Academic journal article The Southern Review

The Thrill of Intellect

Academic journal article The Southern Review

The Thrill of Intellect

Article excerpt

What does a novelist know? Enough, certainly, to furnish a world with weather, plants, traffic, and disease, enough to transport characters back and forth in that world and give them things to do--but not enough, it would seem, to rival the real contributors to human knowledge. Most novelists don't discover galaxies, find cures, or develop theorems. They rarely originate schools of thought. Some, not content with looking up a few flower names and medical treatments to create a sense of verisimilitude, do extensive, detailed research for a particular book, but even this immersion, whether achieved in the field or in lonely archives, tends to provide a provisional, seat-of-the-pants kind of knowledge--enough to tell one story before moving on to the next. And those densely packed facts and figures usually come secondhand from the scientists, philosophers, historians, and theologians who make the discoveries and generate the ideas. Inquisitive readers, like the conscientious novelist him- or herself, turn first to these authorities when they wish to learn more about a subject.

A few writers, including, say, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Austen, and George Eliot, gifted with unusual insight into human nature, prompt our sense that the great novelists, at least, know more than how to make up stories. In most cases, however, how to write novels is indeed what novelists know. It's primarily a technical knowledge, a lot less glamorous than metaphysics or cosmology, but a respectable and not easily mastered knowledge nonetheless: how to create the illusion of people living their lives in time and space. For this pleasurable illusion we will spend money, lose sleep, even forego a little television. Rarely, though, do we expect the novelist's art to teach us something we couldn't find out from a science textbook or, for that matter, a good PBS documentary.

How, then, do we account for the "intellectual thriller"? With ah oxymoron for a name, the genre seems based on a dubious connection between calm, steady knowledge and heart-pounding suspense. Yet any would-be best seller sporting a handful of ideas is likely to vie for inclusion in this category (not to be confused with its haughty cousin, the "literary page-turner"), as though novel readers are happiest when they can get a little quantum physics or medieval philosophy to go with their fistfights and narrow escapes.

If the "intellectual" content of intellectual thrillers were limited to brainy asides and lengthy digressions while the suspense plot hurtled down some wholly separate thoroughfare, then the popularity of the genre would indeed be unfathomable. Who wants a lecture bogging down a good adventure yarn? The trick lies in not just tacking on ideas, but fusing them with the novel's narrative drive. In a really compelling intellectual thriller, we're dragged along not only to learn who did it and what's going to happen next, bur by the tantalizing prospect of some big idea, some truth, at the end.

In Moby-Dick, the granddaddy of intellectual thrillers, the shipboard setting leads a brooding Ishmael into dozens of philosophical excursions. From the masthead he contemplates "Descartian vortices." He compares the heads of two whales to Locke and Kant. Surrounded by the savagery and mayhem of the sea, he asks again and again whether "one insular Tahiti," an impregnable self "deep down and deep inland," can abide in the face of indifferent nature. Moby-Dick abounds in such meditative, if often half-joking, passages. But so do Melville's other books, like Redburn and White-Jacket, which feature similar narrators quick to draw learned comparisons. The difference in Moby-Dick is Ahab's pursuit of the white whale, and the reader's spellbound involvement in the chase. Here intellectual engagement becomes a consuming passion, not just a between-scenes pastime. We know the old captain is crazy, we know that a whale is just a whale--and yet we hope that in the end we'll discover something about evil, learn how symbolism works, or at the very least get a glimpse into the nature of obsession. …

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