- Charles Johnson: The Novelist as Philosopher
The contributors to this very fine volume of critical essays on Charles Johnson represent the "novelist as philosopher" in two ways. First, Johnson is seen as holding particular philosophical positions within established systems of thought and belief—European phenomenology, American pragmatism, Buddhist meditation, existential Christianity. Second, Johnson is seen as a writer who produces philosophical fiction—that is, tales and novels that raise and explore topics and ideas originating from and usually reserved for a different kind of nonfictional discourse.
Six of the essays focus on one of Johnson's key fictional works while teasing out the philosophical implications in the work or demonstrating the ways that the particular work aids us in our fuller understanding of Johnson's ecumenical philosophical vision. Two of the essays are on stories collected in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, one on Oxherding Tale, one on Middle Passage, and two on Dreamer. Of the remaining three essays, two find Johnson to be indebted to and a practitioner of American pragmatism, and the third discovers an "ontological program" in Johnson's latest collection of essays, Turning the Wheel (171).
The two essays on stories from The Sorcerer's Apprentice examine the relationship between two important philosophical concepts: pedagogy and power. In his capacious reading of several scenes of apparently failed pedagogy in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Herman Beavers argues that Johnson is making a political statement about the difficulty [End Page 184] of disrupting relations established in conditions of hegemony. In this statement, Beavers finds an optimism that earlier critics had denied in their reading of the short stories. In her essay on "Alethia," Linda Selzer adds one more to her series of unfailingly enlightening readings of Johnson's short stories. Positing Max Scheler's nonformalist phenomenology as an implicit critique of formalist Kantian ethics, Selzer shows how Johnson gives us a philosophy professor whose alienation is as much from the prospects of love as it is from the African American community he has fled and whose vibrant culture the student Wendy Barnes represents. The student, as Selzer argues, is the embodiment of all the things the professor has eschewed and craves, including, ultimately, "alethia itself" (14).
It is a shame that there is only one essay on Oxherding Tale in the volume, especially given how Johnson has repeatedly, and rightly, commented on its being his most challenging and "spirit-stretching creative chore," his "platform book," a novel that, as he puts it, inhabits the "space where fiction and philosophy meet" (Johnson, xix, xviii). Gena Chandler's informative essay on "decomposition and art" in Oxherding Tale discerns the deeper meaning behind the not-readily apparent connection between Johnson's aesthetic vision and some of the graphic scenes of physical disintegration in the novel (e.g., Andrew's skinning the deer, the dissolution of Minty). Her commentary on embodiment and art is an important analysis of Johnson's ideas about aesthetics, form, and organic processes of creation.
Marc Conner's essay on Middle Passage as a "metaphysical romance" offers a perfect example of how we can develop richer readings of Johnson's writings by attending to the ways that philosophy matters in the work. Here Conner compellingly shows how Johnson is more interested in telling the story of the transatlantic crossing by experimenting with philosophical concepts and concerns, even more than with formal techniques.
The two essays on Dreamer both challenge orthodoxies in Johnson criticism. John Whalen-Bridge's thoughtful essay makes the claim that there is something akin to an "invisible feminism" in Johnson's work (129); it is a welcome addition to the literature on Johnson's representation of gender. Marc Conner's ambitious and insightful essay claims that the novel is simultaneously Johnson's most searching exploration of Christian theology and his most self-conscious critique of the limits of philosophy itself.
William Nash's elegant essay on Turning the Wheel makes a remarkable case for reading the volume of essays as an extension of the vision that Johnson...