Columns > Published on May 2nd, 2012

The Blagger's Guide to Philosophy and Literature

To blag (v): to sound like you know what you’re talking about when you don’t

The Blagger’s Guide to Literature (n): an invaluable resource for those who wish to blag about books without actually reading them.


You know how it can happen: you’re propping up the bar and talking about the boob count in the latest episode of Game of Thrones with the other guys from Accounts and then someone mentions the word ‘hermeneutics’. Two minutes later and it’s all Derrida, epistemology, and the relevance of Wittgenstein to Sam and Frodo’s relationship in Lord of the Rings. A knot of pain builds up over your left eye as you realize that you don’t have a tiny clue what the fuck anyone is talking about. Your attempts to steer the conversation back to the fineness of Jamie Lannister’s ass are greeted with stares of contempt. You drain your raspberry flavored beer; get your coat and leave. The others, now animatedly discussing ontological doctrines do not appear to notice your departure.

There is an antidote to this moment of existential pain. For what follows is the Blagger’s Guide to Philosophy and Literature. If the worst should ever happen and you find yourself at a book launch marooned in a sea of polo necks and goatee beards (and that’s just the women), fear not: the Blagger’s Guide will lead you through the swamp of pretentiousness like a light saber of truth slaying the many headed hydra of post-modernism.

Platonism: Land of the well-meaning

Apart from the fact that Plato was beardy, like all the Greeks, this philosopher’s distinctive feature was his assertion (via his interpretation of Socrates) that the real world is only a copy of a far superior and perfect metaphysical world. According to Plato, ineffable qualities such as truth, beauty, and goodness aren’t just concepts, they have an actual existence. Our purpose in life is to strive towards creating works which capture that perfect reality and the only leaders worth having, in Plato’s formulation, are those (inevitably male) persons who have seen and accepted that truth – he calls them ‘philosopher kings’.

How to blag it

The best known Platonist of our times was the writer Iris Murdoch, who not only penned 25 novels, but also reanimated the idea that Good has a genuine existence and that our moral goal in life should be to strive towards it. Murdoch’s books are full of characters at various stages of that journey and occasionally ones who have attained it. When blagging, remember that novels influenced by that thinking are often situated in places of learning, usually colleges with a faintly Gothic cast, where young people find themselves at moral crossroads, or academics in the throes of midlife crisis interfere in the lives of others. Often featured are enigmatic tutors, invariably referred to as ‘Masters’ who speak in epigrams and drink sherry. Examples include The Magus by John Fowles, The Secret History by Donna Tartt and Murdoch’s own novel The Bell.

Existentialism: Angry Young Men

If you get a whiff of Gauloise cigarettes at this point, that would be the scent of Sartre you’re inhaling. Sartre was the Existentialist par excellence – the man who put the digestif into La Nausée - but he was only riding on the coattails of Kierkegaard and Nietzche, who both expounded the idea that individual experience is the basis of all existence: the starting point and the only information available to us. Existentialists are responsible for the banal brain teaser, beloved of those repairing to the pub after their first philosophy lecture, that ‘all of this might just be a dream’. To which the only reasonable response is to pour their pint into the crotch of their jeans and ask them how real that feels?

How to blag it

The idea that we are all alone, locked in a world of our own creation with no access to the realities of others led inexorably to that class of fiction which involves the alienated, the dispossessed, and the Alone.  Foremost amongst these would be L’Étranger by Camus (and if you’re going to blag about this, take care to claim you’ve read the work in French). This novel is devoted to the experiences of Meursault, a dude whose world is composed entirely of physical experiences, devoid of any moral and emotional content. Where Camus led, others were quick to follow. The list of Existential novels is long but some of the more accessible are American Psycho by Easton Ellis (although that shades into Nihilism, which you could describe for blagging purposes as Existentialism’s sadistic second-cousin),  Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels, and even (at a stretch) We Need to Talk About Kevin, which explores the idea that even mother and child can be essentially unknowable to each other.

Objectivism: Why Bernie Madoff is not such a bad guy

The continuing popularity of Objectivism, based as it is on the writings of the thoroughly dislikable Ayn Rand (she described the Israeli-Arab war as ‘civilized men fighting savages’), and her only slightly less dislikable acolytes, is a total mystery to me. But there are many things I find mysterious, not least of which is the popularity of Harry Potter (more on that later) so, grudgingly, I find room for Rand here.

Trenchantly anti-Communist, Rand and her fellows promulgated a philosophy of laissez-faire capitalism as the only rational way for society to behave. Beloved of strong rich people the world over, Rand’s ideas were embraced by the political Right. Her novels, often bought but very much less often read (Atlas Shrugged, which adorns my own shelf, has resisted my attempts to penetrate it several times) are not embraced by anyone who enjoys a light touch in their fiction.

How to blag it

Apart from Rand’s own works, Objectivism finds its fullest expression in novels which explore the workings of Big Business or which focus on the heroic individual refusing to compromise his or her ideals in the face of the crushing power of Mediocrity. A little out of favor now, you can blag by observing that fictional Objectivism was very popular during the 60s and 70s, with books like The Carpetbaggers by Harold Robbins, Jeffrey Archer’s Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less and Sidney Sheldon’s Master of the Game all offering a tooth and claw vision of men fighting their way to the top.

Idealism: Mind Over Matter

Idealism, as the name suggests, holds that our world (or for blagging purposes ‘ontology’) is composed not of material, but of mind or spirit. It’s an extreme, if kinder, version of existentialism, which places explanatory weight on what we think or experience, rather than on the reality of solid objects. Unsurprisingly, Idealism is often associated with Eastern philosophies, being the preserve of people who believe that if they can only think hard enough, gravity will become just a concept and they will be able to jump from a high building and not end up decorating the sidewalk like a dropped watermelon.

How to blag it

Idealists, when not amazed by the fact that they can walk on a floor and not fall through it, describe the world as a flow between the material and non-material. The membrane between thought and object is permeable  – dreams, fantasies and desires are as real as chairs, tables and a nice cold vodka Martini. Books which embrace Idealism are those which similarly blur the boundary between the actual and the imagined, in prose which can segue from the real to the unreal in the turn of a sentence, sometimes to great effect, sometimes to the same effect as an unharnessed ride in Six Flag’s Kingda Ka roller coaster. Names to drop when blagging about Idealism’s influence on literature would be The Body Artist by Don DeLillo, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, and (of course) Philip K Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, where memories become so real they are a saleable commodity.

Spinoza: And if you thought Idealism was weird…

…welcome to the world of Baruch Spinoza, who to be fair, was a pretty fine scientist, a rationalist, and a determinist. He believed that all human behavior is determined and explicable, which brought him perilously close to atheism, a brave stance back in the 17th century where such talk could find you doing an impromptu impression of a Doner Kebab, complete with howling mob and pitchforks.

But how Spinoza led to weirdness is in his assertion that there is no distinction between the natural world and the human world. All acts, whether committed by people or animals, are the same according to Spinoza, and should be assigned the same moral value. Of course, he took more than a sentence to say that – actually he took his life’s work, Ethics, to expound that theory - but for blagging purposes all you need to know is that in Spinoza’s world, nature, humans, and God are all just the same thing really.

How to blag it

In two words: magical realism. Wherever you get animals popping up mid-plot and spouting wisdom (and you aren’t reading Aesop’s Fables to your sister’s kids) you are witnessing the influence of Spinoza on the world of literature. For reasons best known to Carlos Castaneda, magical realism took greatest hold in South America, but it also crops up in entirely normal parts of the world like Canada (Yann Martel), Germany (Gunther Grass), and Italy (Italo Calvino). The linkage between magical realism and Spinoza depends on the philosopher’s concept of ‘all things being equal’, which gave authors license to include animals, cities and flowered bushes as characters in their fiction. Also relevant (and worth keeping up your sleeve for blagging emergencies) is the tendency of magical realism to direct veiled criticism at oppressive regimes, which forms a neat parallel with Spinoza’s own persecution by the Jewish authorities, and tendency to write in allegory in order to escape censure. Magical realism invades many otherwise readable texts but the heavyweights are One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, and The Tin Drum by Gunther Grass.

Cartesian Dualism: How Harry Potter is really, really, like deep

Apart from the statement ‘cogito ergo sum’, the contribution of philosopher René Descartes to humankind is the idea that the physical world is complemented by a non-physical element. Known as ‘Cartesian Dualism’, this is the classic distinction between body and soul, another staple of dinner table discussions and the topic of many a heated exchange on internet forums. Much valuable time and energy has been expended on trying to prove or disprove the existence of mind, and experienced blaggers will know that this is not a subject to embark upon unless you are stone cold sober and everyone else has spent the last few hours imbibing more than the recommended annual intake of alcohol. Then you will be able to demonstrate that the existence of mind is highly variable and depends very much on whether you are conscious or not.

How to blag it

When blagging about Dualism in literature, you need to take a small but important step from the traditional conception of Dualism as physical versus non-physical to the more inclusive metaphor of Good versus Bad. Expanding the reach of this doctrine from the ontological (we met that word before – it means ‘the basic nature of things’) to the ethical or moral, opens up an interpretation which will have your sherry quaffing foes speechless with admiration when you nonchalantly produce it between the hors d’oeuvres and the amuse gueules. Dualism, in the moral sense, implies the belief in opposing forces – of a black for every white, of a right for every wrong. It’s a simple, yet extremely powerful concept and it’s one which powers a host of stories, particularly those which deal with magic, fantasy, or the spiritual. Any book which contains a force for Good and a force for Evil, displays a form of dualism. The Harry Potter series is dualistic, as is Lord of the Rings, and George R R Martin’s epic Game of Thrones, about which you can confidently blag that the Dualism isn’t so much moral as animistic, as evidenced by the opposition of Ice and Fire in the title (take that hipsters!)

And if all that doesn’t equip you to do battle with the dark forces of condescension and twattishness, nothing will. But if you get caught in a tight spot, this quote from Gravity's Rainbow, if delivered with enough aplomb, will always win the argument: 'One of the sweetest fruits of victory, after sleep and looting, must be the chance to ignore no-parking signs.'

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at LitReactor.com and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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