- The Chain of Becoming: The Philosophical Tale, the Novel and a Neglected Realism of the Enlightenment: Swift, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Johnson, and Austen (review)
- Philosophy and Literature
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 7, Number 2, October 1983
- pp. 258-259
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Reviews The Chain ofBecoming: The Philosophical Tale, the Novel and a Neglected Realism of the Enlightenment: Swift, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Johnson, and Austen, by Frederick M. Keener; ? & 358 pp. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983, $30.00. Plato enthroned philosophy by banishing art. Since then the artist has had to decide whether or not to worm his way back into die throne room. One such attempt to write philosophically was the rational fiction ofthe eighteenth century. This book deals with the four great exponents of this form — Swift, Montesquieu, Voltaire, andJohnson. Frederick Keener^ analysis of the philosophical tale is both interesting and lucid. But his aim is much more ambitious. He wishes to illuminate "the distinctive purposes of the taletellers as compared to those of the novelists" in order to highlight "the main effect of the genre upon die novel" (p. 4). Finally, he seeks for this effect in the novels ofJane Austen where, instead ofGulliver, "a . . . marionette serving the shifting satirical purposes ofhis audior" (p. 7), we have Anne Elliot in whom we find die "realism of psychological assessment" (P- 13). Professor Keener feels that "seeing" the novels ofJane Austen "as framed by the tradition of the philosophical tale solves certain problems that critics have remarked in them, and more: it clarifies the purposes and accomplishments of a writer whose ability to profit from the eighteenth century has been neither surpassed nor completely assessed, and it demonstrates the enduring, proper force of the philosophical tale because she so direcdy set the methods and assumptions of the tale injuxtaposition, even in conflict, with those of the novel" (pp. 4-5). The problem here is whether Keener, in drawing our attention to what is philosophical in Austen, helps us to come to terms widi what remains outside his scope. What in Austen is capable of explanation is brilliantly dealt with but this, it seems to me, merely emphasizes the artistry which remains banished. The philosophical tale explains overtly, treating its subject matter as a problem which it aims to analyze and clarify and, in so doing, it reduces what is unique and individual to terms which are more generally applicable. Keener recognizes this, retaining Johnson's distinction between the philosophical tale which "seldom strays from acute hardheaded emphasis on the actualities ofmental life" (p. 13) and the novel that "has a tendency to make the extravagant sentiments of romance seem real and acceptable" (p. 12). This downgrading of "unrealistic romance," which appeals to the imagination, allows "what is actual, probable and possible" (p. 12) to retain its priority. The philosophical submits to "psychological assessment" and leaves the imaginative untouched. If we grant Keener this priority, then his analysis of Austen's novels is 258 Reviews259 first rate. Yet my feeling is that what is inexplicable is precisely what gives the novel its life and is part of the reason we prefer Anne Elliot to Gulliver. Today we disagree with Johnson and criticize die writers of the philosophical tale for their lack of imagination — a lack which results in the cardboard figures which people their books. For us, a weak novel is one in which the characters lose their imaginative, covert subtlety and become "ideas embodied by characters" (p. 256). The philosophical tale can be rationalized because it is itself rational while the great work of fiction, being imaginative , retreats from any attempt to lay it bare. As Keener lucidly demonstrates, the philosophical tale is faction rather than fiction; it is exemplary psychology rather than art, and thus permits the assault. In bringing psychological assessment to bear on the novels of Jane Austen, Keener creates the illusion that the novels can be interpreted in terms other than their own. That this is an illusion is one of the lessons ofhis book — a lesson which he recognizes but seems loath to accept. The psychological approach is fascinating applied to the neoclassic texts for which it is appropriate, but it shows its weaknesses when applied to texts whose artistry retreats from it. Paradoxically, it is his very success in pinpointing the influence of die philosophical tale on Austen diat demonstrates why she so radically surpassed them. University of SussexDavid Pollard In Defence of the Imagination, by...