Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Forsyte speculation

Engrossed in The Forsyte Saga, an excellent series of novels, I ask myself why a Hindsight Saga would be of no interest. Why is the unexpected so important in novels? Why would it not do for the characters to know what was coming, to be as well-informed about how things would turn out as they would be with hindsight? (This is quite different from the reader's not knowing what is coming, an ignorance that may be important on a first reading, but the later lack of which does not make re-readings a waste of time.) I think that the main reason is that they would not be leading our kind of life, a life in which we do not know what is coming, so that we could not identify with them.

Kierkegaard famously remarked that “It is quite true what philosophy says, that life must be understood backward. But then one forgets the other principle, that it must be lived forward” (Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks, volume 2, edited by Niels Jørgen Cappelørn et al., JJ:167, page 179). But that makes the lack of foresight sound like an accidental handicap, rather than a deep feature of our way of life. It is amusing to speculate on how much would change if we were endowed with reliable foresight. I suspect that our social institutions would change just as much as if we were endowed with the power to read one another's minds.

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