Nicholas Mosley: Style and Substance
posted by Frank Pasquale
I was happy to see the British magazine Prospect carry an interview/review of the work of the fascinating novelist Nicholas Mosley. Mosley’s Hopeful Monsters is an extraordinary novel of ideas. It’s easy to make a hash of that genre, but Mosley’s protagonists are so viscerally committed to their fields of study (one’s a physicist, the other an anthropologist) that it’s easy to see why they care about the interplay of philosophy and science in the mid-twentieth century. The book can even be taken as an extended meditation on the degree to which the model of natural sciences can be extended to social science.
(That theme is more explicitly treated in his autobiography, Efforts at Truth. This memoir also contains one of the most bizarre accounts of an alleged “defamation by fiction” I’ve ever seen.)
A few more thoughts after the break. . .
Skidelsky argues that Mosley’s interest in questions of good and evil is a great corrective for the modern literary world’s obsession with style:
For him, style is important only as a vehicle of moral truth—indeed, style is moral truth. It is inseparable from his moral vision. . . . Mosley’s conflict with the literary world came to a head in 1991 when. . . he was invited to join the Booker prize judging panel. It was a disaster. “. . . I could see no point in their books at all. To them it was all style, you see, style, style, style. Nowadays we specifically like books that don’t have any meaning.” Mosley resigned from the panel, firing off with an article in the TLS defending the “great tradition” against the modern novel of elegant despair.
His technical experiments are admired, but his intimations of meaning, of good emerging out of evil, are regarded as somewhat embarrassing. The standard modern view sees life as a battle for sex and power, fought under empty skies. Literature’s job is simply to reflect this meaninglessness in elegant and interesting prose.
Mosley’s protest here strikes me as complementary to (but much more necessary than) Virginia Postrel’s project in The Substance of Style. He’s trying to get us to see that at least some corner of literature must address the most important questions we face. Style about nothing may be entertaining, but wrongly aspires in words for what is really only possible in nonprogrammatic music and perhaps nonrepresentational art. Consider John Carey’s argument in What Good are the Arts?, as related by Michael Dirda:
In his last chapters, Carey persuasively argues for literature as the supreme art because it is, essentially, the most people-oriented one, dealing with moral issues, revealing life’s complexities without reducing them to formulae and allowing us to address virtually any issue whatsoever. It is, after all, an art built on reasoning. “Literature gives you ideas to think with. It stocks your mind. It does not indoctrinate, because diversity, counter-argument, reappraisal and qualification are its essence. But it supplies the materials for thought. Also, because it is the only art capable of criticism, it encourages questioning, and self-questioning.” What’s more, English literature, perhaps all literature, persistently displays a distinct “antagonism to pride, grandeur, self-esteem and celebrity” — in other words, to the inhumanity so prevalent among the lucky, the good-looking and the privileged.
A recent interview with James Boyd White suggests what this type of literary sensibility–a sensibility that insists on the interdependence of judgments of proficiency and morality–can do for the lawyer. White has been reflecting on a text by Simone Weil, which tries to get us to avoid “habits of mind and imagination by which we dehumanize others or trivialize their experience.”
Our double task is to . . . see as well as we can how we are the captive of evil forces in our world—and to learn how “not to respect” the empire, that is, how to resist it in our own thought and imagination and feeling.
How does this relate to law and to the life of the lawyer? Directly, in my view, for the meaning of law depends entirely upon the way in which it is practiced, in the aims and understandings that move those who inhabit its world. What we call law can on the one hand be a salient and powerful instrument of empire, denying humanity and trivializing human experience; or, on the other, it can be an important way—perhaps our best way—of seeing, recording, resisting empire. It depends entirely upon the way in which law is done, upon the quality and direction of the lawyer’s or judge’s mind at work: does it seek to understand the empire of force at work in the world and in the self and learn how not to respect it? If so, and only if so, that mind, and the law itself, may become capable of love and justice.
I highly recommend the rest of White’s interview.