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Second Variation. Philosophy and Literature: a Hypothetical Comparison between different Approaches

Micaela Latini
p. 11-18

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  • 1 See Garroni 1992: 241.
  • 2 On the work of Thomas Bernhard the two philosophers Aldo Giorgio Gargani and Emilio Garroni applied (...)

1It is not unusual to come across works written by philosophers that are half way between the essay and the novel. Some even talk of a kind of dilution of philosophy into literature, from a clearly metaphysical perspective, therefore a philosophical one. After the seminal case of Friedrich Nietzsche, the relationship between philosophy and literature in the 20th century has intensified. Evidence for this state of affairs are the many excellent philosophers who are also novelists – some of them winners of the Nobel Prize for literature (for example, first and foremost Jean-Paul Sartre, Henri Bergson, Bertrand Russell, but also Simone de Beauvoir, Ernst Bloch or Günther Anders, and Umberto Eco in Italy) –, or on the other hand excellent novelists who have put their intellectual energies also into works of an essay-philosophical imprint (like Thomas Mann or Robert Musil)1. This relationship is testified as well by those writers who offered “much to think about”, like Samuel Beckett (to whom a giant of thought like Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno wanted to dedicate his Aesthetic Theory, 1970), Albert Camus, Marcel Proust or Franz Kafka, and still, in more recent times, Georges Perec and Thomas Bernhard2.

2Bernhard repeatedly referred to Ludwig Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer (and Heidegger in the negative); Ingeborg Bachmann engaged directly with the texts of Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt; Peter Handke and G.W. Sebald drew explicitly from Wittgenstein, while Elfriede Jelinek experimented with passages by Friedrich Hölderlin and Heidegger. Of course, they are all novelists who “put into words”, through oftentimes explicit situations and reflections, a certain way of envisioning life. However, this should not be misinterpreted. They are not philosophers, they are novelists. The thought, implicit in themselves, is represented through the story of their characters, sometimes in an ambivalent form of self-irony and dramatic power.

  • 3 Garroni 1995: 135-136.
  • 4 See Seel 1991: 516. See also G. Gamm, A. Nordmann, E. Schürmann (ed.), 2007.

3On the other hand, it is widely acknowledged that some philosophers wrote excellent literary works – and it is difficult (if not impossible) to say if these literary pieces are excellent because they contain traces of thought, even a strong philosophical nucleus, or if they are such excellent works in spite of this nucleus3. Nor is it possible to commit to the theory that divides, and sometimes even opposes, the two genres as if they were two easily distinguishable spheres: the “philosophy” sector over here, the “novel” sector, strictly speaking, over there. This is not possible for works that are so hybrid that they occupy both spheres at the same time. Even if philosophy and literature are “warring relatives”, they have been trying to enter into a family peace4.

  • 5 Garroni 1995: 175-197.

4Despite Richard Rorty’s thesis, differences between philosophy and literature do exist, and need to be taken into account, as they emerge in their form, content, and different modality of searching for meaning. Certainly, in literary works (even those written by philosophers) there is a way of writing, a way of articulating a discourse, which follows a story. In these cases, reflections, including philosophical ones, unfold from the point of view of the literary character. Which means that they are part of a personal elaboration that is totally fictitious. On the other hand, this is not the case in a philosophical text: the plot needs to be diluted and the problems need to have acquired their own spatial compactness (rather than a temporal one). This is a critical point, which may be summarised better in the distinction between comprehension and narration. The former, with its attempt at reformulating the constituents of the narration in coexisting elements that are spatially ordered, annihilates narration itself, whilst the latter is based on subsequent elements that are temporally ordered5. On this aspect Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s aesthetical lesson is still very topical.


  • 6 See Barthes 1970.
  • 7 See Foucault 1969.
  • 8 See Garroni 1996: 80-92.

5Among the most significant themes at the crossroads between philosophy and literature, the issue of the eclipse of the author takes centre stage. This issue, which has been articulated and dealt with on several occasions – for example in the significant and rightly famous readings by Roland Barthes6 and Michel Foucault7 – is rooted in the scenario of the “décalage” between art and life outlined by György Lukács. In the perspective of the world of “accomplished sinfulness” (“vollendete Sündigkeit”) – a world which contains art as a dimension which is now irredeemably separated from life, in the same way as the ideal (the essence) appears as irredeemably separated from the real (the existence) – the primary author avoids any possibility of representation, as any image created by them, even in the case of their own image, will inevitably be affected by the mediation of the form. What is at stake then is the hiatus between the “ego” and the “writing” – aptly thematized by Emilio Garroni8 – according to which even in a clearly autobiographical text there is always a kind of doubling between the true “countenance” of the author and their projected “mask” into the text. And it is exactly this doubling that represents the authentically paradoxical nature of the nexus “ego - writing”.

6This peculiar doubling crosses, under different guises, many works of art. An effective and suggestive pictorial transposition of it consists in the topos of the entrance/exit in the painting, which is to be found in many Chinese stories and then borrowed by the western essay tradition (Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch). The image of the painter who would like to enter the picture and lose themselves in its lines and colours corresponds to that of the writer who tries to make themselves immortal through the construction of an artistic eternity of their novel. But all these attempts are doomed to fail, albeit we are faced with a very high level failure. The awareness on the part of the writer, or the painter, of the impossibility of providing themselves with immortality does not result in a defeat, but rather takes on the traits of a “reserve of meaning”.

  • 9 Proust 1913-27, transl. 2002: 358.

7The work of art is made up of its author’s flesh and blood (to quote a line by Goethe related to his classical drama Tasso, 1790), but remains something very different from the author. What is at stake is the position of the author in relationship to their product. The point is that the writer positions themselves in that border place/non-place between life and their work, neither completely external, nor completely internal, and from here remains a “silent spectator”. The awareness of this marginal position is perfectly exemplified in some works of the 20th century, and in some extremely important literary-philosophical reflections. Let us clarify this through some famous models of novels and “non novels”, for example Marcel Proust and his masterpiece À la recherche du temps perdu, 1927 (translated either as Remembrance of Things Past or as In Search of Lost Time). What underpins this work is the attempt by the writer Proust at drawing up a book capable of winning time, and therefore conveying eternity. However, Proust (in this respect a true heir to Flaubert) realizes that, in order to write about eternity, he must write the book and to do so he has to remain in time. It is no coincidence that the last pages of the Recherche end with the expression “In time”9. Metaphors aside, this means that the attempt at emancipating oneself from time needs to go through the acceptance of existing inside time. This implies accepting all finite things, pain, death, but also memory, hope, meaning. Again, it is no coincidence that, at the end of the book, we find a declaration of intent by the main character Marcel (in a game of mirrors with Proust), who himself wants to write a book. Which one? It is the book that we have just read, the Recherche itself.

8This means that eternity gives way to circularity, to “non-closure” as Leitmotiv of modernity. The “non-closure” of the text is also the peculiarity of other “works-icons” of the literary 20th century. James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) ends/does not end with an ellipsis (meaning the anticipation, therefore a temporal dimension), at whose peak takes place the long and fragmented monologue of the female protagonist Molly Bloom. The totality is unreachable. And even Kafka, both in his incredible short stories and his non-novels, “put in place” the impossibility by life (as too human) of achieving eternity (whether it is represented as a Castle, as the closest village or in the phantasmagorical silhouette of America), and conquering it once and for all. All Kafkaesque work moves around the constellation between art and life, in an assault on the limit (of time, of the ego), which totally disfigures the main character (transformed into something ‘other’, degraded to a beetle, or destined to lose his own identity, as the name K. suggests). The same happens to Samuel Beckett’s characters, without identity, without memories, without time, reduced to a torso which is not even capable of moving in any other way than the perpetual motion (once again the repetition). And at the centre of a great 20th century novel (in reality, the stump of a novel, albeit a big one), The Man Without Qualities (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, 1943) by Robert Musil, lies exactly this feature. This is demonstrated, in all its exemplariness, by the role of the author who in some way splinters himself into a “parallel action”. It is Musil who recounts the plot of the novel, but it is also him who (as a modern Penelope) destroys the narrative plot of the very novel through the essay form. It is a “destruction that constructs”, to borrow an expression from Franz Kafka. If the narrative plot follows, in real time, the “state of affairs” of the novel, the reflection produces the possibilities within it, those “other lives” that did not happen, but could have happened. Only in this way can we approach the origin of storytelling. In Musil the reflective element, by denouncing the inability of the novel in redeeming the worlds’ meaninglessness, represents the authentic condition to access that “truth” in literature which can only be achieved through fiction. Musil understood that, only through the novel-essay, it is possible, not to seize truth, but at least to come close to the “truth-content of lies” (“Wahrheitsgehalt der Lüge”). Such a reflective element appears inextricably connected to a storytelling that is, first and foremost, the narration of a search.

  • 10 Bachmann 1990: 227.

9Without departing from the Austrian scene, I am going to examine two exemplary cases of literary reflection of the mid-late 20th century: Ingeborg Bachmann and Thomas Bernhard. As a true heir to Proust and Musil (to whom she dedicated formidable lessons), Bachmann underlined, in her very prolific output, the importance of the role of utopia in literature. Talking about the utopian dimension means focusing on that dimension which is “other” from the novel, yet it appears in the novel itself. An important example of this are the dreams that fill her stories, as well as the fairytales that emerge in the texture of her narrative, snag it, trim the margins of it. In Bachmann the threshold of storytelling is “forced”, in a kind of torsion and reflection onto itself. For this reason, in her stories the main characters (especially the female ones) follow “eccentric paths” (unmarked tracks, walks in the desert) or are placed in transit points: airports, motorways, stations, hotels. All this leads to the disappearance from the scene, which marks the conclusion of the novel Malina (1971). The protagonist disappears from the scene, as if swallowed by the walls of her own house. “It was murder”10, the voice offstage declares, which is Bachmann’s own voice. Thus the theme of the reflection on the disappearance of the author (death, eclipse, sunset) re-emerges through this disappearance.

  • 11 Bernhard 1986: 326.
  • 12 See Gargani 1999.

10This being a critical element is demonstrated not only by the recurrence of this topic in the philosophical-literary essay production of the 20th century, but also by its centrality. A particularly significant example – starting from its title – is Extinction/Auslöschung (1986) by Thomas Bernhard, which not by chance is linked to a subtle network of explicit and implicit references to Bachmann’s masterpiece, as well as Musil’s. As in the Recherche, also in Auslöschung the novel’s protagonist, a young descendant of one of the most influential Austrian families, whose name is Murau and is in voluntary exile in Rome – and suddenly inherits a huge land estate in Austria, in Wolfsegg, his town of origin – decides to write a work on his own life. This means writing a book, which, at least in his original intentions, is in the form of an anti-autobiography, or even better a self-destruction through a narration-testimony of himself. The title of the book “to come” is displayed in the novel by the protagonist Murau himself: Extinction, exactly like the novel by Bernhard that we are reading and that, at the end, opens itself again. But there’s more to it. The last line of the novel recites something particularly significant and uncanny: “From Rome, where I now live, where I have written this work entitled Extinction, and where I intend to stay, writes Murau (born Wolfsegg 1934, died Rome 1983), I thanked him for accepting it [i.e. the donation of his inheritance to the Israeli Institute in Vienna”]11. These are Murau’s last words before his suicide, before his disappearance. It implies that the necessary extinction of the other part of us, our origin, cannot happen without self-extinction, suicide. This is how Bernhard imagines the disappearance of his character, narrated by a Erzähler-Ich, a first-person narrator. As it often happens in Bernhard, it is through this articulated game of mirrors and perspectives that the author manages to survive his stories, by retreating in the dim light12. But this peculiar “game of Chinese boxes” only confirms in all its theoretical significance the question of the “death of the author”.


  • 13 See Bakhtin 1919-24.
  • 14 See Cavarero 1997.

11The topos of the author’s death crosses all literature, and maybe all culture, of the 20th century, and is closely linked to the works of art we have mentioned. But that is not all. From different fronts there is a renewed interest in the author’s identity, as well as in the mechanisms that regulate the expression of the narrating ego in the book. This implies the way in which the relationship between the author and their hero is articulated, as well as the relationship between the voice who narrates and the person who is narrated13. It is around this question that a great author like Mikhail Bakthin focuses: “How is it possible for the ego to be at the same time subject and object of the representation? To what extent can we talk about the image of the author?”. Bakhtin’s position is clear-cut: a literary work, even in the case of an autobiography, does not have an author, it is the author. This way the author can never become an image, a character of the book. In other words, the author is forced to remain outside his work, or rather to stay at the border, along the limes of the book, in that interregnum which is the gap between the ego and the other whose voice narrates. Clearly what is at stake here is the threshold between the world of the book and the world of life, between the ego and the writing. There is a paradox between these two poles: who talks about whom?14. As also Lukács noticed, the interrelation between author and protagonist in the novel is articulated on contact and separation. The author is the protagonist of the book and, at the same time, he is not. In other words, it is about being in the experience and, from that position, looking obliquely at one’s own way of “being in the experience”.

  • 15 Adorno 1965: 30.
  • 16 See Adorno 1966: 362-367.

12The same question appears even more complex in the essay The Position of the Narrator in the Contemporary Novel (Standort des Erzählers im zeitgenössischen Roman, 1954) by Theodor W. Adorno, that borrows some of the themes from Benjamin’s The Storyteller (Der Erzähler, 1936). The issue raised by Adorno can be summarised as follows: what does writing after Auschwitz and in the era of cultural industry mean? Adorno’s question arises from the awareness that, nowadays (after the Shoah), the position of the narrator is characterized by an unavoidable paradox: it is not possible to write poems, or to narrate (insofar as the beautiful shape is perceived as an outrage to the pain), whilst “the form of the novel (i.e. as such) requires narration”15. Adorno himself will reformulate and renegotiate (in his work Negative Dialecktik, 196616) the terms of this paradox according to the following formula: writing poems, or storytelling is necessary exactly because there are things that cannot be narrated and, therefore, it is exactly this impossibility of narrating, this silence, which demands to be told, to be testified. It is up to the work of art – in this case the novel, or the anti-novel – to be aware of this, to “express the perennial suffering”. Therefore, at least according to Adorno, the novel genre is still possible only if its “formed” form is connected to reflection, even better only if it is “interwoven” with it. But this means that the novel can only be a reflection on the novel form itself and its possibility.

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Adorno, T.W., 1965, Noten zur Literatur, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a.M. 1965, 1974; Notes to Literature, transl. by S. Weber Nicholsen, New York, Columbia University Press 1991, vol. 1.

Adorno, T.W., 1966, Negative Dialektik, Frankfurt a.M., Suhrkamp 1966; Negative Dialectics, transl. by E.B. Ashton, New York - London, Continuum, 2007.

Bachmann, I., 1971, Malina, Frankfurt a.M., Suhrkamp;

Bachmann, I., 1990, Malina. A Novel, transl. by P. Boehn, New York, Holmes and Meier.

Bakhtin, M.M., 1919-1924, Art and Answerability, ed. by M. Holquist, V. Liapunov, transl. by V. Liapunov and K. Brostrom, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1990.

Barthes, R., 1970, Le Bruissement de la langue, Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 1984; The Rustle of Language, transl. by R. Oward, Berkeley, Los Angeles, California University Press, 1989.

Bernhard, T., 1986, Auslöschung. Ein Zerfall, Frankfurt a.M., Suhrkamp; Extinction. A novel, transl. by D. McLintock, New York, Vintage International, 2011.

Cavarero, A., 1997, Tu che mi guardi, tu che mi racconti, Milano, Feltrinelli; Relating Narratives. Storytelling and Selfhood, transl. by P.A. Kottman, London, Routledge, 2000.

Foucault, M., 1969, Qu’est-ce-qu’un auteur? in Id., Dits et écrits, Paris, Gallimard, 1994;

Foucault, M., 1977, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault, transl. by D. Bouchard and S. Simon, Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press: 113-138.

Gamm, G., Nordmann, A., Schürmann, E. (eds) , 2007, Philosophie im Spiegel der Literatur, “Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und Allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft”, IX.

Gargani, A.G., 1999, Il filtro creativo, Roma-Bari, Laterza.

Garroni, E., 1992, Estetica. Uno sguardo-attraverso, Milano, Garzanti.

Garroni, E., 1995, L’arte e l’altro dall’arte. Saggi di estetica e di critica, Roma-Bari, Laterza.

Garroni, E., 1996, Io e scrittura: un paradosso del testo narrativo, “Almanacchi nuovi”, II: 80-92.

Proust, M., 1913-1927, À la Recherche du temps perdu, Gallimard, Paris, 1919-1927

Proust, M., 2002, In Search of Lost Time, vol. 6: Finding Time Again, transl. by I. Patterson, Penguin, London.

Rorty, R., 1989, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Seel, M., 1991, Lob des systemzwangs, “Merkur”, 45: 516-522.

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1 See Garroni 1992: 241.

2 On the work of Thomas Bernhard the two philosophers Aldo Giorgio Gargani and Emilio Garroni applied their critical outlook, also relying on their own activity as authors of worthy literary experiments.

3 Garroni 1995: 135-136.

4 See Seel 1991: 516. See also G. Gamm, A. Nordmann, E. Schürmann (ed.), 2007.

5 Garroni 1995: 175-197.

6 See Barthes 1970.

7 See Foucault 1969.

8 See Garroni 1996: 80-92.

9 Proust 1913-27, transl. 2002: 358.

10 Bachmann 1990: 227.

11 Bernhard 1986: 326.

12 See Gargani 1999.

13 See Bakhtin 1919-24.

14 See Cavarero 1997.

15 Adorno 1965: 30.

16 See Adorno 1966: 362-367.

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Micaela Latini, « Second Variation. Philosophy and Literature: a Hypothetical Comparison between different Approaches », Rivista di estetica, 70 | 2019, 11-18.

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Micaela Latini, « Second Variation. Philosophy and Literature: a Hypothetical Comparison between different Approaches », Rivista di estetica [Online], 70 | 2019, online dal 01 février 2020, consultato il 30 octobre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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