“How Should a Person Be?”: Sheila Heti’s imaginative philosophy

I have a piece up at The Point on “imaginative philosophy” in Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? This is an attempt to put into practice the kind of reading implied by Cora Diamond’s work on meta-ethics and literature, which I’m also dealing with in my doctoral thesis. It’s not an academic piece, however, and whilst Diamond, Cavell, Derrida, Hegel and Lacan are all there in the background to some extent, it’s (hopefully) both jargon and footnote-free.

In the last pages of J. M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg (1994), a fictive Dostoevsky ponders the question of writing as betrayal. What does it mean to exploit one’s life in one’s writing? It is also to exploit the lives of others—of friends, lovers and family—who are inevitably reduced and distorted in a written work. They receive nothing, yet are stripped of autonomy and transformed into a literary type. What is more, an author can never be neutral on this matter. “They pay him lots of money for writing books,” thinks Dostoevsky, the words reportedly spoken by his dead son Pavel, whom he is about to betray by taking up his pen. Coetzee in turn exploits Dostoevsky, and the novel’s moral question is yet more pointed when we learn that his own son died in a climbing accident. The book is hence a kind of postmodern stitch-up in which Coetzee indicts himself and draws us into a maze with no discernable exit. If we are to write, betrayal is inevitable. The only question to resolve is its flavor. (“It tastes like gall.”)

Read more.

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This entry was posted in concepts, Cora Diamond, criticism, ethics, form, friendship, literature, philosophy, publications, Sheila Heti, Stanley Cavell, work, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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