a believable character who acts and reacts in ways we can understand and relate to in the story.
Just as with King Lear the opening of Desire is hard to believe. O'Meara is the sole recipient of a large sum of inheritance money as the result of a freak accident, and just as with the opening scene in Lear we must simply suspend disbelief, not worry about probabilities, for this is a narrative given. Actually this freak accident works and sets up the situations that will test the protagonist for the rest of the novel as he attempts to wrestle with the problems around his sudden unexpected wealth. He will invest with a treacherous friend, quit his job as a high school teacher, travel to Europe, and meditate on the events of his life. He will have to come to terms with his desires, come to realize that things, even expensive things, will not provide peace and joy. Finally he will re-connect with his love, get married, and one imagines, live happily ever after.
That brief summary of the action does not do justice to the richness of the story and the fun provided by the humorous characters that Michael encounters on his path toward enlightenment. They provide surprises and laughter along the way. My main concern with the novel is the total naïveté of the main character. I found it totally unbelievable that Michael would turn over all of his money to an old college acquaintance that he barely knew. It struck me as absurd that he would allow his "friend" Mookie to run all over him. Michael is such an innocent that it is hard not to respond to his many difficulties with a heartfelt "Michael, grow up!" By the end of the novel he has grown up, but the naïveté of the early character makes the change hard to accept. Michael is not a Siddhartha but more of a Sad Arthur.
The philosophical theme is expressed directly in this exchange between Michael and Q, a woman friend who is in love with another woman friend, Maggie:
"I want Maggie. But I'll give her up unless she quits putting me through all this crap. Nobody's worth this."
"Nobody?" I asked. Q didn't respond. I thought about her pain. I thought about her rigid standards. If only she'd ease up. If only she didn't want so much from people. Her pain seemed to be in direct proportion to her desire that everything be just as she imagined it should be. Eliminate the desire, and you eliminate the pain at not fulfilling that desire. [170, 171 emphasis added]
It is an interesting novel, but not without flaws. The first sentence in Chapter Four reads "Ten days past." I tried to make sense of that in context as a subtle linguistic structure, but after some time came to believe that "past" is simply an error, and that "passed" is intended.
The books are intended for introductory philosophy classes and for the general reader. The publisher announces: "In a world of twenty-four hour news cycles and increasingly specialized knowledge, the Blackwell Public Philosophy series takes seriously the idea that there is a need and demand for engaging and thoughtful discussion of topics of broad public importance. Philosophy itself is historically grounded in the public square, bringing people together to try to understand the various issues that shape their lives and give them meaning. This "love of wisdom"- the essence of philosophy- lies at the heart of the series. Written in an accessible, jargon-free manner by internationally renowned authors, each book is an invitation to the world beyond news flashes and sound bites and into public wisdom."
The website at the Blackwell Public Philosophy Series lists all of the books in the series and will also help teachers make the most out of the books in the series. There the publisher provides more information on individual books and also supplementary material, updates to suggested course outlines, and additional resources.
© 2007 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is a retired professor of English and Philosophy who is currently a Research Associate in Philosophy and Religious Studies at Malaspina University-College in British Columbia, Canada.
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