THE GALIMATIAS INTERVIEW (PART THREE) – Can art save the world? Paradoxes and causes.

This is part three of an interview with Paul David Adkin carried out by the Spanish literary magazine “Galimatias” in March, 2015. We have translated it here into English.

GALIMATIAS: In your philosophical writings you point over and over again to the existence of paradoxes in the fabric of reality, and you say that truth can only be found by analysing these contradictions. Is that where the truth of the novel resides?

ADKIN: I don’t think that I’ve ever said that the truth can only be found by analysing paradoxes – but yes, it helps if we do … and novels are a great place to analyse truth in. It’s the ability of novels to rummage in logically impossible realms of juxtapositions and contradictions, or paradoxes, that can make them so important. But the uncovering and resolving of paradoxical contradictions is not unique to the form and identity of the novel: it can be a vital ingredient in short stories and plays; you see it used in good films and even in some good TV series now. However, it is probably true that this kind of narrative investigation and use of the impossible emerged because of, and was perhaps was even made possible by, the historical development of the novel, which is the king of all narratives.

GALIMATIAS: Is the novel an endangered species?

ADKIN: Humanity is an endangered species – so the novel must be as well.

GALIMATIAS: Can the novel save humanity?

ADKIN: Only if we take it seriously. That means that the novelists have to write well and choose their big questions intelligently. But, it also means that readers must read intelligently as well.

GALIMATIAS: And yet the novel has been around for some four hundred years … what has the novel achieved for humanity so far? Has it made the world a better place?

ADKIN: I think it’s helped civilisation not be a worse experience than it presently is. Art is the antithesis of ideology. It is a humanising force, interested in universals. Ideologies … and religions are ideologies too … separate humanity and retard real human progress for all of humanity. To some extent, art offers a balance against all the damage that ideologies do … But, at the moment at least, ideologies are more powerful than art.

GALIMATIAS: And ideologies use art for their own destructive purposes.

ADKIN: Yes, and I would include technology with the positive, progressive, humanising forces of art … it is obvious, when we think of technology, how easily it can be used for destructive rather than creative ends.

GALIMATIAS: Can Art save humanity?

ADKIN: No, only humanity can save humanity. But, yes, art could be a positive vehicle for a universalising process of humanity to move forward with. However, it is very hard to imagine an army of artistic crusaders conquering humanity with art … except in the most absurd kind of comedy.

GALIMATIAS: Nevertheless, we could try harder, couldn’t we?

ADKIN: We should try harder, but simply trying harder is not the place to start. Trying harder implies a simple continuation – a “keep doing whatever you’re doing but with a bit more effort.” The first thing we need to do is think more about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. The what and the why needs to come before the how can be possible in an enriching way.

GALIMATIAS: Finding the big question?

ADKIN: Yes, in phenomenological terms the big question is the eidos of the work, or what Aristotle called the formal cause. Applying Aristotle’s causes toward finding our reasons for things would be a good place to start.

Aristotle physics book cover

GALIMATIAS: Aristotle’s causes?

ADKIN: Yes … well, first we have to learn what those causes are. Reading Aristotle’s Physics would help.

GALIMATIAS: Can you really expect budding artists to read Aristotle?

ADKIN: I’m just suggesting good ideas.  Aristotle pointed out that there’s not just a singular cause for something, but everything has its different causes. Aristotle, I think, thought of five possibilities. Firstly, the material cause which is that which constitutes what a thing is. For example, the material cause of this table is wood and nails. The material cause of a novel is, in the first instance, paper and ink unless it’s a digital edition that makes it all binary numbers on a plasma screen. At a second level, it’s all words that flow into grammar and syntax.

GALIMATIAS: How does that knowledge help?

ADKIN: Hardly at all. Material causes are involved with common sense, but the important thing is to think beyond the material causes. A lot of thinking stays there. If we think about the causes of society, for example, someone might say – for the people – because society is constituted of people. But that’s just like saying that the reason for this table is that there was some wood and nails around somewhere that needed to be put together. Sometimes you read a book and you think – the only thing that this author seems to want to show us is how clever he uses words and grammar. That of course is bad writing. And we see it in small talk, when we hear people talking because, we say, they like the sound of their own voice.

GALIMATIAS: Yes, although small talk has its social functions as well.

ADKIN: True, but at first that social function is not obvious. We have to look for it. We have to think a little harder to find it.

GALIMATIAS: Ok, so you are saying we have to question the most obvious.


GALIMATIAS: And what are Aristotle’s other causes?

ADKIN: The efficient cause.

GALIMATIAS: The builders.

ADKIN: Right. The artists themselves. Here we can start asking for the reasons why the builders decided to make tables, and why novelists bother writing novels. It helps if we can give quality answers to the question why do it? In our nihilist society the answers can very easily be: because I couldn’t think of anything better to do – or – because I was bored. If we are going to do something as important as write a novel, there have to be more qualitatively good reasons than because I want to, or because it might be fun and make me some money.

GALIMATIAS: Or someone might just have a good story to tell, or an interesting experience to relate.

ADKIN: Yes, but even those people will benefit as artists if they slide a big question under the framework of the story or the picture, or music, or whatever they’re creating. Involved in the causes of things are the eidos, which is the real essence of the thing, and the telos, the cause that is the finality. The final cause of a table is to have something that we can put things on, but … what is the telos of civilisation?

GALIMATIAS: Isn’t the final cause of a book to be read by someone?

ADKIN: Sure, but let’s give the answer a bit more quality.

GALIMATIAS: Ok, what is the telos of When Sirens Call?

ADKIN: It is in a Being which is always becoming.

GALIMATIAS: How is that a final cause?

ADKIN: It’s my final cause – the final cause of the artist. Like the big question, I don’t want it to be explicit. But if you look for it, you’ll find it.

GALIMATIAS: I’m not sure I understand what I’m looking for.

ADKIN: Then don’t look for it. Let it find you. I think there has to be an art in reading as well as in composition. For me the art of reading is knowing how to let the causes of a novel find you.

GALIMATIAS: Is there a methodology for that?

ADKIN: Not that I know of. I think I can do it, but I don’t know how. Not that I think that knowing how would be helpful at all.

GALIMATIAS: You’re starting to make this sound mystical.

ADKIN: Whenever we run into paradoxes things start to sound mystical. But that’s because the mystical can only be appreciated through paradox. The mystical is always paradoxical, but the paradoxical is not always mystical.


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