- The Art of Being: Poetics of the Novel and Existentialist Philosophy by Yi-Ping Ong
Yi-Ping Ong's The Art of Being: Poetics of the Novel and Existentialist Philosophy is a highly innovative book. It teases out from essays by Søren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir an existentialist poetics of the novel, which then inspires thoughtful readings of freedom and self-consciousness, situated worldhood, and unfinished works of art in nineteenth-century novels. At every step, Ong carefully articulates the insights that set her study apart from established ways of understanding the novel as form, the legacy of existentialism, and the generative potential of literary form for philosophy. This book will likely delight and intrigue in equal measure. The argument is bold, the scholarship self-assured, the powerful prose eminently quotable. It is also bound to meet with objections of various kinds, especially by scholars trained in literary fields (twentieth-century French literature, the Victorian novel, modernism). Then perhaps this is what makes reading it an "authentic adventure of the mind" (p. 81): something in the tone of the book allows me to preserve my freedom intact; the methodology alerts me to my own situated, always partial perspective; and the endnotes that anticipate a related study in progress make me think of the unfinished character of scholarly work—like friendship, an ongoing conversation. Dwelling on the horizon of the "art of being," it bespeaks a wholehearted commitment to the ways literature and philosophy help us articulate meanings fundamental to human existence.
Ong introduces her deep faith in the novel's capacity to explore philosophical conundrums in the prologue, through close engagement with the scene of Anna reading on the train in Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Anna's immersion in the world of her novel discloses the inaugural paradox of The Art of Being: the reading experience gives access to "knowledge of a life from within it" uncoupled from the responsibility of existential choice. In Ong's words, this means that "the existence of the novel depends upon the fiction of the nonexistence of the novel's reader" (p. 17): novelistic characters and readers exist in ontologically [End Page 199] different worlds, the former "bounded within the aesthetic consummation, or form, of the work as a whole" (p. 21), the latter in the unfolding temporality of human existence. As Ong cogently puts it, the "ongoing and unfinished task of first-person existence is transformed into an aesthetically necessary and unified totality" (p. 21). An insight formulated by Kierkegaard in 1838 and echoed by Sartre about one hundred years later signals the importance of this transformation: in order for novelistic characters to be compelling, the author should not appear to have decided their fate in advance but give readers a sense of their open freedom, in "a time resembling my own, one in which the future does not exist," Sartre recommends (p. 66). Their life, just like the reader's, should appear ambiguous, opaque, and many-sided, Beauvoir explains (p. 81).
Ong identifies in these ideas an "existentialist poetics of the novel," and describes her project as follows: "The Art of Being aims to develop an account of the impact of [the existentialists'] discovery upon our understanding of the form of the novel and of the narrative strategies by which novels draw their readers into the fictional reality of the lives and worlds they represent" (p. 23). In shifting attention away from existentialist themes and toward the philosophical significance of literary form, The Art of Being does something fundamentally different from other critics and philosophers of existentialism. At stake here is the attention that Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Beauvoir direct toward "the fundamental question of what a novel is" (p. 37), a novel's ontology, and the ways formal features—plot, description, the representation of unfinished art works—disclose fundamental aspects of human existence.
Thus chapter 2 zooms in on Portrait of a Lady, which Ong places in a constellation of other nineteenth-century novels of marriage, in which a series...