Reflections on Aphorisms #65

Aphorism 103

The author must keep his mouth shut when his work starts to speak.



Nietzsche is often overlooked as a novelist. Admittedly, I’m not terribly familiar with his work, but I think that one of the things that Nietzsche does really well is to write without preaching in novels like Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Of course, Nietzsche was somewhat unbalanced, and there are definitely places where he doesn’t seem to follow his own advice (perhaps out of frustration), but there is something to be said for the idea that a story should tell itself.

One of the things that I’ve always been bothered by is the morality play.

Even in my youth I found myself being critical of contrived plots and deliberate lessons in stories (barring Scripture, where I considered it justified for its religious purposes though not necessarily satisfying as a storytelling method), even though I did not have what could be described as a sophisticated manner of interpretation.

Pretty much the only work of this sort which escaped my ire was Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, although this could perhaps be forgiven because the preachy interludes were part of a framing narrative directed toward the ruler.

One of the reasons for this, as I’ve come to understand it over the past twenty years, is that the stories hold in themselves such great meaning that an explication is often needless. Carl Jung would say that this occurs in the expression of archetypal ideas: things so timeless and so inherent to the human condition that they’re immediately obvious to the reader.

Another hint here is the presence of polemical narratives.

Polemical narratives can be great when they’re not overt. I barely (but fondly) recall Machiavelli’s The Prince, and more solidly remember Par Lagerkvist’s The Dwarf and Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich from my college days as examples of books that showed what not to do in life.

None of these stories (The Prince is not perhaps a story, but there’s a lot of deep subtext and it can be understood as a story through the right historical perspective) overtly condemns the subject of the story, and as a result they are able to make their point clear through a variety of methods.

The Prince is presented as a how-to guide to leadership, but has satirical and sardonic points throughout. The Dwarf shows us an example of the sort of horrid person who represents the worst parts of ourselves, and whose motivations and actions echo our own moral weakness. The Death of Ivan Ilyich decries a society that is corrupt and debased, which achieves an air of propriety without actually being morally decent.

They’re all great works.

Take, on the other hand, the works of Ayn Rand. Anthem is a tremendous expression of an important idea, but Rand never misses an opportunity to snipe at and belittle her opponents. In her fiction and her non-fiction, she diverts from the core of the issue to make sure that people know what she’s aiming at. She’s got a mind that could rival almost any other modern thinker, but is so consumed by this knowledge that her potential is left fallow most of the time.

I choose Rand as an example here, but that’s because Rand is actually a good writer whose weakness gets the better of her. You could look at half a dozen modern writers publishing books this year and see a lack of talent pumping out political or cultural screeds that attract people based on their appeal to their coreligionists (because even the secular works of such writers have a cultic quality), and that’s the sort of thing that Nietzsche decries.

A good work speaks for itself. I think of Harry Potter as an example of this; despite being a work intended for children it manages to include deeply heroic and archetypal themes that bind some of the meaning of reality within its pages.

At no point does Rowling stop to lecture the reader about personal faults or failings (with the possible exception of the Dudleys, but they’re more comedic figures than morality play villains), and the result is that there’s a little more nuance and a push to explore and examine the point behind the pages, instead of just consuming passively.


Don’t over-explain.

Bring meaning, not message.

If it’s meaningless, don’t drone on about it.

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